Issue preclusion can be applied to bar zoning board proceedings, but applicants for 1998 and 2011 special exceptions were different

by Gary Taylor

Prybil Family Investments, Ltd., v. Board of Adjustment of Iowa City
(Iowa Court of Appeals, September 5, 2013)

In July 2011 Streb Construction Company filed an application for a special exception to operate a wet batch concrete plant on land zoned “General Industrial”  in the Scott-Six Industrial Park in Iowa City.  After a public hearing the Iowa City Board of Adjustment (Board) approved the special exception in September 2011.

Prybil Family Investments owns agricultural property adjacent to the land in question.  The land has been used for farming, and will continue to be for the forseeable future. Prybil filed a writ of certiorari to contest the Board’s decision.  Prybil’s main argument was that the same property owner filed an application for a special use permit to operate a cement plant on the same property in 1998, and was denied.  Therefore the doctrine of issue preclusion prevented the Board from considering the 2011 application (issue preclusion prevents the same issue from being reconsidered again in a later proceeding).  Alternatively, Prybil argued that the Board’s decision was not supported by substantial evidence. The district court disagreed on both claims and allowed the permit to stand.  Prybil appealed to the Iowa Court of Appeals.

The Court of Appeals began by noting that Iowa case law has never addressed whether the concept of issue preclusion applies to zoning board determinations.  It did acknowledge that in Johnston v. Christenson, the Iowa Supreme Court stated that “an administrative adjudication by an entity such as the board of adjustment can have a preclusive effect in a judicial proceeding..”  It also referenced Am. Jur. 2d, Zoning and Planning, which states that “res judicata (a concept that encompasses issue preclusion) applies to administrative zoning decisions in order to promote finality of decisions unless it is shown that there has been a substantial change of circumstances since the earlier ruling.” The Court, therefore, determined that issue preclusion can be applied to bar a second application for a special exception if the following elements, cited in Johnston v. Christenson, are met: (1) the issue must be identical; (2) the issue must have been raised and litigated in the prior action; (3) the issue must have been material and relevant to the disposition of the prior action; and (4) the determination made in the prior action must have been essential and necessary to the resulting judgment.” “However,” the Court noted, “if there has been a substantial change of circumstances” the concept will not apply.

Before beginning its analysis of the four factors it cited, it determined that, in any event, Prybil’s issue preclusion claim failed because the applicant for the 2011 special exception was not the same as the applicant for the 1998 special exception. Even though “Streb Construction Company” applied for the 2011 permit, and “A.F. Streb” applied for the 1998 permit the Court concluded that “Prybil presented no evidence showing that the parties were identical or [in close legal relation].”  The Court went on, however, to note that Prybi’s claim would also fail on the Christenson factors.  The mobile wet batch plant desired in 2011 incorporates improved environmental protections.  The 2011 and 1998 applications were for different lots in the Industrial Park.

After a lengthy discussion about what issues related to the substantial evidence claim were properly preserved for appeal by Prybil, the Court addressed the substantial evidence claim itself.  Prybil contended that the dust pollution from the plant will interfere with Prybil’s use an enjoyment of its property by damaging crops, but the Court did not disagree with the Board’s conclusion that conditions attached to the special exception – requiring Streb to pave the surrounding roads and plant trees to act as a screen from adjacent properties – were sufficient to satisfy the concern.  Prybil also contended that its property values would be diminished by the plant, but the Court again found sufficient evidence to support the Board’s conclusion that there were no Heavy Industrial zones in Iowa City where the plant could locate by right and any opinions on effect on future property values were merely speculative.  Although Prybil offered contrary testimony from two realtors, the Court said that the information presented at the hearing was sufficient to support the Board’s decision.

Federal 6th Circuit dismisses defamation, other claims

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.

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