Moore v. Hiram Township, Ohio, 021921 FED6, 20-3259

Docket Nº:20-3259
Opinion Judge:Ronald Lee Gilman, Circuit Judge
Party Name:LAVON MOORE, Successor Trustee of the Clarence M. Moore and Laura P. Moore Trust, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. HIRAM TOWNSHIP, OHIO; JANET PANCOST; GARY BOTT; THOMAS FRANEK; RICHARD GANO; DOES 1-10, Defendants-Appellees.
Attorney:Joel A. Holt, ICKES & HOLT, Stow, Ohio, for Appellant. Tonya J. Rogers, BAKER, DUBLIKAR, BECK, WILEY & MATHEWS, North Canton, Ohio, for Appellees.
Judge Panel:Before: MOORE, GILMAN, and GRIFFIN, Circuit Judges. KAREN NELSON MOORE, Circuit Judge, dissenting.
Case Date:February 19, 2021
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit

LAVON MOORE, Successor Trustee of the Clarence M. Moore and Laura P. Moore Trust, Plaintiff-Appellant,

v.

HIRAM TOWNSHIP, OHIO; JANET PANCOST; GARY BOTT; THOMAS FRANEK; RICHARD GANO; DOES 1-10, Defendants-Appellees.

No. 20-3259

United States Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit

February 19, 2021

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Ohio at Akron. No. 5:19-cv-01750-George J. Limbert, Magistrate Judge.

ON BRIEF:

Joel A. Holt, ICKES & HOLT, Stow, Ohio, for Appellant.

Tonya J. Rogers, BAKER, DUBLIKAR, BECK, WILEY & MATHEWS, North Canton, Ohio, for Appellees.

Before: MOORE, GILMAN, and GRIFFIN, Circuit Judges.

OPINION

Ronald Lee Gilman, Circuit Judge

This case involves a zoning dispute over LaVon Moore's right to continue using his rural property in Ohio as a private airport. Moore filed the present suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that Hiram Township, members of the Township's Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA members), and the Township's Zoning Inspector (collectively, the defendants) violated (1) his procedural due process rights by not following the proper process for issuing a certificate of nonconforming use, (2) his substantive due process rights by unlawfully restricting the use of his property, and (3) his equal protection rights by not requiring other similarly situated landowners to apply for a certificate of nonconforming use. The district court dismissed the case based on the doctrine of res judicata. For the reasons set forth below, we AFFIRM the judgment of the district court.

I. BACKGROUND

Because we are reviewing a dismissal pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, we accept as true all of the factual allegations contained in Moore's complaint. See Kottmyer v. Maas, 436 F.3d 684, 689 (6th Cir. 2006). Moore is the successor trustee of an Ohio trust that is the record title holder of approximately 108 acres of real property located in Hiram, Ohio (the Property). Although Laureen Ruth Moore Copeland was listed as the successor trustee in the prior state-court litigation involving this zoning dispute, LaVon Moore now serves in that role. The Moore family, individually or in trust, has owned and maintained the Property since 1813. They have operated Far View Airport, a small airport located on the Property, since 1948.

Around 1951, the Township enacted a zoning resolution that zoned the Property as Rural-Residential and classified the airport as a nonconforming use. Under Ohio zoning law, a "nonconforming use" is a lawful, preexisting use of property established prior to the enactment of a land-use regulation. See Ohio Rev. Code § 519.19. A nonconforming use can continue so long as the use is not abandoned for two years or more. Id.

The airport has been active in varying degrees since its inception. But its use for ultralight aircraft and hang gliders started only recently, and that use has prompted nuisance complaints from neighboring landowners. In 2016, Township officials told Moore that he needed to acquire a certificate of nonconforming use in order to continue the airport's operations. After two unsuccessful attempts to secure a certificate, Moore was directed to apply to the BZA. This prompted Moore to request a certificate from Zoning Inspector Richard Gano, who in turn referred the matter to the BZA for a hearing.

In September 2016, the BZA conducted a public hearing to determine whether to issue Moore a certificate of nonconforming use. The BZA voted to grant Moore a certificate at the end of the hearing, but imposed several conditions on the certificate. Moore timely appealed the BZA's decision to the Portage County Common Pleas Court pursuant to Ohio Revised Code § 2506.01 et seq. (hereinafter the § 2506 Appeal), naming Hiram Township as the sole defendant. He argued that the BZA's actions were illegal, arbitrary, capricious, unreasonable, and unconstitutional because, among other things, (1) the BZA erred by issuing Moore an improper certificate of nonconforming use, (2) the BZA exceeded its statutory authority by placing illegal conditions on Moore's nonconforming use, (3) the BZA violated Ohio law by placing conditions on Moore's nonconforming use that effectively barred the use from continuing if the airport was ever sold or transferred, and (4) the BZA erred by not following its regular procedures for issuing a nonconforming-use certificate.

In July 2017, the state trial court determined that the BZA had properly issued the certificate, but the court modified several of the conditions imposed by the BZA. Both Moore and the Township appealed the trial court's judgment to the Ohio Court of Appeals. The Township argued that the trial court's modifications to the restrictions placed on the certificate were inconsistent with both the Moore family's prior use and the Township's zoning resolution. Moore in turn argued that (1) the restrictions placed on the certificate were themselves unlawful, and (2) the trial court erred in holding that the BZA was authorized to decide that large-scale use of the airport for ultralight aircraft and hang gliders was a nuisance. In December 2018, the Ohio Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court's judgment in its entirety. Neither the Township nor Moore appealed the matter to the Ohio Supreme Court.

While his appeal of the state trial-court judgment was pending in the Ohio Court of Appeals, Moore turned to the federal courts and filed a complaint in October 2018. As set forth in an authorized refiled complaint, Moore's four claims against the defendants are for (1) a violation of his procedural due process rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for allegedly not pursuing the proper process for issuing a certificate of nonconforming use, (2) a violation of his substantive due process rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for restricting the use of his property in an allegedly unlawful manner, (3) a violation of his equal protection rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for not requiring other allegedly similarly situated landowners to apply for a certificate of nonconforming use, and (4) punitive damages. The Township and the individual defendants filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings based on res judicata, qualified immunity, and the expiration of the statute of limitations. In January 2020, the district court granted the motion, concluding that Moore's claims were barred by the doctrine of res judicata. This timely appeal followed.

II. ANALYSIS

A. Standard of review

We review de novo a judgment on the pleadings granted pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, using the same standard that applies to a review of a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6). Roger Miller Music, Inc. v. Sony/ATV Publishing, LLC, 477 F.3d 383, 389 (6th Cir. 2007). "For purposes of a motion for judgment on the pleadings, all well-pleaded material allegations of the pleadings of the opposing party must be taken as true, and the motion may be granted only if the moving party is nevertheless clearly entitled to judgment." Tucker v. Middleburg-Legacy Place, 539 F.3d 545, 549 (6th Cir. 2008) (internal citation and quotation marks omitted).

B. Res judicata

Federal courts give the same preclusive effect to a state-court judgment as that judgment would receive in the rendering state, meaning that "if an individual is precluded from litigating a suit in state court by the traditional principles of res judicata, he is similarly precluded from litigating the suit in federal court." Ohio ex rel. Boggs v. City of Cleveland, 655 F.3d 516, 519 (6th Cir. 2011) (quoting ABS Indus., Inc. ex rel. ABS Litig. Trust v. Fifth Third Bank, 333 Fed.Appx. 994, 998 (6th Cir. 2009)). We look to Ohio law to assess whether res judicata should attach to the state-court judgment in the present case. Id.

Under Ohio law, the doctrine of res judicata encompasses two related concepts: claim preclusion and issue preclusion. O'Nesti v. DeBartolo Realty Corp., 862 N.E.2d 803, 806 (Ohio 2007) (citation omitted). As a general matter, claim preclusion bars the litigation of claims that were or could have been litigated in the original action. Id. Issue preclusion is more limited, preventing the relitigation of a specific fact or point previously determined by a court. Id. The defendants argue that both apply here. But because claim preclusion bars all of Moore's claims, we need not address issue preclusion.

This court has distilled Ohio's doctrine of claim preclusion down to the following four elements: (1) a prior final, valid decision on the merits by a court of competent jurisdiction; (2) a second action involving the same parties, or their privies, as the first; (3) a second action raising claims that were or could have been litigated in the first action; and (4) a second action arising out of the transaction or occurrence that was the subject matter of the previous action.

Boggs, 655 F.3d at 520 (quoting Hapgood v. City of Warren, 127 F.3d 490, 493 (6th Cir. 1997)).

The defendants bear the burden of proof as to each element. See Winget v. JP Morgan Chase Bank, N.A., 537 F.3d 565, 572 (6th Cir. 2008). Moore, however, does not dispute that this action arises out of the same transaction or occurrence as his prior state-court suit. The fourth element is therefore satisfied because both actions concerned the issuance of the certificate of nonconforming use, leaving only the first three elements to be examined.

1.

Final adjudication on the merits

A judgment was entered by the state trial court that affirmed in part and modified in part the BZA's administrative decision. The judgment specifically discussed the facts of the case and concluded that, although the BZA had properly issued the certificate, some of the conditions...

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