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U.S. District Court Examines Standing to Challenge Special Elections

Jackie Nichols v. City of Rehoboth Beach, Sam Cooper, and Sharon Lynn
No. 15-062-GMS (United States District Court for the District of Delaware, December 14, 2015)

by Richard J. Medoff, Associate
Semmes, Bowen & Semmes (www.semmes.com)

Available at: http://www.ded.uscourts.gov/sites/default/files/opinions/gms/2015/
december/15-602.pdf

Jackie Nichols v. City of Rehoboth Beach, Sam Cooper, and Sharon Lynn involved a motion to dismiss a lawsuit filed by a city resident against the city alleging violations under the Fourteenth Amendment and under 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983 and 1988, arising from a special election to authorize the issuance of municipal bonds. The United States District Court for the District of Delaware concluded that the city resident lacked standing to bring the lawsuit because she did not suffer a concrete personal injury, and thus, that the Court lacked subject matter jurisdiction to hear the action. Accordingly, Judge Gregory M. Sleet granted the city’s motion to dismiss.

By way of factual background, Plaintiff Jackie Nichols ("Nichols") was a resident, property owner, and taxpayer of the City of Rehoboth Beach ("Rehoboth"). On April 27, 2015, the Board of Commissioners of Rehoboth adopted a resolution proposing the issuance of up to $52,500,000 general obligation bonds of Rehoboth to finance an ocean outfall project (the "Ocean Outfall Project"), and ordering a Special Election to authorize the city to issue these and other objectives. On June 27, 2015, Rehoboth conducted the Special Election. The costs of the Special Election were paid from the Rehoboth treasury. Section 40(h) of the Rehoboth Charter, which governs voting procedures for Special Elections to authorize the borrowing of money, states:

At the said Special Election, every owner or leaseholder, as defined in this Charter, of property, whether an individual, partnership or corporation, shall have one vote and every person who is a bona fide resident of the City of Rehoboth Beach, but who is not an owner or leaseholder, as defined in this Charter, of property within the corporate limits of the City of Rehoboth Beach and who would be entitled at the time of holding of the said Special Election to register and vote in the Annual Municipal Election if such Annual Municipal Election were held on the day of the Special Election shall have one vote whether or not such person be registered to vote in the Annual Municipal Election.

Section 40 of the Rehoboth Charter does not define the phrase "bona fide resident." Section 7(d) of the Rehoboth Charter, relating to the manner of holding annual elections, requires that to be eligible to vote, the term "resident" means "an individual actually residing and domiciled in the City of Rehoboth Beach for a period of 6 months immediately preceding the date of the election." At the Special Election, Rehoboth only accepted as voters those who had been residents for a minimum of six (6) months and property owners. Rehoboth granted the right to vote more than once to those who met the residency requirement and owned (directly or through an entity) property in Rehoboth. Corporations and other artificial entities owning property in Rehoboth were permitted to vote. Individuals who owned multiple parcels in Rehoboth through ownership of multiple artificial entities were permitted to vote one (1) time for each property owned through such artificial entities. After the polls were closed, Rehoboth announced that there were 637 votes in favor of borrowing for the Ocean Outfall Project, and 606 votes against borrowing for the Ocean Outfall Project.

On July 16, 2015, Nichols filed a lawsuit against Defendants, Rehoboth, Rehoboth Mayor Sam Cooper, and Rehoboth City Manager Sharon Lynn (collectively, "Defendants"). In her complaint, Nichols alleged violations under the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution and under 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983 and 1988. The complaint contained four (4) counts: (1) declaratory relief for the Fourteenth Amendment Residency Requirement, (2) injunctive relief for the Fourteenth Amendment Residency Requirement, (3) declaratory and injunctive relief for the Fourteenth Amendment One Person, One Vote claim, and (4) Delaware State Law-Exceeding Authority. Defendants filed a motion to dismiss and opening brief on August 26, 2015. Nichols filed an answering brief in opposition on September 9, 2015. Defendants filed a reply brief on September 21, 2015.

The Court began its analysis by explaining that Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) provides that a party may bring a motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, and that a motion to dismiss for lack of standing is also properly brought pursuant to Federal Rule 12(b)(l) “because standing is a jurisdictional matter.” See St. Thomas-St. John Hotel & Tourism Ass'n v. Gov't of the V.I., 218 F.3d 232, 240 (3d Cir. 2000) ("The issue of standing is jurisdictional."); Kauffman v. Dreyfus Fund, Inc., 434 F.2d 727, 733 (3d Cir. 1970) ("We must not confuse requirements necessary to state a cause of action... with the prerequisites of standing.").

The Court further explained that a party invoking federal jurisdiction “bears the burden of establishing that she possesses the requisite standing to bring an action.” See FOCUS v. Allegheny Cnty. Ct. Com. Pl., 75 F.3d 834, 838 (3d Cir. 1996) (quoting Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555, 561 (1992)). The Court noted that in examining a challenge to a party's standing, “the court must accept as true all material allegations set forth in the complaint and construe those facts in favor of the nonmoving party,” and that at the motion to dismiss stage, "general factual allegations of injury resulting from the defendant's conduct may suffice." See Warth v. Seldin, 422 U.S. 490, 501 (1975); Storino v. Borough of Point Pleasant Beach, 322 F.3d 293, 296 (3d Cir. 2003); Ballentine v. U.S., 486 F.3d 806, 810 (3d Cir. 2007).

In their motion to dismiss, the Defendants made the following arguments: (1) the challenge to the City's Special Referenda Election was too late, (2) Nichols failed to make any claims whatsoever against Defendants Cooper and Lynn, (3) the State of Delaware was the real party in interest, (4) Nichols lacked standing, (5) Rehoboth did not exceed its authority in paying for an advertisement in support of the Special Referenda Election, and (6) the Court should abstain and stay the case.

The Court first addressed the Defendants’ argument that Nichols lacked standing, as that challenge went to the Court’s jurisdiction. Regarding the standing issue, Defendants argued that Nichols lacked standing to challenge the six (6)-month residency requirement in the charter because she suffered no injury. Specifically, they argued that she was never denied the opportunity to vote in the Special Referenda Election. Nichols responded that she possessed taxpayer standing. She claimed that she was suing in her capacity as a municipal taxpayer to challenge taxpayer-funded elections, the resultant authorization of the issuance of municipal debt instruments, and the expenditure of tax revenues to buy advertisements to influence a bond referendum.

The Court explained that in order to satisfy the standing requirements of Article III, a plaintiff must show: "(1) it has suffered an 'injury in fact' that is (a) concrete and particularized and (b) actual or imminent, not conjectural or hypothetical; (2) the injury is fairly traceable to the challenged action of the defendant; and (3) it is likely, as opposed to merely speculative, that the injury will be redressed by a favorable decision." See Friends of the Earth, Inc. v. Laidlaw Environmental Servs., Inc., 528 U.S. 167, 180-81 (2000) (citing Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555, 560-61 (1992)).

The Court further explained that in a “voting case,” voters need to show a disadvantage to themselves as individuals, which requires "a plain, direct and adequate interest in maintaining the effectiveness of their votes.” See Baker v. Carr, 369 U.S. 186, 206 (1962); Coleman v. Miller, 307 U.S. 433, 438 (1939). The Court noted that a claim of the right possessed by every citizen "to require that the government be administered according to law" does not suffice for purposes of standing. See Fairchild v. Hughes, 258 U.S. 126, 129 (1922). See also Lance v. Coffman, 549 U.S. 43 7, 442 (2007) (Finding that plaintiffs lacked standing where the only injury alleged was that the law had not been followed in the election and not a particularized impact on the plaintiffs' votes).

Upon review of the facts of the case, the Court agreed with Defendants that Nichols lacked standing. First, the Court noted that it agreed with Defendants that Nichols was not contesting the expenditure of tax funds, but the legality of the Special Election. Second, the Court noted that Nichols suffered no particularized injury as a result of the Special Election. The Court explained that Nichols was a property owner in the city who had the right to vote in the Special Referenda Election, and thus, she lacked the concrete personal injury necessary to bring suit. As a result, the Court concluded that it lacked subject matter jurisdiction to hear the action, and thus, granted Defendants' motion to dismiss without considering Defendants’ remaining arguments.


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