South Common Condominium Association et al. v. City of Springfield et al.

Statute Authorizing Building Demolition Without Prior Notice Does not Violate Due Process
U.S. Court of Appeals, 1st Circuit, Nos. 13-2244 and 13-2248
Tuesday, December 23, 2014

When tornadoes struck western Massachusetts in June 2011, the City of Springfield suffered severe damage. Among the affected buildings were the South Commons Condominiums. The Governor and Mayor declared a state of emergency, and City officials determined that, due to their severely damaged state, the Condominiums presented an immediate danger to public safety. As a result, the residents were ordered to evacuate and prohibited from returning to obtain personal belongings, and the City ordered immediate demolition of the Condominiums. The owners did not receive notice prior to the demolition and were not given an opportunity to stop the demolition. Days after the Condominiums were razed, the owners received notices.

Approximately one year after the demolition, the Condominium owners filed suit in the Massachusetts U.S. District Court against the City and the private company that carried out the demolition. The owners claimed procedural and substantive due process violations, along with violations of Massachusetts state law. The District Court dismissed the claims, and the owners appealed to the 1st Circuit Court.

The Circuit Court affirmed the dismissal of all claims. Although it is generally true that the City would be required to provide pre-deprivation safeguards—notice and an opportunity to be heard before demolition occurred—those safeguards may not be required under certain circumstances. Here, the City acted under a state statute that allowed summary demolition—that is, demolition without prior notice—when the public safety required immediate action to address danger to life or limb. The statute was consistent with the general standard that allows summary action in emergency situations, which courts have defined as situations that pose an imminent danger to the public health, safety, and welfare and that require immediate action.

In addition, the statute provides adequate post-deprivation procedural safeguards (“after-the-fact remedies”): It allows property owners to challenge the order for demolition; to seek to annul, alter, or affirm the order; or to seek damages for the demolished buildings. And, although the period for filing such an action is quite short under the statute, this did not create a per se constitutional violation.

Finally, the owners’ substantive due process claims failed because, even if the City’s decision to demolish was ill-advised or incorrect, the conduct did not “shock the conscience,” which is the requisite standard for substantive due process claims.