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Lea Family Partnership Ltd. v. City of Temple Terrace

United States District Court, M.D. Florida, Tampa Division

March 29, 2017




         THIS CAUSE comes before the Court upon Defendant City of Temple Terrace's Motion to Dismiss Plaintiff's Complaint (Doc. 7), Defendant Len Valenti's Motion to Dismiss Plaintiff's Complaint (Doc. 8), and Plaintiff's Responses in Opposition (Docs. 12 & 13). Upon review, the Court partially grants Defendants' Motions. The Court will not dismiss Plaintiff's Complaint (Doc. 4) because Count I sufficiently states a claim that the City's Rental Housing Program violates the unconstitutional conditions doctrine. The Court will dismiss Count II without prejudice and the claims against Valenti with prejudice.


         Plaintiff Lea Family Partnership Ltd. (“Lea Family”) is a Florida Limited Partnership that owns rental homes in Temple Terrace, Florida. In November 2016, Lea Family filed this purported class action against the City of Temple Terrace (“the City”) and Len Valenti (“Valenti”), the City's Housing Compliance Officer, under section 1983. Lea Family challenges the constitutionality of the City's Rental Housing Program under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. Although Lea Family filed its Complaint (Doc. 4) in Florida state court, the City timely removed the case to this Court.

         The City's Rental Housing Program

         The City's Rental Housing Program (“the Program”) is codified in the City's Code of Ordinances at sections 8-133 to 8-137. The Program applies to one-family, two-family, and three-family dwelling units in the City that the property owner rents to others. Temple Terrace, Fla., Code of Ordinances § 8-133(a). It does not apply to dwelling units in which the property owner resides. Id. The City instituted the Program in order to (1) preserve neighborhoods, (2) protect property values, (3) protect renters from undisclosed code violations, and (4) safeguard public health and safety by protecting residents from problems caused by substandard conditions. (Doc 4, Ex. B.)

         In order to rent a dwelling unit, the property owner must obtain an annual rental permit from the fire department. § 8-134(a). The owner applies for the permit by completing and submitting a form provided by the fire department. Id. The ordinance states that, “[b]y applying for a permit, the property owner consents to periodic inspections of the dwelling unit for violations of the minimum housing code and other related codes at any reasonable time.” Id. Upon receipt of the owner's application, the City issues an annual rental permit to the owner and will not revoke it if the owner pays a rental permit fee, provides a sworn statement that the dwelling unit is not in violation of the applicable codes, and the City's inspections of the unit confirm compliance. § 8-134(b).

         The Code describes the required inspections as “periodic” but does not otherwise explain how frequently they must occur. § 8-135(a). However, a fee schedule published by the fire department states that “inspections will be conducted on an annual basis by zone.” (Doc 4, Ex. E.) If a unit is occupied, the City will not conduct an inspection of the unit unless it has obtained the consent of the occupant or a warrant. § 8-134(a).

         The Program prohibits a property owner from leasing a dwelling unit if the owner has not applied for a rental permit and paid the required permit fee. § 8-134(d). If the City has reason to believe that the owner is leasing a unit without a permit, the City must give the owner notice of the Program's requirements and thirty days to comply. Id. If the owner fails to apply for the permit or pay the fee within the requisite timeframe, the City can pursue enforcement proceedings and penalties against the owner. Id. These penalties may include the imposition of fines or even criminal charges. Id.

         Lea Family's Allegations

         Lea Family alleges that the Program-both on its face and as applied-violates property owners' Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights. Lea Family contends that the Program violates the Fourth Amendment because it imposes coercive, warrantless searches of property owners' rental units as a precondition to them renting those units to others. (Doc. 4, ¶ 1.) Lea Family contends that the Program violates the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause because it arbitrarily applies to the owners of some rental properties but not others. (Id. ¶ 110.)

         In its Complaint, Lea Family makes the following factual allegations in support of its claims:

• Lea Family owns and rents at least six properties in Temple Terrace that are subject to the Program. (Doc 4, ¶ 28.)
• Each of Lea Family's properties have been inspected at least once (id. ¶ 8) and/or repeatedly by the City since 2012 (id. ¶ 29).
• Lea Family has paid the “coercive” permitting fees required by the Program. (Id.)
• Since the Program's inception, Lea Family has paid at least $3800 in permitting fees. (Id. ¶ 36.)
• Lea Family has been adversely affected by the City's actions in enacting and enforcing the Program because, at all relevant times, Lea Family has been faced with criminal charges, fines, and potential loss of rental income for failing to consent to warrantless searches of its rental properties. (Id. ¶ 29.)
• Lea Family has not voluntarily and knowingly consented to the City's inspections. (Id. ¶ 30.)
• The City coerced each inspection of Lea Family's property through the implied threat of loss of property or liberty, and Lea Family continues to be coerced into providing involuntary consent to such inspections. (Id. ¶ 31.)
• The City coerced each and every inspection of Lea Family's properties. Lea Family consented to the searches only to avoid criminal liability and preserve its right to continue renting out its properties. Lea Family did not voluntarily consent to any search of any of its properties. (Id. ¶ 33.)
• Any refusal or failure to allow an inspection results in threats from the City in the form of a “Notice of Violation.” These notices threaten that failure to allow an inspection could result in referral of the case to the Municipal Code Enforcement Board. (Id. ¶ 34.)
• Valenti mailed Lea Family a Notice of Violation regarding its property at 827 East River Drive in 2016. (Id.)
• Lea Family has refused and intends to refuse all further efforts by the City to inspect its properties and collect fees from it to fund the inspection of its properties and others. (Id. ¶ 37.)
• Because of its refusal to allow further inspections, Lea Family is at “imminent risk” of facing criminal charges and/or loss of its property rights in response to this assertion of its Fourth Amendment rights. (Id. ¶ 38.)


         The City and Valenti argue that the Court should dismiss Lea Family's Complaint for several reasons. First, they argue that Lea Family does not have standing to bring this case because it has not alleged that it has suffered an injury in fact. Second, they argue that Lea Family has not adequately pled a claim under either the Fourth or Fourteenth Amendment. In addition, Valenti argues that the Court should dismiss the claims alleged against him in his personal and official capacities. Because the issue of standing implicates the Court's subject matter jurisdiction, the Court must consider that argument first.

         I. Standing

         Article III standing is the determination of whether a plaintiff is the appropriate party to bring a matter to the court for adjudication. “In essence[, ] the question of standing is whether the litigant is entitled to have the court decide the merits of the ...

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