April 29, 2015

City snaps "ripeness trap" on puppy store's takings claim

By J. David Breemer Senior Attorney

golden-retriever-puppies

Most people like golden retriever and other pure-breed puppies. As children, many of us went to pet stores just to view and pet such pups.   But the City of East Providence, Rhode Island, is different.  It has totally banned pet stores, and as a result, it is now embroiled in a constitutional “takings” lawsuit with one store destroyed by its action. To get out of this mess, the City has used perhaps the most bizarre and unfair procedural gimmick known to constitutional law.

This story began last year, when the City decided it needed to be on the “cutting edge” of animal rights by banning all pet stores. This was devastating for The Perfect Puppy, Inc., a family owned pure-breed puppy store that had just opened a store (its second in the state) in the City.  Indeed, Perfect Puppy had signed a lease, secured a state license to operate its store, and physically opened the store after passing all inspections, just before the City enacted the pet store ban.

At a city hearing on the proposed ban, Perfect Puppy urged the City not to outlaw its store. It explained that its owners hand-selected all the dogs they acquired, did not patronize puppy mills, certified the puppies’ health,  had never been cited for any health violation, and did such a brisk business that its dogs did not stay in the store long.  It did not matter. Siding with adopt-a-pet groups concerned about pet overpopulation and “puppy mills,” the City Council passed the law. This meant that Perfect Puppy would have to close its new store and that its license and lease were now worthless. So the store sued the City in Rhode Island state court, claiming that it had unconstitutionally taken the store’s property in violation of the state and federal constitution.

A state court was, of course, a perfectly appropriate place for Perfect Puppy to sue. In fact, under the Supreme Court’s 1985 decision in Hamilton Bank v. Williamson County  Regional Planning Commission, property owners are generally required to fully complete litigation in state court before they can  “ripen” a takings claim for a hearing in federal court. For more on this rule, see here.

Perfect Puppy properly started in state court, but it did not stay there long.  Because its complaint raised a federal constitutional issue (its “takings” claim), the City elected to have the case transferred to a federal court soon after it began. This state-to-federal court transfer scenario is generally legitimate and unremarkable in constitutional cases.  But because of Williamson County, it usually causes a Kafkaesque nightmare in takings cases, and Perfect Puppy’s experience was no different.

The problem is that, when a takings case is moved from state court to federal court, it immediately clashes with Williamson County‘s rule that no takings claim can proceed in federal court unless the property owner fully completed state court litigation.  Government defendants can and often do use this conflict as an opportunity to get rid of properly filed state court takings suits by procedural attrition. This is exactly what the City of East Providence did in the Perfect Puppy litigation, as a federal district’s court’s decision in the case makes clear.

After it transferred Perfect Puppy’s takings case to federal court, the City immediately pointed to Williamson County and brazenly argued that the federal court could not hear the suit because Perfect Puppy did not complete a suit in the state court- -where the case was before the City transferred it.  Perfect Puppy rightly pointed out that the City was to blame for the case being in federal court before state court proceedings were finished, and that its action had made it impossible for the store to ripen its claim in state court as required by Williamson County. It urged the federal court to grant it an exception to Williamson under these circumstances and to hear the case.

But, incredibly,  after months of litigation, the federal court sided with the City. It sent Perfect Puppy back to the state court, to start all over again!  Thus, the City used Williamson County to whipsaw Perfect Puppy back and forth between state and federal court without any hearing on the merits of the dispute, all the while draining the store’s litigation resources. Perfect Puppy could not get a hearing in state court because the City pulled it to federal court, and it could not get a hearing in federal court because the lack of finished state court proceedings (due again to the City’s action) made the claim federally “unripe.”

This cannot be the law.  Constitutional protections are meaningless in practice if the government can deny citizens their day in court by such procedural gamesmanship.  Property owners should be allowed to sue in federal or state court, just like other classes of people. But at the least, Williamson cannot function as a trap that sends takings cases to the state courts, only so the government can drag them to a federal court where the suit is improper because it should be back in state court.

The City of East Providence may be able to ban puppy stores, but it should not be able to run from the Constitution.  If it decides to pull a takings case out of state court and into federal court, it cannot hide behind Williamson‘s “state court first” rule to avoid a federal hearing.  It must live with, and litigate in, the federal court it chose.  PLF secured a first-of-its-kind decision holding exactly this in the 2013 case of Sansotta v.Town of Nags Head, a result described more fully in this post. Hopefully, an appeals court will follow and adopt this same reasoning in Perfect Puppy’s case, and give the store a chance to make the City pay just compensation for destroying its store and its owners’ dreams.

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