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Federal Court Holds Michigan Administrative Hearings Bureaus are Constitutional

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, in a decision announced this morning, has upheld the constitutionality of Administrative Hearings Bureaus that many Michigan cities and townships use to collect fines for municipal violations.

David Klein and All Brothers Investment, LLC, brought suit against the City of Jackson in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, alleging that the hearings bureau violated the their rights to due process and equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment because the bureau was an organ of the city and therefore inherently biased against them.

The plaintiffs were initially ticketed in 2008 for renovation work that was performed without the requisite building permits. The plaintiffs failed to attend the hearings bureau hearing, which led to the entry of a default judgment against them. An attorney for the plaintiffs was able to have the default judgment set aside and the plaintiff applied for the necessary building permits.

While their applications were pending, the plaintiffs once again began renovation work without the appropriate permits. The City of Jackson issued four more citations, in addition to the original three citations, and set a hearing before the hearings bureau. Plaintiffs then directed their attorney not to attend the hearing, which resulted in the entry of a default judgment against the Plaintiffs totaling $2,444.10. Once the window for an appeal had closed, the City sought to collect the fines and threatened that the failure of the Plaintiffs to pay the judgments could lead to the placement of liens on their property or up to 90 days in jail.

The Plaintiffs filed suit in federal court on December 1, 2009, raising two claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging denial of due process and equal protection of the law as guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. Essentially, the plaintiffs argued that because the bureau was created by the City of Jackson, run by the city, housed in city buildings, and operated by persons paid by the city, the plaintiffs were not given due process of law through a fair and impartial hearing.

The Court rejected the Plaintiffs’ arguments that the hearings bureau was inherently biased because the City created and houses the bureau and selects and pays the hearing officer. “Further, plaintiffs present no evidence to suggest that the City requires the hearing officer to meet a quota of fines or guilty verdicts to retain her position or salary level.”

As to the constitutionality of Administrative Hearings Bureaus in general, the Sixth Circuit held that Mich. Comp. Laws 117.4q, which allows local governments to create Administrative Hearings Bureaus, does not run afoul of the constitution. “Nothing in the Due Process Clause prevents municipalities from adjudicating civil violations through administrative schemes like the Hearings Bureau.”

The Court also quickly disposed of the plaintiffs’ equal protection claim, finding that they had not offered any evidence that they had suffered disparate treatment as compared to others.

The land use litigation attorneys of Dalton Tomich, PLC have extensive experience assisting businesses, religious organizations, and individual homeowners in navigating the permit process in cities and states throughout Michigan and the nation. In some instances, parties might be in a position to file suit in federal court if their constitutional rights have been violated. If you or your organization might be in such a situation, please feel free to contact us today.

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