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Purze v. Village of Winthrop Harbor

April 09, 2002


Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 99 C 8481--James B. Zagel, Judge.

Before Posner, Ripple, and Kanne, Circuit Judges.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Kanne, Circuit Judge.

Argued September 24, 2001

Plaintiffs Gilbert and Jerome Purze sued the Village of Winthrop Harbor, Illinois ("the Village") under 42 U.S.C. sec. 1983, alleging that the Village denied them equal protection of the laws by refusing to approve several preliminary plats of a subdivision plan. The district court entered summary judgment in favor of the Village, finding that the Purzes failed to demonstrate that similarly-situated property owners were treated more favorably or to demonstrate that the Village acted out of ill will. We affirm.

I. History

Beginning in January 1998, Gilbert and Jerome Purze sought to develop property that they owned in a rural subdivision of the Village. Pursuant to the Village Subdivision Code, in order to subdivide property, a property owner must submit to the Village Board ("the Board"), and have approved by the Board, a preliminary plat and a final subdivision plat. While the Planning and Zoning Board of Winthrop Harbor ("PZB") may make recommendations to the Board regarding variance requests and subdivision plats, all plats must comply with the regulations contained in the Subdivision Code. Interpretations of those regulations are reserved to the Board and the Board reserves the right to vary and make exceptions to the regulations in cases of hardship, provided that the variances or exceptions are in substantial conformance with the standards of design prescribed by the Subdivision Code.

In addition to the Village Subdivision Code, the Village also had a Zoning Code in effect. The Purzes' property was zoned R-5 (rural zoning). The Purzes initially requested that their property be re-zoned from R-5 (rural zoning) to R-3 (residential zoning). However, at a public hearing held by the PZB, citizens in attendance strongly opposed the requested re-zoning, voicing concern that the rural nature of the existing neighboring properties would be negatively impacted by the requested re-zoning. In light of the opinions voiced at this public hearing, the PZB recommended against re-zoning the Purzes' property. The Board unanimously affirmed its recommendation.

Following their failed attempt to get their property re-zoned, the Purzes retained an engineer, Joseph Hammer, to help them prepare a resubdivision plat in compliance with R-5 zoning. The Purzes and Hammer developed a preliminary plat. However, this first preliminary plat did not fully comply with the Village Subdivision Code. Specifically, this preliminary plat contained lots with double frontages that were expressly prohibited by the Subdivision Code. While presenting the plat to the PZB, Hammer acknowledged the plat's failure to comply with the Subdivision Code, but he explained to the PZB that he intended to request a variance from the Board. Hammer, however, never requested such a variance. During this initial presentation to the PZB, the PZB also expressed concerns about water run-off and detention area issues, traffic issues, and exits out of and entrances into the proposed development. Eventually, the PZB recommended against approval of the preliminary plat. The Board agreed, further noting that the preliminary plat did not comply with the Subdivision Code in several other ways. For instance, the width and square footage of several lots were too small and easements for maintenance vehicles were less than the required 20 feet.

The Purzes submitted a revised plat to the PZB. This revised plat, however, still contained two lots that were too small and maintenance easements that were less than 20 feet. Additionally, this revised plat had a block in excess of 1,200 feet, in violation of the Subdivision Code. Further, the Village's Fire Chief and Police Chief both expressed concerns about access to the proposed development and requested consideration of a second exit. Despite these concerns, the PZB voted to approve the revised plat, subject to certain stipulations: a north/south road was to be added to the east end of the property, five lots were to be redrawn, and a 20-foot easement was to be added to the plat. The Board, however, declined to follow the PZB's recommendation and was not willing to approve the revised plat even subject to the stipulations. The Board did, however, agree to waive the cost to the Purzes of submitting another revised plat for further consideration.

The Purzes decided to submit a second revised plat to the PZB. Several lots were still too small, and the maintenance easements were still less than the required 20 feet, but the second revised preliminary plat added the requested north/ south road. This road, however, created a new problem for the Purzes because it was not in compliance with the Subdivision Code. Specifically, the road was offset and created a road jog of less than 125 feet. While the PZB, on a divided vote, approved the second revised preliminary plat, the Board rejected the PZB's recommendation. In rejecting the Purzes' second revised preliminary plat, the Board specifically noted that the restriction regarding the required length of a road jog had been strictly enforced in the past, including against a Village school.

Subsequently, the Purzes filed this lawsuit against the Village alleging, among other things, that they were denied equal protection of the laws. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the Village, explaining that the Purzes failed to present "sufficient evidence to allow a reasonable jury to find that similarly-situated property owners were treated more favorably than Plaintiffs." Furthermore, the district court explained that the Purzes' allegations of ill will or animus, "even when taken together, do not come close to the degree required . . . to state an equal protection claim in a class of one case." On appeal, the Purzes argue that the district court improperly required them to prove (1) that more than one other similarly-situated person was treated more favorably, and (2) that the Village acted out of personal ill will. Moreover, the Purzes claim that even if they are required to show personal ill will, the record sufficiently creates a question of fact regarding the Village's ill will, precluding the entry of summary judgment.

II. Analysis

We review a grant of summary judgment de novo, viewing all of the facts, and drawing all reasonable inferences therefrom, in favor of the nonmoving party. See Furnish v. SVI Sys., Inc., 270 F.3d 445, 448 (7th Cir. 2001). "[A] complete failure of proof concerning an essential element of the [non-movant's] case necessarily renders all other facts immaterial." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323, 106 S. Ct. 2548, 91 L. Ed. 2d 265 (1986).

The Purzes proceed under a "class of one" Equal Protection theory. See Village of Willowbrook v. Olech, 528 U.S. 562, 564 n.*, 120 S. Ct. 1073, 145 L. Ed. 2d 1060 (2000) ("[T]he number of individuals in a class is immaterial for equal protection analysis."). To succeed on their class of one claim, the Purzes must demonstrate that they have been "intentionally treated differently from others similarly situated and that there is no rational basis for the difference in treatment." Cruz v. Town of Cicero, 275 F.3d 579, 587 (7th Cir. 2001) (quoting Olech, 528 U.S. at 564). Furthermore, "to make out a prima facie case the [Purzes] must present evidence that the defendant deliberately sought to deprive [them] of the ...

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