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Straser v. City of Athens

United States District Court, E.D. Tennessee, Knoxville

June 17, 2019

CITY OF ATHENS, et al., Defendants.



         Plaintiff William Straser and the City of Athens, Tennessee (“the City”), have been engaged in an ongoing dispute regarding the location of the carport attached to his house. As set forth in his initial complaint, plaintiff claims that his constitutional rights to equal protection under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution have been violated by the City, Gene McConkey, the Building Inspector for the City of Athens, and Chris Trew, the Athens City Attorney [Doc. 1 at ¶¶ 22-28].[1]

         The defendants filed a motion for summary judgment as to all claims with a supporting memorandum, exhibits, and depositions excerpts [Docs. 24, 25]. The plaintiff has responded in opposition to the motion for summary judgment [Doc. 30], and he has also moved to amend his complaint [Docs. 29, 34] to assert only a claim for declaratory relief against Mr. Trew. The defendants have opposed the motion to amend [Doc. 33] and replied in support of summary judgment [Doc. 32].

         Thus, sifting through the back-and-forth of these pleadings, it appears that plaintiff concedes that summary judgment is appropriate as to his claims against the City and Mr. McConkey [Doc. 30 at p.1]. The plaintiff also agrees to the dismissal of any claim for damages [Id.; Doc. 29 at p. 2], but seeks to amend his complaint to proceed on a sole claim for declaratory and injunctive relief against Mr. Trew.[2] The defendants contend that the proposed amendment is futile and brought in bad faith. Thus, the Court must consider whether plaintiff's proposed claim against Mr. Trew would survive a motion to dismiss.

         I. Relevant Facts

         The City has a zoning ordinance that requires a front 30-foot property line setback [Docs. 1-11, 24-2]. In 2009, plaintiff spoke with two City employees in the Community Development Department to discuss his plans to pour a new driveway and put up a carport [Doc. 1 at ¶¶ 7, 8]. The City employees did not inform plaintiff of any setback requirements and he proceeded with his construction in late 2009 [Id. at ¶¶ 7-9]. Plaintiff estimates that his carport is approximately 17 feet from the roadway [Doc. 24-4 at p. 27].

         In 2016, a Muslim neighbor, Mr. Jatoi, was cited for violating the Athens zoning ordinance as to the location of his carport and Mr. Jatoi accused the City of selectively targeting him because of his race and/or religion [Doc. 1 at ¶¶ 10-13]. Mr. Jatoi applied for a variance, but his request was denied and the City successfully prosecuted his ordinance citation. Plaintiff claims he had no knowledge of the citation of Mr. Jatoi's carport or Mr. Jatoi's accusation that he was prosecuted because of his religion until 2017.

         Beginning in May 2011 and continuing sporadically through February 2017, plaintiff received four letters from the City notifying him that the carport was in violation of the 30-foot setback and it would need to be relocated or removed [Doc. 24-2]. In April 2017, plaintiff received a citation from the Athens Police Department [Doc. 1-11]. After receiving the citation, plaintiff hired attorney Randy Rogers to assist him in resolving the matter with the City [Doc. 1 at ¶ 17]. During a telephone call between Mr. Rogers and Mr. Trew, Mr. Trew stated that he would not ask the City to dismiss the citation because he believed that plaintiff's carport was in violation and also because he did not want to be accused of giving plaintiff preferential treatment [Doc. 24-6 at pp. 5-6]. Plaintiff recalls Mr. Trew stating that the City “had trouble with a Muslim” [Doc. 24-4 at p. 24] and this was the first time he learned of the dispute between Mr. Jatoi and the City.

         The City of Athens Police Department issued plaintiff a citation on April 25, 2017, asserting that his carport was in violation of the City's zoning ordinance [Doc. 1-11]. The Athens Municipal Court ruled in favor of the City and plaintiff has appealed the decision to the Circuit Court for McMinn County, Tennessee, where it is currently pending [Doc. 25 at p. 3].

         Based primarily on the conversation between Mr. Trew and Mr. Rogers, plaintiff believes he has been discriminatorily targeted because of his religion, Christian [Doc. 1 at ¶ 17; Doc. 24-4 at p. 31]. Alternatively stated, plaintiff believes that his constitutional rights have been violated so the City can prove that it did not discriminate against Mr. Jatoi because he is Muslim: “they jumped me to even it up with a Muslim” [Doc. 24-4 at p. 25].

         II. Standard of Review

         As previously noted in this case, leave to amend should be freely given “when justice so requires.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 15(a)(2). In deciding whether to grant a motion to amend, courts should consider undue delay in filing, lack of notice to the opposing party, bad faith by the moving party, repeated failure to cure deficiencies by previous amendments, undue prejudice to the opposing party, and futility of amendment. Brumbalough v. Camelot Care Centers, Inc., 427 F.3d 996, 1001 (6th Cir. 2005). A proposed amendment is futile if it would not survive a motion to dismiss under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). Williams v. City of Cleveland, 771 F.3d 945, 949 (6th Cir. 2014). For purposes of the instant motion, the Court will consider the evidence submitted in support of summary judgment. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(d).

         Summary Judgment under Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure is proper “if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). The moving party bears the burden of establishing that no genuine issues of material fact exist. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986); Moore v. Philip Morris Cos., 8 F.3d 335, 339 (6th Cir. 1993). All facts and all inferences to be drawn therefrom must be viewed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co., Ltd. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986); Burchett v. Kiefer, 310 F.3d 937, 942 (6th Cir. 2002). “Once the moving party presents evidence sufficient to support a motion under Rule 56, the nonmoving party is not entitled to a trial merely on the basis of allegations.” Curtis Through Curtis v. Universal Match Corp., 778 F.Supp. 1421, 1423 (E.D. Tenn. 1991) (citing Celotex, 477 U.S. 317). To establish a genuine issue as to the existence of a particular element, the non-moving party must point to evidence in the record upon which a reasonable finder of fact could find in its favor. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). The genuine issue must also be material; that is, it must involve facts that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law. Id.

         The Court's function at the point of summary judgment is limited to determining whether sufficient evidence has been presented to make the issue of fact a proper question for the factfinder. Id. at 250. The Court does not weigh the evidence or determine the truth of the matter. Id. at 249. Nor does the Court search the record “to establish that it is bereft of a genuine issue of material fact.” Street v. J.C. Bradford & Co., 886 F.2d 1472, 1479- 80 (6th Cir. 1989). Thus, “the inquiry performed is the threshold inquiry of determining whether there is a need for a trial-whether, in other words, there are any genuine ...

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