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Ryan v. Yost

United States District Court, D. Rhode Island

April 3, 2017

DEBORAH YOST, Individually and in her capacity as Finance Clerk of the TOWN OF COVENTRY, ROBERT THIBEAULT, in his capacity as Finance Director/Treasurer of the TOWN OF COVENTRY, and THE TOWN OF COVENTRY RHODE ISLAND, DEFENDANTS



         The 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”).

         The Defendants have moved for summary judgment. For the reasons set forth below, the motion for summary judgment is GRANTED.

         I. Facts[1]

         Prior 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.

         In September 2007, the Ryans requested a waiver from Town Animal Control Supervisor Carolyn Lacombe (“Lacombe”) to keep a fourth dog[2] 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.

         At the time, the Ryans' dogs produced two litters per year of eight to ten puppies per litter.[3] Prospective buyers would come by the residence to view the puppies and then pick them up at a later date. SUF ¶5.

         After 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.

         At some 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 ¶10.

         Next, 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 (“SDF”) ¶13.

         By 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).

         After 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 assessment. ¶18.

         After 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).

         In 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.

         The tax 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).

         In 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.

         Although 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 ...

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