Municipalities, state agencies warn Supreme Court against opening the floodgates to lawsuits | Courts


Nearly every municipality in the state and a handful of state agencies are pleading with the Colorado Supreme Court to overturn a lower court’s decision that eliminated the strict 28-day deadline for challenging decisions by government bodies.

Liquor license denials, local government staff discipline, and Department of Corrections decisions regarding inmates are some of the many types of proceedings that could be the subject of a legal challenge for months or even years after the fact whether the Court of Appeals’ interpretation of a key procedural rule is permitted, according to briefs submitted to the Supreme Court.

“It would significantly increase municipal costs and workload, clog the courts with cases and disrupt the plans of parties to municipal proceedings across the state. The case in question will therefore have a significant impact on the day-to-day operations of municipalities. statewide,” argued the Colorado Municipal League, which represents 270 of the state’s 272 cities and towns.

Last week, judges heard oral arguments in a case that began as a dispute over Aurora over a storm sewer development fee. But after an Arapahoe County judge dismissed the lawsuit as ill-timed, the state appeals court found that a series of court rules provided an exception to the 28-day filing deadline as long as the plaintiff could show that a delay was due to “excusable negligence”.

Members of the Supreme Court supported the Court of Appeals’ interpretation, as well as the competing argument for the absence of exceptions.

“This is a fundamental rule that everyone knows and respects. I will say that the decision of the Court of Appeals here creates a sea change in expectations,” Judge Monica M. Márquez said. “It’s really about the volume of quasi-judicial decisions that happen every day at multiple levels of government.”

“Can you understand my discomfort, though, at having an absolute rule that no matter what, it’s 28 days no exceptions?” replied Judge Carlos A. Samour Jr.

He added: “There are exceptions to almost everything in life.”

The underlying case began in April 2019, when Aurora sent an invoice to developer Walker Commercial, Inc. for unpaid fees on a property the company had purchased several years earlier. The company protested and Marshall P. Brown, the general manager of Aurora Water, scheduled a hearing for July of this year. Brown emailed the company’s attorney the following month saying the city would agree to $74,140 for costs, in what was apparently the city’s final decision.

Walker Commercial then filed a lawsuit in court 30 days after Brown’s decision. The city of Aurora’s code provided that the agency’s final decisions take effect 30 days after notice “is mailed or personally served” on the party challenging the government, unless legal process has not started.

Between December 2019 and January 2020, District Court Judge Elizabeth A. Weishaupl issued a series of orders dismissing Walker Commercial’s case. The company had raised several complaints, arguing that Brown failed to follow city code because he did not mail or personally serve the company with his final decision, and also that Brown’s decision was not effective because Walker Commercial had challenged it within 30 days.

Weishaupl determined that the 28-day time limit contained in Colorado’s civil procedure rules prevented it from hearing the case filed two days beyond that time limit.

In April 2021, a three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals agreed to the 28-day deadline, instead of Aurora’s 30-day code, applied to the Walker Commercial lawsuit. However, the committee opened the door to frivolous lawsuits by acknowledging that trial judges could after all review late-filed challenges by finding excusable negligence and other factors at play.

Excusable negligence can include deaths in the family, destruction of records, and other situations that would cause a reasonable person to miss a deadline. As it did in the Supreme Court, the Colorado Municipal League also raised concerns with the Court of Appeals about circumventing the 28-day window, but the appeals committee did not budge. .

“We understand the importance of firm deadlines and the need for finality for municipalities to operate effectively. We are not, however, empowered to rewrite the rules to achieve any particular political outcome,” Judge Jaclyn Casey Brown wrote.

Richard F. Rodriguez, Marshall Brown’s attorney, argued that the Supreme Court had previously held to a strict view of the time limit. He said there had been “no outcry” seeking to overturn the deadline, and that it was realistic to give a party 28 days to simply tell a court that the action of a government official was arbitrary or capricious.

“WThis stuff would be delayed” if there was an exception to the deadline, Chief Justice Brian D. Boatright asked.

Rodriguez provided a hypothetical example of Amazon wanting to purchase and rezone land to build a fulfillment center. The process would involve notice to nearby landowners and public hearings.

“TThe government just puts 28 days on its calendar and it knows that if those 28 days are missed, now its approval stands and Amazon can go ahead and build its project that will provide thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in revenue for the government,” he said.

Upholding the Court of Appeals ruling would upset that certainty and allow trial court judges to assess whether dissatisfied parties had a good reason to file their challenge outside the window, Rodriguez added.

Jared M. Haynie, the attorney for Walker Commercial, argued against banning late-filed challenges in all circumstances, even in cases of sudden illness or if municipalities resort to manipulation in their codes.

“What’s stopping every city in the state from adopting a thing that says you have 30 days?” He asked. “Well, guess what? You go to court and find out you’re 28.”

The Colorado attorney general’s office also weighed in on Brown’s behalf, representing concerns from state departments of corrections, education, regulatory agencies, revenue and higher education. In 2019, according to the brief, there were 98 challenges to the Department of Correction’s criminal decisions, many of which were premature.

However, there were a total of 16,639 criminal decisions that could have been challenged, especially if the strict 28-day deadline had been removed.

If the Court of Appeals’ decision stands, participating in legal challenges would be “an expensive and time-consuming new undertaking for the (agencies) and the judiciary that the (agencies) have not budgeted for,” it said. writes the Attorney General. Desk.

While acknowledging the widespread impacts inside and outside of government, the judges were also wary of the shortness of the 28-day deadline, given that statutes of limitations for filing other types of civil lawsuits are generally a matter of years.

Walker Commercial “was relying on the law. Just the wrong law,” Judge Melissa Hart observed. “Can we admit that there are no exceptions – that sounds very harsh.”

The deal is Brown vs. Walker Commercial, Inc.

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