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The proliferation of cannabis-associated corporations in states that have legalized marijuana – health-related and/or recreational – has sparked a foreboding trend in the courts. Opponents have sought to use the heavy weapon of RICO, the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, to avoid or close such facilities. While these efforts to target cannabis-associated corporations with the a statute initially made to fight organized crime have so far failed, cannabis-associated corporations are not however in the clear and the specter of RICO liability remains.
Most not too long ago, in Ainsworth v. Owenby, No. six:17-cv-01935-MC (D. Ore. March 27, 2019), the federal district court in Oregon dismissed a lawsuit brought by residential neighbors of a cannabis develop facility who claimed that the business enterprise had depressed the fair marketplace worth of their home and hence prevented them from qualifying for a bigger residence equity loan to construct perimeter fencing about their home. Amongst other items, the neighbors contended the develop operation violated Section 1962(c) of the RICO act, which tends to make it illegal for any individual employed or connected with an enterprise engaged in or affecting interstate commerce to conduct or participate in the enterprise’s affairs by way of a pattern of racketeering activity. Section 1964 of the RICO statute enables any individual who suffers an injury to his business enterprise or home by purpose of the racketeering activity to recover mandatory treble damages as nicely as attorney’s charges.
Initially, the Ainsworth neighbors had claimed at least 3 forms of RICO injury to their home: loss of enjoyment due to noxious smells, excess noise and elevated website traffic diminution of worth and elevated costs for safety measures. The court rejected these claims as either non-compensable individual injuries (and hence not injuries to business enterprise or home) or as abstract rather than concrete losses. In their amended complaint, the neighbors contended that the develop operation triggered them to endure diminished home worth, which in turn led them to qualify for a reduce residence equity loan and prevented them from getting in a position to construct perimeter fencing for their home. In dismissing the complaint once more, the court discovered that the neighbors nonetheless failed to plead a tangible injury mainly because their economic position was no worse absent the alleged racketeering activity – even if they had certified for a bigger loan, they would have higher debt and higher interest payments. Considering the fact that the plaintiffs could not show that they had concrete losses resulting from harm to their home by the develop operation, they could not satisfy RICO’s “standing” requirement to bring a claim.
The Ainsworth selection followed closely on the heels of a different West Coast selection, this time from California, that rejected RICO claims brought by neighbors of an unlicensed industrial cannabis develop facility. In Bokaie v. Green Earth Coffee LLC, No. three:18-cv-05244-JST (N.D. Cal. Dec. 27, 2018), the federal district court ruled that the plaintiffs’ allegations of noxious odors, excessive noise and worry of connected criminal activity – all of which allegedly triggered a decline in their home values – have been at most allegations of types of individual injury, not injury to business enterprise or home. Additionally, even though the court discovered that the plaintiffs’ allegations of diminished present marketplace worth of their houses could constitute a RICO injury, the truth that the defendants had agree to cease their unlicensed develop operation meant that the nuisance had abated and the diminution in worth had ceased. As a result, as in Ainsworth, the court in Bokaie concluded that the neighbors had failed to allege a compensable RICO injury.
For cannabis-associated corporations, these court rulings that dismissed RICO claims and their attendant draconian penalties are encouraging, but hardly a result in for celebration. 1st, these choices turned on the failures of the plaintiffs to show any concrete injury to their business enterprise or home, but the courts had accepted as a provided that operation of a cannabis facility – even one particular adequately licensed beneath state law – nonetheless could constitute operation of an enterprise by way of a pattern of racketeering because it violates the federal Controlled Substances Act and hence is “racketeering activity” beneath RICO. No doubt, plaintiffs’ counsel will continue to attempt to plead a viable kind of RICO injury.
Second, these current federal choices come from Oregon and California, two states inside the Ninth Circuit, but are in direct conflict with a 2017 selection of the Tenth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals arising from Colorado. In that case, Protected Streets Alliance v. Hickenlooper, 859 F.3d 865 (10th Cir. 2017), the appeals court reversed a selection by the trial court to dismiss RICO claims brought by neighbors of a marijuana develop facility. The neighbors contended that the facility – legal beneath Colorado law but not beneath federal law – diminished the worth of their home and that noxious odors from the facility diminished their use and enjoyment of the home. The Tenth Circuit held that these allegations have been adequate to state a claim for injury to home for purposes of RICO and remanded the case for a jury trial. Thankfully for the defendant, the jury discovered that the plaintiffs had not suffered any injury to their home, regardless of the trial court’s instruction that operation of the develop facility was a RICO violation. Even with the defense verdict in that case, on the other hand, there is no assure that a different defendant faced with a RICO claim in the Tenth Circuit will reach the very same outcome.
The threat of RICO liability for owners and operators of cannabis-associated corporations remains a true and present danger so extended as such facilities stay illegal beneath federal law. So far, the only federal appeals court to opine on the concern has sided with opponents of cannabis operations, but district courts in other circuits have gone the other way. After other instances attain the appellate level, it is foreseeable that a disagreement may perhaps create amongst the circuit courts, producing an concern that the U.S. Supreme Court may perhaps view as worthy of resolving. Till then, on the other hand, the calculus of the business enterprise dangers for the owners and operators of cannabis-associated corporations continues to incorporate the possible for getting branded as racketeers and facing liability for mandatory treble damages and attorney’s charges.
Gerald E. Arth ([email protected]) is a companion in the Philadelphia workplace of Fox Rothschild LLP, a national law firm, and specializes in complicated industrial litigation, which includes RICO instances.