A federal judge has dismissed a civil suit filed by a local fitness gym against the city of Starkville.
In an opinion issued Tuesday, Senior U.S. District Judge for North Mississippi Glen H. Davidson said the plaintiff, Starkville Athletic Club, had not proven the city had violated the business owners’ rights when forcing it and other non-essential businesses to close in April 2020 to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
Gov. Tate Reeves issued executive orders in April 2020 that temporarily shut down non-essential businesses — which included fitness gyms, spas, salons and barbershops, among others — and aldermen approved local ordinances that mirrored the state order. Reeves’ orders did not allow fitness gyms to reopen until early May 2020.
Starkville Athletic Club managers John and Joe Underwood filed suit against the city, claiming the city’s ordinance amounted to taking their property for public purposes without just compensation and violating their rights under the U.S. and Mississippi constitutions. The suit also claims the fine and possible imprisonment penalties the city imposed via the governor’s order violated the Fifth Amendment.
In its complaint, Starkville Athletic Club claims the city’s ban on fitness gyms is “arbitrary” because Starkville Police Department continued to leave a gym open for its officers during the time private gyms were ordered to be closed.
But Davidson, in the opinion he issued in tandem with the order to dismiss, cited the city’s right to enact policies aimed at mitigating a public health crisis. He further asserts the city did not damage or take any of their real property and that lost potential profits from the city not allowing them to pursue their business interest did not constitute “taking.”
“… The plaintiff’s case simply lacks merit as a matter of law,” Davidson writes. “Moreover, from a public policy perspective, were the court to allow the plaintiff’s case to proceed, it would call into question every regulatory restriction as a possible constitutional violation and jeopardize our entire system of administrative action. This the court is unwilling to do.”
In a text message to The Dispatch on Wednesday, Mayor Lynn Spruill applauded the case’s dismissal.
“I am very pleased that the court found it to be a frivolous suit with absolutely no merit,” Spruill wrote. “It was a waste of city funds to have to defend such a suit.”
Attorney Jim Waide of Tupelo, who is representing the Underwoods, said Wednesday he hasn’t decided whether to advise his clients to appeal.
He said he also doesn’t know how this dismissal order will affect a similar lawsuit another client, Steve Pyle who owns Golden Glow Tanning Salon, is pursuing against the city of Columbus.
Davidson is also the presiding judge in that case, which is set for depositions next week.
Waide acknowledged cases non-essential businesses are filing against government entities for lost profits during the pandemic are “by and large being dismissed.”
“I would never have agreed to file it if I didn’t think it would succeed or that we were right,” Waide told The Dispatch regarding the fitness gym suit. “I still think we were right.”
Specifically, Waide again pointed to the police department continuing to use its gym while others were forced to close.
“If it’s not safe for the public to go into a gym, it’s not safe for police to,” Waide said. “Especially when you consider the contact police officers have with the public.”
Zack Plair is the managing editor for The Dispatch.