African American residents of subdivision fail to prove they are similarly situated to unprotected class

by Victoria Heldt

Bishop Harvey, Jr., et al., v. Town of Merrillville
(Federal 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, July 11, 2011)

The residents of Innsbrook, a subdivision in Merrillville, Indiana had several complaints regarding a retention pond near their property as a source of mosquitoes, algae, and flooding.  They feared that a proposed expansion of the subdivision would only enhance the problem, so they attempted to voice their opinions to the Merrillville town council.  The homeowners, who were predominantly African-American, felt they were ignored by the council and claimed to have been victim to racial epithets from a council member (who was also African-American.)

They brought forth a claim under the Fourteenth Amendment, claiming that the council violated their equal protection rights when it was more responsive to another group of people filing similar complaints.  They listed the Town of Merrillville, 16 Merrillville employees (Town Defendants), and the Town’s engineer (Warmelink) in their filing.  They also made a total of 31 state claims against the defendants.  Three years later, the residents moved for summary judgment on twelve issues, one of them being the Fourteenth Amendment claim.  The Town responded with a similar request for summary judgment.  Warmelink made a separate request for summary judgment.  The district court eventually ruled in favor of the Town, finding that the residents “failed to identify a similarly situated class that the Town and Town Defendants treated more favorably.”  The court then remanded the case to the state court to rule on the remaining state claims.  Soon after, Warmelink sought a clarification in the ruling, since he was not listed within the opinion.  The court released an order (December 3 order) that granted summary judgment to Warmelink on the same grounds as the ruling for the Town.

The residents appealed, but failed to mention the December 3 order in their claim.  Subsequently, Warmelink contended that the Court did not have jurisdiction over him because the residents failed to “designate the judgment, order, or part thereof being appealed.”  The Court disagreed.  It noted that incomplete attempts to follow the rule will not be contested as long as the appellee is not harmed.  Since Warmelink gave no evidence that he was harmed or misled by the residents’ appeal (in which is he was specifically named), the Court denied Warmelink’s argument.

The residents’ primary substantive argument rested on the belief that they raised a “genuine issue of material fact” that they were treated differently than a group of Caucasian homeowners making similar complaints regarding a subdivision.  The Court noted that, in order to prevail with an equal protection claim, the party must show that:  1) they are a member of a protected class; 2) they were similarly situated to members of an unprotected class in all relevant respects; and 3) they were treated differently from members of the unprotected class.  The Court admitted that the residents were members of a protected class (all were non-white individuals.)  Yet, the residents failed to establish that they were similarly situated to the members of an unprotected class.

The Insbrook residents attempted to liken themselves to residents of Southmoor (another subdivision) where construction was proposed and opposed.  The Court first noted that the Insbrook residents failed to provide any concrete evidence that the Southmoor residents were white, they only made conclusory allegations.  In addition, the Insbrook expansion was to consist of only single-family homes and was to be zoned R-2, which was the current zoning classification of the development.  On the other hand, the Southmoor residents were opposing a plan that was to consist of duplexes zoned R2 and R3.  The developments being contested were not of the same type.  Additionally, the Merrillville town council granted the Insbrook residents a private meeting at which to object the expansion while it did not do the same for the Southmoor residents.  So it would appear that the Insbrook residents were treated more favorably than the group to which they were comparing themselves.  As a last note, the Court mentioned that the Southmoor subdivision does not even contain a retention pond, which was the catalyst of this case.  The Court found that the residents’ case did not stand since they failed to prove that they were similarly situated to an unprotected class.

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