Posted by: Patricia Salkin | July 13, 2019

Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals Holds a Reasonable Jury Could Make Out a § 1983 Claim Under a Theory of Ratification in Improper Condemnation Case

This post was authored by Matthew Loeser, Esq.

Carl Young bought three empty houses on September 2, 2015, and retained a local contractor eight days later to clean and renovate them. On September 18, Charles Edwards, the County Building Inspector, posted a condemnation notice on one of the properties, declaring each of them unsafe. The Board of Supervisors of Humphreys County later claimed that the term “condemnation” in its October meeting minutes was “a clerical error,” and that it was not trying to condemn Young’s properties but was attempting to give Young notice that he needed to clean them up. Young obtained counsel, who informed the Board a few days before the rescheduled hearing of Young’s intent to sue the Board. In response, the Board, advised Young that it would not hold the hearing and was turning the situation over to its insurance company. The Board never conducted a condemnation hearing, and neither Stevens nor any other Board member instructed Edwards to remove the condemnation notice from Young’s property. The notice remained in effect for over two years until the Board sent Young a letter on February 12, 2018, telling him that he could enter his properties and start repairs. The jury returned a verdict for Young, awarding $25,000 in damages. The court entered a final judgment for $43,261.57 in damages, taxes, fees, and litigation expenses. The Board timely moved for a JMOL under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50(b) or, in the alternative, a new trial. The court denied the motion, and the Board appealed.

On appeal, the Board contended that it was entitled to a JMOL because Young failed to make out a § 1983 claim under a theory of ratification. Here, the court found there was legally sufficient evidence for a reasonable jury to conclude that the Board ratified the unlawful initiation of condemnation proceedings. Drawing all inferences in the light most favorable to Young, the testimony at trial demonstrated that Stevens directed Edwards to post the condemnation notice, even though Young’s properties were compliant with state and county law. The Board ratified that action at its next meeting by unanimously voting to proceed with condemnation, and the notice was not withdrawn for over two years.

The Board challenged the verdict based on alleged errors in the jury instructions. First, the Board contends it was a question of law for the court, not a fact question for the jury, whether the Board gave Stevens final policymaking authority. Even assuming that the court erred in allowing the jury to determine whether Stevens was a policymaker, however, there was legally sufficient evidence for a reasonable jury to hold the Board liable on a ratification theory. Thus, any injury resulting from the erroneous instruction was found harmless.

The Board next argued that Jury Instruction 5 erroneously told the jury that Young had to prove “that he was deprived of his property rights in an arbitrary and capricious manner.” The Board contended that the correct standard of liability was one of “deliberate indifference.” The court noted the deliberate-indifference standard applied when a governmental entity failed to act; the arbitrary-and capricious standard applied to action taken by a governmental entity, as here. Additionally, as the jury found the Board liable under both an arbitrary-and-capricious standard and a willful-indifference standard, the court found the challenged instruction could not have affected the outcome of the case. As such, the judgement in favor of Young was affirmed.

Young v. Board of Supervisors of Humphreys County, Mississippi, 2019 WL 2559794 (5th Cir CA 6/21/2019)


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