United States District Court, D. Maryland
September 30, 2014
L. HALL, Plaintiff,
GREYSTAR MANAGEMENT SERVICES, L.P., et al., Defendants.
JAMES K. BREDAR, District Judge.
L. Hall ("Plaintiff") brought this suit against Greystar Management Services, L.P. ("GMS"), PSN Landscaping Co., Inc. ("PSN"), and Lieutenant Richard Kelly (collectively with GMS and PSN "Defendants") for retaliation in violation of the Fair Housing Act ("FHA"), 42 U.S.C. § 3601, et seq., conversion, violation of Article 26 of the Maryland Declaration of Rights, and violation of Title 20 of the State Government Article of the Maryland Code. Now pending before the Court is Plaintiff's motion to alter/amend judgment and for leave to file an amended complaint. (ECF No. 45.) The issues have been briefed (ECF Nos. 45, 49, 51, 52, 53), and no hearing is required, Local Rule 105.6. For the reasons explained below, Plaintiff's motion to alter/amend judgment is DENIED.
The facts here are largely unchanged as recounted in ECF No. 43. In summary, Plaintiff has been diagnosed with "post-polio syndrome together with specific and related comorbidities including syncope and post-traumatic stress disorder, all of which substantially limit several major life activities." (ECF No. 1, Compl. ¶¶ 8-9.) Plaintiff lived in an apartment owned by GMS until April 2011, when GMS declined to renew Plaintiff's year-to-year lease. In response, Plaintiff filed a complaint with the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development ("HUD") alleging that GMS failed to renew Plaintiff's lease because of her disability. GMS then prosecuted a successful tenant holding over action and obtained a proper warrant of restitution (i.e., an eviction order) against Plaintiff.
On December 1, 2011, all Defendants were collectively involved with evicting Plaintiff from her apartment. In the process, Defendants removed all of Plaintiff's personal property from the apartment and brought it to landfills. Defendants also removed "all of [Plaintiff's] property, including her purse and computers which was situated in and about her vehicle outside the Premises." ( Id. ¶ 23.) Plaintiff's purse and computers were returned to her moments later. ( Id. )
Plaintiff filed the present action on November 27, 2013, alleging (1) retaliation in violation of the FHA against GMS; (2) conversion against all Defendants; (3) violation of Article 26 of the Maryland Declaration of Rights against Lieutenant Kelly; and (4) violation of Title 20 of the State Government Article of the Maryland Code against GMS. ( Id. ¶¶ 29-52.) In July 2014, the Court granted Defendants' motions to dismiss all claims, holding that Plaintiff held no legal interest in the removed property because it was deemed "abandoned" the moment Defendants properly executed the warrant of restitution. (ECF No. 44.)
Plaintiff now asks the Court to vacate its judgment, and to grant leave for Plaintiff to file an amended complaint. (ECF No. 45.) In her proposed amended complaint ("the new complaint"), Plaintiff adds new details about her eviction, particularly that Defendants removed certain personal property from in and around Plaintiff's vehicle. She alleges that Defendants removed and then almost immediately returned Plaintiff's bag containing her purse, passport, and computers. (ECF No. 45-2 at 8.) She also alleges that Defendants removed and ultimately destroyed her file boxes. ( Id. )
II. LEGAL STANDARD
After a final judgment has previously been rendered, a court must first vacate judgment to allow amended pleadings. Laber v. Harvey, 438 F.3d 404, 427 (4th Cir. 2009).
Rule 59(e) allows a party 28 days from the entry of an adverse judgment to move that the judgment be altered or amended. In its discretion, a district court may grant such a motion under three circumstances: "(1) to accommodate an intervening change in controlling law; (2) to account for new evidence not available at trial; or (3) to correct a clear error of law or prevent manifest injustice." Ingle ex rel. Estate of Ingle v. Yelton, 439 F.3d 191, 197 (4th Cir. 2006).
"[A] post-judgment motion to amend is evaluated under the same legal standard- grounded on Rule 15(a)-as a similar motion filed before judgment was entered." Matrix Capital Mgmt. Fund v. BearingPoint, 576 F.3d 172, 193 (4th Cir. 2009). Under Rule 15(a)(2), leave to file an amended or supplemental pleading should be "freely give[n] where justice so requires." A district court may deny leave, however, if: (1) the new pleading would prejudice the opposing party; (2) the moving party has acted in bad faith; or (3) the new pleading would be futile (i.e., if it could not withstand a motion to dismiss). Perkins v. U.S., 55 F.3d 910, 917 (4th Cir. 1995); Laber, 438 F.3d at 426. Like pleadings that fail to survive a motion to dismiss, a futile amendment fails to contain "sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'" Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). "A pleading that offers labels and conclusions' or a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.'... Nor does a complaint suffice if it tenders naked assertion[s]' devoid of further factual enhancement.'" Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555, 557).
Plaintiff's new complaint is futile on all counts, and thus her motion to amend/alter judgment is denied.
a. Count 1: Retaliation in Violation of the FHA Against GMS
In Count I, Plaintiff alleges that GMS retaliated against her in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 3617. Section 3617 makes it "unlawful to coerce, intimidate, threaten, or interfere with any person in the exercise or enjoyment of, or on account of [the plaintiff] having exercised or enjoyed... any right granted or protected by section 3603, 3604, 3605, or 3606 of this title." 42 U.S.C. § 3617. In turn, § 3604 makes it unlawful to discriminate in the rental of a dwelling because of a renter's handicap. 42 U.S.C. § 3604.
To prove a claim of retaliation under the FHA, a plaintiff must establish that:
(1) The plaintiff was engaged in a protected activity; (2) the defendant was aware of that activity; (3) the defendant took adverse action against the plaintiff; and (4) a causal connection exists between the protected activity and the adverse action.
Matarese v. Archstone Pentagon City, 795 F.Supp.2d 402, 442 (E.D. Va. 2011) (citing Price v. Thompson, 380 F.3d 209, 212 (4th Cir. 2004)), rev'd on other grounds, 468 Fed.Appx. 283 (4th Cir. 2012). In the Court's prior memorandum and order dismissing Plaintiff's complaint, Count I failed on the third prong. (ECF No. 43 at 7-11.) On the facts alleged, the Court found that GMS did not take an adverse action against Plaintiff because all removed property was deemed abandoned. ( Id. ) Plaintiff's new complaint now alleges that GMS also removed property from in and around Plaintiff's car, property that had not been abandoned. The complaint raises sufficient facts to survive a motion to dismiss on the third prong.
The Court now focuses its analysis on the fourth prong: whether Plaintiff's new complaint sufficiently alleges a causal connection between her protected activity (i.e., pursuing a HUD housing discrimination complaint) and the adverse action (i.e., GMS's removal and destruction of Plaintiff's file boxes in and around her car). The Court finds that she has failed to satisfy this prong.
To survive a motion to dismiss in FHA retaliation claims, a plaintiff "must sufficiently allege a discriminatory intent on the part of Defendants." Bailey v. Vill. Green Mut. Homes, 2014 WL 198348 at *3 (D. Md. 2014) (citing Oxford House v. Town of Fayetteville, 2012 WL 441156 (S.D. W.Va. 2012); Davis v. Raleigh House. Auth., 2011 WL 832330 at *4 (E.D. N.C. 2011)). It is not enough to merely allege a plaintiff's protected characteristic and a defendant's unconnected adverse action. Further, a complaint may not rely on mere conclusory statements; it must "give the defendant fair notice of what the... claim is and the grounds upon which it rests." Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555, 557; see also Bailey, 2014 WL 198348 (dismissing a complaint for failure to state a claim where plaintiff failed to allege facts "beyond a conclusory statement that he was discriminated against because of his [protected characteristic]").
Plaintiff's new complaint is futile for two reasons. First, it fails to allege that GMS acted with discriminatory intent. The new complaint claims that GMS "acted with malice by taking the adverse action of ordering that Ms. Hall's property be transported to a landfill in another state where it was destroyed despite Ms. Hall's repeated instructions that she wished to have the property transported to a nearby portable storage unit." (ECF No. 45-2 at 11.) This pleading fails to allege that GMS's actions were taken because of Plaintiff's protected status or because of Plaintiff's prior HUD complaint. GMS's adverse acts on their own do not state a claim for housing discrimination under the FHA.
Second, even if the Court construes the complaint generously, Plaintiff's causal allegations are conclusory and insufficient. Plaintiff fails to support her claims with anything other than a single conclusory statement alleging malice. Absent factual allegations that could give rise to a plausible finding of discriminatory intent, the Court cannot assume that GMS has acted unlawfully under § 3617. Accordingly, Plaintiff's attempt to amend her complaint is futile with regard to Count I, and must be denied.
b. Counts 2-4: Plaintiff's Remaining State Law Claims
Having dismissed Plaintiff's anchoring federal claim, the Court "enjoy[s] wide latitude in determining whether or not to retain [supplemental] jurisdiction over state claims." Crosby v. City of Gastonia, 635 F.3d 634, 644 n.11 (4th Cir. 2011). If the state claims were viable, or even particularly complex, the Court would decline to retain supplemental jurisdiction. In the interest of judicial economy, though, the Court elects to address Plaintiff's remaining claims given the simplicity of the analysis in dismissing all three.
In Count II, Plaintiff alleges that Defendants are liable for conversion because they transported her property to a landfill after executing the court-issued warrant of restitution. In Maryland, a claim of conversion should aver "that the defendant converted to [its] own use the plaintiff's goods, describing them, and to claim the damages resulting therefrom." Kirby v. Porter, 144 Md. 261 (1923) (quoting 1 Poe. Pl. & Pr. § 522 ¶ 206); see generally Jonathan M. Purver, Maryland Law Encyclopedia, 5A M.L.E. Conversion § 23 (2014) (describing pleading requirements for a claim of conversion, and noting that "[a] complaint which lacks these elements may be deemed to be insufficient"). The Maryland Court of Appeals has emphasized that a plaintiff must include a claim for damages. Stirling v. Garritee, 18 Md. 468 (1862).
Plaintiff's new complaint alleges that Defendants removed Plaintiff's bag and file boxes from in and around her car. (ECF No. 45-2 at 8.) However, the entire contents of the bag were returned to Plaintiff almost immediately after they were taken, and so their removal does not give rise to a claim for conversion. (Compl. ¶ 23; ECF No. 45-1 at 4.)
As for the file boxes, the Plaintiff has failed to claim damages for their removal and destruction. Both Plaintiff's original and new complaints seek compensatory and punitive damages of $3 million. (Compl. ¶ 10; ECF No. 45-2 at 12.) Yet the Court's prior order dismissed Plaintiff's claim for conversion of the 15, 000 pounds of personal property removed from her apartment. (Compl. ¶ 24.) Plaintiff's identical calculation of damages fails to put the Defendants on notice of the contents and value of these boxes. This new complaint should have amended Plaintiff's claim of conversion to seek damages only for the removal and destruction of property found in and around her vehicle. Plaintiff's failure to include a plausible claim for damages leaves her amended claim for conversion futile, and thus the Court denies Plaintiff's motion to alter/amend its judgment on Count II.
In Count III, Plaintiff alleges that Lieutenant Kelly violated Article 26 of the Maryland Declaration of Rights when he executed the warrant of restitution in a way that violated § 35-3-103. The Court previously disposed of this Count (ECF No. 43 at 12-13), and nothing in Plaintiff's new complaint seeks to change any allegations concerning this claim. Thus, the Court denies Plaintiff's motion to alter/amend its judgment on Count III.
In Count IV, Plaintiff alleges that GMS violated Title 20 of the State Government Article of the Maryland Code by destroying her property in retaliation for her having exercised rights protected by the statute, including the right to be free from discrimination. (Compl. ¶¶ 44-50.) Maryland courts routinely look to federal anti-discrimination statutes in determining the scope of liability under Title 20. The Maryland Court of Appeals has looked to caselaw related to the FHA where a corresponding state statute had "nearly identical" language. Bd. of Dir. of Cameron Grove Condo., II v. State Comm'n on Human Relations, 431 Md. 61, 74-75 (comparing Maryland housing discrimination law to § 3604 of the FHA). The Maryland housing discrimination retaliation statute employs nearly identical language to § 3617 of the FHA. Section 20-708 of the State Government Article of the Maryland Code states that "[a] person may not coerce, intimidate, threaten, interfere with, or retaliate against any person... because a person has exercised or enjoyed any right granted or protected by this subtitle." MD Code, State Gov't, § 20-708. In comparison, § 3617 makes it "unlawful to coerce, intimidate, threaten, or interfere with any person... on account of his having exercised or enjoyed... any right granted or protected" under the FHA. 42 U.S.C. § 3617. Given that Plaintiff's retaliation claim under Maryland law looks nearly identical to her FHA retaliation claim, the Court finds that Count IV is futile for the reasons described in Section III(a) supra.
Accordingly, an order shall issue DENYING Plaintiff's motion to alter/amend judgment and for leave to file an amended complaint. (ECF No. 45.)