URI STUDENT SENATE v. TOWN OF NARRAGANSETT No. 10-1209.
631 F.3d 1 (2011)
URI STUDENT SENATE et al., Plaintiffs, Appellants, v. TOWN OF NARRAGANSETT et al., Defendants, Appellees.
United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit.
Decided January 5, 2011.
Marc DeSisto, with whom Mark A. McSally, Town Solicitor, Kelly, Kelleher, Reilly & Simpson, and DeSisto Law were on brief, for appellees.
Before LYNCH, Chief Judge, SELYA and THOMPSON, Circuit Judges.
SELYA, Circuit Judge.
The town of Narragansett (the Town), a sleepy seaside community in southern Rhode Island, boasts some of the most beautiful beaches on the eastern seaboard. Each summer, the Town experiences a substantial influx of seasonal residents. Each fall, the Town empties out, leaving a large number of dwellings unoccupied. The Town's proximity to the University of Rhode Island (URI) makes these dwellings attractive for student housing.
This thriving rental market among college students has proven to be both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, the clamor for student housing is an economic boon to property owners willing to rent their dwellings. On the other hand, the sheer mass of exuberant young people and their predilections have proven to be a threat to the quality of life in a quiet enclave.
In an effort to balance these competing concerns, the Town adopted a novel ordinance authorizing local police officers to post a bright orange sticker at the front entrance of any residence found to have hosted an "unruly gathering." The ordinance has had its detractors, and this case was brought as a multifaceted challenge to it. The challengers complain that the ordinance is both preempted by state law and unconstitutional on its face.
The district court, in a thoughtful and comprehensive rescript, rejected these plaints. See URI Student Senate v. Town of Narragansett,
We first recount the circumstances surrounding the adoption of the ordinance and summarize its terms. We then limn the travel of the case.
The Narragansett Town Council initially adopted an "unruly gatherings" ordinance in 2005. It amended that ordinance in 2007. The amended version (the Ordinance), codified at chapter 46, article II, of the Town's Code of Ordinances, remains in force. We refer throughout to that version, which is reprinted in the appendix.
Section 46-31 of the Ordinance empowers local police officers to intervene at and disperse gatherings that are sparking "a substantial disturbance." The police may only do so, however, when the disturbance involves "a violation of law." Subsection (a) provides an illustrative list of instances of unlawful conduct that might constitute such a violation (e.g., excessive noise, obstruction of public streets, illegal parking, public drunkenness or urination, service of alcohol to minors).
Once the police have abated and dispersed an unruly gathering, subsection 46-32(a) authorizes them to prominently post a notice on the premises. This notice takes the form of a bright orange ten-by-fourteen-inch sticker, which is affixed on or near the front entrance of the building.
The Ordinance makes explicit allowance for certain defenses to prosecution for a subsequent violation. For example, under subsection 46-34(a)(5), a showing that only uninvited participants engaged in the proscribed conduct serves as a defense for innocent landlords, tenants, or event sponsors. To assert this defense, a landlord, tenant, or sponsor must show that she took "all steps reasonably necessary to exclude" the responsible individuals. As to landlords, such exclusionary actions include "actively attempting" to evict boisterous tenants.
The posting periods prescribed by subsection 46-32(a) correspond with the economic realities of the seasonal housing cycle. If a building is posted between the beginning of September and the end of May, the sticker must remain in place until May 31. If a building is posted between the beginning of June and the end of August, the sticker must remain in place until August 31.
Under subsection 46-32(b), landlords and tenants are jointly responsible for maintaining the notice in place. If a landlord or tenant removes the sticker, abets its removal, or tampers with it during the posting period, she is subject to a fine.
Section 46-35 delineates the penalties associated with infractions at previously posted dwellings. Under subsection (a), the first post-posting intervention during a given posting period incurs a $300 fine; the second, a $400 fine; and any further intervention, a $500 fine. Under subsection (b), violators may be required to perform community service or, for repeat offenders, community service is mandatory.
The Town routinely compiles statistics relating to its enforcement of the Ordinance. Its roster of offending dwellings includes all addresses at which police officers have intervened to abate and disperse unruly gatherings. It also maintains a list that features data relating to Ordinance violations committed by URI students.
Travel of the Case.
In May of 2008, the appellants challenged the Ordinance in a Rhode Island court. The defendants removed the case to the district court in pursuance of federal question jurisdiction. See 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331, 1441.
The lead plaintiff-appellant is the URI Student Senate, which claims to represent the interests of URI students generally. The remaining plaintiffs, also appellants here, can be sorted into three categories. The first group comprises individual URI students who reside in Narragansett and have felt the sting of the Ordinance. These appellants claim, among other things, that they have been subjected to university disciplinary procedures as a result of violating the Ordinance.
The complaint is cast mostly, but not entirely, as a series of constitutional challenges. The exception is a preemption claim positing that the Ordinance is preempted by a state statute. The constitutional claims allege variously that the Ordinance (i) violates substantive due process, (ii) is unconstitutionally vague, (iii) is overbroad, (iv) offends the requirements of procedural due process, and (v) deprives the appellants of equal protection of the law.
In due season, the parties cross-moved for summary judgment on stipulated facts. The district court denied the appellants' motion and granted the cross-motion. URI Student Senate, 707 F.Supp.2d at 304. The court expressed concern about the absence of any pre-posting opportunity to challenge the orange stickers, id. at 296, 302, but nonetheless upheld the Ordinance. This timely appeal ensued.
We begin our analysis with the preemption claim and then move to the constitutional claims. Before undertaking this exegesis, we pause to memorialize the standard of review.
We review an appeal from the entry of summary judgment de novo. Osediacz v. City of Cranston,
The appellants assert that the Ordinance is preempted by the Rhode Island Residential Landlord and Tenant Act (L & T Act), R.I. Gen. Laws §§ 34-18-1 to 34-18-57. As its title implies, the L & T Act speaks to the rights and obligations of landlords and tenants within Rhode Island. See id. §§ 34-18-2, 34-18-7. In advocating preemption, the appellants rely on section 34-18-36, which gives most tenants the right to cure any material breach of a rental agreement prior to eviction.
Under Rhode Island law, a municipal ordinance may be preempted by a state statutory scheme either if the ordinance conflicts with the statutory scheme or if it can be shown that the General Assembly intended its statutory scheme to occupy the whole of the regulatory field in connection with a given subject. Amico's Inc. v. Mattos,
The appellants contend that the Ordinance conflicts with section 34-18-36 of the L & T Act because it "requires" a landlord to evict an offending tenant without providing the tenant with an opportunity to cure. Eviction is required, the appellants say, so that the landlord can avoid liability for subsequent Ordinance violations at posted properties.
This argument represents a triumph of hope over reason. The Ordinance does not require a landlord to initiate eviction proceedings against an offending tenant. Rather, section 46-34(a)(5) explains that the owner of a previously posted property may avoid liability for a subsequent unruly gathering at that location as long as the owner is "actively attempting to evict a tenant from the premises." Affording the landlord an "ongoing eviction" defense is not tantamount, either legally or practically, to compelling him to institute eviction proceedings.
The appellants try to dodge this bullet. They note that, under the L & T Act, the first step in evicting a tenant is the issuance of a noncompliance notice. R.I. Gen. Laws § 34-18-36. The appellants declare that this provision grounds a preemption claim because sending a notice of noncompliance is antithetic to an active attempt at eviction.
This ipse dixit is not accompanied by any explanation as to why or how the transmittal of a notice of noncompliance interferes with, let alone negates, the active pursuit of eviction. Bearing in mind that sending such a notice is the first step in the eviction pavane, the two acts seem entirely compatible. Certainly, there is nothing in either the text of the Ordinance or the letter of the L & T Act that precludes simultaneous compliance with both.
In all events, conflict preemption requires a direct conflict or something very close to it. See, e.g., Freightliner Corp. v. Myrick,
In the instant case, we are unable to discern either a direct conflict or an irreconcilable inconsistency between the provisions of the Ordinance and the provisions of the L & T Act. We therefore hold, without serious question, that the L & T Act does not preempt the Ordinance.
The appellants advance a compendium of constitutional challenges to the Ordinance. Because they have not pressed either their generalized substantive due process or equal protection claims, we eschew any further discussion of those initiatives. Without exception, what remains are facial challenges.
It is familiar lore that the essence of procedural due process is prior notice and an opportunity to be heard. Bd. of Regents v. Roth,
In an effort to cross this threshold, the appellants focus on reputational harm, that is, the allegedly stigmatizing effects of the Ordinance. They say that when a residence is posted with an orange sticker, both the landlord and the tenants are publicly branded as criminals. They add that this stigma is heightened by the Town's action in keeping a publicly available register of all posted premises.
Student tenants are alleged to suffer a further detriment. When an orange sticker is posted on premises occupied by a university student, the Town informs URI. In the appellants' view, this additional step exposes student tenants to disciplinary proceedings and exacerbates the stigmatizing effect of the postings.
This argument cannot withstand scrutiny. In constitutional jurisprudence, stigmatization is a term of art. The Supreme Court has made clear that a procedural due process claim cannot rest upon reputational harm alone. Paul v. Davis,
The "plus" part of this formulation is not an empty formality. In determining whether there exists a cognizable harm, the stigma plus standard requires us to address two distinct components: (i) the nature of the incremental harm to which the appellants point and (ii) the source of that harm.
The nature of the affected interest is not the only hurdle that a complaining party must overcome in order to satisfy the stigma plus standard. The standard requires that the change in rights or status be directly attributable to the challenged governmental action. Id. Where the stigma and the incremental harm—the "plus" factor—derive from distinct sources, a party cannot make out a viable procedural due process claim. See, e.g., Hawkins v. R.I. Lottery Comm'n,
The appellants acknowledge that a showing beyond purely reputational harm is required by the stigma plus standard. To meet that requirement, they describe two injuries that they claim result from the postings.
First, the appellants aver that the L & T Act provides them with rights "to housing, to cure breaches, to notice, [and] to possession." Second, they tout the "right to rent and live in Narragansett free of public branding." These rights, they insist, implicate protected liberty and property interests, and the infringement of them suffices to trigger the stigma plus standard.
There is, however, no cognizable harm. The appellants say that some landlords have been unable to re-rent posted dwellings. Taking this as true, the resulting loss of rent is not a viable "plus" factor. Nothing in the L & T Act (or elsewhere in state law, for that matter) confers on landlords an entitlement to have rental units fully occupied. Rather, the L & T Act for the most part leaves the negotiation of leases and rates to the marketplace—that is, to the landlord and each prospective tenant. See R.I. Gen. Laws § 34-18-15(a). This framework plainly contemplates that rental income is contingent on the availability of willing renters. Viewed against this backdrop, it cannot seriously be suggested that state law creates an entitlement to a steady stream of rental income that would qualify as a "more tangible" interest (and, thus, as a "plus" factor).
Similarly, the vacancies that the appellants lament do not result from state action but, rather, from the actions of third parties. After all, it is prospective tenants, acting without government compulsion, who decide whether or not to rent particular dwellings. A prospective tenant can base her decision not to rent on a multitude of factors including cost, location, amenities, and condition. There is nothing that prevents her, as a private party, from weighing in this balance the presence of an orange sticker. These third-party decisions are not attributable to state action in the requisite sense. See Lugar v. Edmondson Oil Co.,
The student tenants' proposed "plus" factor is no more robust. This claim relies on evictions as a source of harm. It suggests that a tenant has a right to peaceable enjoyment of a rented dwelling free from eviction and that, therefore, eviction represents a cognizable "plus" factor. This is too sanguine a view.
The student tenants' claim is defeated by the fact that their residential rights derive primarily from private contracts (leases) between private parties (landlords and tenants), which entail private obligations. The L & T Act does not itself create a right to tenancies of any particular duration. In the last analysis, it is the lease terms (and the tenant's compliance with them) that generally determine the tenant's right to remain in a rented dwelling.
Of course, we recognize that there are situations in which the Ordinance might be enforced in such a way as to implicate the legitimate, constitutionally protectable property rights of affected landlords and tenants. The record in this case, however, does not contain any indication that such events have transpired. Though we conclude that, on the record before us, the appellants have failed to show that enforcement of the Ordinance has resulted in harm to a cognizable liberty or property interest, this conclusion does not preclude the possibility of a meritorious as-applied challenge premised on more fully developed facts.
The district court also considered whether the fact that students had been subjected to URI disciplinary procedures could serve as a "plus" factor. URI Student Senate, 707 F.Supp.2d at 301-02. It rejected that hypothesis. Id. at 301. The appellants do not mount a credible challenge to this conclusion: although they note in their briefs that students were referred to URI for possible discipline, they do not point specifically to these referrals as a source of incremental harm. Nor do they offer any explanation as to how disciplinary referrals might constitute a "plus" factor. Any argument to this effect is, therefore, waived. See United States v. Zannino,
The appellants have one last arrow in this quiver. They complain that the Ordinance prevents them from living in Narragansett. That is codswallop pure and simple: the Ordinance does not prevent anyone from living anywhere. Although the Ordinance creates consequences for those who choose to reside in the Town but fail to abide by the law, these consequences, whether viewed singly or collectively, do not constitute harm to any tangible interest enjoyed by the appellants.
Let us be perfectly clear. We, like the district court, are uneasy about
To conclude, the appellants have failed to demonstrate, as would be required to sustain a facial challenge, that any of the incremental harms to which they point in the hope of satisfying the requirements of the stigma plus standard inevitably results from the Ordinance's implementation. We therefore reject the appellants' procedural due process claim.
We need not linger long over this asseveration. "[T]he overbreadth doctrine permits the facial invalidation of laws that inhibit the exercise of First Amendment rights if the impermissible applications of the law are substantial when `judged in relation to the statute's plainly legitimate sweep.'" Chicago v. Morales,
The appellants' overbreadth argument misses the mark. The constitutionally protected right of association cannot be reinvented to suit a plaintiff's fancy. It has never been expanded to include purely social gatherings. Rather, it is contingent on the presence of underlying individual rights of expression protected by the First Amendment. See Wine & Spirits Retailers, Inc. v. Rhode Island,
The Court has identified two types of "freedom of association" that merit
In the case at hand, we have construed the Ordinance as requiring that the prosecution prove that an offending gathering created not only a substantial disturbance but also one involving a violation of law. See infra Part II(B)(3). Mere police intervention is not enough. See id. In light of this construction, we conclude that the Ordinance does not reach "a substantial amount of constitutionally protected conduct." Vill. of Hoffman Estates, 455 U.S. at 494, 102 S.Ct. 1186.
The concern that the Ordinance, if applied in certain instances, could infringe upon constitutionally protected rights (by, say, being invoked to interfere with a political gathering or to disband a prayer meeting) may be valid in the abstract. But we do not deal here in abstractions, and the appellants have neither pressed nor adduced evidence to support an as-applied challenge. More is needed to sustain a facial overbreadth challenge. Cf. Morales, 527 U.S. at 52-53, 119 S.Ct. 1849 (declining to invalidate ordinance on facial overbreadth grounds because it prohibited neither speech nor any form of expressive conduct).
"It is a basic principle of due process that an enactment is void for vagueness if its prohibitions are not clearly defined." Grayned v. City of Rockford,
To comport with the strictures of due process, a law must define an offense "` with sufficient definiteness that ordinary people can understand what conduct is prohibited and  in a manner
We are convinced that the Ordinance is sufficiently clear to survive the appellants' vagueness challenge. Words such as "substantial" and "significant," if read in a vacuum, might be problematic. Cf. Fantasy Book Shop, Inc. v. City of Boston,
Perhaps most important, section 46-31 authorizes police intervention only in the event that "conduct constituting a violation of law" occurs. The prerequisite "violation of law" must pertain to some law other than the Ordinance itself. In our view, the requirement that a violation of law be committed as a condition precedent to police intervention provides adequate guidance to ensure that the Ordinance is not arbitrarily enforced. See Grayned, 408 U.S. at 112, 92 S.Ct. 2294 (noting that existence of particularized enforcement context may undercut claim of vagueness).
Our conclusion that the Ordinance withstands the appellants' assault is reinforced by other considerations. First, subsection 46-31(a) furnishes a non-exhaustive list of predicate offenses that will allow a police officer to enforce the Ordinance. The existence of clear examples of conduct covered by a law may, in certain circumstances, help to insulate the law against an accusation of vagueness. See, e.g., Parker v. Levy,
Second, we are privy to a straightforward articulation of the Town's purpose in adopting the Ordinance. This clear statement helps to dispel any uncertainty.
The Supreme Court has looked to an ordinance's preamble to ascertain what activity it was intended to prohibit. See Grayned, 408 U.S. at 110-11, 92 S.Ct. 2294; see also IMS Health, 550 F.3d at 62 (noting that, in adjudicating a facial vagueness challenge, "the state's articulated purpose narrows the interpretive lens through which we must view the problem"). The preamble to the original version of the Ordinance explains that "due to inadequate supervision, some large gatherings of people. . . frequently become loud and unruly to the point that they constitute a threat to
In the interest of clarity, we note that we read the Ordinance to require that, in order to impose liability under sections 46-34 and 46-35, the prosecution most prove that a gathering creating a substantial disturbance involving a violation of law occurred both at the time of the initial posting and when the subsequent intervention took place. Police intervention at a residence is not enough, by itself, to establish an Ordinance violation. Thus, the penalties prescribed by the Ordinance—fines and community service—cannot flow merely from a police officer's decision to intervene at a gathering.
The bottom line is that, viewed in context, it is clear what conduct the Ordinance as a whole forbids. Taken together, the requirement that someone at a gathering must have committed a predicate offense, the list of examples of violations of law that might serve as such a predicate to police intervention included in the Ordinance, and the Town's articulated concern about quality-of-life issues provide sufficient enforcement guidance to police and adequately define the type of behaviors prohibited by the Ordinance. One can envision many permissible applications of the Ordinance. No more is exigible to ward off a facial challenge premised on vagueness grounds. See, e.g., Vill. of Hoffman Estates, 455 U.S. at 497, 102 S.Ct. 1186; Whiting, 942 F.2d at 22.
We need go no further. For the reasons articulated above, we uphold the entry of summary judgment.
The current version of the Ordinance provides:
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