Posted by: Patricia Salkin | August 24, 2014

First Circuit Rejects Equal Protection Claim For Enforcement of Zoning

Plaintiff Robert Snyder operated a business in a building he owned, and shared with two tenants, in a mostly residential area of Waltham, Massachusetts. After Snyder fired an employee who was a member of the Waltham city council, the former employee complained to the city building department that Snyder was using his property unlawfully. As a result, Code enforcement officers then scrutinized Snyder’s use of his property and fined him under a local land use ordinance. Snyder brought suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the city of Waltham and five individuals, claiming a violation of his right to equal protection of the laws under the Fourteenth Amendment. After unsuccessfully seeking summary judgment based on immunity defenses, two of the individual defendants filed this appeal.

In making his equal protection claim, Snyder did not point to any owner of another building, operating under a similar variance, who was allowed to use that other building as Snyder used his own. Instead, Snyder says he was treated differently than the prior owner of this particular property, who received a letter from a City employee in 1994 stating that his use of the property was acceptable under the variance. However, the variance was first requested and obtained by an optometrist who sought to use the building for medical offices, the next owner continued to use the building as an optometry office, and the 1994 letter confirmed that this use was acceptable. The court also noted that Snyder’s claim was also weakened by the passage of thirteen years between the letter to the prior owner in 1994 and the city’s citation of Snyder in 2007, and that the most reliable comparisons are likely to be from roughly the same time frame. Accordingly, the First Circuit reversed the district court’s denial of the City employees’ motion for summary judgment on Snyder’s federal claims.

Snyder v Gaudet, 756 F. 3d 30 (1st Cir. 6/25/2014)

The opinion can be accessed at:

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