Outdoor advertising companies have mounted an all-out legal attack on L.A.’s sign regulations. Are they winning? Or is the city successfully defending its right to determine the number, size, and placement of billboards and other forms of outdoor advertising? More than 20 lawsuits seeking to overturn the city’s ban on new off-site and supergraphic signs have been filed against the city since that ban was adopted in 2002. Here are four of the most significant, along with a synopsis and the current status of each.
Clear Channel, et al v. City of Los Angeles
Clear Channel, along with three other companies—Vista Media, CBS Outdoor, and Regency Outdoor—filed suit against the city in 2002, challenging the constitutionality of the off-site sign ban as well as a program adopted at the same time to conduct a fee-based inventory and inspection of all existing billboards in the city. The federal court upheld the constitutionality of the ban, but the companies continued to press a claim in state court that the annual fee of $386 per billboard for the inspection and inventory program was confiscatory. Before the court could rule on this claim, the city and the companies reached an out-of-court settlement in 2006 that was widely regarded as a disaster for the city. Among other things, it allowed the conversion of more than 800 conventional billboards to digital, and grandfathered hundreds of billboards erected or modified illegally.
Summit Media v. City of Los Angeles
Summit Media, one of the city’s smaller sign companies, sued the city after the lawsuit settlement in the aforementioned Clear Channel case, one of the arguments being that the settlement reached behind closed doors illegally denied the public its right to be heard on a matter that would normally require hearings and public input. In 2009, a superior court judge agreed, and ruled that the entire settlement was invalid. CBS Outdoor, which joined the lawsuit in defense of the city against Summit Media, appealed that ruling to the California Court of Appeals, along with Clear Channel, and on Dec. 10, 2012, the court upheld the superior court judge and also said that the permits issued thus far for 100 digital billboards should be revoked.
Metrolights v. City of Los Angeles
A New York company called Metrolights (now Fuel Outdoor) began putting up small, lighted panel billboards in 2004 without getting city permits. When cited for violating the off-site sign ban, the company sued in U.S. District Court, challenging the off-site sign ban on the grounds that the city allowed the same type of advertising signs in the public right of way in bus shelters, kiosks, and other items of “street furniture.” The district court judge ruled in favor of Metrolights, but that ruling was overturned by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in 2009, and the U.S. Supreme Court refused to review the ruling. Shortly thereafter, the company removed all its signs (estimated to be 200-plus) in the city.
Worldwide Rush v. City of Los Angeles
Worldwide Rush, a Pennsylvania company, sued the city in federal court in 2007 after being cited for putting up unpermitted supergraphic signs on a number of buildings. In 2008, a federal judge ruled in the company’s favor, saying that the off-site and supergraphic sign bans were unconstitutional because the city could legally allow such signs in special sign districts . More than a dozen companies then filed their own lawsuits, all making the same argument central to the Worldwide Rush suit, and the judge issued injunctions against enforcement at nearly 50 sites where unpermitted supergraphic signs had been installed. However, in June, 2010, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned that ruling, and many—although not all—of the signs have been taken down. Sign company attorneys haven’t announced whether they plan to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to review the ruling, but have filed motions in federal court seeking to file amended complaints that raise constitutional issues not dealt with in the original lawsuit.