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Drown v. Town of Northfield

United States District Court, D. Vermont

March 25, 2015

LARRY DROWN, Plaintiff,
v.
TOWN OF NORTHFIELD, Defendant.

OPINION AND ORDER

WILLIAM K. SESSIONS, III, District Judge.

This case arises out of disputes between Plaintiff Larry Drown and Defendant Town of Northfield ("the Town") regarding Drown's alleged zoning violations. The Town ultimately filed at least one enforcement action in state court which resulted in a judgment against Drown and subsequent foreclosure proceedings. Drown comes to this Court claiming due process violations and malicious prosecution.

Now before the Court are the Town's motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, Drown's motion for injunctive relief, and the Town's supplemental motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction. The supplemental motion seeks dismissal under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, and if appropriate, abstention under the Supreme Court's ruling in Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37 (1971). For the reasons set forth below, the Town's supplemental motion to dismiss is granted, its initial motion to dismiss and Drown's pending motion are denied as moot, and this case is dismissed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.

Factual Background

In October 2005, Drown submitted an application to the Town seeking conditional use approval for a 60 foot by 100 foot commercial building located at 11 Wall Street in Northfield ("the Wall Street property"). The application described the use of the proposed structure as a store for "retail & personal service." ECF No. 1-2 at 1. A hearing was held on November 17, 2005, after which the Board of Adjustment approved the use with conditions, including the planting of trees for screening and a limitation on lighting.

The application was heard by the Town Planning Commission on January 16, 2006. The Planning Commission's decision, issued 14 days later, reported that "Mr. Drown is constructing a spec building which will be rented and used as described for retail automobile repair, tire shop, and/or storage of service delivery vehicles." ECF No. 1-5 at 2. The application was approved unanimously.

On July 8, 2008, the Town sent Drown a Notice of Violation stating that the use of the Wall Street property was not consistent with the zoning approvals. The Notice set forth four alleged violations. The first stated that the approved use was for a "Retail and Personal Services Store, " and that instead "[t]he property is being used for a combination of auto repair, auto recycling, and junkyard. None of these uses is consistent with the definition of Retail and Personal Service Store, the approved uses of the property." ECF No. 1-6 at 1. The second alleged violation accused Drown of establishing or maintaining an unapproved junkyard. Third, the Notice alleged that Drown had established an office in a travel trailer without a permit. The fourth charge alleged that Drown had not planted adequate trees for screening. The Notice of Violation gave Drown seven days to come into compliance, and warned that failure to comply might result in the Town pursuing the matter in court, "where the Town of Northfield may seek injunctive relief and fines up to $100.00 per day." The Notice also informed Drown of his right to appeal to the Zoning Board of Adjustment ("ZBA"). Drown did not appeal to the ZBA.

On October 7, 2008, the Town filed a municipal enforcement action against Drown and others in the state court Environmental Division.[1] The court granted summary judgment to the Town, concluding that Drown's substantive arguments were barred as a matter of law for failure to appeal to the ZBA. The court further noted that "the only way around these strict rules of finality would be if Defendants could claim... a constitutional violation, such as a violation of Defendants' constitutionally-protected civil or due process rights." ECF No. 16-2 at 7. Given that Drown had been given adequate notice of his right to appeal to the ZBA, the court found "no due process or other constitutional violations in the [Notices of Violation] that were issued here." Id. In a subsequent order, the state court found that the fines imposed were not inequitable or excessive. Drown appealed to the Vermont Supreme Court, but the appeal was dismissed for failure to pay the filing fee.

On December 9, 2011, the Town filed a state court complaint for foreclosure on the Wall Street property and another property owned, at least in part, by Drown on Western Avenue in Northfield. On May 13, 2013, Judge Robert Bent entered a judgment of foreclosure. In an entry order dated November 24, 2013, the state court bifurcated the Wall Street and Western Avenue matters and extended the redemption date on the Wall Street property to February 21, 2014. On February 20, 2014, the state court extended the redemption period a second time to June 21, 2014. On September 17, 2014, the court issued a certificate of non-redemption and a public sale was scheduled for December 12, 2014. The latest state court order on this Court's docket indicates that the sale was postponed for an additional 30 days while Drown removed his belongings from the property.[2]

Procedural Background

Drown, appearing pro se, filed his Complaint in this Court on April 24, 2014. The Complaint alleges that Drown was "aggressively approached" by the Town to sell his land, and that the Town has engaged in a "disingenuous ruse." ECF No. 1 at 8. Drown further claims that the Town violated his "due process right to a fair trial, " and that his cause of action includes "malicious prosecution and a Law Firm that was filled with pettifoggers getting into free government money that had no bucket bottom." Id. The Town responded on May 15, 2015 with a motion to dismiss, arguing that Drown had failed to set forth a plausible legal claim. The Town's motion also referenced attachments to the Complaint which, the Town argued, demonstrate that Drown received due process at the municipal level.

On June 3, 2014, Drown filed a pro se motion for injunctive relief, asking this Court to postpone the sale of his home on Western Avenue. Among other things, Drown alleges in his motion that he "has serious cognitive memory issues, and the [state court] judge and lawyers are aware of these issues, and that Mr. Drown is unable to represent himself in the fair and proper way." ECF No. 10 at 3. The Town subsequently notified the Court that a state court judge had found Drown incompetent, and requested that the Court either appoint Drown counsel pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 17(c)(2) or dismiss this case without prejudice. ECF No. 12. On December 17, 2014, the Court appointed counsel to represent Drown pro bono for the limited purpose of addressing the pending motions.

The Town has since filed a second, supplemental motion to dismiss this case for lack of jurisdiction. That motion cites the state court proceedings and argues for dismissal pursuant to the Rooker-Feldman doctrine and, if appropriate, Younger abstention. Both motions to dismiss, as well as Drown's motion for an injunction, are now before the Court. Most recently, the Court granted Drown's counsel's motion to withdraw from the case due to her ...


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