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Donovan v. County of Lake

February 5, 2009


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Joan Humphrey Lefkow United States District Judge

Judge Joan H. Lefkow


Defendant County of Lake ("Lake County") moves to dismiss the complaint filed by Christopher Donovan, Amanda Donovan, Robert Cooper and Mary Cooper individually, as residents of the Village of Hawthorn Woods ("Hawthorn Woods"), and on behalf of all similarly situated persons (hereinafter "plaintiffs"). In Count I, plaintiffs allege that Lake County has violated the Equal Protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment by refusing to allocate public funds to replace the water system that serves Hawthorn Woods residents and stating its intention to fund the replacement system by imposing a surchage on the residents' water bills. In Count II, plaintiffs sue as third-party beneficiaries of a contract between Lake County and Hawthorn Woods, alleging that Lake County breached the contract by failing to properly maintain, operate and improve the water system. Lake County contends that the complaint must be dismissed under Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) because the court lacks subject matter jurisdiction over plaintiffs' equal protection claim*fn1 and under 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. For the reasons stated below, Lake County's 12(b)(1) motion [#19] will be granted.


A motion to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) challenges the court's subject matter jurisdiction. In determining whether subject matter jurisdiction exists, the court must accept all well-pleaded facts alleged in the complaint and draw all reasonable inferences from those facts in the plaintiff's favor. Sapperstein v. Hager, 188 F.3d 852, 855 (7th Cir. 1999). "When evidence pertinent to subject matter jurisdiction has been submitted, however, 'the district court may properly look beyond the jurisdictional allegations of the complaint . . . to determine whether in fact subject matter jurisdiction exists.'" Id. at 855 (quoting United Transp. Union v. Gateway W. Ry. Co., 78 F.3d 1208, 1210 (7th Cir. 1996)) (internal citations omitted). "The burden of proof on a 12(b)(1) issue is on the party asserting jurisdiction." United Phosphorus, Ltd. v. Angus Chem. Co., 322 F.3d 942, 946 (7th Cir. 2003) (internal citations omitted).


This case arises from a dispute over who should bear the cost of replacing the water system which serves the residents of Hawthorn Woods and Glennshire, known as the Hawthorn Woods-Glennshire Water System ("HWG WS"). The HWG WS is owned and operated by Lake County pursuant to a contract with Hawthorn Woods executed in 1975 ("1975 Contract"). Under the 1975 Contract, Lake County is obligated to maintain the HWG WS, make any necessary improvements to it and keep it in compliance with state environmental regulations. Plaintiffs allege that state environmental regulations require Lake County to prevent total coliform, which is an indicator of the presence of other potentially harmful pathogens, from developing and to maintain adequate levels of chlorine, which helps to destroy coliform, in the HWG WS. Compl. ¶¶ 13-14, 17-19. Plaintiffs further allege that annual testing revealed the presence of total coliform and that subsequent testing by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency ("IEPA") revealed the absence of chlorine. Id. ¶¶ 16, 18. After receiving these test results, the IEPA advised Lake County that it would need to replace the HWG WS to bring it into compliance with IEPA standards. On November 30, 2006, the Illinois Attorney General filed an enforcement suit against Lake County styled, People ex rel. Madigan v. County of Lake, 06 CH 2569.*fn2

In 2007, Lake County began exploring options for replacing the HWG WS and conducted a series of preference surveys of the residents served by that system to determine which option they preferred. The results of the final survey showed a clear preference for what Lake County termed the County Hybrid Option, a Lake County owned and operated water main with water purchased in bulk from Aqua Illinois, Inc. In a letter dated January 30, 2008, the Lake County Department of Public Works informed the residents that the estimated cost of the County Hybrid option was $4,201,416 or $18,756 per resident payable via a one-time lump sum or over a thirty-year period as a surcharge on the residents' quarterly water bills.*fn3 See Ex. B to Pls.' Resp. Although Lake County agreed to contribute $1 million to the County Hybrid option, it refused the residents' request to use money from its Public Works funds to pay for the balance of the expenses associated with replacing the HWG WS. See Letter from Peter E. Kolb, Director, Lake County Department of Public Works, to Chris Donovan, President, Citizens for an Equitable Water Solution (May 12, 2008), attached at Ex. C to Pls.' Resp. Lake County takes the position that the 1975 Contract obligates the users of the HWG WS to pay for the replacement HWG WS. Id.; see also Def.'s Reply at 8.

Plaintiffs filed this suit on May 29, 2008 contending that Lake County's decision not to use Public Works funds to replace the HWG WS is arbitrary, irrational and unrelated to any legitimate interest such that it violates their right to equal protection because Lake County has used such funds to make capital improvements to infrastructure in other similar situations in the past. Id. ¶¶ 27-30. Plaintiffs also argue that Lake County has breached the 1975 Contract with Hawthorn Woods by failing to properly maintain and make improvements to the HWG WS. Plaintiffs' prayer for relief seeks damages, specific performance of the contract and an injunction forbidding Lake County from further discriminating against them. Lake County has since filed a third-party complaint against the Village of Hawthorn Woods in the state court case alleging, inter alia, that the Village is in anticipatory breach of the 1975 Contract based on the refusal of the HWG WS users or the Village of Hawthorn Woods to pay the surcharge associated with the new water system. See Third-Party Compl. in People ex rel. Lisa Madigan v. County of Lake, No. 06 CH 25696 ¶¶ 203-211, attached as Ex. D to Pls.' Resp.


Lake County moves to dismiss this case for lack of jurisdiction arguing that plaintiffs' equal protection claim is not yet ripe for judicial review and that plaintiffs lack standing to assert such a claim. "It is well-established that the existence of a case and controversy is a prerequisite for the exercise of federal judicial power under Article III." Sprint Spectrum L.P. v. City of Carmel, 361 F.3d 998, 1002 (7th Cir. 2004). "A case or controversy requires a claim that is ripe and a plaintiff who has standing." Ind. Right to Life, Inc. v. Shepard, 507 F.3d 545, 549 (7th Cir. 2007)). The basic rationale of the ripeness doctrine "is to prevent the courts, through avoidance of premature adjudication, from entangling themselves in abstract disagreements . . . ." Sprint Spectrum, 361 F.3d at 1002 (quoting Abbott Labs. v. Gardner, 387 U.S. 136, 148-49, 18 L.Ed. 2d 681, 87 S.Ct. 1507 (1967)). Standing requires a plaintiff to show, inter alia, that "it has suffered an 'injury in fact' that is (a) concrete and particularized and (b) actual or imminent, not conjectural or hypothetical. . . ." Friends of the Earth, Inc. v. Laidlaw Envtl. Servs, 528 U.S. 167, 180-81, 120 S.Ct. 693, 145 L.Ed. 2d 610 (2000). In many cases ripeness coincides squarely with the standing doctrine's requirement of an "injury in fact." Anders. v. Fort Wayne Community Schs., 124 F. Supp. 2d 618, 630 (N.D. Ind. 2000) (quoting Thomas v. Anchorage Equal Rights Comm'n, 220 F. 3d 1134, 1138 (9th Cir. 2000)). Although the two concepts are related, they "require distinct inquiries: Whereas ripeness is concerned with when an action may be brought, standing focuses on who may bring a ripe action." Shepard, 507 F.3d at 549 (emphasis in original) (internal quotations omitted).

Lake County contends that plaintiffs' equal protection claim is not ripe because the surcharge of which they complain has yet to be imposed. For the same reason, Lake County argues that plaintiffs' have not suffered an "injury in fact" and therefore lack standing to sue. In response, plaintiffs argue that their claim is ripe because Lake County has already made the decision not to allocate Public Work funds for the construction of the new HWG WS and stated its intention to impose a surcharge on users of the HWG WS.*fn4

Plaintiffs also argue that they need not show they have suffered an "injury in fact" because they have alleged an equal protection violation.*fn5 The gist of Lake County's argument is grounded in ripeness concerns, which are dispositive in this case. Accordingly, the court need not consider the parties' positions on standing and turns to the ripeness inquiry.

Ripeness deals "with the time, if any, at which a party may seek pre-enforcement review of a statute or regulation." Triple G. Landfills v. Bd of Comm'rs, 977 F.2d 287, 288 (7th Cir. 1992). "Customarily, a person can challenge the legality of a statute or regulation only when he or she is prosecuted for violating it." See Erwin Chemerinsky, Federal Jurisdiction, §2.4.1 (4th Ed. 2003). Consistent with this custom, federal courts within the Seventh Circuit have ruled that cases are unripe when concrete action has yet to be taken against the complaining party. See, e.g., Corey H. v. Bd. of Educ. of Chicago, 534 F.3d 683, 688-89 (7th Cir. 2008) (dismissing appeal for lack of jurisdiction on the basis of ripeness where appellant, the Chicago Board of Education, challenged a 20% enrollment cap on disabled students in any Chicago public school because the schools which the Board asserted could not comply with the cap had not yet applied and been rejected for waivers and no adverse action had been taken against the Board); Oriental Health Spa v. Ft. Wayne, 864 F.2d 486, 489-90 (7th Cir. 1988) (a due process challenge to an ordinance creating license revocation and suspension procedures applicable to massage parlors was not ripe because plaintiff had not yet been threatened with revocation or suspension); Thompson v. Ret. Plan for Employees of S.C. Johnson & Sons, Inc., No. 07-1047, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 96902, at *27-28 (E.D. Wis. Nov. 14, 2008) (dismissing ERISA claim on the basis of ripeness where plaintiffs argued that pension plans in which they participated used an interest credit that exceeded a market rate ...

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