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Metro Lights, L.L.C. v. City of Los Angeles

January 6, 2009


Appeal from the United States District Court for the Central District of California Gary A. Feess, District Judge, Presiding. D.C. No. CV-04-01037-GAF(Ex).

The opinion of the court was delivered by: O'scannlain, Circuit Judge



Argued and Submitted June 4, 2008-Pasadena, California

Before: David R. Thompson, Diarmuid F. O'Scannlain, and Richard C. Tallman, Circuit Judges.


We must determine whether a city violates the First Amendment by prohibiting most offsite commercial advertising while simultaneously con racting with a private party to permit sale of such advertising at city-owned transit stops.


This case lies at the crossroads of two courses of action that the City of Los Angeles has followed. First, in December 2001, the City entered into a contract with Viacom Decaux LLC, later to become CBS-Decaux LLC ("CBS"), under which CBS would install public facilities at city-owned transit stops across the city in exchange for exclusive advertising rights on those facilities. Five months later, the City enacted an ordinance ("the Sign Ordinance") generally banning offsite advertising*fn1 but excluding from its reach, among other places, such transit stops. Los Angeles Municipal Code ("L.A.M.C.") §§ 91.101.4, 91.101.5, 91.6205.11.


Since 1987, the City has engaged in an almost unbroken chain of agreements with private contractors in which the City granted the exclusive right to advertise on transit shelters in exchange for the installation of such facilities and annual payments. The first contract provided for the "exclusive right to display advertising materials on [transit] shelters" in exchange for the installation of 2,500 shelters, as well as annual payments of the greater of either a percentage of gross advertising receipts or a lump sum.

In May 1999, after the first contract had expired, the City entered into the Norman Bus Bench Franchise agreement, modeled after its predecessor. The City gave Norman, the franchisee, the exclusive right to place commercial advertising on bus stop benches in the City, in exchange for the installation and maintenance of 6,000 to 8,770 benches, a similar fee structure, and a commitment to place public service announcements on them.

The City decided to deviate from the model somewhat in late 2001. It would supersede the Norman Contract by means of a new form of agreement, which would require a franchisee to install not only new bus stop benches, but also other public facilities such as shelters at bus stops, automated self-cleaning public toilets, trash receptacles, public amenity kiosks, and news racks. Otherwise, the new contract would be identical to the Norman Contract. The City initiated an open bidding process, stating that its objectives included: (1) the use of one contractor to establish a single point of accountability; (2) the significant upgrade of "the appearance and quality of street furniture on Los Angeles City streets"; and (3) the improvement of the "visual character of the streetscape," particularly by "reduc[ing] physical and visual clutter on sidewalks" and ensuring that "[t]he streets of the City are [not] littered with various street elements that are situated in unplanned ways . . . creating general chaotic visual impacts on the street." While the new contract provided for exclusive advertising rights on the new public facilities, it said nothing about municipal regulation of offsite signs.

CBS (then known as Viacom Decaux LLC), was the successful bidder and, on December 21, 2001, entered into a twenty-year contract with the City. Under the terms of that contract, called the Street Furniture Agreement ("the SFA"), first Viacom Decaux, and then CBS, agreed to install the new public facilities and to make annual payments according to a formula similar to those the City had used in its earlier deals. The bus stop shelters and other facilities would remain City property, and the City would retain control over much of the design of the installed street furniture.


On April 30, 2002, the Los Angeles City Council adopted its Sign Ordinance, which listed six purposes, mostly connected to traffic safety and aesthetics.*fn2 Essentially, the new law, which amended L.A.M.C. § 91.6205.11, provided that "[s]igns are prohibited if they . . . [a]re off-site signs, except when off-site signs are specifically permitted pursuant to a variance, legally adopted specific plan, supplemental use district or an approved development agreement. This shall also apply to alterations or enlargements of legally existing off-site signs." The L.A.M.C. defines "Off-Site Sign" as "[a] sign which displays any message directing attention to a business, product, service, profession, commodity, activity, event, person, institution or any other commercial message, which is generally conducted, sold, manufactured, produced, offered or occurs elsewhere than on the premises where such sign is located." L.A.M.C. § 91.6203. The prototypical offsite sign, it seems, is the common billboard, whether freestanding or affixed to a building or other structure. The exhibits in the record show, however, that posters set in glass cases that are then affixed to structures also count as offsite signs.

The ban applies exclusively to commercial signs. Id.*fn3 In addition, under L.A.M.C. §§ 91.101.4, 91.101.5, the City's Building Code (of which the ban is a part) does not apply to "work located primarily in a public way," such as public transit shelters and other facilities. The Sign Ordinance did not alter or amend this additional exemption.*fn4

At the time the Sign Ordinance became effective, there were approximately 18,500 transit stops in the City.


Metro Lights, LLC, ("Metro Lights") owns and operates outdoor signs in a variety of markets, including Los Angeles. Around December 2003, the City issued Metro Lights numerous citations for violating the Sign Ordinance by installing new offsite signs. In response, Metro Lights brought this suit, seeking declaratory and injunctive relief, as well as damages, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and 28 U.S.C. §§ 2201 & 2202. The City moved to dismiss, while Metro Lights moved for a preliminary injunction to enjoin the City from enforcing the Sign Ordinance as to twenty specified signs. The district court granted the City's motion in part, dismissing several but not all of the First Amendment claims, but also granted Metro Lights's motion for a preliminary injunction.

Metro Lights responded by filing its second amended complaint, which also raised various First Amendment claims under § 1983. Metro Lights ultimately moved for partial summary judgment on its First Amendment claims, arguing that the SFA undermined the City's purported grounds for enacting the Sign Ordinance. After the district court had held a hearing but before it had ruled on Metro Lights's motion, the City filed its own motion for partial summary judgment on the same constitutional claims, arguing that the Sign Ordinance was constitutional in light of the City's interests in promoting aesthetics and traffic safety.

On August 11, 2006, the district court entered its final order granting Metro Lights' motion for partial summary judgment on the merits of its First Amendment claim. According to the district court, "[t]he City cannot, on the one hand, preclude Plaintiff from displaying messages on its off-site signs as a supposed legitimate exercise of its police powers while, on the other hand, authorizing its Street Furniture contractor to erect off-site signs in or near the public rights of way throughout the City of Los Angeles."

After this defeat, the City filed a motion for summary judgment asserting that Metro Lights was not entitled to damages. This time the City met with some success, as the district court granted the motion and denied Metro Lights an award of damages.

Judgment was entered on January 23, 2007.*fn5 The City timely appealed from the grant of summary judgment as to the First Amendment claims, and Metro Lights timely cross-appealed from the grant ...

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