West v. Southern Management Corp. et al
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Judge Richard D. Bennett on 12/19/2016. (kw2s, Deputy Clerk)(c/m 12/19/16)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE DISTRICT OF MARYLAND
VESTA ROMAINE WEST,
Civil Action No. RDB-16-879
CORP., et al.,
Plaintiff Vesta Romaine West (“plaintiff” or “West”) has filed a pro se Complaint
alleging that defendant Southern Management Corp. (“SMC”) and its agents David Hillman,
Judson Kerr, and Carrie Doe (collectively, “defendants”) unlawfully discriminated and
conspired against her by refusing to receive her application to lease an apartment at a
property managed by defendants.1 (ECF No. 1.)
Two motions are now pending before this Court: (1) plaintiff’s Motion for Summary
Judgment (“Plaintiff’s Motion”) (ECF No. 12); and (2) defendants’ Motion to Dismiss
(“Defendants’ Motion”) (ECF No. 15). The parties’ submissions have been reviewed, and
no hearing is necessary. See Local Rule 105.6 (D. Md. 2016). For the reasons stated below,
1 The Court notes that plaintiff filed a similar action against defendants in August 2005. See West v. Southern
Mgmt. Corp., et al., RDB-05-2247. The parties stipulated to dismissal of that case on January 11, 2006 (ECF
No. 24), and the case was closed on January 13, 2006.
Nearly ten years later, beginning in April 2015, plaintiff began filing a series of papers in the closed RDB-052247 case. See ECF Nos. 26, 28, and 29. None of the motions had the effect of re-opening or in any way
modifying the prior case.
Plaintiff filed her Complaint in the instant case, RDB-16-879, on March 23, 2016. (ECF No. 1.)
Plaintiff’s Motion is DENIED, Defendants’ Motion is GRANTED, and this case is
In February of 2016, plaintiff contacted SMC to inquire about leasing an apartment at
SMC’s “39 West Lexington” property in Baltimore, Maryland. (ECF No. 1 at 2.) SMC
initially notified plaintiff that because she previously vacated her lease at 39 West Lexington
with a balance owed to SMC, she would not be able to return as a tenant. (Id.) SMC later
confirmed this message in a letter dated February 26, 2016. (ECF No. 1-2 at 3.) In its letter,
SMC explained that because “on each of the three prior occasions you lived in a [SMC]
apartment, you vacated the leased premises leaving a debt due and owing, which [SMC] had
to pursue in collections,” SMC “is not willing to receive your application to become a
leaseholder at any of its apartment communities.” (Id.)
Less than one month after receiving SMC’s letter, plaintiff filed her Complaint in this
Court. (ECF No. 1.) In her Complaint, plaintiff alleges that SMC unlawfully discriminated
against her based on her “known mental illness.” (Id. at 2.) Plaintiff does not identify her
“known mental illness” anywhere in her Complaint.
In addition, plaintiff alleges that
defendants “have entered into a civil conspiracy” against her by altering their leasing policies
so as to prevent plaintiff from obtaining a fourth leasehold from SMC. (Id.)
STANDARDS OF REVIEW
Motion for Summary Judgment Pursuant to Rule 56
Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides that a court “shall grant
summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material
fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c). A
material fact is one that “might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law.”
Libertarian Party of Va. v. Judd, 718 F.3d 308, 313 (4th Cir. 2013) (quoting Anderson v. Liberty
Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). Thus, summary judgment is proper “only when no
‘reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.’” Monon Corp. v. Stoughton
Trailers, Inc., 239 F.3d 1253, 1257 (Fed. Cir. 2001) (quoting Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255)). When
considering a motion for summary judgment, a judge’s function is limited to determining
whether sufficient evidence exists on a claimed factual dispute to warrant submission of the
matter to a jury for resolution at trial. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249.
In undertaking this inquiry, this Court must consider the facts and all reasonable
inferences in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Libertarian Party of Va., 718
F.3d at 312; see also Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 378 (2007). However, this Court must also
abide by its affirmative obligation to prevent factually unsupported claims and defenses from
going to trial. Drewitt v. Pratt, 999 F.2d 774, 778-79 (4th Cir. 1993). If the evidence
presented by the nonmoving party is merely colorable, or is not significantly probative,
summary judgment must be granted. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249-50. On the other hand, a
party opposing summary judgment must “do more than simply show that there is some
metaphysical doubt as to the material facts.” Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp.,
475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986); see also In re Apex Express Corp., 190 F.3d 624, 633 (4th Cir. 1999).
As this Court has previously explained, a “party cannot create a genuine dispute of material
fact through mere speculation or compilation of inferences.” Shin v. Shalala, 166 F. Supp. 2d
373, 375 (D. Md. 2001) (citations omitted).
Motion to Dismiss Pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6)
Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure authorizes the dismissal of a
complaint if it fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. Fed. R. Civ. P.
12(b)(6). The purpose of Rule 12(b)(6) is “to test the sufficiency of a complaint and not to
resolve contests surrounding the facts, the merits of a claim, or the applicability of defenses.”
Presley v. City of Charlottesville, 464 F.3d 480, 483 (4th Cir. 2006); see also Goines v. Valley Cmty.
Servs. Bd., 822 F.3d 159, 165-66 (4th Cir. 2016). The sufficiency of a complaint is assessed by
reference to the pleading requirements of Rule 8(a)(2), which provides that a complaint must
contain a “short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to
relief.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a)(2).
To survive a motion under Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6), a complaint must contain facts
sufficient to “state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Bell Atl., Corp. v. Twombly,
550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007); Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 684 (2009). Under the plausibility
standard, a complaint must contain “more than labels and conclusions” or a “formulaic
recitation of the elements of a cause of action.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555; see Painter’s Mill
Grille, LLC v. Brown, 716 F.3d 342, 350 (4th Cir. 2013).
In reviewing a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, a court “‘must accept as true all of the factual
allegations contained in the complaint’” and must “‘draw all reasonable inferences [from
those facts] in favor of the plaintiff.’” E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co. v. Kolon Indus., Inc., 637
F.3d 435, 440 (4th Cir. 2011) (citations omitted); see Houck v. Substitute Tr. Servs., Inc., 791 F.3d
473, 484 (4th Cir. 2015). While a court must accept as true all the factual allegations
contained in the complaint, legal conclusions drawn from those facts are not afforded such
deference. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (“[t]hreadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action,
supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice” to plead a claim); see A Society
Without a Name v. Virginia, 655 F.3d 342, 346 (4th. Cir. 2011).
Under limited exceptions, a court may consider documents beyond the complaint
without converting the motion to dismiss to one for summary judgment. Goldfarb v. Mayor
& City Council of Baltimore, 791 F.3d 500, 508 (4th Cir. 2015). A court may properly consider
documents that are “explicitly incorporated into the complaint by reference and those
attached to the complaint as exhibits . . . .” Goines, 822 F.3d at 166 (citations omitted); see
U.S. ex rel. Oberg, 745 F.3d at 136 (quoting Philips v. Pitt Cty Memorial Hosp., 572 F.3d 176, 180
(4th Cir. 2009)).
A court may also “consider a document submitted by the movant that was not
attached to or expressly incorporated in a complaint, so long as the document was integral to
the complaint and there is no dispute about the document’s authenticity.” Goines, 822 F.3d
at 166 (citations omitted). To be “integral,” a document must be one “that by its ‘very
existence, and not the mere information it contains, gives rise to the legal rights asserted.’”
Chesapeake Bay Found., Inc. v. Severstal Sparrows Point, LLC, 794 F. Supp. 2d 602, 611 (D. Md.
2011) (citation omitted) (emphasis in original).
A pro se litigant’s complaint should not be dismissed unless it appears beyond doubt
that the litigant can prove no set of facts in support of his claim that would entitle him to
relief. Gordon v. Leeke, 574 F.2d 1147, 1151 (4th Cir. 1978). However, a plaintiff’s status as
pro se does not absolve him of the duty to plead adequately. See Stone v. Warfield, 184 F.R.D.
553, 555 (D. Md. 1999) (citing Anderson v. Univ. of Md. Sch. Of Law, 130 F.R.D. 616, 617 (D.
Md. 1989), aff’d, 900 F.2d 249, 1990 WL 41120 (4th Cir. 1990)).
Plaintiff’s Motion for Summary Judgment
Plaintiff’s Motion for Summary Judgment is without merit. The only evidence which
plaintiff identifies in support of her Motion is a letter sent to her on February 26, 2016 by
Gregory J. Kennedy, Esq., Corporate Counsel for SMC. (ECF No. 1-2 at 3.) In this letter,
Mr. Kennedy succinctly recounts plaintiff’s history as a leaseholder from SMC, stating that:
“on each of the three prior occasions you lived in a [SMC] apartment, you vacated the leased
premises leaving a debt due and owing, which [SMC] had to pursue in collections.” (Id.)
Based on this history, the letter concludes, SMC “is not willing to receive your application to
become a leaseholder at any of its apartment communities.” (Id.)
Nothing in SMC’s February 26, 2016 letter even remotely suggests that SMC’s
decision not to receive plaintiff’s lease application was based on discrimination for her
alleged mental disability. Nor does the letter reflect any type of conspiracy on the part of
SMC or its agents. Rather, SMC’s letter sets forth a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for
its refusal to receive plaintiff’s lease application.
Accordingly, Plaintiff’s Motion for
summary judgment is without merit and must be DENIED.
Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss
A. Housing Discrimination
Liberally construing the pro se plaintiff’s complaint and noting the nature of the
relationship between the parties, it appears that plaintiff seeks to state a claim for violation of
the Fair Housing Act (“FHA”), 42 U.S.C. § 3601, et seq. Specifically, plaintiff’s Complaint
seems to allege that defendants violated 42 U.S.C. § 3604(f)(2)(A), which makes it unlawful
“to discriminate against any person in the terms, conditions, or privileges of sale or rental of
a dwelling, or in the provision of services or facilities in connection with such dwelling,
because of a handicap of…that person.” Plaintiff thus alleges that defendants discriminated
against her by denying her the privilege of renting an apartment at SMC’s property on
account of her “known mental illness.” (ECF No. 1 at 2.)
Defendants argue that plaintiff’s Complaint must be dismissed because “she fails to
provide any details whatsoever regarding her disability, other than reference to her ‘mental
illness.’” (ECF No. 16 at 5.) Defendants further argue that plaintiff fails to allege any facts
“which could even reasonably be construed to suggest that defendants discriminated against
plaintiff on the basis of a disability.” (Id.) Finally, defendants note that the Complaint does
not identify any reasonable accommodation sought by plaintiff—or which defendants denied
to her. (Id. at 5-6.)
As this Court explained in Nichols v. Carriage House Condominiums at Perry Hall Farms,
Inc., No. CIV.A. RDB-14-3611, 2015 WL 4393995, at *4 (D. Md. July 15, 2015), “the FHA
prohibits discrimination against ‘any person in the terms, conditions, or privileges of sale or
rental of a dwelling, or in the provision of services or facilities in connection with such
dwelling, because of a handicap of . . . that person[.]’” 42 U.S.C. § 3604(f)(2)(A). This
discrimination includes: (1) “a refusal to permit, at the expense of the handicapped person,
reasonable modifications of existing premises occupied . . . by such person if such
modifications may be necessary to afford such person full enjoyment of the premises[;]” and
(2) “a refusal to make reasonable accommodations in rules, policies, practices, or services,
when such accommodations may be necessary to afford such person equal opportunity to
use and enjoy a dwelling[.]” 42 U.S.C. § 3604(f)(3)(A)-(B). To state a claim under 42 U.S.C. §
3604(f), a plaintiff “must show that [she] is handicapped and that [she] was either
discriminated against because of [her] handicap or denied a reasonable accommodation
necessary to allow [her] the same use and enjoyment of [her] dwelling as other nonhandicapped persons.” Roberson v. Graziano, 2010 WL 2106466, at *2 (D. Md. May 21, 2010),
aff’d, 411 F. App’x 583 (4th Cir. 2011).
In this case, plaintiff has failed to plead sufficient facts to state a plausible claim under
§ 3604(f). First, plaintiff neither identifies nor or in any way describes the effects of her
“known mental illness” so as to place her within the protected class under the FHA. See
ECF No. 1 at 2. Second, plaintiff alleges no facts which plausibly suggest that defendants’
decision not to receive her lease application was based on her alleged disability. To the
contrary, the SMC letter which plaintiff attaches to her Complaint indicates that the decision
to refuse her application was based on her rental history with SMC—specifically, the fact
that plaintiff breached each of her three prior leases with SMC. (ECF No. 1-2 at 3.) Finally,
even if plaintiff had explained the nature of her disability, she fails to identify any reasonable
accommodation which she requested or which SMC denied. In sum, plaintiff fails to state a
plausible claim for housing discrimination under the FHA, and Defendants’ Motion must be
GRANTED as to this count of plaintiff’s Complaint.
B. Civil Conspiracy
Plaintiff also asserts that “defendants have entered into a civil conspiracy against
[her].” (ECF No. 1 at 2.) Specifically, plaintiff alleges that, “the defendants alter their
[leasing] policies to deny [her]; making new rules with each application (namely leaving with
a balance, and receiving a notice).” (ECF No. 1 at 2.)
Defendants argue that plaintiff’s civil conspiracy count must fail (1) on the basis of
the intracorporate immunity doctrine and (2) on the insufficiency of the Complaint. (ECF
No. 16 at 6-7.)
Defendants are correct that the intracorporate immunity doctrine bars plaintiff’s civil
Under this doctrine, the “acts of corporate agents are acts of the
corporation itself, and corporate employees cannot conspire with each other or with the
corporation.” ePlus Tech., Inc. v. Aboud, 313 F.3d 166, 179 (4th Cir. 2002). As the three
individual defendants are employees (thus, agents) of co-defendant SMC, the doctrine
applies and the civil conspiracy count must fail.
Even if the civil conspiracy count were not barred by the intracorporate immunity
doctrine, plaintiff fails to state a plausible factual basis for this claim. Under Maryland law, a
civil conspiracy requires “a combination of two or more persons by an agreement or
understanding to accomplish an unlawful act or to use unlawful means to accomplish an act
not in itself illegal, with the further requirement that the act or the means employed must
result in damages to the plaintiff.” Hoffman v. Stamper, 385 Md. 1, 24, 867 A.2d 276, 290
(2005). Here, plaintiff fails to allege any facts indicating which defendants conspired to act
unlawfully or what unlawful act they committed or the unlawful means they employed.
Plaintiff’s “unadorned, the-defendant-unlawfully-harmed-me accusation” is insufficient.
Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678. Accordingly, Defendants’ Motion is GRANTED as to plaintiff’s civil
For the reasons stated above, Plaintiff’s Motion (ECF No. 12) is DENIED,
Defendants’ Motion (ECF No. 15) is GRANTED, and this case is DISMISSED. This case
shall be CLOSED.
A separate Order follows.
Date: December 19, 2016
Richard D. Bennett
United States District Judge
Plaintiff’s Complaint also makes reference to 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983 and 1985. (ECF No. 1 at 1.) As none of
the named defendants are state actors and no allegations in the Complaint refer to any action taken under
color of state or federal law, these allegations must be DISMISSED.
Similarly, plaintiff’s reference to 18 U.S.C. § 241—a federal criminal statute—fails to state a claim on which
relief in this civil case can be granted and must be DISMISSED.
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