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Lopez v. City of Oil City

March 31, 2008

MARGARET A. LOPEZ & WILLIAM DIDOMINIC, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
CITY OF OIL CITY DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: McLAUGHLIN, Sean J., J.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

This matter is before the Court upon Defendant's Motion to Dismiss for failure to state a claim pursuant to F.R.C.P. 12(b)(6).

I. BACKGROUND

On February 12, 2007, Defendant, the City of Oil City ("Oil City"), enacted Ordinance 2734 (hereinafter "the Ordinance"). In pertinent part, the Ordinance states:

§166-121. Purpose.

This Chapter is enacted to provide for the uniform and equitable collection of earned income, residence and per capita taxes levied within the City. §166-122. Reporting requirement.

It shall be the duty of the owner of every rental unit located within the City to prepare and file an annual report with the City Code Office, which shall contain the complete name and address of each person 18 years of age and older who is currently residing in each rental unit owned by the person required to file the report. The owner shall also provide the lease commencement and expiration dates of any tenant at the request of the City Code Office.

§166-123. Supplementation of report.

The report shall be supplemented by the owner of the registered rental unit within 15 days of becoming aware of the arrival of tenants or lessees not previously reported or of the departure of lessees or tenants previously reported. §166-124. Filing deadlines.

The report, which shall be filed in a form and manner designated by the City, shall be filed not later than 60 days following the effective date of this Article and annually thereafter within the thirty-day period following September 30 of each calender year. §166-125. Violations and penalties.

Any person who shall violate any of the provisions of this chapter by failing or refusing to timely file the required report within 45 days of the due date thereof shall, upon being found liable in a summary proceeding brought by the City before a District Justice having jurisdiction, be subject to a fine for each such violation of not more than $300, plus all the costs of prosecution and, upon default in timely payment of the fine and costs of prosecution, shall be subject to a period of imprisonment in the Venango County Prison not exceeding thirty (30) days. Each day that a violation shall continue following the initial notice by the City Code Office to such person that such person is in violation of this Article shall constitute a single and separate offense, punishable by a separate fine. (Complaint, Exhibit A). No similar reporting requirement exists for owner-occupiers of property in Oil City.

Plaintiff Margaret Lopez ("Lopez") is an adult resident of Oil City and landlord of a rental property occupied by Plaintiff William DiDominic ("DiDominic"). DiDominic, in addition to being a tenant of Lopez, is the landlord of another rental property in Oil City. (Complaint ¶¶ 12-13). In their capacities as landlords, both Lopez and DiDominic complied with the Ordinance by filing the requisite Rental Registration/Occupancy Reports. (Complaint ¶ 16).

Lopez and DiDominic assert that the Ordinance facially violates the United States Constitution and the Pennsylvania Constitution and seek relief pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983.*fn1 In Count One, Plaintiffs contend that the Ordinance violates the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution of the United States because it "denies equal protection of the laws, denies due process, is void for vagueness and invades privacy." (Complaint ¶18). Count Two alleges that the Ordinance violates the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution by authorizing unreasonable searches and seizures. (Complaint ¶ 19). Count Three contends that the Ordinance deprives Plaintiffs of their rights pursuant to Article 1, Section 10, Clause 1 of the U.S. Constitution by impairing the obligations of contracts. (Complaint ¶20). Count Four asserts that the Ordinance violates the Pennsylvania Constitution for the reasons set forth in the previous three Counts. (Complaint ¶ 21). Plaintiffs seek a declaratory judgment declaring the Ordinance unconstitutional and injunctive relief barring Oil City from enforcing the injunction, nominal damages, costs and attorneys' fees.

II. STANDARD FOR REVIEW

Rule 8(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure states that a pleading must set forth a claim for relief which contains a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief. A motion to dismiss filed pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) must be viewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff and all the well-pleaded allegations of the complaint must be accepted as true. Erickson v. Pardus, ___ U.S. ___, ___ 127 S.Ct. 2197, 2200 (2007); Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319 (1989); Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97 (1976). The issue is not whether the plaintiff will prevail at the end but only whether he should be entitled to offer evidence to support his claim. Neitzke; Scheuer v. Rhodes, 419 U.S. 232 (1974). As the United States Supreme Court recently held in Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, ___ U.S. ___, 127 S.Ct. 1955 (May 21, 2007), a complaint must be dismissed pursuant to Rule 12 (b)(6) if it does not allege "enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Id. at ___, 1974 (rejecting the traditional 12 (b)(6) standard set forth in Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41 (1957)). The court must accept as true all allegations of the complaint and all reasonable factual inferences must be viewed in the light most favorable to plaintiff. Angelastro v. Prudential-Bache Securities, Inc., 764 F.2d 939, 944 (3rd Cir. 1985). The Court, however, need not accept inferences drawn by plaintiff if they are unsupported by the facts as set forth in the complaint. See California Pub. Employee Ret. Sys. v. The Chubb Corp., 394 F.3d 126, 143 (3rd Cir. 2004) (citing Morse v. Lower Merion School Dist., 132 F.3d 902, 906 (3rd Cir. 1997)). Nor must the court accept legal conclusions set forth as factual allegations. Twombly, ___ U.S. ___, 127 S.Ct. at 1965 citing Papasan v. Allain, 478 U.S. 265, 286 (1986). "Factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level." Twombly, ___ U.S. ___, 127 S.Ct. at 1965. Although the United States Supreme Court does "not require heightened fact pleading of specifics, [the Court does require] enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Id. at ___, 1974.

In other words, at the motion to dismiss stage, a plaintiff is "required to makes a 'showing' rather than a blanket assertion of an entitlement to relief." Smith v. Sullivan, 2008 WL 482469 (February 22, 2008) (quoting Phillips v. County of Allegheny, ___ F.3d ___, 2008 WL 305025, at *5 (3rd Cir. Feb. 5, 2008)). "This does not impose a probability requirement at the pleading stage, but instead simply calls for enough facts to raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence of the necessary element." Phillips, 2008 WL 305025, at *6 (quoting Twombly, ___ U.S. at ___, 127 S.Ct. at 1965 n.3).

III. ANALYSIS

In challenging a municipal ordinance as facially unconstitutional, plaintiff must demonstrate that no set of circumstances exist under which the ordinance could be validly applied. United States v. Salerno, 481 U.S. 739, 745 (1987). Federal courts sitting in judgment of a local municipality's legislative acts owe the municipality a degree of deference in the municipal government's determination of local needs and preferences. Minnesota v. Clover Leaf Creamery Co., 449 U.S. 456, 469 (1981). Local legislative acts enjoy a "presumption of rationality that can only be overcome by a clear showing of arbitrariness and irrationality." Hodel v. Indiana, 452 U.S. 314, 331-332 (1981). With this principles in mind, we address each of Plaintiff's constitutional challenges in turn.

A. Equal Protection (Count I)

The Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment provides that the State shall not "deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." U.S. CONST. amend. XIV, § 1. This clause prohibits state and local governments from creating classifications among groups or individuals that disadvantage a suspect class or impinge upon a fundamental right unless the governmental purpose is narrowly tailored to further a compelling governmental interest. Plyler v. Doe, 457 U.S. 202, 216-17 (1982). Similarly, governments may not create a classification that disadvantages a quasi-suspect class unless the purpose is substantially related to an important government interest. United States v. Virginia, 518 U.S. 515, 533 (1996). Finally, if no suspect or quasi-suspect class is involved and no fundamental right is burdened, a state or local government may create a classification so long as it is rationally related to a legitimate governmental interest. Kimel v. Florida Board of Regents, 528 U.S. 62, 83 (2000).

Landlords and tenants are not members of a suspect class, see, e.g., Lock Haven Property Owners' Ass'n v. City of Lock Haven, 911 F.Supp. 155, 160 (M.D. Pa. 1995), such as to require a heightened standard of review of the Ordinance. Plaintiffs assert, however, that a heightened standard of review is required because of an alleged infringement on the fundamental right to privacy and to establish a home. (Brief in Opposition, Dkt. #6, p. 12). Specifically, Plaintiffs claim that the Ordinance unconstitutionally burdens one's right to keep private "the activity inside your home," "the right to security in your home," and "the decision with whom you make your home." We disagree.

Contrary to Plaintiffs' contention the Ordinance does not require disclosure of "activity" within the leased residence, only the names of residents. No fundamental associational or other security interest is implicated. Federal courts have routinely refused to apply heightened scrutiny in such situations. See, e.g., Bloomsburg Landlords Ass'n, Inc. v. Town of Bloomsburg, 912 F.Supp. 790, 805 (M.D. Pa. 1995) ("[W]e do not find a basis for concluding that the ordinance per se violated the fundamental constitutional rights of those whose conduct it seeks to regulate such that heightened scrutiny is appropriate on that ground."); Berwick Area Landlord Ass'n v. Borough of Berwick, 2007 WL 2065247 (M.D. Pa. 2007).

The Berwick case is instructive. The ordinance at issue in Berwick sought to:

Protect and promote the public health, safety of [Berwick's] citizens, to establish rights and obligations of owners and occupants relating to the rental of certain residential units in the Borough of Berwick and to encourage owners and occupants to maintain and improve the quality of rental housing within the community.

Id. at *8. In furtherance of that goal, the ordinance required landlords to:

1) Apply for and obtain a license for each rental unit prior to entering ...


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