Gardner v. Balt. Mayor & City Council

969 F.2d 63 (4th Cir. 1992)



Under the "claim of entitlement" approach to substantive due process challenges to municipal land-use decisions, whether a property-holder possesses a legitimate claim of entitlement to a permit or approval turns on whether, under state and municipal law, the local agency lacks all discretion to deny issuance of the permit or to withhold its approval. Any significant discretion conferred upon the local agency defeats the claim of a property interest. A cognizable property interest exists only when the discretion of the issuing agency is so narrowly circumscribed that approval of a proper application is virtually assured. The standard focuses on the amount of discretion accorded the issuing agency by law, not on whether or to what degree that discretion is actually exercised. Even if in a particular case, objective observers would estimate that the probability of issuance was extremely high, the opportunity of the local agency to deny issuance suffices to defeat the existence of a federally protected property interest.


Landowners brought suit against city officials under 42 U.S.C.S. § 1983, claiming that city officials, under pressure from influential residents, improperly prevented landowners from securing necessary approvals for residential development of their property. Landowners contended that city officials violated their Fourteenth Amendment substantive and procedural due process rights, equal protection rights, and that city officials' actions constituted a taking without just compensation. The district court granted summary judgment to city officials, finding that landowners did not have a protected property interest. The court agreed and affirmed the decision, and found that city officials were given the discretion to decide such proposals and that their discretion was properly used.


Were landowners denied substantive due process by the failure of various  city officials to approve proposals for residential development of particular property where officials had approval discretion?




It is well-settled that  the Fourteenth Amendment itself does not create property interests. "Rather, they are created and their dimensions are defined by existing rules or understandings that stem from an independent source such as state law . . . .". In the instant case, Gardner's interest in receiving a public works agreement -- if he had any at all -- is created and defined by the Baltimore city charter and the Planning Commission's subdivision regulations promulgated thereunder. The property interests created by state law have, however, been carefully circumscribed. As the Supreme Court has explained: To have a property interest in a benefit, a person clearly must have more than an abstract need or desire for it. He must have more than a unilateral expectation of it. He must, instead, have a legitimateclaim of entitlement to it."

Moreover, Baltimore's subdivision regulations vest broad discretion with the Planning Commission at virtually every stage of the process. This fact by itself deprives appellants of any legitimate claim of entitlement to the regulatory approvals they sought. Because they did not possess any property interest cognizable by the Fourteenth Amendment's Due Process Clause, their § 1983 action was properly dismissed. 

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