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Williams Huron Gardens 397 Trust v. Township of Waterford

United States District Court, E.D. Michigan, Southern Division

February 28, 2019

WILLIAMS HURON GARDENS 397 TRUST, et al., Plaintiffs,
TOWNSHIP OF WATERFORD, et al., Defendants.

          Nancy G. Edmunds, United States District Judge


          Stephanie Dawkins Davis, United States Magistrate Judge


         Plaintiffs, Williams Huron Gardens 397 Trust, Lyle A. Williams, Lyle F. Williams, and Anthony Williams (referred to collectively herein as “the Williamses”) brought this action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. (Dkt. 1). District Judge Nancy G. Edmunds referred all pretrial matters in this case to the undersigned. (Dkt. 10). The defendants, Township of Waterford (hereinafter Waterford) and Brent Gibson filed a motion to dismiss in lieu of filing an answer to the complaint. (Dkt. 9). Defendant Margaret A. Scott filed an answer to the complaint (Dkt. 12) and a motion to dismiss (Dkt. 13). On September 4, 2018, Lyle A. Williams filed a motion to strike Waterford's and Gibson's “answer, ” motion for summary judgment and for default judgment. (Dkt. 14). Plaintiff Lyle A. Williams filed another motion for summary judgment. (Dkt. 18). In a separate order the undersigned struck the motion at docket no. 18 as improperly filed because Williams did not obtain leave of the Court to file a second motion for summary judgment.


         The Williamses filed this suit alleging that a Waterford Township rental property ordinance requiring rental property owners to register their property as rental property or pay a fee is unconstitutional because the ordinance does not have a “warrant clause” or “mini Miranda rights clause.” (Dkt. 1). Though the complaint is relatively light on facts and heavy on argument as in a brief rather than a pleading, what can be gleaned from the allegations is that the Williamses own property against which enforcement of the subject ordinance, which permits entry into rental property without a warrant, is sought. More particularly, they state that defendants demand that they register private property as rental property and pay a fee to the defendants for entry into plaintiffs' home for inspection. (Id. at Pg ID 7, 13, 14). Thus, plaintiffs aver that defendants are seeking an unlawful search without a warrant. (Id. at Pg ID 7, 12, 13). Plaintiffs also contend that the ordinance violates the Fourth Amendment because it does not provide a mechanism for pre-compliance review. (Id. at Pg ID 12). Plaintiffs challenge the defendants “on Equal Protection grounds” and claim unjust enrichment “arguing that the (Waterford) [sic] has collected and inequitably retained inspection and permitting fee assessment by virtue of the City Codes” for rental property, which is unconstitutional and interferes with their possessory interest in their private property. (Id. at Pg ID 13). In concluding their complaint, the plaintiffs acknowledge that their allegations must be sufficient under Twombly, but state that the Court is required to interpret pro se complaints liberally. (Id. at Pg ID 15). Plaintiffs seek injunctive relief “from Defendant's use of unconstitutional ordinances until court renders decision, ” a declaration that Waterford's ordinances that lack a warrant clause are unconstitutional and that the ordinances be stricken, and damages.

         The defendants' motions to dismiss largely mirror one another, arguing that the Williamses have failed to state a claim on which relief can be granted. (Dkt. 9, 13). Relying on Williams v. Barksdale, 755 F.2d 934 (6th Cir. 1985) and Zellmer v. United States, 2006 WL 2975501 (E.D. Mich. Oct. 17, 2006), defendants argue that plaintiffs have not met the pleading requirements of Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a). (Dkt. 9, at p. 6; Dkt. 13, at p. 5-6). Defendants state that plaintiffs have not set forth any facts indicating that defendants Gibson and Scott took any action or that they acted under color of state law in a manner that deprived plaintiffs of their rights. They point out that the Williamses did not allege the manner in which Gibson and Scott allegedly harmed them. As such, Gibson and Scott contend that the complaint's conclusory claims are not enough to put the individual defendants on notice of the claims against them or the bases of those claims. (Dkt. 9, at p. 6-7; Dkt. 13, at p. 6).

         Defendant Waterford argues that the allegations against it similarly fail. Waterford contends that the plaintiffs have merely alleged that an ordinance is in place, and that they are of the opinion that the ordinance violates their rights. (Dkt. 9, at p. 7). Further, Waterford points out that the plaintiffs did not identify whether they owned rental property in Waterford Township, the location of any property, or what the course of dealings with the Township has been regarding the property, if any. Waterford characterizes the complaint as containing legal conclusions and bare assertions, and as such seeks dismissal of the claims against it.

         Defendants Gibson and Waterford next argue that the unjust enrichment claim should be dismissed because the claim that Waterford has collected inspection and permitting fees is conclusory and fails to set forth any facts showing that Waterford received a benefit from plaintiffs and that plaintiffs' suffered inequity because of that benefit. (Id. at p. 8). Defendants say that plaintiffs do not assert whether they have had to pay a fee, to whom, when, for what purpose the fee was assessed, and the amount of the fee. Because plaintiffs did not plead facts to support the claim, Waterford and Gibson contend that dismissal is appropriate.

         Defendant Scott separately asserts that she is entitled to qualified immunity. (Dkt. 13, at p. 7). In support of her argument that she did not violate any constitutional rights, Scott cites Harris v. Akron Dep't of Public Health, 10 Fed.Appx. 316 (6th Cir. 2001). In Harris, the plaintiff, a residential landlord, challenged the constitutionality of the City's ordinance requiring the registration and inspection of residential rental property. The court held, in short, that the ordinance did not violate the Fourth Amendment, substantive or procedural due process, or equal protection. Scott asserts that the ordinance in Harris is similar to Waterford's ordinance here and argues that since enforcement of the ordinance in Harris did not violate constitutional rights, enforcing Waterford's ordinance also does not violate constitutional rights. Consequently, she is entitled to qualified immunity. (Id. at p. 9-10).

         All three defendants argue that plaintiff Williams Huron Gardens 397 Trust should be stricken as a party because the trust is not represented by counsel in this matter. (Dkt. 9, at p. 8; Dkt. 13, at p. 10).


         A. Standard of Review - Failure to State a Claim

         To survive a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), a plaintiff must first comply with Rule 8(a)(2), which requires “‘a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief,' in order to ‘give the defendant fair notice of what the . . . claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.'” Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 545 (2007), quoting Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 47 (1957). A plaintiff is also obliged “to provide the grounds of his entitlement to relief, ” which “requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.” Ass'n of Cleveland Fire Fighters v. City of Cleveland, 502 F.3d 545, 548 (6th Cir. 2007), quoting, Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555 (citations and internal quotation marks omitted). And, while a complaint need not contain “detailed” factual allegations, its “[f]actual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level on the assumption that all the allegations in the complaint are true.” Id., quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555 (citation and internal quotation marks omitted); see also League of United Latin Am. Citizens v. Bredesen, 500 F.3d 523, 527 (6th Cir. 2007) (emphasis in original) (The factual allegations in a complaint need not be detailed but they “must do more than create speculation or suspicion of a legally cognizable cause of action; they must show entitlement to relief.”). “When a court is presented with a 12(b)(6) motion, it may consider the Complaint and any exhibits attached thereto, public records, items appearing in the record of the case and exhibits attached to defendant's motion to dismiss so long as they are referred to in the Complaint and are central to the claims contained therein.” Bassett v. Nat'l Coll. Athletic Ass'n, 528 F.3d 426, 430 (6th Cir. 2008); see also Weiner v. Klais & Co., 108 F.3d 86, 89 (6th Cir. 1997) (noting that the Sixth Circuit has “held that ‘documents that a defendant attaches to a motion to dismiss are considered part of the pleadings if they are referred to in the plaintiff's complaint and are central to h[is] claim'”) (quoting Venture Assocs. Corp. v. Zenith Data Sys. Corp., 987 F.2d 429, 431 (7th Cir. 1993)).

         B. Motions to Dismiss

         As an initial observation, the plaintiffs' complaint does not comply with the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Rule 10(b) mandates that claims be made in numbered paragraphs; the contents of each are to be limited to a statement of a single set of circumstances. Claims founded on separate transactions or occurrences are to be stated in separate counts if a separation facilitates a clear presentation. Rather than following this proscription, as alluded to above, the plaintiffs fashioned their complaint more like a brief arguing for judgment in their favor. They cite case law on administrative searches and the Fourth Amendment and argue that the rental property ordinance at issue is unconstitutional. The undersigned suggests forgiving plaintiffs for the form of their complaint, as they are proceeding pro se. See Spotts v. United States, 429 F.3d 248, 250 (6th Cir. 2005) (citing Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, 520 (1972) (stating that the Court holds pleadings of pro se litigants to less stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers)); Boswell v. Mayer, 169 F.3d 384, 387 (6th Cir. 1999) (pro se plaintiffs enjoy the benefit of a liberal construction of their pleadings and filings). The substance of the complaint nevertheless falls short of stating a claim.

         1. Williams Huron Gardens 397 Trust as a Plaintiff

         Plaintiff Williams Huron Gardens 397 Trust (“Trust”) should be stricken as a party from this case. It is not clear whether the Trust is proceeding pro se in this matter or whether one of the individual plaintiffs is purporting to represent the Trust (the undersigned notes that the individual plaintiffs do not state whether they are trustees or beneficiaries of the Trust, or how they may be otherwise affiliated with the Trust). In any event, the consensus among courts is that trusts must be represented by an attorney. As stated in Rowland v. California Men's Colony, Unit 11 Men's Advisory Council, 506 U.S. 194, 210-02 (1993),

It has been the law for the better part of two centuries ... that a corporation may appear in the federal courts only through licensed counsel.... As the courts have recognized, the rationale for that rule applies equally to all artificial entities. Thus, save in a few aberrant cases, the lower courts have uniformly held that 28 U.S.C. § 1654, providing that ‘parties may plead and conduct their own cases personally or by counsel,' does not allow corporations, partnerships, or associations to appear in federal court otherwise than through a licensed attorney. The individual plaintiffs are each proceeding pro se. A pro se litigant may not represent another litigant in a matter before the Court.

         This rationale has been extended to artificial entities such as trusts. See Fields-Beyv. Lipford, 2012 WL 1023049 (W.D. Tenn. Mar. 26, 20120); Knoefler v. UnitedBank of Bismarck, 20 F.3d 347, 348 (8th Cir. 1994) (“A nonlawyer, such as these purported “trustee(s) pro se” has no right to represent another entity, i.e., a trust, in a court of the United States.”) (citing C.E. Pope Equity Trust v. United States,818 F.2d 696, 697-98 (9th Cir.1987); Keyway Leasing Trust v. United States, 1999 WL 810386 (W.D. Mich. Aug. 26, 1999); Marshall v. Wells Fargo Advisors, LLC, 668 Fed.Appx. 874 (11th Cir. 2016) (A trust ...

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