Second Circuit Affirms Summary Judgment for Michael Ryan and Jonathan Zellner in Equal Protection Case

December 19, 2016

On December 9, 2016, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed a decision of the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut granting summary judgment in a class-of-one equal protection case filed on behalf of a property owner who claimed unequal enforcement of municipal zoning regulations against him.  In 2010, the plaintiff’s neighbors sued the plaintiff in state court, claiming that he had engaged in commercial operations on his residentially zoned property in violation of the local zoning regulations and that his operations unreasonably interfered with the use and enjoyment of their property.  In April 2011, the neighbors obtained a temporary injunction preventing the plaintiff from engaging in these operations, which included the manufacture and sale of farm loam.  In July 2011, following numerous complaints by the plaintiff’s neighbors to planning and zoning officials about continued operations on the plaintiff’s property despite the temporary injunction, the municipality and its zoning enforcement officer intervened in the nuisance lawsuit.  In April 2012, a permanent injunction issued against the plaintiff, permanently enjoining him from engaging in the activities from which the temporary injunction had enjoined him.  The court in the nuisance lawsuit determined that the production and sale of farm loam was not a “farming” activity for purposes of the local zoning regulations.

In 2013, the plaintiff brought suit against the municipality, its planning and zoning commission, and the zoning enforcement officer, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging a Fourteenth Amendment, class-of-one equal protection claim against them.  The plaintiff claimed that, in May 2012, his attorney informed the defendants that other property owners in residential zones were producing and selling farm loam from their properties, in violation of the zoning regulations.  The zoning enforcement officer investigated the accusations, but ultimately determined that they did not warrant enforcement of the zoning regulations with respect to the manufacture and sale of farm loam against the particular property owners.  The plaintiff claimed that there was no rational basis for this alleged unequal enforcement of the zoning regulations and that it amounted to a violation of his equal protection rights.

Attorneys Ryan and Zellner filed a motion for summary judgment on behalf of the defendants, arguing, among other things, that the property owners to which the plaintiff sought to compare himself were not similarly situated for purposes of his equal protection claim and that the defendants’ alleged unequal enforcement of the zoning regulations did not proximately cause his injuries.  For purposes of a class-of-one equal protection claim, the persons or properties to which a plaintiff seeks to compare itself must be similarly situated—or, for all intents and purposes, identical.  On December 4, 2015, the Honorable Janet Bond Arterton granted summary judgment for the defendants, finding that the plaintiff and the comparator property owners were not similarly situated.  Judge Arterton also agreed with the defendants that any alleged unequal enforcement of the zoning regulations was not the proximate cause of the plaintiff’s alleged damages.

The plaintiff appealed the district court’s decision to the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.  On December 9, 2016, a panel of Second Circuit judges affirmed Judge Arterton’s decision.  The Second Circuit held that the plaintiff had failed to show that he was similarly situated to the comparator property owners.  The Second Circuit agreed that there were material differences in the respective uses of the properties and that the nuisance complaints concerning the plaintiff’s property were far more numerous and vociferous than were any complaints about the activities on the comparator properties.  Accordingly, the Court found that the plaintiff could not establish a cognizable claim under the Fourteenth Amendment.