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Hawkins v. Federal National Mortgage Association

United States District Court, Third Circuit

January 23, 2014

NICOLE HAWKINS, Plaintiff,
v.
Federal National Mortgage Association (“Fannie Mae”), SETERUS, INC., SAFEGUARD PROPERTIES, INC., and JOHN DOE, Defendants.

MEMORANDUM

William H. Yohn Jr., Judge.

Plaintiff Nicole Hawkins brings this action against the Federal National Mortgage Association (“Fannie Mae”), Seterus, Inc. (“Seterus”), Safeguard Properties, Inc. (“Safeguard”), and the unidentified company John Doe related to events in September 2011 affecting her residential property.

Two motions to dismiss have been filed: one by Fannie Mae and Seterus, and another by Safeguard. After describing the factual and procedural background of this case and the legal standards applicable to a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, I will address each motion to dismiss separately. As a result of my analyses, I will dismiss Counts I, V, and VI of Hawkins’ complaint as they pertain to Fannie Mae and Seterus, and I will dismiss Counts I, V, and VI of Hawkins’ complaint as they pertain to Safeguard.

I. Factual and Procedural Background

Hawkins is a Pennsylvania homeowner against whom her mortgagees, Fannie Mae and Seterus, commenced foreclosure proceedings in June 2010. After her home flooded in February 2011, Hawkins vacated the premises notwithstanding that, allegedly, she took steps to maintain possession. On September 8, 2011, Hawkins discovered she was barred from access to the home by a lockbox on the front door. She contacted Seterus, which informed her it believed the property was vacant and that Safeguard had been hired to winterize and secure the property. After several days of back and forth between Hawkins, Seterus, and Safeguard—including at least one heated exchange—Hawkins was contacted by a representative of the John Doe contracting company named Chris who told her the company would send someone to grant Hawkins access to the property. Hawkins alleges these events caused her great confusion.

Over a series of days across the remainder of September 2011, Hawkins’ house was looted of valuable personal property; the back porch was strewn with garbage and debris; and internal fixtures were damaged. According to Hawkins’ neighbors, the damage was caused by men who had told the neighbors they were there to winterize the property and had asked them if Hawkins still lived at the house. Hawkins re-contacted the John Doe representative, Chris, who told her his workers “were supposed to only secure the property, not do a clean out.” On September 26, 2013, Hawkins filed the instant suit in the Delaware County Court of Common Pleas. She makes claims against all defendants for: (1) violation of Pennsylvania’s Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Law (“UTPCPL”), 73 P.S. § 201-2(4), by subjecting her to confusion over the source of the lockbox barring access to her home (“Count I”); (2) conversion, for the destruction and/or deprivation of her property (“Count II”); (3) trespass, for breaking and entering into her house (“Count III”); (4) negligence, for failing to adequately vet the persons responsible for winterizing her home (“Count IV”); and (5) negligent infliction of emotional distress, for causing her confusion (“Count V”). Her complaint also includes a request for punitive damages (“Count VI”).

On October 17, 2013, Fannie Mae and Seterus removed the case to this court on the basis of diversity jurisdiction. On November 19, 2013, Hawkins filed her amended complaint, which made the same claims as her original complaint. On December 9, 2013, Fannie Mae and Seterus filed a motion to dismiss the entire amended complaint under Rule 12(b)(6). That same day, Safeguard filed a motion to dismiss Counts I, V, and VI of the amended complaint under Rule 12(b)(6). I deal with these motions in turn.

II. Legal Standards

A motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) tests the legal sufficiency of a complaint. Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). In determining whether a complaint is sufficient, a court takes note of the elements plaintiff must plead to state a claim, and accepting all factual allegations in the complaint as true, determine whether the plaintiff’s well-pleaded factual allegations plausibly give rise to an entitlement for relief. Santiago v. Warminster Twp., 629 F.3d 121, 130 (3d Cir. 2010) (citing Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662 (2009)). While a short and simple statement of entitlement to relief is all that is required to state a claim under Rule 8(a), vague or conclusory statements will not suffice: a claim is only plausible where the complaint pleads sufficient factual content to raise the right to relief above the speculative level. Victaulic Co. v. Tieman, 499 F.3d 227, 234 (3d Cir. 2007). Any reasonable inferences that may be drawn from the complaint must be drawn in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. Buck v. Hampton Twp. Sch. Dist., 452 F.3d 256, 260 (3d Cir. 2006).

III. Fannie Mae and Seterus

A. Count I—UTPCPL

“To bring a private cause of action under the UTPCPL, a plaintiff must show that he justifiably relied on the defendant's wrongful conduct or representation and that he suffered harm as a result of that reliance.” Yocca v. Pittsburgh Steelers Sports, Inc., 578 Pa. 479, 501 (2004); see also Hunt v. U.S. Tobacco Co., 538 F.3d 217, 221 (3d Cir. 2008) (“[T]he Pennsylvania Supreme Court . . . has categorically and repeatedly stated that, due to the causation requirement in the Consumer Protection Law's standing provision, 73 Pa. Cons.Stat. § 201–9.2(a) . . . a private plaintiff pursuing a claim under the statute must prove justifiable reliance.”).

Fannie Mae and Seterus contend in their motion that the amended complaint does not support a plausible inference that Hawkins justifiably relied on deceptive conduct, and that Hawkins’ UTPCPL claim should be dismissed for that reason. Hawkins does not dispute this in her response. Rather, Hawkins responds this claim is valid because Seterus and Safeguard caused her confusion and that she suffered damages as a result. Notwithstanding that this response does not address the applicability of the claim to Fannie Mae, Hawkins’ contention is contrary to the rule of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which requires justifiable reliance as an element of a UTPCPL claim. See Yocca, 578 Pa. at 501; Hunt, 538 U.S. at 221. Hawkins’ amended complaint does not allege that she relied in any way on ...


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