Court of Appeals Decides Wis. Stat., Ch. 90, Applies Equally to Cities, Villages, and Towns

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Over 150 years ago, the Wisconsin legislature passed a law, now codified in Chapter 90 of the Wisconsin Statutes, to resolve conflicts over fences separating neighboring agricultural lands.  Chapter 90 requires fences partitioning farmland from neighboring properties. Chapter 90 also provides detailed requirements for what constitutes a sufficient partition fence and provides cost sharing and dispute-resolution procedures. Chapter 90 assigns towns to assist in resolving disputes between property owners regarding partition fences on land located within their borders.  Chapter 90 also references cities and villages, but it makes no similar assignment to such municipalities. The law therefore is ambiguous about whether cities and villages are obligated to resolve fence disputes.  

In White v. City of Watertown, No. 2016AP2259 (Oct. 12, 2017), the Wisconsin Court of Appeals resolved this ambiguity and clarified that Chapter 90 applies to cities, villages, and towns alike.

The Whites owned and farmed land in the City of Watertown on which they maintained a partition fence. The cost and maintenance of the fence resulted in a dispute between the Whites and their neighbors. Invoking the procedures of Chapter 90, the Whites asked the City to assist in resolving this dispute. When the City refused, the Whites filed suit, asking the circuit court to clarify that the City was legally obligated to help. The circuit court observed that Chapter 90 is ambiguous but held that Chapter 90 applies to cities and villages, the same as it does to towns.

The City appealed, and the Court of Appeals affirmed. The appellate court agreed with the circuit court that the text of Chapter 90 is ambiguous. On the one hand, the statute requires “fence viewers” to carry out specified governmental duties, which include resolving disputes between property owners. And the statutory definition of fence viewers includes town supervisors, city alderpersons, and village trustees. On the other hand, most of Chapter 90’s references to “fence viewers” include only “town fence viewers.” Further, additional provisions in Chapter 90 appear to contemplate administration and enforcement only by towns.

To resolve this ambiguity, the Court of Appeals looked to the Chapter’s legislative history. The Court found that, prior to 1875, the Chapter contained no references to cities or villages. However, in 1875 the legislature amended Chapter 90 to apply to cities, villages, and towns alike. In 1878, the legislature revised the Wisconsin Statutes. Without reason, most of the language added in the 1875 amendments—language clarifying that the Act applied to cities and villages, as well as to towns—was omitted from the 1878 revised publication. Concluding that the omission “must have been inadvertent,” the Court of Appeals held that, when farmland is in a city or village, that municipality must administer and enforce Chapter 90’s requirements just as a town would if the land were within the town’s boundaries. As a result, the Whites prevailed and the City of Watertown will have to assume Chapter 90 duties with respect to the Whites’ land.

The Court of Appeals in White clarified that cities, villages, and towns must now assume the duties of fence viewers under Chapter 90. The main duty for fence viewers under Chapter 90 is to resolve disputes between adjoining property owners with lands divided by partition fence. For example, under Wis. Stat. § 90.10, fence viewers can direct property owners to repair or rebuild partition fences. Further, under § 90.07, fence viewers, under certain circumstances, may locate the line upon which a partition fence between adjoining lands must be built.

Discharged Police Officer Has No Constitutional Entitlement to Pay During Pendency of His Appeal

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As we reported in November 2016, the Wisconsin Court of Appeals upheld a decision by the Milwaukee City Board of Fire and Police Commissioners (“Board”) to terminate the employment of Milwaukee Police Department (“MPD”) Officer Daniel Vidmar for falsifying a document to take possession of an unclaimed dirt bike from MPD inventory. While Officer Vidmar did not seek Wisconsin Supreme Court review of that decision, the court of appeals’ decision ended only one of Officer Vidmar’s legal challenges arising out his termination.

In a parallel federal case asserting due process and state law wage claims, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit recently slammed the door on another of Vidmar’s related challenges to his termination. Milwaukee Police Ass’n v. Flynn, No. 16-3743, 2017 WL 2962017 (7th Cir. July 12, 2017). The federal claims advanced by Vidmar and other discharged officers alleged they were denied due process when the City of Milwaukee terminated their pay and benefits upon discharge, even though they had not yet exhausted their right to challenge their terminations by appeals to the Board.

The Seventh Circuit concluded that the discharged officers had no entitlement to pay during the pendency of their appeals. As the court framed its holding, under Wisconsin law the former officers had no “property interest” in their employment once they were discharged for cause. 2017 WL 2962017 at *7. The court rejected the officers’ assertion that the chief’s “authority is limited to suspending a member’s police powers pending a trial before the Board,” concluding that the argument was “directly contradicted by the language of the statute.” Id. at *4. Instead, the court construed the statute to provide that the chief’s decision to terminate the officers was a final employment action, subject to the officers’ right to appeal the decision to the Board. As the court described it, the statute clearly provides that the officers’ property interest in their employment “is lost at the first juncture,” that is, with the chief’s decision to terminate for cause, while the discharged officer had the “opportunity to reclaim his property interest in employment on appeal after a trial.” Id. at *5.

Although not cited by the court, Wis. Stat. § 62.50(22) would have entitled the discharged officers to back pay if they had successfully challenged their discharge. This access to back pay plainly factors into the court’s statement about the officers’ opportunity to “reclaim” their property interests. Additionally, as the court noted, under Wis. Stat. § 62.50(18) an officer suspended for a period of time without pay is entitled to continue to be paid until exhaustion of the appeal. However, this provision does not apply to discharged officers.

The Seventh Circuit’s decision addresses Wis. Stat. § 62.50, which applies only to the City of Milwaukee Board. However, the statutory language of Wis. Stat. § 62.13, which governs all other municipal Boards of Police and Fire Commissioners, appears indistinguishable. Wis. Stat. § 62.13(5)(h), just like Wis. Stat. § 62.50(18), provides that an officer may not be deprived of compensation while suspended pending disposition of charges but does not address discharged officers. The latter are entitled to have all lost pay restored only if the charges are not sustained. Wis. Stat. § 62.13(5)(e). Therefore, the Seventh Circuit’s decision should not be viewed as peculiar to the City of Milwaukee.

Notably, the Seventh Circuit decision does not mark the end of Vidmar’s collateral attacks on his discharge. Presently pending before the Wisconsin Court of Appeals is Milwaukee Police Association v. City of Milwaukee, No. 2016AP1573, an appeal by Vidmar and his collective bargaining unit from a judgment dismissing their challenge to the Board’s compliance with political affiliation and training requirements set by Wis. Stat. § 62.50(1)(h) and Milwaukee City Ordinance § 314. Among other things, in that matter Vidmar seeks judgment declaring that his discharge was “unlawful” because the City’s appointment of Board members did not meet these requirements. So the Vidmar discharge matter has not yet officially reached the end of the road.

If you have any questions about the PFC disciplinary process, contact a member of Stafford Rosenbaum LLP’s Government Law Team members.

Wisconsin Court of Appeals Upholds Municipal Snowplowing Against Public Purpose Doctrine Challenge

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The Town of Argonne is a small community in northern Wisconsin, near Michigan’s upper peninsula. For more than 60 years, the Town has removed snow from residents’ private driveways upon request. The Town handled snow removal pursuant to contracts, funding the work through fees paid for the service and not through tax revenues. The Town’s road-crew employees performed the contracted snow removal work, which brought in more fee revenue than the work cost to perform. The Town did not provide snow removal services for private roads or parking lots. In 2014, the Town adopted a resolution enunciating this longstanding policy. Id.

In 2015, three local residents engaged in the business of snow plowing brought a declaratory judgment action seeking to invalidate the Town’s resolution. The plaintiffs alleged that the Town’s snow plowing work served no public purpose because private companies were available to do such work. Generally speaking, no local government may legislate on a matter that does not serve a public purpose. See Town of Beloit v. County of Rock, 2003 WI 8, ¶21, 259 Wis. 2d 37, 657 N.W.2d 344. Both the plaintiffs and the Town moved for summary judgment.

The circuit court granted the plaintiffs’ motion. The court acknowledged that Wis. Stat. § 86.105 specifically authorizes municipalities to contract for snow removal from private driveways. And it recognized that the Town did not rely on tax revenue for removing snow from private driveways. Nonetheless, the court agreed with plaintiffs’ argument that, because private entities were available to provide snow plowing services, the Town’s contracts to do so served no public purpose and were therefore not authorized by law.

The court of appeals disagreed. The court explained that under the public purpose doctrine, public funds can be expended only for public purposes. Samz v. Town of Argonne, No. 2015AP267 (Wis. Ct. App. April 11, 2017) (per curiam), ¶7. A court is not to overrule the determination of what constitutes a public purpose unless that determination is “‘manifestly arbitrary or unreasonable.’” Id. (quoted source omitted). The court concluded that the Town’s determination that there was a public purpose in contracting for snow removal from private driveways was neither arbitrary nor unreasonable, citing numerous examples of how such plowing benefited the public. Id., ¶8. The court also distinguished the Town’s resolution from actions invalidated in prior court decisions, because, in this case, the Town did not rely on taxpayer funding to conduct the challenged service. Id., ¶¶9-10.

Importantly, the court explicitly rejected the plaintiffs’ argument that no public benefit can exist where a private entity could provide the same services the municipality is undertaking. Id., ¶12. The court cited prior case law rejecting this broad proposition, and explained that such a holding would put courts in the unworkable position of determining whether there were sufficient private services available to obviate a public purpose. Id., ¶¶12-14. While this case was decided per curiam—without one judge acknowledging authorship of the opinion—and therefore lacks precedential value under Wis. Stat. § 809.23(3), the decision pulls together a number of prior decisions and clearly asserts that the public purpose doctrine is not defeated any time a municipality engages in services that a private entity could alternatively provide.

Wisconsin Supreme Court Reaffirms Bright-Line Building Permit Rule

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In McKee Family I, LLC and JD McCormick Company, LLC v. City of Fitchburg, 2017 WI 34, No. 2014AP1914 (April 12, 2017), the Wisconsin Supreme Court affirmed the bright-line building permit rule, under which a property owner cannot claim vested rights absent submission of an application for a building permit that conforms to the zoning or building code requirements in effect at the time of application.

A McKee entity owned property in the City of Fitchburg, including two undeveloped lots. Those lots were zoned as residential-medium (R-M) zoning classification. McKee applied for and received approval to rezone the land as planned development district (PDD) zoning, which would allow mixed-used development of a higher density than under the R-M classification. Fitchburg enacted an ordinance rezoning this land to a PDD classification and at the same time approved McKee’s general implementation plan for developing the property. As approved, the plan provided for development of a senior living community.

In 2008, McKee entered into negotiations to sell JD McCormick Company, LLC the two undeveloped lots. The sale was contingent on McCormick’s ability to obtain approval from Fitchburg to build 128 apartment units on the undeveloped lots. McCormick prepared a PDD-specific implementation plan for the 128-unit apartment complex on the two undeveloped lots.

After McCormick submitted the plan, Fitchburg rezoned the two lots from PDD to R-M classification. This rezoning limited McCormick to developing 28 dwelling units, as compared to a maximum of 132 dwelling units under the PDD zoning classification. McKee and McCormick (which was eventually dismissed for lack of standing) filed a lawsuit seeking declaratory judgment, damages, and injunctive relief, all on the theory that City’s the rezoning was unlawful.

The circuit court granted summary judgment in favor of Fitchburg. McKee appealed, asserting on appeal that: it had a vested right in the PDD zoning classification; the PDD classification created a contract that gives rise to expectations on which developers may rely; and to the extent the reclassification was unlawful, the rezoning ordinance constituted a taking. The court of appeals determined that McKee did not have a vested right and affirmed the circuit court’s grant of summary judgment to Fitchburg.

On review before the Wisconsin Supreme Court, McKee relied upon the same arguments raised before the court of appeals. With respect to the vested rights argument, McKee argued that the court should depart from the well-established rule in Wisconsin that rights vest only once a developer has applied for a building permit and instead evaluate vested rights on a case-by-case basis. McKee asserted that in this case, it had obtained vested rights based on the substantial expenditures incurred in preparation for development under the PDD zoning plans submitted to Fitchburg.

Relying on Lake Bluff Housing Partners v. City of South Milwaukee, 197 Wis. 2d 157, 540 N.W.2d 189 (1995), the court rejected McKee’s argument and reaffirmed the bright-line building permit rule. The court noted that such a rule “creates predictability for land owners, purchasers, developers, municipalities and the courts.”

The court further opined that, even if it were to determine that a rule based on substantial expenditures should apply in this case, McKee’s claim would still fail because McKee had not introduced sufficient evidence to support that claim. McKee had failed to present evidence that it made expenditures in reliance on the PDD zoning or submitted an application for a building permit.

The court also opined that the planned development district zoning classification did not create contractual expectations upon which McKee could rely. The court explained that there is a strong presumption that legislative enactments do not create contractual or vested rights, and that presumption cannot be overcome without a clear indication that a legislative body intends to bind itself contractually. McKee failed to make such a showing.

This case highlights the necessity for developers that wish to develop land under existing zoning classifications to submit a completed building permit application before zoning law changes under their feet.

U.S. Supreme Court Reaffirms Capacious Scope of Federal Fair Housing Act

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The Supreme Court of the United States recently decided Bank of America Corp. v. City of Miami, Nos. 15-1111 & 15-1112, slip op. (U.S. May 1, 2017). The Court remanded the case for further proceedings, and it remains far from clear whether the City can prevail in the end. But the case illustrates the striking breadth of the federal Fair Housing Act (“FHA”). Any municipality, or anyone who deals with housing in any respect, should pay heed.

In the underlying litigation, the City of Miami alleged a pattern in which both Bank of America and Wells Fargo “intentionally issued riskier mortgages on less favorable terms to African-American and Latino customers than they issued to similarly situated white, non-Latino customers.” Id. at 3. The City further alleged that the banks’ practices “(1) adversely impacted the racial composition of the City, (2) impaired the City's goals to assure racial integration and desegregation, (3) frustrated the City's longstanding and active interest in promoting fair housing and securing the benefits of an integrated community, and (4) disproportionately caused foreclosures and vacancies in minority communities in Miami.” Id. (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). The result, the City asserted, was decreased property values in minority neighborhoods, “(a) reducing property tax revenues to the City, and (b) forcing the City to spend more on municipal services that it provided and still must provide to remedy blight and unsafe and dangerous conditions which exist at properties that were foreclosed as a result of the Banks’ illegal lending practices.” Id. (internal quotation marks and citations omitted).

The trial court dismissed the City’s complaints, holding that the City’s theory is not within the scope of the FHA and that the harms the City cites are too remote from the banks’ actions to allow recovery. On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit reversed, deeming that the City had properly alleged claims that, if proven, would entitle it to damages. The Supreme Court agreed with the appellate court that the FHA does reach the City’s claims, but it also required further proceedings to determine whether the banks’ alleged actions caused the damages the City tries to pin on them.

The key holding for our purposes is about the FHA’s scope, or its “zone of interest.” As the Court explained: “The statute allows any ‘aggrieved person’ to file a civil action seeking damages for a violation of the statute.” Id. (internal quotation marks omitted). And it “defines ‘aggrieved person’ as any person who either claims to have been injured by a discriminatory housing practice or believes that such an injury is about to occur.” Id. at 6 (internal quotation marks omitted). The Court acknowledged the banks’ argument that such a capacious definition would mean “restaurants, plumbers, utility companies, or any other participant in the local economy could sue the Banks to recover business they lost when people had to give up their homes and leave the neighborhood as a result of the Banks’ discriminatory lending practices.” Id. at 8. Yet this argument did not cause the Court to blink.

Instead, the Court emphasized that it has long construed the FHA broadly, including prior holdings “that the Act allows suits by white tenants claiming that they were deprived benefits from interracial associations when discriminatory rental practices kept minorities out of their apartment complex; a village alleging that it lost tax revenue and had the racial balance of its community undermined by racial-steering practices, and a nonprofit organization that spent money to combat housing discrimination.” Id. at 6 (citing Trafficante v. Metropolitan Life Ins. Co., 409 U.S. 205, 209-12 (1972); Gladstone, Realtors v. Village of Bellwood, 441 U.S. 91, 110–11 (1979); Havens Realty Corp. v. Coleman, 455 U.S. 363, 379 (1982)). Further, the Court noted, Congress amended the FHA subsequent to some of these decisions and did not change the statutory definition of “aggrieved person.” See id. at 7. Thus, the Court concluded, “[p]rinciples of stare decisis compel our adherence to those precedents” and “principles of statutory interpretation require us to respect Congress’ decision to ratify those precedents when it reenacted the relevant statutory text.” Id. at 8.

Dissenting from the Court’s broad reading of the FHA, Justice Thomas (joined by Justices Kennedy and Alito) criticized the breadth of the Court’s statutory construction: “Miami's complaints do not allege that any defendant discriminated against it within the meaning of the FHA. Neither is Miami attempting to bring a lawsuit on behalf of its residents against whom petitioners allegedly discriminated. Rather, Miami’s theory is that, between 2004 and 2012, petitioners’ allegedly discriminatory mortgage-lending practices led to defaulted loans, which led to foreclosures, which led to vacant houses, which led to decreased property values, which led to reduced property taxes and urban blight.” Id. at 10 (Thomas, J., dissenting in part and concurring in part). But the majority’s capacious interpretation is the law.

To be sure, the Court’s cautions against allowing recovery for remote harms may, as it plays out in the lower courts, prove a significant restriction on the use of the FHA. It is too soon to predict exactly how that aspect of the opinion will play out, however.

The Bank of America decision has two important takeaways. First, the FHA is not limited to obvious cases of housing discrimination by landlords; it captures a broad range of actions by a broad range of actors, including municipalities, banks, and others. Second, claims under the FHA are not limited to plaintiffs who were the direct victims of housing discrimination; a wide swath of plaintiffs—including individuals, municipalities, and businesses—have legal standing to seek redress under the FHA.

Court of Appeals Expands Municipal Protection Conferred by Wisconsin’s Recreational Immunity Statute

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Wisconsin’s recreational immunity statute, Wis. Stat. § 895.52, provides municipalities with broad immunity from liability for injuries to any person engaged in recreational activities on municipal property. The statute sets forth a three-part definition of recreational activity. The first part of the section defines recreational activity as “any outdoor activity undertaken for the purpose of exercise, relaxation or pleasure, including practice or instruction in any such activity.” The second part of the statutory definition of recreational activity lists 29 specific activities denominated as recreational. The third part of the statutory definition broadly adds “and any other outdoor sport, game or educational activity.”

Wisconsin courts have wrestled with applying the recreational immunity statute to varied fact situations since its enactment. The line between recreational and non-recreational activities can be difficult to draw under Wis. Stat. § 895.52, and the issue has been litigated with some frequency, most recently in Wilmet v. Liberty Mutual Ins. Co., 2015AP2259 (Wis. Ct. App. Feb. 28, 2017). The case is of particular importance to municipalities, because the court construed the statute to broaden municipal recreational-related immunity.  

Mrs. Wilmet was at a city-owned and operated swimming pool to drop off her grandchildren. After dropping them off, she remained outside the premises, supervising her grandchildren from behind the fenced perimeter of the pool as they swam. Mrs. Wilmet’s grandson shouted to her that he was going to jump off the high dive. When Mrs. Wilmet observed there were no lifeguards in the area, she became concerned about her grandson’s safety and told her grandson to wait. She then entered the pool premises without paying the entry fee (but with the attendant’s permission), and went immediately from the entrance through the locker room and toward the high dive. Mrs. Wilmet did not plan to swim at the pool or stay on the premises following her grandson’s dive. As she walked toward the high dive, she tripped on a cement doorstop and was injured.

The Wilmets sued the municipality and its insurer. The city invoked the recreational immunity statute as an affirmative defense and sought the action’s dismissal on that basis.  The city argued that Mrs. Wilmet’s activity of supervising her grandson, who was himself engaged in a recreational activity, was sufficient to bring the Wilmets’ claims within the ambit of the recreational immunity statute.  The court of appeals agreed, basing its holding on principles of statutory interpretation and previously developed tests under which courts consider, among other factors, whether the activity in question was undertaken in circumstances substantially similar to the circumstances of recreational activities set forth in the statute.

The court reasoned that supervising other persons, who are themselves engaged in recreational activities, involves actively overseeing or directing the performance of the recreational activity of another. Thus, the court concluded, “supervision” was akin to, and subsumed within, “practice” and “instruction” in a recreational activity, which the legislature specifically identified as giving rise to immunity. In addition, the court found that conferring recreational immunity for supervision is consistent with the legislature’s purpose in enacting the recreational immunity statute. Because it was undisputed that Mrs. Wilmet was supervising her grandson’s recreational activity on the city’s pool grounds at the time of her injury, the city was entitled to immunity under § 895.52 from her claims.

For more information about statutory exceptions to recreational immunity and case law interpretations of the recreational immunity statute that might expose a municipality to potential liability, contact any member of Stafford Rosenbaum LLP Government Team.

Top 10 Municipal Law Developments of 2016

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Stafford Rosenbaum’s Government Law and Government Relations teams continuously stay apprised of the latest developments in Wisconsin municipal law. Below, in no particular order, are the top 10 municipal law developments of 2016.

Public records; open meetings. Three important cases affecting Wisconsin Public Records and Open Meetings Law came down this year.

First, in New Richmond News v. City of New Richmond, 2016 WI App 43, 370 Wis. 2d 75, 881 N.W.2d 339, the Wisconsin Court of Appeals held that police departments are permitted to release unredacted copies of accident reports upon request. However, the Court remanded several issues relating to the release of incident reports upon request, questioning whether police departments should release unredacted incident reports containing driver’s information from the DMV. We posted about this decision in May.

Second, in Voces de la Frontera, Inc. v. Clarke, 2016 WI App 39, 369 Wis. 2d 103, 880 N.W.2d 417, review granted (June 15, 2016), the Wisconsin Court of Appeals held that, according to Wisconsin’s Public Records Law, the Milwaukee County Sheriff must produce unredacted immigration detainer forms received from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Finally, in State ex rel. Krueger v. Appleton Area Sch. Dist. Bd. of Educ., No. 2015AP231, 2016 WL 3510300 (Wis. Ct. App. June 28, 2016) (unpublished), review granted, (Oct. 11, 2016), the Wisconsin Court of Appeals held that a committee created by members of the Appleton School District curriculum department “on their own initiative” was not a “governmental body” subject to the open meetings law.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court has granted petitions for review in both Voces de la Frontera and Krueger. We previewed the Supreme Court’s consideration of the Krueger case here

Home rule; preemption. In Milwaukee Police Association v. City of Milwaukee, 2016 WI 47, ___ Wis. 2d ___, ___ N.W.2d ___, the Wisconsin Supreme Court held that Wis. Stat. § 66.0502, which essentially prohibits local governments from enacting residency requirements, precluded the City of Milwaukee from enforcing its residency requirement. We posted about this case when it was decided in June.

Alcohol licensing; social host ordinances. In County of Fond du Lac v. Muche, 2016 WI App 84, ___ Wis. 2d ___, ___ N.W.2d ___, the Wisconsin Court of Appeals invalidated Fond du Lac County’s social host ordinance because it did not strictly conform with Wis. Stat. § 125.07(1) regulating underage drinking. The Court stated that Wis. Stat. § 125.07 does not penalize social hosts for conduct in private residences because “premises” is a defined term that only includes places under permit or license to supply alcohol, not private residences. The Court concluded that the social host ordinance that penalizes underage drinking at private residences prohibits conduct allowed under the state statute and thus does not “strictly comply” with state law. For more on this case, see our post from November.

Zoning ordinances. Generally, 2015 Wisconsin Act 391 created and amended legislation regarding shoreland zoning. It has several provisions that will significantly affect property owners and development. One interesting provision that applies to all Wisconsin land, near water or not, created Wis. Stat. § 895.463. That new statutory provision states that, in any dispute, “the court shall resolve an ambiguity in the meaning of a word or phrase in a zoning ordinance or shoreland zoning ordinance in favor of the free use of private property.” As detailed in this post from July it is not clear how, if at all, this will affect zoning disputes.

Voter apportionment; redistricting. In Evenwel v. Abbott, 578 U.S. ___ (2016), the United States Supreme Court held that states and local governments may apportion legislative districts based on total population under the one‑person, one‑vote rule. The challengers in this case had argued that Texas should not have considered total population but instead should have looked at the population of eligible voters in each district. The Supreme Court held that such an approach would be permissible, but is not required, as states draw congressional districts and seek to make those districts have populations that are close to equal. We explained the import of this decision in April.

In Whitford v. Gill, No. 15-CV-421-BBC, 2016 WL 6837229 (W.D. Wis. Nov. 21, 2016), a panel of three federal judges held that Wisconsin’s 2012 redistricting involved an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander. Of particular import, the decision accepted a new measure, known as the efficiency gap, of how much partisan effect the placement of district lines has. In 2017, the three-judge panel will consider possible remedies for the improper districts, and then the case will almost certainly be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. When, as a result of the Whitford decision or as a matter of course after the 2020 census, Wisconsin next draws district lines, both the Whitford decision and the Evenwel decision will be at the forefront of legislators’ minds.

Takings. On January 15, 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari review of the Wisconsin Court of Appeals decision, Murr v. Wisconsin, 2015 WI App 13, 359 Wis. 2d 675, 859 N.W.2d 628 (unpublished) (per curiam), cert. granted, 136 S. Ct. 890 (2016). In Murr, the Wisconsin Court of Appeals held that an ordinance effectively merging the Murrs’ two adjacent, riparian lots for development purposes, did not deprive the Murrs of all or substantially all practical use of their property and was not an uncompensated taking of property. The Supreme Court’s decision in this case has the potential to substantially alter takings jurisprudence; however, the Court has not scheduled oral argument in this case, which has been fully briefed since July. For a more in-depth discussion on this case, see our discussion of an amicus brief we filed on behalf of municipal government interests in June here.

Eminent domain; compensation. In Hoffer Properties, LLC v. State, Department of Transportation, 2016 WI 5, 366 Wis. 2d 372, 874 N.W.2d 533, the Wisconsin Supreme Court held that Wis. Stat. § 84.25(3) authorizes the DOT to change a property owner’s access to state highways in whatever way it deems “necessary or desirable.” Such changes, including elimination of direct access points, are duly authorized exercises of the police power and are not compensable under Wis. Stat. § 32.09, (the just compensation statute), as long as alternate access is provided. Further, the Court held that as long as alternate access is given or exists, a property owner is precluded as a matter of law from challenging the reasonableness of the access and receiving compensation under § 32.09.

Annexation. In Town of Burnside v. City of Independence, 2016 WI App 94, ___ Wis. 2d ___, ___ N.W.2d ___, the Wisconsin Court of Appeals upheld the dismissal of an intervening town’s challenge to a city’s annexation ordinance where the town intervened in an action started by two other towns outside the applicable statute of limitations.

Preemption. On January 11, 2016, the Wisconsin Supreme Court accepted Wisconsin Carry’s petition for review in Wisconsin Carry, Inc. v. City of Madison, 2015 WI App 74, 365 Wis. 2d 71, 870 N.W.2d 675, review granted, 2016 WI 16, 367 Wis. 2d 125, 876 N.W.2d 511. In Wisconsin Carry, Inc., the Court distinguished between agency rules and ordinances or resolutions in applying the preemption provision in Wis. Stat. § 66.0409 when it upheld a City of Madison Transit and Parking Commission rule prohibiting riders on city buses from carrying weapons. The decision in this case could have a significant impact on the ability of municipal agencies to regulate firearms. The Court held oral arguments in September; thus, we expect the Court to issue a decision in the first half of 2017. For more on this case, see this post from March.

Dane County Zoning. 2015 Wisconsin Act 178 (which, despite its name, was enacted on February 29, 2016) establishes a process for certain towns to withdraw from county zoning. This Act applies only to towns in counties with a population of at least 485,000, and therefore, effectively applies only to towns located in Dane County, as there are no towns within Milwaukee County.

Court of Appeals Affirms Police Officer’s Discharge After Taking Unclaimed Property

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In Vidmar v. Milwaukee City Bd. of Fire Police Commissioners, No. 2015AP1832 (Ct. App. Nov. 15, 2016) (recommended for publication), the court of appeals upheld a decision by the Milwaukee City Board of Fire and Police Commissioners (Board) to terminate an officer for rules violations arising out of his falsifying a document that allowed him to take possession of an unclaimed dirt bike from police inventory.

In late August 2012, Daniel Vidmar, a police officer with the City of Milwaukee Police Department since December 2004, saw a dirt bike in an inventory room and thought it would be good for his son. According to Vidmar, he was told by an unnamed person in the Department’s Property Control Division that if the dirt bike was unclaimed after thirty days in inventory, he could claim it as long as someone else was listed as the claimant. Vidmar waited thirty days, and then completed and filed an official form for the release of the bike. He listed a friend as the “claimant” on the form, omitted the date and description of the bike, and misspelled the friend’s name. An audit of returned bicycle records disclosed the irregularities, which led to Vidmar returning the bike. That would have been the end of it, but for the Board receiving an anonymous letter disclosing the incident and suggesting that it was being swept under the rug. At that point a reference was made to the Department’s Internal Affairs Division for a more thorough investigation.

After a referral, the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s office chose not to charge Vidmar criminally. However, the District Attorney’s office advised the Police Department that it would not use Vidmar as a witness in future proceedings. The Milwaukee City Attorney’s office followed suit. In addition, an Assistant United States Attorney advised the Department that if Vidmar were to be called to testify as a witness, his office would be required to disclose the investigation regarding the bike.

At the conclusion of the internal investigation, Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn discharged Vidmar based on three rules violations involving integrity and competence. The Board upheld the termination. Vidmar appealed that decision to the circuit court and also challenged the decision on certiorari. The circuit court affirmed the Board’s decision on appeal and dismissed the certiorari action. Vidmar appealed.

The court of appeals affirmed as well, rejecting Vidmar’s three arguments. The court rejected Vidmar’s first argument – that the Board proceeded on an incorrect theory of law when the Board concluded that he lacked the capacity to enforce federal and state laws and city ordinances in violation of the Department’s policies. The court agreed with the Board that the “capacity” to enforce the laws embraced the “full spectrum” of the responsibilities an officer may be called upon to undertake, including the “crucial” responsibility of giving testimony in court that is worthy of belief.

The court of appeals likewise rejected Vidmar’s second argument, that the circuit court gave undue deference to the board’s findings of fact and credibility determinations. Noting first that caselaw precluded Vidmar from making an evidence-based argument on appeal, the court concluded that “the Board made sufficient findings of fact and credibility determinations to supports its decision.”

Lastly, Vidmar argued that the circuit court applied an incorrect standard of review by focusing on the “reasonableness” of the Board’s decision rather than the “just cause” standard adopted by 1997 Wisconsin Act 237. The court rejected this argument. The court stated that the circuit court applied the correct standard of review by thoroughly considering each of the just cause standards in light of Vidmar’s arguments and found that there was sufficient evidence to support the board’s determination. Thus, the court upheld Vidmar’s termination.  

This decision serves as a reminder that the statutory standards of appellate review in police and fire disciplinary cases are limited to whether the Board kept within its jurisdiction or applied correct legal theories. The court of appeals reviews the Board’s decision. It cannot, for example, set aside a PFC board’s findings of fact and credibility determinations or reweigh the evidence. For additional information about the PFC process in general, including appellate options, see Stafford's previous blog post on this topic. 

If you have any questions about the PFC disciplinary process, contact a member of Stafford Rosenbaum LLP’s Government Law Team members.

Court Prevents County from Regulating Private Underage Drinking Parties

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In County of Fond du Lac v. Muche, No. 2015AP2223 (Wis. Ct. App. Oct. 26, 2016) (recommended for publication), the Wisconsin Court of Appeals, District II, invalidated Fond du Lac’s social host ordinance because it did not strictly conform with Wis. Stat. § 125.07(1) regulating underage drinking. 

On June 20, 2015, Muche hosted a party at his home in Fond du Lac County. Alcoholic beverages were served at the party. Eventually, “persons under the age of 21 … who were not invited by Mr. Muche, joined the gathering.” Muche had reason to believe that these underage individuals brought beer to the party and “intended to or were consuming it.” County sheriff’s deputies arrived on the scene and cited Muche for violating Fond du Lac County’s social host ordinance, which essentially prohibited adults from hosting underage drinkers in their homes.

Muche challenged the citation, arguing that the ordinance was improperly stricter than state law. The circuit court rejected this argument, found that Muche violated the social host ordinance, and imposed a $1000 civil forfeiture. Muche appealed.

The court of appeals reversed, finding the social host ordinance conflicted with state law. The court first noted that the subject of alcoholic beverages is a matter of state wide concern and, under Wis. Stat. § 125.10, a county ordinance regulating underage drinking must strictly conform to state law. The County argued that its social host ordinance was in strict conformity with the state statute because its language was consistent with Wis. Stat. § 125.07(1)(a)3., which states in part that “[n]o adult may knowingly permit or fail to take action to prevent the illegal consumption of alcohol beverages by an underage person on premises owned by the adult or under the adult's control.” Muche argued that under § 125.02(14), “premises” is specifically defined as “the area described in a license or permit” and does not include a private residence.

The court agreed with Muche, citing Nichols v. Progressive Northern Insurance Co., 2008 WI 20, 308 Wis. 2d 17, 746 N.W.2d 220. The court in Nichols held that parents who allowed underage drinking at their home were not liable for common law negligence when one of the underage guests later caused a car accident. The court noted that Nichols “compels the conclusion that the statute does not penalize social hosts for conduct in private residences” because “premises” is a defined term that includes a place under permit or license to supply alcohol, not private residences. The court concludes that the social host ordinance that penalizes underage drinking at private residences prohibits conduct allowed under the state statute and thus does not “strictly comply” with state law.

This case essentially means that social host ordinances similar to the County’s enacted by local governments are unenforceable. Local governments may now be banned from punishing adults who host or allow underage drinking parties on their property. The County is likely to appeal this decision. Thus, a decision from the Supreme Court could clarify the status of social host ordinances enacted by local governments around the state. The decision in this case could have a significant impact on the ability of local governments to regulate underage drinkers in private residences. Please continue to watch Stafford’s blogs for updates on this case.

Seventh Circuit Holds that Municipality Did Not Violate Business’s Constitutional Rights

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In Black Earth Meat Market, LLC v. Village of Black Earth, No. 15-3818 (7th Cir. Aug. 24, 2016), the Seventh Circuit held that the Village of Black Earth’s efforts to close a slaughterhouse, which included threatened litigation to abate an alleged nuisance, did not violate due process or equal protection.

In 2001, Black Earth Meat Market bought a small building in the Village to operate a slaughterhouse. Over time, the Meat Market had increased the volume and frequency of its slaughter operations. By 2011, neighbors were complaining to the Village about increased traffic, delivery trucks blocking the road, livestock noise, foul odors, improper storage of animal parts, the presence of blood and animal waste in the streets, and escaped animals wandering the streets.  Meanwhile, the Meat Market sought further expansion of its operations.  In August 2013, the Meat Market finalized a loan agreement with the Bank of New Glarus. In order to obtain the loan, the Meat Market had to be able to certify that no suits, pending or threated, would adversely affect the Meat Market’s value as collateral.

In 2013, the Village increased enforcement of violations of its regulations at the Meat Market, issuing 9 citations. The Village held several public meetings to discuss the Meat Market. And it ordered the Meat Market to propose an acceptable plan for relocating its slaughter activities. Finally, in July 2014, the Village directed the Village Attorney to take legal action to eliminate any public nuisance and complaints. The Village’s action led the Bank to back out of its loan agreement with the Meat Market. Shortly after losing its expected financing, the Meat Market closed. The Meat Market then sued the Village in federal court. The district court granted summary judgment in the Village’s favor, and the Meat Market appealed to the Seventh Circuit.

The Seventh Circuit first addressed the procedural due process claim, finding that a mere threat to sue cannot qualify as a deprivation of procedural due process. Further, procedural due process requires notice and opportunity to be heard. The court emphasized that the Meat Market had received notice of all Village proceedings and had every opportunity to be heard at every relevant meeting of the Village board.

Next, the court rejected the Meat Market’s claim that the Village’s actions violated the equal protection clause. The Meat Market argued that the Village treated it differently from other businesses in the Village, solely as a result of sheer malice, vindictiveness, or malignant animosity. The court said there was no evidence to support this claim, and upheld the judgment in the Village’s favor.

The Village took steps to enforce its ordinances, and threatened legal action to abate a nuisance. The Village gave the Meat Market notice and opportunities to be heard throughout the process. This case serves as a reminder that elected officials should not be afraid to take appropriate legal action to enforce lawful ordinances and protect their community.

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