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Jeffers v. City of Washington

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

July 13, 2015

Carmella Jeffers, Plaintiff,
City of Washington, et al., Defendants.


JOY FLOWERS CONTI, Chief District Judge.

I. Introduction

Plaintiff Carmella Jeffers ("Jeffers") filed a complaint (ECF No. 1) asserting violations of the U.S. Constitution and state law against defendants the City of Washington ("Washington"), Ron McIntyre ("McIntyre"), Linda Carrozza, and Jennifer Carrozza (with Linda Carrozza, the "Carrozzas"). Jeffers asserts that the Carrozzas negligently constructed a building, causing water from their property to damage Jeffers's property, and Washington and McIntyre violated her constitutional rights by arbitrarily failing to enforce the law. There are four counts in the complaint: count 1 asserts that Washington negligently supervised and trained McIntyre, a code enforcement officer employed by Washington; count 2 asserts that Washington and McIntyre arbitrarily enforced ordinances and regulations and denied Jeffers her right to equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution; count 3 is an "action in mandamus" under state law seeking a court order commanding Washington and McIntyre to enforce the city ordinances against the Carrozzas; and count 4 is a state-law negligence claim against the Carrozzas. Washington and McIntyre filed a motion to dismiss counts 1, 2, and 3. (ECF No. 9).

In resolving the motion to dismiss, the court will first address the allegations under federal law. The primary federal claim in the complaint is the equal protection violation asserted under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 in count 2. With respect to count 1, a municipality's failure to train its employees adequately can also serve as the basis for liability under § 1983. Although it is not clear from the complaint whether the allegations in count 1 are intended to be asserted under federal or state law, the count will analyze count 1 as a federal claim. Because the court finds that the federal claims in counts 1 and 2 are insufficiently pleaded, the court will dismiss counts 1 and 2 (to the extent they assert federal claims) without prejudice. Jeffers will be given leave to file an amended complaint to replead counts 1 and 2. The court will not address the motion to dismiss count 3 at this time because if Jeffers is not able to sufficiently plead a federal claim, the court will dismiss the state-law claims without prejudice.

II. Legal Standard

A motion to dismiss tests the legal sufficiency of the complaint. Kost v. Kozakiewicz, 1 F.3d 176, 183 (3d Cir. 1993). In deciding a motion to dismiss, the court is not opining on whether the plaintiff is likely to prevail on the merits. The court accepts as true all well-pleaded factual allegations in the complaint and views them in a light most favorable to the plaintiff. U.S. Express Lines Ltd. v. Higgins, 281 F.3d 383, 388 (3d Cir. 2002). While a complaint does not need detailed factual allegations to survive a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), a complaint must provide more than labels and conclusions. Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). A "formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do." Id. "Factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level" and "sufficient to state a claim for relief that is plausible on its face." Id. "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." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556).

The plausibility standard is not akin to a "probability requirement, " but it asks for more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully. Where a complaint pleads facts that are "merely consistent with" a defendant's liability, it "stops short of the line between possibility and plausibility of entitlement to relief.'" Id. (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556-57) (internal citation omitted). Two working principles underlie Twombly . Id. First, with respect to mere conclusory statements, a court need not accept as true all the allegations contained in a complaint. "Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice." Id . Second, to survive a motion to dismiss, a claim must state a plausible claim for relief. Id. at 679. "Determining whether a complaint states a plausible claim for relief will... be a context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense." Id. "But where the well-pleaded facts do not permit the court to infer more than the mere possibility of misconduct, the complaint has alleged-but it has not show[n]'- that the pleader is entitled to relief.'" Id. (quoting FED. R. CIV. P. 8(a)(2)).

III. Facts Alleged in the Complaint

The following factual allegations are accepted as true solely for the purpose of resolving the motion to dismiss. Jeffers owns a residence in Washington, Pennsylvania. (Compl. ¶ 1.) The Carrozzas own an adjacent property at a higher elevation. ( Id . ¶ 2.) McIntyre is a Code Enforcement Officer working for Washington charged with knowing the laws relevant to his office. ( Id . ¶ 4.)

The Carrozzas illegally constructed a building and partially completed another building with insufficient downspouts and rain gutters. ( Id . ¶ 10.) The runoff from those buildings caused flooding and property damage on Jeffers's property. ( Id. ) The Carrozzas currently operate a commercial business on the property in violation of Washington's zoning ordinance. ( Id. ¶ 77.) Jeffers informed McIntyre that her property was receiving excess storm water because of the illegal construction and that the excess water was causing significant damage. ( Id. ¶ 11.) Jeffers also informed the Washington city council about the ongoing damage to her property and the illegal commercial operations. ( Id . ¶¶ 12, 62.)

Despite many pleas for assistance, neither McIntyre nor the city council took sufficient steps to remedy the problem, leading to continuing damages. ( Id. ¶¶ 15, 19.) Jeffers called McIntyre many times, and those calls often went unreturned. ( Id. ¶ 16.) Jeffers's lawyer sent a letter to McIntyre requesting action, but no action was taken. ( Id . ¶¶ 17-18.) McIntyre sent several letters to the Carrozzas, but he failed to take further action to bring them into compliance with the local ordinances. ( Id . ¶ 27.) McIntyre's behavior toward Jeffers was combative. ( Id. ¶ 29.) At one city council meeting, he yelled that Jeffers should contact her attorney. ( Id. ¶ 14.) A member of city council told Jeffers to sue the city. ( Id. ¶ 13.) McIntyre and Washington similarly acted rudely toward other Washington residents. ( Id. ¶ 23.)

With respect to training, McIntyre had one three-hour course in blight and three three-hour courses in mobile and modular homes. ( Id . ¶ 33.) McIntyre did not take any tests to determine his proficiency in these areas. ( Id .) Washington was aware of McIntyre's alleged insufficient training. ( Id. )

IV. Discussion

The bases for federal jurisdiction in this case are counts 1 and 2: Jeffers's constitutional claims brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Section 1983 does not create any substantive rights; rather, it is a vehicle for vindicating rights created by the U.S. Constitution or federal statute. DiBella v. Borough of Beachwood, 407 F.3d 599, 601 (3d Cir. 2005). In analyzing a § 1983 claim, the court must first identify the constitutional or statutory right alleged to have been violated. Natale v. Camden Cnty. Corr. Facility, 318 F.3d 575, 581 (3d Cir. 2003). As best the court can discern from the complaint, the only ...

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