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Media Alerts - Hall v. Greystar Management Services, L.P., et al. -- Fourth Circuit
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February 8, 2016
  Hall v. Greystar Management Services, L.P., et al. -- Fourth Circuit
Versailles Is Not Your Palace: Conversion Claim Survives After Apartment Complex Destroys 15,000 Pounds of Ex-Tenant's Belongings

Areas of Law: Civil Procedure

Issue Presented: Whether the district court abused its discretion when it dismissed Hall's complaint and denied her motions to reconsider and amend.

Brief Summary: Hall was notified by Greystar Management Services, the owner of her apartment complex, that she could no longer use a storage unit to store items for her service dog because the items created a fire code violation. She also eventually learned that her lease would not be renewed. Hall was subsequently evicted. Hall filed suit against Greystar Management, PSN Landscaping and Lieutenant Richard Kelly but the district court granted the defendants' motion to dismiss. Hall then filed a motion to amend her complaint. This was also denied. She then appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. The Fourth Circuit found that the district court did not abuse its discretion when it denied Hall's amended retaliation claim but the district court did abuse its discretion when it denied Hall's amended conversion claim.

Extended Summary:
Hall and her service dog lived in the Versailles apartments in Towson, Maryland from 2005 until 2011. During this time Hall used a storage unit to store things for her service dog. In 2009, Greystar Management Services (GMS) acquired Versailles and in August 2010, GMS told Hall her use of the storage unit created a fire code violation. Hall then asked for a three-bedroom apartment so she would have space to keep her dog's things.

While Hall was waiting on the requested three-bedroom, in December 2010, GMS removed Hall's property from the storage unit and placed it in dumpsters. GMS also informed Hall that her lease would not be renewed. She was instructed to vacate her apartment by April 30, 2011. In February 2011, Hall filed complaints with the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the U.S. Department of Justice, and the Maryland Commission on Civil Rights. After the complaints were filed, GMS told Hall there were no three-bedroom units available. After the April 30, 2011 deadline, Hall continued to rent her apartment on a month-to-month basis while looking for a new apartment.

GMS won a tenant holding over action against Hall and obtained an eviction order in Baltimore County District Court. On November 10, 2011, Hall's appeal was denied so she filed for a stay of enforcement pending a review of the decision by another judge. In the meantime, the movers Hall had hired told her they would not be able to move her things until December. Hall paid the rent for December 2011 and GMS accepted the payment. On or about November 30, 2011, the Circuit Court for Baltimore County denied Hall's motion for stay of enforcement. The next day, GMS had workers remove approximately 15,000 pounds of Hall's belongings. Some of the items were taken to a landfill.

In November 2013, Hall filed suit against GMS, the PSN Landscaping workers who removed her belongings, and Baltimore County Sheriff Lieutenant Richard Kelly, who supervised the eviction. The district court granted the defendants' motions to dismiss. In July 2014, Hall filed motions to alter or amend judgment and for leave to file an amended complaint. The motions were denied by the district court and the amended complaint was found to be "futile on all counts." Specifically, Hall's amended complaint failed to allege a causal connection between the protected activity (filing discrimination complaints) and the adverse action. The court found the amended complaint also failed to allege discriminatory intent. The district court also dismissed Hall's amended conversion claim as futile finding that it failed to "include a plausible claim for damages" and failed to identify the damages for the property removed prior to eviction. Hall appealed this decision.

First, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit found that the district court did not abuse its discretion in denying Hall's motion to amend her retaliation claim. For a retaliation claim, Hall needed to establish that 1) she was engaged in protected activity, 2) GMS was aware of that activity, 3) GMS took adverse action against her, and 4) a causal connection existed between the protected activity and the asserted adverse action. The Fourth Circuit found that Hall satisfied three of these prongs (she was engaged in a protected activity, GMS was aware of that activity, and GMS "acted with malice" when disposing of Hall's property). However, Hall's amended complaint failed to show that GMS took action because of her protected activity; there was no causal connection. Instead the complaint left open for speculation the cause for GMS's decision to destroy her property. Hall's complaint asked the court to infer retaliation, in response to Hall filing the complaints, as the cause for GMS's decision to destroy her property. The court could not infer retaliation from the destruction of the property in the storage unit because it occurred before Hall's protected activity. The court was also unable to infer retaliation from the destruction of the property removed from her apartment because there was a ten-month lapse between Hall's protected activity (filing the HUD complaint in February 2011) and GMS's adverse action (destroying her property from the apartment in December 2011).

Next, the Fourth Circuit considered the district court's denial of Hall's motion to amend the conversion claim. The Fourth Circuit found the issue identified by the district court--that Hall pleaded the same amount of damages in her original and amended complaint despite the court's finding that some property was abandoned--raised an issue of fact on the question of damages. This issue of fact could not be resolved on a motion to dismiss. The Fourth Circuit then examined whether Hall's complaint contained sufficient facts to state a claim of conversion against each defendant. Hall alleged that PSN, directed by GMS's attorney, removed file boxes from in and around Hall's vehicle, her housekeeper's vehicle and her attorney's vehicle. This property was placed on PSN's trucks and taken to a landfill where it was destroyed. The Fourth Circuit found that these facts "nudge Hall's conversion claim against GMS and PSN across the line from conceivable to plausible." The court thus found that the district court did abuse its discretion in denying the motion to amend the conversion claim against GMS and PSN. However, nothing in Hall's complaint alleged that Lieutenant Richard Kelly exerted ownership over her property so she failed to state a claim against Kelly. Hall's final claim was not considered because she failed to raise the issue in the lower court.

To read the full text of this opinion, please click here.

Panel: Judges Motz, Gregory, and Harris

Argument Date: 10/27/15

Date of Issued Opinion: 01/21/16

Docket Number: No. 14-2145

Decided: Affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded by unpublished opinion.

Case Alert Author: Diamond Martin, Univ. of Maryland Carey School of Law

Counsel: ARGUED: Leslie Robert Stellman, PESSIN KATZ LAW, P.A., Towson, Maryland, for Appellant. Michael William Skojec, BALLARD SPAHR LLP, Baltimore, Maryland; Andrew Martin Battista, ANDREW M. BATTISTA, P.A., Towson, Maryland; Michele J. McDonald, OFFICE OF THE ATTORNEY GENERAL OF MARYLAND, Baltimore, Maryland, for Appellees. ON BRIEF: Adam E. Konstas, PESSIN KATZ LAW, P.A., Towson, Maryland, for Appellant. Michelle M. McGeogh, BALLARD SPAHR LLP, Baltimore, Maryland, for Appellee Greystar Management Services, L.P. Brian E. Frosh, Attorney General of Maryland, OFFICE OF THE ATTORNEY GENERAL OF MARYLAND, Baltimore, Maryland, for Appellee Richard Kelly.

Author of Opinion: Judge Gregory

Case Alert Supervisor: Professor Renée Hutchins

    Posted By: Renee Hutchins @ 02/08/2016 10:42 AM     4th Circuit  

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