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Summers v. City of Fitchburg

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

September 15, 2016

CITY OF FITCHBURG, et al., Defendants.


          Denise J. Casper, United States District Judge.

         I. Introduction

         Plaintiffs Jeffrey D. Summers (“Summers”) and Jeffrey's House, Inc. (“Jeffrey's House”) (collectively, “Plaintiffs”) have filed this lawsuit against Defendants City of Fitchburg (“Fitchburg”) and Mark A. Goldstein (“Goldstein”), Jeffrey P. Stephens (“Stephens”), John J. Moran Sr. (“Moran”), Robert Lanciani (“Lanciani”), Phil Jordan (“Jordan”), Sally Tata (“Tata”) and Kevin Roy (“Roy”), individually and in their official capacities as various Fitchburg officials (“Municipal Defendants”) (collectively, with Fitchburg, “Defendants”). Plaintiffs bring claims for attorneys' fees and costs (Count I); abuse of process (Count II); private nuisance (Count III); violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (Count IV) and the Fair Housing Act (Count V); intentional infliction of emotional distress (Count VI); and interference with advantageous business relationships (Count VII). Defendants have moved to dismiss the amended complaint. D. 19. For the reasons stated below, the Court ALLOWS in part and DENIES in part the motion.

         II. Standard of Review

         On a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6), the Court must determine if the facts alleged “plausibly narrate a claim for relief.” Schatz v. Republican State Leadership Comm., 669 F.3d 50, 55 (1st Cir. 2012) (citation omitted). The Court reads the complaint “as a whole” and must conduct a two-step, context-specific inquiry. García-Catalán v. United States, 734 F.3d 100, 103 (1st Cir. 2013). First, the Court must perform a close reading of the complaint to distinguish the factual allegations from the conclusory allegations. Id. Factual allegations must be accepted as true, while conclusory allegations are not credited. Id. Second, the Court must determine whether the factual allegations present a “reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Haley v. City of Boston, 657 F.3d 39, 46 (1st Cir. 2011) (quoting Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009)) (internal quotation mark omitted).

         The Court will dismiss a pleading that fails to include “enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). To avoid dismissal, a complaint must provide “‘a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.'” García-Catalán, 734 F.3d at 102 (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2)). Labels and conclusions or “a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555). The Court draws on its “judicial experience and common sense” in determining whether a claim crosses the plausibility threshold. García-Catalán, 734 F.3d at 103 (citation omitted). “This context-specific inquiry does not demand ‘a high degree of factual specificity.'” Id. (citation omitted).

         III. Factual Background

         The following allegations are from Plaintiffs' amended complaint, D. 18, and those documents incorporated into the amended complaint-the authenticity of which is not challenged, see Foley v. Wells Fargo Bank, N.A., 772 F.3d 63, 72 (1st Cir. 2014); Beddall v. State St. Bank & Trust Co., 137 F.3d 12, 17 (1st Cir. 1998)-and are accepted as true in considering the motion to dismiss.

         Summers is the President, director and clerk of Jeffrey's House, a Massachusetts organization that has operated four “sober homes” in Fitchburg, Massachusetts since 2012. D. 18 ¶¶ 1-2. Sober homes serve those recovering from drug and alcohol abuse by providing a supportive living environment with other recovering individuals. Id. at 3. Summers bought, repaired and opened four properties to serve as the sober homes. Id. at 3. The sober homes are located at 499 Water Street, 10 Burnett Street, 33 Garnet Street and 205-207 High Street in Fitchburg, respectively. Id. ¶ 2.

         On February 2, 2013, Curry, a Fitchburg Health Inspector at the time, id. ¶ 4, made certain statements about Jeffrey's House in a Worcester Telegram and Gazette article, id. ¶ 13. In that same article, Lanciani, the Fitchburg Building Commissioner at the time, id. ¶ 6, was quoted as stating that “[a] lodging house designation means the home must comply with state building codes, including a sprinkler system and fire alarms, ” id. ¶ 13.

         Approximately two months later, on April 13, 2013, Stephens, a Fitchburg Health Inspector at the time, id. ¶ 4, performed an hour-long unannounced building inspection of 499 Water Street and noted several violations, id. ¶ 14. Four days later, Stephens returned to 499 Water Street with Moran, the Fitchburg Building Inspector at the time, id. ¶ 5, and the two found additional violations, id. ¶ 14. Stephens and Moran returned to 499 Water Street on May 13, 2013 to re-inspect the previous violations and declared the improvements were unsatisfactory. Id. ¶ 15.

         Several months later, on August 21, 2013, Summers was “strongly advised” to attend a meeting at Fitchburg City Hall to discuss “illegal occupancy.” Id. ¶ 16. Stephens, Moran and Lanciani attended the meeting and Summers was told to cease and desist all operations. Id. On September 11, 2013, Moran and Stephens returned to 499 Water Street and confirmed that all violations had been corrected. Id. ¶ 17.

         On December 5, 2013, Summers received a letter from Lanciani sent to his property at 10 Burnett Street ordering him to cease and desist operations due to zoning ordinance violations for non-conforming use. Id.; D. 20-1. The letter also indicated that there was “no evidence that the building has been inspected” or that a license for use as a boarding house was granted by the License Commission. D. 20-1. Summers received a similar letter from Lanciani sent at his property at 33 Garnett Street on January 22, 2014. D. 18 ¶ 18; D. 20-2.

         Summers then received a Summons and Order of notice on March 18, 2014 at all four of his properties, as well as at his home address, from Goldstein, D. 18 ¶ 19, the Fitchburg Assistant City Solicitor at the time, id. ¶ 3. The Summons and Order directed Summers to appear in Worcester Housing Court on April 25, 2014. Id. ¶ 19. Summers attended the consolidated hearing before Judge Diane H. Horan (“Judge Horan”) regarding his properties at 10 Burnett Street, 499 Water Street and 33 Garnet Street. D. 20-3. Lanciani and Goldstein appeared on behalf of Fitchburg. D. 18 ¶ 20. Following the presentation of evidence from both sides, Judge Horan ruled that Summers could continue to operate the sober homes. Id. Goldstein and Lanciani insisted that Summers request a reasonable accommodation in writing. Id.

         On May 5, 2014, Summers wrote a letter to Lanciani and requested a reasonable accommodation from Fitchburg's zoning ordinances for his properties at 10 Burnett Street, 499 Water Street and 33 Garnet Street, id. ¶ 21, and indicated the current and maximum number of occupants of the three respective properties, D. 20-4. Lanciani granted the request and stated in a letter dated May 30, 2014 that “[t]he City of Fitchburg will allow a reasonable accommodation in their Zoning Ordinance concerning the use of the above-referenced properties as a sober home for disabled persons recovering from alcohol or drug addiction.” D. 18 ¶ 21; D. 20-5. Summers received a letter from Goldstein on June 9, 2014 stating that the actions against his properties had been dismissed. D. 18 ¶ 22; D. 20-6.

         Almost a month later, on July 10, 2014, Summers received, via certified mail, a notice from Tata, Lieutenant of the Fitchburg Fire Department at the time, D. 18 ¶ 9, indicating that 10 Burnett Street, 499 Water Street and 33 Garnet Street were in violation of Mass. Gen. L. c 148, § 26H because they were being used as “lodging/boarding homes and house more than six residents, ” id. ¶ 23; D. 20-7. The notice stated that Summers, pursuant to § 26H, was responsible for the installation of fire protection systems within six months. D. 18 ¶ 23; D. 20-7. The notice also informed Summers of his right to appeal the notice to the board of appeals of the fire safety commission within 45 days pursuant to § 26H. D. 20-7. About six months later on February 20, 2015, Summers received, via certified mail, a notice from Roy and Jordan, D. 18 ¶ 24; D. 20-8, Chief and Lieutenant, respectively, of the Fitchburg Fire Department at the time, D. 18 ¶¶ 7-8. The notice stated that, due to Summers's failure to install fire protection systems at the three properties, he was being fined $1, 000 pursuant to Mass. Gen. L. c. 148, § 27 and that payment of the fine and installation of the systems must be made on or before March 1, 2015. D. 20-8. The notice also stated that the Fitchburg Fire Department would pursue legal action if Summers failed to comply, but that “[i]t is the Fitchburg Fire Department's position to work with you to fulfill this statutory requirement, rather then [sic] pursue the above course of action.” Id.

         On April 9, 2015, Summers received three letters from the Fitchburg Fire Department summoning him to the Worcester Housing Court for a hearing on May 1, 2015. D. 18 ¶ 25; D. 20- 9. Summers attended the hearing before Judge Horan and Goldstein, Jordan and Roy appeared on behalf of Fitchburg. D. 18 ¶ 25. Summers was then summoned back to Worcester Housing Court on July 17, 2015 for contempt since Judge Horan had ruled against him following the May 2015 hearing. Id. ¶ 26; see D. 29 at 5. The contempt charges were dropped, however, because Summers did not receive proper notice of Judge Horan's ruling. D. 18 ¶ 26. Summers informed Judge Horan that he could not afford to install the fire protection systems at the three properties, but would instead reduce the number of residents of each property to five people-thus falling outside the requirements of § 26H-pending further review. Id. On July 28, 2015, Summers received a letter from Goldstein requesting a statement that “you intend to have no more than five (5) occupants residing in any of the three properties.” Id. ¶ 27; D. 20-10. The letter also stated that “[t]he Fire Department will want to make sporadic inspections to verify the number of individuals residing at the properties” and if Summers agreed, a stipulation of dismissal could be prepared. D. 18 ¶ 27; D. 20-10. ...

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