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Harr, LLC v. Town of Northfield

United States District Court, D. Vermont

November 1, 2019

HARR, LLC, Plaintiff,
v.
TOWN OF NORTHFIELD, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER GRANTING DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR JUDGMENT ON THE PLEADINGS (DOC. 15)

          CHRISTINA REISS, DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiff HARR, LLC, owner of the Northfield Falls Mobile Home Park ("the Park"), brings this action against Defendant Town of Northfield alleging that the placement of liens upon Plaintiffs property for unpaid electrical bills accrued by Plaintiffs mobile home tenants violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, and the Takings Clause of the Vermont Constitution.[1]

         Pending before the court is Defendant's May 8, 2019 motion for judgment on the pleadings. (Doc. 15.) Plaintiff opposed the motion on June 21, 2019. Defendant replied on July 2, 2019, at which time the court took the pending motion under advisement.

         Plaintiff is represented by David R. Bookchin, Esq. Defendant is represented by Michael J. Leddy, Esq., and Kevin J. Coyle, Esq.

         I. The Complaint's Allegations.

         Plaintiff is a limited liability corporation that owns the Park located in Northfield, Vermont. Plaintiff leases lots in the Park to tenants, who are permitted to "situate and reside in mobile homes (not owned by [Plaintiff]) in the Park, subject to terms and conditions agreed upon by the respective tenants and [Plaintiff] in a mobile home lot lease agreement, and applicable laws and regulations." (Doc. 1 at 1-2, ¶ 6.)

         Defendant operates the Northfield Electric Department ("NED"), which furnishes electrical utilities and services to customers in the towns of Northfield, Moretown, and Berlin, Vermont, including to tenants residing in the Park. NED's operations are governed by Subchapter 4 of Defendant's Town Charter (the "Town Charter"), which provides in relevant part:

The charges and rates for electric service shall be a lien upon real estate, wherever located, furnished with such service in the same manner and to the same effect as taxes are a lien upon real estate under 32 V.S.A. § 5061. The owner of such property furnished with electric service, wherever located, shall be liable for such charges and rates.

24A V.S.A. § 129C-402(b) (the "Lien Provision").

         Plaintiff alleges that in 2015, Christina D. Michaud owned and resided in a mobile home at One Second Street, Lot Thirty-One in the Park; Edward and Wanda Stone (collectively, the "Stones") owned and resided in a mobile home at Thirty-Five First Street, Lot Twenty in the Park; and Gregg Booth and Brandi Brunell owned and resided in a mobile home at Twenty-One Fourth Street, Lot Forty-Five in the Park. In 2016, Marissa and Jason Greene (collectively, the "Greenes") owned and resided in a mobile home at Four First Street, Lot Sixteen in the Park. In 2018, Wayne Skiffington resided in a mobile home at Ninety-Nine Northfield Falls Mobile Park, Lot Five in the Park.[2] The foregoing individuals (collectively, the "Park Residents") owned their mobile homes as their personal property. Their mobile homes were not a fixture of the Park.

         Each Park Resident submitted an application and was approved as an electrical utility customer of NED. Thereafter, NED provided electrical utilities and services to the Park Residents' mobile homes for which they were billed on a monthly basis. Plaintiff alleges that it was neither a co-applicant nor a guarantor of the Park Residents' NED accounts. At an unspecified time, the Park Residents each became delinquent on his, her or their NED electric account. Thereafter, NED continued to provide the Park Residents with electric utilities and services and allowed their delinquent account balances to accrue.

         On or about January 29, 2015, after Ms. Michaud vacated her mobile home and removed it from the Park, Defendant placed a lien in the amount of $540.77 on Plaintiffs property in the Park for the electric utilities and services NED provided to Ms. Michaud at her mobile home. On or about October 29, 2015, after the Stones vacated their mobile home, Defendant placed a lien in the amount of $575.82 on Plaintiffs property in the Park for the electric utilities and services NED provided to the Stones at their mobile home.

         On or about January 29, 2016, Defendant placed a lien in the amount of $588.90 on Plaintiffs property in the Park for the electric utilities and services NED provided to Mr. Booth at the mobile home in which Mr. Booth and Ms. Brunell resided. In 2016, NED approved and opened a new electrical account for Ms. Brunell and continued to provide electric services to the mobile home occupied by Mr. Booth and Ms. Brunell.

         On or about July 27, 2016, after the Greenes vacated and sold their mobile home to a new owner in the Park, Defendant placed a lien in the amount of $1, 042.07 on Plaintiffs property in the Park for the electric utilities and services NED provided to the Greenes at their mobile home. On or about October 29, 2018, after Mr. Skiffington vacated and abandoned the mobile home where he resided, Defendant placed a lien in the amount of $285.70 on Plaintiffs property in the Park for the electric utilities and services NED provided to Mr. Skiffington at his former mobile home.

         II. Conclusions of Law and Analysis.

         A. Standard of Review.

         "In deciding a Rule 12(c) motion, [the court] employ[s] the same standard applicable to dismissals pursuant to Fed. R Civ. P. 12(b)(6)." Hayden v. Paterson, 594 F.3d 150, 160 (2d Cir. 2010) (internal quotation marks omitted). The sufficiency of a plaintiffs complaint is evaluated using a "two-pronged approach[.]" Id. at 161 (internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 679 (2009)). First, the court discounts legal conclusions and "[t]hreadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements[.]" Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678. Second, the court considers whether the factual allegations, taken as true, "plausibly give rise to an entitlement to relief." Id. at 679. "A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Id. at 678. The court does not "weigh the evidence" or "evaluate the likelihood" that a plaintiff will prevail on his or her claims. Christiansen v. Omnicom Grp., Inc., 852 F.3d 195, 201 (2d Cir. 2017); see also Kardovich v. Pfizer, Inc., 97 F.Supp.3d 131, 140 (E.D.N.Y. 2015) ("[I]ssues of fact, credibility, and the weight of the evidence are not properly considered on a motion to dismiss[.]").

         B. Whether Plaintiff Plausibly States a Claim Under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment (Count II).

         In Count II of the Complaint, Plaintiff alleges that Defendant's Town Charter "creates two classes of property owners who lease their property to tenants: 1) property owners whose tenants pay their NED bills on time; and 2) property owners whose tenants are delinquent on their NED bills." (Doc. 1 at 5, ¶ 33.) Plaintiff contends that Defendant "singles out property owners whose tenants are delinquent on their NED bills as a class that the Town can burden with liens on their real property" and that Defendant has "no rational basis justifying the creation of these classes of property owners who are being held accountable for the debts of third parties[.]" Id. at 5, ¶ 34.

         Defendant responds that the Town Charter does not distinguish between property owners whose tenants pay their NED bills on time and those whose tenants do not, but rather distinguishes between landlords and tenants in setting forth a Lien Provision that is rationally related to a legitimate government purpose of ensuring debt collection for public utilities. Plaintiff does not dispute Defendant's assertion that the rational-basis test applies to Plaintiffs equal protection claim. See Armour v. City of Indianapolis, Ind., 566 U.S. 673, 680 (2012) ("We have made clear . . . that, where 'ordinary commercial transactions' are at issue, rational basis review requires deference to reasonable underlying legislative judgments.") (quoting United States v. Carolene Prods. Co., 304 U.S. 144, 152(1938)).

         "[A] classification neither involving fundamental rights nor proceeding along suspect lines is accorded a strong presumption of validity." Heller v. Doe by Doe,509 U.S. 312, 319 (1993). "Such a classification cannot run afoul of the Equal Protection Clause if there is a rational relationship between the disparity of treatment and some legitimate governmental purpose." Id. ...


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