A lawsuit filed against the city of Ann Arbor over its footing drain disconnection ordinance will be remanded from federal court back to Michigan’s state court system – over the objection of the city of Ann Arbor. The indication came at an 11-minute hearing on Wednesday May 28, 2014 before federal district judge Avern Cohn at the Theodore Levin U.S. Courthouse in downtown Detroit.
The lawsuit had originally been filed against the city three months ago, on Feb. 27, in Washtenaw County’s 22nd circuit court. There it had been assigned to judge Donald Shelton. On March 17, about two weeks after it was filed, the city removed the case from the state court to the federal court.
But the plaintiffs in the case – Ann Arbor residents who had their footing drains disconnected from the sanitary sewer system under the city’s ordinance – filed a motion for remand back to the 22nd circuit court. At the Wednesday hearing, Cohn indicated that he’d be granting the motion for remand.
By way of background, the ordinance that’s being challenged was enacted in 2001. It establishes a program under which property owners can be required to disconnect their footing drains from the city’s sanitary sewer system. Its intent is to diminish the risk of sanitary overflows into the Huron River and of sanitary sewage backups in homeowners’ basements.
The lawsuit – Yu v. City of Ann Arbor – claims the city’s FDD ordinance violates: (1) the Michigan state law setting forth requirements for a government to take private property for public use; (2) the Michigan state constitutional prohibition against taking private property for public use without just compensation; (3) the corresponding U.S. constitutional prohibition against taking private property, which is a Fifth Amendment claim; and (4) the prohibition against violating the federally protected rights of others, which is a claim under 42 U.S. Code Section 1983.
In broad strokes, Cohn summarized all of the plaintiffs’ claims against the city as reducible to claims about inverse condemnation – taking of private property without just compensation. The plaintiffs contend that the city’s ordinance requiring disconnection of footing drains from the sanitary sewer system – and its associated installation of a sump with a pump – is a physical occupation of a homeowner’s property with equipment not belonging to the homeowner.
Inverse condemnation is a kind of claim for which remedies in the state courts must first be exhausted, before moving to federal court. And although the complaint cites federal law in its causes of action, Cohn was not willing to sever the state claims from the federal claims or to stay the federal claims in the complaint.
Because all the claims were about inverse condemnation, Cohn said, “All I know is that I don’t have subject matter jurisdiction until there’s an exhaustion of remedies under state law. I’m going to have to remand it – I can’t keep it. The only way they can exhaust their remedies is in Washtenaw County circuit court.”
Cohn made his position so clear in his initial remarks that the plaintiffs’ counsel – Dan O’Brien of Woods Oviatt Gilman in Rochester, New York – was initially content not to offer oral argument: “I’ll rely on my papers, your honor.”
So assistant city attorney Abigail Elias, who represented the city at the May 28 hearing, was arguing before a judge who’d essentially already indicated how he would rule. She still made a bid to convince Cohn at least to dismiss the federal claims without prejudice, if he was going to remand the state claims back to the circuit court. She opened her remarks by saying, “I understand generally it’s an uphill battle…” but Cohn interrupted, “Not generally. Specifically.”
In the course of the short hearing, Cohn was not generous in his assessment of the city’s legal briefs that had been filed, calling them “jurisprudential legerdemain.”
The hearing is reported below in more detail.