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Sea Village Marina, LLC. v. A 1980 Carlcraft Houseboat

October 19, 2009

SEA VILLAGE MARINA, LLC., PLAINTIFF,
v.
A 1980 CARLCRAFT HOUSEBOAT, HULL ID NO. LMG37164M80D, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Simandle, District Judge

OPINION

This is one of those hard cases in which the Court must navigate the outer boundary of a foggy category. Plaintiff seeks to enforce maritime liens against four floating homes moored in Plaintiff's marina.*fn1 This matter is before the Court on its own motion to examine the question of whether the Court has subject matter jurisdiction in admiralty under 28 U.S.C. § 1333 [Docket Item 21]. To determine whether it has admiralty jurisdiction, the Court must decide whether the floating homes constitute vessels. The only precedent on point finds similar craft to be vessels, and these homes are not so permanently moored as to be stripped of that status. Therefore, the Court finds that it has subject matter jurisdiction.

I. BACKGROUND

Plaintiff, Sea View Marina LLC, operates a marina in Atlantic County, New Jersey. (Compl. ¶ 9.) The marina is on a waterway known as the Dock Thorofare, a channel off of Lakes Bay near Atlantic City that is part of the Atlantic Intercoastal Waterway.*fn2 (Id.) The marina provides dockage and "other necessaries" to the defendant floating homes, for which, Plaintiff alleges, it has not been paid.*fn3 (Id. ¶ 11.) Plaintiff therefore seeks a maritime lien against each houseboat pursuant to 46 U.S.C. § 31342 (2006).*fn4 (Id.)

Sea Village Marina is an uneasy hybrid between a condominium complex and a traditional marina, servicing primarily long-term occupants of floating homes. (Defs. Allen & Patterson Br. Opp. Admiralty Juris., Ex-1.) In part because the marina is neither fish nor fowl, it has been the continued subject of litigation and negotiation with Egg Harbor Township and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection over zoning, development, and clean water issues. (Defs. Allen & Patterson Br. Opp. Admiralty Juris., 2-5.) Plaintiff and the owners of the floating homes are involved in an ongoing dispute over rent and other habitability matters typical of a sour landlord-tenant relationship.*fn5 (Id.) To date, it appears that at least one action in state court was abandoned by Plaintiffs shortly after filing a complaint, and at least one mediation session has failed to resolve the conflict. (Id.) Plaintiff has now resorted to using a maritime lien to collect on the money it claims it is owed for allowing the floating homes to dock at the marina and for the provision of various services.

Upon reviewing the initial verified complaint alleging the maritime lien, this Court issued warrants for the arrest of the vessels on July 7, 2009 [Docket Item 4]. On July 28, 2009, two of the owners of the floating homes requested a post-arrest hearing [Docket Item 9] which was held two days later. At the hearing, Defendants objected to the exercise of subject matter jurisdiction in this matter, arguing that the floating homes were not vessels and diversity jurisdiction is also not present. The Court ordered that the owners be permitted to board and occupy their homes while they remained within the custody of the Court and without prejudice to Plaintiff's in rem claims, and ordered briefing from the parties on the issue of subject matter jurisdiction [Docket Item 21].

The threshold question is whether the floating homes constitute vessels for the purposes of § 31342. Defendants allege that, in addition to the floating homes failing to meet the definition of vessel, the Plaintiff's intent to treat the floating homes primarily as dwellings, and Plaintiff's use (or threatened use) of state law remedies should prevent it from obtaining a maritime lien.

There are four floating homes at issue here: two Mariner floating homes, custom-built elsewhere and towed into place, and two Carlcraft Houseboats, which are mass produced houseboats that have had their means of propulsion removed and were towed to the marina. All four floating homes are tied to the dock at Sea Village Marina with standard mooring lines, and connected to freshwater, waste water, and electrical systems.*fn6 (Pl.'s Br. Supp. Admiralty Juris., 3.) Plaintiff's marine surveyor alleges that all such connections can be easily removed without special tools. (Id.) According to the evidence so far provided to the Court, all four floating homes are indeed floating, at least when the tide is in.*fn7 (Id.) The two Mariner boats were towed through the water to their current location from Mays Landing, New Jersey. (Id. at 2.) Though neither has one installed, both are built to allow an outboard engine. (Id.) While seaworthiness of the vessels is disputed in the parties' briefs, the only evidence in the record on the issue of seaworthiness is the affidavit of Donald Rutherford, attesting that each home is "capable of being used as a mean [sic.] of transportation on water," (Pl's Br. Supp. Admiralty Juris., Ex-1), plus the fact that each was constructed to serve as a houseboat.

II. DISCUSSION

A. Subject Matter Jurisdiction v. Failure to State a Claim

Initially, the Court must decide whether the question raised as to the meaning of vessel is a jurisdictional question or a question going to the merits of Plaintiff's case. In the context of federal question jurisdiction, questions over whether a statutory term applies to the facts at issue are reserved for decision on the merits. See Growth Horizons, Inc. v. Delaware County, 983 F.2d 1277, 1280-81 (3d Cir. 1993). However, federal courts have universally treated the question of whether some craft constitutes a vessel as a jurisdictional question. See, e.g., Stewart v. Dutra Const. Co., 543 U.S. 481, 488 (2005); The n.1 (3d Cir. 1954).

The distinction in treatment may exist because the word vessel is not just part of the statutory cause of action; the fact that the object of the action is a vessel is the reason Congress granted federal courts jurisdiction over the issue. The word vessel in the maritime lien statute is similar to the requirement of scope of employment in the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) discussed in CNA v. U.S., 535 F.3d 132 (3d Cir. 2008). In CNA, the court held that questions about whether certain conduct was within an employee's scope of employment were properly handled as jurisdictional questions under the FTCA, even though it is the kind of question that would normally be reserved for the decision on the merits. Id. at 145. The Court found that the distinction between jurisdiction and merits under the FTCA was different from the distinction applied in normal federal question jurisdiction because the FTCA directly grants jurisdiction (by waiving sovereign immunity) in a way that ordinary statutes providing jurisdiction pursuant to § 1331 do not. Id. The requirement that the subject of a maritime lien be a vessel is closely analogous to the scope of employment requirement in the FTCA, since it is integral to the rationale for granting federal jurisdiction over the claims.

Because of the overwhelming precedent treating this issue as one of jurisdiction, and because of the rationale in CNA, the Court will evaluate vessel status as an issue of subject matter jurisdiction.

B. Standard of Review

The standard of review for a challenge to subject matter jurisdiction depends on whether the challenge is a facial or factual attack on the Court's jurisdiction over the complaint. If it is the former, the Plaintiff is entitled to have the allegations in the complaint taken as true for the purposes of testing jurisdiction; if it is the latter, the Court becomes a jurisdictional fact-finder and the burden of persuasion is on the Plaintiff. See, e.g., CNA v. U.S., 535 F.3d 132, 145 (3d Cir. 2008).

The question of whether these floating homes are vessels is a mixed question of fact and law, with both in dispute. Since the facts are at least partly in dispute, the Court will ...


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