Monday, June 9, 2008

Equal Protection Clause Revisited by U.S. Supreme Court with Land Use Implications

The Equal Protection Clause of the 14th amendment of the U.S. Constitution prohibits states from denying any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

In the recent U.S. Supreme Court opinion in Engquist v. Oregon Dept. of Agriculture, 553 U. S. ____ (2008), the court looks at the equal protection clause, class-of-one claim, in the employment context. The Court holds that a class-of-one claim does not apply in the public employment context, by distinguishing its 2007 opinion in Village of Willowbrook v. Olech, 528 U. S. 562 (2000). In distinguishing Olech from Engquist, the Court sheds some light on future application of the class-of-one claim. In particular, it appears that class-of-one claims based on land use decisions involving discretionary decisionmaking will not be recognized by the court.

In general, plaintiffs in Equal Protection claims allege that they have been arbitrarily classified as members of an “identifiable group” (e.g., race, sex, and national origin claims). However, the Court will also recognize an equal protection claim where the plaintiff has not alleged class-based discrimination, but instead claims that she has been irrationally singled out as a so-called “class-of-one.”

In Olech, a property owner had asked the village of Willowbrook to connect her property to the municipal water supply. Although the village had required only a 15-foot easement from other property owners seeking access to the water supply, the village conditioned Olech’s connection on a grant of a 33-foot easement. Olech sued the village, claiming that the village’s requirement of an easement 18 feet longer than the norm violated the Equal Protection Clause. Although Olech had not alleged that the village had discriminated against her based on membership in an identifiable class, the Supreme Court held that her complaint stated a valid claim under the Equal Protection Clause, because it alleged that she had “been intentionally treated differently from others similarly situated and that there is no rational basis for the difference in treatment.”

Distinguishing Engquist, the Court opined that it expects the government’s regulation of property to apply “without respect to persons” and that “the Fourteenth Amendment ‘requires that all persons subjected to . . . legislation shall be treated alike, under like circumstances and conditions, both in the privileges conferred and in the liabilities imposed.’” Therefore, when those who appear similarly situated are nevertheless treated differently, the Equal Protection Clause requires at least a rational reason for the difference.

The Engquist decision turned on the rationale that the class-of-one claims in Olech and its predecessors involved the “existence of a clear standard against which departures, even for a single plaintiff, could be readily assessed.” For example, in Olech, others were consistently assessed 15-feet while Olech was assessed 33-feet without any rational basis. The Engquist Court further opined that in the employment context, state action that involves discretionary decisionmaking based on a vast array of subjective, individualized assessments, the requirement that people should be “treated alike, under like circumstances and conditions” is not violated, because treating like individuals differently is an accepted consequence of the discretion granted to the governing entity.

The Court's suggestion that class-of-one challenges are more properly directed at discretionary approvals, may limit the circumstances under which such claims may be brought in the land use context. For example, the counties are granted wide discretion for determining whether to grant a special management area permit based on specific statutory criteria. Whether SMA criteria could be viewed as the "existence of a clear standard" or simply discretionary guidance could be the determining factor for a court's recognition of a class-of-one claim. The extent to which a government body departs from set criteria in its decisionmaking may also be taken into consideration. In any event, Engquist reconfirms the Court's recognition of the class-of-one claim in the land use context.

The above quotations are from Engquist with citations omitted.

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