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Chavis v. Garrett

United States District Court, District of Columbia

December 30, 2019

LOREEN CHAVIS, Plaintiff,
v.
TYRONE GARRETT, in his official capacity as Executive Director of THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA HOUSING AUTHORITY, and DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA HOUSING AUTHORITY, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          COLLEEN KOLLAR-KOTELLY, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Pending before the Court is Defendants Tyrone Garrett and the District of Columbia Housing Authority's Motion to Dismiss, ECF No. 26. Defendants have moved to dismiss various claims in the Amended Complaint, ECF No. 24, under Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6) for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction and for failure to state a claim. In particular, Defendants contend that Ms. Chavis's claims seeking injunctive and declaratory relief are moot in light of Defendants' post-filing actions. Moreover, Defendants argue that Ms. Chavis has failed to state a claim for a Fifth Amendment due process violation. Ms. Chavis opposes Defendants' Motion, except, in part, to the extent that Defendants seek to dismiss Ms. Chavis's claims against Defendant Tyrone Garrett.

         Upon consideration of the briefing, [1] the relevant legal authorities, and the record as a whole, the Court GRANTS Defendants' Motion. Insofar as Ms. Chavis's claims seek injunctive or declaratory relief, they are DISMISSED due to their mootness. Because Ms. Chavis has failed to state a due process claim, that claim is DISMISSED. Lastly, as Ms. Chavis concedes that the suit against Mr. Garrett should be dismissed without prejudice, that suit is DISMISSED WITHOUT PREJUDICE.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Ms. Chavis married Roger Avent on February 15, 2000 and they have three children together. Am. Compl. ¶ 23. On or about December 1, 2017, Ms. Chavis and Mr. Avent received an enhanced voucher under the Housing and Urban-Rural Recovery Act of 1983 (“HVCP”). Id. ¶ 24. Mr. Avent listed himself as the “head of household” on the voucher without Ms. Chavis's knowledge. Id. ¶ 25. While they lived together, Mr. Avent's income accounted for one-third of the household income and Ms. Chavis's accounted for the remaining two-thirds. Id. ¶ 26.

         On September 2, 2018, Ms. Avent verbally threatened Ms. Chavis's life in the presence of their children. Id. ¶ 27. Ms. Chavis subsequently contacted the police, filed a police report, and obtained a Civil Protection Order against Mr. Avent. Id. Mr. Avent vacated the household while Ms. Chavis and her children remained tenants. Id. ¶ 28. In the wake of this event, Ms. Chavis became concerned that she might lose her housing voucher, and become unable to pay her rent, because Mr. Avent was listed as the head of household. Id. ¶ 29.

         A brief primer on the relevant federal and D.C. laws provides context for Ms. Chavis's concerns and actions. Under the federal Violence Against Women Act (“VAWA”), 34 U.S.C. § 12291 et seq., tenants that otherwise qualify for assistance under HVCP may not be denied that assistance on the basis that they are or have been victims of domestic violence, id. § 12491(b)(1). The implementing regulations specify that if an assisted family breaks up due to “an occurrence of domestic violence, ” the local housing authority “must ensure that the victim retains assistance.” 24 C.F.R. § 982.315(a)(2). The D.C. Housing Authority Administrative Plan further guarantees that when families break up due to occurrences of domestic violence, the “victim of the violence or offense shall continue to receive assistance.” 14 D.C.M.R. § 5317.6(b)(1); see Id. § 5317.6.

         The Administrative Plan also provides specific procedures for when it receives documentation that the head of household committed domestic violence against another member of the household. If the Housing Authority “receives conflicting certification documents of domestic violence” from members of the household alleging that one or more other members was the perpetrator, the Housing Authority undertakes a certain process to determine who will retain assistance. See Id. § 5317.6(c)(1)-(4). Before it can make any determination, the Housing Authority must notify both individuals that only one part of the family will retain assistance, of the process by which the Housing Authority will make its decision, and of what information the involved persons can provide. Id. 5317.6(c)(1)-(2). Once it has made its determination, the Housing Authority must notify both individuals in writing of its decision as well as the basis for its decision. Id. § 5317.6(c)(3). The adult family member who will not receive assistance can challenge the decision in an informal hearing. Id. § 5317.6(c)(4).

         The D.C. Municipal Regulations independently provide that when the Housing Authority takes adverse action against individuals, including decisions terminating assistance under HVCP, the individuals adversely affected are entitled to notice and can challenge the adverse action in an informal hearing. Id. § 8902.1. On November 29, 2018, the Housing Authority issued new regulations that govern the family break-up process in the context of domestic violence and clarifying the process for removing the head of household. Am. Compl. ¶ 34.

         So, on October 10, 2018, Ms. Chavis, through counsel, contacted the Housing Authority to initiate the family break-up process. Id. ¶ 30. On October 26, 2018, she and her counsel met with three Housing Authority officials. Id. ¶ 31. They provided the officials with the copy of the Civil Protection Order and a letter that Ms. Chavis had obtained from D.C. Survivors and Advocates for Empowerment attesting that she was a victim of domestic violence and that she had sought relevant services. Id. The Housing Authority said it would be in touch, but it did not contact Ms. Chavis or her counsel for the next month. Id. ¶ 32.

         On November 29, 2018, Ms. Chavis, through counsel, sent a letter to the Housing Authority to confirm that Ms. Chavis would continue to receive assistance, but she received no response. Id. ¶ 33. She sent another letter, through counsel, on December 13, 2018, requesting that the Housing Authority comply with the new regulations issued on November 29, 2018. Id. ¶ 35. She requested a response by December 19, 2018 but received none. Id. Then, on December 21, 2018, Ms. Chavis, again through counsel, sent a letter to Watson Fennell, who was the Director of the Office of Fair Hearings at the Housing Authority, requesting an informal resolution or hearing regarding the Housing Authority's failure to act on her request. Id. ¶ 36.

         On December 26, 2018, an official at the Housing Authority informed Ms. Chavis that she was going to be issued a temporary voucher because she met “the VAWA definition.” Id. ¶ 37. The Housing Authority specified that the voucher could be revoked based on a future hearing that Mr. Avent had a right to request. Id. ¶ 38. It also explained that it would not initiate voucher payments to her landlord due to the voucher's temporary status. Id. After Ms. Chavis's counsel communicated further with the Housing Authority, the Housing Authority also stated that it would not begin the recertification process to establish Ms. Chavis as temporary head of household so that Mr. Avent's income could be excluded for the purposes of calculating the assistance that Ms. Chavis received. Id. ¶ 39. Ms. Chavis explains that this put her at risk of eviction due to nonpayment of rent. Id. ¶¶ 40-43.

         Subsequently, on January 9, 2019, Ms. Chavis requested a hearing with the Housing Authority. Id. ¶ 43. The Housing Authority's Fair Hearings Administrator issued a letter denying her request for a hearing. Id. ¶ 44. The letter included the following:

[Y]our request for an informal hearing . . . [is denied because] . . . it has been determined according to our records that your client (Loren Avent) is not the head-of-household and therefore, not entitled to an administrative review.
The regulations governing the grievance process specifies that the head-of-household serves as the basis for income eligibility and rent determination as well as assumes legal responsibility for the household. For that reason, your client does not have standing to initiate the Housing Choice Voucher Program Informal Hearing Procedures under 14 DCMR § 8999.
While I am sympathetic to your client's circumstances, the administrative grievance process does not entitle individual members of a household composition to request a hearing except, the head of household. Although an administrative review cannot be granted through DCHA's grievance process, this decision does not affect your client's rights to due process through the judicial system.

Id. The Housing Authority soon after denied Ms. Chavis's request that she receive continued assistance and halted sending any payments to Ms. Chavis's landlord. Id. ¶ 46. On March 8, 2019, Ms. Chavis's landlord filed a Verified Complaint for Possession of her apartment because she had failed to pay the full rent for January, February, and March 2019. Id. ¶¶ 47-48. Ms. Chavis filed the first Complaint in this action on March 13, 2019, along with a Motion for Preliminary Injunction. Id. ¶ 50.

         After the suit was filed, the Housing Authority paid back rent due to the landlord; the landlord consequently dismissed the action for possession of the apartment. Id. ¶ 51. The Housing Authority also issued a voucher to Ms. Chavis. Joint Status Report, ECF No. 19, at 2. The parties continued to dispute the amount that Ms. Chavis would receive going forward, but ultimately, by April 18, 2019, the parties agreed that the Housing Authority “had issued Ms. Chavis a housing voucher in a legally sufficient amount.” Am. Compl. ¶ 51; see also Joint Status Report, ECF No. 22. Ms. Chavis withdrew her Motion for a Preliminary Injunction. Am. Compl. ¶ 51; Joint Status Report, ECF No. 22.

         Ms. Chavis filed an Amended Complaint on May 16, 2019. See ECF No. 24. Her Complaint alleges violation of the Fifth Amendment's due process clause (Count I), violation of VAWA (Count II), and violation of Title 14 of the District of Columbia Municipal Regulations (Count III). Am. Compl. at 13-18. She requests several types of relief. First, she requests a permanent injunction requiring the Housing Authority “to maintain Ms. Chavis's permanent participation in the HVCP as required by law and to ensure that the amount of assistance is based on her income as required by law.” Id. at 18. Second, she seeks a permanent injunction requiring the Housing Authority to adopt policies and procedures consistent with the regulations it issued on November 29, 2018 and its obligations under VAWA and related regulations. Id. Third, fourth, and fifth, she requests that the Court issue declaratory judgments declaring that the Housing Authority's actions violated the Fifth Amendment's Due Process clause, VAWA and related implementing regulations, and Title 14 of the District of Columbia Municipal Regulations. Id. at 18-19. She also requests compensatory damages for emotional distress and nominal damages for the alleged violations. Id. at 19.

         II. LEGAL STANDARDS

         Defendants move to dismiss portions of Ms. Chavis's Amended Complaint under both Rule 12(b)(1) for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction and Rule 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim.

         A. Subject Matter Jurisdiction ...


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