Demolition is abatement of a nuisance, not a taking requiring condemnation

by Victoria Heldt

Hendrix Roosevelt v. City of Detroit
(Michigan Court of Appeals, October 13, 2011)

This case deals with the demolition of a building in Detroit, Michigan.  In 2003, the City sent a dangerous building violation notice to the owners of the building after they discovered it was dilapidated, only had a half roof, and was open to trespass.   After a hearing was held, a demolition notice was sent.  At the time, Roosevelt was not on record as an owner of the building, so he didn’t receive these notices.  In 2005, Roosevelt filed a demolition deferral application and listed the building’s address as the place to send him notice.  The City granted the deferral on the condition that the building not is kept open to public trespass.  If the condition was not met, the building would be demolished without further notice.  A notice was sent to the building addressed to Roosevelt, but it was returned as Roosevelt had moved from the building.  In 2006 the City inspected the building and found it was in violation of the deferral agreement.

Roosevelt filed another deferral request in 2007 and provided 258 Riverside Drive as an address at which to reach him.  The City denied the request and sent notice both to the building’s address and to the alternative address Roosevelt provided.  Both notices were returned in the mail.  In September of 2007 the building was demolished.  Roosevelt filed a claim arguing that the demolition of the building violated the Michigan constitution, violated federal due process, and was the result of gross negligence by two City employees.  The court dismissed the federal claim and remanded the case to the circuit court to resolve the remaining claims.  On both of these claims the circuit court granted summary judgment for the City.  In 2010 the City petitioned to reopen the case in order to present a counterclaim for demolition costs.  The petition was granted, and when Roosevelt failed to oppose the demolition costs, the court awarded demolition costs to the City.  All claims made their way to the Michigan Court of Appeals.

As for the state constitution claim, the Court of Appeals laid out three main reasons why the claim was properly dismissed by the circuit court.  First, monetary damages are reserved for plaintiffs with no other avenue of relief.  Roosevelt’s first line of relief would have been via a federal due process claim, which was alleged and was denied.   The Court also noted that the City’s actions did not constitute a “taking.”  A “taking” occurs when the government confiscates property for public use.  In these instances, the government must go through the proper condemnation process.  An exception exists, however, if the property is causing a public nuisance.  Nobody has the right to use their property as a nuisance; therefore it is not considered a “taking” if the government uses its power to stop a public nuisance.  Roosevelt’s building was considered a public nuisance since it “imperiled the health, safety, and welfare” of the neighborhood.  Thus, the government did not commit a “taking” when it demolished the building.  The Court’s final point regarding this claim was that Roosevelt cannot claim a due process violation if he actually received notice.  The fact that he filed petitions for demolition deferral was evidence that he knew of the demolition plans.  Consequently, there was no due process violation.

In regards to the gross negligence claim against the municipality’s employees, the Court noted that governmental employees are protected from lawsuits if they were “acting within the scope of their authority, were engaged in the exercise or discharge of a governmental function, and their conduct did not amount to gross negligence that is the proximate cause of the injury or damage.”  In this case, the Court focused on the phrase “proximate cause.”  The Court concluded that this phrase is to be interpreted as the “most immediate and direct” cause of the action (in this case, the demolition of the building) and that it refers to one cause.  In this case another cause existed in correspondence with the demolition, namely Roosevelt’s failure to uphold the conditions of the deferral.  As a result of those factors, the employee’s actions are not deemed gross negligence.

Finally, Roosevelt challenged the circuit court’s action in assessing the demolition costs to him since state statute specifies that a judgment lien, and not a personal judgment, should be granted in demolition costs.  The Court agreed with Roosevelt and found that the trial court abused its discretion in awarding the city a personal judgment against Roosevelt.  After affirming the district court’s decisions regarding the constitutional claim and the gross negligence claim, it remanded the case for the granting of a judgment lien.

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