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Walz v. Smithtown, Town of

ELR Citation: 25 ELR 20770
Nos. No. 94-7268, 46 F.3d 162/(2d Cir., 01/24/1995)

The court affirms a jury verdict awarding compensatory and punitive damages to landowners in an action under 42 U.S.C. §1983 against a town and its superintendent of highways for violating the landowners' substantive due process rights by conditioning issuance of an excavation permit to connect the landowners to a public water supply on the landowners' conveying 15 feet of their property to the town for road widening purposes. The town ultimately issued the permit without the condition, but the delay left the landowners without water for over three months. The court first holds that the landowners had a property right in the excavation permit because under the town code, the superintendent had no discretion to refuse to issue the permit. Thus, the court need not address the district court's "novel" ruling that the Due Process Clause protects a fundamental right to a water supply. The court next holds that the landowners' property right is protected by substantive, not just procedural, due process. The landowners had a right not to be compelled to convey land in order to obtain utility service. The court next holds that the superintendent is not entitled to qualified immunity as a matter of law. By conditioning the permit's issuance on the conveyance of land, the superintendent was not exercising a discretionary function, but was simply refusing to perform a ministerial act until a demand with no basis in legal authority was met. The superintendent could not have believed that he had discretion to deny a permit to the landowners as a means of extorting land from them. The court next holds that the district court properly allowed the jury to award compensatory damages based on emotional distress and pain and suffering. A court may award damages for emotional suffering under §1983, and the landowners presented evidence of emotional distress. Further, the jury was entitled to award damages for the landowners' distress and discomfort from being without water for a protracted period. The court next holds that neither the compensatory damage award of $102,000 nor the punitive damage award of $9,500 is excessive. The court also holds that the attorney fees award of $48,276 was reasonable, both in terms of the hourly rate and the number of hours expended on the litigation. Also, the application in support of the fee request contained adequate documentation. The court holds that the district court's failure to hold an evidentiary hearing before making a fee award of this magnitude did not violate the town's or superintendent's due process rights.

Counsel for Plaintiffs
William D. Wexler
Drawer 608, Smithtown NY 11787
(516) 422-2900

Counsel for Defendants
L. Kevin Sheridan
Devitt & Spellman
50 Rt. 111, Smithtown NY 11787
(516) 724-8833

Before: WINTER and LEVAL, Circuit Judges, and SKRETNY,* District Judge.