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Federal Hill Capital, LLC v. City of Providence

Superior Court of Rhode Island, Providence

February 12, 2018

CITY OF PROVIDENCE, by and through its Treasurer, James Lombardi, JORGE ELORZA, in his official capacity as Mayor of Providence, and JEFFREY L. LYKINS, in his official capacity as Director of the Providence Department of Inspection and Standards, Defendants.

          For Plaintiff: Jeffrey L. Levy, Esq.

          For Defendant: Megan K. DiSanto, Esq.


          KEOUGH, J.

         Before the Court are Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment filed pursuant to Rule 56 of the Rhode Island Superior Court Rules of Civil Procedure (Rule 56) by the City of Providence, by and through its Treasurer James Lombardi, Jorge Elorza, in his official capacity as Mayor of the City of Providence, and Jeffrey L. Lykins, in his official capacity as Director of the Providence Department of Inspection and Standards (collectively Defendants, City) and the Plaintiffs, Federal Hill Capital, LLC, Christopher Musacchio, Alejandro Amaya, William Smith, and Corey Kossin (collectively Plaintiffs). The motions are in response to a Complaint filed by Plaintiffs in which they seek a declaratory judgment pursuant to the Uniform Declaratory Judgments Act (UDJA), G.L. 1956 §§ 9-30-1 et seq., with respect to the constitutionality of an amendment made to Providence Zoning Ordinance 2015-47, No. 455. Specifically, Plaintiffs seek a declaration that the particular provision violates article I, section 2 of the Rhode Island Constitution.

         I Facts and Travel

         On September 18, 2015, the City enacted an amendment to Providence Zoning Ordinance 2015-47, No. 455, which regulates the use of single-family homes in Providence's R-1A and R-1 (residential) zoning districts. This amendment was enacted in response to residents' concerns about the "changing nature of neighborhoods in proximity to the City's colleges and universities, in particular the Elmhurst neighborhood near Providence College."[1] Specifically, the amendment expressly provides that "[i]n the R-1A and R-1 districts, a single-family dwelling, that is non-owner occupied, shall not be occupied by more than three college students, " who are defined as "individual[s] enrolled as . . . undergraduate or graduate student[s] at any university or college educational institution who commute[s] to a campus." (City's Mem. at 8, Ex. A.) The amendment only applies to single-family dwellings located in just two of Providence's twenty zoning districts. These two districts are the City's lowest density districts in which few non-residential uses are allowed.

         On February 23, 2016, Plaintiffs, a real estate investment company and four college students who live in a single-family dwelling in an R-1 district, brought a constitutional challenge to the amendment based on the due process and equal protection clauses of article I, section 2 of the Rhode Island Constitution. Plaintiff Federal Hill Capital, LLC, owns a single-family home at 15 Oakdale Street in Providence that was leased to the four college student Plaintiffs.[2] The Oakdale Street property is located in an R-1 zoning district. The City now moves for summary judgment arguing that the amendment is constitutionally sound. In response, Plaintiffs have cross-motioned for summary judgment.


         Standard of Review

         A declaratory judgment '"is neither an action at law nor a suit in equity but a novel statutory proceeding . . ."' N. Trust Co. v. Zoning Bd. of Review of Westerly, 899 A.2d 517, 520 n.6 (R.I. 2006) (quoting Newport Amusement Co. v. Maher, 92 R.I. 51, 53, 166 A.2d 216, 217 (1960)). The purpose of the UDJA is "to allow the trial justice to 'facilitate the termination of controversies.'" Bradford Assocs. v. R.I. Div. of Purchases, 772 A.2d 485, 489 (R.I. 2001) (citations omitted). Thus, the UDJA grants broad jurisdiction to the Superior Court to "declare rights, status, and other legal relations whether or not further relief is or could be claimed." Section 9-30-1.

         When deciding a motion for summary judgment, the trial justice must always keep in mind that it is a "drastic remedy and should be cautiously applied." Steinberg v. State, 427 A.2d 338, 339-40 (R.I. 1981). Summary judgment is appropriate when viewing the facts and all reasonable inferences therefrom in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, the Court determines that there are no issues of material fact in dispute. Quest Diagnostics, LLC v. Pinnacle Consortium of Higher Educ., 93 A.3d 949, 951 (R.I. 2014). However, only when the facts reliably and indisputably point to a single permissible inference can this process be treated as a matter of law. Steinberg, 427 A.2d at 340.

         The party who opposes the motion for summary judgment carries the burden of proving, by competent evidence, the existence of a disputed material issue of fact and cannot rest on allegations or denials in the pleadings or on conclusions or legal opinions. Accent Store Design, Inc. v. Marathon House, Inc. 674 A.2d 1223, 1225 (R.I. 1996). In a motion for summary judgment, the moving party bears the initial burden of establishing the absence of a genuine issue of fact. The burden then shifts and the nonmoving party has an affirmative duty to demonstrate a genuine issue of fact. McGovern v. Bank of Am., N.A., 91 A.3d 853, 858 (R.I. 2014).

         With regard to issues concerning the interpretation of an ordinance, it is well established that Rhode Island courts employ the same rules of construction as they do when interpreting a statute. Ruggiero v. City of Providence, 893 A.2d 235, 237 (R.I. 2006); Pierce v. Providence Ret. Bd., 15 A.3d 957, 963 (R.I. 2011). If an ordinance is unambiguous "it should be enforced as written, with the words of the ordinance being given their plain and ordinary meaning." State ex. rel. City of Providence v. Auger, 44 A.3d 1218, 1226 (R.I. 2012). Moreover, when faced with a constitutional challenge to a statute or ordinance, the Court must "begin with a presumption that the enactment is constitutional." Id.; State v. Russell, 890 A.2d 453, 458 (R.I. 2006). "This [C]ourt will attach every reasonable intendment in favor of . . . constitutionality in order to preserve the statute." Gem Plumbing & Heating Co. v. Rossi, 867 A.2d 796, 808 (R.I. 2005) (citation omitted). The party contesting the constitutionality of the ordinance bears the '"burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that the challenged enactment is unconstitutional."' Auger, 44 A.3d at 1226 (quoting State ex rel. Town of Westerly v. Bradley, 877 A.2d 601, 605 (R.I. 2005)).

         III Analysis

         In support of their competing motions, both parties submit that the sole issue before the Court concerns the constitutionality of the zoning ordinance amendment. The parties maintain that before making this determination, the Court must first establish the appropriate level of review to be applied and then determine whether the amendment is consistent with equal protection and due process requirements. In that the substantive due process and equal protection arguments are inextricably intertwined, only a single analysis is required. Minnesota v. Clover Leaf Creamery Co., 449 U.S. 456, 470 (1981) (if statute does not violate equal protection it does not violate due process); Montalvo-Huertas v. Rivera-Cruz, 885 F.2d 971, 976 n.7 (1st Cir. 1989) (type and kind of scrutiny applied no different under either substantive due process or equal protection theory).

         1 Article I, Section 2

         Mirroring the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution, article I, section 2 of the Rhode Island Constitution provides, in pertinent part, that no person shall be "deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law, nor shall any person be denied equal protection of the laws." R.I. Const. art. I, § 2. See also, R.I. Insurers' Insolvency Fund v. Leviton Mfg. Co., 716 A.2d 730, 734 (R.I. 1998) (Rhode Island and federal equal protection clauses provide similar protections). Nevertheless, our Supreme Court has routinely held that "not all legislative classifications are impermissible." Boucher v. Sayeed, 459 A.2d 87, 91 (R.I. 1983). Indeed, the legislature is permitted "a wide scope of discretion in enacting laws which affect some groups of citizens differently from others." Burrillville Racing Ass'n v. State, 118 R.I. 154, 157, 372 A.2d 979, 981-82 (1977). In so doing, the state may choose to create stronger constitutional protections than those afforded by the United States Constitution; however, it is rare that Rhode Island has departed from federal precedent and established greater protections. See Moreau v. Flanders, 15 A.3d 565, 588 (R.I. 2011); State v. Bjerke, 697 A.2d 1069, 1073 (R.I. 1997).

         The Equal Protection Clause of article I, section 2 of the Rhode Island Constitution mandates that '"[n]o otherwise qualified person shall, solely by reason of race, gender or handicap be subject to discrimination by the state, [or] its agents * * *, " thereby prohibiting any law that treats one class of persons less favorably than others who are similarly situated. See Kleczek v. R.I. Interscholastic League, Inc., 612 A.2d 734 (R.I. 1992). It does not, however, '"demand that a statute necessarily apply equally to all persons. * * * '[Or] require [that] things which are different in fact * * * to be treated in law as though they were the same.'" Id. at 737 (quoting Rinaldi v. Yeager, 384 U.S. 305, 309 (1966)). Indeed, "the Equal Protection Clause is violated 'only if the [legislative] classification rests on grounds wholly irrelevant to the achievement of the State's objective. * * * A statutory discrimination will not be set aside if any state of facts reasonably may be conceived to justify it.'" Mackie v. State, 936 A.2d 588, 596 (R.I. 2007) (quoting McGowan v. Maryland, 366 U.S. 420, 425-26 (1961)).

         With respect to substantive due process, the government is proscribed from acting in an arbitrary or capricious fashion, even if the procedures through which the action is taken are "constitutionally adequate." Brunelle v. Town of S. Kingstown, 700 A.2d 1075, 1084 (R.I. 1997) (quoting Sinaloa Lake Owners Ass'n v. City of Simi Valley, 882 F.2d 1398, 1407 (9th Cir. 1989)). "To establish a violation of substantive due process, the Plaintiffs must prove that the government's action was 'clearly arbitrary and unreasonable, having no substantial relation to the public health, safety, morals, or general welfare'" Id. (quoting Sinaloa Lake Owners, 882 F.2d at 1407). And finally, because article I, section 2 of the Rhode Island Constitution is parallel to the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution, the Court conducts a "hybrid analysis" when asked to "calibrate the applicable sections of [an] act . . . against the due-process and equal-protection guarantees of both the federal and state constitutions[, ]" reflective of "the autonomous character of each ...

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