In Real Estate Bd. of New York, Inc. v. City of New York, Petitioner-Plaintiff Real Estate Board of New York, Inc. (“REBNY”) commenced a hybrid article 78 proceeding and plenary action against the City of New York (“City”) challenging the City’s adoption of Local Law No. 50 of 2015 (“Local Law”), which placed a moratorium on the conversion of hotel rooms to residential units.

REBNY’s article 78 claims sought to annul the Local Law and permanently enjoin the City from enacting similar legislation unless it complied with the City Charter’s Uniform Land Use Review Process (“ULURP”) and the State Environmental Quality Review Act (“SEQRA”). REBNY’s plenary claims sought compensation for taking and for due process and equal protection violations under the State and Federal constitutions.

The City moved to dismiss REBNY’s claims based on standing, among other things. The Supreme Court, New York County (“Motion Court“), granted the City’s motion and dismissed all of REBNY’s claims for lack of standing.  On appeal, the Appellate Division, First Department (“Appeals Court“) effectively reversed the Motion Court’s decision.  The Appeals Court held that REBNY had standing to bring its article 78 claims, except under SEQRA.  The Appeals Court also held that REBNY had standing to assert its plenary causes of action, but held that REBNY abandoned its claims under 42 U.S.C. 1983 because REBNY did not address them on appeal.

The City enacted the Local Law in June 2015 to allow for the study of the effect of the conversion of hotel rooms from transient guest spaces to full-time residential units on the City’s economy. Its legislative findings asserted that large hotels are essential to vacation and business travelers, important generators of well-paying jobs and anchors for surrounding economic activity. The findings also expressed concern that the conversions are occurring quickly and may be irreversible. In addition, the legislative intent noted the current market conditions, the profitability of conversions and the City’s developers’ rush to convert.

The Local Law placed a two-year moratorium (extended to four years, i.e. June 2019) on the conversion of Manhattan hotel rooms to residential units. More specifically, the Local Law applied to hotels with at least 150 units and prohibited the conversion of more than 20% of hotel rooms. The Local Law provided an exemption for conversions begun in the two years preceding its effective date and allowed owners to seek a waiver from the City’s Board of Standards and Appeals (“BSA”), which waiver was not as-of-right.

REBNY, a non-profit corporation comprised of 17,000 members (property owners, developers, lenders, managers, architects, designers, appraisers, attorneys and brokers), asserted that 175 hotels, including 29 REBNY members, were affected by the Local Law. REBNY argued that by restricting the rights of affected hotels, the Local Law reduced the value of the properties, among other things.

The City moved to dismiss on the basis that REBNY lacked organizational standing.  To have organizational standing to challenge the enactment of the Local Law, REBNY must satisfy three elements : (i) one or more of its members must have standing; (ii) the interest it asserts must be germane to its purpose; and, (iii) neither the claim asserted nor the relief sought requires the individual members’ participation (ensuring the organization is the proper petitioner/plaintiff). Standing requires injury-in-fact which falls within the zone of interests and which is different in kind or degree from the public at-large.

The Appeals Court ultimately held that REBNY sufficed the injury requirement. Owners of property subject to new zoning restrictions are presumptively affected by the change. REBNY member hotels were negatively affected by the Local Law, including but not limited to, the diminution of property value and the costs associated with applying for a waiver. These negative effects satisfied the injury-in-fact requirement.

One of the bases cited for this finding was the Local Law’s own legislative intent, which noted that the Local Law would not be necessary if conversions were not so profitable. Thus, with respect to first part of the three-prong test for organizational standing, the Appeals Court held one or more member’s sustained sufficient injury-in-fact within the zone of interests and different in kind from the public at-large.

However, REBNY satisfied the second and third prongs for organizational standing on only some its claims.  Pertinently, with respect to the article 78 claims, the Appeals Court held REBNY had standing for all claims, except under SEQRA. REBNY focuses on the economic and political health of the real estate industry. The Court rejected REBNY’s argument that it sought to protect its member’s environmental interests in air quality and traffic. REBNY’s only “environmental” focus is on the economic environment.  Economic interests – alone – are insufficient to confer SEQRA’s zone of interests. While economic interests are germane to REBNY’s purpose to the extent it is a real estate industry advocacy group, environmental interests are not.  Therefore, REBNY is only a proper petitioner for the non-SEQRA claims.

Notably, the sole dissenting Judge opined, among other things, that REBNY did not have standing for any claim. The dissent argued that REBNY’s allegations of potential future economic harm were amorphous and did not suffice an injury-in-fact. REBNY’s members have neither attempted to convert nor sought exemption by waiver form the BSA. REBNY did not provide competent proof, e.g. appraisals, evaluations, etc. Additionally, the waiver application fee is de minimis and does not constitute an injury.

Standing is a threshold issue in challenges to administrative decisions.  Prior blog posts have dealt with standing in cases involving challenges to local land use and zoning decisions.  If standing is not established, the party seeking to overturn the administrative decision will see its proceeding dismissed without any consideration of the merits.  Whether a party has standing is quite fact-sensitive but there are certain overarching principals that should be remembered.  Most notably, a petitioner must show in its pleadings that it suffered a harm that is different from the harm suffered by the general public, that the harm is within the zone of interest sought to be protected by the applicable statute, and that the alleged harm is not speculative.

Late last month, the Appellate Division, Third Department, issued two companion decisions that caught our “standing” attention. While the cases involve a challenge to a loophole in the Election Law for limited liability companies, referred to as the LLC Loophole, the matters were resolved on the basis of the lack standing of the petitioners.  In these cases, petitioners raised interesting arguments that they thought would support their standing to challenge an administrative decision, but the Court found them unpersuasive.  The Court’s evaluation of the standing claims may be helpful to those seeking to establish or to defeat standing in the land use and zoning matters.

The Facts     

According to the decisions,  Brennan Center For Justice v. NYS Board of Elections (Docket 524905) and Brennan Center For Justice v. NYS Board of Elections (Docket 524950), petitioners were the Brennan Center For Justice at NYU Law School (the “Brennan Center”), a self-described “not-for-profit, non-partisan public policy and law institute that focuses on issues of democracy and justice” and six individual petitioners who were current or former legislators or candidates for legislative office. Respondent, the New York State Board of Elections, (“Board of Elections”), was described in the decisions as “a bi-partisan agency governed by four appointed commissioners and vested with the statutory authority to issue instructions, rules and regulations pertaining to campaign financing practices, among other things.”

New York State’s Election Law contains provisions that limit campaign contributions for various types of donors.  When limited liability companies were authorized in New York in 1994, the Legislature did not amend the Election Law to address campaign limits for this type of entity. In 1996, the Board of Elections issued an opinion that treated limited liability companies as individuals for purposes of campaign contribution limits. This allowed limited liability companies to donate larger amounts to campaigns than corporations or partnerships could donate. While there were efforts legislatively to close the LLC Loophole, none were successful.

In April 2015, one of the commissioners of the Board of Elections sought to close the LLC Loophole by making a motion to direct the board’s counsel to rescind the 1996 opinion and provide guidance on limits that should apply to contributions by limited liability companies. The motion failed, whereupon the Petitioners sought review in a hybrid Article 78 proceeding and declaratory judgment action (“Hybrid Proceeding”). The Supreme Court dismissed the Hybrid Proceeding, which the Appellate Division affirmed in one of the companion decisions.

In April 2016, one of the commissioners made a new motion seeking approval of a draft opinion that would rescind the 1996 opinion and replace it with an opinion that treated limited liability companies in the same manner as partnerships and corporations with respect to campaign contribution limits. This motion also failed. Petitioners commenced another Hybrid Proceeding seeking to invalidate what the Board of Elections did in April 2016 and to replace the 1996 opinion with the 2016 draft opinion. The Supreme Court dismissed the second action, and the Appellate Division affirmed in the second companion decision.

The Appellate Division Decisions

In both cases, the Appellate Division found that the individual petitioners lacked standing. The appellate court found that their claims of harm – that the LLC Loophole “hampers their electoral campaigns by placing them at a competitive disadvantage against opponents who receive large contributions,” “damages their ability to represent their constituents,” harms the voters by “limiting their choices among candidates and hiding the identity of donors,” and “would cause them to suffer disadvantages in future elections” did not confer standing. The court found all these claims to be neither different nor distinct from those of the public at large and were also conjectural.

Similarly, the appellate court found that the Brennan Center lacked standing. The Brennan Center claimed the LLC Loophole “harms its staff contributors and volunteers by limiting their candidate choices and unduly influencing their political representatives.” The appellate court found that this alleged harm was no different than the harm suffered by the general public and did not support standing. The appellate court also rejected the Brennan Center’s claim that it was injured by having to advocate for the closure of the LLC Loophole, which required it to expend resources. The majority also noted that petitioners could not establish standing by claiming that the LLC Loophole caused disparities in campaign contributions, wryly noting that the “[o]ur political system does not mandate equal funding for all candidates.”

The Appellate Division also found that the courts were not the appropriate place to fix the LLC Loophole. Rather, it “resolved around policy choices and value determinations constitutionally committed to the legislative and executive branches.”

Moral Of The Story

As to the applicability of these decisions to Land Use and Zoning – the bottom line is never forget “standing.”  It is a fundamental element that must be established by petitioners and a fundamental defense that should be considered and raised, if applicable, by respondents, in challenges to governmental actions. As noted in the decisions and in the introductory paragraphs, above, petitioners must show “that they have suffered an injury-in-fact and that the injury is within the zone of interest protected by the statute at issue.” Otherwise they will be found to lack standing and will be unable to challenge a determination on the merits.