Hands up, who’s got a procrastination problem? And don’t weasel out of it, either – we lawyers are trained to spot deceptive behavior. Even the most assiduous among us has a lazy day or two. I’ll fill this form out later, I’ll answer this email tomorrow… well, how about letting that email slide for a week? How about a month? A year? And when you finally got around to doing it, and someone called you out on being late, did you meekly accept your fault… or did you do the totally reasonable thing and blow up at them for how unfair they were being?
Zoom in on the town of Monroe, North Carolina.
Named after our nation’s fifth president, a hub of drum and timpani manufacture, aaaand every other fact in the “history” section of Monroe’s Wikipedia article is horrifying, so let’s just leave it at that. A bustling metropolis of 35,311 people. And some of those people feature in today’s entry.
Gay and Chandra Hancock leased a property from Gus and Zoe Mihelakis on June 1st 2016. Under their business, Chanken LLC, the Hancocks sought a permit from the City of Monroe to operate a business, which was approved in mid-June under the express condition that they not conduct any “electronic gaming operation” on the premises. This might seem a little odd, but NC has very strong laws on gambling, and the kind of electronic games you’d find in a bar fall under this remit, plus a lot of shops will advertise as gaming stores and covertly run some kind of gambling scheme, so a blanket ban applies.
All well and good, but seeing as the Hancocks’ business was called KC’s Variety Shop/Arcade, you might expect some shenanigans to ensure, and you’d be right.
In early January 2017, a Zoning Enforcement Officer named Doug Britt sent the Mihelakis a Notice of Violation, copying it to Chanken, to inform them that Monroe knew the Arcade was being used as, well, an arcade, directly violating the City’s Code of Ordinances. They had 10 days to bring the property into compliance or file an appeal. Later that same month, the Mihelakis’ real estate agent sent the City a letter (CC’d to their clients and Britt) mentioning the Hancocks had received the NOV, planned on resolving the issue with Monroe, and were told they’d be evicted if they failed to do so.
Sure enough, Gary Hancock and his LLC filed a conditional rezoning application to try to get a zoning-map amendment to allow electronic gaming in his shop. That was in February. On December 13th, Britt sent the Hancocks a letter explaining the application had been denied on December 5th because it “violates state law” (on gambling et al). We don’t know how the Hancocks responded, if at all, but we do know that Monroe sent them and their lawyer civil citations for failure to comply on December 20th, January 5th 2018, and January 26th.
On February 5th 2018, over a year after the NOV was issued, the Hancocks rolled out of bed and decided to file an appeal with the Board of Adjustment (BOA), saying 1) their arcade wasn’t “being used as an electronic gaming operation,” 2) the NOV “was not directed to or sent to a person liable” under Section 156.85 of the Code of Ordinances, and, uh, 3) the period to appeal hadn’t expired because no affidavit had been filed by the City. Monroe moved to dismiss the appeal as untimely on March 13th, and the BOA held a hearing on the motion to dismiss on the 21st.
There was some back and forth between the petitioners and various courts, with the Hancocks essentially claiming the BOA ignored their point that the NOV was not sent to a “PERSON LIABLE” (emphasis theirs). That brings us to the most recent ruling.
In this ruling, the court definitively dismantled the “person liable” argument by pointing out that Section 156.85 states “the owner, tenant, or occupant of any building or land or part thereof (…) may be held responsible for” a violation. The Hancocks’ argument rests on them being the “persons liable” and the NOV being sent to the Mihelakis, yet there’s concrete evidence that the notice was sent to both parties and that both are considered liable! The appeal is dismissed and the Hancocks don’t contest. Years of legal battles and reams of cash spent on, in essence, tardiness and an unwillingness to exercise reading comprehension.
The moral of the story?
As we zoom out of the tribunal and out of the City of Monroe, what can we take away, dear reader? Well, don’t dally when you get written up, watch your deadlines, and make sure you’re following the law. You can probably talk your way out of an awkward confrontation with a friend whose invitation to lunch you’ve been ignoring for seventeen months (editor’s note: I’ll call you, Diane), but the Law isn’t swayed by a tearful explanation and a box of chocolates… most of the time. (HANCOCK V. THE CITY OF MONROE)