988 F.2d 252 (1st Cir. 1993), 91-1053, Casa Marie, Inc. v. Superior Court of Puerto Rico for Dist. of Arecibo

Docket Nº:91-1053, 91-1054.
Citation:988 F.2d 252
Party Name:CASA MARIE, INC., et al., Plaintiffs, Appellees, v. SUPERIOR COURT OF PUERTO RICO for the DISTRICT OF ARECIBO, et al., Defendants, Appellants. CASA MARIE, INC., et al., Plaintiffs, Appellees, v. SUPERIOR COURT OF PUERTO RICO for the DISTRICT OF ARECIBO, et al., Defendants, Appellees, Esther Rivera Santos, et al., Defendants, Appellants.
Case Date:March 09, 1993
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the First Circuit
 
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Page 252

988 F.2d 252 (1st Cir. 1993)

CASA MARIE, INC., et al., Plaintiffs, Appellees,

v.

SUPERIOR COURT OF PUERTO RICO for the DISTRICT OF ARECIBO,

et al., Defendants, Appellants.

CASA MARIE, INC., et al., Plaintiffs, Appellees,

v.

SUPERIOR COURT OF PUERTO RICO for the DISTRICT OF ARECIBO,

et al., Defendants, Appellees,

Esther Rivera Santos, et al., Defendants, Appellants.

Nos. 91-1053, 91-1054.

United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit

March 9, 1993

Page 253

[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

Heard March 2, 1992.

Page 254

Anabelle Rodriguez Rodriguez, Deputy Sol. Gen., with whom Jorge E. Perez Diaz, Sol. Gen., was on brief for defendant, appellant Superior Court of Puerto Rico for the Dist. of Arecibo.

Ramon L. Walker Merino with whom Angel M. Bonnet Rosario was on brief for defendants, appellants Rivera Santos, et al.

William Ramirez-Hernandez with whom Nora Vargas-Acosta was on brief for plaintiffs, appellees.

Carlos E. Vega-Perez with whom Juan Francisco Correa-Luna, Puerto Rico Legal Services Corp., Kim Savage, Jeanne Finberg and National Senior Citizens Law Center were on brief for intervenors-appellees.

Page 255

Before BREYER, Chief Judge, FEINBERG, [*] Senior Circuit Judge, and CYR, Circuit Judge.

CYR, Circuit Judge.

Appellants, neighbors in the Jardines de Arecibo housing development ("JDA") in Arecibo, Puerto Rico ("neighbors"), and the Superior Court of Puerto Rico for the District of Arecibo ("Superior Court"), appeal from an order of the United States District Court for the District of Puerto Rico permanently enjoining enforcement of a final judgment of the Superior Court mandating the immediate closure of Casa Marie, Hogar Geriatrico, Inc. ("Casa Marie"), a live-in, elder-care facility located in the JDA. The Superior Court judgment was based on a determination that Casa Marie was operating in violation of local zoning ordinances and JDA restrictive covenants. Appellees, the owners and operators of Casa Marie, and fourteen of its elderly and handicapped residents, instituted the federal action to enjoin enforcement of the Superior Court judgment. The federal district court ruled that the neighbors' resort to the Commonwealth courts to close Casa Marie violated the federally protected rights of Casa Marie residents under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 ("section 1983") and the Fair Housing Act, 42 U.S.C. § 3604 ("Title VIII" or "FHA").

I

BACKGROUND

  1. The Opening and Expansion of Casa Marie.

    The Jardines de Arecibo housing development was established in 1967. Each property in the development is subject to restrictive covenants allowing only detached single-family residences, prohibiting uses or offensive activities constituting a "nuisance," and requiring prior approval of all construction and alterations. On April 25, 1986, Casa Marie, a live-in facility for elderly handicapped persons, was established by Maria Pla Placencio on a dead-end street in a section of JDA zoned residential (R-3). The R-3 zoning classification allows one and two-family residences, rowhouses, or apartment buildings; elder-care facilities are not allowed except as a variance.

    On May 7, 1986, Casa Marie applied to the Department of Social Services ("DSS") for a license to operate an elder-care facility in two single-family residences located on adjacent Lots 19 and 20. The minimum DSS licensure requirements included endorsements from the fire, police, and health departments, 1 and a valid variance permit from the Administracion de Reglamentos y Permisos ("A.R.P.E."), the agency authorized to oversee and administer local zoning laws. On May 21, 1986, A.R.P.E. granted Casa Marie a variance permit, and on February 4, 1987, Casa Marie was granted a six-month provisional DSS license to operate an elder-care facility on Lots 19 and 20, pending full compliance with all other licensing requirements. When its provisional DSS license lapsed in August 1987, Casa Marie was denied a permanent DSS license due in part to the discovery that the A.R.P.E. variance permit might be applicable to Lot 19 only. DSS nevertheless allowed Casa Marie to continue to operate under DSS supervision.

    During 1987, the Casa Marie owners began to expand operations, incorporating a third single-family residence, on Lot 21, by constructing wheelchair ramps connecting the buildings on Lots 19, 20 and 21. 2 The owners did not seek or secure the required A.R.P.E. construction permits for these renovations. On January 21, 1988, several Casa Marie neighbors filed an administrative complaint with A.R.P.E., pursuant to P.R. Laws Ann. tit. 23, §§ 71x, 72 (1987), 3

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    requesting that A.R.P.E. order Casa Marie to cease all construction and that A.R.P.E. institute judicial action to compel Casa Marie to demolish the unauthorized structures.

  2. The Superior Court Judgment and Appeal.

    On April 18, 1988, while their administrative action was pending before A.R.P.E., the neighbors filed a complaint in the Superior Court against Casa Marie and its owners, alleging violations of the zoning ordinances and the JDA restrictive covenants. The neighbors requested injunctive relief requiring demolition of the inter-building renovations and a cessation of all operations. The A.R.P.E. and Superior Court actions were consolidated in the Superior Court. 4

    In May 1988, in order to remedy its zoning violations, Casa Marie submitted a proposal to A.R.P.E. whereby Lots 19, 20 and 21 would be "grouped" into one property for zoning purposes.

    On July 14, 1988, however, the Superior Court entered judgment against Casa Marie, finding, inter alia, that

    (1) Casa Marie violated local zoning laws by its failure to obtain a valid variance permit for Lot 21, and valid construction permits for the renovations on Lots 19, 20 and 21;

    (2) Casa Marie was engaged in a "commercial-institutional" use, not a "residential use" as required by the covenants;

    (3) Increased levels of traffic and noise in the neighborhood, and the neighbors' fears of "disturbing" the elderly residents, whom they considered "strangers in the neighborhood," had "creat[ed] a dislocation or disorder in the lifestyle of the residential area" which constituted a "nuisance" under the restrictive covenants;

    (4) Certain businesses located in JDA's R-3 zone--for example, a medical office and a day-care nursery--also violated the restrictive covenants, but those violations were insufficient to extinguish the covenants under the equitable doctrine of "changed circumstances"; and

    (5) Even if A.R.P.E. were to permit a variance for Casa Marie in the future, thereby excusing its past zoning violations, A.R.P.E. was without authority under Puerto Rico law to supersede or excuse Casa Marie's coincident violations of the restrictive covenants.

    The Superior Court ordered immediate cessation of the unauthorized operations at Casa Marie, demolition of the unauthorized renovations within four months, and notification of the closure of the elder-care facility to all Casa Marie residents.

    Upon notification of the Superior Court judgment, A.R.P.E. suspended action on the Casa Marie "lot grouping" proposal. Without an A.R.P.E. permit, Casa Marie was ineligible for a permanent DSS operating license.

    On September 9, 1989, in their appeal of the Superior Court judgment to the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico, the Casa Marie owners alleged, for the first time, that the neighbors had discriminated against Casa Marie's handicapped residents under the Puerto Rico Bill of Rights for Aged Persons. See P.R. Laws Ann. tit. 8, §§ 341-347, 343(b) (1987) ("All aged persons shall be entitled to ... live in a dignified environment that satisfies their basic housing ... needs"; authorizing aged persons to bring a "priority" private cause of action in Commonwealth courts). The Supreme Court of Puerto Rico affirmed the Superior Court judgment in November

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    1989. 5

  3. The Enforcement and Contempt Proceedings.

    Casa Marie continued to operate. The neighbors requested a hearing to compel compliance with the Superior Court judgment. At the Superior Court hearing on August 15, 1990, the Casa Marie owners unsuccessfully attempted to interpose Title VIII claims, presumably in behalf of the residents. On October 2, 1990, Legal Services Corporation ("Legal Services") filed a motion to intervene in the Superior Court enforcement proceedings in behalf of five Casa Marie residents ("intervenors"). At the same time, Legal Services brought an independent action in behalf of the intervenors, asserting claims under section 3604 of the FHA, 6 the Puerto Rico Bill of Rights for Aged Persons, and 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The intervenors' section 1983 claims alleged that the Superior Court had acted in concert with the neighbors to deprive Casa Marie residents of their civil rights under the Constitution and laws of the United States.

    On October 9, 1990, the Superior Court issued a civil contempt decree in the neighbors' enforcement proceedings, ordering the arrest and imprisonment of Casa Marie's owners in the event they failed to comply with its final judgment by November 5, 1990.

    Page 258

    On October 23, a different Superior Court judge allegedly expressed ("off the record") reluctance to address intervenors' belated initiatives to stave off the contempt proceedings against Casa Marie for refusing to comply with the Superior Court's final judgment mandating closure. Nevertheless, no order was entered disposing of the motion to intervene or the newly filed Superior Court lawsuit.

  4. The Federal District Court Action.

    Three days later, on October 26, a complaint was filed in the federal district court by Casa Marie, its owners, and nine other residents (hereinafter "nonintervenors"). The complaint alleged that the neighbors and the Superior Court had acted in concert to enforce the zoning ordinances and the JDA restrictive covenants in a discriminatory manner--in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the...

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