March 21, 2014

Holmes Wins Sixth Circuit Appeal on Civil Rights Claims

Case Summary

This case involved the Plaintiffs’ attempt to have a federal court grant them relief from a state court’s judgment against them. Ultimately, the case was dismissed on a number of grounds, including that Plaintiffs’ lawsuit violated well-established legal principles prohibiting “state court losers” from appealing to the federal courts, and that Plaintiffs were attempting to assert claims which are not recognized in the Sixth Circuit.

Plaintiffs Allege 179 Claims

The City of East Lansing, Michigan, has a population of 48,577. It is also home to one of the top 10 largest universities in the country: Michigan State University (MSU). MSU has a student population of 48,906. Not surprisingly, regulation of the use of housing in East Lansing is critical to the city’s management of the balance between the permanent residents and the temporary renters. In this effort, the City requires any property owner who wishes to rent their property to obtain a rental license. The Plaintiffs own a condominium and rented it to multiple people, but chose not to get a rental license. This was discovered by the condominium association president, who contacted the City’s code enforcement division. 

After an investigation, the Plaintiffs were cited for 3 months of violating the rental ordinance. In the state court, the Plaintiffs, who were recent graduates of MSU’s law school at the time but were represented by counsel, denied that they were illegally renting. After a 3 day trial with a dozen witnesses, the state court found them fully responsible, and further found their testimony “not credible,” as multiple contradictions existed between their testimony and evidence presented, as well as various records. Plaintiffs launched multiple appeals and other tactics as a result of the judgment. While the findings of the judgment were affirmed on appeal in the state court, the amount of the fines were ordered to be reduced, which resulted in a 17% reduction. 

While multiple appeals at multiple levels in state court were still pending, Plaintiffs filed a lawsuit in the Federal District Court for the Western District of Michigan against the City of East Lansing and the condominium association and its president. After discussion with Foley & Mansfield Detroit partner Greg Meihn, the firm was retained to defend the association and its president. Heading the firm’s defense team was Detroit partner Scott S. Holmes.

The lawsuit alleged 179 claims, most of which alleged an “abuse of process” conspiracy between the City and the association president to deprive Plaintiffs of their civil rights by improperly issuing citations for rental violations which they denied responsibility for. All defendants immediately filed a motion to dismiss on multiple grounds. Included in those grounds was that Plaintiffs could not deny responsibility for the citations that they were adjudged responsible for, and that their claims were the equivalent of an appeal to overturn the findings of a state court – something that can only be accomplished by the U.S. Supreme Court after exhaustion of state court appellate proceedings, which had not occurred. Also, defendants argued that the bulk of the lawsuit, 173 “Abuse of Process” claims, were not recognized claims in the Sixth Circuit jurisprudence.

Federal District and Appeals Courts Rule In Favor of Defendants

The Federal District Court agreed with the defendants and dismissed the entire Complaint on multiple grounds, including that the Plaintiffs were improperly seeking relief from a state court judgment and that the “Abuse of Process” claims had no basis in federal law. The Plaintiffs immediately appealed to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. At oral argument, Holmes took the lead for all defendants, arguing that the District Court not only correctly dismissed the claims, but that multiple additional bases existed for dismissal. One month after oral argument, the Sixth Circuit issued its Opinion affirming the District Court’s dismissal of the Complaint, and adopting many of the arguments asserted by Holmes and the firm on behalf of the association and its president. 

The Opinion can be read here. The full case title is Jared Rapp and Moti Goldring v Robert Dutcher, Annette Irwin, City of East Lansing, Thomas Yeadon, Douglas Stover, and East Lansing City Center Condominium Association, Case No. 1:12-cv-89 (US District Court for the Western District of Michigan), No. 13-1286 (Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals). 

Scott Holmes