The issue resolved by the Minnesota Supreme Court in Zweber v. Credit River Township, No. A14-0893 (July 27, 2016) was one that land use lawyers deal with constantly: when an administrative agency is alleged to have violated someone's constitutional rights, what procedural route must the legal challenge take -- is the plaintiff required to go to court via administrative channels, or can she initiate an original jurisdiction ("de novo") case?
In Zweber, the court came down on the side of original jurisdiction. There, Zweber owned undeveloped land which he wanted to develop, and he submitted a preliminary subdivision plat to divide it up. After a neighbor objected for the usual reasons (traffic), the County approved the plat application. But Zweber didn't begin development and instead, a couple of years later applied for a new subdivision. "This time, based on the recommendation of the Planning Commission, the County Board denied the application." Zweber challenged the denial up through the administrative appeals process, which in Minnesota meant that he sought a writ (of certiorari) in the Minnesota Court of Appeals.That court reversed and ordered the County to approve the application.
But the County did nothing. After two years of inaction, Zweber brought an original jurisdiction action in the District Court, Minnesota's court of general jurisdiction, seeking damages for a taking, for violating his equal protection rights, and for violating his civil rights (42 U.S.C. § 1983). The County sought dismissal because Zweber was required to have brought his claims in the Court of Appeals via a writ proceeding, and thus the District Court lacked subject matter jurisdiction.
The District Court disagreed and concluded it had jurisdiction, but the Court of Appeals reversed, "reasoning that the County's 'plat approval subject to conditions is a quasi-judicial action, which is reviewable only by certiorari appeal within 60 days,' and that Zweber's 'constitutional claims are not separate and distinct from that action.'"
The Supreme Court held that property owners like Zweber who allege constitutional violations are not obligated to pursue those claims via administrative channels. District Courts are courts of general jurisdiction, and have authority to hear all civil and criminal cases, including those which allege federal claims under section 1983. Yes, review of certain local government actions are by way of certiorari in the Court of Appeals when those actions can be characterized as "quasi-judicial" and the plaintiff challenges their validity, but here it was kind of a mixed bag, and there was "overlap" between Zweber's claims challenging the County's decision, and his constitutional claims.
Here, because "[t]he takings claim does not require an examination into the validity of the County's decisions because it assumes their validity," Zweber was not required to pursue in by certiorari. He "presuppos[ed] that the conditions placed on his plat application were valid, but alleges that they 'constitute[d] a taking [for] which [he] must be compensated." Slip op. at 13. Same analysis for the equal protection claim, because Zweber did not seek reversal of the County's denial, only money damages for the constitutional wrongs of treating him differently than other applicants.
The court rejected the County's argument that Zweber should have been required to split his claim and pursue each in separate forums:
The County nevertheless raises a public-policy objection to allowing Zweber’s claims to proceed. The County complains that dividing the review of quasi-judicial decisions and the adjudication of any derivative claims unnecessarily subjects local governmental entities to expanded liability and protracted proceedings. The County instead suggests that the better procedure would have been for Zweber to have first argued in a petition for a writ of certiorari that the conditions placed on approval of his plat were unconstitutional, and then, if the court of appeals had accepted his argument, subsequently pursued a takings claim in district court. However, nothing in Minn. Stat. § 606.01, nor in our case law, suggests that such an approach is required.
Slip op. at 15.
We think this is the right approach. Check it out.