Posted by: Patricia Salkin | October 22, 2016

Fed. Dist. Court in GA Finds There was Sufficient Evidence that the County Deprived Plaintiff of a Property Interest without Due Process

This case arose out of Plaintiff’s attempt to rezone property in Effingham County. In 2003, Plaintiff Del-A-Rae, Inc. purchased over 700 acres in Effingham County, which was zoned AR-1 and restricted lot sizes to five acres or more. Plaintiff sought to rezone its property because it planned to develop a 350-lot subdivision, which included lots as small as a quarter of an acre. Pursuant to Effingham County policy in place at the time of Plaintiff’s rezoning request, an application for rezoning first went before the County’s zoning board, which granted the applications subject to a forty-foot buffer for future development. Between the first and second readings of the application, however, the Board and staff members added nine conditions. Notably, these new conditions included a half-acre lot-size restriction and prevented certain road access.

Upon learning about the additional conditions, Plaintiff appealed the decision to the Superior Court of Effingham County. The proceeding was apparently stayed because Plaintiff filed for bankruptcy, and on March 31, 2015, Plaintiff voluntarily dismissed its state-court complaint, and initiated this lawsuit on September 25, 2015. Plaintiff’s complaint asserted claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and alleged that Defendants’ actions violated its procedural-due-process rights, violated its substantive-due-process rights, violated its equal-protection rights, and constituted a taking. Plaintiff later abandoned its substantive-due-process and takings claims, and conceded that Effingham County was the proper Defendant in this case. Accordingly, the only issues before the Court were whether Plaintiff’s procedural-due-process and equal-protection claims against the County could survive summary judgment.

The County contended that Plaintiff’s claims were time-barred because they were outside § 1983’s two-year statute of limitations. Plaintiff’s state-court complaint included a § 1983 claim and alleged that “Defendants deprived Plaintiff of rights guaranteed by the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution and have diminished the value of Plaintiff’s property on a temporary or permanent basis.” Although the complaint did not specifically reference procedural due process or equal protection, it alleged a violation of Plaintiff’s Fourteenth Amendment rights, and its factual allegations were essentially the same as those pleaded in Plaintiff’s federal-court complaint. Thus, the court found that Plaintiff properly renewed this action, and the County’s motion for summary judgment on this issue was denied.

The County next argued that Plaintiff was entitled to only post-deprivation process and that state-law remedies adequately provided that process. The court noted that when a deprivation occurs because of state actors’ random and unauthorized actions, post-deprivation, state-law remedies may provide an aggrieved party all the process it is due. However, when state actors act pursuant to an established state procedure, post-deprivation remedies do not provide adequate process. Here, the court was unpersuaded that the County’s actions were random and unauthorized, and post-deprivation state-law remedies would not have provided Plaintiff the process it was due. The County conceded that its practice did not directly violate state law, so its actions were not unauthorized in that sense, but it implemented this policy as part of its delegated zoning authority. Accordingly, the court found that the County had a duty to ensure that its policy did not deprive applicants of property interests without due process. This deprivation, which took place under the authority of the County, therefore occurred as a result of an established state procedure.

Lastly, the court rejected Plaintiff’s class-of-one claim for lack of a similarly situated comparator. Plaintiff alleged that “The Hedges” was one such comparator, however with respect to the lot-size requirement, the Board approved a site plan for The Hedges that did not include lot sizes smaller than half an acre. As the approval of the site plan was binding on the developers, The Hedges could not have contained lot sizes smaller than half an acre. Moreover, because Plaintiff’s planned development was designed to contain roughly three times as many homes as The Hedges, the two projects would not have been essentially the same size and would not have had an equivalent impact on the community.

DEL-A-RAE v. Effingham County, CV 415-259, 2016 WL 5329610 (S.D. Ga. 9/21/2016)

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