Williams v. City of Dothan, Ala.

Decision Date05 November 1984
Docket Number83-7522 and 83-7539,Nos. 83-7379,s. 83-7379
Citation745 F.2d 1406
PartiesGeorge WILLIAMS, Jr., et al., on behalf of themselves and all others similarly situated, Plaintiffs-Appellants, v. CITY OF DOTHAN, ALABAMA; Kenneth Everett, Mayor; Commissioners John H. Glanton, Jr., Raimon G. Thomas, Matt Bullard, S.A. Cherry, Sr., and their successors and agents in their official capacities, Defendants-Appellees.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Eleventh Circuit

James R. Seale, Montgomery, Ala., T.E. Buntin, Jr., D. Taylor Flowers, Dothan, Ala., for defendants-appellees.

Robert E. Weisberg, David M. Lipman, Miami, Fla., Steven D. Caley, Elizabeth R. Herbert, Legal Services Corp. of Alabama, Dothan, Ala., Abigail Turner, Legal Services Corp. of Ala., Mobile, Ala., for Williams, et al.

Appeals from the United States District Court for the Middle District of Alabama.

Before RONEY and VANCE, Circuit Judges, and SIMPSON, Senior Circuit Judge.

VANCE, Circuit Judge:

In this suit, a group of minority residents challenge tax assessments imposed by the city of Dothan, Alabama to pay for a street paving and sewer improvement project in their neighborhood. They contend that the city has violated their equal protection rights by contributing a lower percentage of municipal funds to this project than it has contributed to comparable projects in the past which were located in predominantly white areas. The district court granted the city's motion for summary judgment, reasoning that the plaintiffs' claim was barred by statutory and common law estoppel and the Tax Injunction Act, 28 U.S.C. Sec. 1341. We conclude that the plaintiffs are entitled to their day in court and therefore reverse.

I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

Dothan is the largest municipality in the wiregrass region of southeastern Alabama. Ten years ago, a federal district court found that "there has been and still remains substantial and pervasive racial discrimination in Dothan." Yelverton v. Driggers, 370 F.Supp. 612, 618 (M.D.Ala.1974). The court noted that housing was almost entirely segregated; that there were separate city recreation centers and Boys' Clubs for blacks and whites; that "employment in city jobs, above menial levels, is almost entirely limited to whites"; and that municipal services "have been noticeably neglected in the black areas of town." Id. On the basis of these and other facts, the court concluded that "the City of Dothan has, in the past, evidenced a clear lack of responsiveness to the physical needs of its black citizens." Id. 1 It therefore declared that the city's officials were under "an affirmative duty to provide to blacks their proportionate share of governmental services, employment, and rights of representation on city boards and commissions, in order to remedy the effects of past denial to blacks of access to the political process in Dothan." Yelverton v. Driggers, No. 1305-S, slip op. at 2 (M.D.Ala. Feb. 7, 1974).

Since that order, Dothan has finalized two municipal improvement projects to be financed by special assessments. The first of these, Project 30, was primarily located in a white neighborhood, while the second, Project 31, was located in an area that was predominantly black. Project 30 was initiated in 1973, and the assessment amount was fixed by the city in Resolution 5270 in the spring of 1976. Under Resolution 5270, the city contributed $1,334,328.36 of the cost of Project 30, which amounted to 48.7% of the total, and property owners within the area paid the remaining $1,404,231.91, or $8.00 per foot of street paving. Project 31 was initiated in late November 1978, when the City Commission enacted Ordinance 5950. The city ultimately fixed the assessment amount for Project 31 in Resolution 6803, which was passed in January 1982. It set the city's contribution at $912,276.27. Although the parties calculate the final cost of Project 31 differently and therefore disagree as to the percentage of the total which was paid by Dothan, it is clear that the proportion ultimately paid by the city--whether 14.8% as the plaintiffs assert or 30.2% as the city contends--was significantly less than that which it had paid for Project 30. Property owners in the Project 31 area were charged $23.83 per assessed foot for street paving and $6.06 per assessed foot for sanitary sewer lines. 2

Soon after the Commission initiated Project 31, 3 it published notice of the maximum costs to be assessed property owners. After the notice was published, but before construction began, the Commission held a public hearing on the proposal on December 7, 1978. A number of area residents--including at least fifteen of the named plaintiffs in this case--appeared to object to the proposed assessments. Some requested that their streets be removed from the project, while others (such as lead plaintiff George Williams) indicated that they favored the improvements but felt that the cost was too high. After deleting twenty streets from the project, the city proceeded with the improvements on the remainder, which were completed in late 1981. Then, pursuant to Ala.Code Secs. 11-48-26 and 11-48-27 (1977), the city scheduled public hearings on December 15, 1981 and January 5, 1982 to hear all objections to the proposed assessments. At the January 5 meeting lead plaintiff George Williams filed a petition signed by over one hundred residents of the area, objecting to the amounts they would be charged for Project 31. 4 Nevertheless, the City Commission subsequently passed Resolution 6803, which set the assessments at a level only slightly below the maximum figure proposed in 1978. That resolution was finalized on February 1, 1982. Nine months later, a group of 203 plaintiffs filed this lawsuit as a class action under Fed.R.Civ.P. 23(b)(2). 5 We now turn our attention to the merits of the defendants' motion for summary judgment.

II. THE SUMMARY JUDGMENT MOTION

We begin our analysis with the basic principle that summary judgment should not be granted unless "there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and ... the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). All reasonable doubts and inferences must be resolved in favor of the party opposing the motion. Adickes v. S.H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144, 158, 90 S.Ct. 1598, 1608, 26 L.Ed.2d 142 (1970). Because an appellate court must affirm the lower court's judgment if the result is correct even though it is based upon an improper ground, SEC v. Chenery Corp., 318 U.S. 80, 88, 63 S.Ct. 454, 459, 87 L.Ed. 626 (1943), we will consider all of the arguments originally advanced by the defendants in support of their motion for summary judgment, even though the district court's order expressly relied on only statutory and equitable estoppel and the jurisdictional bar of the Tax Injunction Act.

A. The Estoppel Issue

Asserting that "[t]he undenied evidence before the Court shows that the assessments were duly made and that no written objections were filed to the proposed assessments," the district court concluded that the plaintiffs were barred from bringing this suit on the basis of both statutory and common law doctrines of estoppel. The district court relied principally on Ala.Code Sec. 11-48-26, which provides:

The owner or owners of any real estate or any interest therein which it is proposed to assess for the cost or any part thereof of said improvement may appear at any time on or before the date named in said notice or at said meeting and file in writing with the clerk or in his office any objections or defense to the proposed assessment against said property or to the amount thereof, and persons who do not file objections or protests in writing against such assessment shall be held to have consented to the same.

See also Commonwealth Life Ins. Co. v. First Nat'l Bank, 230 Ala. 257, 160 So. 260, 261 (1935); Jones v. City of Dothan, 230 Ala. 103, 159 So. 689, 690 (1935); cf. Chicago, Milwaukee, Saint Paul & Pac. Ry. Co. v. Risty, 276 U.S. 567, 575, 48 S.Ct. 396, 399, 72 L.Ed. 703 (1928) (finding similar South Dakota statute to comply with due process). The district court also relied on the common law doctrine of equitable estoppel, under which courts have held that a property owner who accepts a public improvement beneficial to his property without making any objection forfeits the right to object to an assessment of his property for the cost of the improvement. See, e.g., Lumbermen's Trust Co. v. Town of Ryegate, 61 F.2d 14, 26 (9th Cir.1932); City of Orangeburg v. Southern Ry. Co., 55 F.Supp. 171, 180 (E.D.S.C.), rev'd on other grounds, 145 F.2d 725 (4th Cir.1944), cert. denied, 324 U.S. 860, 65 S.Ct. 866, 89 L.Ed. 1417 (1945).

The district court has erred in this case, however, by accepting the defendants' rendition of the facts. They assert that the plaintiffs "fail[ed] to make a protest in any fashion," and thereby "acquiesced in the progression of the paving project from start to finish and thus gave the appearance of their approval." The record indicates, however, that lead plaintiff George Williams and at least fifteen of the other named plaintiffs in this action appeared at an initial public hearing less than three weeks after Ordinance 5950 was enacted to protest the maximum assessments which the City Commission had approved, and many of the others who protested on that occasion would presumably qualify for membership in the plaintiff class. Williams and others also attended an additional hearing in early 1982 where they presented a petition to the City Commission objecting to the proposed assessments. The plaintiffs had therefore objected orally at least twice, and had presented written objections at least once, during City Commission meetings held before the assessments were finalized. We find these actions sufficient to escape the bar of section 11-48-26, particularly since past Alabama judicial decisions have repeatedly declined to construe the...

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