Posted by: Patricia Salkin | March 24, 2020

Ninth Circuit Dismisses Claim Over Zoning Violations Related to Billboard Pursuant to Younger Abstention

This post was authored by Matthew Loescher, Esq.

In 2014, Citizens for Free Speech, LLC entered into an agreement with Michael Shaw, the owner of a parcel of land in Alameda County, to display billboards expressing political messages. County officials determined that the billboards violated the local zoning scheme, and began an abatement proceeding against Citizens, which provided for a hearing before the zoning board and process by which to appeal an adverse decision. In response, Citizens filed a federal lawsuit seeking to prevent abatement but failed to obtain a permanent injunction barring the County from enforcing its ordinances. Following this, the County initiated a new abatement proceeding. Citizens responded by filing another federal lawsuit alleging constitutional violations pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, seeking both equitable and monetary relief. The district court, invoking Younger abstention, dismissed the complaint and awarded the County costs and fees.
At the outset, the court determined the abatement proceeding was “ongoing” for Younger purposes, and satisfied the “quasi-criminal enforcement” element. Specifically, the County’s abatement action included an investigation, alleged violations of nuisance ordinances, notice to appear before a zoning board, and the possibility of monetary fines and/or forcible removal of Citizens’s billboards. Additionally, the abatement proceeding also implicated an important state interest, namely the County’s “strong interest in its land-use ordinances and in providing a uniform procedure for resolving zoning disputes.” Finally, the court determined plaintiffs’ federal action could substantially delay the abatement proceeding, and therefore have the practical effect of enjoining it. Moreover, no exception to Younger, such as bad faith, harassment, or flagrant violation of express constitutional prohibitions by the state or local actor, was present in this case.
In the dismissal order, the district court stated that there was “no merit” to plaintiff’s claim that claim preclusion barred the county from endorsing its zoning ordinance against plaintiff, characterized some of plaintiff’s citations as “irrelevant,” and noted plaintiff’s failure to provide “any authority” in support of its key argument. As such, while a dismissal of a damages claim under Younger may not always materially alter the parties’ legal relationship, the court noted that it unquestionably did so here.
Citizens for Free Speech, LLC v. County of Alameda, 2020 WL 1429320 (9th Cir CA 3/24/2020)


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