Archive for the ‘Federal courts’ Category

US Supreme Court validates disparate impact standard for FHA cases

July 2nd, 2015

by Gary Taylor

Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. Inclusive Communities Project, Inc.
U.S. Supreme Court, June 25, 2015

The Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs (Department) is the agency responsible for distributing federal low-income housing tax credits to developers in Texas. the Inclusive Communities Project (ICP) is a Texas-based nonprofit that assists low-income families in obtaining affordable housing.  ICP brought a claim under Sections 804(a) and 805(a) of the Fair Housing Act (FHA) alleging that the Department had caused continued segregated housing patterns by allocating too many tax credits to housing in predominantly black inner-city areas, and too few in predominantly white suburban neighborhoods.  These sections of the FHA provide that it shall be unlawful…

“ refuse to sell or rent after the making of a bona fide offer, or to refuse to negotiate for the sale or rental of, or otherwise make unavailable or deny, a dwelling to any person because of race, color, religion, sex, familial status, or national origin. (804(a)).

“…for any person or other entity whose business includes engaging in real estate-related transactions to discriminate against any person in making available such a transaction, or in the terms or conditions of such a transaction, because of race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status, or national origin. (805(a)).

The question before the U.S. Supreme Court was whether the above-cited language in the FHA requires that plaintiffs in such cases prove a discriminatory intent (improper motive) on the part of the defendant, or merely that a disparate impact (that the outcome had a disproportionately adverse effect on minorities) resulted from the action of the defendant.  This question has been simmering in the federal courts for many years, with federal circuit courts concluding that disparate impact (with minor variations) was sufficient.

In a 5-4 decision the Court determined that, with certain conditions proven, disparate impact claims are valid under the FHA. The Court looked to other federal statutes – and the Court’s interpretations of those statutes – for guidance.  Both Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII) and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA) were interpreted by the Court to allow disparate impact claims because their texts refer to the consequences of actions and not just to the mindset of actors, where that interpretation is consistent with the overall statutory purpose. Carrying that logic to the FHA, the phrase “or otherwise make unavailable” in Section 804(a) is results-oriented, and refers to the consequences of an action rather than the actor’s intent.  It is functionally equivalent to “otherwise adversely affect” language found in both Title VII and AEDA.  In all three these phrases act as a catchall, located at the end of a lengthy sentence that begins with prohibitions on disparate treatment.  The word “otherwise” signals a shift in emphasis from an actor’s intent to the consequences of his actions.  The Court found it relevant that Congress passed the FHA within four years of both Title VII and AEDA, and that therefore Congress must have chosen words that bear the same basic meaning and serve the same basic purpose.

The Court also found it highly relevant that when Congress made significant amendments to the FHA in 1988 they left the language in 804(a) and 805(a) alone, at a time when all nine federal circuit courts had interpreted that language to allow disparate impact claims.  If Congress was dissatisfied with the courts’ interpretations of the language they could have changed it at that time.  Furthermore, three exemptions from FHA liability that were added in 1988 would have been meaningless had Congress assumed that disparate impact liability did not exist under the FHA.

The Court, however, also recognized that disparate impact liability “has always been properly limited in key respects to avoid serious constitutional questions” that might arise if, for example, liability were imposed based solely on a showing of “statistical disparity.”  A disparate impact claim relying on a statistical disparity must fail if the plaintiff cannot point to a policy or policies of the defendant that causes that disparity.  In other words, discriminatory intent need not be shown, but a “robust” showing of a cause-effect relationship is required.  Furthermore, defendants must be given leeway to explain the valid interest served by their policies or practices, and such policies should be allowed to stand – without liability therefore – if it they can be proven to be necessary to achieve a valid interest.  Policies and practices do not run afoul of the disparate impact standard unless they are “artificial, arbitrary, and unnecessary barriers.”

The Court also cautioned that disparate impact should not be interpreted so broadly as to inject racial considerations into every housing decision.  “The FHA does not decree a particular vision of urban development; and it does not put housing authorities and private developers in a double bind of liability, subject to suit whether they choose to rejuvenate a city core or to promote new low-income housing in suburban communities….Disparate impact liability does not mandate that affordable housing be located in neighborhoods with any particular characteristic.”

The Court affirmed the right of local housing authorities to design race-neutral efforts to encourage revitalization of communities that have long suffered the harsh consequences of segregated housing patters.  Such authorities may choose to foster diversity and combat racial isolation race-neutral tools.  The mere awareness of race in attempting to solve the problems facing inner cities does not doom such endeavors.

Fair Housing Act, Federal courts, United States Supreme Court , ,

Failure to make minutes available “essentially contemporaneously” with the decision under Federal Telecommunications Act was harmless error

May 14th, 2015

by Gary Taylor

Smith Communications, LLC v. Washington County, Arkansas
Federal 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, May 12, 2015

In February 2013 Smith Communications applied for a conditional use permit (CUP) to build a 300-foot-tall cell tower in Washington County, Arkansas.  The property was zoned “Agriculture/Single-Family Residential,” and homes are located within 1/4-mile of the site.  The criteria for granting a CUP are those general considerations typical for most zoning codes (compatibility with surrounding area, no endangerment to public health or safety, not injurious to use and enjoyment of nearby properties, etc.). The Washington County Planning Board approved the CUP, but nearby residents appealed the decision to the Washington County Quorum Court [Note: apparently a body akin to a Zoning Board of Adjustment].  The Quorum Court met twice – June 4 and June 24, 2013 – and held extensive hearings. The residents in attendance focused on safety, nearby property values, the tower’s “fit” with the surrounding area, and the “destruction” of scenic views.  At the end of the June 24 meeting the Quorum Court voted 10-3 to reject Smith’s application.  Four days later the county sent Smith an email containing a letter of denial that stated, among other things, that “the minutes and video of the first and last Quorum Court meetings will act as the County’s written reason for denial.”  The minutes from the June 4 meeting were already available at that time; however, minutes from the June 24 meeting were not available until July 22.  Smith appealed to district court citing a violation of the Federal Telecommunications Act (FTA).  The district court determined that the county could not rely on the meeting minutes to constitute a legally adequate explanation for the denial under the FTA, ans so remanded the matter back to the Quorum Court with an order to explain the reasons for the denial in a writing separate from the minutes and written record.  The county did so on April 18, 2014, largely citing the reasons advanced by the neighbors.  The district court was satisfied with this, and so it was Smith appealing this ruling that brought the case before the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Smith argued that under the district court’s authority to review FTA matters “on an expedited basis” the court should have simply “ordered the issuance of a permit” because the county had failed to provide an adequate written explanation for its denial.  The Court of Appeals rejected this reasoning.  It noted that in T-Mobile South the US Supreme Court recently held that “a locality may rely on detailed meeting minutes so long as the locality’s reasons are stated clearly enough to enable judicial review.”  Thus, contrary to the district court’s first ruling, the county did not violate the FTA by relying on the meeting minutes.

What about the fact that the minutes from the June 24 meeting were not available until July 22?  In T-Mobile South the Supreme Court also said that a local governments must provide written reasons for its denial “essentially contemporaneously” with the denial.  The Court of Appeals concluded that the minutes of the June 4 meeting, which were available at the time of the denial, captured essentially the same concerns as were articulated on June 24.  Representatives of Smith attended both meetings.  “In light of these facts and the record before use, Smith received adequate notice of the reasons for the Quorum Court’s denial….[The county’s] failure to promptly make the latter meeting minutes available was, at most, a harmless error,” and did not require the district court to order immediate issuance of a CUP.

The Court of Appeals also went on to determine, after thoroughly reviewing all of Smith’s contentions and the record as a whole, that substantial evidence supported the Quorum Court’s denial of the CUP application.  “Aesthetic concerns can be a valid basis on which to deny [a] permit, so long as the aesthetic judgment is grounded in the specifics of the case and not based on generalized aesthetic concerns…that are applicable to any tower, regardless of location.”

The district court decision favoring the county was affirmed.


cell towers, Federal courts, Telecommunications towers , ,

Regulation of charitable donation bins was content-based, likely to be found unconstitutional

April 16th, 2015

by Hannah Dankbar

Planet Aid v. City of St. Johns, Michigan
Federal 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, April 6, 2015

Planet Aid is a non-profit community development organization.  Among its activities, the organization gathers donations of clothing and shoes using unattended, outdoor donation bins. Planet Aid takes these donations and gives them to other organizations around the world.

To establish the donation bins Planet Aid gets consent from property owners of private businesses to put the bin on their property. Planet Aid aims to have donation bins in convenient locations and have a representative of the organization collect the donations on a weekly basis. There is contact information for the representative on the bin to be used on an as-needed basis.

In December 2012 Planet Aid placed two donation bins in the City of St. Johns, Michigan. At the time, St. Johns had no regulation of charitable donation bins. In January 2013 the City sent Planet Aid a letter that read, “clothing donation containers have been found to create a nuisance as people leave boxes and other refuse around the containers.” Planet Aid was instructed to remove the bins by January 23. If they did not remove the bins, the City would. An attorney for Planet Aid asked the City Attorney if they had to be removed by the 23rd, or if they could wait until the City Council/planning commission enacted an ordinance against the bins. Planet Aid was told to remove the bins, and was also told it did not have standing to appeal the decision because it did not own property where the bins were located. The City moved the bins and moved them to a City facility where they were later picked up by Planet Aid.

In December 2013 City Council addressed the issue of charitable donation bins. The planning commission had made a recommendation of a “total prohibition” of such bins to the Council.  At the Council meeting, the Mayor said other communities “had people dropping off their trash” at donation bins, although the Public Works Director responded that trash drop offs at the two bins had “very seldom” occurred.

Ordinance #618 was put in place.  The substantive prohibition of the ordinance read:

No person, business or other entity shall place, use or allow the installation of a donation box within the City of St. Johns….A donation box that exists on the effective date of this ordinance shall not be subject to the prohibition contained herein.

The purpose statement of the ordinance read:

It is the intent of this section to prohibit donation boxes to protect the health, safety and welfare of the citizens of the city by preventing blight, protecting property values and neighborhood integrity, avoiding the creation and maintenance of nuisances and ensuring the safe and sanitary maintenance of properties. Unattended donation boxes in the city may become an attractive nuisance for minors and/or criminal activity. It is also the intent of this section to preserve the aesthetics and character of the community by prohibiting the placement of donation boxes.

In February 2014 Planet Aid filed a complaint in district court claiming that the ordinance violated their First Amendment right of charitable solicitation and giving. They claimed that the ordinance is a content-based restriction and deserved strict scrutiny. The City claimed that the bins were advertisements, and therefore the ordinance is content-neutral. The District granted Planet Aid’s motion for a preliminary injunction pending trial, and the City appealed.

The US Supreme Court has held that speech regarding charitable giving and solicitation is a protected First Amendment activity, and has applied strict scrutiny to local ordinances that presume to regulate charitable giving activities.  The Supreme Court has not addressed unattended donation bins, but the Fifth Circuit invalidated a Texas law that required such bins to make note of whether the donated items would be sold or not (National Federation of the Blind of Texas, Inc. v. Abbott). The Fifth Circuit stated that “public receptacles are not mere collection points for unwanted items, but are rather “silent solicitors and advocates for particular charitable causes.” The Sixth Circuit agreed with the reasoning of the Fifth, and noted that just because speech related to charitable giving may take the form of a bin does not mean it deserves less than strong constitutional protection.

Still, government regulations of protected speech only receive strict scrutiny if they are content-based.  Government actions that merely regulates the time, place, and manner of protected speech are subject to an intermediate level of scrutiny.  The US Supreme Court has analyzed the content-based versus content-neutral question in a number of ways: (1) whether the “government has adopted a regulation of speech because of a disagreement with the message it contains” (Hill v. Colorado); (2) whether the regulation hinders the “communicative impact of the [the speaker’s] expressive conduct.” (Texas v. Johnson); (3) whether the legislature’s predominant intent regarded the content of speech, rather than its’ secondary effects (Renton v. Playtime Theaters, Inc.); (4) whether the regulation is “based on the content of the speech” and not “applicable to all speech irrespective of content” (Consol. Edison Co., 447 U.S. at 536.). Under the guidance of these factors the Sixth Circuit determined that Ordinance #618 was content-based because it only banned outdoor bins that share a common topic – charitable giving – and not other outdoor bins or receptacles  such as dumpsters.  The concerns about overflowing items, trash dumping, and the risk of children climbing into such receptacles apply with equal force to dumpsters, receptacles at recycling centers, and public and private trash cans.

Because the ordinance was found to be content-based, it must stand up to strict scrutiny. The Sixth Circuit determined that there was sufficient evidence on this question to justify the district court’s determination that Planet Aid was likely to succeed on the merits (thereby justifying the preliminary injunction).  For these reasons the Court affirmed the ruling from district court.

Federal courts, First Amendment claims , ,

All states in designated non-attainment area must include Reasonably Attainable Control Measures and Technologies in State Implementation Plans (acronyms omitted!)

April 8th, 2015

by Hannah Dankbar

Sierra Club v Environmental Protection Agency
Federal 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, March 18, 2015

In 2011 the EPA reported that the Cincinnati-Hamilton metropolitan area attained national air quality standards for particulate matter. A regional cap-and-trade program helped the area reach this standard. The EPA gave the area “attainment” status, even though the three States that administer its pollution controls never implemented the provisions known as “reasonably available control measures” (RACM) that apply to nonattainment areas. Sierra Club filed a complaint against the EPA for acting illegally.

The Clean Air Act (CAA) allows the EPA to add different kinds of emissions that can damage public health to the National Ambient Air Quality Standards. When an emission is added to this list each state must submit a State Implementation Plan (SIP) for achieving the standard. After receiving the plan the EPA will designate areas in each state as “attainment areas” (areas that attain the standard), “nonattainment areas” (areas that do not) or “unclassifiable areas”. If a state has “nonattainment areas” the state, or states, must revise their plan to meet additional requirements. One requirement is “RACM”, or “RACT”, which requires that the SIP “provide for the implementation of all reasonable available control measures (RACM) as expeditiously as practicable (including such reductions in emissions from existing sources in the area as may be obtained through the adoption, at a minimum, or reasonably available control technology (RACT) and shall provide for attainment of the national primary ambient air quality standards.” Id. 7502(c)(1). There are five conditions that must be met in order for the EPA to switch a “nonattainment area” to an “attainment area.”

To address areas of concern along state lines, the EPA created a cap-and-trade system. A “cap” is set on allowable emissions; anybody who has emissions above this limit can either invest in clean technology or “trade” emission credits with another entity.

Sierra Club argued that the improvement in area quality that could be attributed to the cap-and-trade program was not “permanent and enforceable reductions in emissions” required under the CAA, and that the nonattainment State Implementation Plan (SIP) had never been implemented. The State of Ohio and the local utility company joined the EPA in disagreement. The EPA claims that Sierra Club does not have standing in this matter and they challenge the interpretation of the CAA.  After addressing the standing questions (it was determined that the Sierra Club did have standing) the court addressed the CAA interpretation argument.

Sierra Club first questioned EPA’s interpretation of a provision of the CAA that bars redesignation to attainment unless “the Administrator determines that the improvement in air quality is due to permanent and enforceable reductions in emissions resulting from implementation of the applicable implementation plan and applicable Federal air pollutant control regulations and other permanent and enforceable reductions[.]” Sierra Club claimed that the cap-and-trade system is not “permanent and enforceable” because a company could simply buy more credits from polluters outside the nonattainment area and increase their emissions. Sierra Club wanted “permanent and enforceable reductions in the nonattainment area”. The EPA acknowledged that the statute does not clarify from which area the reduction comes from. The court decided that the statute is “sufficiently ambiguous” to clear the first part of the test.

In the question of whether the EPA’s interpretation is a permissible construction of the statute, they found that this rested on the acknowledgement of regional problems. The EPA acknowledged that the pollution is a regional problem. The court did not see the word ‘permanent’ as being sufficient enough to close cap-and-trade programs. Neither Congress nor Sierra Club offered a definition of enforceable. From the statute it does not appear that Congress intended cap-and-trade programs to be excluded. This is enough to conclude that their focus is “sufficiently rational” and within the statutory limits and blocks the warrant for deference to their technical expertise.

Sierra Club challenged EPA’s approval of the state’s SIPs without RACM/RACT. Indiana and Ohio did not have these provisions in their plans. A state seeking redesignation “shall provide for the implementation” of RACM/RACT, even if those measures are not strictly necessary to demonstrate attainment. If the State has not done so, EPA cannot “fully approve” the area’s SIP, and redesignation to attainment status is improper.

Because the Ohio and Indiana SIPs for their respective portions of the Cincinnati-Hamilton area did not provide for RACM/RACT, the EPA acted in violation of the CAA when it approved those redesignation requests. The court ordered the EPA to reject the redesignation of Ohio and Indiana’s portions of the Cincinnati-Hamilton area, and leave the Kentucky area as was originally defined.

Clean Air Act, Federal courts, Uncategorized ,

Illinois village must produce some evidence of negative secondary effects to adopt adult entertainment regulation

April 2nd, 2015

by Gary Taylor

Foxxxy Ladyz Adult World, Inc., v. Village of Dix
(Federal 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, March 10, 2015)

[I love the spelling of these places.  Apparently Xs and Zs are sexy!]

The Village of Dix is a “dry” municipality (it prohibits the sale of alcohol in village limits) of approximately 500 residents, located in Jefferson County, Illinois. In October 2010, Dirt Cheap, Inc. purchased commercial real estate in Dix and opened a nightclub offering erotic entertainment. Two years later, Foxxxy Ladyz Adult World, Inc. began to rent the property from Dirt Cheap. Now operated by Foxxxy Ladyz, the nightclub features nude dancing and is open to all members of the public age twenty-one and over. Although Foxxxy Ladyz does not sell alcohol, it allows its customers to bring their own alcoholic beverages (“BYOB”) onto the premises. Foxxxy Ladyz is one of the few commercial establishments in Dix, and is located across the interstate from the Village’s other businesses, residences, and grade school.
In December 2010, shortly after Dirt Cheap opened, Dix passed three ordinances: (1) an ordinance prohibiting open containers of alcohol in public, (2) a public nudity ban, an (3) a prohibition against the possession of alcohol in places of public accommodation, such as restaurants and retail establishments.  In adopting these ordinances, Dix conducted no studies of the possible negative secondary effects of erotic nightclubs or other adult entertainment establishments, nor did it reference studies done in other locales.  In 2013, the Village sent Foxxxy Ladyz a notice that it was in violation of all three ordinances.  Foxxxy Ladyz responded by filing suit.  Foxxxy Ladyz concededly operates in violation of all three ordinances; however, Foxxxy Ladyz argued that (1) the public nudity ban violates the Free Speech provisions of the First Amendment, and (2) Dix did not have the authority under Illinois law to pass the alcohol-related restrictions.  The district court sided with the Village, and Foxxxy Ladyz appealed.
Free Speech claim.  Foxxxy Ladyz contended that the Village must point to actual evidence of potential negative secondary effects – whether it be developed by the Village itself or cited from studies of other jurisdictions – for the necessary justification for the public nudity ban. Dix argued that because the language in its public nudity ordinance was intentionally modeled after bans in other jurisdictions  “that have been approved by the courts as being consistent with the Illinois and United States Constitutions” that the findings from those bans provide all the justification needed for its own ban.  The 7th Circuit found guidance in the following statement from the US Supreme Court in City of Los Angeles v. Alameda Books:

In Renton, we…held that a municipality may rely on any evidence that is “reasonably believed to be relevant” for demonstrating a connection between speech and a substantial, independent government interest. This is not to say that a municipality can get away with shoddy data or reasoning. The municipality’s evidence must fairly support the municipality’s rationale for its ordinance.

The 7th Circuit “has been consistent in requiring that a regulating body produce some specific, tangible evidence establishing a ling between the regulated activity and harmful secondary effects” (Citing Annex Books v. City of Indianapolis).  Based on the fact that Dix “has not offered an iota of evidence” on secondary effects, the 7th Circuit reversed he district court and remanded the case to district court.  The 7th Circuit noted that Dix may still have an opportunity to “demonstrate a reasonable belief in a causal relationship between public nudity and secondary effects” in litigation at the district court.

Alcohol restrictions.  The 7th Circuit interpreted Illinois law to confer on municipalities broad discretion to regulate alcohol consumption in order to promote public health and safety, including via the imposition of a prohibition on open containers of alcohol in public. The court also affirmed that the First Amendment “does not entitle a bar, its dancers or its patrons, to have alcohol available during a presentation of nude or semi-nude dancing.” Furthermore, the ordinances apply broadly to all public accommodations and do not, on their face, target establishments where protected expressive conduct is likely to occur. Under a rational basis test the Dix alcohol ordinances passed muster.

Adult Entertainment Regulations, Federal courts, First Amendment claims , , ,

Requiring conditional use permit for residential substance abuse service facilities does not violate ADA

March 30th, 2015

by Gary Taylor

Get Back Up, Inc. v. City of Detroit
Federal 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, March 13, 2015

Get Back Up operates a 160-bed all male residential facility in downtown Detroit, providing substance abuse treatment and counseling, education, and job training opportunities.  In August 2007 it purchases an unused school building from Detroit Public Schools for approximately $500,000.  The building is located in B4-H, General Business/Residential Historic zoning district.  The B4-H District allows boarding schools, child care institutions, nursing homes, religious residential facilities, adult day care centers, hospitals, libraries and religious institutions (among other uses) by right.  It lists “residential substance abuse service facilities” as one of several conditional uses requiring the satisfaction of 15 stated criteria before being allowed.  Get Back Up originally received approval of its conditional use application for the building in the B4-H District from the Building Safety and Engineering Department, but the Russell Woods-Sullivan Area Homeowners Association appealed the approval to the Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA).  The BZA voted to reverse the decision.  Get Back Up appealed the BZA decision to Wayne County Circuit Court, and after bouncing around between circuit court and the BZA several times the circuit court affirmed the BZA’s denial.  Appeals to the Michigan Court of Appeals and Supreme Court were unsuccessful.  After this, Get Back Up filed a complaint in federal court, claiming that the denial violated the American’s with Disabilities Act, the Rehabilitation Act, and the Fair Housing Act.  The federal district court also ruled in favor of the city, and Get Back Up appealed.

Get Back Up argued that requiring residential substance abuse service facilities to obtain a conditional use permit when other similar uses are allowed by right is discriminatory.  The 6th Circuit disagreed, finding that the ordinance does not allow any materially similar use to operate by right in any B4 zoning district.  Residential substance abuse service facilities are treated the same as many other residential uses such as multi-family dwellings, emergency shelters, rooming houses, and fraternities and sororities.  Furthermore, the court found that the other uses cited by Get Back Up in support of their case (nursing homes and hospitals) are not materially similar to residential substance abuse service facilities.  Hospitals are not residential uses, and they tend to have substantial impact on their immediate surroundings and are particularly well suited for busy commercial districts like B4 districts.  While nursing homes are residential uses, their residents are “often physically disabled and they rarely leave the premises….[They are a] uniquely sedate and unburdensome use, having relatively little impact on traditional zoning concerns like noise and traffic.”

The court also found no merit in Get Back Up’s argument that the 15 criteria for approving a conditional use permit are unconstitutionally vague.  The phrases “detrimental to or endanger the social, physical, environmental or economic well being of surrounding neighborhoods,” “use and enjoyment of other property in the immediate vicinity,” and “compatible with adjacent land uses” are terms with “common-sense meanings” and are not so vague as to fail to provide fair notice to applicants of what is prohibited.”

The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the ruling in favor of the City of Detroit.

Americans with Disabilities Act, Conditional Uses/Special Uses, Due Process, Fair Housing Act, Federal courts , , ,

Ban on “profane discourse, rude or indecent behavior” near churches is impermissibly content based

March 26th, 2015

by Gary Taylor

SNAP, Inc. v. Jennifer Joyce, Circuit Attorney for the City of St. Louis, et al
Federal 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, March 9, 2015

In 2012 the Missouri legislature enacted the House of Worship Protection Act.  It provides that a person commits the crime of disrupting a house of worship if he or she “intentionally and unreasonably disturbs, interrupts, or disquiets any house of worship by using profane discourse, rude or indecent behavior, or making noise either within the house of worship or so near it as to disturb the order and solemnity of the worship services.”  The Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP) is a non-profit organization that advocates for victims of sexual abuse by clergy.  Call to Action, Inc. is a non-profit organization that advocates for various changes in the Catholic Church, including the ordination of women, acceptance of gay, lesbian, and transgender people, and women’s participation as altar servers.  The members of both of these organizations (Plaintiffs) regularly meet near Catholic Churches to pray, hold signs and pictures, distribute literature, and attempt to communicate their messages to church personnel and parishioners.  Since the adoption of the Worship Protection Act members have been asked to move on, and have been threatened with jail by church ushers and parishioners; however, no plaintiff to the litigation has been arrested by Missouri officials, nor was evidence presented that plaintiff protesters have interfered in any way with churchgoers’ entry or exit from a house of worship.

Plaintiffs argued that their First and Fourteenth Amendment rights were violated by the Worship Protection Act.  They claimed that the Act chilled their expression and interfered with their ability to speak in public locations where their intended audience may be reached – church leaders, workers, and parishioners.  Defendants were granted summary judgment by the district court, and plaintiffs appealed to the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals.

The constitutionality of a restriction on speech depends in large part upon whether it is content based and thus “subject to the most exacting scrutiny,” or a content neutral time, place, or manner regulation subject to intermediate scrutiny.  The 8th Circuit focused on the Act’s ban on “profane discourse, rude or indecent behavior” in or near a house of worship and found that the ban is content based.  It noted that the US Supreme Court has stated that governments might “seize upon the censorship of particular words as a convenient guise for banning the expression of unpopular views.” It also noted that the “unreasonably disturbs, interrupts, or disquiets any house of worship” language is the type of language disapproved of by the Supreme Court, which has stated that “audience disapproval or general concern about disturbance of the peace does not justify regulation of expression….The government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.”  The 8th Circuit contrasted a US Supreme Court case that upheld a Colorado ban on people within 100 feet of a healthcare facility from approaching within 8 feet of another person for the purpose of “passing a leaflet or handbill, displaying a sign or engaging in protest….” It noted that the Colorado statute was content neutral because it regulated “only the places where some speech my occur” in contrast to the Missouri statute which requires an inquiry into whether speech is “profane” or “rude.”

The Worship Protection Act could not survive the exacting scrutiny required of content based regulation.  “The existence of content neutral alternatives to protect houses of worship from disruption, such as noise regulations…casts considerable doubt” on the government’s assertion that such regulations are necessary to achieve the state’s asserted interest in protecting the free exercise of religion.  The district court’s summary judgment in favor of the government was reversed.

Federal courts, First Amendment claims ,

News from around Kansas: Garden City sued under RLUIPA

November 11th, 2014

It’s the classic love story: Church fills vacant space downtown; church and city (appear to be) happy for 10 years; city gets restless, wants to start seeing other businesses, and tells church it doesn’t comply with zoning; church feels spurned and sues city in federal court under RLUIPA.

The KSN.COM article is here.  I can’t wait to read how it ends.

current news, Federal courts, RLUIPA ,

Vermont neighbor can bring nuisance claim for wind farm, despite losing fight against permit

October 16th, 2014

Note:  This case is from the Federal District Court for Vermont, but it is interesting and in keeping with our “wind week” theme.   It was originally posted by Patricia Salkin on her blog, The Law of the Land

Brouha v Vermont Wind, LLC
(Federal District Court for Vermont, September 23, 2014)

Plaintiff alleges that the Sheffield Wind Project that the Defendants owned and operated created an unreasonable noise impact, that the noise prevented the Plaintiff from gardening, eating outside, walking and other activities similar, and the Plaintiff therefore suffered stress, pain and suffering and loss of the use of his property.

The District Court of Vermont found that the Plaintiff submitted sufficient information for a private nuisance claim, due to interference with the use and enjoyment of another’s property that is both unreasonable and understanding. Defendants contended that the Plaintiff’s complaint should be collaterally estopped because the claims litigated were already decided when the Plaintiff unsuccessfully contended and appealed against the granting of the permit, but Plaintiff in return claims that the standard applied for the permit were different from the standard applied for private nuisance.

The court found that the enjoyment of the Plaintiff’s property has never been litigated, and the restrictions imposed by the permit did not cover a private nuisance issue. Collateral estoppel does not apply here as the private nuisance claim was not raised in the first action, and the general nuisance claim that focused on the impact to the community was not identical to the private nuisance issue. Defendants’ motion was to dismiss Plaintiff’s private nuisance claim was therefore denied.


Federal courts, Nuisance, Wind and solar energy , ,

Delay that doomed wind farm project did not give rise to substantive due process claim

October 15th, 2014

by Rachel Greifenkamp and Gary Taylor

CEnergy-Glenmore Wind Farm #1, LLC v. Town of Glenmore
(Federal 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, August 7, 2014)

In Glenmore, Wisconsin, CEnergy planned to develop a wind farm. CEnergy obtained a conditional use permit from the town but did not obtain the required building permits for the wind turbines. CEnergy had entered into a power purchase agreement with the Wisconsin Public Service Corporation to sell wind energy for 20 years; however, the agreement was contingent upon CEnergy satisfying a variety of requirements, including obtaining all necessary permits, by March 1, 2011.

In September of 2010 the applications for the building permits to build the turbines were submitted to the Town Board.  In December 2010, CEnergy had provided all necessary information for the permits and informed the Chair of the Board that the permits would need to be approved by March 1 for CEnergy to satisfy the power purchase agreement. Over the course of the next three months, public sentiment had turned decidedly against the project, with the Board Chair receiving threats to his physical safety.  The Board did not take up the the issue of the building permits at the January or February meetings, ostensibly because the town’s attorney needed more time to review the documentation submitted by CEnergy.   The applications for building permits were finally considered and granted at a meeting on March 7, but citizens at that meeting became “accusatory and threatening” toward Board members and other town officials.  The Chair reopened the meeting and, after further discussion, the Board voted to rescind the granted permits.  One week later, however, the Board held a special meeting and nullified the rescission, thereby reinstating the granted permits.

When the Wisconsin Public Service Corporation backed out of the power purchase agreement due to CEnergy’s failure to obtain the necessary permits in time, CEnergy filed suit against the Town of Glenmore claiming a denial of its right to substantive due process and a violation of the town’s state law obligation to deal in good faith. The federal district court dismissed the due process claim for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted, the district court also declined to retain jurisdiction over the supplemental state law claim. CEnergy appealed the decision to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals.

On the issue of the denial to substantive due process, the Court of Appeals noted that while both the Supreme Court and the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals have acknowledged the possibility that a land-use decision could constitute a deprivation of property without substantive due process of the law, neither have definitively concluded such. However, like the district court, the Court of Appeals concluded that the substantive due process claim fails because the Board’s actions were not arbitrary.  “As far as the Constitution is concerned, popular opposition to a proposed land development plan is a rational and legitimate reason for a legislature to delay making a decision….The idea in zoning cases is that the due process clause permits municipalities to use political methods to decide.”  While the courts have stated the substantive due process standard in many ways – decisions must “shock the conscience,” be “egregious,” “arbitrary and capricious,” or “random and irrational” – the Board’s decision making process did not meet any of the tests.

The Court of Appeals further held that CEnergy’s claim must fail because it did not seek recourse under state law. The court has held in the past that a plaintiff who ignores potential state law remedies cannot state a substantive due process claim in federal court.  The standard process for obtaining a building permit in Glenmore involves submitting the request to the Town Zoning Administrator and then, if denied, bringing the request to the Board of Appeals. This typical process does not involve the Town Board at all. Because CEnergy went along with the political process and did not seek another administrative course of action to get their building permits approved, there is no opportunity for them to regain the lost profits from the wind farm.

The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the judgment in favor of the Town of Glenmore.


Due Process, Federal courts, Wind and solar energy , ,