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Guerre v. Nichols

United States District Court, E.D. Virginia, Alexandria Division

April 23, 2019

CHRISTOPHER GUERRE, et ux, Plaintiffs,
LAURA NICHOLS, et ux, Defendants.



         THIS MATTER comes before the Court on Defendants' Motion to Dismiss (Dkt. 6) pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) and Plaintiffs' Motion to Supplement the Record (Dkt. 15) .

         Plaintiffs, Christopher and Sara Guerre, are farmers that are highly successful in the farm-to-table movement in the Northern Virginia area. Plaintiffs leased property from Defendants, Laura and Charles Nichols, for their farming operation. The property included a single-family residence, a significant acreage for farming, and assorted outbuildings. Plaintiffs leased the property for nearly seven years and made numerous improvements to it such as building a greenhouse and installing a well. For the majority of the time when Plaintiffs lived on and worked Defendants' land the relationship between the parties was amicable.

         In 2015, Ms. Guerre became pregnant and was visibly so by the fall of that year. Shortly after Defendants had an opportunity to observe Ms. Guerre, they wrote a letter on December 1, 2015 to Plaintiffs informing them that they would need to vacate the property by February 28, 2016. This letter stated that the Defendants could no longer afford the expense of maintaining the house and farm for rent. Plaintiffs requested an extension of time to vacate the property due to the time and expense it would take to do so, as well as the impending birth of their child. Defendants accommodated this request.

         Plaintiffs' baby was born in March of 2016 and neither the mother nor the child tested positive for lead exposure. In July of 2016, Defendants had the residence tested for potential lead exposure risks. The report found that the levels of lead were within regulatory guidelines and that simple remediation would ensure it remained safe. Plaintiffs also paid for independent lead testing of the house with the same result. Defendants, however, informed Plaintiffs after the testing that they were still unwilling to take on the liability of having a young child in the house with the potential of exposure. Defendants told Plaintiffs they would need to vacate the residence by September 30, 2016 and would need to remove all farming equipment from the property by December 31, 2016. Plaintiffs again requested an extension and Defendants gave a ten-day grace period to complete removal of personal property from the house.

         While the date to vacate was looming, Plaintiffs attempted to renegotiate the lease. Plaintiffs also informed Defendants that they believed the eviction was discriminatory and they had filed complaints with the Fairfax County Human Rights Commission (FHRC) and Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Defendants responded that potential liability with the child in the house was the reason for the eviction. After being informed of the administrative complaints, Defendants sent Plaintiffs a letter informing them there would no longer be a ten-day grace period. Plaintiffs were unable to completely vacate the premises by the deadline and attempted to pay rent while they continued to remove their belongings.

         Defendants did not accept these payments and instead brought suit in Virginia state court for unlawful detainer. The original suit was dismissed on procedural grounds and refiled. Defendants won this second suit and were awarded possession of the property and $305.00 in unpaid rent, though they had sought many thousands of dollars.

         On January 4, 2017, FHRC[1] issued a report on the complaint filed by Plaintiffs finding that Defendants were subject to housing laws, had discriminated against Plaintiffs based on familial status, and retaliated against Plaintiffs for filing the complaints.

         Fairfax County sued Defendants in state court on behalf of Plaintiffs. Plaintiffs initially intervened in that suit as was their right, but they nonsuited their intervention when their counsel withdrew from the case. During the trial, Plaintiffs were witnesses to put on evidence of the damages they had suffered. The County was partially successful in its case succeeding in proving discrimination on the merits but failing to prove retaliation. The state court awarded the County injunctive relief, as well as $2, 500.00 that was for the benefit of Plaintiffs. In making his ruling, the state court judge found that the damages alleged by Plaintiffs were overstated and that $2, 500.00 was the appropriate remedy. While both the County and Plaintiffs found that the award was too low, neither moved for additur or appealed the judgment.

         Plaintiffs brought this suit alleging two counts: discrimination in violation of the Fair Housing Act, 42 U.S.C. § 3604 (Count I); retaliation in violation of the Fair Housing Act, 42 U.S.C. § 3617 (Count II). Defendants have moved to dismiss the Complaint pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) contending it is barred by the doctrine of res judicata.

         A motion to dismiss tests the sufficiency of the complaint. See Republican Party of N.C. v. Martin, 980 F.2d 943, 952 (4th Cir. 1992). The complaint must provide a short and plain statement showing that the pleader is entitled to relief, Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2), and it must state a plausible claim for relief to survive a motion to dismiss, Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 679 (2009); Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). If the issue of claim preclusion clearly appears on the face of the complaint, then a 12(b)(6) motion is appropriate to consider the issue. Andrews v. Daw, 201 F.3d 521, 524 n. 1 (4th Cir. 2000); Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac R. Co. v. Forst, 4 F.3d 244, 250 (4th Cir. 1993).

         Defendants contend that Plaintiffs are unable to recover on the claims brought in this suit due to the doctrine of res judicata as the facts and circumstances underlying this suit are the same as those that were the basis of the state court action. Plaintiffs admit that the same facts are the cause of action in both suits, but they argue that res judicata does not apply as the Fair Housing Act (FHA) provides dual enforcement scheme where there is no preclusion between the different avenues of relief and exceptions to the application of res judicata apply in this case.

         To begin, Plaintiffs rely on the dual enforcement scheme provided by the FHA. Under the FHA, an aggrieved person, i.e. one suffering housing discrimination, may file an administrative complaint with HUD or bring a personal civil action in an appropriate court. 42 U.S.C. §§ 3610(a)(1), 3613(a)(1)(A), 3613(c) (1) . The aggrieved person may file their personal civil action "whether or not [an administrative] complaint has been filed under section 3610(a) of this title and without regard to the status of any such complaint." 42 U.S.C. § 3613(a)(2). The only limitation is that the private avenue of litigation is barred if "[HUD or the] local agency has obtained a conciliation agreement with the consent of the aggrieved person . . . [or] an administrative law judge has commenced a hearing on the record" regarding the complaint. 42 U.S.C. § 3613(a)(2) & (3). Plaintiffs contend that neither of these preclusive events occurred in this case.

         To support their claim, Plaintiffs direct the Court to review a Third Circuit opinion from Mitchell v. Cellone, 389 F.3d 86 (3d Cir. 2004). In Mitchell, tenants sought to bring their own personal civil case against their landlord after requesting that the state agency that initially responded to their claim drop its suit against the landlord. Id. at 88-89. The Third Circuit, as a matter of first impression, found that the lawsuit brought by the state agency was merely a continuation of the administrative enforcement action and thus did not automatically bar a subsequent suit by the tenants. Id. at 90-92. This was due to the dual enforcement scheme found in the FHA. Id. It is important to note, that in Mitchell no final and preclusive judgment had been rendered in the state ...

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