Burton v. City of Belle Glade

Decision Date25 June 1999
Docket NumberNo. 97-5091,97-5091
Citation178 F.3d 1175
PartiesLillie BURTON, Vallie Danielles, et al., Plaintiffs-Appellants, v. CITY OF BELLE GLADE, Belle Glade City Commission, et al., Defendants-Appellees.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Eleventh Circuit

Christina Maria Correia, ACLU Foundation, Inc., Atlanta, GA, for Plaintiffs-Appellants.

Gerald F. Richman, Gary Steven Betensky, Mark Anthony Romance, Richman, Greer, Weil, Brumbaugh, Mirabito & Christensen, P.A., West Palm Beach, FL, for City of Belle Glade.

John Eldridge Baker, Allen, Mathews & Baker, Belle Glade, FL, for Belle Glade City Counsel.

Margaret Leslie Cooper, Allen Roy Tomlinson, Jones, Foster, Johnston & Stubbs, West Palm Beach, FL, for Belle Glade Housing Authority.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida.

Before TJOFLAT, BARKETT and MARCUS, Circuit Judges.

MARCUS, Circuit Judge:

Appellants, three African-American tenants of the Okeechobee Center, a housing project located in unincorporated Palm Beach County, and four African-American residents of the City of Belle Glade, brought this lawsuit alleging that the City of Belle Glade unlawfully deprived them of their right to vote in failing to annex the Okeechobee Center into the City. Specifically, Appellants contend that the City failed to annex the housing project for racial reasons in violation of the First, Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution, section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and its implementing regulations. After extensive pre-trial proceedings, the district court granted summary judgment in favor of Appellees, the City of Belle Glade and others, on all counts, finding neither a constitutional nor a statutory violation.

On appeal, Appellants challenge the district court's order on three basic grounds: first, the district court purportedly erred in concluding that Appellants failed to raise a genuine issue of material fact as to Appellees' discriminatory intent; second, the district court also erred in holding that the remedies they sought--including the unusual remedy of ordering a city to annex property into its municipal boundaries--were neither available under the Voting Rights Act nor permissible under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure; and finally, the district court erred in granting summary judgment sua sponte to Appellees on Appellants' Title VI claims. After thoroughly reviewing the record and the parties' briefs, we affirm the district court's judgment concerning Appellants' constitutional and Voting Rights Act claims, as well as the Title VI statutory claim, but reverse and remand Appellants' cause of action to enforce Title VI's disparate impact regulations for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.


The historical facts and the procedural history necessary to understand this lawsuit are complex and extensive. At the core, however, this legal battle has been fought over the refusal of the City of Belle Glade ("City") to annex an adjacent housing project known as the Okeechobee Center Farmers' Home Administration Project ("Okeechobee Center") into its geographic and municipal boundaries.

The City of Belle Glade is an incorporated municipality located on the western side of Palm Beach County, near Florida's agricultural heartland. In the 1930s, the federal government created two housing projects outside the city limits. One of them, known as the Osceola Center, was populated by whites and stood at the City's northwest corner. The other, the Okeechobee Center, was populated by blacks and was located to the southwest of the City. In 1947, the City created the Belle Glade Housing Authority ("BGHA"), a board of seven members nominated by the mayor and appointed by the City Commission, to address the "shortage of safe sanitary dwelling accommodations in the City of Belle Glade available to persons of low income at rentals they can afford." The BGHA assumed ownership and operation of both the Osceola and Okeechobee Centers. The centers, however, remain funded in part by the federal government through grants from the Department of Agriculture. "Jim Crow" laws required both housing projects to be segregated by race. 1 During this time, the City also mandated residential segregation. See, e.g., Belle Glade, Fla., Ordinance 45, 184, 273, 443 (Nov. 18, 1931, Sept. 18, 1936, January 12, 1938, December 27, 1939). These ordinances were repealed, however, by 1963. See Belle Glade, Fla., Ordinance 63-11, § 1 (April 24, 1963) (repealing Belle Glade, Fla., Code §§ 26-14 to -17 (relating to zoning)).

In 1960, the total population of the City of Belle Glade was 11,273, of which 7,393 (65.6%) were non-whites and 3,880 (34.4%) were whites. 2 The following year, the City proposed, for the first time, extending its municipal boundaries by annexing both the Okeechobee and Osceola Centers. The City asked the property owner, BGHA, whether it had any views on the matter. After discussing the possible advantages and disadvantages, the BGHA ultimately petitioned to the City only for annexation of the Osceola Center. Soon thereafter, on April 26, 1961, the City Commission considered the BGHA's petition and unanimously annexed the Osceola Center.

In the 1970s, the City and the BGHA twice considered the possibility of annexing the Okeechobee Center. In 1971, the City Commission's minutes simply reflect that a meeting was to be arranged between the City Commission and the BGHA to discuss the possibility of annexing the Okeechobee Center. The minutes make no mention, however, of who made the annexation request or whether any meeting was ever held. Two years later, on February 26, 1973, a group of tenants from the Okeechobee Center asked the City Commission to annex the center. The City Commission advised the tenants that it would consider annexation if the BGHA made the request. On April 17, 1973, the tenants asked the BGHA to petition the City for annexation, but the BGHA denied their request in October 1973. The record does not reflect whether the BGHA offered any reason for denying the request.

The following year, the Florida legislature repealed all local laws pertaining to the adjustment of municipal boundaries and established a uniform legislative standard for use throughout the state. See Municipal Annexation or Contraction Act, 1974 Fla. Laws ch. 74-190, § 1 (codified as amended at Fla. Stat. Ann. §§ 171.021-.022 (West 1987)). The statute specifically provided for the voluntary annexation of any property contiguous to a municipality upon petition by the property owner to the municipality's governing body. See 1974 Fla. Laws ch. 74-190, § 1 (codified as amended at Fla. Stat. Ann. § 171.044(1) (West Supp.1998)). The City Commission also could initiate annexation of any contiguous, compact, and unincorporated property by a referendum of the registered voters of the municipality and the residents of the area proposed to be annexed. See 1975 Fla. Laws ch. 75-297, § 2 (codified as amended at Fla. Stat. Ann. § 171.0413 (West.1987 & Supp.1998)). Notably, according to these provisions, the statute prohibited municipalities from annexing any property that did not meet the statute's definition of contiguity. See 1974 Fla. Laws ch. 74-190, § 1 (codified as amended at Fla. Stat. Ann. § 171.031(11) (West 1987)). 3

Two attempts to secure the City's annexation of the Okeechobee Center through litigation occurred in 1980. 4 Pursuant to a settlement agreement, the City and City Commission agreed to appoint an "Annexation Committee" to investigate and make recommendations concerning the wisdom and efficacy of annexing the Okeechobee Center. 5 In November 1984, after the Committee held public hearings, received comments from the public, investigated and considered the possibilities and ramifications of annexation, and conducted a cost study of annexation, the Committee issued a report recommending against annexation on the grounds that the Okeechobee Center did not satisfy Florida's statutory contiguity requirement and that annexation did not make reasonable economic sense for the City. 6 However, the report also urged the City Commission to consider other factors "relating to the humanitarian aspects of those residing in Okeechobee Center" in light of residents' feelings "that annexation would right past 'wrongs.' " On January 28, 1985, the City Commission officially accepted the Annexation Committee's report.

As far as the record reflects, the tenants' efforts at annexing the Okeechobee Center lay dormant for over ten years, until May 8, 1995, when Albert Peterson, a resident of the Okeechobee Center and President of the Resident's Council of the Okeechobee and Osceola Centers, wrote Mayor Weeks requesting that the City annex the Okeechobee Center. On May 30, 1995, the Mayor denied Peterson's request, concluding that annexation would be "neither feasible nor advantageous to the City from the financial and public services perspective." The Mayor's letter summarized the findings of "[a] study of this issue that was done a number of years ago":

Upon annexation, the City must provide the following municipal services: water, sewer, police protection, sanitation services, street lighting, street signs, street paving, maintenance, drainage, parks and recreation. Since the subject land is exempt from ad valorem taxes, no property taxes would be generated to offset the cost of providing the necessary services, which far outweigh any miscellaneous revenues that might be realized.

Other factors in determining the viability of annexing the parcel included the following: 1) No need exists to expand into the proposed parcel, 2) No industry would be annexed, 3) The parcel would provide no additional facilities to be brought into the City, 4) Annexation would not improve the economy of the City, and 5) The Comprehensive Plan would have to be revised thereby...

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