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Elkins v. District of Columbia

February 12, 2010

LAURA ELKINS, ET AL., PLAINTIFFS,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Rosemary M. Collyer United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION

This case concerns the seizure of documents at the home of Laura Elkins and John Robbins pursuant to an administrative search warrant that authorized only a search of the home. The parties have litigated the legality of both the search and the seizure of documents since 2004, and the Court has held that the search was valid, but that Plaintiffs' Fourth Amendment rights were violated due to the unreasonable seizure of documents. Further, the Court has dismissed the case against David Maloney, supervisor of the officer who seized the documents, due to Plaintiffs' failure to point to any evidence of Mr. Maloney's personal involvement. Trial is scheduled for April to determine whether Plaintiffs are entitled to compensatory and/or punitive damages. Plaintiffs seek reconsideration of Court rulings made months and even years ago, and in the alternative, they seek certification of these issues for interlocutory review. See Pls.' Mot. for Recons. [Dkt. # 103]. The motion will be denied.

I. FACTS

Plaintiffs obtained building permits and approvals from the D.C. Historic Preservation Office and the Building and Land Regulation Administration of the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs ("DCRA") for construction at their historic home on Capitol Hill. After construction began, city officials believed that Plaintiffs were building in violation of their permits, and they obtained a warrant to conduct a search of Plaintiffs' home in order to find evidence of illegal construction. The officers inspected the residence and took photos. Also, although the warrant did not authorize it, officials seized certain documents during the search.

The legality of both the search and seizure were litigated before the D.C. Office of Administrative Hearings ("OAH"). On November 22, 2005, the Hearing Officer found that while the search was valid, the seizure of documents was not constitutionally permissible because it was not expressly authorized by the search warrant, citing Groh v. Ramirez, 540 U.S. 551, 559 (2004). See Pls.' Mot. for Partial Summ. J. [Dkt. # 22], Ex. 21 ("OAH Order on Mot. to Suppress") at 13-16 & 21. In 2007, this Court held that collateral estoppel precluded the relitigation of these issues and thus that Plaintiffs' Fourth Amendment rights were violated due to the unreasonable seizure of documents. See Elkins v. District of Columbia, 527 F. Supp. 2d 36, 46 (D.D.C. 2007) ("Elkins I").

Subsequently, the Court determined that Plaintiffs are entitled to recover nominal damages for the unconstitutional seizure and at trial they might recover compensatory and/or punitive damages caused by the document seizure alone. Elkins v. District of Columbia, 610 F. Supp. 2d 52, 63-64 (D.D.C. 2009) ("Elkins II"). The Court clarified in a later opinion that "Plaintiffs may not proceed on any claim for damages caused by actions other than the seizure alone, for example, on any claim for damages caused by the search of their home including the entering of children's rooms and the opening of drawers, damages caused by the permit revocation proceeding, damages caused by the April 24, 2002 stop-work order, or damages caused by any other stop-work order." Elkins v. District of Columbia, 636 F. Supp. 29, 32 (D.D.C. 2009) ("Elkins III"). In Elkins III, the Court also granted summary judgment in favor of Mr. Maloney due to Plaintiffs' failure to present any evidence that Mr. Maloney was involved in the illegal seizure. Id. at 34.

Plaintiffs request reconsideration of the Court's decision to apply collateral estoppel in Elkins I and its decision to dismiss Mr. Maloney in Elkins III. Defendants oppose.

II. ANALYSIS

Because the rulings that Plaintiffs request be reconsidered are interlocutory and not final, Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 54(b) applies. See Singh v. George Wash. Univ., 383 F. Supp. 2d 99, 101 (D.D.C. 2005). Rule 54(b) provides that "any order or other decision, however designated, that adjudicates fewer than all the claims or the rights and liabilities of fewer than all the parties . . . may be revised at any time before the entry of judgment adjudicating all the claims and all the parties' rights and liabilities." Fed. R. Civ. P. 54(b).Revision may be permitted when the Court has "'patently misunderstood a party, has made a decision outside the adversarial issues presented to the Court by the parties, has made an error not of reasoning but of apprehension, or where a controlling or significant change in the law or facts [has occurred] since the submission of the issue to the Court.'" Singh, 383 F. Supp. 2d at 101 (quoting Cobell v. Norton, 224 F.R.D. 266, 272 (D.D.C. 2004)). The burden is on the movant to show that some harm would accompany a denial of the motion to reconsider. "In order for justice to require reconsideration, logically, it must be the case that, some sort of 'injustice' will result if reconsideration is refused. That is, the movant must demonstrate that some harm, legal or at least tangible, would flow from a denial of reconsideration." Cobell v. Norton, 355 F. Supp. 2d 531, 540 (D.D.C. 2005). Further, a district court's discretion to reconsider a non-final ruling is "subject to caveat that where litigants have once battled for the court's decision, they should neither be required, nor without good reason permitted, to battle for it again." Singh, 383 F. Supp. 2d at 101; see also Michilin Prosperity Co. v. Fellowes Mfg. Co., Civ. No. 04-1025, 2006 WL 3208668, at *1 n.1 (D.D.C. Nov. 7, 2006) (rehashed arguments provide no justification for reconsideration).

A. Collateral Estoppel and Validity of the Search Warrant

Plaintiffs raise a legal theory in their motion for reconsideration that they did not raise before - they contend that the Court should not have applied collateral estoppel in Elkins I because the underlying decision of the Hearing Officer was patently erroneous. See Winder v. Erste, 511 F. Supp. 2d 160, 176 (D.D.C. 2007) (refusing to apply collateral estoppel due to manifest error in underlying administrative proceeding), aff'd in part and rev'd in part on other grounds, 566 F.3d 209 (D.C. Cir. 2009). The Hearing Officer found that while the search was conducted pursuant to a warrant based on probable cause, the seizure of documents was not constitutionally permissible because the seizure was not expressly authorized by the warrant, citing Groh v. Ramirez, 540 U.S. 551, 558 (2004). Under Groh,a search warrant's lack of particularity regarding the items to be seized caused the Supreme Court to find that the warrant was invalid in its entirety. Id. Plaintiffs argue that the warrant at issue here should have been found to be similarly invalid, and thus Plaintiff should be permitted to pursue damages caused by the search of their home.

In Groh, a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms agent applied for a search warrant indicating that he believed that various automatic weapons and explosive devices existed on the Ramirez ranch. The agent presented the application with a detailed affidavit and a form warrant to a magistrate, and the magistrate signed the warrant form. The problem was that in the part of the warrant form that asked for a description of the person or property to be seized, the agent typed in a description of the house and not a description of the firearms. The warrant described the property to be seized as a "single dwelling residence . . . blue in color," and it did not incorporate by reference the itemized list of firearms that was part of the warrant application. The Fourth Amendment states that "no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched and the persons or things to be seized." U.S. Const. Amd. IV; see Michigan v. Clifford, 464 U.S. 287, 294-98 (1984) (the object of the search determines the type of warrant required and the scope of the permissible search). In light of the Fourth Amendment's unambiguous requirement that a warrant must describe the "things to be seized" with particularity, the Supreme Court in Groh found that the warrant that failed to describe any item to be seized was so "obviously deficient that [the Court] must regard the search as 'warrantless.'" Id. at 559.

Plaintiffs argue that the search warrant here, like the one in Groh, did not describe the items to be seized at all and thus that the warrant was so lacking in particularity that the Hearing Officer should have found that the warrant was invalid. Plaintiffs overstate Groh's limited application to this case. In Groh, the officers were investigating firearms violations but they failed to obtain a warrant to search for and seize firearms. Instead, they conducted a search pursuant to a warrant that did not authorize the seizure of anything other than the house where the items were located. In the instant matter, the officers were investigating construction code violations, but they failed to obtain a warrant that permitted the seizure of relevant documents, such as blue prints and construction invoices. However, the warrant did accurately describe Plaintiffs' home by its street address and it did expressly authorize the search for construction code violations. Such code violations could be discovered by viewing the property inside and outside. The officers inspected the home and took photos of the construction as permitted by the terms of the warrant.

More specifically, Denzil Noble, then Acting Administrator of the Building and Land Use Administration of the DCRA, applied for a warrant to search Plaintiffs' home for evidence of construction code violations. A judge of the D.C. Superior Court found probable cause and issued a warrant. The warrant stated that the DCRA had "probable cause to believe that on the . . . premises . . . known as 20 9th Street, N.E. Wash[ington] D.C. . . . , there is now being concealed certain property, namely unlicenced construction work" and the warrant authorized a search for the same. Defs.' Mot. to Dismiss [Dkt. # 7], Ex. 10 (Search Warrant). Because the warrant specifically referenced the subject property and because the purpose of the warrant was to search for construction code violations, the warrant was sufficiently specific to cover an inspection of the property and ...


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