City not liable for emergency demolition of building; determination of “emergency” entitled to deference.

RBII,L.P. v City of San Antonio, No. 11–50626 (5th Cir. April 23, 2013).

This is a structural standards case where the City of San Antonio demolished a substandard building but failed to provide notice within a specified time period.  Due to the extreme hazards of the building it was recommended for immediate demolition.  The court allowed a trial to the jury on the Fourteenth Amendment claims of violating procedural due process (due to a lack of notice) and Fourth Amendment unreasonable search and seizure. Jury held for RBII in the amount of $27,000.00 and the City appealed.

The 5th Circuit held where the City acts to abate an emergency threat to public safety, postdeprivation process satisfies the Constitution’s procedural due process requirement.  In determining if predeprivation notice is required the “key question” is not whether there “was actually a danger” but whether the City had reasonable grounds for believing that a danger existed.  If so, the determination requires deference.  RBII focused on the predeprivation analysis and did not assert the postdeprivation process was inadequate.  Further, the unreasonable seizure elements are tied to whether due process was followed in order to determine the “reasonableness” of the seizure.

The City argued the jury instructions were inadequate under the law as it should have noted the City’s determination of an emergency required deference and the City’s compliance with its own procedural ordinances is proof of reasonableness. The 5th Circuit held the trial court “improperly cast the central factual dispute as whether or not the Structure [actually] posed an immediate danger to the public, when the issue should have been whether the City acted arbitrarily or abused its discretion in determining that the Structure presented an immediate danger.” In other words, the 5th Circuit agreed with the City.  This instruction affected both the 14th and 4th Amendment claims. As a result the court vacated the judgment and remanded the case instructing the trial court to reconsider the City’s motion for judgment as a matter of law under the trial record.

This is a good case to review for the evidentiary burden shifting analysis and when deference to the City’s determinations is proper in these types of cases.

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