Friday, June 27, 2014

Alleged hoarder pleads a due process violation against Town officials who boarded up his residence

Here's an interesting case brought under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Due Process Clause, involving a disabled veteran whose house was deemed "unfit for human occupancy" and boarded up by the Town because the neighbors smelled gas coming from the house and he lived as a hoarder. He can sue under the Due Process Clause but not the ADA.

The case is Heckman v. Town of Hempstead, a summary order decided on June 3. Here are the facts and nothing but the facts:

Heckman is a disabled veteran who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder. He experiences disordered thinking, insomnia, and an inability to concentrate on and complete even basic tasks. He depends on his sister to manage his personal and financial affairs. These mental disabilities allegedly contribute to Heckman’s “lack of fine motor skills” and an aversion to “part[ing] with certain objects.” As a result, Heckman alleges he has “difficulty” “maintaining his home[,]” which appears “cluttered.” In short, he is a hoarder.

One day, plaintiff arrived home to find it boarded up after Town officials heard complaints about the home. Plaintiff was not allowed to enter the house to get money or medication or to rescue the cat. Eventually, the Town gave him a vague "handwritten list of vague alleged problems to be corrected within the house." While plaintiff got the house keys back, the gas, heat, electricity and water were not turned back on, and the house is still designated as "unfit for human occupancy."

There is no ADA claim. Plaintiff fails the Iqbal plausibility test because the complaint does not permit the inference that the Town did this because of plaintiff's disability. "Allegations that defendants knew of Heckman's alleged disability because they had concluded as much based on the clutter are of a purely conclusory nature, which disentitles them to the presumption of truth." We don't have much in the way of detail about what the house looked like, but the Court of Appeals (Jacobs, Calabresi and Pooler) does say that plaintiff was a "hoarder," which I think you can assume is the manifestation of a mental illness. While I am sure plaintiff's lawyer made that argument on appeal, the Court of Appeals does not delve into this in detail.

There is, however, a due process claim. Public officials can act swiftly without satisfying normal due process requirements in the event of an emergency. They can do this "by making available some meaningful means by which to assess the propriety of the State's action at some time after the initial taking. Where there is an emergency requiring quick action and where meaningful pre-deprivation process would be impractical, the government is relieved of its usual obligation to provide a hearing, as long as there is an adequate procedure in place to assess the propriety of the deprivation afterwards."

The lawsuit sufficiently alleges that there no emergency when the Town seized the plaintiff's house. The Town could have sent a letter giving plaintiff a deadline to comply with the Town's demands. And, the complaint alleges that the Town boarded up the house without realizing that someone lived there. This suggests that non-emergency concerns caused the Town to board up the house. As for the requirement that the Town provide plaintiff post-deprivation process, plaintiff makes out a claim because "Heckman alleges that he was provided only a note, handwritten on a piece of scrap paper, stating in a perfunctory manner some purported violations of the" Town code. And no one told him of the right to request a hearing to contest the alleged violations.

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