As to code enforcement and nuisance actions we strongly recommend “comply”

Friday, our founder Christopher Finney was featured on a panel presentation before the Cincinnati Bar Association on “Code Enforcement from the Municipal Perspective.”  The panel included Erica Faaborg, Deputy City Solicitor of Cincinnati, Kathy Ryan of Wood and Lamping, and Stacey Purcell of Legal Aid of Cincinnati.

The panel discussion covered a wide range of code enforcement and nuisance actions, many of which fall outside the scope of what Finney Law Firm typically would handle such as slum landlords without heat and tenant hoarding.

Our primary experience falls in two areas: (i) Chronic and acute health and building code violations, with the municipality typically seeking an injunction and a fine against the property owner and (ii) nuisance actions seeking either the forced closure of the nuisance business (usually either a motel or a liquor establishment) or the appointment of a receiver to manage, fix up and sell a property.

In both instances, in nearly every jurisdiction in question, the municipality is simply seeking compliance.  In most instances, they neither want your money nor control of your property. They want the nuisance conduct (underage drinking, violence, drug dealing, prostitution) stopped or the the property fixed up.  Period.

As three starting points, commonly I advise:

  • Maybe our client has a legitimate defense, the nuisance does not exist, is not as exaggerated as the municipality claims, or we have an over-zealous building inspector picking a fight with a single property owner. But (a) this usually can be worked out (as their objective typically is compliance, we universally find they are clear and reasonable when asked to be) and (b) the Judge who will hear the case lives in our community and typically wants zealous code enforcement — we all want to live in a nice community, right?  As to judicial matters, these are “police powers” enforcement and the Judge almost never wants to second guess the City in a code issue. It will be very hard to overcome the presumption that the City is being reasonable in its enforcement.
  • Even if the client is right, the risk of lost and cost of litigation pales in comparison to the cost of fixing up the property or abating the nuisance.
  • And, worst of all, if the City is victorious in seeking the appointment of a receiver for your property, it’s “game over” for the property owner in terms of preserving any value from — any equity in — the property.  Why? Because the lawyers and receiver take over the property, repair it at your expense, charge their professional fees to the project and pay themselves from the income and proceeds, and sell the property quickly for what they see as a fair price to a new operator.  You can kiss your years-developed, hard-earned equity goodbye.  In the case of liquor establishments, if you are ordered closed, your millions of dollars in capital to develop and promote an establishment are out the window if you are forcibly shut down.

As a result, we strongly recommend working with building officials toward a reasonable compromise for enforcement — it can end the dispute, it improves the property or its operation, and it makes our communities stronger.  More importantly, in in the long measure, it saves the client money by investing in his property or business rather than running up a huge — and likely non-productive — legal tab.

Having said all of this — and we do counsel compliance and cooperation — a business owner or property owner does not need to just “lay down” for expensive and over-the-top enforcement.  Our firm has fought and won amazing battles against State and local governments, all the way to the US Supreme Court.  We have successfully challenged entire legislative schemes, including pre-sale and pre-leasing inspections, which are a constitutional overreach, in multiple jurisdictions.  Our firm has made a name for itself fighting and winning against bad government actors.  Our tools include the US and State Constitutions, state statute, the State of Ohio taxpayer statutes against both cities and county commissions, Open Meetings laws, Public Records laws, and other statutory avenues.  But before launching into these battles, we want to make sure we are positioned to win and that the client appreciates the costs and risks for undertaking these fights.