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Andrews v. Town of Wallingford

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

August 21, 2017

LYNN COOKE ANDREWS, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
TOWN OF WALLINGFORD, et al., Defendants.

          RULING ON MOTION FOR JUDGMENT ON THE PLEADINGS

          JEFFREY ALKER MEYER UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Cities and towns across America routinely bring enforcement actions against landowners who violate local land-use laws. That's what happened in this case-plaintiffs built a pond to use for their farm without first applying for a wetlands permit from their town, and town officials came down on plaintiffs with cease-and-desist orders. Plaintiffs eventually decided to file this federal court lawsuit, contending that the town has violated their constitutional right to farm the land.

         The principal question now before me is whether plaintiffs waited too long to come to federal court. The statute of limitations is three years, but plaintiffs waited much longer than that since they were first subject to the town's enforcement orders. According to plaintiffs, they could wait as long as they wanted. They claim that the statute of limitations has not expired, because they continue to be subject to the ongoing effects of the town's enforcement orders that prevent them every day until now from using their farm pond as they wish. I don't agree. I conclude that plaintiffs were aware of their injury more than three years before they filed this lawsuit and that their claims are therefore time-barred by the statute of limitations. Accordingly, I will grant the motion to dismiss this case.

         Background

         Plaintiffs own a family farm in Wallingford, Connecticut. They have sued three defendants: the Town of Wallingford (the “Town”), the Town's Inland Wetlands and Watercourses Commission (the “Commission”), and Erin O'Hare who is the Town's environmental planner. I assume the following allegations to be true as set forth in the complaint, and I also take judicial notice of prior state court judicial proceedings between the parties.

         In July 2009 plaintiffs constructed a pond on their farm. Plaintiffs thought that they were entitled as of right to build this pond under Conn. Gen. Stat. § 22a-40(a), which allows the construction of a farm pond as a matter of legal right if the farm pond is “essential to the farming operation.” But in August 2009, the Commission issued a cease-and-desist order, and the Commission required plaintiffs to submit an application and to seek permission of the Commission to build a pond. By December 2009 and January 2010, defendants further determined that plaintiffs' farm was not essential to their farming operation and that plaintiffs must remediate the pond to restore the land to its previous condition.

         Plaintiffs did not do so, and soon enough the Commission issued another cease-and-desist order in July 2010 directing plaintiffs to stop using their pond. The Commission thereafter commenced a state court action in which-according to plaintiffs-defendants knowingly mischaracterized plaintiffs' farm operation in order to enforce their regulatory scheme and to deprive plaintiffs of their State-created property interest to construct a farm pond.

         Defendants ultimately prevailed in the state court action, and the state court entered a permanent injunction in January 2012 to require plaintiffs to remove the pond and remediate their land. See Inland Wetlands v. Lynn Cooke Andrews, , No. CV-10-5033404-S (Conn. Super. Ct. January 23, 2012). The trial court's decision was affirmed on appeal in November 2012. See Inland Wetlands and Watercourses Com'n of Town of Wallingford v. Andrews, 139 Conn.App. 359 (Conn. App. 2012) (per curiam). The Connecticut Appellate Court concluded in part that plaintiffs were foreclosed from challenging the validity of defendants' enforcement orders because they had failed to lodge a timely appeal from those orders: “The proper way to vindicate a legal position is not to disobey the orders, but rather to challenge them on appeal.” Id. at 364.

         More than three years went by before plaintiffs filed this federal court action in July 2016. Plaintiffs allege pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 that “[t]he Defendants' regulations and their implementation of them through the above described actions violated the Plaintiffs' clearly established, statutory, as-of-right use of their land and/or their Constitutional right to pursue their farming occupation, rights, entitlements and/or interests of which any reasonable person should have been aware.” Doc. #1-2 at 5-6 (¶ 20). They further claim that “[a]s a result of the Defendants' enforcement of the unlawful regulation the Plaintiffs have and continue to suffer irreparable harm, including the loss of the ability to grow crops, the inability to adequately feed and/or water livestock, the loss of income, the loss of real property value, legal expenses, remediation expenses, the costs of re-implementation, the inability to operate the farm and the loss of their chosen occupation as farmers.” Id. at 6 (¶ 21); see also Id. at 7-8 (¶¶ 26-28) (describing nature of constitutional legal claims in similar manner).

         Defendants have moved pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(c) for judgment on the pleadings. Among other arguments, defendants contend the complaint is barred by the statute of limitations.

         Discussion

         When evaluating a defendant's motion for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(c), a court must accept all allegations of the complaint as true and draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the plaintiff in light of what is alleged in the complaint. See, e.g., Bank of New York v. First Millennium, Inc., 607 F.3d 905, 922 (2d Cir. 2010). Still, a court may dismiss a complaint if there are no plausible grounds from the face of the complaint to conclude that the complaint has been timely filed. See, e.g., Ellul v. Congregation of Christian Bros., 774 F.3d 791, 798 n.12 (2d Cir. 2014).

         It is well established that a § 1983 action for a violation of the Constitution that is filed in a federal court in Connecticut is subject to a three-year statute of limitations. See, e.g., Walker v. Jastremski, 430 F.3d 560, 562 (2d Cir. 2005). Because plaintiffs filed their lawsuit on July 22, 2016, I must consider whether plaintiffs' claims accrued more than three years prior to July 22, 2016-that is, at any time prior to July 22, 2013.

         For § 1983 actions, federal law “establishes as the time of accrual that point in time when the plaintiff knows or has reason to know of the injury which is the basis of his action.” Singleton v. City of New York, 632 F.2d 185, 191 (2d Cir.1980) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). Thus, as the Second Circuit has explained, “[t]he crucial time for accrual purposes is when the plaintiff ...


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