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8th Circuit finally addresses “in writing” requirement of Federal Telecommunications Act

August 25th, 2014

by Gary Taylor

NE Colorado Cellular v. City of North Platte
(Federal 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, August 22, 2014)

NE Colorado Cellular, dba Viaero Wireless (Viaero) filed an application to construct a cell tower in North Platte, Nebraska (City).  The application first went to the City’s planning commission.  the commission conducted a public hearing and received both live testimony and letters from property owners near the proposed tower site.  After the hearing,the commission issued a summary report recommending denial of the application because the tower would not be in harmony with the character of the area as required by the North Platte zoning code provisions concerning cell towers.  The commission provided this report to the city council.  The city council then conducted its own public hearing, where two people spoke in favor of the tower and twelve spoke in opposition.  The council voted 6-2 to deny the application.  The minutes of the council meeting included the finding that the proposed tower “does not meet the minimum standards stated in the [zoning ordinance]…based on the [finding] that the use is not in harmony with the character of the area and it is not the most appropriate use of the land as it is a historic neighborhood and the tower could decrease property values in the area.”

Viaero filed suit against the City, alleging that the decision was neither “in writing,” nor “supported by substantial evidence” as required by the Federal Telecommunications Act of 1996 (TCA).  The district court upheld the City’s decision, and Viaero appealed to the Federal 8th Circuit Court of Appeals.

In writing.  The interpretation of the TCA’s “in writing” requirement up until this time has been an open question in the 8th Circuit.  The 1st, 2nd and 9th Circuits require that a decision (1) be separate from the written record; (2) describe the reasons for the denial; and (3) contain a sufficient explanation of the reasons for denial to allow a reviewing court to evaluate the evidence in the record that supports those reasons.  The 6th Circuit does not require that the decision and record be separate writings as long as the record permits the reviewing court to “focus with precision on the action that was taken and the reasons supporting such action.”  The 4th and 11th Circuits consider the burden on local governments to be even lighter than that imposed by the other interpretations.  The 4th Circuit has noted that “Congress knows how to demand findings and explanations” and has not done so in the TCA.  Similarly, the 11th Circuit has stated that the decision and the bases thereof can be found in the transcript of the hearing and the minutes of the meeting in which the hearing was held; neither a separate written document, nor specific findings of fact are required.**

The 8th Circuit was persuaded that the 4th and 11th Circuits articulated the better rule.  The Court did not find anywhere in the text of the TCA where the denial and the written record be separate documents.  Likewise, the language of the TCA does not require that the written denial state findings of fact or the reasons for the denial.  “Congress may require an agency or board to state its findings.  Congress did not do so here.”

Supported by substantial evidence.  The Court began by noting that “the TCA’s ‘substantial evidence’ requirement does not impose substantive standards on local governments. Rather, it requires a reviewing court to determine whether the local authority’s decision comports with applicable local law….It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.”  The city’s ordinance requires that a tower “shall be in harmony with the character of the area and the most appropriate use of the land” in order to be approved.  The Court found that the city council had before it the testimony of a dozen residents that the proposed tower would be an “eyesore,” would be inappropriate for the neighborhood, and would not be harmonious with the neighborhood.  This, the Court concluded, was enough for a reasonable mind to accept as adequate to support a conclusion that the proposed tower would would not be in harmony with the neighborhood.


**Note:  The US Supreme Court has accepted the case of T-Mobile South, LLC. v. City of Roswell, 731 F.3d 1213 (11th Cir. 2013), cert. granted, 134 S.Ct. 2136 (2014) to resolve these differing interpretations.

 

cell towers, Federal courts ,

Church did not have standing to appeal rejection of city’s approval of cross display

July 31st, 2014

by Rachel Greifenkamp

Chris Cabral and Nancy Tarsitano v. City of Evansville, Indiana
(Federal 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, June 25, 2014)

In April of 2013 the West Side Christian Church in Evansville, Indiana submitted an application to the City’s Engineer’s Office seeking permission to erect thirty-one six-foot plastic crosses on a 1.5-mile-long public riverfront for two weeks in August of 2013. The city denied the permit originally because the display was intended to be decorated with phrases like “Jesus saves,” which was against the City municipal code regarding “First Amendment signs.” When the permit was resubmitted without the religious phrases, the Board of Public Works approved the display contingent on a disclaimer being placed on either end of the display saying that it was not endorsed by the City of Evansville.

In June 2013 Cabral and Tarsitano (plaintiffs) filed a complaint against Evansville challenging the display as violating the Establishment Clause, and requested a preliminary injunction preventing the installation of the crosses. The church then filed a motion to intervene in July. The district court entered an injunction holding that, “the City’s approval of this display of crosses constitutes an impermissible endorsement of religion that violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.” The city did not appeal the decision.  The church, however, filed a timely appeal arguing that the display did not violate the Establishment Clause and that instead the injunction violates the church’s First Amendment rights.

Rather than address the First Amendment issues, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals found that the church lacked standing to pursue its appeal.  There are three requirements that must be met in order for a litigant to have standing: (1) they must have suffered an actual or imminent injury in fact, (2) the injury must be traceable to the challenged action, and (3) it must be likely, not just speculative,  that the injury will be redressed by the court returning a favorable decision. Standing does not exist in this appeal primarily due to the fact that even if the court were to overturn the district court’s decision, it is only speculative as to whether the “injury” suffered by the church would be redressed because the City of Evansville might deny the permit for a number of reasons.  Such speculation as to future events is not enough to support a claim of standing “[S]tanding requires that it is likely, as opposed to merely speculative, that the injury will be redressed by a favorable decision.

In addition, the only party expressly bound by the injunction – the city of Evansville – did not appeal the lower court decision and was not a party to the church’s appeal.  A judgment will not be altered on appeal in favor of a party who did not appeal, even if the interests of the party not appealing are aligned with those of the appellant.

For these reasons, the church’s appeal was dismissed for lack of standing.

 

Federal courts, First Amendment claims, Standing to sue , ,

US Supreme Court strikes down buffer zones around MA abortion clinics

July 1st, 2014

by Gary Taylor

McCullen v. Coakley
(US Supreme Court, June 26, 2014)

In 2007, Massachusetts amended its Reproductive Health Care Facilities Act to make it a crime to knowingly stand on a public way or sidewalk within 35 feet of an entrance or driveway to any “reproductive health care facility,” defined as “a place, other than within or upon the grounds of a hospital, where abortions are offered or performed.” the Act exempted four classes of individuals, including “employees or agents of such facility acting within the scope of their employment.”  Another provision of the Act makes it a crime for the knowing obstruction of access to a reproductive health care facility. McCullen and others who attempt to engage women approaching Massachusetts abortion clinics in “sidewalk counseling” – offering information about alternatives to abortion and help in pursuing those options – raised First Amendment claims, arguing that the buffer zone displaced them from their positions outside clinics which considerably hampered their counseling efforts.  Their attempts to communicate with patients are further hampered by clinic escorts who accompany arriving patients through the buffer zones to the clinic entrances.

The US Supreme Court held that the Act violates the First Amendment.  First the Court noted that “public ways” and “sidewalks” are traditional public fora which have traditionally been open for speech activities.  The government’s ability to regulated speech in traditional public fora is very limited, where traditional time, place and manner restrictions on speech are allowed only if the restrictions (1) are justified without reference to the content of the regulated speech, (2) are narrowly tailored to serve a significant governmental interest, and  leave open ample alternative channels for communication of the information.

Content based.  The Court determined that the restrictions were neither content nor viewpoint based.  Just because the buffer zones were drawn specifically around abortion clinics does not mean the restriction was directed, on its face, at a specific message.  It was adopted in response to a record of crowding, obstruction and even violence outside abortion clinics that was not present in other locations.  Violation of the Act does not depend on what individuals say, but rather where they say it.  The Act’s purposes include protecting public health, safety and welfare, and unobstructed public use of streets and sidewalks.  Furthermore, the exemption for clinic employees was not an attempt to favor one viewpoint over another, but rather was necessary to allow them to enter and exit the clinics in the performance of their duties.

Narrowly tailored.  The Court determined that the buffer zone restriction was not narrowly tailored, in that it burdened substantially more speech than is necessary to further the government’s legitimate interests.  While it served the interest in public safety on sidewalks, it deprived the petitioners of their two primary methods of communicating their message: close personal conversations with arriving patients and distribution of literature.  Those forms of expression have historically been closely associated with the transmission of ideas.  Petitioners are not merely protesters; they seek not only to express their opposition to abortion but also to engage in personal conversations with women about various alternatives to abortion.  “It is thus no answer to say that petitioners can still be seen and heard by women within the buffer zones.  If all that the women can see and hear are vociferous opponents of abortion, then the buffer zones have effectively stifled petitioners’ message.  The Court suggested that Massachusetts could adopt legislation similar to the federal Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act of 1994, which prohibits obstructing, intimidating, or interfering with persons obtaining or providing reproductive health services.  The Court also noted that the problems the legislation sought to address were principally limited to one Boston clinic on Saturday mornings.  The police are capable of singling out those who harass or intimidate patients, and so the restrictions in the Act burden substantially more speech than necessary to achieve the government’s public safety interests.  The government must demonstrate that such alternative measures that would burden substantially less speech would fail, not simply that the chosen route (buffer zones) is easier to enforce.

 

Federal courts, First Amendment claims, United States Supreme Court , ,

Attorneys cannot represent city, then property owners, in suit concerning quarry truck traffic

June 9th, 2014

by Gary Taylor

Zerger & Mauer, LLP v. City of Greenwood
(Federal 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, May 30, 2014)

From 2006 to 2010 the city of Greenwood, Missouri and Martin Marietta Minerals were in a dispute over a rock quarry south of the city.  The dispute concerned truck traffic traveling in interstate commerce through Greenwood.  eventually, the parties entered into an agreement in which Martin paid Greenwood $7 million, and Greenwood agreed to designate Second Avenue for the truck traffic.  In the agreement, Greenwood declared that the truck traffic did not constitute a nuisance.  Greenwood had obtained a prior judgement in the case against Martin for $12 million; therefore, Greenwood was essentially making a $5 million concession so that it could designate the truck traffic route it deemed most beneficial.  Zerger and Mauer represented Greenwood throughout the dispute, receiving over $4 million in legal fees.

Subsequently in 2011, eighteen individuals who owned property along Second Avenue filed sued against Martin and others, seeking damages for a private nuisance among other claims.  Zerger and Mauer served as counsel for these plaintiffs.  Prior to the trial court’s resolution of the merits of the case, Greenwood – a non-party to the proceedings – moved to disqualify Zerger and Mauer from representing the property owners, arguing that the firm’s current representation constituted a conflict of interest.  In Greenwood’s view, Zerger and Mauer were advancing arguments that directly conflicted with Greenwood’s interests from the prior litigation.  The district court agreed and disqualified the law firm, which appealed to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals.  After settling a jurisdictional claim, the Court of Appeals examined the conflict of interest claim.

Missouri Rules of Professional Conduct for the legal profession outline the duties an attorney owes former clients:

A lawyer who has formerly represented a client in a matter shall not thereafter represent another person in the same or a substantially related matter in which that person’s interests are materially adverse to the interests of the former client unless the former client gives informed consent, confirmed in writing.

On the question of whether the city’s prior litigation with Martin was “substantially related” to the property owner’s suit, the court looked first to the commentary accompanying the above-cited rule of conduct. The commentary explains that matters are substantially related “if they involve the same transaction or legal dispute or if there otherwise is a substantial risk that confidential factual information as would normally have been obtained in the prior representation would materially advance the client’s position in the subsequent matter.”  The court found it clear that the factual underpinnings of the two representations were nearly identical.  “Similarly, the legal issues central to both are substantially related, largely centering on the reasonableness of Martin’s conduct.  Although a private nuisance claim and a public nuisance claim may protect distinct rights, the legal theories are exceedingly intertwined.”  Given these conditions, the court found a “substantial probability – or at the very least a substantial appearance – that Greenwood disclosed confidential information related to the negotiations that the plaintiffs could use to their advantage.

Zerger and Mauer next asserted that their representation of the property owners was not “materially adverse” to Greenwood’s interests.  The firm argued that the declaration in the first settlement that the truck traffic is reasonable and not a nuisance involved a public nuisance and has no bearing on the property owners’ private nuisance claim.  The court rejected this, being “unpersuaded by Zerger and Mauer’s continued attempt to make public and private nuisances unrelated concepts….”  The court stated that the firm is advocating a position that contradicts a term in Greenwood’s settlement.  It is seeking to collect damages on behalf of the property owners “for Martin’s allegedly tortious use of Second Avenue – a path that Greenwood desires to reserve as the exclusive route for truck traffic.  Not only do [the property owners] have an interest in collecting substantial damages, they also naturally have an interest in otherwise disrupting Martin’s use of Second Avenue.”  The property owners’ overall interests are materially adverse to Greenwood’s interests, and as such Greenwood may demand that its former law firm not advocate for the property owners’ interests.  The Court of Appeals thus affirmed the district court’s disqualification of Zerger and Mauer from the second litigation.

 

Conflict of interests and/or bias, Federal courts ,

US Supreme Court OKs opening prayer at government meetings

May 6th, 2014

by Gary Taylor

Town of Greece v. Galloway
(United States Supreme Court, May 5, 2014)

Since 1999, the monthly town board meetings in Greece, New York, have opened with a roll call, a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, and a prayer given by clergy selected from the congregations listed in a local directory. While the prayer program is open to all creeds, nearly all of the local congregations are Christian; thus, nearly all of the participating prayer givers have been too. The Town did not preview or approve the prayer in advance. Susan Galloway and other citizens who attended meetings to speak on local issues objected on the grounds that Christian themes pervaded the prayers to the exclusion of citizens who did not share those beliefs. In response, the town invited a Jewish layman and the chairman of the local Baha’i temple to deliver prayers. A Wiccan priestess who had read press reports about the prayer controversy requested, and was granted an opportunity to give the invocation. Galloway proceeded to file suit, alleging that the town violated the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause by preferring Christians over other prayer givers and by sponsoring sectarian prayers. They sought to limit the town to “inclusive and ecumenical” prayers that referred only to a “generic God.” The District Court upheld the prayer practice on summary judgment, finding no impermissible preference for Christianity; concluding that the Christian identity of most of the prayer givers reflected the predominantly Christian character of the town’s congregations, not an official policy or practice of discriminating against minority faiths; finding that the First Amendment did not require Greece to invite clergy from congregations beyond its borders to achieve religious diversity; and rejecting the theory that legislative prayer must be nonsectarian. The Second Circuit reversed, holding that some aspects of the prayer program, viewed in their totality by a reasonable observer, conveyed the message that Greece was endorsing Christianity. The Town of Greece appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Writing for the 5-4 majority, Justice Kennedy began by observing that legislative prayer, while religious in nature, has long been understood as compatible with the Establishment Clause.  Looking back in history, the Court noted that the First Congress voted to appoint and pay official chaplains shortly after approving language for the First Amendment, and both Houses of Congress have maintained the office virtually uninterrupted since then.  There is also historical precedent for the practice of opening local legislative meetings with prayer as well. Past Supreme Court cases have held that the Establishment Clause must be interpreted “by reference to historical practices and understandings.”  Thus, any application of the Establishment must acknowledge a practice that was accepted by the Framers and has withstood the critical scrutiny of time and political change. The Court’s inquiry, then, must be to determine whether the prayer practice in the town of Greece fits within the tradition long followed in Congress and the state legislatures.

The Court concluded that Galloway’s insistence on nonsectarian prayer is not consistent with this tradition. The Nation’s history and tradition have shown that prayer in the limited context of opening legislative activity could “coexis[t] with the principles of disestablishment and religious freedom.”  The “content of the prayer is not of concern to judges,” provided “there is no indication that the prayer opportunity has been exploited to proselytize or advance any one, or to disparage any other, faith or belief.” To hold that invocations must be nonsectarian
would force the legislatures sponsoring prayers and the courts deciding these cases to act as supervisors and censors of religious speech, thus involving government in religious matters to a far greater degree than is the case under the town’s current practice of neither editing nor approving prayers in advance nor criticizing their content after the fact. It is doubtful that consensus could be reached as to what qualifies as a generic or nonsectarian prayer. It would also be unwise to conclude that only those religious words acceptable to the majority are permissible, for the First Amendment is not a majority rule and government may not seek to define permissible categories of religious speech. In rejecting the suggestion that legislative prayer must be nonsectarian, the Court does not imply that no constraints remain on its content. The relevant constraint derives from the prayer’s place at the opening of legislative sessions, where it is meant to lend gravity to the occasion and reflect values long part of the Nation’s heritage when invocations have been addressed to assemblies comprising many different creeds.  The prayers impart the idea that people of many faiths may be united in a community of tolerance and devotion, even if they disagree as to religious doctrine. The prayers delivered in the town of Greece may have invoked the name of Jesus, but they also invoked universal themes, by calling for a “spirit of cooperation.” Absent a pattern of prayers that over time denigrate, proselytize, or betray an impermissible government purpose, a challenge based solely on the content of a particular prayer will not likely establish a constitutional violation. So long as the town maintains a policy of nondiscrimination, the Constitution does not require it to search beyond its borders for non-Christian prayer givers in an effort to achieve religious balancing.

Federal courts, First Amendment claims, United States Supreme Court , ,

Spacing restrictions on digital billboards do not violate First Amendment

March 24th, 2014

by Rachel Greifenkamp

Hucul Advertising, LLC v. Charter Township of Gaines

(Federal 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, February 5, 2014)

Hucul Advertising, LLC applied for permission to construct a billboard in the Charter Township of Gaines, MI. The application was denied by the Township on the ground that the billboard would violate Chapter 17 of the Gaines Township Zoning Ordinance. At the time, the ordinance permitted billboards only on property that was adjacent to the M-6 highway, and Hucul’s property did not satisfy the adjacency requirement. Hucul Advertising then applied to build a digital billboard on the same property. That application was also denied, both because of the adjacency requirement, and because the proposed digital billboard would be located within 4,000 feet of another digital billboard, which would also be a violation of the ordinance. Hucul then applied to the Zoning Board of Appeals (“ZBA”) for relief seeking approval to install the digital billboard, which the ZBA denied. The Township later amended the ordinance to require that any proposed billboard be built within 100 feet of the M-6 and to clarify that, in order for a parcel to be “adjacent” to the M-6, it must “abut and have frontage on the M-6.”

Hucul challenged the ZBA decision claiming that the ordinance violated the First Amendment, claiming that the requirement of 4,000 feet between billboards is an impermissible restriction on commercial speech in violation of the First Amendment, that the Township treated land adjacent to public property differently from land adjacent to private property in violation of Equal Protection, and that Hucul’s civil rights by enforcing the ordinance. The Township removed the case from state court to federal district court. The district court held that the 4,000-foot spacing requirement constituted a valid “time place, and manner” restriction on speech and did not violate the First Amendment, and also dismissed the other claims.

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed that the “time, place, and manner” test was appropriate in this situation.  Hucul argued that the Central Hudson test for the regulation of commercial speech was the appropriate test; however, the Court recognized that the Township’s regulation did not distinguish between commercial and non-commercial billboards.  in applying the “time, place and manner” test the Court affirmed that aesthetics and traffic safety are significant interests that warrant government regulation.  The Court refused to invalidate the 4,000 foot spacing requirement, stating that just because state law would permit a lesser spacing requirement, evidence presented in district court supported a greater spacing for digital billboards because their increased visibility and changing copy make them greater distractions to motorists.  Finally, the regulation leaves open ample alternative avenues of expression because the regulations do not prohibit handing out leaflets or public speech in this or other locations.  The Court of Appeals affirmed the district court decision in favor of the Township.

Federal courts, First Amendment claims, Signs and billboards , ,

Denial of license to mobile food vendor not a violation of Equal Protection or Dormant Commerce Clauses

March 17th, 2014

by Rachel Greifenkamp

The Dog Pound, LLC v. City of Monroe, Michigan

(Federal 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, March 10, 2014)

In Monroe, Michigan The Dog Pound, an aspiring hot dog vendor, applied for and was denied a license under Monroe’s Hawker, Peddler, and Transient Merchant ordinance. The ordinance, in 2009 when the license was applied for, regulated street-vendors’ operations and required additional permission (not just a license) if the vendor wanted to run their vending business in a specific Restricted Area (an area that covered most of downtown Monroe). It also established a 10 minute limit on any activity by a vendor at any one location within the city. The Dog Pound alleged that the ordinance was unconstitutional because it violated the Equal Protection Clause, the Due Process Clause, and the dormant Commerce clause (all appear in both the United States Constitution as well as the Constitution of Michigan). A district court granted the City of Monroe’s motion for summary judgment and dismissed the case.

The Dog Pound claimed that the ordinance violated the Equal Protection Clauses of both the United States and the Michigan Constitutions because it created an illegal classification, itinerant merchants, and treated them differently from permanent business owners. Originally, The Dog Pound sought a declaratory judgment that the ordinance was invalid or a writ of mandamus. In 2011 the City of Monroe and The Dog Pound began settlement negotiations, meanwhile, the city amended the ordinance, eliminating the restricted area. When the negotiations failed, the court took up the question of preliminary injunction, and ended up denying The Dog Pound’s motion stating that the amendment to the ordinance “essentially moots the plaintiff’s arguments.” The Dog Pound then filed two amended complaints. (1) A violation of the Due Process clauses of the United States and Michigan Constitutions, alleging that the sole purpose of the act was to protect local static businesses against competition, (2) A violation of the dormant Commerce Clause, alleging that the disparate treatment of itinerant merchants discriminates against and burdens out-of-state businesses in favor of local businesses. The federal district court granted the City’s motion for summary judgment.

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals heard the case on appeal and tackled each of the three claims separately. (1) Equal Protection. The Dog Pound applied for a license under the amended ordinance, in 2001, but the application was incomplete. The city pointed out the deficiencies in the application and how each could be fixed, but The Dog Pound failed to complete the application. Therefore, The Dog Pound couldn’t possibly prove that it had been treated differently from other businesses that had applied for the license. The court stated that “There is therefore no issue of material fact and the district court was correct to grant summary judgment.” (2) Dormant Commerce Clause. The Dormant Commerce Clause is designed to ensure that a state cannot place oppressive and unnecessary burdens on out-of-state businesses. Both in-state and out-of-state businesses had to apply for a license as well as were subject to the 10-minute rule. Because the ordinance did not treat out-of-state businesses any different from in-state businesses, this claim was considered irrelevant. (3) Due Process and Equal Protection, Michigan Constitution. Finally, The Dog Pound argued that the district court did not properly address its claims for relief arising under the Due Process and Equal Protection clauses of the Michigan Constitution. However, because The Dog Pound raised no argument for this on appeal, the issue was waived. The Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ultimately affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the City of Monroe.

Dormant Commerce Clause, Equal Protection claims, Federal courts , ,

US Supreme Court deals blow to rails-to-trails efforts

March 10th, 2014

by Gary Taylor

The US Supreme Court has issued its opinion in the rails-to-trails case discussed previously in this blog.  In an 8-1 decision, the Court sided with the landowner that claimed the railroad corridor reverted to the landowners when it was abandoned by the railroad.  This decision has the potential to block plans for the completion of several currently planned rail trails, and would also threaten existing rail trails and public highways across America that utilize federally granted rights-of-way.  According to the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, there are hundreds of abandoned railroad corridors across the country that have been converted into publicly accessible trails. Some of the better-known rail-trails that occupy federally-granted rights-of-way include the George S. Mickelson Trail in South Dakota, the Foothills Trail and the John Wayne Pioneer trails in Washington, the Weiser River Trail in Idaho and the Rio Grande Trail in Colorado.

Marvin M. Brandt Revocable Trust v. United States
(United States Supreme Court, March 10, 2014)

(Adapted from the syllabus of the Court)

Congress passed the General Railroad Right-of-Way Act of 1875 to provide railroad companies “right[s] of way through the public lands of the United States.” One such right of way, obtained by a railroad in 1908, crosses land that the United States conveyed to the Brandt family in a 1976 land patent. That patent stated, as relevant here, that the land was granted subject to the railroad’s rights in the 1875 Act right of way, but it did not specify what would occur if the railroad later relinquished those rights. Years later, a successor railroad abandoned the right of way with federal approval. The Government then sought a judicial declaration of abandonment and an order quieting title in the United States to the abandoned right of way, including the stretch that crossed the land conveyed in the Brandt patent. Petitioners contested the claim, asserting that the right of way was a mere easement that was extinguished when the railroad abandoned it, so that Brandt now enjoys full title to his land without the burden of the easement. The Government countered that the 1875 Act granted the railroad something more than a mere easement, and that the United States retained a reversionary interest in that land once the railroad abandoned it. The District Court granted summary judgment to the Government and quieted title in the United States to the right of way. The Tenth Circuit affirmed.

The United States Supreme Court held that the right of way was an easement that was terminated by the railroad’s abandonment, leaving Brandt’s land unburdened. According to the Court, the Government loses this case in large part because it won when it argued the opposite in Great Northern R. Co. v. United States. There, the Government contended that the 1875 Act (unlike pre-1871 statutes granting rights of way) granted nothing more than an easement, and that the railroad in that case therefore had no interest in the resources beneath the surface of its right of way. This Court adopted the Government’s position in full. It found the 1875 Act’s text “wholly inconsistent” with the grant of a fee interest, agreed with the Government that cases describing the nature of rights of way granted prior to 1871 were “not controlling” because of a major shift in congressional policy concerning land grants to railroads after that year,  and held that the 1875 Act “clearly grants only an easement.” Under well-established common law property principles, an easement disappears when abandoned by its beneficiary, leaving the owner of the underlying land to resume a full and unencumbered interest in the land.

The Government asked the Court to limit Great Northern’s characterization of 1875 Act rights of way as easements to the question of who owns the oil and minerals beneath a right of way. But nothing in the 1875 Act’s text supports that reading, and the Government’s reliance on the similarity of the language in the 1875 Act and pre-1871 statutes directly contravenes the very premise of Great Northern: that the 1875 Act granted a fundamentally different interest than did its predecessor statutes.

Finally, later enacted statutes, do not define or shed light on the nature of the interest Congress granted to railroads in their rights of way in 1875. They instead purport only to dispose of interests (if any) the United States already possesses.

Writing in a lone dissent, Justice Sotomayor argued that the majority opinion placed on the Great Northern precedent “more weight than that case will bear.” The Court has long considered railway rights apart from the usual common-law regime, she said.  “By changing course today, the Court undermines the legality of thousands of miles of former rights of way that the public now enjoys as means of transportation and recreation. And lawsuits challenging the conversion of former rails to recreational trails alone may well cost American taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.”

Federal courts, United States Supreme Court ,

NE Federal District Court finds donation box regulation not sufficiently narrowly tailored to prevent fraud

March 6th, 2014

by Rachel Greifenkamp and Gary Taylor

Linc-Drop Inc, v. City of Lincoln

(Federal District Court for the District of Nebraska, February 18, 2014)

In Lincoln, Nebraska the company Linc-Drop (a for-profit corporation) is contracted by the Nebraska chapter of the March of Dimes (a non-profit charity) to maintain donation drop boxes for secondhand clothing that is donated to them. The March of Dimes contracts with landowners for locations to place the donation boxes. The clothing that is donated is technically owned by the March of Dimes but Linc-Drop owns the donation drop boxes. The contract between March of Dimes and Linc-Drop provides that Linc-Drop can be directed to deliver the donated clothing to a location chosen by the March of Dimes; however, this has never happened. Instead, Linc-Drop sells the donated clothing for 20¢ per pound and pays the March of Dimes 2¢ per pound (totaling about $25,000-30,000 per year).

In response to this situation, the City of Lincoln enacted an Ordinance that contained two critical provisions. First, the Ordinance provides that no person may “place or hold out to the public any donation box for people to drop off articles of unwanted household items, clothing or other items of personal property, unless at least 80% of the gross proceeds from the sale of such items shall be utilized for charitable purposes.” (Charitable purposes is not defined in the Ordinance.) Second, the Ordinance requires a permit from the city to legally place a donation box. Only organizations that are tax exempt under Section 501(c)(3) or a school may obtain a permit. The Ordinance also requires that a donation box must clearly identify the charitable organization responsible for maintaining it. Violation of the Ordinance is punishable by a fine of up to $500 or up to 6 months imprisonment, and each day is considered to be a separate offense.

Linc-Drop challenged the constitutionality of the Ordinance on First Amendment grounds, and sought a preliminary injunction preventing the City from enforcing it pending the outcome of the challenge.

According to the Federal District Court for the District of Nebraska, when evaluating the regulation of professional charitable solicitation, the Court considers whether (1) the City had a sufficient or legitimate interest in enacting the Ordinance, (2) the interest identified is significantly furthered by a narrowly-tailored regulation, and (3) the regulation substantially limits charitable solicitations. The City resisted the application of this standard of review, arguing that Linc-Drop is not engaged in charitable solicitation but is rather “using the March of Dimes name to hoodwink the city’s unwitting residents into placing items in the donation boxes instead of donating them to legitimate charitable organizations.”  The Court rejected this position, however, stating that that fact that Linc-Drop is being paid to engage in charitable solicitation does not make it less so.  The court further clarified for the city that the constitutionality of the Ordinance, and not Linc-Drop’s conduct, was the issue of the case. “Whether Linc-Drop is violating the Ordinance, or even whether Linc-Drop is defrauding people, does not change the provisions of the Ordinance or the reasons for its enactment.”

Likewise the Court rejected the city’s position that the boxes are more akin to billboards and should be considered commercial speech.  The Court stated that “the public receptacles are not mere collection points for unwanted items, but are rather silent solicitors and advocates for particular charitable causes….They represent far more than an ‘upturned palm’ or a mere ‘proposal of a commercial transaction that says donate goods here.'”  The solicitation found on the boxes “is characteristically intertwined with informative and perhaps persuasive speech seeking support for particular causes or for particular views on economic, political or social issues.”

In defending the constitutionality of 80 percent requirement of the Ordinance, the City argued that the Ordinance serves two governmental purposes, “preventing deception and ensuring funds go to benefit charitable organizations,” and “protecting charities and the public from fraud.”  The interest in protecting charities and the public from fraud is sufficiently substantial to justify a narrowly-tailored regulation, but the Court pointed out that federal courts have repeatedly decided that using percentages to decide the legality of a fundraiser’s fee is not narrowly tailored to the government’s interest in preventing fraud.  Citing Supreme Court precedence, the Court noted “several legitimate reasons why a charity might reject the State’s overarching measure of a fundraising drive’s legitimacy…even if the government had a valid interest in protecting charities from their won naivete or economic weakness, a percentage requirement was not narrowly tailored to achieve it.”

The Court also struck down the provision barring professional fundraisers from obtaining permits.  Federal courts have prevented local governments from restraining solicitation by professional fundraisers, even if a high percentage of the funds raised would be used to cover administrative costs.  It is therefore axiomatic that the government cannot categorically restrain all solicitation by professional fundraisers, as the permit prohibition would do.  It is not narrowly tailored to the government’s interest in preventing fraud.

The Federal District Court of Nebraska determined that the Ordinance is so plainly at odds with precedent of Supreme Court rulings the the preliminary injunction desired by Linc-Drop was granted, and the City was barred from enforcing any aspect of the Ordinance until a final decision is made by the United States Magistrate Judge.

Federal courts, First Amendment claims , ,

Indiana War Memorials Commission demonstration permit policy found to violate First Amendment

February 13th, 2014

by Rachel Greifenkamp

Eric Smith v. Executive Director of the Indiana War Memorials Commission

(Federal 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, February 4, 2014)

At Soldiers and Sailors Monument Circle in Indianapolis, a war veteran and his son were protesting a proposed United Nations arms treaty. The Monument Circle is an outdoor state‐run public property at the center of downtown. The protest was publicized by distributing a flier, but not a single person other than Smith and his son attended the protest. When the pair began the protest, a Commission employee asked them whether they had a permit (required for any demonstration where fourteen or more individuals are likely to be demonstrating). When they said that they did not, he suggested they move to municipal rather than state property immediately. Then two Indiana State Police officers threatened to arrest Smith if they did not leave. Smith believes that the First Amendment protects his right to demonstrate without a permit. He filed for a permanent injunction against the Commission on the grounds that its permit policy violates the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The government can in fact restrict the time, place, and manner of expression in a traditional public forum, which the Monument Circle obviously is. However, the restrictions only pass Constitutional muster if they are (1) content-neutral, (2) narrowly tailored to serve a significant government interest, and (3) leave open ample alternative channels of communication. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit ruled in favor of Smith stating that the current permit policy is neither content-neutral nor narrowly tailored to serve a significant government interest.

Content neutral. A permit policy cannot invest “unbridled discretion” in the person who decides whether a permit will issue because excessive discretion can lead to discriminatory enforcement.  The fact that the Commission had never denied a permit application in the past was considered by the court to be immaterial.  The evidence indicated that Commission employees use unguided discretion to choose whether a group that did not obtain a permit in advance will be allowed to obtain one on the spot.  Such a system invites abuse.

Narrowly tailored. A regulation “‘need not be the least restrictive or least intrusive means'” of furthering the government’s interest…but at the same time the government ‘may not regulate expression in such a manner that a substantial portion of the burden on speech does not serve to advance its goals.'”  Whether a numerical limit on gathering without a permit is constitutional depends on the specifics of the space at issue because different spaces can accommodate groups of different sizes without interfering with orderly, fair use of the space; however, the court determined that “considering the size and layout of the space and the fact that groups of twenty-five may gather without a permit at Monument Circle to eat lunch, at least, Smith seems likely to succeed in showing that the fourteen-person limit on demonstrations without a permit is not narrowly tailored.”  The court also found fault with the provision of the permit policy that requires a permit anytime the demonstration has been advertised or the public has been invited, even if the group ultimately is made up of fewer than fifteen people.  To disallow a protest attended by fewer than fifteen people simply because the public was invited and no permit was obtained likely goes too far in restricting speech.  Similarly, the five-hour time limit on being on Commission property without a permit may be too restrictive as it applies to lone individuals or small groups.

Federal courts, First Amendment claims ,