HARVEY v. TOWN OF MERRILLVILLE (July 11, 2011)

The mostly African-American residents of a Merrillville, Indiana subdivision were unhappy with their retention pond. It frequently flooded and they thought it attracted mosquitoes. When town officials considered a subdivision expansion, the residents became even more concerned. They attempted to express those concerns to town officials. They claim that the officials ignored them, subjected them to racial slurs, and were generally less responsive than they were to the white residents of a different subdivision. Several of the residents filed suit pursuant to § 1983 alleging a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause. They also brought many state law claims. They named as defendants the Town, the town engineer, and a large number of other town employees. In a December 2, 2010 order, Judge Van Bokkelen (N.D. Ind.) granted summary judgment to the defendants (but failed to mention the engineer) on the ground that plaintiffs failed to identify a similarly situated class. He also declined to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over the state law claims and "remanded" the case to state court. After the engineer sought clarification, the court issued an order the following day pursuant to Rule 60(a) granting summary judgment to the engineer. A few months later, the district court entered Rule 58 judgment as to all defendants. Plaintiffs appealed the December 2 order, but mentioned all defendants. The plaintiffs did not file a notice of appeal with respect to the December 3 order or the later judgment.

In their opinion, Judges Cudahy, Kanne, and Tinder affirmed as modified. The Court first rejected the engineer's arguments that: a) plaintiffs failed to effectively appeal summary judgment in his favor because they did not appeal from the December 3 order or the later judgment, and b) plaintiffs waived their argument as to him by not developing it adequately. With respect to the former, the Court noted that failed attempts to comply with Federal Rule of Appellate Procedure 3  are generally not fatal if the appellee is not harmed. Here, the appellant's identified the engineer by name and even included a copy of the judgment in their brief, which also named him. Their technical noncompliance does not prevent the Court from having jurisdiction. With respect to the latter, the Court acknowledged many deficiencies in the briefing but concluded that plaintiffs addressed the engineer enough to avoid waiver. On the merits, the Court agreed that plaintiffs failed to make out an equal protection claim sufficient to get past summary judgment. To do that, the plaintiffs had to present evidence that they were in a protected class, that they were similarly situated to others in an unprotected class, and that they were treated differently. They did present some evidence of similarities with the residents of another subdivision but they failed to carry the day. There was more evidence of substantial differences between the groups, including subdivision zoning differences and the fact that the other subdivision did not even have a retention pond. In addition, plaintiffs failed to present evidence, other than their pleadings, that the other residents even belonged to an unprotected class. And finally, the record seems to show that the other residents group was actually treated less favorably than the plaintiffs. The district court did err, however, in remanding the case to state court. The case did not originate in state court and cannot be remanded there. The district court should have dismissed without prejudice.