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Wilson v. Hillsborough Township (Construction/Building Department & Tax Assessor)

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

December 4, 2018

GWENDOLYN WILSON, Plaintiff,
v.
HILLSBOROUGH TOWNSHIP (CONSTRUCTION/BUILDING DEPARTMENT AND TAX ASSESSOR), Defendants.

          OPINION

          Freda L. Wolfson United States District Judge.

         This matter comes before the Court on Defendants Township of Hillsborough (“Hillsborough Township”), Hillsborough Township Construction/Building Department, and Hillsborough Township Tax Assessor's (cumulatively, “Defendants”) motion to dismiss pro se Plaintiff Gwendolyn Wilson's (“Plaintiff”) First Amended Complaint, wherein Plaintiff seeks to hold Defendants vicariously liable for alleged discriminatory conduct in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983, on the part of certain unnamed municipal employees. For the reasons set forth below, the motion to dismiss is GRANTED. However, Plaintiff is given leave to amend her First Amended Complaint, consistent with the dictates of this Opinion, within thirty (30) days from the date of the Order accompanying this decision.

         I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Plaintiff purchased a residence in Hillsborough Township, Somerset County, in January of 1996. Hillsborough Township is described as a municipal corporation duly incorporated in New Jersey, wherein its principal place of business is located. Amended Complaint (“Am. Compl.”), Defendant/Hillsborough Township Construction/Building Department, ¶ 15. Defendants Hillsborough Township Construction/Building Department and Hillsborough Township Tax Assessor are alleged to operate and serve as agents for Hillsborough Township. The former administers the New Jersey Uniform Construction Codes, while the latter is responsible for assessing the value of all property located within Hillsborough Township. Id., Hillsborough Township Tax Assessor, ¶ 16.

         Plaintiff alleges that, beginning in 1996, Defendants have subjected Plaintiff to a “racially hostile environment” for a period of over two decades, through the “unconstitutional usage of construction/building permits[.]” Id., Preliminary Statement, ¶ 1, Statement of Facts, ¶ 1. Specifically, shortly after purchasing her residence, Plaintiff alleges that she hired H&J Home Inspection Inc. to evaluate its condition, and, in turn, retained a private contractor to complete “major” structural renovations. Id., History of Plaintiff's Home, ¶¶ 2A, 3. The structural renovations pertained to the roof as well as other aspects of Plaintiff's residence, for which Defendants issued various construction permits. Id., ¶ 3. Following their completion, Plaintiff alleges that Defendants were required to inspect her residence in order to “approve” or “reject” the renovations and “close out” the outstanding permits, as mandated by the New Jersey Administrative Code. Id., ¶¶ 3-4. However, Defendants allegedly failed to comply with this obligation; instead, three years later, Defendants issued a “Certificate of Approval” for the alleged purpose of “increas[ing] Plaintiff's property tax assessment.” Id., ¶ 4.

         Despite issuing a Certificate of Approval, Plaintiff asserts that her contractor's renovations were actually improperly completed, and therefore, defective. Id. Moreover, as a result of these deficiencies, Plaintiff contacted Defendants in order for them to “reject the substandard work, ” for the purpose of requiring her contractor to correct or re-perform the renovations to her residence. Id. However, “despite [Plaintiff's] numerous attempts” to achieve this end, she alleges that Defendants refused to inspect her residence and to render a final decision which “either accept[ed] or reject[ed] the” completed renovations. Id. Rather, Defendants allowed the construction permits to remain open, “year after year.” Id.

         Ultimately, in 2006, the “problems” with Plaintiffs roof became too severe, and she was required to contract with Home Depot for the purpose of replacing the one which her contractor originally installed. Id., ¶ 5. Home Depot completed the work in approximately eight days; however, upon a final inspection, on July 17, 2006, Defendants concluded that the new renovations failed to comply with applicable construction codes. Despite that determination, Plaintiff asserts that she was never informed of the results of the final inspection until approximately nine years later, on January 14, 2015. Id., ¶ 6. As a consequence of Defendants' failure to provide earlier notice, Plaintiff alleges that she was “deprived [of] the legal right to force [Home Depot] to repair or to replace the failed roof.” Id.

         On January 14, 2017, Plaintiff filed the instant action against Defendants. Although the Honorable Peter G. Sheridan, U.S.D.J., originally presided over this case, before whom various proceedings occurred, ultimately, he recused himself and I was subsequently assigned the matter. On November 7, 2017, an Order was entered by Judge Sheridan dismissing Plaintiffs claims which arose before 2015 as time barred by the applicable statute of limitations, and Plaintiff was granted leave to amend her Complaint. On February 20, 2018, Plaintiff filed her First Amended Complaint, subsequent to which Plaintiff also filed a significant number of frivolous motions. However, for the reasons explained infra, they either need not be addressed or discussed in substance.[1]

         In the First Amended Complaint, Plaintiff asserts four counts against Defendants, arising from their alleged discriminatory conduct towards, and targeting of, Plaintiff on the basis of her race. In Count I, Plaintiff alleges that Defendants acted in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment and conspired against Plaintiff, without providing further details. Id., First Cause of Action. In Count II, Plaintiff alleges violations of the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and asserts that Defendants engaged in retaliatory conduct, through the “illegal use of the Building Permit and Tax Assessment Process[.]” Id., Second Cause of Action. In Count III, Plaintiff alleges violations of the Fair Housing Act, based on Defendants' alleged deprivation “of the safeguards and protection of [Plaintiff's] building permits, ” including: (a) “refusing to inspect”; (b) “approving inspections without adhering to the required standards of law”; and (c) “issuing approvals without inspections[.]” Id., Third Cause of Action. Finally, in Count IV, Plaintiff alleges violations of the Fourth Amendment, as a result of Hillsborough Township's illegal inspection of Plaintiff's home. Id., Fourth Cause of Action.

         Currently, Defendants move to dismiss Plaintiff's First Amended Complaint, arguing, inter alia, that Plaintiff cannot maintain a cause of action against Hillsborough Township for the alleged conduct of its unnamed employees through a theory of respondent superior, pursuant to the Supreme Court's decision in Monell v. Department of Social Services of the City of New. Defendants additionally contend that the claims asserted against both Hillsborough Township Construction/Building Department and Hillsborough Township Tax Assessor cannot stand, because these are not separate legal entities against which Plaintiff can file suit. Plaintiff opposes the motion.[2]

         II. DISCUSSION

         A. Standard of Review

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) provides that a court may dismiss a claim “for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). When reviewing a motion to dismiss, courts must first separate the factual and legal elements of the claims, and accept all of the well-pleaded facts as true. See Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 210-11 (3d Cir. 2009). All reasonable inferences must be made in the plaintiff's favor. See In re Ins. Brokerage Antitrust Litig., 618 F.3d 300, 314 (3d Cir. 2010). In order to survive a motion to dismiss, the plaintiff must provide “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). This standard requires the plaintiff to show “more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully, ” but does not create as high of a standard as to be a “probability requirement.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009).

         The Third Circuit requires a three-step analysis to meet the plausibility standard mandated by Twombly and Iqbal. First, the court should “outline the elements a plaintiff must plead to a state a claim for relief.” Bistrian v. Levi, 696 F.3d 352, 365 (3d Cir. 2012). Next, the court should “peel away” legal conclusions that are not entitled to the assumption of truth. Id.;see also Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678-79 (“While legal conclusions can provide the framework of a complaint, they must be supported by factual allegations.”). It is well-established that a proper complaint “requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555 (internal quotations and citations omitted). Finally, the court should assume the veracity of all well-pled factual allegations, and then “determine whether they plausibly give rise to an entitlement to relief.” Bistrian, 696 F.3d at 365 (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679). A claim is facially plausible when there is sufficient factual content to draw ...


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