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Martini v. City of Pittsfield

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

March 31, 2015

CITY OF PITTSFIELD, BRUCE COLLINGWOOD, as Commissioner of the Department of Public Utilities, JAMES MCGRATH, as Harbormaster, and DANIEL L. BIANCHI, as Mayor of the City of Pittsfield, Defendants.


MARK G. MASTROIANNI, District Judge.


Rosaleen Martini and Chris Martini, Jr. ("Plaintiffs") brought this action in state court against the City of Pittsfield ("City"), Bruce Collingwood (the Commissioner of Pittsfield's Department of Public Utilities), James McGrath (the Harbormaster of Pittsfield), and Daniel Bianchi (the Mayor of Pittsfield) (together, "Defendants"). On August 18, 2014, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1441, Defendants removed the action to this court because it raised a federal question under 28 U.S.C. § 1331.

Plaintiffs' claims arise out of damage to their property allegedly caused by erosion from Onota Lake, which is owned and controlled by the City. In particular, Plaintiffs assert claims for nuisance (Count I), inverse condemnation under M.G.L. c. 79 and M.G.L. c. 81, § 7 (Count II), negligence (Count III), trespass (Count IV), strict liability for ultrahazardous activity (Count V), and unauthorized taking in pais and violations of art. 10 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights and the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution (Count VI). Defendants have filed a motion to dismiss, asserting that Plaintiffs' complaint fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. For the following reasons, the court will grant Defendants' motion in part and deny it in part.


The following facts, which are stated in a light most favorable to Plaintiffs, see Young v. Lepone, 305 F.3d 1, 8 (1st Cir. 2002), come directly from the complaint and the attachments thereto. Plaintiffs possess real property located at 377-379 Pecks Road in Pittsfield ("Premises"). (Dkt. No. 6, Compl. ¶ 8.) The City possesses real property which is a reservoir or pond known as Onota Lake, along with the dam, water rights, and water privileges. (Id. ¶ 9.) In 1995, the City built a replacement dam at Onota Lake to control its flow of water. (Id. ¶ 10.) As a result, however, "water that had previously been diverted away from the Premises was directed at the Premises" and "[t]he flow from the newly constructed dam began to wash away portions of the Premises." (Id.) In 1996, after Plaintiffs complained, the City "installed temporary rip rap (stones piled against an embankment to prevent erosion) as an attempt to control the erosion of the Premises." (Id. ¶ 11.) In 2007, "the City, by and through the Harbormaster, installed siphon pipes in order to draw down the Lake approximately five to six feet, " but "[t]his caused further erosion to the Premises." (Id. ¶ 12.)

In 2011, "Plaintiffs became aware that the temporary rip rap installed by the City was failing and [that] the Premises was undergoing continuing erosion." (Id. ¶ 13.) Thereafter, Plaintiffs notified the City, which "inspected the premises and acknowledged that the Premises were continuing to erode." (Id.) Around this time, Plaintiffs also "noticed that the erosion of the Premises was endangering structures thereon, including but not limited to Plaintiffs' fence and garage." (Id.) "In or about 2012 and 2013, the City, Commissioner, and Harbormaster made verbal promises and agreements to conduct repairs to the rip rap at the Premises to prevent additional erosion to the Premises." (Id. ¶ 14.) In 2014, however, "Plaintiffs were notified that the City did not have the funds to repair the rip rap and, consequently, no efforts would be made to prevent further erosion to the Premises." (Id. ¶ 15.)

On June 24, 2014, Chris Martini, through counsel, sent a letter to Collingwood, McGrath, and Bianchi (in their capacities as Commissioner, Harbormaster, and Mayor, respectively) explaining he "has suffered and continues to suffer property damage as a result of the negligent acts and omissions of the Pittsfield Department of Public Works, the Harbormaster James McGrath, and the City of Pittsfield." (Dkt. No. 6, Compl., Ex. C.) He also explained the letter was "being sent pursuant to Massachusetts General Laws, Chapter 79 Section 10." (Id.) In addition, the letter described the replacement dam in 1995, the erosion to the Premises, and promises that the rip rap would be installed to "control the erosion taking place." (Id.) The letter further asserted "[t]he damages suffered by Mr. Martini amount to an unauthorized taking in pais" and that "the City of Pittsfield, the Department of Public Works, and the Harbormaster are liable for the damages suffered by Mr. Martini due to their continuing negligent acts and omissions."[1] On July 22, 2014, Chris Martini, through counsel, sent another letter to the same individuals, as well as Kathleen Degnan, the City Solicitor of Pittsfield, explaining that because he had not received a response to first letter, he intended to file a complaint (which he attached) in Berkshire Superior Court by July 25, 2014. (Dkt. No. 6, Compl., Ex. D.)

On July 31, 2014, Plaintiffs filed their complaint in Berkshire Superior Court. (Dkt. No. 6, State Ct. R.) As mentioned, Defendants removed the action to this court on August 18, 2014 pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1441 and subsequently filed a motion to dismiss.


When confronted with a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, the court must accept the well-pleaded allegations of the complaint as true, drawing all reasonable inferences in favor of the plaintiff. See S.E.C. v. Tambone, 597 F.3d 436, 441 (1st Cir. 2010). A complaint that states a plausible claim for relief, on its face, will survive a motion to dismiss. See Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). The Supreme Court has explained that "[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." Id.


Defendants seek dismissal of Plaintiffs' complaint in its entirety on a number of grounds. Because this court's jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1331 is predicated on Plaintiffs' federal constitutional claims, the court will first address Defendants' arguments targeting those claims.

A. Federal Constitutional Claims (Count VI)

In Count VI, Plaintiffs assert claims for a Fifth Amendment taking and violation of the Due Process Clause.[2] Defendants argue the claims are not ripe and subject to dismissal, because Plaintiffs failed to exhaust their state remedies pursuant to Williamson County Reg'l Planning Comm'n v. Hamilton Bank of Johnson City, 473 U.S. 172, 195 (1985). Defendants also argue the claims are barred by the statute of limitations because they accrued over three years before Plaintiffs brought this action. Defendants next argue that Plaintiffs failed to state a procedural due process claim because M.G.L. c. 79 provides all the process that is due. In addition, Defendants argue, to the extent Plaintiffs assert a substantive due process claim, the facts alleged are not sufficiently egregious as to "shock the conscience." Defendants further contend Plaintiffs have not alleged sufficient facts to invoke municipal liability.

In response, Plaintiffs argue they attempted to exhaust their remedies in state court but were thwarted by Defendants' removal of the action to this forum. Plaintiffs also contend the claims are timely based on a "continuing violation" theory, their discovery of additional erosion in 2011, and the City's promises to fix the issue. Plaintiffs further argue they sufficiently alleged both procedural and substantive due process violations and adequate facts to support municipal liability.

1. State-Exhaustion Requirement

The Supreme Court in Williamson County held that Fifth Amendment takings claims are not ripe in federal court until the plaintiff has first sought "compensation through the procedures the State has provided for doing so." Williamson County, 473 U.S. at 194. The Court explained that "[t]he Fifth Amendment does not proscribe the taking of property; it proscribes taking without just compensation." Id. Accordingly, "if a State provides an adequate procedure for seeking just compensation, the property owner cannot claim a violation of the Just Compensation Clause until it has used the procedure and been denied just compensation." Id. at 195.[3]

While this ripeness requirement may, at first glance, appear to constitute an Article III jurisdictional limitation, the Supreme Court has made clear that it is merely a prudential limitation. See Horne v. Dep't of Agriculture, 133 S.Ct. 2053, 2062 (2013) ("Although we often refer to this consideration as prudential ripeness, '... we have recognized that it is not, strictly speaking, jurisdictional.") (citation omitted)); Stop the Beach Renourishment, Inc. v. Florida Dep't of Environmental Protection, 560 U.S. 702, 729 & n.10 (2010) (noting that the Williamson County ripeness objection is not jurisdictional and "the claim is ripe insofar as Article III standing is concerned, since (accepting petitioner's version of Florida law as true) petitioner has been deprived of property."); Suitum v. Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, 520 U.S. 725, 733-34 (1997) (describing the Williamson County state-exhaustion requirement as a "prudential ripeness" hurdle); Lucas v. South Carolina Coastal Council, 505 U.S. 1003, 1012-13 (1992). Accordingly, "[u]nlike Article III requirements-which must be satisfied by the parties before judicial consideration is appropriate- the relevant prudential factors that counsel against hearing [a] case are subject to countervailing considerations [that] may outweigh the concerns underlying the usual reluctance to exert judicial power.'" United States v. Windsor, 133 S.Ct. 2675, 2687 (2013) ...

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