South Macomb Disposal Authority v. Washington Tp.

Decision Date13 May 1986
Docket NumberNo. 85-1015,85-1015
Citation790 F.2d 500
PartiesSOUTH MACOMB DISPOSAL AUTHORITY, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. TOWNSHIP OF WASHINGTON, et al., Defendants-Appellees.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Sixth Circuit

Roy W. Rogensues, Fraser, Mich., for plaintiff-appellant.

Joseph Crystal, Southfield, Mich., for defendants-appellees.

Before ENGEL, CONTIE and MILBURN, Circuit Judges.

CONTIE, Circuit Judge.

South Macomb Disposal Authority (SMDA) appeals from the district court's dismissal of its complaint. The district court held that SMDA, a municipal corporation, was not a "person" under 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1983 for the purposes of instituting an action. We affirm the district court's dismissal of the appellant's complaint on the ground that SMDA had failed to state a cause of action under section 1983.


For purpose of review, we will assume the allegations in the complaint are true. Scheuer v. Rhodes, 416 U.S. 232, 94 S.Ct. 1683, 40 L.Ed.2d 90 (1974); Lee v. Western Reserve Psychiatric Habilitation Center, 747 F.2d 1062 (6th Cir.1984).

The plaintiff-appellant, SMDA, is a municipal corporation 1 organized under the laws of Michigan. Mich.Comp.Laws Ann. Sec. 123.301. Its purpose is to dispose of solid waste generated by certain municipalities. The defendants are Washington Township, a general law township in Michigan, the supervisor of the Township and individual members of the Washington Township Planning Commission.

The controversy involved in this lawsuit arose in February 1982 when SMDA applied for a soil removal permit from the Township pursuant to a Township ordinance. 2 SMDA was notified by the Township's supervisor that it must first apply for a conditional use permit pursuant to the Township's zoning ordinance before the Township would approve a soil removal permit. SMDA complied with this request, and subsequently complied with a request to revise its application. In May 1982, the Planning Commission met, without informing SMDA, in order to discuss SMDA's conditional use application. The Commission decided to impose several conditions on SMDA before granting its conditional use application. 3

In its complaint, filed June 17, 1982, SMDA claims that these conditions are not requirements under the zoning ordinance and were imposed out of animosity towards SMDA. SMDA further alleges that no other similarly situated landowner has been required to meet such conditions, and argues that imposing these conditions was arbitrary, unreasonable and discriminatory. SMDA reasons that the imposition of these conditions denied it due process and equal protection of the law, and that its right to mine soil and minerals was taken without just compensation. SMDA states that its cause of action arises under 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1983 in that the defendants, acting under color of law, deprived SMDA of its constitutionally protected rights. SMDA requested actual and punitive damages and injunctive relief. Although the permits were eventually granted, SMDA argues that the defendants' actions nonetheless constitute constitutional violations.

Upon the defendants' motion for dismissal of the complaint pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6) and 12(c), the district court held that SMDA "as a municipal corporation is [not] a private person as contemplated by the Civil Rights Act"--in other words, that a municipal corporation could not be a plaintiff under 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1983. SMDA argues that it can be a section 1983 plaintiff and that its claim is a cognizable section 1983 claim. 4


42 U.S.C. Sec. 1983 provides:

Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State or Territory or the District of Columbia, subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress. For the purposes of this section, any Act of Congress applicable exclusively to the District of Columbia shall be considered to be a statute of the District of Columbia.

(Emphasis added). 5

The term "person" appears twice in the statute, one relating to proper plaintiffs under the statute, the other relating to proper defendants. In Monell v. New York City Department of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658, 98 S.Ct. 2018, 56 L.Ed.2d 611 (1978), the Supreme Court held that "municipalities and other local government units" were "persons" under section 1983, id. at 690, 98 S.Ct. at 2035, and could "be sued for constitutional deprivations visited pursuant to governmental 'custom' ...," id. at 690-91, 98 S.Ct. at 2035-36, thereby overruling its previous decision on this question. Monroe v. Pape, 365 U.S. 167, 81 S.Ct. 473, 5 L.Ed.2d 492 (1961). In reaching the decision that a municipal corporation was a proper defendant under section 1983, the Court relied on an Act of Congress which stated that "in all acts hereafter passed ... the word 'person' may extend to bodies politic and corporate ... unless the context shows that such words were intended to be used in a more limited sense." Id., 436 U.S. at 688, 98 S.Ct. at 2034, quoting Act of Feb. 25, 1871, Sec. 2, 16 Stat. 431. The Court reasoned that in 1871, when the predecessor statute to section 1983 was enacted, 6 municipal corporations "were included within the phrase 'bodies politic and corporate' and, accordingly, the 'plain meaning' of Sec. 1 is that local government bodies were to be included within the ambit of persons who could be sued under Sec. 1 of the Civil Rights Act." 436 U.S. at 688-89, 98 S.Ct. at 2034-35. Since a municipal corporation is a "person" under section 1983 for purposes of being sued, a threshold question in this case is whether a municipal corporation qualifies as a proper plaintiff by being an "other person within the jurisdiction" of the United States. 7

A private corporation is clearly a "person" within the meaning of the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses, Grosjean v. American Press Co., 297 U.S. 233, 244, 56 S.Ct. 444, 446, 80 L.Ed. 660 (1936); Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. v. Ward, --- U.S. ----, 105 S.Ct. 1676, 1683 n. 9, 84 L.Ed.2d 751 (1985), and within the meaning of section 1983 to constitute a proper plaintiff. Fulton Market Cold Storage Co. v. Cullerton, 582 F.2d 1071, 1079 (7th Cir.1978), cert. denied, 439 U.S. 1121, 99 S.Ct. 1033, 59 L.Ed.2d 82 (1979); Advocates for the Arts v. Thomson, 532 F.2d 792, 794 (1st Cir.), cert. denied, 429 U.S. 894, 97 S.Ct. 254, 50 L.Ed.2d 177 (1976); Borreca v. Fasi, 369 F.Supp. 906, 911 (D.Hawaii 1974).

The Fifth Circuit has held, however, that a municipal corporation was not a proper plaintiff because it was not a "person" within the meaning of section 1983. City of Safety Harbor v. Birchfield, 529 F.2d 1251 (5th Cir.1976). In reaching this conclusion the court did not have the benefit of the Monell decision and partially relied on the premise that this conclusion "constitutes a proper extension of the reasoning of recent Supreme Court cases which have established that a municipality is not a "person" within the meaning of 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1983 when the municipality is sued as a defendant." Id. at 1253 (citing City of Kenosha v. Bruno, 412 U.S. 507, 513, 93 S.Ct. 2222, 2226, 37 L.Ed.2d 109 (1973); Moor v. County of Alameda, 411 U.S. 693, 699-700, 93 S.Ct. 1785, 1790-91, 36 L.Ed.2d 596 (1973); and Monroe v. Pape, 365 U.S. 167, 187-92, 81 S.Ct. 473, 484-86, 5 L.Ed.2d 492 (1961)). We are of the opinion that in light of Monell, it would be a strained analysis to hold, as a matter of statutory construction, that a municipal corporation was a "person" within one clause of section 1983, but not a "person" within another clause of the same statute. 8 Rather, we believe the outcome in this case is dictated by a different body of law, which analyzes whether the appellant, as a municipal corporation, may assert constitutional claims against its creating state, or political subdivisions thereof, and, if so, in what context may it assert such claims. See, e.g., Appling County v. Municipal Electric Authority of Georgia, 621 F.2d 1301, 1308 (5th Cir.) (per curiam), cert. denied, 449 U.S. 1015, 101 S.Ct. 574, 66 L.Ed.2d 474 (1980).

In order to state a cause of action under section 1983, a plaintiff must allege a "deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws...." 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1983. Since corporations, both public and private, are not "citizens" within the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment, see, e.g., Hague v. Committee for Industrial Organization, 307 U.S. 496, 514, 59 S.Ct. 954, 963, 83 L.Ed. 1423 (1939); Grosjean v. American Press Co., 297 U.S. 233, 244, 56 S.Ct. 444, 446, 80 L.Ed. 660 (1936) (private corporation); Williams v. Mayor & City Council of Baltimore, 289 U.S. 36, 40, 53 S.Ct. 431, 432, 77 L.Ed. 1015 (1933) (municipal corporation), they can never assert the denial of privileges and immunities under section 1983. The issue before this court is actually quite narrow: whether a political subdivision of a state receives any protection from the Due Process or Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment vis-a-vis another political subdivision of the same state. We believe this question is answered by analyzing the ramifications of the relationship between the plaintiff and the defendant, as well as the nature of the claim which is asserted.

There has long been a distinction between private and public corporations when it comes to a state's power to regulate. In Trustees of Dartmouth College v. Woodward, 17 U.S. (4 Wheat.) 518, 4 L.Ed. 629 (1819), the Court explained that a state's power to regulate a private corporation was limited by the United States Constitution, whereas the Constitution did not act as a bar for the state's regulation of its own public...

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