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Watson v. Philadelphia Housing Authority

June 4, 2009


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Anita B. Brody, J.


On June 29, 2007, Plaintiff brought suit against the Philadelphia Housing Authority alleging that her due process rights were violated by the Philadelphia Housing Authority when she was evicted her from her apartment. After the close of discovery, the Philadelphia Housing Authority moved for summary judgment. Because there is no genuine issue of material fact, the defendant's motion for summary judgment is granted.

I. Background*fn1

Plaintiff Dorothy Watson was a public housing resident who resided in a single-family row house at 6126 Chancellor Street, Philadelphia (the "Premises"), pursuant to a lease with the defendant, the Philadelphia Housing Authority ("PHA"). (Def.'s Mot. Summ. J. Ex.1A, Lease Agreement.) On April 3, 2003, the Philadelphia Housing Authority served Watson with a Notice of Lease Termination (the "Notice") for an alleged lease violation. (Def.'s Mot. Summ. J. Ex.1B.) The Notice stated that Watson's tenancy was being terminated because she violated three separate provisions of the lease: (1) allowing her son to live with her without the approval of management in violation of section 1C; (2) failing to maintain the premises in a safe, clean, and sanitary condition in violation of section 8E; and (3) striking two managers on the arm and shoulder in violation of section 8H. (Id.)

Following receipt of the Notice, Watson obtained counsel. On April 12, 2003, through her counsel, Watson requested a grievance hearing to dispute the termination. (Def.'s Mot. Summ. J. Ex.1C, Tenant's Grievance Hearing Request.) On April 23, 2003, the PHA filed a Landlord and Tenant Complaint with the Philadelphia Municipal Court, seeking a judgment of possession based on non-payment of rent and breach of a condition of the lease. (Def.'s Mot. Summ. J. Ex.2A, Landlord and Tenant Complaint.) The Municipal Court action was continued until after Watson's grievance hearing could take place. (Def.'s Mot. Summ. J. Ex.2B, [hereinafter, "Municipal Court Docket"].)

On July 8, 2003, the grievance hearing went forward before an arbitrator. Both Watson and the PHA were represented by counsel during the arbitration. (Def.'s Mot. Summ. J. Ex.1D, Order of Arbitrator Arlene O. Freiman, Esq., dated July 10, 2003.) The arbitrator found that Watson had violated sections 8E and 8H of the lease (failure to maintain the unit in decent, safe and sanitary condition, and physical abuse of PHA employees, respectively), but that Watson had not violated section 1C of the lease (occupancy by an unauthorized tenant). (Id.)

On October 8, 2003, following the arbitration, an eviction hearing took place in the Municipal Court. Again, both Watson and the PHA were represented by counsel. (Municipal Docket.) On November 12, 2003, Municipal Court Judge Marsha Neifield ruled that Watson had breached a condition of her lease and granted PHA a writ of possession for the Premises. Phila. Hous. Auth. V. Watson, No. LT-03-04-23-2137 (Phila. Mun. Ct. Nov. 12, 2003). Watson appealed Judge Niefield's decision to the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas, and the parties agreed to a stay of execution of the writ of possession until the appeal was decided. On June 8, 2005, Watson's appeal was dismissed for failure to appear, and the stay of execution expired. (Def.'s Mot. Summ. J. Ex.2D, [hereinafter, "Appeal Docket"].)

On July 19, 2005, PHA was granted an order allowing it to execute Watson's eviction. (Municipal Docket.) On July 27, 2005, PHA filed a praecipe for a writ of possession. This writ was served on Watson on August 7, 2005. (Def.'s Mot. Summ. J. Ex.3A, Notice of Service of Writ of Possession.) On August 22, 2005, Watson moved the Court of Common Pleas for reconsideration of its decision dismissing her appeal.*fn2 (Appeal Docket.) Watson's motion for reconsideration was denied on September 9, 2005. The order denying the motion for reconsideration was entered on September 13, 2005. (Id.) That same day, September 13, 2005, the PHA served Watson with an alias writ of possession and evicted her from the Premises. When Watson was removed from her home, some of her personal property was confiscated, including her wheelchair. Watson was also denied access to the Premises to retrieve her medication and prescription renewals. As a result of being without her medications, Watson developed numerous bilateral gluteal abscesses within weeks of the eviction, which required hospitalization and surgery.

On June 29, 2007, Watson filed a complaint against the Philadelphia Housing Authority challenging PHA's conduct during the eviction and alleging violations of Pennsylvania state law, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1985(3) and 1983, and various other federal statutes. Pursuant to my Explanation and Order dated November 27, 2007 (Doc. #10), all of Watson's claims against PHA were dismissed with the exception of Watson's § 1983 claim, which alleges that PHA violated her due process rights by (a) failing to properly train and/or supervise its employees regarding the procedure to be followed in evicting tenants with disabilities, (b) failing to give the plaintiff adequate notice before proceeding with the execution of a writ of possession, and (c) failing to follow its own regulations governing tenant evictions. On March 17, 2008, Watson moved to disqualify her counsel, and on March 24, 2008, plaintiff's counsel moved to withdraw. On April 8, 2008, I granted Watson's attorney permission to withdraw as counsel for plaintiff (Doc. #25). Since that time, Watson has proceeded pro se. On December 3, 2008, the PHA filed a motion for summary judgment on Watson's remaining § 1983 violation of due process claim (Doc. #52).

II. Summary Judgment Standard

Summary judgment is appropriate "if the pleadings, the discovery and disclosure materials on file, and any affidavits show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c); Kornegay v. Cottingham, 120 F.3d 392, 395 (3d Cir. 1997). A factual dispute is "genuine" if the evidence would permit a reasonable jury to find for the non-moving party. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). The party moving for summary judgment bears the initial burden of demonstrating that there are no facts supporting the nonmoving party's legal position. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). Once the moving party carries this initial burden, the nonmoving party must set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(e); see also Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co., Ltd. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986). Where one party is proceeding pro se, the court "reads the pro se party's papers liberally and interprets them to raise the strongest arguments suggested therein." Hodson v. Alpine Manor, Inc., 512 F.Supp.2d 373, 384 (W.D. Pa. 2007). However, despite this liberal interpretation, the same standards for summary judgment apply to pro se litigants. U.S. v. Asken, No. 01-0026, 2002 WL 32175416, at *1 n.11 (E.D. Pa. Oct. 28, 2002). This means that the non-moving party "cannot rely merely upon bare assertions, conclusory allegations or suspicions to support its claim." Fireman's Ins. Co. v. DeFresne, 676 F.2d 965, 969 (3d Cir. 1982). The party opposing summary judgment, whether pro se or counseled, must present evidence, through affidavits, depositions, or admissions on file, to show that there is a genuine issue for trial. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 324.

III. Discussion

Watson's remaining claim seeks to hold the PHA responsible for alleged violations of her constitutional rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. As a public housing authority, the PHA is considered a municipal corporation for the purposes of § 1983. Wright v. Philadelphia Housing Authority, No. 94-1601, 1994 WL 597716, at *3 (E.D. Pa. Nov. 1, 1994). A municipal corporation may be liable under § 1983 only where the plaintiff can show that the "execution of a government's policy or custom, whether made by its lawmakers or by those whose edicts or acts may fairly be said to represent official policy, inflict[ed] the injury." Monell v. Dep't of Social Services, 426 U.S. 658, 694 (1978); see also Watson v. Abington Tp., 478 F.3d 144, 155 (3d Cir. 2007) ("[M]unicipal liability under 42 U.S.C. ยง 1983 cannot be based on the respondeat superior doctrine, but must be founded upon evidence that the government unit itself supported a violation of constitutional rights."). Watson alleges the PHA violated her constitutional rights in two ways: (1) that the PHA did not give her adequate notice of the eviction in violation of her due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment, and (2) that the PHA deprived her of her personal property during the eviction in violation of the Fourth Amendment. Watson also alleges ...

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