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Challenging Zoning Bylaws: Jurisdictional and Venue Considerations Part II: The Superior Court and United States District Court

This is the third in a series of posts on challenges to zoning bylaws and ordinances, and the second addressing the question of where to bring a challenge to a zoning bylaw or ordinance. The prior post covered the Land Court. The Land Court, however, is not the only court of competent jurisdiction to hear these cases. As the Department of the Massachusetts Trial Court having general jurisdiction, the Superior Court has the authority to hear all manner of claims challenging zoning bylaws and ordinances. As discussed below, the United States District Court, depending on the type of challenge, has the subject matter jurisdiction to hear these types of cases as well.

The Superior Court. Unlike the Land Court, the Superior Court's subject matter jurisdiction to adjudicate claims concerning the validity of zoning bylaws and ordinances is simple and straight forward. First of all, by statute, the Superior Court "shall have original jurisdiction of all civil actions, except those of which other courts have exclusive original jurisdiction." G. L. c. 212, § 4. See New England Tel. & Tel. Co. v. District Attorney for Norfolk Dist., 374 Mass. 569, 572 (1978) ("[u]nlike a United States District Court, the Superior Court is a court of general rather than limited jurisdiction and has the inherent powers of a common law court"). In particular, General Laws Chapter 231A, Section 2 also expressly provides that the

"procedure under [G. L. c. 231A, § 1] may be used in the superior court to enjoin and to obtain a determination of the legality of the administrative practices and procedures of any municipal, county or state agency or official which practices or procedures are alleged to be in violation of the Constitution of the United States or of the constitution or laws of the commonwealth, or are in violation of rules or regulations promulgated under the authority of such laws, which violation has been consistently repeated (emphasis added)."

And, the Superior Court expressly has jurisdiction under G. L. c. 40A, § 17, and Section 10A of the Boston Zoning Enabling Act. The Superior Court, thus, can render a binding declaration concerning the validity of a zoning bylaw or ordinance.

However, as a court of general, rather than specialized, jurisdiction, the Superior Court naturally hears fewer cases challenging zoning bylaws and ordinances than the Land Court. Thus, a potential litigant must assess whether his or her claim would be better brought in the Land Court or the Superior Court. There are pros and cons with going to either court. While the Land Court has more expertise in the area, its specialization can mean that Land Court judges are institutionally conditioned to take a dim view of challenges to bylaws and ordinances, because of their intimate acquaintance with the weighty legal deference these laws are owed. In contrast, a Superior Court judge, who does not hear as many of these cases, may be more open-minded in terms of the potential that a local zoning law may be invalid, than judges who apply the same deferential standard on a regular basis. While these are theories that may obtain in some cases, there is nonetheless no empirical basis to be certain of how a claim will be received simply based on the court a claim is brought in; each case must be assessed based on its particulars and the instincts of the seasoned practitioner.

U.S. District Court. To add yet another layer of jurisdictional / venue complexity, some claims challenging the validity of a zoning amendment may be brought in Federal court. "Article III of the Constitution gives the federal courts power to hear cases 'arising under' federal statutes." Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals Inc. v. Thompson, 478 U.S. 804, 807 (1986). This constitutional authority was codified by Congress in 28 U.S.C. § 1331, which provides that "[t]he district courts shall have original jurisdiction of all civil actions arising under the Constitution, laws or treaties of the United States." Thus, if a claim concerning the validity of a zoning amendment is based upon the protections of the U.S. Constitution, or Federal law, the United States District Courts will have subject matter jurisdiction to decide the claim. Many of these cases have been decided through the Federal Judiciary. See, e.g., Nectow v. City of Cambridge, 277 U.S. 183, 188-189 (1928); National Tower, LLC v. Plainville Zoning Bd. of Appeals, 297 F.3d 14, 23-25 (1st Cir. 2002).

Federal courts also can hear state law based claims under the doctrine of ancillary jurisdiction. See Kokkonen v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. of America, 511 U.S. 375, 379 (1994) ("[g]enerally speaking, we have asserted ancillary jurisdiction (in the very broad sense in which that term is sometimes used) for two separate, though sometimes related, purposes: (1) to permit disposition by a single court of claims that are, in varying respects and degrees, factually interdependent; and (2) to enable a court to function successfully, that is, to manage its proceedings, vindicate its authority, and effectuate its decrees") (citations omitted). However, "Federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction," id., at 377; there raison d'être is, on a basic level, to apply and decide cases brought under Federal law. Federal trial judges are not as conversant with state law as state trial judges. Thus, while there may be a benefit in bringing Federal claims in Federal court, if there are also state law based claims that should also be brought at the same time, parties should pursue litigation in Federal court with caution and trepidation.

Written by Nicholas P. Shapiro, Esq. on behalf of Jeffrey T. Angley, P.C. Edited by Jeffrey T. Angley, Esq.

Copyright (c) 2011-2016 by Jeffrey T. Angley, P.C. All rights reserved.

Disclaimer: The information contained in this post is general in nature and for educational purposes only. No personal legal advice is being provided. If you have an actual legal issue that needs to be addressed, you should seek the advice of competent legal counsel. This post does not create an attorney-client relationship between the reader and Jeffrey T. Angley, P.C., Phillips & Angley or their attorneys.

 

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