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Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Liquor Store Owner's Claims of Government Harassment Can Move Forward to Trial

The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals recently heard an appeal in a case filed against a municipality and its mayor by a liquor store owner who claimed that he suffered from a "campaign of harassment and outright violence." Brunson v. Murray, (7th Cir. 12/13/16). The case is lengthy and includes a number of constitutional challenges, but in summary, the court allowed the store owner's equal protection and due process claims to proceed to trial.

Brunson owned the only package liquor store in Bridgeport, Illinois. According to the court's opinion, the mayor had also bid on the purchase of the liquor store, but was outbid by Brunson. The mayor also had an interest in other liquor establishments in town that competed with Brunson's liquor store. Brunson filed an application to renew his liquor license. The mayor, as the local liquor commissioner, has the statutory authority to approve renewals, but instead of approving or denying Brunson's application, he simply held on to the application and Brunson was forced to close his business. 

Brunson then contacted the state liquor commission, which issued a written order that the mayor had no authority to sit on the renewal application indefinitely, and that Brunson was allowed to operate the store pending a hearing before the mayor. Shortly before the hearing, the mayor renewed the license and backdated it.

According to the court's decision, Brunson was then subjected to a variety of harassment from the mayor and his employees, including break-ins and an assault at his store that ultimately ended in Brunson being arrested. 

Brunson then filed suit against the mayor, police chief, state's attorney, the city, and others alleging claims of (1) false arrest; (2) equal protection and (3) due process violations, as well as state law claims. The district court rejected all of Brunson's claims, and he appealed to the 7th Circuit.

The 7th Circuit agreed with the district court on its dismissal of the false arrest claim. However, the court reversed the dismissal of Brunsons' equal protection and due process claims. 

On Brunson's equal protection claim, the court held that Brunson had provided sufficient evidence of a pattern of discriminatory behavior on the part of the city, had shown hostile intent and animus, and that there had been no rational basis for refusing to renew the liquor license. The court acknowledged that "class of one" equal protection claims must be handled carefully to avoid "turning every squabble over municipal services...into a federal constitutional case." Nevertheless, in this case, the harassment against Brunson was sufficient to move the claim forward to trial.

On Brunson's due process claim, the court refused to extend absolute immunity to the mayor in his actions in failing to renew Brunson's liquor license application. The court distinguished between revocation/suspension of a liquor license (in which the mayor has broad discretion and, therefore, absolute immunity) from the "pro forma" renewal process (in which the mayor has little to no discretion). In this case, Brunson's due process claims against the mayor could proceed to trial, although the court did dismiss the due process claims against the city itself.

The case is long, but it does provide a lot of guidance to local governments on how the federal courts will address equal protection and due process claims against municipalities and municipal officials. 

Post Authored by Julie Tappendorf


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