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Tripodi v. North Coventry Township

United States District Court, Third Circuit

August 8, 2013

JOSEPHINE M. TRIPODI
v.
NORTH COVENTRY TOWNSHIP

MEMORANDUM

JUAN R. SÁNCHEZ, JUDGE.

This lawsuit arises from a property code enforcement action brought by Defendant North Coventry Township (the Township) in the Chester County Court of Common Pleas to abate alleged code violations at an apartment complex owned by Plaintiff Josephine Tripodi. After the Court of Common Pleas entered judgment in favor of the Township and ordered the sale of the apartment complex, Tripodi filed the instant suit against the Township asserting state law claims of inverse condemnation (Count I), slander of title (Count II), abuse of process (Count III), and intentional interference with contractual relations (Count VII), as well as a federal civil rights claim pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (Count IV), a Fifth Amendment takings claim (Count V), and a Fourteenth Amendment takings claim (Count VI).[1] Tripodi also filed a motion to enjoin the underlying state court proceedings, which this Court denied. See ECF No. 23. The Township has filed a motion to dismiss pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6), arguing Tripodi’s Complaint should be dismissed based on the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, Younger abstention doctrine, and issue preclusion, and because Tripodi has failed to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.[2] For the following reasons, the Township’s motion will be granted as to Tripodi’s federal claims. Tripodi’s state claims will be dismissed without prejudice pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1367(c)(3).

FACTS[3]

Tripodi owns Kline Place Apartments (the Property), an apartment complex located in North Coventry Township, Chester County. In 2007, the Township inspected the Property and found violations of various property codes. In November 2007, the Township filed a lawsuit against Tripodi in the Chester County Court of Common Pleas, North Coventry Township v. Tripodi, Civ. No. 2007-10957, alleging violations of the Property Maintenance Code, Plumbing Code, Electric Code, and challenging Tripodi’s failure to correct violations issued by the Fire Marshall, Building Code Official, and County Health Department. In February 2008, the Township filed a motion to enjoin all residential use of the Property, alleging the unabated code violations presented a risk to the safety and welfare of the tenants. On April 25, 2008, the Common Pleas Court entered an order memorializing an agreement reached on the record between the Township and Tripodi pursuant to which the parties would cooperatively inspect the Property on designated dates and establish a schedule for correcting any violations confirmed by the inspection. Pending correction of any such violations, “no further units [within the Property] would be leased or occupied.” N. Coventry Twp. v. Tripodi, No. 2007-10957, 2010 WL 7215430, at ¶ 2 (Pa. Ct. Com. Pl. May 20, 2010) (discussing the content of the April 25, 2008, agreement).

On October 8, 2008, the Township filed a motion to hold Tripodi in contempt for failing to comply with the April 25, 2008 Order. The court thereafter directed Tripodi to show cause why she had not complied with the April 25, 2008 Order and to submit to a deposition. On November 12, 2008, the Township filed a motion to compel Tripodi’s deposition, which the court granted the same day. On January 16, 2009, the Township filed its second motion to hold Tripodi in contempt, alleging she had refused to submit to the court-ordered deposition. The court issued another show cause order and scheduled a hearing on the pending matters. At a February 26, 2009, hearing, the parties again entered into an agreement on the record, memorialized by a court order entered the same day, outlining a course of action for the correction of all code violations. The agreement provided that Tripodi would convey her ownership interest to her daughter, Geri Carr Tripodi (Carr), so Carr could carry out Tripodi’s obligations under the agreement.

On March 6, 2009, the Township filed its third motion for contempt against Tripodi, alleging she was in violation of the February 26, 2009 Order and Agreement. On March 9, the court issued a show cause order and scheduled a hearing for April 21, 2009. On March 30, Tripodi’s attorney withdrew his appearance and new defense counsel entered an appearance. On April 15, 2009, Tripodi filed a pro se motion to continue the contempt hearing, alleging her new attorney had informed her he would no longer represent her. The court denied the motion because Tripodi’s attorney had not sought leave to withdraw. At the contempt hearing on April 21, 2009, Tripodi’s attorney sought leave to withdraw as counsel. On June 10, 2009, the court granted defense counsel’s petition to withdraw.

On June 12, 2009, the court issued an order finding Tripodi in contempt of the February 26, 2009 Order and finding she had “fail[ed] to comply with the prior Orders of this Court relating to the repair, fix-up, and inspections of the Property, ” as well as the orders directing her to submit to a deposition. N. Coventry Twp. v. Tripodi, No. 2007-10957, 2009 WL 8690185, at ¶ 14 (Pa. Ct. Com. Pl. June 12, 2009). Due to Tripodi’s breaches of prior agreements and orders, the court appointed a Master to hire consultants and prepare a Plan of Repair and Remediation (the Plan) for the Property. Id. at ¶ 4. The court ordered Tripodi to pay $20, 000 to the Master for preparation of the Plan, specifying that upon completion of the Plan, Tripodi would have to execute it at her own expense either through the Master or on her own. The June 12, 2009 Order also provided that if Tripodi failed to comply with the Order’s terms, the Master, with authorization from the court, would sell the Property in a commercially reasonable manner. The court also ordered Tripodi to pay the Township’s attorneys’ fees.

In the June 12, 2009 Order, the court also found Tripodi had failed to convey her interest in the Property to Carr, as directed by the February 26, 2009, Order. Consequently, pursuant to an agreement between the parties, the court allowed Carr to be joined as a defendant and ordered Tripodi to grant Carr a limited power of attorney so Carr could comply with court orders and carry out the remediation Plan.

On June 17, 2009, Tripodi and Carr filed a pro se petition to stay all requirements of the June 12, 2009 Order, which the court denied the same day. On June 26, 2009, the Township filed a fourth petition for contempt, alleging Tripodi and Carr failed to comply with the April 25, 2009 Order, the February 26, 2009 Order, and the June 12, 2009 Order. The court scheduled a contempt hearing for August 10, 2009.

On July 22, 2009, Tripodi and Carr filed a pro se appeal from the denial of their request for a stay in the Pennsylvania Superior Court. The appeal was dismissed for lack of a final order on August 10, 2009.

At the request of Tripodi and Carr, the Common Pleas Court rescheduled the August 10 contempt hearing to August 14. Neither Tripodi nor Carr appeared at the August 14 hearing, however, and on August 26, 2009, the court issued a Decision and Order entering judgment in favor of the Township and against Tripodi, finding Tripodi and Carr in contempt, taxing fees and costs against Tripodi, and ordering the sale of the Property. N. Coventry Twp. v. Tripodi, No. 2007-10957, 2009 WL 8263196 (Pa. Ct. Com. Pl. Aug. 27, 2009). In its decision, the court made several findings of fact and conclusions of law. It found Tripodi and Carr had violated several court orders by, inter alia, failing to take reasonable measures to bring the Property into compliance with applicable property codes, attempting to rent and have tenants occupy apartments within the Property without curing defects, having unlicensed individuals make repairs at the Property without notifying the Township and thereafter covering the work so it could not be inspected, failing to cooperate with the Master and to execute the Master’s Plan, and failing to pay the Township costs and fees as ordered by the court. With regard to the condition of the Property, the court found:

7. The Property is in need of substantial structural repairs to structural components of the apartment building, repairs and reconstruction of various systems, including the electrical, plumbing and heating systems. . . . [T]he Property has not been maintained so the full extent of the remediation necessary cannot [be] and has not been fully evaluated. The current minimum cost for such an evaluation and a reasonable plan of remediation would cost at least Fifteen Thousand ($15, 000) Dollars. The Defendants have shown clearly by their actions that they do not intend to pay for the professional consultants necessary to make such an evaluation and to establish a plan of remediation.
8. The Property is unsafe for human habitation. The occurrence of January 26, 2009 when the water pipes broke in one of the apartment units causing water to flow over portions of the electrical system, giving rise to a potential fire, and the necessity to have PECO shut off the electricity to the property and to evacuate residents in various apartment units evidences the gravity and seriousness of the problems. The failure to maintain and properly remediate the damage to the buildings, the various systems, and the structural components renders a[] substantial risk to any inhabitant of any of the twenty-seven (27) apartment units on the Property. This event, in conjunction[] with the other findings of this Court and the evidence presented[, ] support the finding that the Property will not be timely remediated and reconstructed to make the Property safe for human habitation.
9. The Defendants[’] failure to remediate and make the Property safe for human habitation also adversely affects the health, safety and ...

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