Johnson v. City of Annapolis

Decision Date11 May 2023
Docket NumberCivil Action CCB-21-1120,CCB-21-1074
CourtU.S. District Court — District of Maryland

Catherine C. Blake United States District Judge

This civil rights case involves a class of Annapolis public housing residents who claim the City of Annapolis's non-inspection policy discriminates against African Americans. After the court denied the City's motion to dismiss, the City answered the complaint. See ECF 19, Mem. Denying City Mot. Dismiss; ECF 20, Order Denying City Mot. Dismiss, ECF 25, City's Answer. Along with answering the plaintiffs' complaint, the City filed two third-party complaints, one against the Housing Authority of the City of Annapolis (“HACA”), ECF 26, City v HACA Third-Party Compl., and the other against the U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development (“HUD”), ECF 28, City v. HUD Third-Party Compl.[1] Pending before the court are HACA and HUD's respective motions to dismiss the City's third-party complaints. See ECF 51-1, HACA Mot. Dismiss; ECF 75-1, HUD Mot. Dismiss.[2]Both of those motions are fully briefed, and no hearing is necessary. See Local Rule 105.6. For the reasons stated here, the court will deny HACA's motion to dismiss and grant HUD's motion to dismiss.[3]


In describing the following background information, the court accepts as true all well-pled facts in the complaint and construes those facts in a light most favorable to the (third-party) plaintiff. See Wikimedia Found. v. NSA, 857 F.3d 193, 208 (4th Cir. 2017) (citing SD3, LLC v. Black & Decker (U.S.) Inc., 801 F.3d 412, 422 (4th Cir. 2015)).[4]

A. Annapolis's Public Housing Before the 2019 White v. City of Annapolis Decision

HACA is a public housing agency that manages about 790 apartment units. ECF 1, Pl. Compl. at ¶ 23. Collectively, HACA's units provide housing for about 1,600 residents. Id. Census data suggest the majority[5]of HACA's residents are African American. Id. at ¶¶ 44-49.

The Annapolis City Code requires rental units to have operating licenses. See Annapolis City Code § 17.44.010(A). To obtain an operating license, the rental units must be inspected and in compliance with the City's Residential Property and Maintenance Code. Id. § 17.44.030. For many years, however, the City did not inspect or license HACA properties; such properties were the only rental properties in Annapolis that were neither licensed nor inspected. Pl. Compl. at ¶ 29. This apparently was a longstanding arrangement, as although rental licenses have been required of landlords since 1985, HACA housing units have never been “fully, finally, or properly inspected and licensed in accordance with the City Code.” Id. at ¶ 32.

HACA's units are required by City Code to be re-licensed annually. Id. at ¶¶ 35-36. But before any such license is issued, the relevant units must be inspected and found compliant with the City's maintenance code. Id. at ¶ 37. When an inspector finds conditions dangerous to health or safety, the landlord must relocate the tenant, remediate the danger, request a reinspection, and provide other proof to the City inspector that the danger is no longer present. Id. at ¶ 30.

Annapolis has, since the early 1980s, emphasized the importance of licenses and inspections. Id. at ¶ 24. In one instance, the City went so far as to obtain emergency state legislation to protect its regime from challengers who wished to evade the requirements. Id. But before 2019, HACA properties were unique among Annapolis rentals in that they were neither licensed nor inspected by the City. Id. at ¶ 29. HACA did not apply for licenses as required by the City Code, and the City did not act on this non-compliance. Id.

On May 1, 2016, under Mayor Mike Pantelides, the City began an initial round of inspections of HACA properties, revealing 2,498 City Code violations, some of which presented dangers to health and safety and should have required relocation. Id. at ¶¶ 38-40. After that summer, the City conducted various follow-up inspections, but no HACA property was fully and properly licensed. Id. at ¶ 41. In 2017, newly appointed HACA Director Beverly Wilbourn identified City inspections as a hurdle to her success in balancing HACA's budget and interpreted the City's inspection requirements as “unfunded mandates.” Id. at ¶¶ 51-52. In summer 2017, Wilbourn advised a HACA board member that she had reached an understanding with the City Manager that the City would work out an alternative agreement on inspections, ultimately ordering a halt of all inspections starting in late August 2017. Id. at ¶ 53. Then-Mayor Pantelides, an advocate of inspecting public housing, expressed frustration at HACA's resistance to treating public housing properties the same as private rental units. Id. at ¶ 56.

But Annapolis would soon return to neglecting public housing. Mayor Pantelides was defeated in the November 2017 city election; even before new Mayor Gavin Buckley was seated, Wilbourn discussed the inspection issue with him, and the City and HACA agreed to stop inspecting HACA properties. Id. at ¶ 59. The only public evidence of the December 2017-May 2019 return to a non-inspection regime came when HACA residents called the City to complain about issues in their apartments, and representatives explained that the City no longer inspected HACA properties. Id. at ¶ 60. In mid-May 2019, HACA and the City were involved in a lawsuit against a HACA tenant, and at a hearing in the case, a city inspection worker testified that Mayor Buckley had decided to exempt HACA from the City's licensing requirement. Id. at ¶ 66. Afterward, HACA's attorney sent an email thanking that employee for his testimony on HACA's behalf and copying city officials, Mayor Buckley, and HACA Director Wilbourn. Id.

Two days later, on May 16, 2019, dozens of Annapolis public housing residents sued the City and HACA under various federal and state civil rights claims. See White v. City of Annapolis, No. CCB-19-1442. The White plaintiffs alleged that the City's decision not to enforce inspection and licensing requirements on public housing units disparately impacted African Americans. At the case's conclusion, the parties entered a consent decree enacting prospective equitable remedies intended to improve public housing, and awarding monetary damages to the plaintiffs. See ECF 98, Consent Decree in CCB-19-1442. Even before entering the White consent decree, the City responded to public-facing criticism of its non-inspection regime with a June 2019 resolution that sought to restart HACA inspections and licensing. Pl. Compl. at ¶¶ 68-69.

B. The Plaintiffs' Class-Action Challenge Post-White v. City of Annapolis

Named plaintiffs Tamara Johnson and Tyonna Holliday brought the present case to challenge the public housing inspection policies implemented by the City in the wake of White. Tamara Johnson lives in Harbour House, and fellow named plaintiff Tyonna Holliday lives in Eastport Terrace. Id. at ¶¶ 4, 12. Both Harbour House and Eastport Terrace are public housing complexes owned and operated by HACA. Id. at ¶¶ 6, 13. Johnson and Holliday have lived in their apartments since 2017 and 2016, respectively. Id. at ¶¶ 5, 14. Since they have lived there, the City never inspected either of their units. Id. Both Johnson and Holliday's children suffer from respiratory conditions exacerbated by persistent mold in their homes. Id. at ¶¶ 10-11, 17-18. Johnson's apartment has had sewage leaks and rodent infestations, while Holliday's apartment contains unsafe levels of lead. Id. at ¶¶ 8-9, 19. Johnson and Holliday represent a class of all individuals who lived in HACA properties from May 7, 2018, to May 7, 2021. See ECF 97, Order Certifying Class at 3.[6]

The City's post-White reforms, according to the plaintiffs, did not end Annapolis's racially discriminatory public housing policies. The plaintiffs allege City officials and HACA hatched a new plan-a “Shadow Policy”-to conduct inspections and licensing on HACA's units differently from other Annapolis rentals. Id. at ¶¶ 69-71. For example, the City explained in a private communication to HACA that it would award waivers to certain units, grandfather in old violations, and inspect for life-threatening safety issues only. Id. at ¶ 70. The City further explained it would not deny licenses for deficiencies in routine maintenance, even going so far as to suggest it might not withhold a license for “structural or mechanical defects.” Id. Besides effectively gutting the June 2019 City resolution restarting inspections, the plaintiffs allege the Shadow Policy intentionally treats HACA tenants differently from similarly situated non-HACA Annapolis renters, perpetuating segregation and hurting the plaintiffs' life, health, and safety. Id. at ¶¶ 72, 76, 77.

The City initially sought to dismiss the plaintiffs' complaint for failure to state a claim. See ECF 7, City Mot. Dismiss. The court denied the City's motion. See ECF 19, Mem. Denying City Mot. Dismiss; ECF 20, Order Denying City Mot. Dismiss.

C. The City's Third-Party Complaints

After the court denied its motion to dismiss, the City filed third-party complaints against HACA and HUD.

1. City v. HACA

The City's third-party complaint against HACA asserts that the plaintiffs' injuries were caused solely by HACA's failure to maintain its property in a safe and sanitary condition. See City v. HACA Third-Party Compl. at ¶ 27. HACA is an independent housing agency that operates as a separate entity from the City. Id. at ¶ 25. If the City is ultimately found liable to the...

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