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Jerome v. City of St. Paul

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

September 9, 2014

Alex Jerome and Ameena Samatar, Plaintiffs,
v.
City of St. Paul, Defendant.

ORDER

JOAN N. ERICKSEN, District Judge.

This is a civil rights action brought by Alex Jerome and Ameena Samatar, a married couple, against the City of St. Paul, Minnesota. Jerome and Samatar, naturalized citizens who immigrated to the United States from Somalia, allege that St. Paul officials discriminated against them on the basis of their race, national origin, and religion in a nuisance abatement proceeding targeting a vacant, out-of-code building they purchased in the summer of 2012.

The case is now before the Court on St. Paul's Motion to Dismiss. As discussed below, Jerome and Samatar are precluded from relitigating most of the factual allegations they make in support their discrimination claims here by an adverse decision of the Minnesota Court of Appeals in a concurrent state proceeding, and the remaining factual content in their Complaint is insufficient to state a claim on which relief may be granted. The city's motion will therefore be granted.

Background[1]

The case revolves around a building at 601 Western Avenue North in St. Paul. The building is well over 100 years old and housed a bar for many years before the city revoked the previous owner's liquor license in August of 2010. The building's Certificate of Occupancy was revoked the following March.

In May of 2012, the Vacant/Nuisance Buildings Unit of the city's Department of Safety and Inspections issued a Building Deficiency Inspection Report, documenting a number of code violations in the building. Among the deficiencies noted were a "deteriorated" foundation and roof, "defective" walls and ceilings, rodent infestation, mold, open plumbing, and loose electrical wiring.

On that basis, on June 1, 2012, the Vacant Buildings Enforcement Inspector declared the building "to comprise a nuisance condition in violation of the Saint Paul Legislative Code, Chapter 45.02, and subject to demolition under authority of Chapter 45.11." The Inspector notified the owners that if the "deficiencies and the resulting nuisance condition is not corrected by July 1, 2012 the Department of Safety and Inspections, Division of Code Enforcement, will begin a substantial abatement process to demolish and remove the building(s)."

The code violations were not corrected within the allotted time period, and so the city initiated an abatement proceeding as it had indicated. As that process was getting underway, Jerome and Samatar purchased the building from its previous owners. Jerome and Samatar then participated in a series of hearings on the building's condition before a Legislative Hearing Officer and the City Council between August and December of 2012.

At the conclusion of that process, the City Council unanimously passed Resolution 12-68 on December 19, 2012. With that resolution, the city determined that the building

is a nuisance building pursuant to Saint Paul Legislative Code § 45.02, as 1) it is a vacant building as defined in § 43.02; and 2) it has multiple housing code or building code violations or it has conditions constituting material endangerment as defined in § 34.23, or it has a documented and confirmed history as a blighting influence in the community; and 3) these nuisance conditions have not been corrected after notice of the same to the owner[.]

The city also found that "the owners, interested parties or responsible parties have not presented a plan acceptable to the legislative hearing officer and Department of Public Safety and Inspections staff to repair he structure(s) and correct all of the deficiencies... and to make the structure(s) safe and code compliant[.]" Therefore, the city "order[ed] that the owners, interested parties or responsible parties shall repair the structure, correct all of the deficiencies... and... make the structure(s) safe and code compliant, or shall raze and remove the structure(s) within thirty (30) days[.]" Further, if the owners failed to take such corrective action, the resolution authorized the Department of Safety and Inspections "to take those steps necessary to raze and remove this structure and to charge the costs incurred in accordance with Saint Paul Legislative Code § 45.12(4)."

In February of 2013, Jerome and Samatar challenged this resolution in the Minnesota Court of Appeals on a petition for a writ of certiorari. In addition to arguing that the resolution should be vacated because it was arbitrary and capricious and not based on substantial evidence, Jerome and Samatar also asserted that the city had discriminated against them on account of their race and national origin and denied them due process of law.

In January of 2014, while that certiorari review was pending in the Minnesota Court of Appeals, Jerome and Samatar filed this action, alleging that the city discriminated against them in the abatement proceeding because of their race, national origin, and religion. In their Complaint, Jerome and Samatar bring four counts under 42 U.S.C.§ 1983 asserting violations of their federal statutory and constitutional rights, as well as one count under the Minnesota Human Rights Act.

The city moved to dismiss the Complaint under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) for failing to state a claim on which relief may be granted. Since that motion was filed, the Minnesota Court of Appeals issued its decision, rejecting all of Jerome and Samatar's arguments about the alleged improprieties in the abatement proceeding and affirming Resolution 12-68. Jerome v. City of St. Paul, No. A13-0313, 2014 WL 1660629 (Minn.Ct.App. Apr. 28, 2014). Jerome and Samatar thereafter sought further review in the Minnesota Supreme Court, but their petition was denied on July 15, 2014. In light of those developments, the Court requested and the parties supplied supplemental briefing on the application of the doctrine of res judicata in these circumstances.

Discussion

The Court first addresses the preclusive effect of the state proceedings regarding Resolution 12-68, and then turns to the city's Motion to Dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6).

I. Res judicata.

In circumstances like these involving concurrent state and federal litigation, "federal jurisdiction over [the] action does not terminate automatically on the entry of judgment in the state court." Exxon Mobil Corp. v. Saudi Basic Industries Corp., 544 U.S. 280, 292-93 (2005). Rather, "[d]isposition of the federal action, once the state-court adjudication is complete, would be governed by preclusion law." Id.

"[T]he Full Faith and Credit Act, 28 U.S.C. § 1738, ... requires the federal court to give the same preclusive effect to [the] state-court judgment as another court of that State would give.'" Id. "The preclusive effect of a judgment is defined by claim preclusion and issue preclusion, which are collectively referred to as res judicata.'" Taylor v. Sturgell, 553 U.S. 880, 892 (2008). Both species of preclusion are founded on the principle "that a right, question or fact distinctly put in issue and directly determined by a court of competent jurisdiction cannot be disputed in a subsequent suit between the same parties or their privies." Hauschildt v. Beckingham, 686 N.W.2d 829, 837 (Minn. 2004) (internal quotation, punctuation, and citations omitted).

A. Claim preclusion.

"Under the doctrine of claim preclusion, a final judgment forecloses successive litigation of the very same claim, whether or not relitigation of the claim raises the same issues as the earlier suit.'" Taylor v. Sturgell, 553 U.S. 880, 892 (2008) (quoting New Hampshire v. Maine, 532 U.S. 74, 748 (2001)). Claim preclusion thus "not only applies to all claims actually litigated, but to all claims that could have been litigated in the earlier action." Zutz v. Nelson, 601 F.3d 842, 847 (8th Cir. 2010) (quoting Hauschildt, 686 N.W.2d at 840). See also State v. Joseph, 636 N.W.2d 322, 327 (Minn. 2001) (noting that in Minnesota, claim preclusion "operates as an absolute bar to a subsequent claim when: (1) the earlier claim involved the same claim for relief; (2) the earlier claim involved the same parties or their privies; (3) there was a final judgment on the merits; and (4) the estopped party had a full and fair opportunity to litigate the matter") (footnote and citations removed).

Jerome and Samatar argue, in part, that claim preclusion does not bar them from litigating this case because they could not have brought the federal and state causes of action they bring here in the state proceedings. In these circumstances, the Court agrees.

The city initiated the state proceedings as a nuisance abatement action under Chapter 45 of the Saint Paul Legislative Code. That abatement proceeding, and the repair-or-raze resolution passed by the City Council at its conclusion, were quasi-judicial in nature. Khan v. Minneapolis City Council, 792 N.W.2d 463, 465-66 (Minn.Ct.App. 2010). Under state law, Jerome and Samatar could only have sought reversal or vacation and remand of the City Council's resolution on a petition for a writ of certiorari in the Minnesota Court of Appeals. Id .; City of Minneapolis v. Meldahl, 607 N.W.2d 168, 171 (Minn.Ct.App. 2000) ("Unless there is statutory authority for a different proceeding, a party may obtain review of a quasi-judicial decision by an executive body that does not have statewide jurisdiction only by writ of certiorari."); Tessmer v. City of Saint Paul, No. A07-2349, 2008 WL 5215938, *3-4 (Minn.Ct.App. Dec. 16, 2008) (determining that Chapter 45 of the Saint Paul Legislative Code applies to nuisance abatement proceedings and that it "does not provide statutory authority for an appellate proceeding, thereby requiring that any appeal be taken by a writ of certiorari").

On certiorari, the Minnesota Court of Appeals' review of the matter was "confined to the record before the city council at the time it made its decision" and was limited "to questions affecting the jurisdiction of the [city council to take the action it took], the regularity of its proceedings, and, as to [the] merits of the controversy, whether the order or determination in a particular case was arbitrary, oppressive, unreasonable, fraudulent, under an erroneous theory of law, or without any evidence to support it." Khan, 792 N.W.2d at 466 (quotations and citations omitted). Accordingly, the Minnesota Court of Appeals sitting in certiorari had no authority to award the money damages or issue the injunctions that Jerome and Samatar seek here.

Relevant, then, is a long-recognized "exception" to the application of claim preclusion where

[t]he plaintiff was unable to rely on a certain theory of the case or to seek a certain remedy or form of relief in the first action because of the limitations on the subject matter jurisdiction of the courts or restrictions on their authority to entertain multiple theories or demands for multiple remedies or forms of relief in a single action, and the plaintiff desires in the second action to rely on that theory or to seek that remedy or form of relief[.]

Restatement (Second) of Judgments § 26(1)(c) (1980). See also U.S. v. Tohono O'Odham Nation, 131 S.Ct. 1723, 1738-39 (2011) (Sotomayor, J., concurring) (observing that the "exception to [claim preclusion] when a plaintiff was unable to obtain a certain remedy in the earlier action" embodied in § 26(1)(c) of the Restatement (Second) of Judgments "has long informed claim preclusion law"). "The general rule" of claim preclusion yields in these circumstances because it

is largely predicated on the assumption that the jurisdiction in which the first judgment was rendered was one which put no formal barriers in the way of a litigant's presenting to a court in one action the entire claim including any theories of recovery or demands for relief that might have been available to him under applicable law. When such formal barriers in fact existed and were operative against a plaintiff in the first action, it is unfair to preclude him from a second action in which he can present those phases of the claim which he was disabled from presenting in the first.

Restatement (Second) of Judgments § 26(1)(c), cmt. c (1980).

The Court therefore concludes that claim preclusion does not bar Jerome and Samatar ...


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