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Knutson v. City of Oklahoma City

United States District Court, W.D. Oklahoma

July 22, 2019

FREDRICK BRUCE KNUTSON, an individual, Plaintiff,
CITY OF OKLAHOMA CITY, a municipal corporation, et al., Defendants.



         Before the Court are Defendant City of Oklahoma City's (“City”) Motion for Summary Judgment, Defendants Charles Locke (“Locke”) and Christopher Smith's (“Smith”) Motion for Summary Judgment, and Plaintiff's Partial Motion for Summary Judgment. These motions are fully briefed. Based upon the parties' submissions, the Court makes its determination.

         I. Background

         Plaintiff owns property in Oklahoma City, at 9101 S. Council Road. Plaintiff's property is zoned agricultural, or “AA”, and has been zoned AA since Plaintiff purchased the property in 2003. Plaintiff uses his property for agricultural purposes, and his single-family rural homestead is also located on his property. Plaintiff has made multiple attempts to rezone his property to a zoning classification other than AA, but each request has been denied.

         Defendant City is a local municipal corporation. Defendant City creates ordinances and regulations with regard to zoning and other matters within the city limits of Oklahoma City pursuant to its powers as a municipality. Defendant Locke has been employed as the Code Enforcement Superintendent for Oklahoma City from July 2009 to present. He is responsible for enforcing portions of the Oklahoma City Municipal Code and supervising all employees within the Code Enforcement Division, including Defendant Smith. In August 2006, Defendant Smith began his employment in the Code Enforcement Division as a Code Inspector I. Defendant Smith's job duties as a Code Inspector I included responding to complaints regarding certain code violations and issuing violation notices and/or citations when he observed municipal code violations. Beginning in July 2009, the Code Enforcement Division began investigating and enforcing Oklahoma City zoning violations, including but not limited to Defendant City's sign code.

         In response to the denial of his applications to rezone his property, Plaintiff painted signs on farm equipment and other objects located on his property. These signs included messages that were critical of, and derogatory toward, Plaintiff's neighbors, the City government, and City officials, including City Councilman Lawrence McAtee and Defendant Locke. Plaintiff has posted hundreds of signs over the years and has had different signs displayed during different time periods.

         Defendant City has adopted ordinances which dictate the manner in which people may display outdoor signs (the “Sign Code”). Chapter 3, section 100 of the Sign Code includes ten (10) subparagraphs which identify various types of signs that may be displayed without a permit. Chapter 3, section 100, subsection 6 of the Sign Code provides:

§ 3-100. - Temporary signs and display material not requiring a permit.
No permit shall be required for the following temporary signs and display materials. Said signs shall conform to the standards contained in this section, and to sight triangle regulations. All such signs shall be securely attached to a structure or to stakes or posts that are firmly embedded in the ground. They shall not be illuminated unless specifically permitted herein.
(6) Noncommercial, expressive signs, residential. Noncommercial expressive signs limited to two signs per frontage with an aggregate of eight square feet of display surface area per frontage shall be permitted in residential areas.

Sign Code § 3-100(6).

         Over the years, Defendant City has received numerous complaints regarding various signs, [1] displays, inoperable vehicles, and high grass on Plaintiff's property, and City code inspectors went to Plaintiff's property 50 to 100 times. Until June 2012, Plaintiff never received a citation for any violation, but had received at least one notice of violation. Prior to June 2012, Defendant Smith was told by his superiors that § 3-100(6) could not be applied to property zoned AA and had been directed by Defendant Locke in the spring of 2010 to respond specifically to an illegal signs complaint concerning Plaintiff's property as “no violation.”

         On June 11, 2012, Defendant City received a complaint at its Action Center regarding a potential code violation at Plaintiff's property. Defendant Smith was assigned to investigate the complaint. On June 12, 2012, Defendant Smith went to Plaintiff's property and observed several large, noncommercial, expressive signs on the property. Defendant Smith issued a Notice of Violation for violating the size and number restrictions set forth in § 3-100(6). A formal Notice of Violation was sent to Plaintiff on June 13, 2012. The notices of violation ordered Plaintiff to remove the signs or face criminal prosecution. It was determined by the City's Municipal Counselor's Office that the phrase “residential area” as used in § 3-100(6) could include AA zoned property and because Plaintiff's property had a residence and neighboring properties contained resid ences, § 3-100(6) could be applied to Plaintiff's property.[2]

         On June 27, 2012, Defendant City received a letter from Plaintiff requesting a hearing on the Notice of Violation. A meeting regarding the Notice of Violation was scheduled for July 23, 2012. Defendant Locke and an assistant municipal counselor attended the meeting on behalf of Defendant City. Plaintiff was given the opportunity to present information regarding the signs on his property. Following the meeting, Plaintiff was advised that the Notice of Violation would not be reversed and that he could appeal the decision. Plaintiff chose not to appeal the decision. Sometime after the Notice of Violation was issued, Plaintiff began to display signs directly critical of Defendant Locke.[3] On August 27, 2012, Defendant Smith sent an e-mail to Defendant Locke attaching photographs of the signs currently displayed on Plaintiff's property, which included the signs critical of Defendant Locke.

         At the same time Plaintiff requested a hearing, Plaintiff advised the City of a property located at 12825 SW 58th Street that had a number of large signs displayed on its property. In July 2012, a City Code Inspector I was assigned to inspect the property. The property was inspected, and a notice of violation was issued. However, after further investigation, it was determined that there was no violation of the Sign Code because the signs were determined to be “antique” or “collectable” signs.[4]

         On September 5, 7, 10, and 12, 2012, Defendant Smith checked Plaintiff's property and observed that Plaintiff still had noncommercial, expressive signs in excess of the limits provided for in § 3-100(6) on his property. Plaintiff was issued four municipal court citations (one for each day) for violating the ordinance and photographs of the property were taken each day.[5] The Municipal Counselor's Office filed informations against Plaintiff, one for each day of the citations.

         Plaintiff contested the allegation that he was in violation of § 3-100(6), and a criminal trial was held on January 18, 2013 for all four criminal citations. At the conclusion of the trial, Plaintiff was convicted of all four citations and was fined $400 plus costs for each case. Plaintiff appealed the decision to the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals. On April 10, 2014, the court reversed Plaintiff's convictions and remanded the case to the Oklahoma City Municipal Court to dismiss based upon Defendant City's failure to meet its burden of proof regarding Plaintiff's property being in a “residential area.” Following the reversal of his convictions, Plaintiff again began displaying expressive signs on his property.

         On June 12, 2014, Plaintiff filed the instant action, alleging that Defendants violated his First Amendment free speech rights as a result of the enforcement of § 3-100(6), retaliated against him for exercising his free speech rights by prosecuting him under § 3-100(6), and selectively enforced the ordinance against him in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Plaintiff also alleges that Defendants violated his free speech rights as protected by Article 2, Section 22 of the Oklahoma Constitution. The parties now move for summary judgment as to Plaintiff's claims.

         II. Summary Judgment Standard

         “Summary judgment is appropriate if the record shows that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. The moving party is entitled to summary judgment where the record taken as a whole could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the non-moving party. When applying this standard, [the Court] examines the record and reasonable inferences drawn therefrom in the light most favorable to the non-moving party.” 19 Solid Waste Dep't Mechs. v. City of Albuquerque, 156 F.3d 1068, 1071-72 (10th Cir. 1998) (internal citations and quotations omitted).

         “Only disputes over facts that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law will properly preclude the entry of summary judgment. Furthermore, the non-movant has a burden of doing more than simply showing there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts. Rather, the relevant inquiry is whether the evidence presents a sufficient disagreement to require submission to a jury or whether it is so one-sided that one party must prevail as a matter of law.” Neustrom v. Union Pac. R.R. Co., 156 F.3d 1057, 1066 (10th Cir. 1998) (internal citations and quotations omitted).

         III. Discussion

         A. Qualified Immunity

         Defendants Locke and Smith assert that they are entitled to qualified immunity on Plaintiff's federal claims. The Tenth Circuit employs a three-step inquiry in determining whether qualified immunity applies. See Lawrence v. Reed, 406 F.3d 1224, 1230 (10th Cir. 2005).

First, we ask whether the plaintiff's allegations, if true, establish a constitutional violation. If not, the suit is dismissed; if so, we move to the second step: whether the law was clearly established at the time the alleged violations occurred. This step gives the official an opportunity to show that he neither knew or should have known of the relevant legal standard because the law was not clearly established at the time he acted. Where the law is not clearly established, ...

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