We’ve picked on Spider-Man a bit recently, so in interests of fairness we’re going to pick on J. Jonah Jameson, who is currently the mayor of New York in the Marvel Universe. Recently, Jameson has focused his ire on Horizon Labs, a research and development company that happens to employ Peter Parker in his capacity as a scientist.
The particular issue in today’s post comes from a question from Christopher, who writes:
[In Amazing Spider-Man #682] Parker and other Horizon Labs employees witness a confrontation between HL owner Max Modell and Mayor Jameson in which the Mayor says “As Mayor of this city, I am ordering all of you to vacate these premises immediately!” He has arrived to bully HL into shutting down and gives various reasons [, listed below]. Later in issue 683 he comes back with “Chief Pratchett” presumably some ranking officer in the NYPD and shuts off the company’s power supply: “You’re not getting a single amp out of Con Ed!” He then orders “Chief Pratchett, have your men clear the building, after that, no one gets in or out, understood?” Chief Pratchett accedes to the request but we cut away from the confrontation and don’t return this issue.
This is obviously an ongoing storyline which will play out over another 4/5 issues but surely Jameson is overstepping his authority to clear out a private building without any kind of court order. And isn’t Pratchett wrong to comply?
At various points in #682 and #683 Jameson gives some reasons for wanting Horizon Labs shut down, including:
1. “This man has access to spider-jammers that could control Spider-man! Yet he refuses to turn them over to the city!” (see Spider-Island 667-673)
2. “One of your people built a time machine that did destroy the city.” (678-679)
3. “And now I hear you have a monster holed up here?!” (679.1 The “monster” is Dr. Morbius)
4. “Two days ago, you almost got my son killed.” (680-681)
So, is any of this sufficient to justify cutting power and ordering the police to clear the building?
As Horizon’s lawyer, who was present for the first confrontation with Jameson, argues, probably not. The spider-jammers have been destroyed, the EPA cleared Horizon regarding the alternate universe incident (who knew that the EPA had jurisdiction over time travel and alternate futures?), and Dr. Morbius isn’t a monster but rather suffers from a poorly-understood medical condition. Jameson isn’t satisfied and vows to return, which leads to the second confrontation (the one with the power-cutting and the police).
But suppose Jameson’s allegations were correct. Could the mayor really do that? And if not, what is the potential liability for Pratchett and the other police officers?
I. Eminent Domain
The most likely source of Jameson’s power to order Horizon shut down is eminent domain, which allows the taking of private property for public use in exchange for just compensation. New York has a statute, the New York Eminent Domain Procedure Law, that is just what it sounds like. It sets out “the exclusive procedure by which property shall be acquired by exercise of the power of eminent domain in New York state.” N.Y. Eminent Domain Proc. Law § 101. Unfortunately for Jameson, it doesn’t look like he has complied with the procedures.
A. Public Hearing
Ordinarily the eminent domain process begins with a public hearing. § 201. However, there are some exemptions, one of which is when “because of an emergency situation the public interest will be endangered by any delay caused by the public hearing requirement in this article.” § 206(D). I suppose it’s arguable that Horizon presents such an extreme danger to the city that a public hearing can be avoided.
However, Horizon labs could file suit to challenge the City’s determination that it is exempt under § 206(D). “Where, however, a condemnor proceeds under one of the exemptions provided in EDPL 206, and therefore claims that it is not required to comply with the foregoing notice, hearing, and determination requirements, a condemnee may, unless otherwise provided by statute, challenge the applicability of the claimed exemption in the Supreme Court … .” Steel Los III, LP v. Power Authority of N.Y., 33 A.D.3d 990, 990-91 (2006). The reviewing court would almost certainly issue a temporary restraining order or preliminary injunction preventing the City from shutting down Horizon until it had reviewed the case. Given that Horizon appears to be represented by competent legal counsel, I think it’s likely Horizon would go to court once Jameson threatened to take the building.
The eminent domain law also requires the condemnor (i.e. the City) to “make every reasonable and expeditious effort to justly compensate persons for such real property by negotiation and agreement” “at all stages prior to or subsequent to an acquisition by eminent domain.” § 301. This includes making at least one written offer representing the just compensation for the property. § 303.
In this case, we don’t see any discussion of compensation, much less negotiation or a written offer. Instead, Jameson seems to think he can simply take the building outright. There is a lot more to eminent domain, but I think that’s enough to establish that Jameson wasn’t doing it right.
Assuming the City can’t legally take the building through eminent domain, what are the possible consequences for cutting power and forcibly evacuating the building? The most likely result is a § 1983 suit alleging a violation of Horizon’s constitutional rights, specifically their rights under the Fourth Amendment. If successful, this could result in an award of actual damages, punitive damages, and attorney’s fees. Given the expensive equipment and experiments that may have been lost or damaged by the sudden loss of power, that could be a pretty significant bill for the city.
Importantly, the City and officers could claim qualified immunity under § 1983. “The doctrine of qualified immunity protects government officials from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.” Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 231 (2009). “The protection of qualified immunity applies regardless of whether the government official’s error is a mistake of law, a mistake of fact, or a mistake based on mixed questions of law and fact.” Id.
So, for example, if the officers were told that the City had a court order to shut down Horizon, then the officers might not be liable because they were operating under a mistake of fact. Jameson, however, clearly knew what was up, and I think it would be hard for him to claim qualified immunity, at least if he thought he was exercising the power of eminent domain, since a reasonable person would have known about the proper procedure for doing so.
There are other possible ways that the City could try to shut down Horizon (e.g. alleging violations of the law and arresting everyone or suing the company), but the way it’s depicted in the comics really suggests eminent domain to me. I think it’s reasonable to assume that if the City had a good claim to criminal or illegal activity then it would have simply called in the cops or sent in the lawyers. Jameson’s approach is so vague that eminent domain is the only thing that I can think of that fits the bill. Alas, his failure to follow proper procedures is likely to get him (and the City) sued.