U.S. Seventh Circuit - The FindLaw 7th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries Blog

It May Stink Like a Hog Farm, But It's Not 'Retaliation'

Much like the hog farms that once populated Tazewell County, local political battles really stink.

But even when a local board's actions look — and smell — like retaliation, a plaintiff can still lose a retaliation lawsuit.

Alice Guth owns five properties in a mixed rural/suburban area in central Illinois, three miles from the Village of Morton. She lives in a house that's on one of the parcels. The other four parcels, totaling about 190 acres and very near the house, were (until recently) zoned agricultural. It took Guth years to convince the County to rezone the property as rural residential.

Between 2004 and 2006, the Tazewell County Board twice rejected Guth's zoning applications, so Guth sued the County Board in state court. That lawsuit ended in a settlement through the Board's Risk Management Committee, entered on the court record as an "Agreed Order" that the Board would rezone Guth's parcels as rural residential. But the court didn't actually order the Board to rezone the land.

The County Board continued to refuse to rezone Guth's land, but rezoned neighboring parcels. By the time the Board relented and granted the Guth's applications in 2008, the real estate market had collapsed. Guth's parcels were no longer worth more zoned residential than they had been when zoned agricultural.

Guth filed a federal civil rights lawsuit, alleging that the Board engaged in invidious discrimination in favor of the neighboring parcels (thus a denial of equal protection to a "class of one"), and that the Board denied her rezoning applications in 2007 as payback for her first lawsuit.

The district court granted summary judgment for the defendants, and the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed.

First, the appellate court noted that Guth's "class of one" argument failed because Guth's property was closer to local hog farms than the neighboring parcels. (Apparently, there was concern that rezoning Guth's land could result in a nuisance suit to abate the hog farming as a private nuisance, even though Illinois' Farm Nuisance Suit Act insulates farmers from most of those claims.)

Second, the appellate court noted that Guth encountered an "unusual obstacle" with her retaliation claim by attempting to prove the bad intent of a legislative body, instead of certain individuals on the Board. Because some Board members voted for rezoning -- and some who voted against rezoning didn't indicate a reason -- the appellate court couldn't determine whether enough anti-rezoning votes were motivated by retaliation.

Finally, the Seventh Circuit noted that, while the Board's delays resulted in Guth's properties being rezoned when residential zoning had lost its value, that loss of value was unrelated to anything the Board had ever done. Thus, the Board could not be held liable.

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