Jennings v. Hous. Auth. of Balt. City

Decision Date28 January 2014
Docket NumberCIVIL NO.: WDQ-13-2164
PartiesRENEE JENNINGS, et al., Plaintiffs, v. HOUSING AUTHORITY OF BALTIMORE CITY, et al., Defendants.
CourtU.S. District Court — District of Maryland
MEMORANDUM OPINION

Renee Jennings1 sued the Housing Authority of Baltimore City ("Housing Authority"),2 Paul T. Graziano, Chief Executive of the Housing Authority, and Reginald Scriber, Deputy Commissioner for the Housing Authority,3 claiming the defendants illegally terminated her participation in the Housing Authority's voucher program. ECF No. 2. Pending is the defendants' motion todismiss for failure to state a claim or for a more definite statement.4 ECF No. 11. No hearing is necessary. Local Rule 105.6 (D. Md. 2011). For the following reasons, the motion to dismiss will be granted.

I. Background5

The Housing Authority administers the federally funded Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher ("HCV") program, which provides rent subsidies to low-income tenants in Baltimore City. See ECF No. 2 ¶¶ 4, 8, 21-22. As of about September 2011, Jennings participated in the HCV program, which enabled her and two of her three children (Jones and DC) to live in a home at 3407 Royston Avenue in Baltimore (the "Royston home") that cost $1,700 per month to rent. See id. ¶¶ 9-10, 22.

Jennings's adult child, James Barrett, Jr., has been imprisoned since 2011, and is accordingly "ineligible toparticipate in the HCV Program." Id. ¶12. He has never "lived at, visited, [or] been a 'family member' or a 'household member' of 34 07 Royston Avenue." Id. ¶ 11.

In April 2012, Housing Authority employees allegedly contacted Jennings's landlord, Dominion Properties, LLC ("Dominion"), and "compelled" Dominion to "fraudulently modif[y] the lease agreement for" the Royston home, by adding Barrett "to the list of tenants residing at" the Royston home without Jennings's "written permission." Id. ¶¶ 78-79.

In early May 2012,6 the Housing Authority notified Jennings that her participation in the HCV program would be terminated effective June 5, 2012. See id. ¶¶ 9, 13. The notice advised Jennings that the reasons for the termination included "a 2010 incident of domestic violence of which Ms. Jennings was the victim!,] and two 2010 incidents of criminal activity by" Barrett. Id. ¶ 14. Following the termination, Dominion "refused to accept [her] rental payments, citing [the] termination of assistance letter." Id. ¶ 18.

Jennings "opted to participate in an informal hearing," on May 29, 2012, to challenge the termination. See id. ¶¶ 15-16, 53. Jennings was not represented by counsel. Id. ¶ 17. Thehearing administrator affirmed the termination decision.7 See id. ¶ 58. The administrator told Jennings that "'there is no appeal you can take from today's hearing,'" which was allegedly a "lie[]" because Jennings had the "right to an Administrative Mandamus." See id. ¶¶ 57-58. On June 7, 2012, the Housing Authority terminated Jennings's participation in the HCV program. Id. ¶ 18.

On June 19, 2012, Jennings and Jones met with Scriber to discuss Jennings's "dissatisfaction with the informal hearing process" and the termination of her assistance. Id. ¶ 19. Scriber8 told Jennings "in front of [Jones], members of the general public[,] and [his] secretary," that she was a "'disgrace to society, a disruption to the community, the worst things that ever lived in section 8,9 and you should teach your kids how to stop ruining your life; and, if I could help you, which I can, I wouldn't help you. My decision stands. Good byeMs. Jennings.'"10 Id. ¶¶ 20, 87. He also "intentionally lied" to Jennings "about her procedural rights" to appeal the result of the informal hearing by "Judicial Review or Administrative Mandamus in the Circuit Court" by telling her "'there is nothing more to do.'" 11 Id. ¶ 70.

The Housing Authority "did not pay any portion of the rent for" the Royston home for July, 2012. Id. ¶ 21. On July 16, 2012, Dominion sued Jennings "for distress of rent" in the District Court for Baltimore City, alleging that Jennings owed $1,700 in rent for July. Id. ¶ 22. On August 2, 2012, Dominion sued Jennings again, alleging that Jennings owed $1,700 for August.12 Id. ¶ 23. On August 31, 2012, Dominion served Jennings with an eviction notice. Id. ¶ 25.

On September 27, 2012, the August rent distress case was tried. Id. ¶¶ 24, 26. Dominion, allegedly "at the insistence" of the Housing Authority, "intentionally misrepresented" to the court that Jennings owed it $3,400 in rent for July and August. Id. ¶ 80. The Housing Authority appeared and argued, over objection from Jennings's counsel, that, because they had terminated Jennings's participation in the HCV program, the Housing Authority's rent obligation for the Royston home had "shifted to Ms. Jennings."13 See id. ¶ 26. As a result of Dominion and the Housing Authority allegedly "knowingly and intentionally present[ing] false information to the Maryland District Court," the court ruled for Dominion. See id. ¶ 82.

On October 2, 2012, Dominion evicted Jennings, Jones, and DC from the Royston home. Id. ¶ 28. In "illegal[ly] terminati[ng]" her assistance, and "render[ing Jennings and her children] homeless," the defendants allegedly acted with "deliberate indifference to[, inter alia,] the established rights of the Plaintiffs." See id. ¶¶ 29-30. Further, "as a result of Defendants' illegal actions," Jennings and her children were "disgraced and humiliated . . . through theeviction process before their neighbors, friends and family from Royston Ave." Id. ¶ 89.

On July 16, 2013, Jennings, through counsel, filed suit in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City alleging that the defendants had: (1) illegally terminated assistance to a victim of domestic violence, in violation of the Housing Authority's Administrative Plan (the "Administrative Plan") and the Fair Housing Act ("FHA")14 (count one); (2) terminated assistance based on "non-actionable conduct and unauthorized grounds,"15 in violation of the Administrative Plan and 24 C.F.R. § 5.2005(c)16 (count two); (3) conspired to interfere with the plaintiffs' right to a "contested case," in violation of Maryland's Administrative Procedure Act ("APA")17 (count three); (4) denied a statutory entitlement without due process, in violation of the Maryland Declaration of Rights, Article 24 (count four); (5)conspired with Dominion to interfere "with [her] economic relationship" (count five); and (6) intentionally inflicted emotional distress (count six).18 ECF No. 2. On July 26, 2013, the defendants removed to this Court on the basis of federal question jurisdiction. ECF No. 1.

On August 23, 2013, the defendants moved to dismiss for failure to state a claim: (1) counts three through six as to all defendants; (2) all claims for punitive damages; and (3) counts one and two as to Graziano and Scriber.19 See ECF No. 11-1 at 21. On September 10, 2013, Jennings opposed the motion.20 ECF Nos. 15-16. On September 27, 2013, the defendants replied. ECF No. 18.

II. Analysis
A. Legal Standard for Motion to Dismiss

Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), an action may be dismissed for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. Rule 12(b)(6) tests the legal sufficiency of a complaint, but does not "resolve contests surrounding the facts, the merits of a claim, or the applicability of defenses." Presley v. City of Charlottesville, 464 F.3d 480, 483 (4th Cir. 2006).

The Court bears in mind that Rule 8(a)(2) requires only a "short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief." Migdal v. Rowe Price-Fleming Int'l, Inc., 248 F.3d 321, 325-26 (4th Cir. 2001). Although Rule 8's notice-pleading requirements are "not onerous," the plaintiff must allege facts that support each element of the claim advanced. Bass v. E.I. Dupont de Nemours & Co., 324 F.3d 761, 764-65 (4th Cir. 2003). These facts must be sufficient to "state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007).

This requires that the plaintiff do more than "plead[] facts that are 'merely consistent with a defendant's liability,'" the facts pled must "allow[] 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) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 557). The complaint must not only allege but also "show" that the plaintiff is entitled to relief. Id. at 679 (internal quotation marks omitted). "Whe[n] 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 shown--that the pleader is entitled to relief." Id. (internal quotation marks and alteration omitted).

B. Violation of Maryland's APA

In Count Three, Jennings alleges that she had the right to a "contested case" procedure under the APA before her housing assistance was terminated, and the "informal hearing" she was granted lacked several of the APA's required procedural protections. See ECF No. 2 at 13. She also alleges that the defendants interfered with her rights under the APA in several ways, including lying about her appeal rights. See id. The defendants contend that the Housing Authority "is not an agency bound by Maryland's" APA. See ECF No. 11-1 at 5. Jennings responds that the rights provided by the APA's contested case procedure are not "afforded only to those whose benefits are administered through a Housing Agency that happens to be a part of the State Government." ECF No. 16 at 8-9.

Under Maryland's APA, a "contested case" is "a proceeding before an agency to determine," inter alia, "a right, duty, statutory entitlement, or privilege of a person that is requiredby statute or constitution to be determined only after an opportunity for an agency hearing." Md. Code Ann., State Gov't § 10-202(d)(1) (West 2012) (emphasis added). An agency is defined as either: (1) "an officer or unit of the State...

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