Federal Rule of Civil Procedure Rule 12(b)(1) concerns a court’s subject matter jurisdiction to hear a case. You can not just bring a lawsuit where you want against someone because you want to. If a judge decides that a plaintiff doesn’t have standing or the proper connection to an injury, the court will not have jurisdiction to hear the case and must dismiss it.
Chief Judge Wilma Lewis of the District Court of the Virgin Islands analyzed this issue when a condominium owner’s association brought a “Motion to Dismiss all of Plaintiff Sarah Nelson’s Claims,” under Rule 12(b)(1) for lack of standing.
Anne–Marie Bedell brought the action against the Long Reef Condominium Home Owner’s Association (“Condo”) alleging that it violated the federal Fair Housing Act (“FHA”). She claimed that the Condo enforced its pet policy against her and refused to let her to keep a dog she said was an “emotional support animal” in her condominium unit. Nelson and her pet were treated the same way. Bedell and Nelson filed a complaint in which they sought declarative relief and damages.
Nelson bought and lived in her condominium unit beginning in June 2004. She acquired a small dog in 2009, which she began to keep in her condominium. Nelson had several traumatic experiences and was diagnosed with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”) about that time. Two mental health professionals advised her that it was “necessary” for her to keep the dog for emotional support. The presence of her pet acting as an emotional support dog, reduces the effects of PTSD and depression, which improved her quality of life. This support enabled Nelson to continue working and live independently.
The Condo’s rules prohibited keeping pets in the condominium units, but over the 10-year period leading up to the lawsuit, several animals were found to be living with owners on the property, and no legal action was taken. The amendments to the rules in 2006 recognized several cats that were at the time on the Condo property and treated them as an “exception” to the ban against pets. In addition, after the rules were amended, two dogs that were found to be living on the property and were grandfathered in to the exception. Legal action was not brought against their owners.
In December 2009, the Condo Board of Directors sent Nelson a letter telling her that they were aware she had a dog in her unit; that pets were prohibited; and that the Condo would assess fines against her followed by legal action if she didn’t remove the dog. Nelson told the Condo that her dog was a “necessary companion,” but the Condo subsequently fined her. The same month, “[i]n response to such threats [the December 2009 letter], and to avoid a lawsuit, Nelson was forced to move out of her residence … and has resided elsewhere ever since.” The Condo continued to issue fines against her for several months, and in May 2010, it sued to enjoin her from keeping her dog on the premises.
Nelson told the Condo on in July 2010 that her dog was a “service animal,” and asked what documentation it needed to allow her to keep her dog. The Condo never responded to Nelson, but in December 2010, it recorded a lien against her condominium for $1,300 for unpaid assessments. Nelson didn’t know about the lien until she read about it in the Commercial Reporter in February 2011. The Condo released the lien in June 2011. In the interim, Nelson advised the Condo of her mental condition and formally requested that Condo accommodate her by allowing her to keep a pet on the premises as an emotional support animal, in accordance with the FHA. Nelson joined Bedell in this action. In October 2012, the Condo filed a counterclaim, seeking to enjoin Nelson from living in her unit with her dog.
The Condo argued that because Nelson moved out of her condominium in February 2010, some16 months before joining Bedell in this lawsuit– there was no active controversy between her and the Condo. As a result, the Condo contended that Nelson didn’t have standing, and that all of her claims should be dismissed. Chief Judge Wilma Lewis disagreed and held that the facts clearly indicated that a live case or controversy existed.
The Chief Judge explained that constitutional standing requires the following:
“(1) injury-in-fact, which is an invasion of a legally protected interest that is:
(a) concrete and particularized and
(b) actual or imminent, not conjectural or hypothetical;
(2) a causal connection between the injury and the conduct complained of; and
(3) must be likely as opposed to merely speculative, that the injury will be redressed by a favorable decision.”
The plaintiff has the burden of proving standing, and in considering a motion to dismiss for lack of standing pursuant to Rule 12(b)(1), the court will accept as true all material allegations of the complaint and construe them in favor of the plaintiff.
Judge Lewis stated that Nelson was clearly under a restriction imposed by Condo. As a dog owner, she was unable to live in property that she owned because of its rule prohibiting pets. This, the judge said, was her “injury-in-fact: she was made to choose between two rights to which she would otherwise be entitled—living in property that she owns and keeping her dog. Her injury as such was concrete and particularized as well as actual, not hypothetical. Chief Judge Lewis also said that there was a causal connection between the Condo’s conduct and her injury because every day that the no-pet rule existed, and Nelson was unable to live in her condominium with her dog, was a day in which the Condo’s actions were causing her injury to continue. Finally, there was the element of redressability because if the court ruled in favor of Nelson on the merits, she would be able to live in her unit with her dog, remedying her injury.
Nelson alleged that, as a result of the Condo recording a lien against her unit, she was forced to hire an attorney to defend against its false allegations, and “the added stress of litigating over this slanderous lien” caused her to incur more medical expenses.
The Condo countered that her claim was moot because the lien was released a month before Nelson joined Bedell in this action. Judge Lewis disagreed, and cited case law with said that “[d]amages should be denied on the merits, not on the grounds of mootness.” Further, damages claims “are retrospective in nature—they compensate for past harm” and, accordingly, “such claims cannot be moot." As long as a party presents a viable claim for damages, a case is not moot. Accordingly, the Court would not dismiss Nelson’s slander of title claim as moot.
Chief Judge Lewis found that Nelson had standing and that her claim for slander of title was not moot. The Condominium Owner’s Association’s Motion to Dismiss was denied.
Bedell v. Long Reef Condominium Homeowners Association, Slip Copy, 2013 WL 5486772 (D.Virgin Islands September 30, 2013).