Monday, September 30, 2019

Tennessee Public Participation Act, Tenn. Code Ann. § 20-17-101 et seq.

During its last session, the Tennessee General Assembly adopted the Tennessee Public Participation Act, Tenn. Code Ann. § 20-17-101, et seq. This new provision is much broader than the original Anti-Slap Act which was passed in 1997, Tenn. Code Ann. § 4-21-1001. The older act offered limited protection for communications with public entities. The recent legislation allows the defendant public participant (a neighborhood organization for example) to file a motion (the act actually calls it a petition) to dismiss and the case against the public participant may be dismissed if the legal action is based on that party’s exercise of the right to free speech, right to petition, or right of association. I won’t describe the burdens of production and persuasion further. My interest is to briefly look at this act in relationship to land-use appeals brought under the common law writ of certiorari.

Recall that the certiorari statute requires the administrative tribunal and “other parties of record” be named as respondents in the petition for writ of certiorari. Tenn. Code Ann. § 27-9-104. This term, “other parties of record” has never been defined precisely, and it is unclear as to whether neighbors opposing a particular development are parties of record. I have generally used a rough rule of thumb that I will bring in a neighborhood group which has hired an attorney to represent it before the zoning board or planning commission. Perhaps the neighborhood organization is not a party of record, but the fact that they cared enough to retain counsel is indicative of a desire to participate in the process.

But suppose after naming and serving the neighborhood organization, the neighborhood organization sues under the Tennessee Public Participation Act. The act is so new, it is hard to understand how these two statutes may interreact. Let me make just a couple of observations.

First, legal action is defined by the TPPA as a claim, cause of action, petition, cross-claim, or counterclaim or any request for legal or equitable for relief initiated against a private party. Tenn. Code Ann. § 20-17-103 (5). Since a petition for writ of certiorari does not usually state a legal or equitable claim for relief as against any neighbor or neighborhood group, only against the local government and its administrative board the relief sought is usually a reversal of the decision of the administrative body (and attorneys fees if applicable), it is not clear that a neighbor brought into a cert proceeding can file a motion to dismiss under the TPPA. In fact, under Tenn. Code Ann. § 27-9-110, if a respondent is named in the petition, and that respondent does not desire to defend the case, the respondent does not need to do anything, including filing an answer. No adverse consequences will flow from this failure to respond. Remember too that the answer does get filed until 30 days after the filing of the transcript, which would give a neighborhood a chance to look at the transcript and make a decision as to filing an answer after receipt of that document.

Second, perhaps prior to filing the petition for writ of certiorari, counsel for the appealing party should contact the attorney for the neighborhood organization and simply ask if they want to be involved. If not, the neighborhood organization is not named, and if there is a complaint later, (for example, after the appealing party wins and the decision of the local administrative body is reversed), where the neighbors argue that they should have been involved and that the judgment is invalid as a result, the communication with the attorney for the organization may be enough to demonstrate that the neighborhood organization waived its right to participate.

Another option for the petitioner, would be to file against the local government and its administrative body, and only give notice of the appeal to the neighborhood organizations. The neighborhood group if it so desires could petition for leave to intervene after such notice. See Tenn. Code Ann. § 27-9-110(b).

Third, an interesting component of the TPPA is that discovery is stayed upon the filing of a petition to dismiss until the court rules. Tenn. Code Ann. § 20-17-104(d).  This might be a disadvantage in most cases, but in certiorari proceeding there is little to no discovery in any event, and so an automatic stay of discovery has little to no bearing on the proceedings of the litigation.

Frankly, I don’t see that there is any reason for a neighborhood organization to file a petition to dismiss under the TPPA in response to a common law writ of certiorari. But it has already happened in one case of mine, and I suspect that such petitions for dismissal will be increasingly frequent.

Friday, September 27, 2019

Administrative Hearings by Legislative Bodies

Dellinger v. Lincoln County, 2019 WL 3115211 (N.C. Ct. App. July 16, 2019)  is an interesting conditional use permit case which involved a final hearing by the local legislative body. The difficulty was that one of the members of the local legislative body evidently came into the hearing with preconceived ideas about the benefits of the permit. North Carolina has a statute one point:

A member of any board exercising quasi-judicial functions ... shall not participate in or vote on any quasi-judicial matter in a manner that would violate affected persons’ constitutional rights to an impartial decision-maker. Impermissible violations of due process include, but are not limited to, a member having a fixed opinion prior to hearing the matter that is not susceptible to change, undisclosed ex parte communications, a close familial, business, or other associational relationship with an affected person, or a financial interest in the outcome of the matter.

N.C. Gen. Stat. § 160A-388(e)(2) (2017).

Governing bodies sitting in a quasi-judicial capacity are performing as judges and must be neutral, impartial, and base their decisions solely upon the evidence submitted.In quasi-judicial proceedings, no board or council member should appear to be an advocate for nor adopt an adversarial position to a party, bring in extraneous or incompetent evidence, or rely upon ex parte communications when making their decision.  PHG Asheville, LLC v. City of Asheville, 822 S.E.2d 79, 85 (2018).  Board members acting in a quasi-judicial capacity are held to a high standard: “[n]eutrality and the appearance of neutrality are equally critical in maintaining the integrity of our judicial and quasi-judicial processes.”

Dellinger v. Lincoln Cty., No. COA18-1080, 2019 WL 3115211, at *3 (N.C. Ct. App. July 16, 2019).

A party who asserts a board member is biased against them may move for recusal. The burden is on the moving party to prove that, objectively, the grounds for disqualification exist.

There is a “presumption of honesty and integrity in those serving as adjudicators on a quasi-judicial tribunal,” but that presumption does not preclude a showing of demonstrated bias, mandating recusal.

Bias has been defined as a predisposition to decide a cause or an issue in a certain way, which does not leave the mind perfectly open to conviction. Bias can refer to preconceptions about facts, policy or law; a person, group or object; or a personal interest in the outcome of some determination. However, in order to prove bias, it must be shown that the decision-maker has made some sort of commitment, due to bias, to decide the case in a particular way.

During the initial application several years back and the later appeal, perhaps as recently as two years ago I assisted in opposing the solar farm. I contributed financially. I expressed my opinion to others and had discussions with both those in favor and those opposed to the matter. All of these actions took place while I was a private citizen.

Petitioners clearly demonstrated Permenter’s bias based upon his actively opposing this specific conditional use application and appeal in the past, committing money to the cause of preventing them from obtaining the conditional use permit, and openly communicating his opposition to others. Permenter’s bias is not based upon his general discussion of or attitude toward solar farms or conditional use permits, but his position, contributions, and activities involving the grant or denial of this conditional use permit for Petitioner’s proposed solar farm. Permenter’s activities and positions proved he had a “commitment” to “decide the case in a particular way” or had a “financial interest in the outcome of the matter,” mandating recusal.

During the 5 June 2017 Board meeting and while sitting on the Board hearing the matter, Permenter advocated and presented ten pages worth of his “condensed evidence” in an attempt to rebut Petitioners’ prima facie case. This submission was made after another commissioner had already made a motion to deny the conditional use permit and had read the proposed order on the record. The “condensed evidence” advocated and presented by Permenter was biased, one-sided, and incomplete

As a result, the Court of Appeals reversed the decision of the lower court and ordered the issuance of the conditional use permit.

In most areas in Tennessee, conditional use permits are heard only by the Board of Zoning appeals. As a result, there is generally little chance of this same kind of overreaching by legislative bodies in the context of a conditional use permit. However, many zoning regulations provide for at least some hearing on a planned unit development before the local legislative body. These hearings are generally considered to be administrative in nature, similar to the conditional use permit application in this North Carolina case. As a result, the types of conduct outlined above which do not conform to due process requirements, can occur in Tennessee in the context of a planned unit development.

It is important to recognize that in an administrative proceeding such as a planned unit development members of the local legislative body are acting as judges, not legislators. Those members must be much more circumspect in their actions and words.

When dealing with a legislative matter, a preconceived idea about the impact of a particular zoning issue is not disqualifying. Many times, legislators are elected for their particular position on important issues. But in the context of a planned unit development, such preconceived biases are illegal and unconstitutional. The members of a local legislative body must understand the difference.