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Woods v. United States Steel Corp.

United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Southern Division

November 19, 2018

HENRIETTA WOODS, et al., Plaintiffs,



         This case is before the court on four separate motions: (1) the Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss filed by Defendant City of Birmingham (“Birmingham”) (Doc. # 67); (2) the Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss filed by Defendant United States Steel Corporation (“U.S. Steel”) (Doc. # 64); (3) U.S. Steel's motion for summary judgment as to certain plaintiffs (Doc. # 62); and (4) U.S. Steel's motion to strike (Doc. # 79). The motions are fully briefed.[1] (Docs. # 61, 63, 64, 65, 67, 70, 71, 73, 74, 75, 76, 77, 78, 79, 81, 82, 83).

         After careful review, and for the reasons explained below, the court concludes that Birmingham's motion to dismiss is due to be granted and that U.S. Steel's motion to dismiss is due to be granted in part. The court further concludes that U.S. Steel is entitled to summary judgment as to eight plaintiffs on all claims asserted by those plaintiffs. Accordingly, Birmingham is entitled to be dismissed from this case with prejudice, U.S. Steel is entitled to judgment against eight of the plaintiffs, and the remaining plaintiffs may proceed with their surviving claims against U.S. Steel. Finally, U.S. Steel's motion to strike is due to be denied as moot.

         I. Background[2]

         Plaintiffs are eighteen residents of the Ensley Sherman Heights Neighborhood who support Ensley Revitalization Committee, LLC, which is also a plaintiff in this lawsuit. (Doc. # 57 at ¶ 1). Defendant U.S. Steel owns an approximately 600-acre site formerly used for steel manufacturing in the Ensley neighborhood, known colloquially as “Ensley Works.” (Id. at ¶¶ 3, 14). U.S. Steel ceased steel production at Ensley Works in the 1980s, and the property has since fallen into severe disrepair. (Id. at ¶¶ 3, 6-7, 17, 41-42).

         Plaintiffs claim the Ensley Works property contains obnoxious weeds and overgrown vegetation, dilapidated and unsafe buildings, and a variety of animals and pests, including snakes, rodents, bobcats, and other wild animals. (Id. at ¶¶ 3, 6, 43). Those Plaintiffs whose properties abut Ensley Works complain that weeds, vegetation, and overgrown trees from Ensley Works have encroached upon their property, and all Plaintiffs allege that animal pests have migrated from Ensley Works onto their property. (Id. at ¶¶ 43-44, 75). Plaintiffs also maintain that the Ensley Works property has become an eyesore, a dumping ground for trash, refuse, animal carcasses, and dead bodies, and a hangout for “obnoxious vagrants” and “vagabonds” who loiter on the property day and night and disturb Plaintiffs' quiet enjoyment of their own property. (Id. at ¶¶ 7, 20). The Ensley Works property largely lacks any barricades or fencing to prevent unauthorized entry onto it. (Id. at ¶ 20).

         Despite complaints to U.S. Steel and Birmingham since at least 1986, Plaintiffs allege that U.S. Steel has failed to do anything to maintain the property. (Id. at ¶¶ 3, 8, 71). Birmingham spent some $34, 000 in taxpayer funds to control weeds, rodents, and other pests at Ensley Works on two occasions, but the city has neither sought recovery for those costs nor placed a lien on the property, according to Plaintiffs. (Id. at ¶ 44).

         In addition to U.S. Steel, Plaintiffs have also named the City of Birmingham as a defendant in this lawsuit. Plaintiffs claim Birmingham has failed to enforce various state statutes authorizing municipalities to abate public nuisances against U.S. Steel, even though Birmingham has local authority and jurisdiction to enforce those statutes.[3] (Id. at ¶¶ 3-4). Plaintiffs attribute Birmingham's lack of enforcement efforts to the fact Birmingham and U.S. Steel “are doing business with each other in more affluent areas of Birmingham and surrounding communities.” (Id. at ¶ 5). By failing to take enforcement action against U.S. Steel to remedy the condition of Ensley Works, Plaintiffs claim Birmingham is perpetuating a private nuisance. (Id.). Plaintiffs assert that Birmingham has a duty to declare the Ensley Works property a nuisance, place notices of condemnation upon the four dilapidated structures remaining on the property, and either compel U.S. Steel to remediate the property or undertake remediation itself. (Id. at ¶ 8).

         As a result of U.S. Steel's and Birmingham's alleged wrongdoing, Plaintiffs claim they have suffered diminished property values, damage to their quality of life and to their health and safety, and the inability to quietly enjoy their property. (Id. at ¶ 48). Plaintiffs also allege they have incurred expenses related to the abatement of the nuisance conditions on Ensley Works and that the conditions on the property have worked hurt, inconvenience, and damage to them. (Id.). For example, Plaintiffs claim they have spent their own money to abate encroaching weeds, cut overgrown trees, and exterminate large rodents that have entered their property from the adjacent Ensley Works property. (Id. at ¶ 75).

         Plaintiffs assert claims for private nuisance, attractive nuisance, nuisance per se, negligence, negligence per se, trespass, and wantonness -- all under Alabama law -- against both U.S. Steel and Birmingham.[4] (Id. at ¶ 47). Plaintiffs seek an injunction either (1) requiring U.S. Steel to (a) abate weeds and vegetation within a 30-yard buffer zone surrounding the Ensley Works property; (b) spray for snakes around the perimeter of the property; and (c) demolish the four dilapidated structures on the property and haul off the resulting debris or (2) ordering Birmingham to enforce applicable state statutes against U.S. Steel and compel the company to remediate the property. (Id. at 4-5). They also seek compensatory and punitive damages against U.S. Steel and Birmingham. (Id. at ¶ 78).

         II. Standards of Review

         Because the motions to dismiss (Docs. # 64, 67) and motion for summary judgment as to certain plaintiffs (Doc. # 62) are governed by different legal standards, the court sets out the relevant standards of review separately.

         A. Rule 12(b)(6) Motion to Dismiss Standard

         The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure require that a complaint provide “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). The complaint must include enough facts “to raise a right to relief above the speculative level.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). Pleadings that contain nothing more than “a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action” do not satisfy Rule 8, and neither do pleadings that are based merely upon “labels and conclusions” or “naked assertion[s]” without supporting factual allegations. Id. at 555, 557. In deciding a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, courts view the allegations in the complaint in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Watts v. Fla. International Univ., 495 F.3d 1289, 1295 (11th Cir. 2007).

         In considering a motion to dismiss, a court should “1) eliminate any allegations in the complaint that are merely legal conclusions; and 2) where there are well-pleaded factual allegations, ‘assume their veracity and then determine whether they plausibly give rise to an entitlement to relief.'” Kivisto v. Miller, Canfield, Paddock & Stone, PLC, 413 Fed. App'x 136, 138 (11th Cir. 2011) (quoting Am. Dental Assn. v. Cigna Corp., 605 F.3d 1283, 1290 (11th Cir. 2010)). That task is context specific, and to survive the motion, the allegations must permit the court, based on its “judicial experience and common sense . . . to infer more than the mere possibility of misconduct.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679. If the court determines that well-pleaded facts, accepted as true, do not state a claim that is plausible, the claim must be dismissed. Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570.

         B. Rule 56 Summary Judgment Standard

         Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56, summary judgment is proper “if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). The party seeking summary judgment always bears the initial responsibility of informing the court of the basis for its motion and identifying those portions of the pleadings or filings which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine dispute of material fact. Id. at 323. Once the moving party has met its burden, Rule 56 requires the nonmoving party to go beyond the pleadings and -- by pointing to affidavits, depositions, answers to interrogatories, or admissions on file -- designate specific facts showing that there is a genuine dispute for trial. Id. at 324.

         The substantive law will identify which facts are material and which are irrelevant. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). All reasonable doubts about the facts and all justifiable inferences are resolved in favor of the nonmovant. See Allen v. Bd. of Pub. Educ. for Bibb Cty., 495 F.3d 1306, 1314 (11th Cir. 2007); Fitzpatrick v. City of Atlanta, 2 F.3d 1112, 1115 (11th Cir. 1993). A dispute is genuine “if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. If the evidence is merely colorable, or is not significantly probative, summary judgment may be granted. See Id. at 249.

         “[A]t the summary judgment stage the judge's function is not himself to weigh the evidence and determine the truth of the matter but to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249. “Essentially, the inquiry is ‘whether the evidence presents a sufficient disagreement to require submission to the jury or whether it is so one-sided that one party must prevail as a matter of law.'” Sawyer v. Sw. Airlines Co., 243 F.Supp.2d 1257, 1262 (D. Kan. 2003) (quoting Anderson, 477 U.S. at 251-52).

         III. Analysis

         Few people would want to live near Ensley Works if conditions on the property are anything like those described in the Amended Complaint. With allegations of overgrown weeds and vegetation, a host of vermin, deteriorating buildings, and accumulating garbage and refuse (not to mention human and animal remains), the Amended Complaint describes a property any neighborhood would quite reasonably want cleaned up and better maintained. But notwithstanding their allegations, many of Plaintiffs' claims in this lawsuit lack legal merit. Though Plaintiffs assert a litany of legal theories against both U.S. Steel and Birmingham, the only ones with any chance of success are their nuisance and wantonness claims against U.S. Steel. Birmingham cannot be held liable on any of Plaintiffs' claims, and U.S. is entitled to summary judgment as to eight plaintiffs whose claims are barred by an exculpatory covenant bargained for by U.S. Steel and agreed to by those plaintiffs' predecessor in title. Thus, as more fully explained below, Birmingham is entitled to be dismissed from this case with prejudice, U.S. Steel is entitled to judgment against eight of the Plaintiffs, and the remaining Plaintiffs may proceed with their surviving nuisance and wantonness claims against U.S. Steel. Finally, U.S. Steel's motion to strike is due to be denied as moot.

         A. Birmingham's Motion to Dismiss Is Due to Be Granted

         Plaintiffs assert claims for private nuisance, attractive nuisance, nuisance per se, negligence, negligence per se, trespass, and wantonness against Birmingham. They seek damages and an injunction requiring Birmingham to enforce applicable state statutes against U.S. Steel. But because each cause of action Plaintiffs assert against the City fails to state a viable claim, they are entitled to neither damages nor injunctive relief on those claims. Thus, Birmingham's motion to dismiss is due to be granted in its entirety.

         1. Plaintiffs Fail to State a Negligence Claim Against Birmingham

         Plaintiffs assert both negligence and negligence per se claims against Birmingham. (Doc. # 57 at ¶¶ 49-51, 73-78). Neither one has any merit.

         To state a claim for negligence, a plaintiff must allege “(1) that the defendant owed the plaintiff a duty; (2) that the defendant breached that duty; (3) that the plaintiff suffered a loss or injury; and (4) that the defendant's breach was the actual and proximate cause of the plaintiff's loss or injury.” DiBiasi v. Joe Wheeler Elec. Membership Corp., 988 So.2d 454, 460 (Ala. 2008). Plaintiffs' negligence claim fails because they cannot establish the first element of a negligence action-that Birmingham owed them a duty to enforce certain state statutes against U.S. Steel. To be sure, Plaintiffs state in their Amended Complaint that Birmingham “has a duty” “to enforce the [relevant] statutes” against U.S. Steel, but they provide no legal support for that claim. (Doc. # 57 at ¶ 4). Plaintiffs' lack of legal authority on this point is unsurprising, as the court's own research reveals that none exists. Simply put, municipalities have no duty under Alabama negligence law to enforce all applicable statutes against anyone who violates them.

         This makes sense. Given municipalities' limited resources, they must inevitably choose to prosecute some violations of the law and not others. In the criminal context, the decision whether to prosecute “generally rests entirely in [the prosecutor's] discretion, ” Wayte v. United States, 470 U.S. 598, 607 (1985), and that is just as true in a case like this that involves only civil enforcement.[5] It would be an odd result indeed if Alabama tort law imposed a duty (which may well be an impossible duty) on municipalities to prosecute all violations of the State's civil code. Because Plaintiffs cannot establish the first element of their negligence claim, the claim is due to be dismissed.

         It is unclear from the Amended Complaint whether Plaintiffs even intend to assert a negligence per se claim. The term appears only once in the Amended Complaint, in the caption for Count Eight (“Trespass, Negligence Per Se & Private Nuisance”), and Plaintiffs do provide any further factual or legal support for the claim. (Doc. # 57 at 21). But to the extent Plaintiffs intend to assert a negligence per se claim, it too fails. A critical element of any negligence per se claim in Alabama is that “the defendant must have violated [a] statute.” Parker Bldg. Servs. v. Lightsey ex rel. Lightsey, 925 So.2d 927, 931 (Ala. 2005). Here, Plaintiffs fail to allege that Birmingham has violated any statute by declining to enforce certain Alabama civil code provisions against U.S. Steel.[6] Because Plaintiffs have failed to “show the existence of a statute creating a mandatory duty to perform, ” their negligence per se claim is due to be dismissed. Norris v. City of Montgomery, 821 So.2d 149, 153 (Ala. 2001).

         2. Plaintiffs' Trespass and Wantonness Claims Against Birmingham Fail as a Matter of Law

         Plaintiffs' trespass and wantonness claims against Birmingham fail as a matter of law because Alabama municipalities cannot be held liable for intentional or wantonness torts. Alabama's legislature has largely immunized municipalities from tort liability, subject to certain enumerated exceptions which arise in specified circumstances. The applicable statute provides in relevant part: “No city or town shall be liable for damages for injury done to or wrong suffered by any person or corporation, unless such injury or wrong was done or suffered through the neglect, carelessness, or unskillfulness of [the municipality's agent or employee].” Ala. Code § 11-47-190 (emphasis added). Section 11-47-190 thus provides broad tort immunity to municipalities, subject to an enumerated exception for negligent conduct by the municipality's agents and employees. It therefore bars claims for intentional and wantonness torts against municipalities. See Cremeens v. City of Montgomery, 779 So.2d 1190, 1201 (Ala. 2000) (“A municipality cannot be held liable for the intentional torts of its employees.”); Morrow v. Caldwell, 153 So.3d 764, 769 (Ala. 2014) (“There is no exception in [§ 11-47-190] allowing an action against a municipality for the wanton or willful conduct of its agents or employees.”). Plaintiffs apparently concede that their trespass and wantonness claims against Birmingham fail for this reason. (Doc. # 71 at 13). The claims are therefore due to be dismissed.

         3. Plaintiffs Fail to State Any Nuisance Claims ...

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