Posted by: Patricia Salkin | November 21, 2009

Federal District Court Dismisses Substantive Due Process and Equal Protection Claims

The Rustons own 27 acres of property in the Town of Skaneateles which they have been trying to subdivide and develop for some time. In ongoing litigation, the Rustons filed an amended complaint asserting a substantive due process claim, a class-of-one equal protection claim, a facial challenge to provisions of the Town’s Zoning Code and a vested-rights claim against the Town Board, the Planning Board as well as against individual members of the Town’s Board.

The Town moved to dismiss. With respect to the class-of-one equal protection claim, the Court explained that in order to state an equal protection claim of one a person must allege that they were treated differently from others similarly situated in all relevant respects, that the defendant had no rational basis for the differential treatment and that the treatment resulted from a non-discretionary state action. The allegation of the equal protection claim stems from the denial of Ruston’s sewer-system access to the property. The court had held prior when discussing the Ruston’s claim of substantive due process that the Rustons lacked a property interest because the Village had discretion to grant or deny sewer access. Under the equal protection claim the Rustons allege that they had been paying an ad valorem sewer tax, which they had not alleged in their original complaint. In their amended complaint the Rustons give no facts in support of this added tax. The Town however produced the sewage bills of the Rustons and no additional charges were made that would show this tax. The court held that because of the lack of evidence by the Rustons the claim was dismissed.

The Court also dismissed the claims against the Town Planning Board as well as against the individual Board members in their official capacity because of legislative immunity. The Rustons however allege that the claims of substantive due process and equal protection against the individuals were due to non-legislative actions. The court maintained, however, that since the deprivations of the Ruston’s rights occurred as a result of a board vote, the voting individual had sufficient individual involvement and at this stage in the litigation, the Court declined to dismiss this claim.

The third cause of action, a facial challenge to provisions of the Town’s zoning code, was dismissed in its entirety.

To support the claim of due process a party must assert a valid property interest within the meaning of the constitution and must demonstrate that the defendant acted in an arbitrary or irrational manner in depriving him of that property interest. The court found that the Rustons had failed to allege a property interest because under New York law, planning boards have discretion to approve or deny applications for subdivisions.  Also, the Town Board did not do anything that shocked that conscious in denying the sewage system.

To challenge the facial validity of a zoning regulation on substantive due process grounds, the plaintiff must allege that the regulation on its face deprives him of a constitutionally protected property interest and the regulation lacks any rational relationship to a legitimate government interest.  The Court already established that the Rustons failed to establish a valid property interest. Furthermore, the Court said that the other complaints that the Rustons raised are rationally related to a legitimate government interest regarding land use and development.

Ruston v Town Board for the Town of Skaneateles 2009 WL 3199194 (N.D.N.Y.) (9/30/09).


  1. Seeing this kind of case in Skaneateles is not surprising. It is a very affluent and traditional town located on a scenic lake, not far from Syracuse. The town aggressively seeks to maintain itself in its current form, and not too long ago was in the news for trying to keep trucks from driving through the town. Real estate there fetches a premium so it is not surprising the landowner tried pursuing his claim this far.

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