Retrial of Equal Protection “class-of-one” claim proper when city’s size cap limitation ended landowner’s deal with Wal-Mart

by Gary Taylor

Loesel, et al, v. City of Frankenmuth (MI)
(Federal 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, August 20, 2012)

Plaintiffs, (Ronald Loesel and others), are the co-owners of a 37-acre tract of land that borders Main Street just outside the Frankenmuth city limits. They inherited the property from their mother when she died in 2003. A 2003 property-tax appraisal valued the land at $95,000.  Although not within the City’s boundaries, the property is within the urban growth area that was established jointly by the City and the Township in 1985 to confine and guide urban growth in order to retain the character of the Frankenmuth community. The City and Township first adopted the Joint Growth Management Plan (the Plan) in 1985, and amended the plan in 2005.  The Loesels’ property lies within an urban limit line established by the Plan to “[p]romote compact residential and commercial development in and near the city limits. To implement the Plan, the western portion of the Loesels’ property along Main Street, approximately 15 acres in size, was zoned as Commercial Local Planned Unit Development (CL-PUD), with the remaining 22 acres to the east designated as Residential Planned Unit Development (R-PUD). Permitted uses for CLPUD-zoned properties include developments that “provide principally for sale of goods and services to meet the general needs of the residents of the Frankenmuth community, including but not limited to grocery, department, drug and hardware stores, financial institutions, professional and personal service offices and transportation sale and service businesses.”

In 2004, the Loesels were approached by Wal-Mart, which was interested in purchasing the property because the western portion abuts Main Street and is commercially zoned.  In late May 2005 the Loesels entered into a conditional agreement to sell 23.55 acres to Wal-Mart for $2,943,750.  Under the agreement Wal-Mart had 180 days to determine the feasibility of the project and pull out without penalty.

Forces within city government and citizens learned of the agreement and marshaled opposition.  in August 2005 the city council adopted a 120-day moratorium on the construction of any facility with an area of 70,000 or more.  The city manager recognized that the commercial zoning classification of the property would allow Wal-Mart to build, but explored the possibility of a permanent ordinance limiting the square footage of commercial establishments, including  the potential legal liability of adopting such an ordinance.  A business group supported the size cap, but only on the north side of the city (Loesels’ property), not in other location (their properties).  A version of the size cap limitation (65,000 square feet) was settled on that only applied in the CL-PUD district, effectively limiting its reach to Loesels’ property and a handful of much smaller parcels.  It was adopted on December 7, 2005.  Wal-Mart pulled out of its agreement with the Loesels, citing the 65,000 square foot restriction.

The Loesels sued the city under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that the City’s 65,000-square-foot zoning restriction violated their rights under the Equal Protection, Due Process, Privileges or Immunities, and Commerce Clauses of the U.S. Constitution. As a remedy, they sought $4 million in compensatory damages (the sale price of the property under an amended agreement reached by Loesels and the city prior to Wal-Mart pulling out).  The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the city on all claims but Equal Protection.  The Equal Protection claim was allowed to go forward to a jury trial, where the jury found in favor of the Loesels and awarded damages of $3.6 million.  The city appealed, arguing that the district court should have awarded judgment as a matter of law in favor of the city on the Equal Protection claim.

“The Equal Protection Clause prohibits discrimination by government which either burdens a fundamental right, targets a suspect class, or intentionally treats one differently than others similarly situated without any rational basis for the difference.”  Loesels pursued their claim under the “class-of-one” theory which, although recognized by the US Supreme Court in 2000, is generally viewed skeptically for their potential to turn into an exercise in which juries are second-guessing the legislative process.  To prove a class-of-one case the Loesels bear the “heavy burden” of proving that they were treated differently than those similarly situated in all material respects.  In addition, they must show that the adverse treatment they experienced

was so unrelated to the achievement of any combination of legitimate purposes that the court can only conclude that the government’s actions were irrational. This showing is made either by negativing every conceivable reason for the government’s actions or by demonstrating that the actions were motivated by animus or ill-will.

Similarly situated.  To determine whether the Loesels were treated differently than those similarly situated in all material respects, the 6th Circuit determined that the proper comparison is between the Loesels’ property and the properties on which two other similarly-sized commercial establishments sit.  The Court rejected the city’s arguments that the properties were not similarly situated because of differing zoning classifications, because of the fact that the Loesels’ property was the only one of the three that was vacant, and because the traffic capacities of the serving roads were different (road capacity could have been addressed by means other than a size cap).  The 6th Circuit concluded that  district court did not err in denying the City’s renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law on this issue.

No-conceivable basis theory. The city’s expert testified with several reasons why the size cap was only appropriate for properties in the CL-PUD district, which the city asserted provided the rational basis for its decision; however, the Court pointed out that the jury rejected the expert’s testimony on a number of contentions, and that the city manager himself contradicted the expert’s opinions.  The Court concluded that a genuine dispute exists as to whether the ordinance lacked a rational basis.  Denial of the city’s motion for judgment as a matter of law was again proper.

Animus or ill-will.  On this claim the city prevailed.  The Court noted that the animus must be directed toward the Loesels personally to be actionable.  City officials’ animus was not directed at the Loesels, but rather the Wal-Mart project itself.  Judgment as a matter of law for the city on this count should have been granted.

Because the record did not reflect which theory the jury used to find the city liable, the Court vacated the judgment and remanded it back to the district court for a new trial, excluding “animus or ill-will” as possible grounds for a verdict favoring the Loesels.

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