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Sourovelis v. City of Philadelphia

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

May 12, 2015

CHRISTOS SOUROVELIS, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
CITY OF PHILADELPHIA, et al., Defendants

For CHRISTOS SOUROVELIS, DOILA WELCH, NORYS HERNANDEZ, Plaintiffs: DARPANA M. SHETH, ROBERT P. FROMMER, SCOTT G. BULLOCK, LEAD ATTORNEY, PRO HAC VICE, INSTITUTE FOR JUSTICE, ARLINGTON, VA; DAVID RUDOVSKY, LEAD ATTORNEY, KAIRYS RUDOVSKY MESSING & FEINBERG LLP, PHILADELPHIA, PA; WILLIAM H. MELLOR, LEAD ATTORNEY, INSTITUTE FOR JUSTICE, ARLINGTON, VA.

For NASSIR GEIGER, on behalf of themselves and all others similarly situated, Plaintiff: DARPANA M. SHETH, ROBERT P. FROMMER, SCOTT G. BULLOCK, LEAD ATTORNEY, PRO HAC VICE, INSTITUTE FOR JUSTICE, ARLINGTON, VA.

For CITY OF PHILADELPHIA, MICHAEL A. NUTTER, IN HIS OFFICIAL CAPACITY AS MAYOR OF PHILADELPHIA, CHARLES H. RAMSEY, IN HIS OFFICIAL CAPACITY AS COMMISSIONER OF PHILADELPHIA POLICE DEPARTMENT, Defendants: DIMITRIOS MAVROUDIS, MICHAEL R. MILLER, LEAD ATTORNEYS, CITY OF PHILADELPHIA LAW DEPT, PHILADELPHIA, PA.

For PHILADELPHIA DISTRICT ATTORNEY'S OFFICE, SETH R. WILLIAMS, IN HIS OFFICIAL CAPACITY AS DISTRICT ATTORNEY OF PHILADELPHIA, Defendants: BRYAN C. HUGHES, LEAD ATTORNEY, PHILADELPHIA DISTRICT ATTORNEY'S OFFICE, PHILADELPHIA, PA; ELIZABETH J. RUBIN, LEAD ATTORNEY, OFFICE OF DISTRICT ATTORNEY, PHILADELPHIA, PA; DOUGLAS WECK, OFFICE OF THE DISTRICT ATTORNEY OF PHILADELPHIA, PHILADELPHIA, PA.

MEMORANDUM

EDUARDO C. ROBRENO, J.

Table of Contents

BACKGROUND AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

LEGAL STANDARD

DISCUSSION

A. Voluntary Cessation, Mootness, and Standing

1. Defendants' Voluntary Cessation

2. Voluntary Dismissal of Forfeiture Actions

3. Traceability to Defendants' Conduct

a. Defendants' " Seize and Seal" Policy

b. Defendants' Proceedings in Courtroom 478

B. Younger Abstention

C. The Complaint States Claims Under Rule 12(b)(6)

1. Count Two

2. Count Three

3. Count Four

4. Count Five

5. Count Six

D. The D.A.'s Office is a Proper Party

CONCLUSION

Named Plaintiffs Christos Sourovelis, Doila Welch, Norys Hernandez, and Nassir Geiger (" Plaintiffs" ), on behalf of themselves and all others similarly situated under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23(b)(2), bring this class action to enjoin and declare unconstitutional Philadelphia's civil-forfeiture policies and practices.

This suit is brought against the City of Philadelphia, Mayor Michael A. Nutter, Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey (together, " City Defendants" ), the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office (" D.A.'s Office" ), and District Attorney R. Seth Williams (together, " D.A. Defendants" ) (all together, " Defendants" ). Defendants have filed a joint motion to dismiss Plaintiffs' claims. For the reasons that follow, the Court will deny Defendants' motion to dismiss.

I. BACKGROUND AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

On November 17, 2014, Plaintiffs filed their Amended Complaint. ECF No. 40. Named Plaintiffs Sourovelis, Welch, and Hernandez are the owners of real property against which forfeiture proceedings commenced by the D.A. Defendants under the Controlled Substances Forfeiture Act (" Forfeiture Act" ), 42 Pa. C.S. § § 6801-6802, were pending in the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County (" Court of Common Pleas" ) at the time the Amended Complaint was filed. Am Compl. ¶ ¶ 9-14. Plaintiff Geiger, who was first named in the Amended Complaint, is the owner of a 2000 Buick LeSabre, against which a proceeding under the Forfeiture Act is presently pending in the Court of Common Pleas. See id. ¶ 15.

In their Amended Complaint, Plaintiffs allege that Defendants have been unconstitutionally employing civil forfeiture procedures to confiscate property from residents for the properties' alleged involvement in crime--even when property owners have no involvement in or even knowledge of the crimes alleged. Id. ¶ 2. Plaintiffs state that Philadelphia's " robo-forfeiture" program uses " form" legal documents and " endless proceedings" to generate millions of dollars in revenue outside of its appropriated budget. Id. ¶ 3. Plaintiffs allege that through these boilerplate allegations, officials execute ex parte " seize and seal" orders against homes and other real property, without providing constitutionally adequate procedures for citizens to challenge the orders--thus violating their due process rights. See id. ¶ 21. Accordingly, Plaintiffs' six claims challenge the following " policies and practices" :

(i) Defendants' policy and practice of applying for and executing ex parte seizures of homes and other real properties without providing any evidence of exigent circumstances or necessity to justify proceeding without affording affected owners notice or an opportunity to be heard;
(ii) Defendants' policy and practice of requiring real property owners to waive their statutory and constitutional rights in order to be let back into their property or have the forfeiture petition withdrawn;
(iii) Defendants' policy and practice of failing to provide property owners with a prompt, post-deprivation hearing before a neutral arbiter where those owners may contest the basis for the seizure, restraint, or indefinite retention of their property pending an ultimate hearing on the merits;
(iv) Defendants' policy and practice of repeatedly " relisting" civil-forfeiture proceedings, which forces property owners to appear in person for these proceedings over and over again or else permanently lose their property through a default judgment;
(v) The policy and practice of retaining forfeited property and its proceeds for use by the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office and the Philadelphia Police Department; and
(vi) Defendants' policy and practice of having prosecutors and employees of the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office control " hearings" in Courtroom 478.

Id. ¶ 4.

Defendants filed a joint motion to dismiss Plaintiffs' Amended Complaint on March 16, 2015, arguing that Plaintiffs' claims should be dismissed on the following grounds:

(1) Because the underlying forfeiture proceedings against the real property owned by Plaintiffs Sourovelis and Welch have been discontinued, the claims of these plaintiffs have been rendered moot and must be dismissed pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1).
(2) Because, since on or about September 22, 2014, the D.A. Defendants have not submitted an application for an ex parte " seize and seal" order, which is the source of the constitutional violations alleged in the first and second counts of the amended complaint, and a policy established by the District Attorney on October 1, 2014, ensures that subsequent applications will be warranted by exigent circumstances, a case or controversy is not presented as to the first and second counts of the amended complaint, which must be dismissed pursuant to Rule 12(b)(1).
(3) Because Plaintiffs cannot demonstrate an " injury in fact" that is " fairly traceable" to the conduct alleged in counts one, three, and six of the amended complaint that will likely be remedied by the requested relief, they lack Article III standing to bring these claims, which must be dismissed pursuant to Rule 12(b)(1).
(4) Insofar as the named plaintiffs are the owners of property against which civil forfeiture petitions are presently pending in the Court of Common Pleas, their constitutional claims could be raised in their state court forfeiture proceedings and this court should abstain from deciding them in this case.
(5) Because Defendant Philadelphia District Attorney's Office is not an entity amenable to suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, this defendant must be dismissed pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6).
(6) Because the amended complaint fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted as to Plaintiff Geiger, the claims of this plaintiff must be dismissed pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6).
(7) Because the second, fourth, fifth, and sixth counts of the amended complaint fail to state claims upon which relief may be granted, those claims must be dismissed pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6).

Defs.' Mem. 3-4, ECF No. 52. Plaintiffs filed a response on April 3, 2015 (ECF No. 55), and Defendants filed a reply[1] on April 13, 2015 (ECF No. 56). The motion is now ripe for disposition.

II. LEGAL STANDARD

A party may move to dismiss a complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). When considering such a motion, a court must " accept as true all allegations in the complaint and all reasonable inferences that can be drawn therefrom, and view them in the light most favorable to the non-moving party." DeBenedictis v. Merrill Lynch & Co., 492 F.3d 209, 215 (3d Cir. 2007) (internal quotation marks omitted). To withstand a motion to dismiss, the complaint's " [f]actual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level." Bell A. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 167 L.Ed.2d 929 (2007). This " requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do." Id. Although a plaintiff is entitled to all reasonable inferences from the facts alleged, a plaintiff's legal conclusions are not entitled to deference and the Court is " not bound to accept as true a legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation." Papasan v. Allain, 478 U.S. 265, 286, 106 S.Ct. 2932, 92 L.Ed.2d 209 (1986) (cited with approval in Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555).

The pleadings must contain sufficient factual allegations so as to state a facially plausible claim for relief. See, e.g., Gelman v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co.,583 F.3d 187, 190 (3d Cir. 2009). " A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Id. (quoting Ashcroft v. Iqbal,556 U.S. 662, 678, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 173 L.Ed.2d 868 (2009)) (internal quotation marks omitted). In deciding a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, the Court limits its inquiry to the facts alleged in the complaint and its attachments, matters of public record, and undisputedly authentic documents if the complainant's claims are based upon these ...


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