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Clayland Farm Enterprises, LLC v. Talbot County

United States District Court, D. Maryland

April 3, 2018

TALBOT COUNTY, MARYLAND, et al, Defendants.


          J. Mark Coulson United States Magistrate Judge

         This case arises out of allegations by Plaintiff Clayland Farm Enterprises, LLC (“Plaintiff” or “Clayland Farms”) of certain constitutional violations committed by Defendants Talbot County, Maryland (“Defendants” or “Talbot County” or the “County”). (ECF No. 1). It has been referred to me for all discovery and related scheduling. (ECF No. 79). Various issues have been raised by the parties in correspondence (ECF Nos. 100, 105) and by Defendants' Motion for Protective Order, (ECF No. 103), and Motion to Compel, (ECF No. 104). The Court has also considered the parties' responses and replies related to Defendants' motions. (ECF Nos. 106, 110, 111, 114). The Court also held a Discovery Status Conference regarding the issues raised on March 29, 2018. (ECF No. 120). For the reasons set forth more fully below, the Court GRANTS IN PART and DENIES IN PART Defendants' two motions, addresses other discovery issues, and modifies the current Scheduling Order.

         I. BACKGROUND

         This case involves Plaintiff's constitutional challenges to Talbot County's legislative actions. First, under the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, Plaintiff challenges certain legislative actions taken by the Talbot County Council beginning in 2012 that limited Plaintiff's ability to develop its property. Specifically, Plaintiff challenges Bills 1214/1257[1], which placed what Plaintiff refers to as a “moratorium” on development in the County by imposing interim restrictions on the density of new development pending the drafting of comprehensive rezoning by the County consistent with the drafting of the County's 2016 ten-year “Comprehensive Plan.”[2] Additionally, Plaintiff challenges Bills 1214/1257 on substantive due process grounds pursuant to the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, along with Bill 1229 that addressed sewer/septic issues in light of changes in state law pending enactment of new regulations in conjunction with the 2016 Comprehensive Plan. In particular, Plaintiff criticizes the designation of its property for only limited sewer service under Bill 1229, terming this designation “arbitrary, capricious and illegal.” (ECF No. 2 at 31). Plaintiff also raises various other claims that are largely derivative of these larger constitutional challenges.

         For their part, Defendants argue, inter alia, that Plaintiff's takings claim fails under the factors enunciated in Penn Central Transp. Co. v. New York, 438 U.S. 104 (1978), which include an analysis of the “character” of the government taking. In the context of land use regulations, this analysis focuses on whether the challenged action “simply ‘adjust[ed] the benefits and burdens of economic life to promote the common good' in a way that incidentally impacted [the affected landowner's] ability to maximize the profit from the development of his land.” Henry v. Jefferson Cty. Comm'n, 637 F.3d 269, 277 (4th Cir. 2011) (quoting Penn Central, 438 U.S. at 124).

         Further, Defendants argue that Plaintiff's substantive due process challenge fails under the “rational basis” analysis that both sides agree applies. Under this analysis, the challenged state action is illegitimate “only if the alleged purpose behind the state action has no conceivable rational relationship to the exercise of the state's traditional police power through zoning.” Quinn v. Bd. of Cty. Comm'rs for Queen Anne's Cty., 862 F.3d 433, 443 (4th Cir. 2017) (quoting Sylvia Dev. Corp. v. Calvert Cty., 48 F.3d 810, 827 (4th Cir. 1995)). Stated another way, it must be clear that the challenged action “has no foundation in reason and is a mere arbitrary or irrational exercise of power having no substantial relation to the public health, the public morals, the public safety or the public welfare in its proper sense.” MLC Auto., LLC v. Town of Southern Pines, 532 F.3d 269, 281 (2008) (quoting Nectow v. City of Cambridge, 277 U.S. 183, 187-88 (1928)). Importantly, this deferential analysis ignores “reasons, ” “motivations, ” and “other forces” behind the legislative action. Quinn, 862 F.3d at 444 n.2. Notwithstanding this deference, factors that can be considered in the analysis include whether “(1) the zoning decision is tainted with fundamental procedural irregularity; (2) the action is targeted at a single party; and (3) the action deviates from or is inconsistent with regular practice.” MLC Auto., 532 F.3d at 281 (citing A Helping Hand, LLC v. Baltimore Cty., 515 F.3d 356, 373 n.10 (4th Cir. 2008)).


         Although the Court in its discovery role does not reach the merits as to whether Plaintiff's claims can prevail notwithstanding the high burdens set forth above, this analysis of the substantive law is important in informing the scope of relevant, proportional discovery in this case consistent with the Federal Rules of Civil Procedures' chief instruction to construe, administer and employ those rules “to secure the just, speedy, and inexpensive determination of every action and proceeding.” Fed.R.Civ.P. Rule 1. That is, the discovery requests here must be viewed through the lens of the applicable substantive legal standards. This means that some discovery of Defendants should be allowed as to whether the legislation at issue satisfies the “character of state action” prong of the Penn Central takings analysis, and whether it meets the “legitimacy” prong of the substantive due process rational basis test.[3] At the same time, the scope of such discovery should be limited to the constutional inquiries described above. As for discovery of Plaintiff, it should have as its focus whether Plaintiff indeed has a compensable interest, and the nature and extent of any damages stemming from the alleged deprivation of that interest.

         A. Defendants' Motion for Protective Order

         Defendants strongly contend that they have already more than justified the challenged bills and proven they are within the proper scope of government action set forth in Penn Central, as well as the legitimacy test of rational basis review for substantive due process purposes. Indeed, Defendants, in several pleadings, have set forth long narratives about the background, scope, and purpose of the challenged legislation and why it is just the type of reasonable legislative land use upheld on many occasions by this Court, the Fourth Circuit, and the United States Supreme Court, most notably in the memorandum accompanying their renewed Motion to Dismiss. (ECF No. 42-1). Scrutinizing those narratives against the case law, Defendants may well be right. However, while they refer to various pieces of legislation and documents in these narratives, they have resisted all discovery, produced no documents, and rebuffed any attempt to get substantive responses to Plaintiff's interrogatories. They have instead insisted that “the public documents” related to this legislation clearly establish that the above standards have been met and that, as a result, discovery should effectively be precluded.

         At first blush, such arguments are attractive, especially in light of the deferential standards applicable to the constitutional inquiries at issue in this case. It may well be, for example, that the only reasonable conclusion upon reviewing the public documents is that they unequivocally support Defendants' asserted narrative and fully insulate the legislation at issue from any attacks on legitimacy such as those recognized in MLC Automotive. However, these arguments have as their underlying assumption something that is not borne out in the parties' discovery conduct in this case. They assume that there is a good mutual understanding of what the “public documents” are, and that they have been provided or described with enough particularity to be easily located in Talbot County's public records. Neither assumption is accurate. Moreover, Defendants' narrative has yet to find its way into sworn interrogatory answers. In short, Defendants have left Plaintiff-and the Court-with no ability to evaluate the accuracy of this narrative, and certainly without a sufficient basis to conclude at this juncture that producing the underlying documents and sworn testimony should be completely excused.[4]

         In light of the above constitutional standards, the Court will address the specifics of Defendants' Motion for Protective Order. Note that once the supplementation/production is complete, the Court will hold a status conference with the parties to determine whether additional discovery is warranted. Where an interrogatory answer or response to request for production is not specifically addressed, there is no need for supplementation at this time.

         1. Interrogatories

         As for the interrogatories by Plaintiff to Defendants, the Court rules as follows:

Interrogatory One: Defendants will identify any fact witness, by name and title, whose testimony they may rely on at trial, along with a brief description of the witness's area of relevant knowledge. By way of hypothetical example only:
John Johnson, Director of Wastewater Treatment for the Board of Public Works.
Mr. Johnson has knowledge regarding the County's wastewater treatment goals and concerns that led to the development of the County's Tier Map that was incorporated into Bill 1229.

         Interrogatory Three: Defendants will identify with specificity any documents that they are likely to rely upon in their defense of the case. Defendants may alternatively provide copies of these documents as a way to identify them, as long as any documents so supplied are specifically identifiable as being in answer to this interrogatory such as by bates number or specific title and date. Documents not identified risk exclusion, and the use of hedge phrases such as “including but not limited to” do not mitigate this risk.

         Interrogatory Four: Defendants are directed to answer. However, by way of guidance, it is the Court's view that, for example, the information contained in Defendants' factual narrative within its memorandum in support of its renewed Motion to Dismiss, (ECF No. 42-1) may well contain adequate factual detail to satisfy this interrogatory assuming it can be incorporated into a sworn response. This is not to say that some supplementation may not be required, but the factual narrative is a good example of the kinds of information that the Court deems responsive and at the level of detail required, at least at this juncture.

         Interrogatory Five: Defendants are directed to answer the question. Defendants have asserted the legislative privilege as applying to, inter alia, the work of this work group. In the absence of a substantive response to this interrogatory, the Court has no ability to assess whether such privilege applies.

         Interrogatory Six: See the Court's comments regarding Interrogatory Four.

         Interrogatory Seven: If it is accurate that Plaintiff's property was removed from the S-1 Sewer Service area, Defendants should explain the nonprivileged reasons for this change. For example, if changes to County sewer service areas (including Plaintiff's) were made pursuant to a specific policy objective (such as bringing the County into compliance with state law or the Comprehensive Plan, or reallocating sewer resources in light of capacity concerns), that should be described here. The Court may reconsider the need to provide a more specific answer once a determination as to the scope of the legislative privilege is made. The Court points out that Defendants' answer to Interrogatory Five will constitute one part of this evaluation.

         Interrogatory Eight: See the Court's comments regarding Interrogatory Four.

         Interrogatory Nine: See the Court's comments regarding Interrogatory Four.

         Interrogatory Ten: See the Court's comments ...

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