Federal district court should not decide state law claims associated with nude dancing establishment suit

by Andrea Vaage

Green Valley Investments v Winnebago County
Federal 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, July 27, 2015

Stars Cabaret, a nude dancing establishment owned by Green Valley Investments, opened in Winnebago County, Wisconsin in 2006. At that time, Winnebago County regulated adult entertainment establishments under Ordinance 17.13, which required the establishment of an “adult entertainment overlay [AEO] district.” The AEO district was to be located within an at-the-time undefined “B-3 Highway Business District.” A conditional-use permit issued by the county to the operator of the business was also needed, which, among other things, required that no alcoholic beverages be sold in the AEO district.

The cabaret offered nude dancing and also served alcoholic beverages. The cabaret never sought a permit to operate the business under Ordinance 17.13; instead, Green Valley sued for declaratory and injunctive relief, arguing the ordinance was an unconstitutional First Amendment restriction on expression. The case was dismissed without prejudice when the County amended the ordinance during the suit. Another series of suits and subsequent modifications to the ordinance ensued. Finally, in 2012, Green Valley requested that Stars Cabaret be allowed to operate as a nonconforming use. The County did not agree to this request, leading to this suit.

Green Valley asserted that since the initial ordinance was unconstitutional, and Stars Cabaret was established and in operation before the invalid ordinance was amended, it was legal from the outset, “reasoning that anything is legal that is not forbidden.”  As a part of this position Green Valley filed a supplemental claim under state law seeking a declaration that the use was lawful in 2006 and should now be considered a nonconforming use. The district court found that parts of the 2006 ordinance were unconstitutional, but these could be severed from the rest of the ordinance, leaving the setback and alcohol provisions intact. The federal district court found that Stars Cabaret would not have been legal if these provisions were kept in place. Green Valley appealed.

Thus the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals was faced with two questions: the federal question of the constitutionality of the original ordinance, and the state law questions of nonconforming uses and severability. On the first issue, the Court found the 2006 ordinance was an impermissible prior restraint on speech because it left it up to the discretion of a local body, using ambiguous standards, to allow or deny the the speech.

The state law questions were more complex.  The district court had to determine if the remainder of the ordinance could be modified under the power of severance or if this remainder could function as a standalone law if additions or modifications were necessary to make it a valid freestanding zoning provision. These questions are considered by a federal court under supplemental jurisdiction since such claims are a matter of state law. The Court found no precedent set by Wisconsin which would answer either question. Although the district court had the ability to exercise supplemental jurisdiction, it need not have done so. In this case, the state law claims “substantially predominate over the claim or claims over which the [federal] district court has original jurisdiction.” The federal district court was not properly equipped to answer the state law questions brought up in this case, and should not have exercised supplement jurisdiction.

The Court found that, once the district court determined part of the 2006 ordinance was unconstitutional, they should have relinquished jurisdiction over the supplemental state claims and dismissed them without prejudice. The federal district court’s decision was reversed and remanded.

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