Posted by: Patricia Salkin | January 22, 2016

Fed. Dist. Court in CT. Finds Comparators to Horse Business Were Not Contextually Similarly Situated to Business in Equal Protection Claim

Plaintiffs Leeland and Kirsten Gray sought to offer horse riding lessons and horse boarding services on their property. In January 2008, plaintiffs submitted a special permit application, and two months later the Commission advised plaintiffs that the special permit had been approved subject to certain conditions including construction of buildings and other site work. Plaintiffs complied, spending approximately $25,000 on these required conditions. Plaintiffs then brought this action, alleging that the town and its zoning officials violated the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause, by failing to investigate and enforce the same zoning requirements against other horse businesses in Easton.

Here, Plaintiffs sought guidance and came forward to ask what they needed to do to operate their horse business in conformity with the town’s zoning law. They were asked to comply with the law as written, and did so by means of purchase of the minimum acreage requirement, then by means of application for a special permit and institution of site improvements as required for the permit. None of plaintiffs’ alleged comparators were contextually similarly situated because the record did not show that any of these comparators approached the town in the first instance as plaintiffs did to ask what they needed to do to comply with the law. Plaintiffs’ “failure to investigate” claim essentially faulted Easton for allowing them to voluntarily comply with the law at the same time that Easton had failed to corral every other horse business in town to ensure their equal compliance with zoning laws. The court rejected this claim, finding that it was neither wholly irrational nor presumptively discriminatory for the government to apply and enforce the law against the ready-and-willing while failing to do so against the irresponsible or recalcitrant.

As to Plaintiffs’ selective enforcement claim, even assuming plaintiffs could show that their comparators are similarly situated, no genuine fact issue supported a determination that there was any constitutionally improper reason that motivated defendants’ conduct. As with the class-of-one claim, a selective enforcement claim requires more than selectivity in enforcement; it requires selective enforcement based on impermissibly discriminatory or malicious reasons that plaintiffs have failed to establish here. Lastly, each of the individual defendants were entitled to qualified immunity, since no objectively reasonable official would believe that it would be unconstitutional to let plaintiffs comply with Easton’s zoning law as they willingly did, unless the officials also chased down all other non-conforming equestrian enterprises elsewhere in Easton. Accordingly, the Defendants’ motion for summary judgment was granted.

Gray v Town of Easton, 2015 WL 9245371 (D. Conn. 7/20/2015)

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