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Ituah v. City of Philadelphia

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

May 15, 2017

ABRAHAM ITUAH, Plaintiff,
v.
CITY OF PHILADELPHIA, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM

          GERALD J. PAPPERT, J.

         This lawsuit concerns actions various Defendants allegedly took to secure the sale of property Plaintiff Abraham Ituah previously owned at 3842 Fairmount Avenue in Philadelphia. Defendants filed motions to dismiss the Complaint pursuant to the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, res judicata and Rule 12(b)(6). For the reasons below, the Court grants Defendants' motions and dismisses Ituah's claims.[1]

         I.

         A.

         The state-court action that resulted in the sale of Ituah's property commenced on April 22, 2015, when the City of Philadelphia filed a real estate tax lien claim against him in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas pursuant to the Municipal Claims and Tax Lien Act (“MCTLA”).[2] (Defs.' Mot. to Dismiss, at 2, ECF No. 6.) On May 13, 2015, Judge Linda Carpenter issued a rule to show cause why the property should not be sold at a sheriff's sale to satisfy delinquent real estate taxes. (Id.) The property was posted on July 5, 2015 and the Affadavit of Posting was filed with the court on July 9. (Id.) The Affadavit of Service of the Posting was filed with the court on August 4, certifying that all interested parties had been served by certified and first class mail on July 20. (Id.) Ituah did not file a response to the court's May 13 rule, and the court entered a decree on August 11, 2015 approving a sheriff's sale of the property.

         On September 16, 2015, Dimitrios Dimopoulos purchased the property at the sheriff's sale. (Id.) Ituah claims he learned of the sale on September 17 from a city accountant. (Pl.'s Resp., at 4.) On September 21, Ituah filed a motion to set aside the sale, arguing that he had not received proper notice. (Id.) He claimed that he had not seen the postings at the property because it had been vacant since November 2013 and he had not received notice at the address where he resided. See Mot. to Set Aside at 1- 2, City of Philadelphia v. Ituah, No. 1504T0504 (Sep. 21, 2015).

         The City filed a response on October 13 claiming that it had complied with the MCTLA's notice requirements under 53 Pa. Stat. and Cons. Stat. Ann. § 7193.2 by posting notice at the property and mailing a copy of the petition and rule to Ituah's registered address. See Answer in Opp'n at 1, 3-4, City of Philadelphia v. Ituah, No. 1504T0504 (Oct. 13, 2015). Though Ituah claimed the City failed to send notice to his current residence, the City explained that he had not registered that address pursuant to § 7193.1. (Id.) Under the statute, a party who fails to accurately register his interest and address pursuant to [§ 7193.1] lacks standing to complain of improper notice if the city complied with [§ 7193.2(a)]. See 53 Pa. Stat. and Cons. Stat. Ann. § 7193.2(b). The City argued that because Ituah failed to do so and the City complied with § 7193.2(a), he could not complain of improper notice. (Id. (citing 53 Pa. Stat. and Cons. Stat. Ann. § 7193.2(b))). In Ituah's reply, he argued that the sale should be set aside because the Defendants “fraudulently obtained the judgment in [his] absence by failing to properly [notify him] of the action that led to the sale.” See Reply at 1, City of Philadelphia v. Ituah, No. 1504T0504 (Oct. 22, 2015). Judge Carpenter denied Ituah's motion to set aside the sale on October 26, holding that Defendants had complied with the statutory notice requirements.

         In the meantime, Defendants were processing the transfer of the deed to Dimopoulos and/or his corporate designee, Cool Spaces LLC. The sheriff's deed was acknowledged on October 21, 2015 and recorded on November 14, 2015. See Answer in Opp'n at 4 (Oct. 13, 2015); Reply to Mot. to Redeem at 4, City of Philadelphia v. Ituah, No. 1504T0504 (Feb. 24, 2016); Answer in Opp'n to Mot. for Post-Trial Relief at 3, City of Philadelphia v. Ituah, No. 1504T0504 (Apr. 11, 2016).

         Ituah filed a motion for reconsideration on November 11, arguing that the City failed to comply with the statutory notice requirements because it had not searched the taxpayer information system to locate the correct address at which to serve him. See Mot. for Reconsideration at 1-2, City of Philadelphia v. Ituah, No. 1504T0504 (Nov. 11, 2015). Judge Carpenter denied the motion on November 18. On December 2, Ituah filed a motion to redeem the premises, reasserting his argument that the City had fraudulently obtained the judgment in his absence by “deliberately fail[ing] to locate [his] mailing address” using tax records. See Mot. to Redeem at 1-2, City of Philadelphia v. Ituah, No. 1504T0504 (Dec. 2, 2015). The City responded on December 22, stating that it “did not deliberately fail to locate [Ituah's] address” but rather “it was [Ituah] who failed to accurately register his address pursuant to 53 Pa. Stat. and Cons. Stat. Ann. § 7193.1.” See Reply to Mot. to Redeem at 2, 4 (Feb. 24, 2016). The City further argued that the property was not eligible to be redeemed because it had been vacant for ninety days prior to the sale and the sheriff's deed had already been acknowledged. (Id.)

         Section 32 of the MTCLA “provides that a petition to redeem premises cannot be filed for vacant property once the sheriff's deed has been acknowledged.” City of Philadelphia v. F.A. Realty Inv'rs Corp., 95 A.3d 377, 388 (Pa. Cmwlth. Ct. 2014); see also 53 Pa. Stat. and Cons. Stat. Ann. § 7293(c). In Ituah's case, the sheriff's deed was acknowledged on October 21, 2015. See Answer in Opp'n at 4 (Oct. 13, 2015); Reply to Mot. to Redeem at 4 (Feb. 24, 2016); Answer in Opp'n to Mot. for Post-Trial Relief at 3 (Apr. 11, 2016). Ituah did not file his petition to redeem until December 2. Judge Carpenter denied the motion on March 28, 2016 after a hearing, holding that Ituah had no right of redemption because the property was vacant for ninety days before the sale and the sheriff's deed was acknowledged before he filed his petition. See Order, City of Philadelphia v. Ituah, No. 1504T0504 (March 28, 2016).

         On April 1, 2016, Ituah filed a motion for post-trial relief, contending that Defendants intentionally failed to notify him of the sale and then deliberately processed the transfer of the deed “expeditiously” and “without due process” in order to prevent him from redeeming the premises. See Mot. for Post-Trial Relief at ¶¶ 1, 3, City of Philadelphia v. Ituah, No. 1504T0504 (Apr. 1, 2016). Judge Carpenter denied the motion on April 19. On April 22, Ituah appealed to the Pennsylvania Superior Court the Judge's March 28 decision that he had no right to redeem the property. The Superior Court dismissed the appeal on September 13, 2016. On September 1, 2016, Ituah filed an Application for Leave to File a Petition for Allowance of Appeal Nunc Pro Tunc with the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. It was denied on December 29, 2016. See City of Philadelphia v. Ituah, No. 182-EM-2016, 2016 Pa. LEXIS 2968 (Pa. Dec. 29, 2016).

         B.

         Now a New York resident, Ituah filed this suit pro se on November 7, 2016 against the City, the Sheriff's Department, Sheriff Jewell Williams, City Attorney Cynthia Stavrakis, Dimopoulos and Cool Spaces LLC. (ECF No. 1.) Construing his pro se pleadings generously, see Higgins v. Beyer, 293 F.3d 683, 688 (3d Cir. 2002), the Court understands Ituah to be attempting to assert state law claims for abuse of process and fraudulent misrepresentation. See (ECF No. 15, at 1; ECF No. 16, at 1-2). In his Complaint, Ituah reasserts the same arguments he made unsuccessfully in state court. He contends that his property was sold “without proper notice from the City of Philadelphia and Sheriff's Department to Dimitros Dimopoulos for $34, 500.” (Compl., at 3.) He argues that Williams “concealed the information [Ituah] needed to know in order to prevent the sale of the property” and filed a “false and malicious” affidavit of service despite the fact that he “never notified [Ituah] that the sale of [his] property was set for September 16, 2015.” (ECF No. 15, at 4-5.) He then claims that after the property was sold, Williams “agreed to transfer the deed quickly” from Dimopoulos to Cool Spaces without legally processing or paying for the transfer as required by the City so as to “prevent [Ituah] from redeeming the property.” (Id.); see also (Compl., at 3). He contends Williams “concealed the information and filed [a] fraudulent affidavit to deceive the judge to enter judgment” in Dimopoulos's favor. (Id.) Finally, Ituah claims that Stavrakis organized the sale, masterminded the formation of Cool Spaces and the quick deed transfer and filed responses opposing his petitions to set aside the sheriff's sale and redeem the property. (Id.)

         In other words, Ituah's suit concerns “the role of the Defendants [in contributing] to the unfair decision entered in state court.” (ECF No. 15, at 1.) Defendants allegedly intentionally “failed to notify [him] about the judgment to sell the property” and “agreed to transfer the deed quickly to prevent [him] from redeeming the property” in order to deprive him of his property rights without due process and fair notice. (Id. at 5.) He claims that the resulting loss of his property has caused him serious financial and psychological pain and forced him to file Chapter 13 Bankruptcy.[3] (Compl., at 4.) Ituah seeks the return of his property, records reflecting all of his payments to the City and $100, 000 in compensatory damages for the psychological pain and financial problems he has suffered as a result of Defendants' alleged abuse of process and fraudulent misrepresentation. (Id.)

         II.

         A.

         The Rooker-Feldman doctrine prohibits lower federal courts from exercising subject-matter jurisdiction in a narrow range of cases already heard in state court. See Exxon Mobil v. Corp. v. Saudi Basic Indus. Corp., 544 U.S. 280, 284 (2005). Under the doctrine, a losing state-court party is “barred from seeking what in substance would be appellate review of the state judgment in a United States district court, based on [a] claim that the state judgment itself violates the loser's federal rights.” Johnson v. De Grandy,512 U.S. 997, 1005-06 (1994). “[T]here are four requirements that must be met for the Rooker-Feldman doctrine to apply: (1) the federal plaintiff lost in state court; (2) the plaintiff complains of injuries caused by the state-court judgments; (3) those judgments were rendered before the federal suit was filed; and (4) the plaintiff ...


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