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Donohue v. City of Methuen

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

November 21, 2018



          Leo T. Sorokin United States District Judge

         On August 16, 2018, plaintiffs Danielle Donohue and Lincolnshouse, LLC ("Lincolnshouse") moved for a preliminary injunction against defendants City of Methuen ("the City") and John. P. Gibney. Doc. No. 14. The defendants opposed, Doc. No. 21, to which the plaintiffs replied, Doc. No. 23.

         I. FACTS

         In October 2017, Donahue purchased the property at 10 Quincy Street in Methuen. Doc. No. 5 ¶ 7. In December 2017, Lincolnshouse began operating a sober house at the property. Id. ¶ 8. Shortly thereafter, the City began receiving complaints from the property's neighbors about its use as a sober house. Id. ¶ 10. After inspecting the property, on February 21, 2018, city officials sent Donohue a letter ordering her to cease and desist the operation of the sober house. Doc. No. 5-1. The letter alleged that the sober house was in violation of the local zoning ordinance, the state Building Code, and the state Sanitary Code because it lacked fire and smoke protection features and means of egress sufficient for the number of people occupying the property. Id.

         Lincolnshouse responded to the letter on February 22, stating its position that Massachusetts law requires that the sober house, because it is a "group of disabled individuals living together," must "be treated the same as a single-family for purposes of code, zoning, and fire safety laws." Doc. No. 5-2 at 1. On March 23, the City sent Donohue another letter informing her that it would evaluate her claims only if she applied for a building permit and that fines of $300 per day would otherwise begin to accrue on March 26. Doc. No. 5-3.

         Lincolnshouse timely appealed the second letter to the Building Code Appeals Board ("the BCAB"), a state agency that hears appeals from Building Code enforcement decisions, which held a hearing on May 3, 2018. Doc. No. 16 ¶ 14; see Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 143, § 100. On July 18, the BCAB issued a decision upholding the City's letter.[1] Doc. No. 16-5. The plaintiffs appealed that decision into state court on August 20, 2018. Doc. No. 23 at 5.

         On April 13, 2018, the plaintiffs brought this suit. Doc. No. 1. Their Amended Complaint, which states several state law claims and a claim under the federal Fair Housing Act, 42 U.S.C. § 3601 et seq., seeks damages and an injunction against the defendants. Doc. No. 5 at 7-10. The plaintiffs also moved for a preliminary injunction to prevent the defendants from "taking any action against [plaintiffs'] property . . . that is inconsistent with code, safety or zoning requirements that would be imposed upon a single-family occupancy with the same number of occupants." Doc. No. 14 at 1-2. The parties attended a mediation conducted by a United States Magistrate Judge from this Court in September but did not reach a settlement. Doc. No. 31. The Court held a hearing on the motion for preliminary injunction on November 19.


         "In determining whether to grant a preliminary injunction, the district court must consider: (i) the movant's likelihood of success on the merits of its claims; (ii) whether and to what extent the movant will suffer irreparable harm if the injunction is withheld; (iii) the balance of hardships as between the parties; and (iv) the effect, if any, that an injunction (or the withholding of one) may have on the public interest." Corp. Techs., Inc. v. Harnett, 731 F.3d 6, 9 (1st Cir. 2013). "The party seeking the preliminary injunction bears the burden of establishing that these four factors weigh in its favor." Esso Standard Oil Co. (P.R.) v. Monroig-Zayas, 445 F.3d 13, 18 (1st Cir. 2006).


         The plaintiffs contend that the defendants' application of the state Building Code to their property constitutes unlawful discrimination because the City has imposed requirements on their use of the property that it would not impose on a single-family home. Doc. No. 15 at 8. The plaintiffs argue that such requirements violate the Massachusetts Zoning Act, Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 40A, § 3 ("the Zoning Act"), which provides in relevant part that

[n]otwithstanding any general or special law to the contrary, local land use and health and safety laws, regulations, practices, ordinances, by-laws and decisions of a city or town shall not discriminate against a disabled person. Imposition of health and safety laws or land-use requirements on congregate living arrangements among non-related persons with disabilities that are not imposed on families and groups of similar size or other unrelated persons shall constitute discrimination. The provisions of this paragraph shall apply to every city or town, including, but not limited to the city of Boston and the city of Cambridge.

         The plaintiffs argue that this provision preempts the state Building Code insofar as its application to the sober house as a "congregate living arrangement[] among non-related persons with disabilities" differs from its application to "families and groups of similar size." Doc. No. 15 at 8. Defendants disagree and argue that this provision of the Zoning Act "has no such universal preclusive effect." Doc. No. 22 at 10.

         The defendants further argue that this Court may not review the plaintiffs' claims because it must give preclusive effect to the earlier BCAB decision. Id. at 7. Federal courts consider the preclusive effect of state court judgment using the preclusion principles of that state. Goldstein v. Galvin,719 F.3d 16, 22-23 (1st Cir. 2013). "Under Massachusetts law, 'claim preclusion makes a valid, final judgment conclusive on the parties and their privies, and prevents relitigation of all matters that were or could have been adjudicated in the action.'" Id. at 22-23 (quoting Kobrin v. Bd. of Resist, in Med., 832 N.E.2d 628, 634 (Mass. 2005)). "It is based on the idea that the party to be precluded has had the incentive and opportunity to litigate the matter fully in the first lawsuit." O'Neill v. City Manager of Cambridge, 700 N.E.2d 530, 532 (Mass. 1998). Issue preclusion, on the other hand, "prevents relitigation of an issue determined in an earlier action where the same issue ...

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