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Thompson v. Armbruster

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

February 26, 2015



CHRISTOPHER C. CONNER, Chief District Judge.

Plaintiff Dr. John Thompson ("Dr. Thompson") filed the above-captioned civil rights action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against defendants James M. Armbruster ("Armbruster") and the Borough of Penbrook ("Penbrook") for alleged violations of Dr. Thompson's rights under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. Presently before the court is defendants' motion (Doc. 31) for summary judgment. For the reasons that follow, the court will grant the motion.

I. Factual Background and Procedural History[1]

At all times relevant to this action until July 27, 2011, Dr. Thompson operated a commercial dental practice at 2517 Walnut Street in Penbrook, Pennsylvania ("the property"). (Doc. 33 ¶ 1). Dr. Thompson's practice was located on the first floor of a two-story duplex building. (Id. ¶ 2). On July 13, 2011, Light-Heigel & Associates, Inc. ("Light-Heigel & Associates") inspected the property. (Id. ¶ 6). The inspection report, which indicated that the inspection was conducted for "Buyer Notification, " identified a number of safety issues in the basement and on the second floor of the property. (Id. ¶¶ 6-7; Doc. 33-2, Ex. B). In the basement, Light-Heigel & Associates found, inter alia, that certain framing members had been damaged by wood-destroying insects and that the basement stairs had collapsed from insect damage. (Doc. 33-2, Ex. B). Light-Heigel & Associates had no access to the first floor of the property during the July 13th inspection. (Doc. 33 ¶ 7). The inspection report was submitted to defendant Armbruster, who at all relevant times served as the Borough Manager and Building Codes Official of defendant Penbrook. (Id. ¶ 3; Doc. 33-2, Ex. B).

On July 13, 2011, Armbruster sent a letter to the estate of John R. Thompson, Sr.-the owner of the property at that time-noting that a partial inspection of the property had been conducted, identifying numerous code violations in the basement and on the second floor, and instructing the property owner to correct the identified violations and to apply for a new inspection within ninety days. (Doc. 33 ¶¶ 8-12). On July 19, 2011, Armbruster sent an unsafe building notice to PA Deals LLC ("PA Deals")-the new owner of the property-noting that the property had been partially inspected and that the limited inspection revealed multiple code violations. (Id. ¶¶ 13-15).

On July 25, 2011, Armbruster applied for a warrant to search the first floor of the property "to determine if the building is safe enough to be occupied and used as a medical office." (Id. ¶ 17; Doc. 33-5, Ex. E). In his affidavit of probable cause, Armbruster averred that PA Deals had requested an inspection of the property as required by local ordinance but that Dr. Thompson prevented the inspectors from accessing the first floor on July 13, 2011. (Doc. 33 ¶ 18). Armbruster noted that the July 13th inspection had revealed over forty code violations and opined that structural defects in the lower floors of the property affected the conditions of the upper floors. (Id. ¶¶ 19, 21). Armbruster further explained that, according to PA Deals, "the occupant of the building predates the owner's title to the building and... there is no written lease between the parties." (Id. ¶ 22). On July 26, 2011, a Dauphin County magisterial district judge authorized the search warrant. (Id. ¶ 23).

Armbruster and two law enforcement officers searched the first floor of the property on July 27, 2011. (Id. ¶ 24). After identifying code violations on the first floor, defendants attached a placard to the door of the building that declared the property an "unsafe building" pursuant to 34 PA. CODE § 403.84(a) and "unfit for human habitation." (Id. ¶¶ 26-27). On August 5, 2011, Light-Heigel & Associates inspected the first floor of the property. (Id. ¶ 28). Among other issues, Light-Heigel & Associates found ceiling and wall damage and certain electrical defects. (Doc. 33-9, Ex. I). Armbruster sent a letter to PA Deals on October 31, 2011 regarding the code violations on the first floor and instructed PA Deals to remedy the violations within thirty days. (Doc. 33 ¶ 30).

Light-Heigel & Associates reinspected the property on November 12, 2013 and identified additional issues. (See id. ¶ 33). Armbruster informed PA Deals of the additional violations by letter the following day. (Id. ¶ 34). On November 25, 2013, Light-Heigel & Associates reinspected the property and found that all identified issues had been addressed. (See id. ¶ 36). Defendants issued a certificate of occupancy for the residential unit at the property that same day. (Doc. 33-17, Ex. Q).

Dr. Thompson filed the instant suit against defendants in the Dauphin County Court of Common Pleas on November 7, 2013. (Doc. 1). Defendants removed the action to this court on November 26, 2013. (Id.) On December 20, 2013, defendants moved to dismiss this action for failure to state a claim on which relief may be granted. (Doc. 5). On May 12, 2014, after securing new counsel and obtaining leave of court, Dr. Thompson filed an amended complaint, alleging that defendants violated his Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments rights. (Doc. 23). By order dated July 1, 2014, the court set a fact discovery deadline of September 15, 2014. (Doc. 30). According to defendants, Dr. Thompson failed to provide the disclosures required by Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 26, failed to conduct any discovery, and failed to respond to defendants' discovery requests. (Doc. 33 ¶ 4 & n.1). With the exception of certain documents related to the search warrant application and entries to the property that Dr. Thompson attached as an exhibit to the amended complaint, the evidence of record consists exclusively of documents that defendants produced pursuant to Rule 26, as well as defendants' Local Rule 56.1 statement.

Defendants filed the instant motion for summary judgment on October 15, 2014. (Doc. 31). They argue that summary judgment is warranted because Dr. Thompson has not submitted any evidence in support of his claims and because the limited record evidence establishes that Dr. Thompson's claims lack merit. (Doc. 32 at 1-2). Dr. Thompson failed to oppose the motion. By order dated November 13, 2014 (Doc. 34), the court alerted Dr. Thompson to Local Rule 7.6, which provides that a party who fails to file a brief in opposition to a motion "shall be deemed not to oppose such motion." L.R. 7.6. The court also directed Dr. Thompson to file a brief in opposition the motion by November 20, 2014. (Doc. 34). Dr. Thompson did not file any brief in compliance with this new deadline. Accordingly, the motion is deemed unopposed and is ripe for disposition. See FED. R. CIV. P. 56(e); L.R. 7.6; see also Blasi v. Attorney Gen., 30 F.Supp.2d 481, 484 (M.D. Pa. 1998) ("[T]he district court may not grant a motion for summary judgment... solely because the motion is unopposed; such motions are subject to review for merit."). The court will proceed to review the merits of defendants' motion.

II. Legal Standard

Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56, summary judgment is appropriate when "there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact" and a jury trial would be an empty and unnecessary formality. FED. R. CIV. P. 56(a). A factual dispute is "material" if it might affect the outcome of the action under applicable law, and is "genuine" only if there is a sufficient evidentiary basis that would allow a reasonable factfinder to return a verdict for the non-moving party. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248-49 (1986). The burden of proof is on the non-moving party to come forth with "affirmative evidence, beyond the allegations of the pleadings, " in support of its right to relief. Pappas v. City of Lebanon, 331 F.Supp.2d 311, 315 (M.D. Pa. 2004); see also Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986). "Such affirmative evidence-regardless of whether it is direct or circumstantial-must amount to more than a scintilla, but may amount to less (in the evaluation of the court) than a preponderance." Saldana v. Kmart Corp., 260 F.3d 228, 232 (3d Cir. 2001) (quoting Williams v. Borough of W. Chester, 891 F.2d 458, 460-61 (3d Cir. 1989)). This evidence must be adequate, as a matter of law, to sustain a judgment in favor of the non-moving party on the claims. See Anderson, 477 U.S. at 250-57; Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587-88 (1986); see also FED. R. CIV. P. 56(a), (c), (e). Only if this threshold is met may the cause of action proceed. Pappas, 331 F.Supp.2d at 315.

III. Discussion

Dr. Thompson brings claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Armbruster for unlawful search and seizure of Dr. Thompson's property in violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments; against Armbruster for violation of Dr. Thompson's substantive due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment; against Penbrook for violations of Dr. Thompson's Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights; and ...

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