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Muraveva v. City of Wildwood

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

December 18, 2018

LIUDMILA M. MURAVEVA, Plaintiff,
v.
CITY OF WILDWOOD, et al., Defendants.

          Peter M. Kober, Esq. KOBER LAW FIRM Attorney for Plaintiff

          James R. Birchmeier, Esq. BIRCHMEIER & POWELL LLC Attorney for Defendant

          OPINION

          JEROME B. SIMANDLE U.S. DISTRICT JUDGE

         I. INTRODUCTION

         Plaintiff Luidmila Muraveva (“Plaintiff”) brings this action against Defendants City of Wildwood, Ronald Harwood (“Harwood”), and Steven Booy (“Booy”), [1] alleging a variety of claims arising from actions taken by Defendants involving a property owned by Plaintiff. According to Plaintiff, these actions infringed upon her Fourteenth Amendment substantive due process rights and/or constituted retaliation for exercise of Plaintiff's First Amendment rights. The context of this dispute arises from regulatory procedures followed by Defendants in investigating whether Plaintiff was maintaining a rooming house, rather than an apartment house, contrary to municipal ordinances. Pending before the Court is Defendants' motion for summary judgment, which, for the reasons discussed below, will be granted in its entirety.

         II. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         A. Factual Background[2]

         Plaintiff Luidmila Muraveva has lived at 145 East Roberts Avenue in Wildwood, New Jersey since December 2007. (Pl. Dep. [Docket Item 21-1 at 18-35] at 7:17-21.) Her husband, Clayton Smith, passed away on February 23, 2014. (Id. at 23:6-11.) She has been the legal owner of the property since 2016. (Id. at No. 12:15-13-3.)

         1. The February - April 2015 property inspections and citations

         The property at 145 East Roberts Avenue has two buildings comprised of three units: a front building with one first-floor unit and a second unit consisting of the second and third floors, and a back building that is its own unit. (Id. at 10:5-9; 13:23-14:13.) According to an April 17, 2012 letter signed by Plaintiff and her husband (since deceased), the property is a “legal triplex, ” and “[t]he first floor is rented as one unit and the second and third floor are rented as one unit, ” while the third unit (the back building) is “owner occupied.” (April 17, 2012 Letter [Docket Item 21-1 at 42].)

         Since 2009, Plaintiff has lived in the back building and rented out the front building. (Pl. Dep. at 8:5-21; 23:6-8.) Plaintiff does not always rent out the front building, however. For example, each year, her son would stay in the second floor when he visited from Russia. (Id. at 9:1-10:4.) Plaintiff also testified that, because she was denied a “mercantile license” by the City of Wildwood between January and June of 2015 (id. at 64:1-12), not in dispute in this case, she did not recall renting out the front building to anyone during this time. (Id. at 18:7-10; 65:17-23.)

         In February 2015, Plaintiff visited Wildwood City Hall to schedule an annual fire inspection of her property. (Id. at 26:14-27:15.) On February 12, 2015, the inspection was conducted by Defendant Harwood, a Fire Official and Fire & Housing Official for the City of Wildwood. (Harwood Dep. [Docket Item 21-1 at 50-64] at 5:18-19; 15:1-8.) Defendant Harwood testified that his inspection revealed there were dead bolts and “hasps”[3]located on the exterior of all interior bedroom doors and the doors going to the third floor, which violated the Wildwood City Fire Code. (Id. at 16:13-17:7.) Plaintiff disputes that there were ever locks on the bedroom doors, other than “knob locks”[4]that were original to the front building. (Pl. Dep. at 20:17-21:13; 24:6-7; 39:11-13.) Such individual bedroom locks could evidence that the bedrooms in these apartments were individually keyed and rented, i.e., that the front property may be a rooming house.

         Defendant Harwood testified that because he observed exterior locks on the interior bedroom doors and doors leading to the third floor, he believed Plaintiff might be operating the front building as a non-permitted “rooming house, ” that is, she was renting out each bedroom individually. (Harwood Dep. at 27:6-28:12.) Sometime after the February 12th inspection, Defendant Harwood met in person with Defendant Booy, a Zoning Officer for the City of Wildwood, to relay this information. (Id. at 23:14-19.)

         Based on his conversation with Defendant Harwood, Defendant Booy issued a Notice of Violations and Order to Correct to Plaintiff. (Booy Dep. [Docket Item 21-1 at 70-87] at 42:13-45:6.) On March 2, 2015, Plaintiff received by mail the Notice of Violations and Order to Correct (Pl. Dep. at 33:22-36:10), which indicated that “interior deadbolts prohibited” on “all bedroom doors and going to the third bedroom, ” and directed Plaintiff to “[a]bate by” March 14, 2015. (See First Notice of Violations and Order to Correct [Docket Item 21-1 at 43-44].) The following day, Plaintiff responded by letter to the Wildwood Fire Department and Defendant Harwood, explaining why she did not believe she had violated the Wildwood City Fire Code. (See March 3, 2015 Letter [Docket Item 21-1 at 45].) Plaintiff also called Defendant Booy to question why she had received the Notice. (Booy Dep. at 45:4-12.) Defendant Booy testified that, during this conversation, he requested access to Plaintiff's property to determine whether she was operating the front building as a rooming house, which Plaintiff refused to grant, but he does not recall what else was discussed with Plaintiff. (Id. at 45:13-46:25.)

         On March 3, 2015, Defendant Booy sent Plaintiff a letter memorializing his telephone conversation with her as follows:

After receiving my initial notice of violation dated 2/13/15 you contacted me to discuss that notice. You have stated that the keyed locks that are installed on the interior doors are original to the property, and that therefore they should not need to be removed. At that point I told you that I would need to inspect the property in order to make a determination as to whether the door hardware needed to be replaced, but that renting individual rooms was not permitted regardless of the original character of the locks on the doors. You responded by informing me that you would speak with your attorney and call me back to schedule an inspection. To date, I have received no response.

(March 3, 2015 Letter [Docket Item 21-1 at 89].) Defendant Booy further noted: “This letter shall serve as formal notice that an inspection at the above listed property is required. You must contact me within 10 days from the date of this notice in order to schedule an inspection. Failure to do so will result in a summons being issued.” (Id.)

         Defendant Harwood subsequently conducted a follow-up inspection of Plaintiff's property and saw the same violations with the bedroom door locks he previously observed. (Harwood Dep. at 34:12-21.) On March 16, 2015, Plaintiff received a second Notice of Violations and Order to Correct from Defendant Harwood addressing the same alleged lock-related violations, with instructions to “[a]bate by” April 16, 2015. (See Second Notice of Violations and Order to Correct [Docket Item 21-1 at 65-66].) That same day, Defendant Booy issued a Summons to Plaintiff for illegal operation of a rooming house, in violation of Wildwood Municipal Ordinance No. 72808, Section 409D.[5] (See Summons [Docket Item 21-1 at 46].)

         On April 13, 2015, Defendant Harwood conducted a third inspection of Plaintiff's property. (Id. at 39:25-40:5; Harwood Dep. at 42:12-43-2.) Defendant Harwood testified that, upon reinspection, Plaintiff had removed the dead bolts from the interior of the exterior door bedrooms (Harwood Dep. at 47:6-9), and he “did away with her fine and everything [because] [s]he abated the situation on my inspection.” (Id. at 44:12-14.) A subsequently prepared Inspection Report[6] indicates that the April 13th inspection began at 11:21 and ended at 11:22, and notes “VIOLATION ABATED ON ALL DOORS WAIVE PENALTY.” (April 13, 2015 Inspection Report [Docket Item 21-1 at 67].) Plaintiff maintains that she did not make any changes to the locks between February and April 2015, and that Defendant Harwood never inspected the second or third floors of the front building during his April 13th reinspection. (Pl. Dep. at 40:19-41:18.)

         Plaintiff hired an attorney, Joe Grassi, Esq. (Pl. Dep. at 39:17-24.) On April 15, 2015, Mr. Grassi appeared on Plaintiff's behalf in Wildwood City Municipal Court. (April 15, 2015 Transcript [Docket Item 21-1 at 47-49].) During this hearing, Prosecutor Ron Gelzunas moved to dismiss the Summons “without prejudice subject to at least one further inspection to ensure that the compliance is genuine and will remain in compliance . . . within the next 90 days.” (Id. at 2:21-3:4.) The Municipal Court dismissed the matter without prejudice (id. at 3:16-19), and the City of Wildwood subsequently issued Plaintiff a fire inspection certificate for the 2015 year. (Pl. Dep. at 65:2-4.)

         2. The April 2016 incident

         Plaintiff testified that on April 9, 2016 she was threatened with imminent bodily harm by an African American tenant who had been staying at the property without Plaintiff's permission. (Pl. Dep. at 59:22-60:19.) According to Plaintiff, she called the Wildwood Police and told them this man “is threatening to kill me.” (Id. at 60:20-23.) Plaintiff testified that the police responded to her call, but “didn't remove him” and “did nothing.” (Id. at 60:24-25.) Instead, the police told Plaintiff she could not go into the house while the tenant stayed there. (Id. at 60:25-61:3.) Plaintiff also testified that one officer gave her a ticket “for letting my tenants out in the middle of the road because he was African American, ” and that she did not remember the Wildwood Police Officers' names, except she believed one was named “Williams or something like this.” (Id. at 61:6-11.) Neither of the Individual Defendants is a member of the Wildwood Police Department, and Plaintiff produced no evidence linking them to the alleged April 2016 incident.

         3. The June 2016 municipal court hearing

         On June 10, 2016, Plaintiff appeared in Wildwood City Municipal Court to dispute a ticket she had received from the Wildwood Police Department for hitting another car in a private parking lot. (Id. at 57:4-15.) According to Plaintiff, “Wildwood Police gave me a ticket on private parking lot. Even by law they shouldn't do it with appearance in the Court. They shouldn't give me a ticket on private parking lot with appearance in court. This was the case why I was in the court in [June].” (Id. at 56:14-19.) At this Wildwood City Municipal Court hearing, Plaintiff alleges she made a request for a Russian interpreter, which was denied by “a judge with a Spanish name . . . [like] Gonzalez or something.” (Id. at 57:19-58-4.) Plaintiff had no witnesses, was found guilty, and paid the ticket. (Id. at 58:6-7.) Neither of the Individual Defendants is alleged to have a connection to the parking lot incident, the police officer's issuance of a summons, or the Municipal Court appearance.

         4. Other incidents involving Plaintiff and City of Wildwood

         According to Plaintiff, “[b]efore February 12, 2015, City of Wildwood officials harassed my husband and myself and tried to put [] us out of business on the account we rented to low income people.” (Pl. Dep. at 49:19-50:7) (citing Pl. Answers to Interrog.). These incidents from 2011-2014 involving Plaintiff and the City of Wildwood are summarized as follows:

• On August 5, 2011, Plaintiff was arrested for disorderly conduct in violation of N.J.S.A. § 2C:33-2a(1), and she later sued the arresting officer, Shawn Toffoli, the City of Wildwood, and the City of Wildwood Police Department for false arrest pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Muraveva v. Toffoli, No. 13-4665 (D.N.J. filed on August 2, 2013). Following a three-day jury trial, the jury returned a verdict in favor of the defendant; Plaintiff appealed, and the Third Circuit affirmed. Muraveva v. Toffoli, 70 Fed.Appx. 131, 132 (3d Cir. Sept. 26, 2017). In Plaintiff's words, the fact that she was arrested by the Wildwood City Police Department in 2011 is related to the alleged harassment at issue in this case years later because, according to Plaintiff, the reason she was arrested was because she and her husband rented to low income people. (Pl. Dep. at 52:17-23; see also Id. at 51:23-52:4 (“I'm one of dirt bag how [Mayor Ernie Troiano] called us landlords who rent to low class people dirt bag. This is our name. Dirt bag.”).
• In January 2012, Plaintiff and her husband were cited by the City of Wildwood for having locks on the bedroom doors on the second and third floor, and for renting out bedrooms individually. (Id. at 23:19-24:21.) A reinspection subsequently noted that the key locks were removed, and the units were being occupied. (Id. at 24:22-25:2.) Plaintiff denies this: “Nothing was removed. This was knob locks. We didn't touch any locks. We never removed them. They always had them. This was conversation. This was fight about.” (Id. at 25:6-9.)
• In March and April 2014, Plaintiff was also cited by the City of Wildwood “with respect to repair gutters what I don't have and to paint exterior walls what is vinyl siding.” (Id. at 23:6-11.)

         On March 19, 2016, Plaintiff also filed another lawsuit in this Court against the City of Wildwood and others alleging a variety of claims arising from the unfortunate death of her husband, Clayton Smith. Estate of Clayton Smith v. City of Wildwood, No. 16-925-JBS-JS (D.N.J. filed on March 22, 2016). This Court recently issued a decision denying the defendants' motion for summary judgment in part. Estate of Clayton Smith v. City of Wildwood, 2018 WL 4639182 (D.N.J. Sept. 27, 2018). ...


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