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Tuesday, May 21, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Impromptu Demoltion Doesn’t Support Damages

(CN) - San Antonio did not violate due-process rights in failing to notify a company that it had condemned and demolished its building under city law, the 5th Circuit ruled.

San Antonio razed the building on Jan. 10, 2008, after its inspectors determined the structure had become a mold-infested squatters' den in danger of collapsing.

It sent notice to owner RBIIII LP the next day.

RBIII sued San Antonio and its code enforcement supervisor Reyes Hernandez, alleging local, state and federal violations.

A federal judge dismissed all claims against Hernandez, and granted summary judgment in favor of the city on all claims except two: that the city violated RBIII's 14th Amendment due-process rights by demolishing the building without notice, and that it unreasonably seized the building in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

The District Court also found San Antonio had complied with its ordinance, stipulating that the city could demolish dangerous structures without prior notice to the owner when their condition presents a clear and imminent safety threat.

The ordinance, which has since been repealed, also required that two out of three officials had to agree the building posed an imminent threat; that the razing had to occur within 72 hours from when an official viewed the building; and the owner had to be notified after the demolition.

RBIII brought its 14th and Fourth Amendment claims to trial, where a jury ultimately awarded it $27,500 in damages on both counts.

A three-judge panel of the New Orleans-based 5th Circuit reversed Tuesday, finding that trial court's jury instructions improperly framed the dispute.

"The District Court ... instructed the jury that the city was excused from providing notice to RBIII only if there was 'an immediate danger to the public,' making no mention of the city's compliance with the ordinance or the discretion resulting therefrom," Judge Harold DeMoss wrote for the panel. "By doing so, the court improperly cast the central dispute as whether or not the structure posed an immediate danger to the public, when the issue should have been whether the city acted arbitrarily or abused its discretion in determining that the structure presented an immediate danger."

The jury instructions "improperly shifted the jury's focus from the reasonableness of the city's determination that the structure posed a public emergency to the accuracy of that determination," DeMoss added.

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