West v. New Haven Housing Authority, No. CV-04-4002185 S (Conn. Super. 5/23/2006)

Decision Date23 May 2006
Docket NumberNo. CV-04-4002185 S,CV-04-4002185 S
CourtConnecticut Superior Court
PartiesLouis West et al. v. New Haven Housing Authority Opinion No.: 93730


On May 16, 2005, the plaintiffs, Louis West and Jan Rhynhart, filed a revised three-count complaint against the defendant, the New Haven housing authority. In count one, West alleges a negligence claim. In counts two and three, respectively, West and Rhynhart allege that the defendant violated the equal protection clause of the federal constitution.

The plaintiffs allege the following specific facts in counts two and three. The defendant, which is an agency of the city of New Haven and a municipal corporation, maintained public housing complexes at several locations in the city. The complexes received federal funds to support their operation. West and Rhynhart were tenants at the defendant's Liberty Street housing complex (Liberty Street complex). Although the defendant received repeated warnings and complaints, it "consciously and intentionally" provided the tenants at the Liberty Street complex with less physical security and safety than it provided to the tenants of its other housing projects in the city. As a result, on November 18, 2003, West was assaulted and physically injured in the vicinity of his residence, and on December 16, 2002, Rhynhart was assaulted, robbed and physically injured inside her residence.1 During this time, the defendant was acting under color of law, i.e., under color of the state constitution and statutes and city laws and regulations. The defendant's conduct deprived the plaintiffs of their rights to equal protection in violation of the fourteenth amendment to the United States constitution, as enforced through 42 U.S.C. §§1983 and 1988.2

On August 4, 2005, the defendant filed a motion to strike counts two and three of the revised complaint on the ground that the plaintiffs failed to properly plead their equal protection claims. The defendant filed a memorandum of law in support of its motion. On August 15, 2005, the plaintiffs filed a memorandum of law in opposition to the motion to strike, and on October 21, 2005, the defendant filed a memorandum of law in reply to the plaintiffs' memorandum. The court heard oral argument at the short calendar on March 6, 2006.

"The purpose of a motion to strike is to contest . . . the legal sufficiency of the allegations of any complaint . . . to state a claim upon which relief can be granted." (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Fort Trumbull Conservancy, LLC v. Alves, 262 Conn. 480, 498, 815 A.2d 1188 (2003). "It is fundamental that in determining the sufficiency of a complaint challenged by a defendant's motion to strike, all well-pleaded facts and those facts necessarily implied from the allegations are taken as admitted . . . Indeed, pleadings must be construed broadly and realistically, rather than narrowly and technically." (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Asylum Hill Problem Solving Revitalization Assn. v. King, 277 Conn. 238, 246, 890 A.2d 522 (2006). Accordingly, "[i]f facts provable in the complaint would support a cause of action, the motion to strike must be denied." (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Greco v. United Technologies Corp., 277 Conn. 337, 347, 890 A.2d 1289 (2006).

Although "[a] motion to strike admits all facts well pleaded; it does not admit legal conclusions or the truth or accuracy of opinions stated in the pleadings." (Emphasis in original; internal quotation marks omitted.) Faulkner v. United Technologies Corp., 240 Conn. 576, 588, 693 A.2d 293 (1997). Consequently, a trial court properly grants a motion to strike "if the complaint alleges mere conclusions of law that are unsupported by the facts alleged." (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Fort Trumbull Conservancy, LLC v. Alves, supra, 262 Conn. 498.

Initially, it is noted that the claims at issue are premised on the federal constitution and federal statutes. Our Supreme Court has recognized that, as to substantive issues, "[t]he decisions of the federal circuit in which a state court is located are entitled to great weight in the interpretation of a federal statute. This is particularly true in 42 U.S.C. §1983 cases, where the federal statute confers concurrent jurisdiction on the federal and state courts." (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Thomas v. West Haven, 249 Conn. 385, 392, 734 A.2d 535 (1999), cert. denied, 528 U.S. 1187, 120 S.Ct. 1239, 146 L.Ed.2d 99 (2000). Therefore, in addition to United States Supreme Court and Connecticut appellate court authority, this court will look to cases from the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit to assist in its analysis of the substantive issues.

Nevertheless, in the context of a motion to strike, it is essential to recall that the Connecticut rules of practice apply to the pleading requirements at issue, and that "under the law of this state, [the plaintiffs have an obligation] to provide the trial court with pleadings that contain 'a plain and concise statement of the material facts on which the pleader relies . . .' Practice Book §10-1." Alexander v. Commissioner of Administrative Services, 86 Conn.App. 677, 686, 862 A.2d 851 (2004). "By contrast, an action brought under 42 U.S.C. §1983 in federal court is governed by the federal rules of civil procedure, which permit pleadings to go forward if the pleadings put the other party on notice of potential claims." Alexander v. Commissioner of Administrative Services, supra, 86 Conn.App. 686 n.7.

Counts two and three are premised on 42 U.S.C. §1983, which provides, in relevant part: "Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State . . . subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress . . ." "To state a valid claim under §1983, a plaintiff must establish: '(1) [that] the conduct complained of was committed by a person acting under color of state law; and (2) [that] this conduct deprived a person of rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution or laws of the United States.' Parratt v. Taylor, 451 U.S. 527, 535, 101 S.Ct. 1908, 68 L.Ed.2d 420 (1981)." ATC Partnership v. Windham, 251 Conn. 597, 604, 741 A.2d 305 (1999).

The defendant makes the following arguments in support of its contention that the plaintiffs fail to properly plead their claims, which the court will address in turn: (1) the plaintiffs do not properly plead that the defendant's conduct constituted state action or that the defendant was a state actor; (2) the plaintiffs fail to adequately allege that the defendant intentionally treated them differently from others who are similarly situated to them; and (3) the plaintiffs fail to allege that the defendant's conduct was based on impermissible considerations.

In regard to the defendant's first argument, "[b]ecause the United States Constitution regulates only the Government, not private parties, a litigant claiming that his constitutional rights have been violated must first establish that the challenged conduct constitutes 'state action.' " (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Tancredi v. Metropolitan Life Ins. Co., 316 F.3d 308, 312 (2d Cir.), cert. denied, 539 U.S. 942, 123 S.Ct. 2610, 156 L.Ed.2d 628 (2003). "To state a claim under §1983, a plaintiff must demonstrate that the defendant acted 'under color of' state law. 42 U.S.C. §1983." Tancredi v. Metropolitan Life Ins. Co., 378 F.3d 220, 229 (2d Cir. 2004). "[S]tate action under the Fourteenth Amendment is tantamount to action under color of law for purposes of Section 1983." Ginsberg v. Healey Car & Truck Leasing, Inc., 189 F.3d 268, 271 (2d Cir. 1999). Thus, "[i]f a defendant's conduct satisfies the state-action requirement of the Fourteenth Amendment, the conduct also constitutes action 'under color of state law' for §1983 purposes." Brentwood Academy v. Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Assn., 531 U.S. 288, 295 n.2, 121 S.Ct. 924, 148 L.Ed.2d 807 (2001).

In the present case, the plaintiffs allege that the defendant was an agency of the city, as well as a municipal corporation, that its complexes received federal funding, and that it "was acting under color of . . . the constitution, statutes, laws, rules, regulations, customs and usages of the State of Connecticut and the City of New Haven." According to the defendant, these allegations are insufficient to meet the state action requirement because, under Connecticut law, public housing agencies are independent corporate bodies, and are not city agencies. The plaintiffs counter that state action includes not only actions by formal government agencies, but also actions by agencies that have adopted corporate forms, and even actions by certain private entities.

As the Second Circuit Court of Appeals recently noted in discussing this issue, "[a]s general matter, defining the limits of the State's presence tends to be a difficult endeavor because of the protean character of contemporary government activity." Horvath v. Westport Public Library Assn., 362 F.3d 147, 151 (2d Cir. 2004). The court further explained that "[i]n Lebron [v. National Railroad Passengers Corp., 513 U.S. 374; 115 S.Ct. 961, 130 L.Ed.2d 902 (1995)], the Supreme Court considered the state actor status of the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, commonly known as Amtrak. Amtrak was established by a Congressional statute, which explicitly states that it "will not be an agency or establishment of the United States Government." . . . This designation, however, was held to be anything but conclusive . . . Rather, the Court looked to...

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