County of Adams v. Hibbard

Decision Date17 June 1996
Docket NumberNo. 94SC757,94SC757
Citation918 P.2d 212
PartiesCOUNTY OF ADAMS, State of Colorado; Robert J. Loew and Darrel L. Matteson, Petitioners, v. Dean HIBBARD and H.D. Garrison, Respondents.
CourtColorado Supreme Court

Hall & Evans, L.L.C., Alan Epstein, David R. Brougham, Josh A. Marks, Denver, for Petitioners.

Gilbert Goldstein, Denver, Darrel L. Campbell, Englewood, for Respondents.

Justice SCOTT delivered the Opinion of the Court.

The Supreme Court in Monroe v. Pape, 365 U.S. 167, 187, 81 S.Ct. 473, 484, 5 L.Ed.2d 492 (1961), held that 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (1988) must be "read against the background ... that makes a [person] responsible for the natural consequences of his [or her] actions." Today, thirty years hence, we must decide whether a county or county officials may be held accountable under § 1983 for conduct that is designed to cause the outright destruction of a citizen's property. On the record before us, we conclude that the intentional misconduct of county officials causing the destruction of private property is a species of tort within the reach of § 1983 and we hold that government officials may be held personally accountable for their unauthorized and deliberate misbehavior under that Congressional enactment.

We granted certiorari to review Hibbard v. County of Adams, 900 P.2d 1254 (Colo.App.1994). 1 Petitioners County of Adams (County), Robert J. Loew, and Darrel L. Matteson (individual defendants) 2 seek reversal of the court of appeals' judgment affirming the trial court's entry of judgment imposing liability under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (1988) for damage to respondents Hibbard's and Garrison's (plaintiffs) real and personal property. We affirm in part, reverse in part, and remand to the court of appeals with directions that it return this case to the trial court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

I Facts

In 1988, the County adopted Ordinance No. 3 to eliminate "blighted areas" in the County. Section III of Ordinance No. 3 provides that "[t]he exteriors of all commercial establishments or multifamily buildings ... shall be maintained so as to present a neat and orderly appearance." Section V states that a commercial establishment or multifamily building must be "kept free of junk, trash, rubbish, debris or refuse of any kind." If the owner of any property fails to comply with these requirements, the property is declared a "cause of blight," and the owner is subject to enforcement proceedings under the ordinance.

If the ordinance is violated, notice is given to the owner that the subject property must be brought into compliance. If the offending property is not brought into compliance, a hearing is held, and an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) must make findings as to whether causes of blight exist. If the ALJ finds that causes of blight exist and should be corrected, an administrative order is issued commanding the owner to remove the causes of blight.

Plaintiff Hibbard owned real property within the County. Two buildings were located on the property, one of which was a commercial building damaged by fire in 1983 and had not been repaired (fire damaged building). Plaintiff Garrison worked and lived in the other building (Garrison's residence), which contained various items of personal property belonging to Garrison. In 1989, the County, alleging that the property violated Ordinance No. 3, gave notice to plaintiffs and a hearing was held before an ALJ. In a written decision, the ALJ found that the following "blight factors" existed on the property:

A. [A] building which is vacant and was the subject of a fire in 1983 which pursuant to Section III of Ordinance No. 3, County of Adams, is not a building that is being maintained so as to present a neat and orderly appearance....

B. Pursuant to Section V, this Court finds that junk, loose trash, a semi-trailer, fence posts, barricades, tires, wood, bricks, cones, metal junk, piles of asphalt, acetylene tank, rusted containers, cinder blocks, trash, rusted trailers, an inoperable and unsightly van, an inoperable pickup truck, old and unsightly out-buildings, an old and rusted motor cart are all blighting factors on this particular property.

The ALJ's order required plaintiffs to correct the "blight factors" by a specified date and directed that the fire damaged building was to be disposed of a few days later. If plaintiffs did not comply with the order, the County was authorized to enter the premises, remove the items described, and charge the costs as a lien against the property.

Plaintiffs failed to comply with the ALJ's order, and the County proceeded against plaintiffs' property. While clearing the property, the County razed the fire damaged building set forth in the order and, although they knew Garrison's residence was not covered by the ALJ's order, defendants Loew and Matteson intentionally and deliberately directed the destruction of Garrison's residence and the property Garrison stored in that building. 3

Plaintiffs filed this action, asserting several claims against defendants. They sought a declaratory judgment that Ordinance No. 3 was not authorized by any Colorado statute and was unconstitutionally vague. Plaintiffs also sought a joint and several judgment for damages against all defendants based on the destruction of Garrison's residence, the items of personalty stored within that building, and the damage to an underground tank, pump, and well.

The trial court upheld the validity of Ordinance No. 3, but determined that the ALJ's order did not authorize the destruction of Garrison's residence and the personalty stored within it. The trial court also found that the individual defendants knew the ALJ's order did not apply to Garrison's residence but willfully ordered its destruction in violation of plaintiffs' constitutional rights.

The trial court entered a judgment for damages in favor of plaintiff Hibbard for $10,000, for plaintiff Garrison for $3,500, and jointly and severally against all defendants. However, it refused to award any damages for razing of the fire damaged building and the harm caused to the tank, pump, and well. The trial court determined that the damage to these objects was a necessary incident to the destruction of the fire damaged building described in the ALJ's order, which the court concluded was properly authorized to be removed.

The court of appeals affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded the case for further proceedings. Hibbard, 900 P.2d at 1258. The court of appeals stated "that, to the extent that Ordinance No. 3 purports to authorize the County to destroy and remove buildings that do not present a 'neat and orderly' appearance, the same was unauthorized and invalid." Id. at 1260. 4 Therefore, the court of appeals reasoned that the County could not rely upon the ordinance as authority for destruction of either building. Id.

The court of appeals found that Ordinance No. 3 was an express "policy" of the County and thus, the County was liable for destruction of the two buildings. Id. at 1261. Although the plaintiffs sought no damages for the fire damaged building, the court of appeals held the County liable for harm done to other property, such as the underground tank, pump, and well "if such damage resulted from the County's unauthorized action." Id. Regarding Garrison's residence, the court of appeals held that the County was liable for damages resulting to it because the unauthorized acts of defendants Loew and Matteson, the county attorney and his assistant, arose out of their interpretation of the ALJ's order which, in effect, "constituted the adoption of an official county policy." Id. at 1262.

The individual defendants maintained that the trial court erred by entering judgment against them for damages sustained due to the destruction of Garrison's residence and its contents. The court of appeals disagreed. Id. It rejected the individual defendants' contentions that they were sued only in their official capacities and were entitled to qualified immunity. Id. at 1262-64. However, the court of appeals held that the individual defendants could not be liable for damage done to the fire damaged building "because it was, at the time the ALJ issued his order and the individuals interpreted it, by no means 'clearly established' that Ordinance No. 3 was partially invalid." Id. at 1264. Therefore, the individual defendants were entitled to qualified immunity for damages stemming from the ordinance's partial invalidity. Id. Finally, because it concluded that Ordinance No. 3 was partially invalid, the court of appeals remanded the case to the trial court for further consideration of damages.

II Threshold Matters

Before addressing liability under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, we first examine two threshold matters: (1) whether the two individual defendants were sued only in their "official" capacities; and (2) whether the trial court lacked subject matter jurisdiction to address plaintiffs' § 1983 claim because of ripeness considerations. The individual defendants maintain that they were not sued in their individual capacities. We do not agree. Defendants also contend that the § 1983 claim was premature because plaintiffs failed to seek compensation from the county through state remedies, such as inverse condemnation, a direct taking claim under the Colorado Constitution, or a trespass action. This we address briefly below.


The individual defendants rely on paragraph five of plaintiffs' second amended complaint for their allegations that they were sued only in their official capacities:

Defendant Robert J. Lowe [sic] is the County Attorney for the County of Adams, State of Colorado. Defendant Darrel L. Matteson is an Assistant County Attorney employed by the Adams County Attorney. Each and all acts of Defendants Lowe [sic] and Matteson set forth herein were done by them, not as individuals, but under the color and pretense of the ordinances of the County of Adams, State of...

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