Sager v. Hous. Comm'n of Anne Arundel Cnty.

Citation855 F.Supp.2d 524
Decision Date11 April 2012
Docket NumberCivil Action No. ELH–11–2631.
PartiesMelissa SAGER, Plaintiff, v. HOUSING COMMISSION OF ANNE ARUNDEL COUNTY, et al., Defendants.
CourtUnited States District Courts. 4th Circuit. United States District Court (Maryland)

855 F.Supp.2d 524

Melissa SAGER, Plaintiff,

Civil Action No. ELH–11–2631.

United States District Court,
D. Maryland.

April 11, 2012.

[855 F.Supp.2d 530]

Kathleen Marie Hughes, Legal Aid Bureau Inc., Annapolis, MD, for Plaintiff.

Carrie Blackburn Riley, Blackburn Riley LLC, Baltimore, MD, for Defendants.



Melissa Sager, plaintiff, resides in an apartment that is owned and operated by the Housing Commission of Anne Arundel County (the “Commission” or “HCAAC”), as part of the federal public housing program. See42 U.S.C. §§ 1437 et seq.; 24 C.F.R. ch. IX. She has sued the Commission; its executive director, Clifton Martin; and the Commission's senior property manager, Diana Flynn, defendants, alleging violations of federal and Maryland law.1

Count I of the Complaint (ECF 2) alleges violations of the Maryland Consumer Protection Act (“CPA”), Md.Code (2005 Repl. Vol., 2011 Supp.), §§ 13–101et seq. of the Commercial Law Article (“C.L.”), which bars “unfair or deceptive trade practices.” C.L. § 13–301. Count II asserts a violation of Md.Code (2010 Repl. Vol., 2011 Supp.), § 8–208(d)(1) of the Real Property Article (“R.P.”), which prohibits the inclusion in a residential lease of any provision authorizing a confessed judgment against the tenant. Count III claims several violations of the United States Housing Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1437 et seq., and its implementing federal regulations, governing the operation of public housing. In Count IV, plaintiff alleges discrimination in housing on the basis of disability, in violation of the federal Fair Housing Act (“FHA”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 3601 et seq. And, in Count V, she claims deprivation of due process of law, as guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

[855 F.Supp.2d 531]

According to the Complaint, “[e]nforcement of rights conferred by federal law is sought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.” Complaint ¶ 5. Plaintiff seeks a declaratory judgment pronouncing that various practices of defendants are unlawful; damages of $648.36, trebled to $1,945.08, for sums allegedly collected by the Commission under illegal lease provisions; and $10,000 in damages for “emotional distress and mental anguish.” Complaint at 16.

Defendants have filed a “Motion to Dismiss or in the Alternative Motion for Summary Judgment” (ECF 8), as well as a supporting memorandum (ECF 8–1) (collectively, “Motion”), to which plaintiff has filed an opposition (ECF 9) and a supporting memorandum (ECF 10) (collectively, “Opposition” or “Opp.”). After the Court directed the parties to address whether the Court should abstain from exercising jurisdiction (ECF 11), defendants filed a Reply (ECF 12), and, by leave of Court, see Local Rule 105.2(a), plaintiff filed a Surreply (ECF 13).

No hearing is necessary to resolve the issues presented. See Local Rule 105.6. For the reasons that follow, the Court will not abstain from exercising jurisdiction at this juncture, and defendants' Motion will be granted in part and denied in part.

A. The Commission and the Public Housing Program

The Housing Commission of Anne Arundel County is a public housing agency (“PHA”) that operates federally subsidized public housing. The Commission is recognized under Maryland state law as a “public body corporate and politic,” pursuant to Md.Code (2006, 2011 Supp.), § 14–102 of the Housing and Community Development Article (“H.C.”), and is the state-designated “housing authority” for Anne Arundel County under Title 12 of the H.C. Article. See H.C. §§ 12–101 et seq. (providing for a housing authority in each political subdivision of Maryland, and establishing requirements for housing authorities generally); H.C. § 14–101 (providing that Title 12 of the H.C. Article applies to the HCAAC); see also Anne Arundel County Code (2005, Dec. 2011 Supp.), §§ 3–4–101 et seq. (authorizing HCAAC to function in the County, under designation of “Housing Authority”); H.C. § 14–101 (recognizing name change of HCAAC from “Authority” to “Commission”).

The federal public housing program is authorized by the United States Housing Act of 1937, codified, as amended, at 42 U.S.C. §§ 1437 et seq. Under the public housing program, the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (“HUD”) provides operating subsidies to local PHAs, such as the Commission, which own and operate housing for eligible low-income families and individuals. See42 U.S.C. § 1437a(b)(6) (defining “public housing agency” for purposes of the public housing program as “any State, county, municipality, or other governmental entity or public body (or agency or instrumentality thereof) which is authorized to engage in or assist in the development or operation of public housing”). Tenants of public housing pay their PHAs monthly rent that is substantially below the cost of rental housing in the open market. See generally42 U.S.C. § 1437a(a) (establishing income eligibility standards and methods of rent calculation for residents of public housing); 24 C.F.R. part 960 (same).

The operation of public housing by PHAs is subject to comprehensive federal regulation. Among other things, federal law dictates much of the content of public housing leases, requiring the inclusion of various provisions and prohibiting other provisions. See42 U.S.C. § 1437d( l ); 24 C.F.R. part 966, subpart A. In general, PHAs are prohibited from including “unreasonable

[855 F.Supp.2d 532]

terms and conditions” in public housing leases. 42 U.S.C. § 1437d( l )(2). Federal law also imposes eligibility requirements, both financial and otherwise, for admission to and continued residence in public housing. See 24 C.F.R. part 960, subparts A & B. Moreover, each PHA is required to promulgate an Admissions and Continued Occupancy Policy, which must set forth the agency's policies regarding operation of its public housing units, and which must be approved by HUD in the course of its review of the PHA's Annual Plan. See42 U.S.C. § 1437c–1(d)(3)–(6), (12)-(15); 24 C.F.R. § 903.7(b), (e)-(f), ( l )-(n). See also76 Fed.Reg. 51049, 51050 (Aug. 17, 2011) (“PHAs must develop and keep on file the admission and continued occupancy policies and include this information in their Administrative Plan.”).

Leases in public housing are “automatically renewed” on an annual basis, 42 U.S.C. § 1437d( l )(1), and cannot be terminated by a PHA except for “serious or repeated violation of the terms or conditions of the lease or for other good cause.” Id. § 1437d( l )(5); see also24 C.F.R. § 966.4(a)(2), ( l )(2). The right of a public housing tenant to remain in his or her housing is “entitled to due process protection.” Caulder v. Durham Hous. Auth., 433 F.2d 998, 1003 (4th Cir.1970) (citing Goldberg v. Kelly, 397 U.S. 254, 90 S.Ct. 1011, 25 L.Ed.2d 287 (1970)), cert. denied,401 U.S. 1003, 91 S.Ct. 1228, 28 L.Ed.2d 539 (1971); see also Carroll v. Hous. Opportunities Comm'n of Montgomery County, 306 Md. 515, 525, 510 A.2d 540, 545 (1986) (holding that resident of public housing “has a right to remain in her townhouse indefinitely until the [PHA] can establish good cause for eviction”). Except in cases of eviction for certain types of dangerous or drug-related criminal activity, federal law requires a PHA that intends to terminate a tenant's lease to afford the tenant an opportunity for a hearing, pursuant to grievance procedures that each PHA must adopt. See42 U.S.C. § 1437d(k); 24 C.F.R. §§ 966.4( l ) (3), 966.51(a)(2).

The grievance procedures apply not only to lease terminations, but also to any other “dispute which a tenant may have with respect to PHA action or failure to act in accordance with the individual tenant's lease or PHA regulations which adversely affect the individual tenant's rights, duties, welfare or status.” 24 C.F.R. § 966.53(a); see also42 U.S.C. § 1437d(k). Federal regulations permit each PHA to craft its own procedures for hearing of grievances within certain parameters, including the requirement that the PHA provide an opportunity for “[i]nformal settlement of grievances,” 24 C.F.R. § 966.54, followed by the opportunity for a more formal hearing, “if the complainant is not satisfied.” Id.; see24 C.F.R. §§ 966.55, 966.56, 966.57 (regulations governing procedures for formal hearing of grievances).

B. Plaintiff's Tenancy2
1. Plaintiff and Her Lease

On or about May 17, 2010, Ms. Sager entered into a lease agreement with the

[855 F.Supp.2d 533]

Commission for premises located at 7849 Crilley Road, Apt. 500, Glen Burnie, Maryland (the “Property”). See Complaint ¶ 8; see also Residential Lease Agreement (“Lease”) (ECF 8–5 at 6), Ex. H to Affidavit of Clifton Martin (“Martin Aff.”), Ex. 3 to Motion (ECF 8–4 & 8–5).3 The Property is an efficiency apartment in Pinewood Village, one of the public housing apartment complexes operated by the Commission that is specifically designated for persons who are elderly or have a disability. Complaint ¶¶ 1, 58; see also42 U.S.C. § 1437e (providing for designation of public housing projects for occupancy by elderly persons and/or persons with disabilities); 24 C.F.R. part 945 (implementing regulations for 42 U.S.C. § 1437e). Born in 1956, Ms. Sager was 53 at the time she entered into the Lease. See Lease at 1. Therefore, Ms. Sager is not “elderly” within the meaning of applicable law, which defines an “elderly person” as one who is at least 62 years of age. 42 U.S.C. § 1437a(b)(3)(D).4 According to the Complaint, plaintiff is a “person with disabilities,” Complaint ¶ 1, although her disabilities are described only as “mental health disabilities,” without further detail. Id. ¶ 16.

Ms. Sager is obligated under the Lease to pay rent of $192 per month, due on the first day of each month. Lease, § II.B, at 1. She is also “responsible for the payment of certain other charges specified in this lease,” including “late charges” equal to the lesser of $10 or 5%...

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