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Brault v. Town of Milton

decided: February 24, 1975.


Appeal from the order of the United States District Court for the District of Vermont, Albert W. Coffrin, Judge, dismissing complaint against municipality for alleged violation of federal rights for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted.

Smith, Oakes and Timbers, Circuit Judges. Timbers, Circuit Judge, dissenting.

Author: Smith

SMITH, Circuit Judge:

Gerard and Gemma Brault initiated suit against the Town of Milton, Vermont, in the United States District Court for the District of Vermont to recover damages for the Town's alleged infringement of their property rights under the Due Process Clause of the federal Constitution's Fourteenth Amendment. On the defendant's pretrial motion, the court, Albert W. Coffrin, Judge, dismissed the complaint on October 8, 1974, for failure to state a claim on which relief may be granted. Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b) (6). The court held in its one-sentence order that 42 U.S.C. § 1983,*fn1 cited by the plaintiffs in their complaint as creating a cause of action, does not authorize a suit against the Town because a municipality is not a "person" for purposes of the statute's designation of potential defendants. On appeal the Braults concede, and quite correctly,*fn2 the validity of this rationale. They do take issue, however, with the court's failure to recognize an alternative theory contained in their complaint: that the Fourteenth Amendment itself gives rise to a claim for relief based upon its violation, and that the district court has federal question jurisdiction, 28 U.S.C. § 1331 (a),*fn3 over any such claims where the amount in controversy exceeds $10,000. We agree that the appellants have stated a cause of action for which the United States Constitution authorizes that relief may be granted. In ruling on the Town's motion to dismiss, the district court was obliged to accept the plaintiffs' representation that the amount in controversy exceeded the jurisdictional minimum prescribed by 28 U.S.C. § 1331 (a). The district court therefore erred in dismissing the complaint in the absence of any showing that the amount in controversy was not as alleged. We reverse the court's order dismissing the complaint and remand for trial.

In May, 1967, the Town of Milton secured a temporary injunction prohibiting the Braults from using their land as a trailer park. The injunction was predicated on a zoning ordinance adopted by the Town's voters in the same year. In 1971, the Vermont Supreme Court vacated the injunction (made permanent in 1969) because the vote adopting the ordinance was taken at a town meeting of which those eligible to vote had not received adequate notice. Town of Milton v. Brault, 129 Vt. 431, 282 A.2d 681 (1971).*fn4 On remand, the Chittenden County court awarded the Braults $86,411 pursuant to 12 Vt. Stat. Ann. § 4447, which then provided:

When an injunction in chancery is dissolved by final decree in favor of the defendant, he shall be entitled to recover his actual damages caused by the wrongful issuing of the injunction.

The Vermont Supreme Court held on appeal, however, that the municipality was immune from liability except to the extent that it waived such immunity by voluntarily filing an injunction bond. The Braults' recovery was thus limited to the amount of the bond, or $500. Town of Milton v. Brault, 132 Vt. 377, 320 A.2d 630 (1974).

Soon after the Vermont Supreme Court denied their motion for reargument, the Braults filed in federal district court the suit now before us. In this suit they alleged for the first time that their federal constitutional rights had been violated.*fn5

10. The acts of Defendant Town in obtaining and maintaining the injunction is referred to under a zoning ordinance that they knew, or should have known, to be invalid, deprived Plaintiffs of the use, enjoyment, profits and value of property without due process of law in contravention of the 14th Amendment of the Constitution of the United States [.]

The plaintiffs' argument, that they have a cause of action based directly on the Fourteenth Amendment's Due Process Clause and over which the court has jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1331, was not presented in the complaint with the utmost clarity:


1. This is an action for damages under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and this Court is vested with jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331, the amount in controversy being in excess of $10,000.00 and the controversy arising under the Constitution and laws of the United States [.]

Admittedly, despite the later mention of due process rights in paragraph 10 of the complaint, quoted supra, the complaint may at first glance appear to be stating only a single cause of action -- one under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Closer examination, however, would reveal that the plaintiffs are also pursuing a separate claim for unconstitutional deprivation of property with jurisdiction based on 28 U.S.C. § 1331. First of all, the complaint mentions only one jurisdictional provision (28 U.S.C. § 1331) and that provision is not the one implementing the cause of action created by 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (see 28 U.S.C. § 1343*fn6). Secondly, if the only cause of action were one based on § 1983, the complaint's assertion of more than $10,000 in controversy would be irrelevant because § 1983 suits may proceed regardless of the amount in controversy. Lynch v. Household Finance Corp., 405 U.S. 538, 31 L. Ed. 2d 424, 92 S. Ct. 1113 (1972); Douglas v. City of Jeannette, 319 U.S. 157, 161, 87 L. Ed. 1324, 63 S. Ct. 877 (1943). The artlessness of the complaint's draftsmanship notwithstanding, "substantial justice" required that the district court take cognizance of the plaintiffs' § 1331-related theory of relief. Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(f); 2A J.W. Moore, Federal Practice para. 8.34 (2d ed. 1974). At the outset, then, we reject the appellee's contention that the appellants are precluded from pursuing this theory on appeal by their alleged failure to raise it first in the court below.

In holding that the plaintiffs' complaint states a cause of action stemming from the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, we are guided by the Supreme Court's decision in Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents of Federal Bureau of Narcotics, 403 U.S. 388, 29 L. Ed. 2d 619, 91 S. Ct. 1999 (1971). The plaintiff Bivens alleged that federal narcotics agents acting under color of federal law illegally entered and searched his apartment and manacled and arrested him for supposed narcotics violations. As in the instant case, only 42 U.S.C. § 1983 was cited in the complaint's jurisdictional statement as creating the cause of action. See Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents of Federal Bureau of Narcotics, 276 F. Supp. 12, 13 (E.D.N.Y. 1967). This provision was obviously inapplicable, however, for its scope is very expressly limited to deprivations of federal rights under color of state or territorial law. The district court so held, id. at 13-14, but it went on to find, on the basis of the complaint's reliance on 28 U.S.C. § 1331 (as well as 28 U.S.C. § 1343) and allusion to a violation of "constitutional rights," that Bivens was also resting his suit for damages directly on the Fourth Amendment with its prohibition against "unreasonable searches and seizures." The court rejected this latter claim, though, as lacking both a substantive source and jurisdictional basis. Id. at 14-16. As the Court of Appeals indicated, Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents of Federal Bureau of Narcotics, 409 F.2d 718, 719-20 (2d Cir. 1969), the district court's alternative, jurisdictional ground for dismissing the Fourth Amendment-based claim ran afoul of Bell v. ...

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