United States District Court, D. Rhode Island
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER
M. LISI, SENIOR UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
plaintiffs, John and Therese Ryan (the “Ryans” or
“Plaintiffs”), residents of the Town of Coventry
(the “Town”), have brought federal constitutional
and state law claims against Town Finance Clerk Deborah Yost
(“Yost”), Town Finance Director/Treasurer Robert
Thibeault (“Thibeault”), and the Town (together
with Yost and Thibeault, the “Defendants”).
Defendants have moved for summary judgment. For the reasons
set forth below, the motion for summary judgment is GRANTED.
to the filing of this complaint, the Ryans and Yost had been
friends for many years. In 2005, the Ryans moved to Wisteria
Drive in Coventry and became Yost's neighbors. SUF
¶1, Complaint ¶9. Therese R. works as a dispatcher
for the Town police department; Yost works as a clerk in the
Town Tax Assessor's office; and John R. worked for the
Town as a civilian dispatcher and/or reserve officer between
1987 and 2003. SUF ¶1.
September 2007, the Ryans requested a waiver from Town Animal
Control Supervisor Carolyn Lacombe (“Lacombe”) to
keep a fourth dog at their residential property. SUF
¶2. According to the Ryan's application letter dated
September 21, 2007, the Ryans had three licensed dogs at the
time and wished to add a fourth. They also represented that
they knew of no conflicts with the surrounding neighbors
regarding their pets. Defs.' Ex. A (ECF No. 13-3, p.2).
After the request was granted on the condition that Animal
Control not receive any complaints about the dogs, the Ryans
began breeding their four dogs and selling the litters from
their home. SUF ¶¶3, 4.
time, the Ryans' dogs produced two litters per year of
eight to ten puppies per litter. Prospective buyers would
come by the residence to view the puppies and then pick them
up at a later date. SUF ¶5.
the relationship between the parties had soured, Yost
complained to Animal Control about the activity generated by
the breeding and selling of puppies. SUF ¶6. By letter
dated July 8, 2009, Lacombe informed the Ryans that the
Animal Control Division (“ACD”) had received a
complaint on July 7, 2009, alleging that the number of dogs
at their residence was creating a nuisance. SUF ¶6, 7.
The letter further states that ACD “must revoke the
previously granted exception to have four dogs at your
residence.” Defs.'Ex. B (ECF No. 13-3, p. 4).
Although the parties offer differing explanations, it is
undisputed that the waiver remained in place. SUF ¶8.
point, Yost asked Lacombe's supervisor Major Schmitter
about the dogs and the activity generated by breeding and
selling puppies. SUF ¶9. Major Schmitter met with
Lacombe and Therese R. and told her about Yost's
complaint. According to Therese R., Major Schmitter told her
just to get rid of the dogs. After she rejected that
suggestion, he did not discuss the subject again. SUF
Yost checked the Town zoning laws and discovered that keeping
more than four dogs in a residential area required a kennel
license. Because the Ryans did not have a kennel license,
Yost filed a complaint with Zoning Enforcement Officer Jacob
Peabody (“Peabody”). SUF ¶11. On September
8, 2010, Peabody issued a Notice of Violation to the Ryans
for (1) operating a commercial business in a residential zone
without receiving a zoning approval; (2) having commercial
signage on their property; and (3) running a kennel in an
R-20 zone. Defs.' Ex. C (ECF No. 13-3, pp. 6, 7). The
Ryans were ordered to bring their property into compliance
within seven days or risk a $500 fine per day, per violation.
Id. It is undisputed that the Ryans did not appeal
the Notice, nor did they obtain a kennel license. Instead,
they decided to move while the zoning violation remained
active. SUF ¶13. According to the Plaintiffs, Peabody
advised them that he would not prosecute the violation if
they moved. Plaintiffs' Statement of Disputed Facts
letter dated November 24, 2010, the Town Department of
Planning and Development sent a Discharge of Notice of
Violation (which had been recorded in the Town's Land
Evidence Records) to Plaintiffs' counsel, noting that
upon Plaintiffs' re-location to Western Coventry,
“the current issue will be rendered moot.”
Defs.' Ex. D (ECF No. 13-3, pp. 9, 10).
the Plaintiffs moved to their new residence, Town Tax
Assessor Patricia Picard (“Picard”) noticed an
apparent discrepancy in the evaluation of Plaintiffs'
property. SUF ¶¶15, 16. On May 11, 2013, after
driving by the Plaintiffs' residence, Picard sent a
Notice of Increase in Assessment to Plaintiffs, informing
them that their property had been reassessed to
“include a half story of living area over a the [sic]
portion of your home.” SUF ¶ 16, Defs.' Ex. E
(ECF 13-3, p. 12). The Plaintiffs promptly contacted Picard
and provided her with additional information, which
established that the living space of their residence was less
than what was stated in the initial assessment.
¶¶17, 18. Based on this information, Picard
immediately corrected the records, which reduced the
consulting their attorney, the Plaintiffs applied for a
kennel license and a special use permit to breed and sell
puppies from their new home. ¶19. On June 1, 2011, the
Town Zoning Board of Review (“ZBR”) granted the
Plaintiffs' request for a special use permit to operate a
dog kennel out of their residence. SUF ¶20. The ZBR
decision notes that the primary use of the Plaintiffs'
property remained residential. Defs.' Ex. F (ECF No.
13-3, pp. 14-17).
January 2013, the Town Tax Assessor's office sent
plaintiffs an Annual Return for Furniture Fixtures and
Effects (“FFE Filing”). SUF ¶21, Defs.'
Ex. G (ECF No. 13-3, pp. 19, 20). In her correspondence
attached to the FFE filing, Picard explained that the request
for FFE filing was the result of Plaintiffs' receipt of
the special use permit. SUF ¶21. It is undisputed that
other individuals in Town who held kennel licenses were also
issued notices for the FFE filing. SUF ¶22.
bills issued in July 2013 reflected that the tax rate of the
Plaintiffs' property was changed to commercial rate in
accordance with Rhode Island law. SUF ¶23. By letter
dated October 23, 2013, the Plaintiffs appealed the 2013
assessment on their property, noting that other kennels in
Western Coventry holding kennel licenses were all taxed at a
residential, not a commercial rate. SUF ¶25; Defs.'
Ex. I (ECF No. 13-3, pp. 24, 25).
response, Picard informed the Plaintiffs by letter dated
November 25, 2013 that their appeal was denied and that their
property was taxed at the commercial rate because
“residential properties containing partial commercial
or business uses” pursuant to a special use permit are
taxed at the commercial rate pursuant to Rhode Island General
Laws. Defs.' Ex. H (ECF No. 22). Picard noted that
properties the Plaintiffs had listed in their appeal as
having kennel licenses “have them because they do it
for a hobby, ” and that, unlike the Plaintiffs, those
properties did not obtain a special use permit. Id.
The Plaintiffs did not further appeal Picard's denial of
their tax appeal. SUF ¶26. The Plaintiffs do not dispute
that, during that time frame, at least three other homeowners
who had obtained a special use permit for any type of
commercial enterprise on their residential property also had
their tax rate changed to commercial. SUF ¶24.
the Plaintiffs maintain that Yost discussed the reassessment
of Plaintiffs' property with Picard, they agree that the
decision to change their tax rate, issue the FFE notices, and
modify Plaintiffs' assessment were ...