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Harmon v. Sussex County

United States District Court, D. Delaware

June 15, 2018

SANDRA HARMON, Plaintiff,
v.
SUSSEX COUNTY, TODD LAWSON, CONSTABLE MIKE CASTELLO, and KELLY PASSWATER, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM

         Plaintiff appears pro se. She began this lawsuit to protect her private property and preserve her right to restore her home located in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, which she owns with "Leroy William Harmon Heirs" and Lefton Harmon, Sr. (D.I. 1; D.I. 1-1 at p.8). Plaintiff alleges violations of her rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments to peaceful enjoyment of the property, and unlawful tactics by Sussex County government officials. On June 9, 2018, Plaintiff filed a motion for emergency and preliminary injunction to prevent a Sheriff's sale scheduled for June 19, 2018, in Sussex County, Delaware. (D.I. 27). Defendants responded. (D.I. 32).

         I. Background

         Plaintiff began this action in the United States District Court for the District of South Carolina. The case was transferred to this Court on December 19, 2017. (D.I. 13, 14). Before beginning this action, on June 27, 2017, Plaintiff filed a case in the Superior Court of the State of Delaware in and for Sussex County against Sussex County and Mike Castello. Harmon v. Sussex County, Civ. A. No. S17C-06-035 ESB (Del. Super.). Plaintiff sought an injunction against a demolition order for property located on Oyster House Road in Rehoboth, Delaware. The property, which had been destroyed by fire, had been determined to be dangerous, unsafe and unfit for human occupation, occupancy or use and was a public nuisance under common law. (D.I. 1-1 at p.6).

         Plaintiff became aware of the demolition order on June 23, 2017. The demolition order provided that the owners were to raze the structure by June 24, 2017 and, if they failed to comply with the demolition order, the Sussex County Code Office would have the structure razed and removed and the costs of razing and removing would be charged against the real estate upon which the structure was located, and a lien would be placed upon the real estate as provided in the Sussex County Code. (Id.). The parties agreed that no action would be taken to demolish the property until disposition of the matter by the Sussex County Board of Appeals. Harmon, Civ. A. No. S17C-06-035 ESB, at Sept. 6, 2017 Order.

         In the meantime, on July 25, 2017, Plaintiff and the other owners received a violation notice regarding a shed on the property deemed an "illegally placed structure, " and they were given until August 18, 2017 to correct the violation.[1] (D.I. 1-1 at p.8). On August 31, 2017, Plaintiff was notified by email that the demolition appeal hearing was set for September 20, 2017. (Id. at p.1). As part of the process, Plaintiff was required to pay a $600 application fee. (Id. at p.1). Plaintiff sought a fee waiver due to financial hardship and was told the County had no process to waive the fee and, if not received by September 13, 2017, the hearing would be canceled. (Id. at pp. 2-3). Plaintiff did not pay the fee and was notified on September 14, 2017 that the hearing was canceled. (Id. at p.5). She alleges demolition of the home began the same day. (D.I. 1 at p.4). She further alleges Defendants took steps beyond demolition when they filled the basement with fill dirt and covered the water well with fill dirt. (Id.) The Complaint seeks compensatory damages and injunctive relief.

         On January 12, 2018, a little over three weeks after this case was transferred from South Carolina to here, the Department of Finance of Sussex County filed a monitions suit against Plaintiff and the other owners for delinquent sewer and water bills and the demolition lien. Department of Finance of Sussex County v. Harmon Heirs, Civ. A. No. S18T-01-002 (Del. Super.) The total arrearages amount to $14, 063.10. Monition was entered on January 18, 2018, and posted on the property on January 23, 2018. Department of Finance of Sussex County, Civ. A. No. S18T-01 -002 at Jan. 24, 2018 return of writ. On May 30, 2018, a notice of the Sheriff's sale was posted at the physical entrance of the property and, on May 31, 2018, Plaintiff and the other property owners were notified by certified mail of a Sheriff's sale of the real estate to take place on June 19, 2018, at 9:30 a.m. See Department of Finance of Sussex County, Civ. A. No. S18T-01-002 at June 13, 2018 Ex. A, Affidavit of Proof of Mailing; Ex. B, Notice to Lienholders; Ex. C Affidavit of Posting The notice states that it "does not constitute a representation that the public sale will be held, which sale is subject to possible stay, redemption, continuance or dismissal."[2] (D.I. 27-2 at p.3).

         On June 8, 2018, Plaintiff filed a motion to dismiss and motion for injunctive relief in Civ. A. No. S18T-01-002. She filed an identical motion for injunctive relief in this case. (D.I. 27). Plaintiff contends the Sheriff's sale is retaliatory. The motion states that on May 27, 2018, Plaintiff declined an offer of sale of the property initiated by West Rehoboth Community Land Trust, that Defendants were upset by her refusal and are "unlawfully . . . using their political influence seeking to unlawfully strip [her] of her private property, " "for their own private use, " when, through their attorney, they "drafted a plan with less than [thirty] day[s'] notice, and without any warning to . . . Plaintiff -- to place [the] property up for Sheriff sale on [June 19, ] 2018." (Id. at ¶¶ 1 -2). The motion states that West Rehoboth Community Land Trust and its registered agent David J. Weidman disguised themselves as Partnerships for Development, Inc. (Id. at ¶ 1). The agreement of sale names Plaintiff and Lefton Harmon, Sr. as the sellers, Partnerships for Development Inc. as the buyer, and provides for a $300, 000 purchase price. (D.I. 27-1 at p.1). Plaintiff asserts that Hudson & Downs Corporation, with West Rehoboth Community Land Trust, have been working together to strip African American residents of their beach property in the name of the land trust. (D.I. 27 at ¶ 5).

         According to Plaintiff, she has made multiple payments on the water and sewer bill, noting that one check was returned, and stating the bill will be paid in full the month of June 2018. (Id. at ¶¶ 10-14). She states that Sussex County never attempted to arrange for payments on the demolition and she "just began to pay monthly on the outstanding cost of demolition until the balance is paid in full." (Id. at ¶¶ 15-17) Plaintiff is currently challenging the demolition cost in this action. (Id. at ¶ 16).

         Plaintiff asks the Court to issue an emergency injunction to the Superior Court of the State of Delaware in and for Sussex County to prevent: (1) immediate and irreparable injury, loss, and damage; (2) the Sheriff's sale of the property located on Oyster House Road in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware; (3) Defendants and their associates from further retaliatory and harassing conduct; and (4) Sussex County Administration Department of Finance from having the property disposed of without due process of law.

         Defendants oppose the motion on the grounds Plaintiff has failed to meet the requisites for injunctive relief. (D.I. 32). They note that the arrearages, not retaliation, are the actual cause of the Sheriff's sale. In addition, they note that West Rehoboth, Partners for Development, Inc., and Hudson & Downs Corporations are not defendants in this action, and they are not affiliated with Defendants in this action. (D.I. 32 at ¶¶ 10, 11). Defendants contend that they did not offer to purchase the property at issue and have no reason to retaliate, noting that as a government entity and public servants, they would gain no right to use the subject property under the offer of sale.

         11. Standards of Law

         A preliminary injunction is "an extraordinary remedy that should be granted only if (1) the plaintiff is likely to succeed on the merits; (2) denial will result in irreparable harm to the plaintiff; (3) granting the injunction will not result in irreparable harm to the defendant; and (4) granting the injunction is in the public interest." NutraSweet Co. v. Vit-Mar Enterprises, Inc., 176 F.3d 151, 153 (3d Cir. 1999). "[F]ailure to establish any element in [a plaintiff's] favor renders a preliminary injunction inappropriate." Id. Plaintiff, as the movant, bears the burden of showing that these four factors weigh in favor of granting the injunction. See Ferring Pharms., Inc. v. Watson Pharms., Inc., 765 F.3d 205, 210 (3d Cir. 2014).

         III. Discussion

         Abstention. Under the Younger abstention doctrine, a federal district court must abstain from hearing a federal case which interferes with certain state proceedings. See Younger v. Harris,401 U.S. 37 (1971). The Court may raise the issue of Younger abstention sua sponte. O'Neill v. City of Philadelphia,32 F.3d 785, 786 n.1 (3d Cir. 1994). Under Younger, federal courts are prevented from enjoining pending state proceedings absent extraordinary circumstances.[3]Middlesex Cnty. Ethics Comm. v. Garden State BarAss'n,457 U.S. 423, 437 (1982). Abstention is appropriate only when: (1) there are ongoing state proceedings that are judicial in nature; (2) the state proceedings implicate important state interests; and (3) the state proceedings provide an adequate opportunity to raise the federal claims. Lazaridis v. Wehmer, 591 F.3d 666, ...


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