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Dan, Barbara and Sybil v. Town of Goshen

decided: October 22, 1980.


Appeal from an order of the District Court for the Southern District of New York, Lee P. Gagliardi, Judge, dismissing an action by homeowners in a section of the Town of Goshen, N.Y., known as Arcadia Hills. Plaintiffs complained that vesting management of the Arcadia Hills Water District in the Town Board, which is elected by all residents of the Town, disenfranchised them and that the Board discriminated against them in the amount of water it supplied and the rates it charged, all in violation of the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Affirmed.

Before Friendly and Meskill, Circuit Judges, and Bonsal, District Judge.*fn*

Author: Friendly

Plaintiffs in this action, filed on September 1, 1978, in which federal jurisdiction is predicated on 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331 and 1343(3), are the owners of five of the approximately 235 homes in the section of the Town of Goshen in Orange County, N.Y., known as Arcadia Hills. The complaint vouchsafes no information about the defendants except that they are the Town "and those person (sic) who were or are Town Officers of the Town of Goshen within the meaning of §§ 20 et seq. of the Town Law of the State of New York during the period November 1973 to date, and are responsible for the matters complained of herein."*fn1

The Town is a rural area of some 44 square miles. Its 8,000 residents live in four general areas. At the center is the Village of Goshen, a long established entity famed for its sulky horse racing, now inhabited by some 4,500 people. Just to the east of the Village is Hambletonian Park, a development of 156 single-family homes built in the early 1960's. Arcadia Hills, a development of 235 single-family homes built in the early 1970's, is situated roughly two miles south of the Village on the opposite side of the main highway that passes through the Town. The rest of the Town is rural.

Village residents receive their water supply from a group of nearby reservoirs operated by the Village Board. Residents of the rural portion of the Town obtain their water from privately owned wells. Hambletonian Park and Arcadia Hills receive their water supply from community well systems.

Arcadia Hills' water system, like the homes in that development, was initially constructed by a private developer. After conducting a public hearing, at which the complaint alleges there was "violent objection" by homeowners of Arcadia Hills who claimed the existing system was inadequate, the Town Board, acting pursuant to New York Town Law § 190 et seq., on November 12, 1973, created the Arcadia Hills Water District (AHWD) and accepted a transfer of the developer's water system. The resolution, which contained a paragraph stating that it was "subject to a permissive referendum as provided in Section 109-g of the Town Law", was shortly thereafter published in a notice in a local newspaper. No referendum having been requested, defendant Flannery, a Town supervisor, acting in the name of the Town and on behalf of the AHWD, applied on January 16, 1974, to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation for approval of the Town's plan to acquire the developer's water supply and distribution system. A hearing on this application was held in the Goshen Town Hall. There were objectors, whose identity is not described in the Hearing Officer's report, who asserted that the developer's "water supply system is inadequate and that the Town should not be saddled with an inadequate water supply system." Noting a concurrent decision authorizing the incorporation of four new wells into the system, the Commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation, on August 23, 1974, approved the application on certain conditions stated by him.

Plaintiffs' personal and economic grievance is that they have been getting too little water and having to pay too much for it, particularly in comparison to residents of the Village. Their primary basis for translating this understandable human feeling into a § 1983 action is an allegation that homeowners in Arcadia Hills, many of whom formerly resided in or near New York City or other metropolitan areas, have been regarded as "outsiders" by "the general population of the Town of Goshen and by the Town Officers who are named in the complaint" and have suffered discrimination at the hands of the Town Board because they live "on the other side of the tracks", see Hawkins v. Town of Shaw, Mississippi, 437 F.2d 1286 (5 Cir. 1971), adhered to by a divided court en banc, 461 F.2d 1171 (1972), where, however, "the other side of the tracks" was inhabited by the town's poor black citizens. Plaintiffs claim that they have been "effectively disenfranchised" and thereby rendered powerless to correct the alleged discrimination since Arcadia Hills residents constitute no more than 15% of the total electorate eligible to vote for members of the Town Board. They also assert that Town officials have been unresponsive to their claims. Plaintiffs asked the district court to enjoin defendants from failing to provide the homeowners of Arcadia Hills with safe and adequate water service and from charging rates more than the court found to be fair and reasonable.*fn2 Damages were also sought. Defendants moved, with supporting affidavits, to dismiss the complaint for lack of jurisdiction and failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted; they also asserted that the claim for money damages was time-barred.

Treating defendants' motion as one for summary judgment, see F.R.Civ.P. 12(c) and 56, the district court dismissed the complaint. The bulk of its opinion was devoted to the statute of limitations, which it seemingly held to bar equitable relief as well as damages. However, the court went on to say that the standard for determining plaintiffs' equal protection claims was the rational basis test rather than strict scrutiny since the challenged action did not create a suspect classification or impinge upon a fundamental interest; that "(p)articularly given the Town Board's broad discretion regarding the establishment of water districts, see N.Y. Town L. § 190 (McKinney's 1965), its creation of a separate water district for the Arcadia Hills area cannot be said to constitute irrational governmental action"; and that "(t)here is no constitutional imperative that every special purpose district be administered by only those with a special interest in the subject matter, particularly when individuals residing outside the district also have an interest in the subject matter. See Concerned Citizens v. Pine Creek Conservancy District, 429 U.S. 651, 652 (97 S. Ct. 828, 51 L. Ed. 2d 116) (1977); cf. Holt Civic Club v. City of Tuscaloosa, 439 U.S. 60, 71 (99 S. Ct. 383, 390, 58 L. Ed. 2d 292) (1979)."

Consideration of the statute of limitations defense is rendered difficult by the unfocused nature of the complaint. It was common ground that since the Civil Rights Act has no period of limitations, a federal court will apply the most analogous statute of limitations of the state where the court sits, see Board of Regents of the University of New York v. Tomanio, 446 U.S. 478, 483-484 & n.4, 100 S. Ct. 1790, 1794-95, & n.4, 64 L. Ed. 2d 440 (1980); that in this case the appropriate period was the three-year limitation provided by NYCPLR § 214(2) for suits "to recover upon a liability ... created or imposed by statute", see Kaiser v. Cahn, 510 F.2d 282, 284 (2 Cir. 1974); and that under that statute periods of limitations must be "computed from the time the cause of action accrued to the time the claim is interposed." NYCPLR § 203(a). Speaking in language generally used in actions for conspiracy, the district court thought the statute started to run with the last "overt act", here the resolution of November 12, 1973, establishing the AHWD and placing it under the control of the Town of Goshen. The court relied heavily on Kadar Corp. v. Milbury, 549 F.2d 230 (1 Cir. 1977).

Since we conclude that summary judgment was properly granted for defendants on the merits, we need not consider the correctness of the district court's limitations analysis in general or the applicability of the Kadar decision in particular. We likewise need not consider the troubling question, noted by two other panels, whether the Supreme Court's recent decision in Chapman v. Houston Welfare Rights Organization, 441 U.S. 600, 99 S. Ct. 1905, 60 L. Ed. 2d 508 (1979), might require application of some limitations period other than that provided by § 214(2). Compare id. at 618, 99 S. Ct. at 1916 ("s 1983 does not provide any substantive rights at all") with State v. Cortelle Corp., 38 N.Y.2d 83, 378 N.Y.S.2d 654, 655, 341 N.E.2d 223 (1975) (s 214(2) does not apply to "statutory provisions which provide only additional remedies or standing (but) do not create or impose new obligations"). See Quinn v. Syracuse Model Neighborhood Corp., 613 F.2d 438, 449 n.6 (2 Cir. 1980); Singleton v. City of New York, 632 F.2d 185, 189-190 (2 Cir. 1980). We likewise need not decide whether in any event plaintiffs' claims for equitable relief are governed by the six-year period of limitations provided by NYCPLR § 213(1) rather than by the three-year period of NYCPLR § 214(2). See Singleton, supra, 632 F.2d at 190.

It is not clear precisely what plaintiffs' disenfranchisement claim is. Allowing all qualified voters in the Town to vote for the Town Board is surely not unconstitutional since the board performs many town-wide functions. Even if there are constitutional limits on at-large voting aside from situations in which such a scheme has been deliberately used to disadvantage a racial or ethnic minority, they surely have not been reached in a township of this size and character. The claim thus must be that it was a denial of equal protection to allow the Town Board, elected by all the voters and predominantly by those in the Village, which controls its own water supply, to manage the AHWD.*fn3

This is not a case in which persons denied the franchise challenge their exclusion from the ballot box. Plaintiffs have the right to vote in the elections in which the officials that govern their water district-the members of the Town Board-are chosen. This case therefore is not controlled by the Supreme Court's decisions concerning schemes "denying the franchise to citizens who are otherwise qualified by residence and age." Kramer v. Union Free School District, 395 U.S. 621, 626, 89 S. Ct. 1886, 1889, 23 L. Ed. 2d 583 (1969) (emphasis in original) (applying strict scrutiny to a statute limiting the electorate in certain school board elections to owners or lessees of taxable property, their spouses, and the parents and guardians of school children). But cf. Salyer Land Co. v. Tulare Lake Basin Water Storage District, 410 U.S. 719, 93 S. Ct. 1224, 35 L. Ed. 2d 659 (1973) (applying the rational basis standard to a measure limiting the vote in general elections for a water storage district to persons who owned land in the district). However, as the Court noted in Holt Civic Club v. City of Tuscaloosa, supra, 439 U.S. at 69, 99 S. Ct. at 389, Salyer stands only for the proposition that in some instances a "State may constitutionally disenfranchise residents who lack the required special interest in the subject matter of the election", not for the proposition that it must. Salyer thus does not support a contention that non-residents of AHWD must be excluded from having a voice in its affairs.

As indicated, what plaintiffs object to is that the officials in charge of their water district are elected by all the residents of the Town, not just the residents of Arcadia Hills. The Supreme Court has dealt only glancingly with claims by persons who have the vote that extension of the franchise to others with a lesser interest in an election impermissibly dilutes their voting power, see Spahos v. City of Savannah Beach, 371 U.S. 206, 83 S. Ct. 304, 9 L. Ed. 2d 269 (1962), aff'g per curiam 207 F. Supp. 688 (S.D.Ga.1962) (sustaining statute allowing owners of property in town who were residents of county to vote in town elections along with town residents and providing that three town councilmen would be elected from among such nonresidents; three-judge district court had applied rational basis standard). However, the courts of appeals have been confronted with this problem and, with a single exception, have applied the rational basis test.

Most important for us is Clark v. Town of Greenburgh, 436 F.2d 770 (2 Cir. 1971). The Town of Greenburgh was divided into six incorporated villages, each "substantially self-governing", id. at 771, and an unincorporated area. The primary function of the Town Board was to govern the unincorporated area. The residents of the unincorporated area challenged the inclusion of the village residents in Town Board elections. This court held that the claim was so plainly insubstantial that the district court had acted properly in dismissing the complaint and refusing to convene a three-judge court. The court found it ...

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