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Summers v. City of Fitchburg

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

June 26, 2018

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; three remaining are: civil conspiracy to interfere with civil rights; violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), 42 U.S.C. § 12101et seq. (Count IV); and violation of the Fair Housing Amendments Act (“FHAA”), an amendment to the Fair Housing Act (the “FHA”), 42 U.S.C. § 3601 et seq. (Count V). D. 44. Defendants have moved for summary judgment. D. 52. For the reasons stated below, the Court ALLOWS the motion.

         II. Standard of Review

         The Court grants summary judgment where there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the undisputed facts demonstrate that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). “A fact is material if it carries with it the potential to affect the outcome of the suit under the applicable law.” Santiago-Ramos v. Centennial P.R. Wireless Corp., 217 F.3d 46, 52 (1st Cir. 2000) (quoting Sánchez v. Alvarado, 101 F.3d 223, 227 (1st Cir. 1996)). The movant bears the burden of demonstrating the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Carmona v. Toledo, 215 F.3d 124, 132 (1st Cir. 2000); see Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). If the movant meets its burden, the non-moving party may not rest on the allegations or denials in her pleadings, Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 256 (1986), but “must, with respect to each issue on which she would bear the burden of proof at trial, demonstrate that a trier of fact could reasonably resolve that issue in her favor.” Borges ex rel. S.M.B.W. v. Serrano- Isern, 605 F.3d 1, 5 (1st Cir. 2010) (“Borges”). “As a general rule, that requires the production of evidence that is ‘significant[ly] probative.'” Id. (quoting Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249) (alteration in original). The Court “view[s] the record in the light most favorable to the nonmovant, drawing reasonable inferences in his favor.” Noonan v. Staples, Inc., 556 F.3d 20, 25 (1st Cir. 2009).

         III. Factual Background

         The local rules for the District of Massachusetts require parties opposing summary judgment to provide “a concise statement of the material facts of record as to which it is contended that there exists a genuine issue to be tried, with page references to affidavits, depositions and other documentation.” D. Mass. L.R. 56.1. If the opposing party does not dispute the material facts of record as stated by the movant in accordance with Local Rule 56.1, they may be deemed admitted. Id. Plaintiffs have not disputed the material facts offered by Defendants and have not identified any specific admissible evidence supporting such disputes. See D. 54; D. 64[1] at 2-3. Accordingly, the Court deems the material facts offered by Defendants to be admitted. See Stonkus v. City of Brockton Sch. Dep't, 322 F.3d 97, 102 (1st Cir. 2003). Summers is the President of Jeffrey's House, a non-profit entity that operates four sober houses at 499 Water Street, 10 Burnett Street, 33 Garnett Street and 205/207 High Street in Fitchburg, Massachusetts. D. 54, ¶¶ 1-2. The sober houses offer living quarters to a group of people recovering from drug and/or alcohol addiction to provide peer support and maintain their sobriety. D. 54, ¶ 3.

         On February 2, 2013, the Worcester Telegram and Gazette Published an article about the 499 Water Street property after local health inspectors were not permitted to inspect the property. D. 54, ¶ 10. On April 17, 2013, Stephens, a Fitchburg health inspector, inspected the 499 Water Street house. D. 54, ¶ 12. After discovering numerous violations of Massachusetts sanitary code, Stephens sent Plaintiffs a letter describing the violations and that they must take action to correct them within thirty days of the notice. D. 54, ¶¶ 12-13. On May 13, 2013, Stephens and Moran, a Fitchburg building inspector, inspected 499 Water Street again and confirmed that most of the violations had been fixed, but some repair of handrails still needed to be completed. D. 54, ¶ 14. On August 21, 2013, Summers met with Stephens, Moran and Lanciani, the former Fitchburg Building Commissioner. D. 54, ¶ 15. Stephens, Moran and Lanciani told Summers that the sober houses were violating local zoning ordinances and asked him to cease operating them, which Summers refused to do. D. 54, ¶ 16. On September 11, 2013, Fitchburg officials inspected 499 Water Street again, confirming that all the issues identified in the April 2013 inspection had been corrected. D. 54, ¶ 17.

         On December 5, 2013, Fitchburg sent Summers a letter notifying him that the 10 Burnett Street house was being operated as a rooming or boarding house and was thus in violation of local zoning ordinances. D. 54, ¶ 18. On January 22, 2015, Fitchburg sent Summers another letter notifying him that the 33 Garnett Street house was also violating local zoning ordinances. D. 54, ¶ 19. After Summers took no action to correct these violations, Goldstein, the Assistant City Solicitor, filed an enforcement action in Worcester Housing Court. D. 54, ¶ 20. At a hearing addressing all outstanding violations in the sober houses, Summers asked that Fitchburg provide reasonable accommodation from the zoning laws on the basis of the residents' disabilities due to alcohol or drug dependency. D. 54, ¶¶ 21-22. Summers agreed to send a letter to Fitchburg, which he did on May 5, 2014, memorializing his request at the hearing and giving other information about the sober houses, including the number of occupants. D. 54, ¶¶ 23-24. On May 30, 2014, Lanciani sent a letter to Summers granting the reasonable accommodation request. D. 54, ¶ 25. Goldstein then voluntarily dismissed the pending action in Worcester Housing Court. Id.

         On July 10, 2014, Tata, a member of the Fitchburg Fire Prevention Bureau, sent Summers a letter informing him that three of the sober houses, classified as lodging homes, were required to install fire suppression or sprinkler systems under Mass. Gen. L. c. 148, § 26H (the “Sprinkler Law”), which requires lodging or boarding homes housing six or more individuals not within the second degree of kindred to the person conducting it to install a fire suppression system, D. 54, ¶ 26. The letter provided a six-month period to install the fire suppression system, consistent with the Sprinkler Law, but Plaintiffs did not install the system or appeal the determination. D. 54, ¶¶ 28-29. On February 20, 2015, Tata sent a second letter to Plaintiffs notifying them that they had been fined $1, 000 due to the failure to comply by installing a fire suppression system. D. 54, ¶ 30. Plaintiffs still did not install a fire suppression system, nor did they pay the fine, after which Goldstein began a new enforcement action in Worcester Housing Court on April 9, 2015. D. 54, ¶ 31. The housing court determined that Plaintiffs were obligated to comply with the Sprinkler Law by installing a fire suppression system in each of the sober houses. D. 54, ¶ 32.

         On July 17, 2015, at a subsequent hearing, Summers proposed lowering the occupancy of each of the sober houses to five or fewer people to become exempted from the requirements of the Sprinkler Law until the dispute could be fully adjudicated. D. 54, ¶ 33. On July 28, 2015, Goldstein sent Summers a letter asking that he memorialize this representation of his intent to lower the occupancy levels, and that he also agree to allow the Fire Department to conduct “sporadic inspections” to verify occupancy. D. 54, ¶ 34. Viewing the proposed inspections as a violation of the sober houses' occupants' rights as disabled individuals, Summers decided not lower the occupancy levels of the sober houses, and maintained his refusal to install fire suppression systems. D. 54, ¶¶ 35-37, 39. Summers represented to Goldstein in a phone call that he believed the inspections would be disruptive for the occupants and would potentially cause them anxiety due to their disabilities. D. 54, ¶ 37. Summers also viewed the cost of installing fire suppression systems, which he estimated to be between $35, 000 and $40, 000 per house, as prohibitive. D. 54, ¶ 38. Summers did not consider any alternative mechanism by which Fitchburg could be permitted to verify the proposed lowered occupancy levels. D. 54, ¶ 40.

         IV. Procedural History

         Plaintiffs instituted this action on September 14, 2015. D. 1. Plaintiffs filed an amended complaint (the “FAC”) on February 18, 2016. D. 18. On September 15, 2016, the Court allowed in part and denied in part Defendants' motion to dismiss the FAC, dismissing Plaintiffs' claims for attorney's fees and costs (Count I), abuse of process (Count II), private nuisance (FAC Count III), intentional infliction of emotional distress (Count VI), and interference with advantageous business relations (Count VII), leaving Counts IV and V as the only remaining claims. D. 31. On December 16, 2016, Plaintiffs filed a second amended complaint (“SAC”), which reasserted Counts I, II, IV, V, VI, and VII, [2] as well as a new claim for civil conspiracy to interfere with civil rights (SAC Count III). D. 44. The parties proceeded with discovery. The Court heard the parties on the pending motion and took this matter under advisement. D. 66.

         V. ...

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