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Federal District Court Uses Harry Potter Imagery To Dismiss Civil Rights Claims Against Town Building Official

The United States District Court has dismissed civil rights claims against a town building official holding that his conduct, while bureaucratic or even a "pain in the ass," did not shock the conscience such that it would support claims for violation of substantive due process or equal protection. In its opinion, the court made numerous allusions to imagery from the "Harry Potter" books.

Plaintiffs allege that defendant, a town building and zoning official, substantially increased the cost of the home they building and delayed its completion through a series of arbitrary orders and decisions. Although plaintiffs had submitted a building permit application indicating their house would have a crawl space, they instead constructed a full basement. Defendant issued a stop-work order based on concerns the building might exceed the town's height restrictions. An abutting land owner expressed concern that the grading of plaintiff's lot would increase water runoff onto his property. Plaintiffs worked through these concerns as well as others that arose when defendant denied them an occupancy certificate for various reasons.

Plaintiffs filed suit alleging that defendant's actions were motivated by malice or ill will and that he had violated their substantive due process and equal protection rights. The Court said to prevail on a substantive due process claim plaintiff's must prove conduct that is "so outrageous that it shocks the conscience." There is no formula for determining when this standard is met. Examples of such conduct are corruption or self-dealing, hampering the development of constitutionally protected activity, bias against an ethnic group, bribery, threats, etc. The Court said a "run-of-the-mill" dispute between a developer and a town official usually will not shock the conscience.

The Court said defendant's conduct did not shock its conscience. Rather, the conduct arose because plaintiff's house departed from the plans submitted and approved by the town, as well as other instances in which it did not comply strictly with code requirements. Defendant's demands, while burdensome, were made in good faith to require "strict adherence" the building code.

The Court said to prevail on the equal protection claim, plaintiffs must show that compared with others similarly situated, they were selectively treated based on impermissible considerations such as race or on a malicious or bad faith intent to injure them. Alternatively, plaintiffs could prevail under a theory "class of one" theory in which plaintiffs must show they were intentionally treated differently than others similarly situated for no rational reason. Under either theory, plaintiffs must show that specific instances were persons similarly situated in all relevant aspects were treated differently. The Court said that while plaintiffs showed that some other people building homes in the town were not subjected to the same requirements, they did not show that those people had the same circumstances as they did. Moreover, the defendant had sufficient reason to demand the various steps that plaintiffs were required to complete.

Finally, plaintiffs have not shown defendant acted with malice or bad faith intent to injure them. To do so, they must demonstrate that defendant's actions were a "gross abuse of power." At worst, defendant's conduct was a "pretty typical case of bureaucratic red tape." Even so, defendant had a rational basis for treating them differently.

The Court granted defendant's summary judgment motion.

Wyrostek v. Nash, C.A. No. 10-351S, 2013 WL 5924432 (D.R.I. Oct. 31, 2013)

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