DECISION & ORDER
THOMAS J. McAVOY, Senior United States District Judge.
Plaintiff Jaqueline Winston
II. STANDARD OF REVIEW
The standard pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(c) is identical to that under Rule 12(b)(6). Patel v. Contemporary Classics of Beverly Hills, 259 F.3d 123, 126 (2d Cir. 2001). On a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, the Court must accept "all factual allegations in the complaint as true, and draw all reasonable inferences in the plaintiff's favor." Holmes v. Grubman, 568 F.3d 329, 335 (2d Cir.2009) (internal quotation marks omitted). This tenet does not apply to legal conclusions, non-factual matter, or "conclusory statements" set forth in a complaint. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678-79, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 173 L.Ed.2d 868 (2009).
"To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Id. (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 167 L.Ed.2d 929 (2007)). A claim will have "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.
"In considering a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6), a district court may consider the facts alleged in the complaint, documents attached to the complaint as exhibits, and documents incorporated by reference in the complaint." DiFolco v. MSNBC Cable L.L.C., 622 F.3d 104, 111 (2d Cir.2010). T he Court may also review "any matter of which the court can take judicial notice for the factual background of the case." Jenkins v. Cnty of Washington, 126 F.Supp.3d 255, 274-75 (N.D.N.Y.2015).
The City of Syracuse, New York ("the City") is a municipal corporation that is the sole supplier of water service within the City. Compl. ¶¶ 15-16. Plaintiff Jacqueline Winston currently resides at 653 West Moreland Ave. Syracuse, New York with her husband, her sister, and her sister's nine-year-old son. Id. ¶ 26.
The City supplied Ms. Winston and her family with water to their home through the Water Department. Id. ¶ 32. The water bill for water service from the City has
On January 19, 2016, Ms. Winston received a notice on her door informing her that her water would be shut off if the water bill of $472.97 was not paid in full within thirty days. Id. ¶ 34. Ms. Winston contacted the maintenance man at the property who assured her the bill would be paid. Id. ¶ 35. Ms. Winston assumed "everything would be fine and her family would continue receiving water service." Id. However, on February 23, 2016, the water service was shut off to Ms. Winston's home by the City's Water Department. Id. ¶ 36. Ms. Winston again contacted the maintenance man, who once again assured her the bill would be taken care of, id. ¶ 37, but it was not. After one day without water, Ms. Winston contacted the Syracuse City Water Department to pay the bill herself. Id. ¶ 38. She was informed by an employee of the City Water Department that she would "be allowed to pay the [water] bill but would not be able to get water service restored to the property because she is not the owner." Id.
"Ms. Winston's family [went] for three days without water. They [had] to buy gallons of water from the store just so they [could] cook, drink, brush their teeth, and wash up." Id. § 39. Ms. Winston alleges that she and her family were "irreparably harmed without water service to her home." Id. ¶ 40. She contends that the termination of the water service "disrupt[ed] the structure that is so important to her daughter with autism's day to day life." Id. Moreover, under the Syracuse Code of Ordinances, upon the termination of water service the residence is deemed uninhabitable. Id. ¶ 22.
b. Syracuse's Code of Ordinances
Syracuse's Code of Ordinances provides that water services offered by the City are "to be connected to by the property owner when he makes application for a service to said property." Syracuse Code of Ordinances, Part M ("the Code"), § 16-11. The Code further provides that "[w]ater bills... are payable without penalty within twenty-five (25) days from the date on the bill. After twenty-five (25) days from the date on the bill, a penalty of five (5) percent of what is owed will be added to current charges and one percent per month thereafter will be added to the total arrears." Id., ¶ 16-53. "If a bill remains unpaid for sixty (60) days from the date on the bill, the water may be turned off provided notice is given to the consumer
Syracuse's standard Notice of Water Shut-Off, which was presumably the notice that Plaintiff received on her door on January 19, 2016, see Compl. ¶ 34, provides:
For Legal Advice contact: Legal Services of Central New York
Sickinger Affirm., Ex. A.
The Code provides that following service of this notice, the owner or known occupants have the right to request a hearing before a hearing officer designated by the commissioner of water. See Code § 16-108(d). "The hearing officer shall not be an employee of the department of water." Id.
The Code provides that "[t]he department of water may shut off the water to any property where the owner failed to correct the violation and no hearing was requested either by the owner or any known occupant(s) after suitable notice has been served." Id. When a hearing is requested, "the department of water may
Where "an event [that could result in termination of water service] is not abated and the water is shut off, a fee of one hundred forty dollars ($140.00) will be charged to the owner to turn the water supply back on at the property." Id. § 16-108(e). "[W]here the owner has failed to abate the violation of non-payment of the water bill an occupant may pay the out-standing water bill for the property and any associated fees, including but not limited to the restoration of service fee, if they choose to do so." Id. "In any case where there has been a shut off of water at a property, the department of water shall restore water service for the owner or lawful occupant(s) of the property only when the event which is the basis for the shut off no longer exists and the fee set forth in section 16-108(e) has been paid." Id. at § 16-108(f). If an occupant elects to pay the outstanding water bill and the restoration of service fee, "[i]t shall then be the responsibility of the occupant to take any necessary action to recoup the payment from the owner of the property in accordance with Article 7, Section 235-a of the New York State Real Property Law. Payment of the bill by the occupant does not relieve the owner of their responsibility for future payments." Id. at § 16-108(e).
c. Plaintiff's Claims
Plaintiff brings claims alleging violations of rights to equal protection and substantive due process as guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. As to the equal protection claim, Plaintiff asserts that "[t]he General Ordinances of the City and the policies and practices of the City only permit water service to be established at the owner's request." Code ¶ 42; see id. ¶ 23 ("The City has a policy and practice of not allowing plaintiffs to open a water service account in their own name to keep their water service on."). Thus, Plaintiff contends that "[t]he City water ordinance on its face and as applied violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Specifically, she asserts that the City creates two classes of water users — owners and tenants — and denies tenants the right to establish a water account in their own name." Id. ¶ 43. Plaintiff further contends that "[t]he City also creates two classes of tenant water users — tenants whose landlords have delinquent water bills and tenants whose landlords are current in their payments. The City refuses to continue water service for the class of tenants whose landlords have delinquent water bills. The City also refuses to continue service to tenant water users who will pay for prospective service on the accounts of landlords with arrears." Id. ¶¶ 44-45. This, Plaintiff contends, violates her rights to equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment. Id. ¶¶ 48-49.
Plaintiff also alleges that "[t]he City requires [a tenant] to pay the entire out-standing debt of their landlord in order to continue receiving water service. Termination of water service to [a tenant's] home renders the property unfit for human habitation." Id. ¶ 53. Plaintiff contends that "[r]equiring [her] to assume [her] landlord's debt to avoid losing [her] water service and [her] home being deemed uninhabitable ... violates [her] right to substantive due process under the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution." Id. ¶ 54.
Plaintiff seeks declaratory and injunctive relief, as well as costs, disbursements and reasonable attorney's fees pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988. Compl. pp. 10-11. Plaintiff asks that the Court declare that:
a. Equal Protection
The Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment "requires the government to treat all similarly situated individuals alike." City of Cleburne v. Cleburne Living Ctr., Inc., 473 U.S. 432, 439, 105 S.Ct. 3249, 87 L.Ed.2d 313 (1985). "As the Supreme Court has observed, `[t]he Fourteenth Amendment's promise that no person shall be denied the equal protection of the laws must coexist with the practical necessity that most legislation classifies for one purpose or another, with resulting disadvantage to various groups or persons.'" Osterweil v. Bartlett, 819 F.Supp.2d 72, 86 (N.D.N.Y.2011)(quoting Romer v. Evans, 517 U.S. 620, 631, 116 S.Ct. 1620, 134 L.Ed.2d 855 (1996)). "Accordingly, the Supreme Court has `attempted to reconcile the principle with the reality by stating that, if a law neither burdens a fundamental right nor targets a suspect class, [the court] will uphold the legislative classification so long as it bears a rational relation to some legitimate end.'" Id. (quoting Romer, 517 U.S. at 631, 116 S.Ct. 1620); see also Vacco v. Quill, 521 U.S. 793, 799, 117 S.Ct. 2293, 138 L.Ed.2d 834 (1997) (holding that the Equal Protection Clause "embodies a general rule that States must treat like cases alike but may treat unlike cases accordingly.")(internal quotation marks and citation omitted). While "[t]he Supreme Court has consistently recognized that ... `[t]he Equal Protection Clause [denies] to States the power to legislate that different treatment be accorded to persons placed by a statute into different classes on the basis of criteria wholly unrelated to the objective of that statute,'" Davis v. Weir, 497 F.2d 139, 144 (5th Cir.1974)(quoting Royster Guano Co. v. Virginia, 253 U.S. 412, 415, 40 S.Ct. 560, 64 S.Ct. 989 (1920)), "a legislative classification must be sustained if the classification itself is rationally related to a legitimate governmental interest." United States Department of Agriculture v. Moreno, 413 U.S. 528, 533, 93 S.Ct. 2821, 37 L.Ed.2d 782 (1973).
As indicated above, Plaintiff asserts that the Code creates two classes of water users — owners and tenants, and two classes of tenant water users — tenants whose landlords have delinquent water bills and tenants whose landlords are current in their payments. She contends that her equal protection rights are violated because the City denies tenants the right to establish a water account in their own names, and because the City refuses to continue water service for the class of tenants whose landlords are delinquent on their water bills even when a tenant water users "agree[s] to pay for prospective service on the accounts of landlords with arrears." Compl. ¶ 45.
Plaintiff acknowledges that "[w]here, as here, the challenged classifications are not protected, and there is no fundamental right at stake, the proper standard of review is rational basis." Pl. MOL, p. 8 (citing Yuen Jin v. Mukasey, 538 F.3d 143, 158 (2d Cir.2008)).
Heller v. Doe by Doe, 509 U.S. 312, 319-21, 113 S.Ct. 2637, 125 L.Ed.2d 257 (1993).
Plaintiff argues that the disparate treatment between landlords and tenants, as well as between tenants whose landlords are delinquent on water bills and those whose landlords are not, fails to serve a rational governmental purpose. In this regard, Plaintiff argues that the Code "denies a tenant the right to establish a water account in their own name and then coerces the tenant to pay their landlord's bill to avoid constructive eviction has no rational basis and thus violates the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution." Pl. Mem. L. p. 11 (citing Pilchen v. City of Auburn, 728 F.Supp.2d 192, 204 (N.D.N.Y.2010)).
1. Property Owners vs. Tenants
With regard to Plaintiff's first alleged classification, property owners versus tenants, the City argues that the classes are not similarly situated and that the disparate treatment in allowing only property owners to contract for water service is rationally related to legitimate government purposes. The City maintains that the differential in treatment allows for liens against the property of a delinquent landlord as a means of collecting on an unpaid water bill. The City further maintains that given the transitory nature of tenants, the collection of payment on past-due water accounts in a tenant's name would be a difficult endeavor for municipalities. Hence, the City argues: "If tenants were permitted to manage and hold their own individual water accounts, Defendants would have no recourse against a tenant who fails to pay his or her water bill upon moving out, because a tenant has no ownership stake in the property in which they reside." Def. MOL, p. 15.
Finally, the City argues that its policies encourage water account holders "to behave in a financially responsible manner, which in turn supports the important government interest of maintaining a financially sound utility system. A property owner, knowing they will ultimately be responsible for the water bill and facing the risk of a lien being placed on his or her land, is more likely to rent to responsible tenants and to collect a security in advance." Id.
The Court finds that the two classes are similarly situated in that both seek to obtain water services from the City. The Court also finds that the City's proffered reasons for entering into water service contracts only with property owners is rationally related to the legitimate governmental purposes of effective debt recovery and efficient management of water services. While Plaintiff suggests that other methods of debt collection exist, see Compl. ¶ 47,
2. Tenants of Delinquent Landlords vs. Non-Delinquent Landlords
Turning to Plaintiff's second alleged classification, tenants of delinquent landlords versus tenants of non-delinquent landlords, Plaintiff contends that not only does the Code deny a tenant the right to establish a water account in her own name, it also "coerces the tenant to pay their landlord's bill to avoid constructive eviction." Pl. MOL, p. 11. While Plaintiff "does not dispute that the Defendants have a legitimate interest in collecting water debts from landlords," she maintains that "it is not rational to collect those debts by terminating water service to tenants." Id. p. 12. The City argues that the two classes are not similarly situated, and that it has a rational basis for its water shut-off policy because there is a legitimate difference
A. Facial Challenge
The Court finds no equal protection violation on the face of the Code based on the differentiation in treatment between tenants of delinquent landlords versus tenants of non-delinquent landlords. Tenants of delinquent landlords are not similarly situated with tenants of non-delinquent landlords. The two alleged classes are differentiated by the non-payment for water services by landlords in one class, and the payment for such services by landlords in the other.
Further, there is a rational basis to treat tenants of delinquent landlords similarly to their landlords and differently from tenants of non-delinquent landlords. While the Code ultimately limits restoration of water service to a tenant only upon the payment of the property owner's arrears and a restoration fee, see Code § 16-108(e)("[W]here the owner has failed to abate the violation of non-payment of the water bill an occupant may pay the out-standing water bill for the property and any associated fees, including but not limited to the restoration of service fee, if they choose to do so."); id. at § 16-108(f)("In any case where there has been a shut off of water at a property, the department of water shall restore water service for the owner or lawful occupant(s) of the property only when the event which is the basis for the shut off no longer exists and the fee set forth in section 16-108(e) has been paid."), the legitimate governmental purposes of effective debt recovery and efficient management of water services discussed above with regard to the property owner versus tenant classifications are rationally served by requiring tenants of delinquent landlords to satisfy the arrears before turning the water back on. Thus, despite Plaintiff's contention of how she was treated, the Code dictates that a tenant will have water service restored upon the payment of the arrears and restoration fee. Code, § 16-108(f). In such circumstances, tenants of delinquent landlords are treated no differently that the landlords themselves.
It is also important to note that while the Code limits restoration of water service to a tenant only upon the payment of the property owner's arrears and a restoration fee, the Code's restoration provision is directed only to current tenants. See id., § 16-108(e)("[W]here the owner has failed to abate the violation of non-payment of the water bill an occupant may pay the outstanding water bill for the property and any associated fees, including but not limited to the restoration of service fee, if they choose to do so ....")(emphasis added); id., § 16-108(f) ("In any case where there has been a shut off of water at a property, the department of water shall restore water service for the owner or lawful occupant(s) of the property only when the event which is the basis for the shut off no longer exists and the fee set forth in section 16-108(e) has been paid.")(emphasis added). Thus, the recommencement provisions bear a rational relationship to an occupant's tenancy at the location where the debt arose. See Brown v. City of Barre, Vt., 878 F.Supp.2d 469, 502 (D.Vt. 2012)("As the City has pointed out, however, the instant case is one in which neither Plaintiffs nor class members can claim `innocent' or `unrelated' status vis-a-vis their landlord's water service arrearages. They thus possess an undeniable relationship to
Because there is a rational basis to allow only property owners to contract for municipal water services, there is also a rational basis to treat tenants of delinquent landlords differently than tenants of non-delinquent landlords — or, more appropriately, to treat tenants of delinquent landlords similarly to delinquent landlords. To hold otherwise would frustrate the articulated basis of the Code by allowing situations where delinquent landlords' debts go uncollected yet water services continue, potentially causing the accumulation of debt that the City cannot recover. Accordingly, Defendants' motion to dismiss Plaintiff's facial equal protection claim is granted.
B. As-Applied Challenge
However, Plaintiff presents a plausible "as-applied" equal protection challenge. She contends that she was informed by an employee of the City Water Department that she would "be allowed to pay the [water] bill but would not be able to get water service restored to the property because she is not the owner." Compl. ¶ 38. While this representation is contrary to the Code's provisions at §§ 16-108(e) and (f), at this stage of the litigation the Court must accept Plaintiff's factual allegation as true and draw all reasonable inferences on her behalf. In doing so, Plaintiff presents a plausible contention that the City's policy and practice is not to comply with the Code's provisions for the recommencement of water services by a tenant after a landlord defaults on payment of a water bill. While the Water Department employee who spoke with Plaintiff might have mis-understood or mis-spoke about the Code's provisions, or might have presented a unique position that did not represent the City's official policy or custom, see Brown v. City of Barre, Vt., 878 F.Supp.2d 469, 498 (D.Vt.2012)("Here, it would be inaccurate to characterize the City's official policy or custom as one requiring tenants to pay for their landlords' debts. Neither plaintiff was actually required to do this in order to obtain a preservation or restoration of water service, and stray statements by the City's Clerk and Treasurer that this option was available do not constitute an official policy or custom. Rather, the evidence supports the more limited conclusion that the City has an official policy or custom, reflected in its Ordinance, that out-standing arrearages for water service to a property must be paid before water service to that property is restored."); id., at 497 ("`As for the City's policies and practices, Plaintiffs must establish that they rise to the level of an "official policy or custom that ... causes the plaintiff to be
Assuming the truth of Plaintiff's allegation, and drawing the reasonable inference that the City Water Department representative's statement to Plaintiff represented the City's normal practice despite being in contravention to the dictates of the Code, the class of tenants of delinquent landlords are deprived of the ability to restore water services to their homes. The City has offered no rational basis for this treatment of this group. Accordingly, Defendants' motion to dismiss Plaintiff's as-applied equal protection claim is denied. The as-applied equal protection challenge based on the contention that the City denies restoration of water services even when a tenant agrees to pay the arrears and the restoration fee survives.
b. Substantive Due Process
Plaintiff also brings a substantive due process challenge. "To prevail on [her] substantive due process claim, Plaintiff must establish a valid property interest in water service, ... and must further establish that the City deprived [her] of that interest in an arbitrary and irrational manner." Brown, 878 F.Supp.2d at 497 (citing Cine SK8, Inc. v. Town of Henrietta, 507 F.3d 778, 785 (2d Cir.2007)("But having a cognizable property right is not enough. In order to prevail on their substantive due process claim, plaintiffs must also show that defendants infringed their property right in an arbitrary or irrational manner.")). "`[S]uch a claim is not established simply by proving that someone did not obtain what he or she is entitled to under state law.'" Id. (quoting Natale v. Town of Ridgefield, 170 F.3d 258, 262-63 (2d Cir. 1999)). "Instead, `[s]ubstantive due process standards are violated only by conduct that is so outrageously arbitrary as to constitute a gross abuse of governmental authority.'" Id. (quoting Natale, 170 F.3d at 263). Where, as here, a legislative policy is being attacked, the standard is whether the policy is rationally related to a legitimate government purpose. See Leebaert v. Harrington, 332 F.3d 134, 140 (2d Cir.2003.)
1. Valid Property Interest
Constitutionally protected property rights are determined by reference to "an independent source such as state law — rules or understandings that secure certain benefits and that support claims of entitlement to those benefits." Board of Regents of State Colleges v. Roth, 408 U.S. 564, 577, 92 S.Ct. 2701, 33 L.Ed.2d 548 (1972). One independent source of Plaintiff's property interest in the receipt of water services is the Code's pronouncement that the Code's rules and regulations apply to "every person who shall be supplied, or whose property shall be supplied with water by the [City]." Code § 16-01. Because the Code's water rules and regulations apply to all persons who are supplied with water, tenants like Plaintiff have a protected property interest in continued water service. See Pilchen, 728 F.Supp.2d at 198-99 (holding that a tenant had a protected property interest in water service based on a city ordinance which made it clear water service was for the benefit of all water users).
Plaintiff's protected property interest in water services is further demonstrated by the availability of a pre-termination hearing. See Code § 16-108(b)("Prior to the
2. Outrageously Arbitrary Conduct
Applying a rational basis review, and for the reasons discussed above with regard to the equal protection claims, the Court finds that the Code, on its face, does not work an outrageously arbitrary result on tenants. There is a rational basis for the City to require current tenants, if they are not successful in a pre-termination hearing,
However, assuming that the Code is applied, as Plaintiff alleges, in a way that prohibits the recommencement of water service even when a tenant agrees to pay the property owner's water bill and the recommencement of service fee, such conduct is not rationally related to a legitimate government purpose. Therefore, Plaintiff plausibly presents an outrageously arbitrary scenario. Accordingly, Defendants'
For the reasons set forth above, Defendants' motion to dismiss [dkt. # 10] is GRANTED in part and DENIED in part. The motion is denied as to Plaintiff's asapplied equal protection claim based on the contention that the City denies restoration of water services even when a tenant agrees to pay the arrears and the restoration fee, and as to Plaintiff's as-applied substantive due process claim. The motion is granted in all other respects.
Because this decision dismisses many of the claims upon which Plaintiff's Fed. R. Civ. P. 23 class certification motion [dkt. # 6] is based, that motion is DENIED with leave to renew.