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Posted: June 6, 2014

Plaintiff States Due Process Claim Against Town For Excluding Him From His Home

On June 3, 2014, the Second Circuit issued a decision in Heckman v. Town of Hempstead, Docket No. 13-1379-CV, reversing in part a decision by the EDNY and finding that a plaintiff had sufficiently alleged due process violations relating to a town declaring his home unfit for human occupancy.

Here are the basic facts as alleged by the plaintiff:

[The plaintiff] is a disabled veteran who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder. He experiences disordered thinking, insomnia, and an inability to concentrate on and complete even basic tasks. He depends on his sister to manage his personal and financial affairs. Moreover, these mental disabilities allegedly contribute to [the plaintiff’s] lack of fine motor skills and an aversion to parting with certain objects. . . . In short, he is a hoarder.

On December 20, 2007, [the plaintiff] arrived home to find it being boarded up by officials of the Town of Hempstead . . . and its various public safety agencies (collectively, “Defendants”). Defendants had been called to the residence by police officers who, in the course of investigating a reported shooting in the neighborhood, supposedly smelled gas coming from [the plaintiff’s] property. The officials did not permit [the plaintff] to enter his house for any reason: neither to retrieve his money from his home; nor to retrieve his medication from his home; nor to rescue his cat. Apparently fearing arrest if he continued to protest the boarding of his house, [the plaintiff] traveled three hours to the Veteran’s Administration to obtain an emergency supply of his medication, and passed the night in a motel. The next day, [the plaintiff] went to the Town’s Department of Buildings, where . . . the Town’s Supervisor of Inspection services, gave [him] a handwritten list of vague alleged problems to be corrected within the house, and returned [the plaintiff’s] house keys. Returning to his house, [the plaintiff] discovered the cat inside; however the gas, heat, electricity and water were not turned back on. To date, the unfit for human occupancy designation has not been lifted.

(Internal quotations and citations omitted).

The plaintiff alleged that the Town of Hempstead Building Department declared his home “unfit for human occupancy” without providing him notice and an opportunity to be heard in advance. The EDNY dismissed his complaint, but the Second Circuit reversed in part, explaining:

The Fourteenth Amendment prohibits a state from depriving any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law. Due process requires that before state actors deprive a person of property, they offer a meaningful opportunity to be heard. In an emergency situation a state may satisfy the requirements of procedural due process merely by making available some meaningful means by which to assess the propriety of the State’s action at some time after the initial taking. Where there is an emergency requiring quick action and where meaningful pre-deprivation process would be impractical, the government is relieved of its usual obligation to provide a hearing, as long as there is an adequate procedure in place to assess the propriety of the deprivation afterwards.

At the pleading stage, then, a plaintiff must provide factual allegations that permit a plausible inference that (1) the relevant official(s) lacked competent evidence to reasonably believe that an emergency existed; or (2) that an officials decision to invoke an emergency procedure was arbitrary or amounted to an abuse of discretion; or (3) that a state’s post deprivation remedies are somehow inadequate. Bound as we are at this stage in the litigation to draw all reasonable inferences in the plaintiff’s favor, we conclude that [the plaintiff] has alleged two plausible grounds on which he might maintain a procedural due process claim going forward.

The two grounds identified by the Second Circuit were allegations that no emergency existed and that the post-deprivation remedies provided to the defendant were inadequate.

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