Posted by: Patricia Salkin | July 8, 2013

Fed Dist. Court Dismisses Due Process Claims on Ripeness Grounds and Holds Qualified Immunity Applied to Municipal Officials

Stanley Blumenstein and Laurence Oxman were shareholders of Riverhead Park Corp. (“RPC”) located in the town of Riverhead, New York (“Town”).  Plaintiffs, RPC, Blumenstein, and Oxman, purchased a parcel of land (“Parcel”) before the enactment of the Town’s new comprehensive land use plan.  This plan would subject Plaintiffs to new zoning restrictions that would prohibit their use of the Parcel for agriculture.  Plaintiffs alleged that in a conversation with several members of the Town Board, Plaintiffs were assured that their use of the property would be grandfathered in before the comprehensive plan was executed.

Thereafter, Plaintiffs began clearing the Parcel of trees for agricultural purposes without a permit.  Three days later, a Town Board member noticed the clearing activity and had the Town issue several stop work orders (“SWOs”) for Plaintiffs’ violations of the Town Code.  Plaintiffs never appealed these SWOs to the Town’s Zoning Board of Appeals.

The next day, the Town adopted Riverhead Town Board Resolution #939 of 2004 (“Resolution 939”), which resulted in the Parcel being rezoned.  The Town did not refer Resolution 939 to be reviewed by the Farmland Preservation Committee, nor did Plaintiffs request to have it reviewed.  The Town also issued 51 criminal complaints to Plaintiffs for their multiple alleged violations of the Town Code.  In the state court proceedings, all 51 complaints were either withdrawn by the Town or dismissed by the court.

Plaintiffs then brought two causes of action against the Town and several of the Town Board members individually.  Plaintiffs alleged that Defendants violated their procedural due process rights by (1) failing to refer Resolution 939 to the Farmland Preservation Committee for review and (2) issuing the SWOs and the complaints, in turn preventing Plaintiffs from using the Parcel.  Plaintiffs also alleged that Defendants violated their substantive due process rights by issuing the SWOs and the complaints, in turn preventing Plaintiffs from using the Parcel.

Defendants moved for summary judgment to dismiss Plaintiffs’ complaint alleging that (1) the action was not ripe because Plaintiffs failed to exhaust their available remedies; (2) Plaintiffs failed to state a claim; (3) Defendants were protected by absolute and qualified immunity; and (4) the individual Plaintiffs lacked standing.

The court first discussed the issue of whether Plaintiffs’ due process claims were ripe for review.  The two-pronged test for ripeness in a land use context are that (1) there must have been a “final decision” and (2) the plaintiff must have sought compensation if the state provides a “reasonable, certain and adequate provision for obtaining compensation.”  When a substantive due process claim is based on “arbitrary and capricious government conduct,” such as in the present case, the Plaintiff only needs to prove the first prong – that the decision was final.  Likewise, only the first prong is required to prove ripeness in a procedural due process claim.

Here, the court held that Plaintiffs did not satisfy the final decision prong of the ripeness test because they did not appeal to the Town’s Board of Appeals.  The court dismissed both the procedural and substantive due process claims and since the statute of limitations to appeal (60 days) had already passed, the court dismissed the claims with prejudice.

Next, the court discussed the issue of whether Plaintiffs failed to state a claim.  Since Plaintiffs’ due process claims regarding the SWOs were already determined to be unripe for review, the court did not consider these claims.  Thus, the only substantive due process claim left for review was the issuance of the 51 complaints.  Substantive due process protects against “outrageously arbitrary” conduct by a government entity.  With respect to the complaints, Plaintiffs based their substantive due process claim on assertions of §1983 malicious prosecution by Defendants.  The court found that Plaintiffs were not permitted to construe a Fourth Amendment malicious prosecution claim as one of Fourteenth Amendment substantive due process.  Since Plaintiffs failed to properly make the malicious prosecution assertions under the Fourth Amendment, their remaining substantive due process claim was dismissed.

The court likewise dismissed Plaintiffs’ procedural due process claims.  For the same reasons listed above, the claim for the issuance of the 51 complaints was dismissed for failure to properly assert malicious prosecution under the Fourth Amendment.  Plaintiffs’ remaining procedural due process claim was for Defendants’ failure to refer Resolution 939 to the Farmland Preservation Committee.  The court explained that where initiation of an Article 78 proceeding was available to the plaintiff but he chose not to, the plaintiff cannot later allege a denial of procedural due process.  As a result, the court did not discuss the issue further.  The court concluded that since Plaintiffs failed to initiate an Article 78 proceeding, there is no factual dispute and Plaintiffs’ procedural due process claims should also be dismissed.

The issue of Defendants’ entitlement to immunity was resolved in favor of the individual Defendants.  A legislator being sued under §1983 has absolute immunity from individual liability as long as the alleged constitutional violation occurred while acting in an official capacity.  Since each of the individual Town Board members were being sued for their conduct as officials, the court concluded that they were absolutely immune from liability.  Also at issue was the qualified immunity of the Town’s Building Department Administrator, who was named as an individual defendant.  The doctrine of qualified immunity would require an inquiry into the merits of the SWOs that were issued.  Since the court had already determined that the SWOs were not ripe for review, it declined to address the issue.

Finally, the court determined that the individual plaintiffs here lacked standing.  Plaintiffs never owned title to the Parcel, but purchased the property through RPC and were shareholders in the corporation.  According to the relevant case law, “shareholders [never] have the standing to assert claims alleging wrongs to the corporation.”  Since Plaintiffs were shareholders in RPC, they lacked standing to assert the claims in this case in their individual capacities.

Riverhead Park Corp. v. Cardinale, 2013 WL 1335600 (EDNY 3/28/2013)

The opinion can be accessed at:

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