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Ruston v. Town Board for the Town of Skaneateles


December 22, 2008


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Scullin, Senior Judge



Plaintiffs asserted three causes of action against Defendant Village of Skaneateles ("Village"): (1) conspiracy to violate civil rights, under 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983, 1985(3); (2) violation of substantive due process rights, under the Fourteenth Amendment; and (3) violation of equal protection of law, under the Fourteenth Amendment.*fn2 Currently before the Court is Defendant Village's motion to dismiss these claims pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) on the grounds that the statute of limitations has run; that they fail to state a claim; and that there is a failure to show causation.*fn3


Plaintiffs Lawrence Ruston and Janice Ruston own twenty-seven acres of property in the Town of Skaneateles ("Town"), but outside Defendant Village. Starting first from 1990-1991 and again from 2000 until the filing of this suit, Plaintiffs have endeavored to subdivide and develop their property.

Plaintiffs' first cause of action for conspiracy alleges that Defendants have conspired to violate Plaintiffs' civil rights by, among other things, (1) having Plaintiffs' attorney become Defendant Village's attorney; (2) ignoring Plaintiffs' contractual rights and other rights to continued connection to Defendant Village's sewer system; (3) using litigation to delay Plaintiffs' development proposals; (4) selectively applying policy to Plaintiffs' proposals; (5) using Plaintiffs' sewer connection to take their property, i.e., having the Town Defendants require Plaintiffs to connect to Defendant Village's sewage system and having Defendant Village deny them access to the sewage system to the end of preventing Plaintiffs from subdividing and developing their property.

Plaintiffs' second cause of action for violation of constitutional rights is a substantive due process claim.*fn4 Plaintiff alleges that Defendant Village arbitrarily and irrationally deprived them of a property interest in sewage service from Defendant Village's sewage system. Finally, Plaintiffs' third cause of action for equal protection violations alleges that Defendant Village applied a "no new connections policy" with respect to its sewage system differently to similarly situated property owners in the Town.


A. Motion to Dismiss Standard

On a motion to dismiss pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6), the court "must accept all well-pleaded facts as true and consider those facts in the light most favorable to the plaintiff." Patane v. Clark, 508 F.3d 106, 111 (2d Cir. 2007) (per curiam) (citation omitted). The court "must limit itself to the facts stated in the complaint, documents attached to the complaint as exhibits and documents incorporated by reference in the complaint." Hayden v. County of Nassau, 180 F.3d 42, 54 (2d Cir. 1999) (citation omitted). If the court looks at additional materials, it should convert the motion into a motion for summary judgment. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(d).*fn5

"[A] complaint must plead 'enough facts to state a claim for relief that is plausible on its face.'" Patane, 508 F.3d at 111-12 (quoting Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, --- U.S. ----, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 1974, 167 L.Ed. 2d 929 (2007)). The Second Circuit interprets Twombly to require "a flexible 'plausibility standard,' which obliges a pleader to amplify a claim with some factual allegations in those contexts where such amplification is needed to render the claim plausible" rather than a heightened fact-pleading requirement. Iqbal v. Hasty, 490 F.3d 143, 157-58 (2d Cir. 2007). A court should dismiss a complaint that consists of "'conclusory allegations unsupported by factual assertions . . . .'" Americorp Fin., Inc. v. St. Joseph's Hosp. Health Ctr., 180 F. Supp. 2d 387, 390 (N.D.N.Y. 2001) (quoting De Jesus v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., 87 F.3d 65, 70 (2d Cir. 1996)).*fn6

B. Statute of Limitations as a Basis for Dismissal

Defendant Village asserts that the statute of limitations bars some of Plaintiff's claims. The statute of limitations for Plaintiffs' causes of action under 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983, 1985 in New York is three years. See Paige v. Police Dep't of City of Schenectady, 264 F.3d 197, 199 n.2 (2d Cir. 2001) (citations omitted).*fn7 "'While state law supplies the statute of limitations for claims under § 1983, federal law determines when a federal claim accrues. The claim accrues when the plaintiff knows or has reason to know of the harm.'" Connolly v. McCall, 254 F.3d 36, 41 (2d Cir. 2001) (quoting Eagleston v. Guido, 41 F.3d 865, 871 (2d Cir.1994)).

Plaintiffs, who filed their complaint on August 1, 2006, have alleged that Defendant Village denied them sewage access in November of 2004,*fn8 well within the statute of limitations' time frame. Plaintiffs allege that this decisionviolated their substantive due process rights and their equal protection rights. Additionally, Plaintiffs allege that the conspiracy between the Town Defendants and Defendant Village resulted in the November 2004 denial as well as the other deprivations that the Town Defendants caused. Therefore, the Court finds that, based on the allegations in the complaint, the statute of limitations does not prevent Plaintiff from asserting any of its claims against Defendant Village.*fn9 Accordingly, the Court denies Defendant Village's motion to dismiss these causes of action pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) on this ground.

C. Failure to State a Claim as a Basis for Dismissal

1. Plaintiffs' § 1985(3) Conspiracy Claim

To state a claim for a violation of § 1985(3), "the plaintiff must allege and prove four elements: (1) a conspiracy; (2) for the purpose of depriving, either directly or indirectly, any person or class of persons of the equal protection of the laws, or of equal privileges and immunities under the laws; and (3) an act in furtherance of the conspiracy; (4) whereby a person is either injured in his person or property or deprived of any right or privilege of a citizen of the United States." United Bhd. of Carpenters & Joiners of Am., Local 610, AFL-CIO v. Scott, 463 U.S. 825, 828-29 (1983). "[A] conspiracy is actionable under § 1985 only if it involves a discriminatory animus based on race or some other invidious classification." Posr v. Court Officer Shield No. 207, 180 F.3d 409, 419 (2d Cir. 1999) (citing United Bhd.of Carpenters, Local 610 v. Scott, 463 U.S. 825, 829, 834-35, 103S.Ct. 3352, 77 L.Ed. 2d 1049 (1983)).In Scott, the Supreme Court held that economic and commercial conflicts are beyond the reach of § 1985(3). See Scott, 463 U.S. at 839.

Plaintiffs have not alleged racial or other invidious class-based discrimination as the basis for their § 1985 conspiracy claim. To the contrary, Plaintiffs base their allegations of animus on Plaintiffs' failure to associate with influential figures (not based on any classification) and the desire of surrounding property owners to avoid diminishment of property values. See Plaintiffs' Memorandum of Law at 3.Neither of these reasons constitutes invidious class discrimination. Furthermore, the property-value basis for these claims is an economic conflict, which cannot support a § 1985 action under Scott. Accordingly, Plaintiffs have failed to state a § 1985(3) claim for conspiracy; and, therefore, the Court grants Defendant Village's motion to dismiss this claim.

2. Plaintiffs' Substantive Due Process Claim Under the Fourteenth Amendment

"[A] party asserting deprivation of substantive due process must first establish a valid property interest within the meaning of the Constitution . . . . [and] must demonstrate that the defendant acted in an arbitrary or irrational manner in depriving him of that property interest." Crowley v. Courville, 76 F.3d 47, 52 (2d Cir. 1996) (citations omitted); see also Clubside, Inc. v. Valentin, 468 F.3d 144, 152 (2d Cir. 2006).

a. Property Interest

To establish a property interest, a plaintiff must show a "'"legitimate claim of entitlement."'" Crowley, 76 F.3d at 52 (quotations omitted). "'The [strict entitlement] analysis focuses on the extent to which the deciding authority may exercise discretion in arriving at a decision, rather than on an estimate of the probability that the authority will make a specific decision.'" Id. (quoting Zahra [v. Town of Southold,] 48 F.3d [674,] 680 [(2d Cir. 1995)]). If the governmental entity possesses discretion, the plaintiff does not have a legitimate entitlement and, therefore, lacks a property interest. See id.

In New York, a village board of trustees has broad discretion to deny water and sewer connections to outside users. See Kontokosta v. Village of Greenport, No. 87 Civ. 3432, 1991 WL 206296, *4 (S.D.N.Y. Sept. 27, 1991) (citing N.Y. Village Law § 11-1120 (McKinney 1991); N.Y. Village Law § 14-1404 (McKinney 1991);*fn10 19 Op. St. Comptr. 232 (1963)).*fn11 The Court in Kontokosta found that, under New York law, the Board of Trustees was authorized to decide the applications for water and sewage access and "had full discretion" to deny the applications, noting the village's severe water and sewage shortages. See id. The Second Circuit found no property interest in the granting of an application for sewage access where the town board had broad discretion to grant or deny such petitions based on the public interest. See Clubside, 468 F.3d at 157.

Here, Plaintiffs allege in their complaint that Defendant Village's discretion is limited and therefore they have a property right.*fn12 Plaintiffs assert two grounds for limiting Defendant Village's discretion such that a property right exists in their obtaining sewage rights: a contract entered into between Defendant Village, the City of Syracuse, the Country Club, and Dwight Winkelman (prior owner of Plaintiffs' property) and the parties' subsequently developed understanding that Plaintiffs' property was "grandfathered" into the sewer system and was entitled to additional service despite the no-new-connections policy.*fn13

Plaintiffs assert that property interests are created and defined by contracts and understandings between parties. Plaintiffs allege in their complaint that, at the time they purchased the property, the boathouse, main house, and gate house were serviced by sewage lines to Defendant Village's sewer system and that the carriage house was connected to Defendant Village's sewer system in 1986 pursuant to written authority from the Mayor. Accordingly, Plaintiffs contend that their property was grandfathered into the system such that new sewage connections were proper. See Complaint ¶¶ 43,79, 104. Plaintiffs further claim that Defendant Village's discretion is limited to situations where there is no longer any excess capacity. See Plaintiffs' Memorandum of Law at 16.

Even accepting that Plaintiffs can establish a contract for the provision of water and sewage to their property and an understanding that their property is entitled to new connections, as alleged, the Court finds that, as a matter of law, Plaintiffs do not have a constitutionally protected property interest in the added connections.

A proper application for outside sewage rights, under New York's Village Law, is never assured approval because a village must always consider whether the use will render the system inadequate for the village and its inhabitants. See N.Y. Village Law § 14-1404. Even if the rights were already sold under the contract, a village has discretion to end the use, where it believes the use will render the system inadequate. By law, a village cannot contract away this obligation through a contract or understanding. The right to discontinue water supply "must be a rather broad one." Kennilworth Mgt. Co. v. City of Ithaca, 63 Misc. 2d 617, 620 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. Tompkins County 1970).

Regardless of whether the system had excess capacity, and the Court will assume, as alleged, that it did for the purposes of this motion, Defendant Village still had the discretion to deny additional use that would render the system inadequate. The evaluation of the adequacy of the system is similar to the evaluation at issue in Clubside regarding the public interest. See Clubside, 468 F.3d at 157 ("Thus, while a town board does not have limitless discretion to decide whether an extension of a sewer district is in the public interest, the cases Clubside relies upon do not explicitly define the scope of a board's discretion or limit the appropriate considerations sufficiently to make the Board's discretion 'so narrowly circumscribed that approval of a proper application is virtually assured.'" (quotation omitted)). Moreover, the Court concludes that there is no objective definition of "adequate for the inhabitants" that would relieve Defendant Village of all discretion, sufficient to generate a federally-protected property right.

The Court notes that a village may consider any number of factors beyond the current quantifiable measures of the sewage system to determine whether to permit additional connections outside the village. Specifically, a village might consider, among other things, future growth within the village, deterioration of the system and its capacity, or whether the village plans to modify the system in a way that will reduce capacity but better serve the village. See Kennilworth, 63 Misc. 2d at 622 ("[I]t does not seem to the court to be unreasonable or arbitrary for the city to look to the future of its water supply before committing itself to an extension of service which may later cause trouble for itself and those residents of outlying areas presently dependent on the city source. In this respect the city has broad discretionary powers to act for the protection of its inhabitants." (citations omitted)).*fn14

b. Arbitrary or Irrational Government Action

In addition to demonstrating a protected property interest, plaintiffs must also show that governmental action deprived them of a property interest in an arbitrary or irrational manner. See Crowley, 76 F.3d at 52. Substantive due process is an outer limit on governmental action; therefore, it does not forbid arbitrary and capricious conduct correctable in a state-court review of an administrative action, rather "[s]ubstantive due process standards are violated only by conduct that is so outrageously arbitrary as to constitute a gross abuse of governmental authority." Natale v. Town of Ridgefield, 170 F.3d 258, 263 (2d Cir. 1999) (citations omitted). "'Only a substantial infringement of state law prompted by personal or group animus, or a deliberate flouting of the law that trammels significant personal or property rights, qualifies for relief under § 1983.'" Id. (quoting Silverman v. Barry, 845 F.2d 1072, 1080 (D.C. Cir. 1988)).

The conduct must be "'so egregious, so outrageous, that it may fairly be said to shock the contemporary conscience.'" Bullock v. Gerould, 338 F. Supp. 2d 446, 451 (W.D.N.Y. 2004) (quoting [County of Sacramento v.] Lewis, 523 U.S. [833,] 848 n.8, 118 S.Ct. 1708 [(1998)])) (citing Tenenbaum v. Williams, 193 F.3d 581, 600 (2d Cir. 1999)). The Bullock court found that the allegations in the complaint established wrongful conduct for improper motives but not a substantive due process claim. See id. "'The protections of substantive due process are available only against egregious conduct which goes beyond merely "offend[ing] some fastidious squeamishness or private sentimentalism" and can fairly be viewed as so "brutal" and "offensive to human dignity" as to shock the conscience.'" Id. (quoting Smith ex rel. Smith v. Half Hollow Hills Cent. School Dist., 298 F.3d 168, 173 (2d Cir. 2002) (internal quotations omitted)).

The Third Circuit recently considered the types of gross misconduct that shock the judicial conscience in the context of land use and related approvals. See Eichenlaub v. Township of Indiana, 385 F.3d 274, 285 (3d Cir. 2004) (finding that the alleged selective enforcement of zoning provisions, unannounced and unnecessary inspection and enforcement actions, delay of permits and approvals, increases of tax assessments, and maligning and muzzling of the plaintiffs, are examples of disagreements that frequently arise in planning disputes and such conduct does not shock the judicial conscience; and, noting the lack of self-dealing, corruption, interference with an otherwise constitutionally protected activity, bias against an ethnic group, or forced seizure and sale, i.e., virtual "taking," any of which might shock the judicial conscience) (citations omitted).*fn15

The Third Circuit's analysis and examples are helpful, and Plaintiffs' alleged conduct falls into the same non-conscience-shocking categories as the allegations in Eichenlaub or those in Natale.*fn16 Plaintiffs' allegations about Defendant Village's governmental actions consist mostly of delaying tactics, denial of sewage connections, and selective enforcement of a no-new connections policy. Although Plaintiffs may have alleged wrongful conduct that could potentially violate New York law, Plaintiffs' allegations of improper motives for denying the sewage application are not sufficient to state a substantive due process claim. Accordingly, for this reason as well, the Court finds that the complaint fails to state a substantive due process claim by failing, as a matter of law, to allege conduct that shocks the conscience.*fn17*fn18

3. Plaintiffs' Equal Protection Claim

To state a claim for an equal protection violation, Plaintiffs must show that Defendant Village singled them out intentionally for arbitrary treatment without a rational basis. See Clubside, 468 F.3d at 158-59.*fn19 Plaintiffs may state a claim as a "class-of-one" by alleging "that they were intentionally treated differently from other similarly-situated individuals without any rational basis." Id. at 159(citing [Village of Willowbrook v. Olech, 528 U.S. 562,] 564, 120 S.Ct. 1073 [(2000)]; accord Bizzarro v. Miranda, 394 F.3d 82, 88 (2d Cir. 2005)). In the Second Circuit, "plaintiffs must show an extremely high degree of similarity between themselves and the persons to whom they compare themselves." Id.

Accordingly, to succeed on a class-of-one claim, a plaintiff must establish that "(i) no rational person could regard the circumstances of the plaintiff to differ from those of a comparator to a degree that would justify the differential treatment on the basis of a legitimate government policy; and (ii) the similarity in circumstances and difference in treatment are sufficient to exclude the possibility that the defendants acted on the basis of a mistake."

Id. (quotation omitted).

Plaintiffs' sole allegation regarding similarly-situated persons and difference in treatment is in paragraph 109 of the complaint. See Complaint ¶ 109 ("[T]he VILLAGE selectively enforced this stated policy after it was adopted by accepting requests for sanitary sewer service outside the VILLAGE's corporate limits, granting other such applications.").*fn20 This single allegation is insufficient to state a claim that Defendant Village treated others, with a high degree of similarity to Plaintiffs, differently. Accordingly, the Court dismisses Plaintiffs' equal protection claim against Defendant Village for failure to state a claim without prejudice.

D. The Town Defendants' Request for Dismissal

The Town Defendants, without filing a motion, joined Defendant Village's motion to dismiss. The Court will dismiss Plaintiffs' conspiracy claim against the Town Defendants for the reasons stated above and because Plaintiffs failed to allege race or other invidious class-based discrimination.

The Court declines to consider whether to dismiss the substantive due process and equal protection claims against the Town Defendants as the property interests and government conduct are different for the Town Defendants compared with Defendant Village. Furthermore, Plaintiffs have not had an opportunity to brief those issues. Similarly, the void for vagueness and vested rights claims do not apply to Defendant Village, and Plaintiffs did not address them. If the Town Defendants want the Court to consider dismissing those claims, they must file an appropriate motion in compliance with the Local Rules.

E. Plaintiffs' Request for Leave to Amend

Plaintiffs, without filing a motion, have asked for leave to amend should the Court dismiss any claims. See Plaintiffs' Memorandum of Law at 23. A court should freely grant leave to amend a pleading when justice so requires. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 15(a)(2). A court should obey Rule 15's direction "absent evidence of undue delay, bad faith or dilatory motive on the part of the movant, undue prejudice to the opposing party, or futility . . . ." Monahan v. N.Y. City Dep't of Corr., 214 F.3d 275, 283 (2d Cir. 2000) (citing Foman [v. Davis,] 371 U.S. [178,] 182, 83 S.Ct. 227 [(1962)]).

Since Plaintiffs did not submit a proposed amended complaint, the Court has considered Plaintiffs' supplemental affidavit as demonstrative of the additional allegations that they would include in their amended complaint.Based upon its review of their affidavit, the Court finds that it would be futile to permit Plaintiffs to amend their substantive due process claim against Defendant Village. Even if Plaintiffs were able to allege sufficiently a protected property interest, Plaintiffs' amended substantive due process claim would still fail to state a claim because Plaintiffs cannot show the necessary conscience shocking governmental action. Likewise, the Court concludes that it would be futile to allow Plaintiffs to amend their conspiracy claim because Plaintiffs are unable to allege an invidious class-based conspiracy to discriminate.

On the other hand, the Court will allow Plaintiffs to amend their complaint with regard to their equal protection claim against Defendant Village because Plaintiffs may be able to plead sufficiently that Defendant Village treated similarly-situated individuals differently. The Court will also allow Plaintiffs to amend their complaint with respect to all their claims against the Town Defendants except their conspiracy claim.*fn21


After carefully considering the entire file in this matter, the parties' submissions and the applicable law, and for the reasons stated herein, the Court hereby

ORDERS that Defendant Village's motion to dismiss is GRANTED; and the Court further

ORDERS that the Town Defendants' request for dismissal is GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART; and the Court further

ORDERS that Plaintiffs' conspiracy claims pursuant to § 1985(3) against all Defendants are DISMISSED with prejudice; and the Court further

ORDERS that Plaintiffs' substantive due process claim against Defendant Village is DISMISSED with prejudice; and the Court further

ORDERS that Plaintiffs' equal protection claim against Defendant Village is DISMISSED without prejudice; and the Court further

ORDERS that Plaintiffs' request for leave to amend is GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART; and the Court further

ORDERS that Plaintiffs may amend their complaint to assert an equal protection claim against Defendant Village and all their claims against the Town Defendants except their conspiracy claim;*fn22 and the Court further

ORDERS that Plaintiffs shall file their amended complaint within twenty (20) days of the date of this Order; and the Court further

ORDERS that this matter is referred to Magistrate Judge Lowe for all further pretrial matters.


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