Martell v. City of St. Albans

Citation441 F.Supp.3d 6
Decision Date21 February 2020
Docket NumberCivil Action No. 2:19-cv-93-jmc
CourtU.S. District Court — District of Vermont
Parties Dwight MARTELL and Lynn Cook, Plaintiffs, v. CITY OF ST. ALBANS, VERMONT, Defendant.

Rebecca E. Smith, Esq., Vermont Legal Aid, Inc., Rutland, VT, Sandra L. Paritz, Esq., Vermont Legal Aid, Inc., Montpelier, VT, for Plaintiffs.

Michael J. Leddy and Kevin J. Coyle, McNeil, Leddy & Sheahan, PC, Burlington, Vermont, for Defendant.


John M. Conroy, United States Magistrate Judge

Plaintiffs Dwight Martell and Lynn Cook bring this action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that Defendant the City of St. Albans (City)1 unlawfully evicted them without due process or just compensation in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment Due Process Clause, the Fourth Amendment proscription against unreasonable seizures, and the Fifth Amendment Takings Clause.2 (Doc. 4.) Presently before the Court is the City's Motion to Dismiss Plaintiffs' Complaint.3 (Doc. 18.) Oral argument on the Motion was held on January 28, 2020.

For the reasons stated below, Defendant's Motion to Dismiss (Doc. 18) is GRANTED in part and DENIED in part.


On June 11, 2019, Plaintiffs filed their Complaint, asserting that, on August 29, 2019, the City unlawfully evicted them from their homes in the building located at 21-23 Lincoln Avenue in St. Albans, Vermont. (Doc. 4 at 12, ¶ 51.) Plaintiffs allege they were both tenants renting their respective units from the owner of the building, Richard Marchessault. (Id. ¶ 56.) Approximately two weeks before they were ordered to vacate, Matt Mulheron, the City's Deputy Fire Chief, advised Plaintiff Martell that there would be an inspection of the building and it "would likely be condemned." (Id. ¶ 57.) No City official ever informed Plaintiff Cook of the upcoming inspection. (Id. ¶ 58.)

Plaintiffs further allege that, on August 28, 2018, Mulheron conducted an inspection of the building, including Plaintiffs' units, pursuant to the City's Public Health & Safety Ordinance (PHSO). (Id. at 13, ¶ 60.) On the next day, August 29, Mulheron and Charles Sargent, the City's Fire Chief, returned to the property accompanied by three police vehicles, and immediately disconnected the water, gas, and power in the building. (Id. ¶ 61.) Sargent and Mulheron informed Plaintiffs that they could not stay the night there, rendering Plaintiffs homeless as a result of the property's "condemnation." (Id. ¶¶ 61–62.)

On the date they were ordered to vacate the property (August 29, 20184 ), Plaintiffs were "handed" a Safety Order that was addressed to Marchessault, as the property owner, and signed by Mulheron. (Id. ¶ 63; see Doc. 4-2.) The Order declares the property "unsafe for human occupancy or use," and lists over 30 conditions and PHSO violations that the City considered "unsafe and dangerous" on the property. (Doc. 4-2 at 1.) The Order states that these conditions and violations "must be abated by ... October 5, 2018," which was approximately 37 days from the date of the Order. (Id. ) The Order further states: "After conversations with property owner Richard Marchessault[,] he stated there is no intent to rectify any of the aforementioned violations. With all information provided[,] we declare this property unsafe for occupancy or use." (Id. at 3.) The Order closes by informing Marchessault of his right to appeal and providing instructions on how to do so. (Id. at 4.) The City never issued any civil penalties or took legal action against Marchessault for his failure to comply with the terms of this Order. (Doc. 4 at 19, ¶ 103.)

Plaintiffs allege that, on September 10, 2015, approximately three years prior to issuance of the August 28, 2018 Safety Order, the City had inspected the subject property and notified the owner of several violations. (Id. at 17–18, ¶ 90.) Pursuant to that inspection, the City issued an inspection report ordering that the violations be remedied within 30 days and scheduling a re-inspection on November 26, 2015. (Id. at 18, ¶¶ 91–92.) The City never conducted that re-inspection and failed to take action to enforce the September 2015 inspection report. (Id. ¶¶ 93–95.)

Plaintiffs further allege that, on April 3, 2018, approximately four months prior to issuance of the August 28, 2018 Safety Order, the City issued a Notice of Ordinance Violation regarding trash and inoperable vehicles in the yard of the subject property (id. ¶ 96), and thereafter issued monthly fines to Marchessault for the trash violations (id. at 19, ¶ 99).

Plaintiffs claim that, after they were ordered to vacate the property, they were housed in motel rooms for months, under Vermont's "emergency assistance program." (Id. at 15, ¶ 76; see generally id. at 15–17, ¶¶ 74–86.) In the process of moving, they lost numerous belongings including a "beloved pet," incurred significant cost-of-living expenses, and suffered emotional pain as a result of the eviction. (Id. at 16, ¶ 84; see generally id. at 16–17, ¶¶ 81–89.) Plaintiffs seek declaratory and injunctive relief, as well as compensatory damages. (Id. at 24–25.)

I. Rule 12(b)(6) Standard

In evaluating whether to dismiss a complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), the court tests the pleading for "facial plausibility." Ashcroft v. Iqbal , 556 U.S. 662, 678, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 173 L.Ed.2d 868 (2009) ; see also Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly , 550 U.S. 544, 570, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 167 L.Ed.2d 929 (2007). "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." Iqbal , 556 U.S. at 678, 129 S.Ct. 1937. This does not require a plaintiff to provide "detailed factual allegations" to support his claims, Twombly , 550 U.S. at 555, 127 S.Ct. 1955, but plaintiffs must allege facts that permit "more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully," Iqbal , 556 U.S. at 678, 129 S.Ct. 1937. Accordingly, allegations that "are so vague as to fail to give the defendants adequate notice of the claims against them," are subject to dismissal. Sheehy v. Brown , 335 F. App'x 102, 104 (2d Cir. 2009) ; see also Twombly , 550 U.S. at 555, 127 S.Ct. 1955 ("Factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level.").

On a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, "the [c]ourt is entitled to consider facts alleged in the complaint and documents attached to it or incorporated in it by reference," as well as "facts of which judicial notice may properly be taken under Rule 201 of the Federal Rules of Evidence." Heckman v. Town of Hempstead , 568 F. App'x 41, 43 (2d Cir. 2014). Moreover, the court is not obliged to "accept allegations that are ‘contradicted by other matters asserted or relied upon or incorporated by reference by a plaintiff in drafting the complaint.’ " Adeniji v. N.Y. State Office of State Comptroller , No. 18 Civ. 0761 (PAE) (BCM), 2019 WL 4171033, at *3 (S.D.N.Y. Sept. 3, 2019) (slip op.) (quoting Fisk v. Letterman , 401 F. Supp. 2d 362, 368 (S.D.N.Y. 2005) ).

In assessing the adequacy of the pleadings, a court must accept all factual assertions as true and draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the plaintiff. Lanier v. Bats Exch., Inc. , 838 F.3d 139, 150 (2d Cir. 2016). However, "[t]hreadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice." Iqbal , 556 U.S. at 678, 129 S.Ct. 1937 ; see Twombly , 550 U.S. at 555, 557, 127 S.Ct. 1955 (holding that a pleading containing "a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action," "labels and conclusions," or "naked assertion[s]" devoid of factual enhancement, does not satisfy Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a) ). A complaint is properly dismissed where, as a matter of law, "the allegations in [it], however true, could not raise a claim of entitlement to relief." Twombly , 550 U.S. at 558, 127 S.Ct. 1955. "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." Iqbal , 556 U.S. at 679, 129 S.Ct. 1937.

II. 42 U.S.C. § 1983

Under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, a plaintiff may bring suit "against [e]very person who, under color of any statute ... of any State ... subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen ... to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws ....’ "

Wyatt v. Cole , 504 U.S. 158, 161, 112 S.Ct. 1827, 118 L.Ed.2d 504 (1992) (alteration and omissions in original) (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 1983 ). "The purpose of § 1983 is to deter state actors from using the badge of their authority to deprive individuals of their federally guaranteed rights and to provide relief to victims if such deterrence fails." Id. Section 1983 does not itself create or establish a federally protected right; instead, it provides a cause of action to enforce federal rights created elsewhere, such as a federal constitutional right. Albright v. Oliver , 510 U.S. 266, 271, 114 S.Ct. 807, 127 L.Ed.2d 114 (1994). The U.S. Supreme Court has identified two elements of a § 1983 claim: "a plaintiff [ (1) ] must allege the violation of a right secured by the Constitution and laws of the United States, and [ (2) ] must show that the alleged deprivation was committed by a person acting under color of state law." West v. Atkins , 487 U.S. 42, 48, 108 S.Ct. 2250, 101 L.Ed.2d 40 (1988). Here, the City does not dispute that the conduct complained of occurred "under color of state law."5 Thus, the relevant question is whether Plaintiffs have sufficiently stated a plausible claim that they were deprived of their federally secured rights.

"[A] municipality can be held liable under Section 1983 if the deprivation of the plaintiff's rights under federal law is caused by a governmental custom,...

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