Posted by: Patricia Salkin | August 10, 2016

1st Circuit Court of Appeals Finds Town Did Not Violate Property Owner’s Right to Procedural Due Process Over Challenge to Siting of Substance Abuse Facility

Plaintiff Lawrence Miller challenged under both state and federal law the manner in which the Town of Wenham, Massachusetts chose not to prohibit a company named 110, Inc. from operating a substance abuse treatment facility on land that abutted Miller’s residence. After Miller filed this lawsuit in Massachusetts Superior Court, the defendants removed it to federal court, and then moved to dismiss Miller’s complaint. The district court determined that the complaint failed to state a claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for the deprivation of property without due process, dismissed one state law claim as moot, and remanded a remaining state law claim to state court.

Specifically, Miller alleged that in making three decisions under color of state law, the Town violated his rights under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Those decisions were: the decision by several Town officials that 110, Inc.’s proposed use of the abutting property was an educational use under the Dover Amendment, and therefore lawful under the zoning ordinance; the decision by the Building Inspector to accede to 110, Inc.’s claim that federal law required the Town to accommodate 110, Inc.’s desire to operate as intended; and the decision by the Town to enter into the Settlement Agreement with 110, Inc., pursuant to which the Town agreed to recognize the lawfulness of 110, Inc.’s use of the property as a reasonable accommodation under federal law, and to make no effort to obstruct or impede 110, Inc.’s operation of the facility on the property.

The court found that Miller’s briefs on appeal did not clearly identify precisely the property interest of which he claimed to have been deprived. Even construing Miller’s claim to suggest the Town deprived him of a constitutionally protected interest without prior notice or an opportunity to be heard, the court still found no due process violation, as Town never deprived Miller of any right to obtain enforcement of the zoning laws against 110, Inc. Here, Miller retained the ability to seek such enforcement on his own under the above-described remedial scheme provided by Massachusetts law, and was deprived only of the ability to enlist the support of Town administrative officials in this effort – a deprivation which the court found not to be the type of action that requires prior notice. While Miller may have lost the advantage of having the Building Inspector on his side, which may have shifted a greater burden of persuasion to him, the court found that he had no property interest in having such an advantage.

The second claim Miller alleged on appeal was his declaratory judgment count, which sought to invalidate the September 26, 2014 Settlement Agreement between the Town and 110, Inc. Finding that this claim had been rendered moot by the June 2, 2015 decision of the ZBA, the district court dismissed it without any further discussion. Because this case was removed by the Town solely on the basis of Miller’s federal procedural due process claim under § 1983, and the court affirmed the district court’s dismissal of that claim, the court was likewise left with a complaint alleging two state-law claims. Furthermore, because the district court correctly decided to remand Miller’s zoning challenge, the court found no reason for having the district court decide the mootness issue under state law. Accordingly, the court affirmed the district court’s dismissal of the procedural due process claim.

Miller v Town of Wenham, 2016 WL 4206375 (1st Cir. CA 8/10/2016)


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