The Wisconsin Court of Appeals recently decided 200 Broadway LLC v. City of Milwaukee, Case No. 2016AP273 (May 2, 2017). The decision is interesting both for its central holding that a party is not entitled to damages for lost profits from an unlawful business, and because the appellate court relied heavily on nineteenth century precedent.
200 Broadway owns property in the Third Ward neighborhood of Milwaukee. The property is near the Henry W. Maier Festival Park, which hosts Milwaukee’s Summerfest and other festivals. Milwaukee ordinances require a special use permit for the property to be used for parking.
After catching wind that the owner intended to use the property for parking during Summerfest, a Milwaukee Police Department Captain and Assistant City Attorney visited the property to investigate. They advised employees that the property could not be used for parking because there had been an order prohibiting that use. The Assistant City Attorney also advised the property owner that, without a permit on file, use of the property for parking could subject the owner to citations at a rate of $1267/vehicle parked.
Initially, the owner abstained from using the property for parking. After the first few days of Summerfest, the City agreed to rescind its objections to the parking. The owner used the property for parking for the remainder of Summerfest, but filed suit against the City claiming lost profits of more than $10,000 for the days the City would not allow parking space rental on the property.
The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the City. In doing so, it accepted the City’s argument that a party cannot recover lost profits it claims it would have realized from an unlawful activity. The court of appeals affirmed.
The City’s argument rested upon a case from the nineteenth century, Raynor v. Blatz Brewing Co., 100 Wis. 414, 76 N.W. 343 (1898). Raynor clearly provides that a party cannot base a claim for lost profits on its inability to engage in unlawful activity. The court found no contradictory authority and no reason to disregard Raynor as precedent based simply on its age, as 200 Broadway urged.
The court explained that the prohibition on recovery of lost profits for “unlawful conduct” is not limited only to activities that violate criminal statutes, but also those that run afoul of municipal ordinances and regulations. The court also found no genuine issue of material fact regarding 200 Broadway's claim that the City selectively enforced the parking ordinance, pointing out that the City never actually enforced the parking ordinance against plaintiff.
The clear reasoning of this case provides municipalities with some security that enforcing an ordinance provision will not result in an adverse judgment for a regulated individual’s or entity’s lost profits. It also reinforces the concept that precedent is precedent, even when it was decided in a different century.