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Equal Protection Under the Law

The Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment prevents the government from discriminating against citizens in certain ways; however, contrary to what one might expect, “equal protection under the law” does not always comport with our usual conceptions of fairness. If government is treating you differently than someone else—whether a neighbor, a competitor in your industry, or anyone—you may have grounds to contest your unequal treatment. As always, when your rights are at stake, it is essential to get sound advice from an experienced attorney with expertise in this area of the law.

Generally it is assumed that government must treat similarly situated individuals in a like manner; however, it is not always that simple. In most cases where government treats citizens differently, courts will allow the unequal treatment, provided that there is a “rational basis” behind the government’s decision. For example, municipalities will almost inevitably end up treating some property owners differently when enacting a zoning code or when imposing regulatory restrictions on certain business practices.

In the zoning context, land use restrictions can be justified under many rationales—even subjective concerns for community aesthetics will serve as a legitimate rational basis for a restriction. The same is true of most any regulation on economic activities. Therefore, in cases where government imposes burdensome regulations or restrictions on your business or property, it is essential to consider whether the imposition violates substantive law, or a specific constitutional protection. For example, some regulations go too far, and might impede upon your First Amendment rights, or may violate the Fifth Amendment’s guarantee that private property shall not be taken without payment of just compensation.

Yet if it appears that the government has singled you out without reason—or has simply treated you differently than others without any apparent rationale—it may be possible to invoke the Equal Protection Clause to ensure that you receive fair treatment. Perhaps your city has imposed restrictions on your business, but not a competitor down the street. Typically regulators can point to some legitimate difference between your situation and the competitor’s that might justify such a discriminatory regulatory regime; however, in some cases the parties are in nearly identical shoes and there is no rational basis for treating them differently.

A common example arises when a state agency or local authority imposes burdensome conditions on a permit, or denies a permit outright, without any apparent justification. In such cases, it may be that the authorities have acted arbitrarily and capriciously. Even where the authorities cite a specific concern to justify their position in these situations, there must be at least some evidence to support their position. If their concern is entirely unwarranted, without support of any substantial evidence, it may be possible to raise a challenge.

Likewise, Equal Protection issues might arise in instances in which regulators selectively enforce rules and regulations. While there may be legitimate reasons for the government to prioritize enforcement actions, regulators cannot simply target you without any reason. The common thread in all Equal Protection cases is that the government must have a legitimate rationale behind its decisions and actions.

Additionally, the Equal Protection Clause provides greater protections for citizens against discriminatory policies based on race or gender. For that matter, California’s Constitution prohibits government from discriminating or giving preferences to individuals on the basis of race or sex. A common violation occurs when a municipality institutes an affirmative action program, or if it gives minority owned businesses a leg-up in some manner.

If you think that you have been treated unfairly by a discriminatory government policy or decision, it is important to consult with a trusted Constitutional rights attorney as soon as possible. These cases are highly fact intensive, but the Los Angeles and Sacramento attorneys at Kassouni Law can advise you as to whether you have legal standing to contest your unequal treatment. Our experienced Constitutional attorneys practice throughout the state of California, and are prepared to offer sound and practical advice to resolve your situation as expeditiously as possible. Contact the Los Angeles and Sacramento attorneys at Kassouni Law for an assessment of your legal matter by calling (877) 770-7379.