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Riveros-Sanchez v. City of Easton

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

July 25, 2019



          Joseph F. Leeson, Jr. United States District Judge


         Plaintiffs Edgar and Maria Riveros-Sanchez own a residential rental property in Easton, Pennsylvania. After an inspection by city officials revealed that the property lacked a fire alarm system, the City of Easton required Plaintiffs to install a fire alarm before they would be permitted to rent the property. According to Plaintiffs, they installed an alarm as required and passed a City inspection; however, the City never issued a certificate of rental suitability. As a result, Plaintiffs could not rent their property and defaulted on their mortgage, and the property was scheduled for foreclosure sale. Plaintiffs brought this civil rights action against the City, the chief of the fire department, and rental housing inspector, alleging violations of substantive and procedural due process rights and various state law tort claims. Defendants moved to dismiss. For the reasons discussed below, the motion is granted.


         Plaintiffs allege that this action arises from the “unlawful condemnation” of their property located at 723 Washington Street in Easton, Pennsylvania. Complaint ¶ 6, ECF No. 1. Plaintiffs allege that they bought the multiunit property in 2003 and rented it to various tenants over the next several years. Compl. ¶¶ 8-9. In August 2014, they applied for a renewal of their rental registration, which was granted. Compl. ¶ 10.

         Plaintiffs allege that around July 28, 2015, an inspection by the License and Inspection Department of the Defendant City of Easton forced their tenants to vacate the property after the inspectors determined that the Plaintiffs had not installed a fire alarm system as required. Compl. ¶¶ 11-13. Plaintiffs worked with Tyco Fire Alarm System to install a fire alarm in the fall of 2015; Plaintiffs' account executive from Tyco sent an email to Defendant Elizabeth Gehman, a rental housing inspector for the City of Easton, to inform the City of the installation. Compl. ¶¶ 14-15.

         On December 3, 2015, Plaintiffs' property manager sent an e-mail to Gehman to schedule an appointment to inspect the property. Compl. ¶ 16. The next day, the property manager “communicated with” the City and Gehman to inform them that a new alarm system had been installed and to request a re-inspection of the property. Compl. ¶ 17. The property passed the fire alarm inspection with the City's Codemaster, who separately reported the result of the inspection to the City. Compl. ¶ 18.

         Gehman confirmed by e-mail on December 22 that the City had Plaintiffs' “document on their file showing that they passed the inspection.” Compl. ¶ 19. However, the “Fire Department Defendants” did not issue a certificate of rental suitability for the property. Compl. ¶ 20. Plaintiffs claim that, “[a]s a result of Defendants' failure to issue the certification, Plaintiffs were unable to rent the [P]roperty and lost their source of income and were unable to pay the mortgage of the [P]roperty.” Compl. ¶ 21. Plaintiffs claim that, consequently, the property was foreclosed and scheduled to be sold at a sheriff's sale on November 9, 2017. Compl. ¶ 22.

         Plaintiffs filed a complaint in the Court of Common Pleas of Northampton County on August 6, 2018, naming Defendants the City of Easton, Elizabeth Gehman, individually and in her official capacity, and John Bast, individually and in his official capacity as the Chief of the Easton Fire Department. Plaintiffs bring federal claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for both substantive and procedural due process violations and state law claims for negligence and tortious interference with contractual relations.

         On February 6, 2019, Defendants removed this action to this Court. See Notice of Removal, ECF No. 1. Defendants moved to dismiss the complaint and argue that Plaintiffs' claims against Bast are time-barred and that the complaint fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. ECF No. 4. After several stipulated extensions of the time for Plaintiffs to respond to the motion, Plaintiffs' counsel filed a motion to withdraw based on nonpayment of fees on March 27, 2019. On May 3, 2019, the Court granted the motion, gave Plaintiffs thirty days to seek substitute counsel, and directed them to file any response to the motion to dismiss by June 10, 2019. ECF No. 11. On June 10, Plaintiffs filed a response detailing their dispute with their former counsel; however, they did not otherwise respond to the motion to dismiss as directed. ECF No. 12. The Court granted Plaintiffs one final opportunity to respond to the motion to dismiss and directed them to file a response by July 10, 2019. ECF No. 13. On July 9, 2019, Plaintiffs filed a response that once again explained their position concerning their dispute with their former counsel but did not address the motion to dismiss. ECF No. 14.


         In rendering a decision on a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), this Court must “accept all factual allegations as true [and] construe the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff.” Phillips v. Cnty. of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 233 (3d Cir. 2008) (quoting Pinker v. Roche Holdings Ltd., 292 F.3d 361, 374 n.7 (3d Cir. 2002)) (internal quotation marks omitted). Only if “the ‘[f]actual allegations . . . raise a right to relief above the speculative level'” has the plaintiff stated a plausible claim. Id. at 234 (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 540, 555 (2007)). However, “the tenet that a court must accept as true all of the allegations contained in a complaint is inapplicable to legal conclusions.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (explaining that “[d]etermining whether a complaint states a plausible claim for relief . . . [is] a context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense”). The defendant bears the burden of demonstrating that a plaintiff has failed to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. Hedges v. United States, 404 F.3d 744, 750 (3d Cir. 2005) (citing Kehr Packages, Inc. v. Fidelcor, Inc., 926 F.2d 1406, 1409 (3d Cir. 1991)).

         IV. ANALYSIS

         Plaintiffs did not respond to Defendants' motion to dismiss, even after the Court twice ordered them to do so. Local Rule 7.1 provides that, in the absence of timely response, a court may grant a motion as uncontested. See E.D. Pa. L.R. 7.1. However, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals discourages dismissing a pro se civil rights action based only on a plaintiff's failure to respond to a motion to dismiss without considering the merits. See Stackhouse v. Mazurkiewicz,951 F.2d 29, 30 (3d Cir. 1991); Blackshear v. Verizon, DE, LLC, No. CIV.A. 11-1036, 2011 WL 5116912, at *1 (E.D. Pa. ...

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