Posts Tagged ‘Federal 6th Circuit’

Fed 6th Circuit reviews use of miniature horse as service animal under ADA and FHAA (Part II – FHAA claims)

August 27th, 2015

by Gary Taylor

Anderson v. City of Blue Ash
Federal 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, August 14 2015

[Note: This is Part II of a lengthy case.  Yesterday’s post gives the facts of the case and reviews the decision on the Americans with Disabilities Act claims.  Today’s post is on the Fair Housing Act Amendments claims.]

The FHAA makes it unlawful to “discriminate against any person in the terms, conditions, or privileges of sale or rental of a dwelling, or in the provision of services or facilities in connection with such a dwelling because of a handicap,” which includes “refusal to make reasonable accommodations in rules, policies, practices, or services when such accommodations may be necessary to afford such person equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling.”  The courts have interpreted this to allow three different types of claims: (1) reasonable accommodation, (2) disparate treatment, and (3) disparate impact.  The Anderson made arguments on all three.

Reasonable accommodation. Unlike the ADA, the FHAA does not have minimum regulatory requirements for animals to qualify as a reasonable accommodation.  Under this FHAA claim, a municipality has an affirmative duty…”to afford its disabled citizens reasonable accommodations in its municipal zoning practices if necessary to afford such persons equal opportunity in the use and enjoyment of property.” The city argued that C.A. did not need therapy with a horse at her house but rather could travel to a local farm or stable.  It also argued that accommodation at the house was unnecessary because C.A. can ambulated and otherwise function without the horse.  The Andersons contended that the accommodation was necessary for C.A. to play independently in her backyard as a non-disabled child could, and that therapy at a farm or stable is no substitute for therapy at home.

The 6th Circuit found that summary judgment for the city (as was granted by the district court) was inappropriate because there were sufficient facts to indicate that the Andersons might win at trial.  In so ruling, the 6th Circuit observed that the FHAA requires accommodations “that are necessary to achieve housing equality, not just those accommodations that are absolutely necessary for the disabled individual’s treatment or basic ability to function.”

As to the “reasonableness” of the accommodation, the 6th Circuit found that factual issues “pervade the question of the accommodation’s reasonableness.”  The record needs more development on whether C.A.’s therapy would be diminished by traveling to receive therapy at another location, and whether the city’s zoning scheme would be “fundamentally altered” by allowing the horse.  “Requiring public entities to make exceptions to their rules and zoning policies is exactly what the FHAA does…[it doesn’t mean that] any modification permitting a horse necessarily amounts to a fundamental alteration.”

Disparate treatment.  This claim failed for the same reason that the Anderson’s claim for intentional discrimination under the ADA failed: there was no evidence that the city harbored discriminatory animus against the disabled.

Disparate impact.  This claim also failed.  The Andersons failed to recognize that the ordinance in question specifically exempts any animals protected by federal law, including the FHAA; thus it has less of an impact on disabled individuals than on the general public.

The 6th Circuit reversed the district court’s grant of summary judgment and remanded for further proceedings.

Americans with Disabilities Act, Fair Housing Act, Federal courts , , ,

Fed 6th Circuit reviews use of miniature horse as service animal under ADA and FHAA (Part I – ADA claims)

August 26th, 2015

by Gary Taylor

Anderson v. City of Blue Ash
Federal 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, August 14 2015

[Note: This is a lengthy case, but it is a good review of issues with “unusual” service animals that occasionally arise.  Today’s post is on ADA.  Next post will be on FHAA]

Ingrid Anderson’s minor daughter (initials C.A.) suffers from a number of disabilities that affect her ability to walk and balance independently.  She keeps a miniature horse at her house as a service animal.  The horse enables C.A. to play and get exercise in her backyard without assistance from an adult.

Since acquiring the horse in 2010 the Andersons and the city of Blue Ash, Ohio have had continual disagreements about allowing the horse on the property.  In 2013 the city passed an ordinance banning horses from residential property, then criminally prosecuted Anderson for violating it.  Anderson’s defense was that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Fair Housing Amendments Act (FHAA) both entitle her to keep the horse at her house as a service animal.  The Hamilton County Municipal Court found Anderson guilty of the criminal complaint.  Andersons brought their own action federal district court on ADA and FHAA claims, but the district court granted summary judgment for the city finding that the claims were barred by the determination of the issues (res judicata) in Anderson’s criminal conviction in municipal court.  Andersons appealed.  After reversing the district court’s conclusion on the res judicata claim (for various reasons beyond the interest of most readers of this blog) the 6th Circuit went on to consider the specifics of the Andersons’ ADA and FHAA claims.

ADA – Miniature horses as service animals. The ADA prohibits entities from discriminating against individuals with disabilities by, including other actions, “failing to make reasonable modifications in policies, practices, or procedures, when such modifications are necessary to afford such goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations to individuals with disabilities….” The regulations governing miniature horses allow them for use as service animals if the horse “has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of the individual with a disability,” provided that the horse and the requested modification also satisfy certain “assessment factors.”  The assessment factors to be considered are:

  1. the type, size, weight of the horse, and whether the facility can accommodate these features;
  2. whether the handler has sufficient control of the horse;
  3. whether the horse is housebroken; and
  4. whether the horse’s presence in a specific facility compromises legitimate safety requirements that are necessary for safe operation.”

The ADA thus requires a highly fact-specific inquiry, and decisions must be made on a case-by-case basis.  After lengthy discussion of each of these factors, the 6th Circuit concluded that the district court had not sufficiently developed the factual record concerning the Anderson’s situation, and thus summary judgment for the city was inappropriate.

ADA – Intentional discrimination. The Andersons also raised an intentional discrimination claim under the ADA.  For such a claim to succeed the Andersons need to have proven that:

  1. C.A. has a disability;
  2. she is otherwise qualified; and
  3. she was being … subjected to discrimination because of her disability.

Courts have interpreted this to mean that “animus against the protected group was a significant factor in the position taken by the municipal decision-makers themselves or by those to whom the decision-makers were knowingly responsive.”  Further, it must be shown that the discrimination was “intentionally directed toward him or her in particular.”

After examining the evidence the 6th Circuit concluded that the intentional discrimination claim failed because the Andersons could not prove factor #3.  The city’s actions were brought about by citizen’s complaints of the unsanitary conditions caused by animal waste in the Andersons’ backyard.  The city council decided not to take action on these complaints until the Andersons acquired a second horse and neighbors made additional health complaints. The sequence of events was consistent with the city responding to legitimate concerns of its citizens, and provided no basis for an inference that the city’s actions were “because of C.A.’s disability.”



Americans with Disabilities Act, Fair Housing Act, Federal courts, Uncategorized , , ,

Notice of intent to demolish building “reasonably calculated” to inform owners of pending action

August 12th, 2015

by Andrea Vaage

Yang v. City of Wyoming
Federal 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, July 13, 2015

Ming Kuo Yang and Julie Yang owned a commercial property in Wyoming, Michigan. The Yangs previously rented the property to a series of restaurants; eventually, the property was listed for sale in late 2010. The lease on the last restaurant ended in February 2011. The property was never sold and was then neglected. The owners continued to pay property taxes. In October 2011, city officials posted an abandonment notice on the building. The notice was also mailed to the address of the abandoned building, but listed the former owner as the recipient, not the Yangs. In July 2012, the city sent a “Notice and Order to Repair or Demolish” by signature-required certified mailing to the building address. This notice also listed the former owner as the recipient. Two months later, the post office returned the mail to the city as unclaimed. The City did a title search of the building and identified the Yangs as the correct owner. The City then sent both previous notices to the Yangs’ correct address by certified mail in September 2012.

The City did not receive a response from the Yangs. It then scheduled a hearing about demolishing the property for November 1, 2012. The City sent the Yangs a hearing notice by regular mail and also sent a notice to the Yangs’ realtor. Soon thereafter, the post office returned the original certified mailing to the Yangs as unclaimed. This information was not present. The Yangs did not appear to the hearing on November 1 where the board decided to demolish the property. The property was demolished in January 2013, and a $22,500 bill was sent to the Yangs’ address for the work.

The Yangs then discovered their building was demolished and claimed the city violated their procedural due process rights by demolishing the property without adequate notice. The standard of review is whether the City’s efforts were “reasonably calculated” to inform the Yangs of the action taken on their property. The City of Wyoming attempted to contact the Yangs through posted notices, mailed notices to the Yangs, mailed notice to the realtor, and the post-hearing notice. Michigan caselaw has established that a posted notice is, by itself, an appropriate way to inform a person of the proceedings against him. Another precedent notes that notice mailed to a person’s home address generally satisfies due process requirements. The Yangs argue, however, that notice by itself is not adequate, since the hearing notice did not provide the reasons for demolishing the property and the post-hearing notice would have come too late for the Yangs to prepare to defend themselves.

The Court found that all of the information contained in all of the notices, taken in the aggregate, were sufficient to meet due process requirements. Even though the Yangs did not actually receive notice, as the certified mailing was returned unclaimed, the additional efforts made by the City were reasonable attempts to contact the Yangs. The Court found the city’s attempts at contacting the Yangs were “reasonably calculated” to give the Yangs adequate notice.


The dissent argued that the majority misconstrued the facts of the case and the contents of the notices provided by the City. The final four attempts at contacting the Yangs were not adequate because they did not provide the reasons for the potential demolition of the building, providing “less information than the average parking ticket.” The issue wasn’t whether the forms of notice were adequate, but whether the notices actually informed the owner of the issue. In the case, the dissent argues the City failed to provide the reasons for demolition in the follow-up notices and thus violated procedural due process.

Abandoned/unsafe buildings, Due Process, Federal courts, Notice , , , ,

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 ,

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 , , ,

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 , ,

6th Circuit boomerangs RLUIPA and related claims back to district court

November 4th, 2013

by Kaitlin Heinen

Tree of Life Christian Schools v. City of Upper Arlington
(Federal 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, September 6, 2013)

Tree of Life Christian Schools purchased property in Upper Arlington, intending to open a private school that would consolidate its campuses. However, the property is located in the City’s Office and Research (ORC) zoning district, in which neither churches nor schools are allowed. Tree of Life unsuccessfully applied for a conditional use permit and unsuccessfully appealed to the Board of Zoning and Planning (BZAP) and the City Council. Upper Arlington uses what is known as ‘non-cumulative’ zoning, in which only building use categories that are designated as permissive uses are allowed as of right, and all other uses are either expressly listed as “conditional uses,” requiring a special permit, or are prohibited entirely.

Tree of Life filed a complaint in district court, alleging religious-based discrimination under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). Tree of Life filed four claims, which included “facial and as-applied ‘equal terms’ claims alleging that the City’s land use ordinance violates 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc(b)(1) by treating the School on less than equal terms with nonreligious assemblies or institutions, and facial and as-applied ‘substantial burden’ claims alleging that the ordinance violates 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc(a)(1) by imposing substantial burden on its religious exercise without a compelling government interest.” In addition, “Tree of Life…brought six constitutional claims alleging violations of the rights to free exercise, due process, equal protection, free speech, peaceable assembly; and a violation of the establishment Clause; as well as a claim under the Ohio Constitution.”

The district court ruled in favor of the City because the claims raised were not ripe as a result of Tree of Life not seeking a zoning amendment. Tree of Life appealed, “arguing that the claims are all ripe because the zoning ordinance was finally applied to it when BZAP and the City Council made a final determination that a private Christian School is a non-permitted use under the ordinance.” Tree of Life also argued because their equal terms claims are facial claims, they are not subject to the ripeness doctrine. The City countered that the claims are not ripe because an attempted zoning amendment is uncertain as it is a legislative process.

The court held that “[i]nsofar as Tree of Life alleges a facial claim, however, we have doubts as to its validity because the face of the statute appears to be neutral as to non-Church religious uses. We leave this issue to the district court.” The court also held that in Miles Christi Religious Order v. Township of Northville, the plaintiff’s claim challenging a zoning ordinance was not ripe “because the plaintiff did not seek a variance from the zoning board, and thus the zoning board had not reached a final decision regarding the property. However, the court declined to rule on “whether the holding in Miles Christi covers situations where the plaintiff did not seek a zoning amendment because new information has come to light.” Tree of Life filed a motion to supplement the record because “[w]hile this case was pending, Tree of Life indeed sought a zoning amendment, which the City Council voted to deny. Based on this change of circumstances, the present arguments before this panel are no longer sufficient.” The court remanded this issue to the district court.

Tree of Life also argued that the district court ruled on the merits of the RLUIPA equal terms claim.  However, the court determined “[t]his language [as] dicta, and it does not include an analysis…of any other claim on the merits.” So it is not construed as a separate holding. If the district court determines that this case is ripe on remand, the court left the district court “to rule on the merits of each claim in the first instance.” Finally, the City cross-appealed, asking for a reversal of the district court’s denial of the City’s summary judgment motion on the merits, even though it argued that the court did not have jurisdiction under the final judgment rule to consider its cross-appeal. “The [final judgment] rule is that a party is entitled to a single appeal, to be deferred until final judgment has been entered, in which claims of district court error at any stage of the litigation may be ventilated.” Even so, the court dismissed the cross-appeal because it does not issue advisory opinions. The court held “[t]hese issues are best left to the district court.”

The Federal 6th Circuit Court granted Tree of Life’s motion to supplement the record, reversed and remanded this case to the district court on the issue of ripeness in light of new information, and dismissed the City’s cross-appeal.

Federal courts, First Amendment claims, RLUIPA , ,

Federal 6th Circuit dismisses defamation, other claims

May 13th, 2013

by Kaitlin Heinen

Rondigo, LLC, Dolores Michaels v. Township of Richmond, Michigan
(Federal 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, March 28, 2013)

Rondigo, LLC is a Michigan limited liability company in Macomb County owned by Dolores Michaels. Rondigo and Michaels (the plaintiffs) have operated a farm in Richmond Township since 2004. In February 2006, the plaintiffs began composting on the farm and started constructing a driveway to assist with the composting. The Supervisor of Richmond Township, Gordon Furstenau, issued a stop-work order. The Township filed suit in state court in regards to the  driveway’s construction, which they claimed violated several zoning ordinances.

The Michigan Department of Agriculture also received complaints from neighbors about the farm’s odor. So the Department inspected the farm in October 2006 and ordered the plaintiffs to submit a compost operations plan by December 2006. The Department inspected the farm again in January 2007 and found that the plaintiffs had been stockpiling leaves. The Department advised them to remove the piles because runoff from the leaves could negatively impact groundwater in the area. The plaintiffs did not remove the piles, allegedly because they could not do so without the driveway. The Department sent a letter in April 2007, saying it would refer the matter to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) if the leaves were not removed. So the plaintiffs filed an emergency motion with the state court to remove the bar on the driveway’s construction. The court granted the motion, but the plaintiffs did not remove the leaves. So the matter was referred to the MDEQ.

In January 2008, the plaintiffs filed this suit against Richmond Township, Furstenau, Four Township Citizens’ Coalition, more than 20 Macomb County residents, 2 Department employees, and 3 MDEQ employees. “The plaintiffs asserted five claims: (1) a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claim that the defendants violated the plaintiffs’ constitutional rights; (2) a 42 U.S.C. § 1985(3) claim that the defendants conspired to deprive the plaintiffs of their constitutional rights; (3) a 42 U.S.C. § 1986 claim that the defendants knowingly failed to prevent the violation of the plaintiffs’ constitutional rights; (4) a civil-conspiracy claim under Michigan state law; and (5) a defamation claim under Michigan state law.” The plaintiffs also asserted that the Township’s zoning ordinances were unconstitutionally vague. The district court dismissed all these claims, so the plaintiffs appealed to the 6th Circuit.

First, the plaintiffs argued that the district court erred in holding that “res judicata” bars their claims against the Township and Furstenau. Under Michigan law, “res judicata” bars an action if it involves the same parties as a prior action and if the matter could have been resolved in that prior action. The plaintiffs could have asserted their claim against the Township and Furstenau in state court. The plaintiffs did not pursue many of the claims they used as defenses against the Township’s complaint. The claims previously brought before the state court and the claims presented in this case arose from the same events. So “res judicata” precludes the plaintiffs from asserting their claims against the Township and Furstenau because these claims could have raised in a prior state action.

Next, the plaintiffs argued that the district court erred in dismissing their § 1983 claims against the Four Township’s Citizens’ Coalition and the Macomb County residents. The plaintiffs cannot maintain these claims against these defendants, however, because they are not state actors. Also, the plaintiffs did not appeal the dismissal of their § 1985(3) or § 1986 claims against these defendants. Therefore they waived these claims. The plaintiffs do appeal the dismissal of their state-law claims, but they failed to develop their argument against the dismissal. So the plaintiffs waived these claims as well.

Finally, the plaintiffs argued that the district court erred in dismissing their defamation and civil-conspiracy claims against the Department and MDEQ employees. In regards to the defamation claim, “the plaintiff must allege that the defendant made a false and defamatory statement about the plaintiff. But a qualified privilege protects the defendant from the defamation claim if the defendant had an interest or duty to make the statement to someone having a corresponding interest or duty.”  The plaintiffs alleged that the defendants made defamatory statements to state employees and to the plaintiffs’ neighbors. But these statements were made while investigating complaints about the farm. The defendants had an interest in communicating with their co-workers and the plaintiffs’ neighbors to facilitate the investigation. And the employees and neighbors had a shared interest in the investigation. So the plaintiffs did not overcome the qualified privilege, which protects the defendants from the plaintiffs’ defamation claims. Additionally, a civil-conspiracy claim cannot “exist in the air.” So the plaintiffs cannot maintain civil-conspiracy claims because there were no other claims left in this case.

The 6th Circuit Court affirmed the dismissal of the plaintiffs’ claims by the district court.

Federal courts, Procedural Issues , ,