Property Rights Case Sent Back to District Court for Further Action

The Second Circuit Court of Appeals has remanded the case of Davis v. Town of Hempstead to the district court. The challenge involves actions taken in accordance with a local law that appears similar to many other local laws in New York State. Therefore the ultimate decision in this case may have serious implications for many municipalities in New York, as well as having the potential to add fuel to the already heated discourse over individual property rights.

The case involves a claim by a property owner that the Town of Hempstead violated his constitutional rights when it removed a structure on his property. The Town had declared the structure unsafe and ordered its repair or removal. The action was taken after the structure was certified as unsafe by an architect retained by the Town and the plaintiff was given notice and an opportunity to respond. When the property owner failed to repair or remove the structure the Town had the structure removed.

The District Court had granted the Town summary judgment. The Court found that this case involved actions that were part of a series of earlier actions previously upheld by the court and therefore the issues had already been decided (res judicata). The Circuit Court concluded that the incident complained of had occurred a year after the actions that were adjudicated in the earlier case. Therefore, the Circuit Court held the removal of the structure was not part of the same incident that resulted in the prior determination and remanded the case to the District Court for further action.

New York State Town Law section 130 specifically authorizes Towns to adopt local laws governing the removal of unsafe buildings. Many Towns have laws similar to the Hempstead law providing a procedure for removal of unsafe structures. Typically these local laws are invoked when a structure is located in area which poses a threat to the public in the event of a collapse. The final decision in this case will likely be instructive as to the full extent of municipal authority in these circumstances.