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Sabri v. Whittier Alliance

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

August 19, 2016

Basim Sabri; Marty Schulenberg; Mohamed Cali; Jay Webb; Zachary Metoyer Plaintiffs - Appellants
Whittier Alliance, a Minnesota not-for-profit corporation; City of Minneapolis, a municipal corporation Defendants-Appellees

          Submitted: June 16, 2016

         Appeal from United States District Court for the District of Minnesota - Minneapolis

          Before MURPHY, BRIGHT, and SHEPHERD, Circuit Judges.

          MURPHY, Circuit Judge.

         Five members of Whittier Alliance, a private neighborhood organization, brought this action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the City of Minneapolis and the Alliance itself, alleging violation of their First Amendment rights. They claim that the city "commanded and encouraged" the members of the Alliance to adopt an antidefamation bylaw which unconstitutionally restricted the members' freedom of speech. The district court[1] granted the defendants' motions to dismiss for lack of standing and state action. We affirm.


         The Whittier Alliance is a private nonprofit organization in the Whittier neighborhood in Minneapolis. The organization holds community meetings, hosts events and activities, and presents forums and seminars intended to educate the neighborhood about civic engagement. The organization receives funds from private grants, donations, and the city of Minneapolis through the Community Participation Program (CPP). To receive CPP funding, a neighborhood organization must be incorporated, have bylaws and an elected board of directors, and "[e]nsure that membership in the organization is open to all residents." If an organization's bylaws do not comply with the CPP guidelines, the city may recommend that the organization revise its bylaws and may withdraw CPP funding.

         In 2014, Basim Sabri, Marty Schulenberg, Mohamed Cali, Jay Webb, and Zachary Metoyer (applicants) submitted applications to serve on the Alliance board. The applicants were members of Whittier Alliance and in past years had voiced their opposition to what they considered to be racist policies of the board. The executive director of the Alliance rejected the applications of Sabri, Schulenberg, Cali, and Webb on the ground that they had not had a documented history of engagement with the organization.

         Appellants filed a grievance with the board, claiming that it had implemented policies deliberately designed to exclude racial minorities from leadership positions and that it lacked authority to reject their applications based on qualifications not contained in the existing bylaws. The board denied the grievance, and appellants sought review through the CPP grievance process. The city also denied their grievance but "require[d] Whittier Alliance to revise its bylaws to be more explicit on its election process and the qualifications for board candidacy." The city assigned neighborhood support specialist Michelle Chavez to work with the Alliance on its bylaws in advance of the next annual meeting.

         On January 12, 2015 the membership of the Whittier Alliance voted to approve amended bylaws which included a new requirement for board candidates to show ongoing participation with the organization and attendance at meetings during the current year. The Alliance also approved an antidefamation bylaw requiring that board candidates must "not have committed an act of malice or defamation against the Whittier Alliance or any member of the Board of Directors or [have] otherwise disrupte[d] the aims and purposes of the corporation."

         Appellants did not submit applications for the board election held on March 26, 2015. They claim that their decision not to apply was based on the discriminatory nature of the antidefamation bylaw which they argue was intended to exclude them from running for board positions because of their critical speech about the incumbent board. To challenge the new bylaw, appellants filed this § 1983 action alleging that the Whittier Alliance and the city of Minneapolis had adopted policies designed to deprive them of their rights under the First Amendment and Minn. Stat. § 363A.17(3). The district court dismissed the case, concluding that appellants lacked standing and that the Whittier Alliance was not acting under color of state law. Appellants then brought this appeal contending they have standing to challenge the constitutionality of the antidefamation bylaw.


         We review de novo a district court's grant of a motion to dismiss, "accepting as true all factual allegations in the complaint and drawing all reasonable inferences in favor of the nonmoving party." Topchian v. JPMorgan Chase Bank, N.A., 760 F.3d 843, 848 (8th Cir. 2014) (internal quotation marks omitted).

         The initial question is whether appellants have standing to raise their First Amendment claims. For standing a plaintiff must show that "he or she has suffered an 'injury in fact' that is 'concrete and particularized' and 'actual or imminent, not conjectural or hypothetical.'" Constitution Party of South Dakota v. Nelson, 639 F.3d 417, 420 (8th Cir. 2011) (quoting Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555, 560 (1992)). In addition, a plaintiff must show that such injury is "fairly traceable" to the challenged conduct and that it is "'likely [to] be redressed by a favorable decision.'" Braden v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 588 F.3d 585, 591 (8th Cir. 2009) (quoting Lujan, 504 U.S. at 560-61). A plaintiff's burden to establish standing depends on the stage of litigation, and at the motion to dismiss stage, "we 'presum[e] that general allegations embrace those specific facts that are necessary to support the [plaintiff's] claim.'" Wieland v. U.S. Dep't of Health and Human Serv., 793 F.3d 949, 954 (8th Cir. 2015) (quoting Lujan, 504 U.S. at 561).

         Appellants argue that the Alliance's antidefamation bylaw is unconstitutionally overbroad because it gives the board unfettered discretion to disqualify any board candidate it determines has committed an act of malice or defamation or otherwise disrupted the aims and purposes of the organization. "A plaintiff who has established constitutional injury under a provision of a statute as applied to his set of facts may also bring a facial challenge, under the [First Amendment] overbreadth doctrine, to vindicate the rights of others not before the court under that provision." CAMP Legal Defense Fund, Inc. v. City of Atlanta, 451 F.3d 1257, 1271 (11th Cir. 2006); see Shuttlesworth v. City of Birmingham, ...

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