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Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Illinois Supreme Court Finds City and Alderman Immune from Liability for Rezoning

The Illinois Supreme Court recently issued an opinion in Strauss, et al. v. City of Chicago finding that the City was not liable for money damages based on a discretionary zoning decision. The case made its way to the Illinois Supreme Court after the lower courts both found in favor of the City.

The building at issue had been zoned for mixed-use developments since 1974, with commercial uses permitted at street level and residential uses permitted above street level. According to the opinion, in 2012, the alderman for the City ward in which the property was located informed the property owner that a music venue would be the only tenant allowed in the building. Soon after the venue opened, however, the relationship between the music venue and property owner became strained because of noise complaints, illicit drug use, and excessive alcohol intake by the venue’s patrons. Based on these issues and other violations of the lease, the property owner filed an eviction action against the music venue in 2015.

In 2016, while the eviction lawsuit was pending, the alderman introduced a downzoning amendment to apply solely to the building. The new classification would prohibit upper-level residences as well as more than 30 categories of businesses. Over the next 14 months, the alderman proposed two other downzoning amendments, both of which substantially limited the permissible uses of the property and impeded the property owner’s efforts to lease or sell the building. Eventually, the City Council adopted one of these downzoning amendments, limiting the kinds of commercial and retail tenants that could rent space in the building. 

Strauss (the property owner at that time) filed a lawsuit, alleging violations of the Illinois Constitution and several tort claims for civil damages. The City prevailed in the trial and appellate courts. The case was appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court, which found that the two constitutional claims were no longer ripe for decision because Strauss no longer owned the building and could not receive effective relief from a decision that the amendment was unconstitutional. 

With respect to the claims for money damages, the Illinois Supreme Court determined that the City could not be found liable for money damages under the Illinois Tort Immunity Act (the Act), which provides that public employees in positions involving the determination of policy or the exercise of discretion cannot be held liable for injuries resulting from those discretionary actions. Even though Strauss alleged that the alderman had acted maliciously due to an alleged relationship with the music venue that had been evicted (and thus was not exercising proper discretion), the Court found that immunity under the Act extends to all kinds of discretionary acts, including those motivated by corruption or the misuse of political power. Because the alderman was determining policy and exercising his discretion in advocating for the downzoning of the property, the Court found that both he and the City were immune from liability for any damages the property owner incurred as a result. Strauss's attempt to have the Court limit immunity to “lawful” and “official” discretionary acts was rejected by the Court, which found that the Act makes clear that “even if the discretion is abused, immunity still attaches.”

Post Authored by Erin Monforti & Julie Tappendorf, Ancel Glink


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