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Azam v. City of Columbia Heights

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

July 31, 2017

Haji Azam Plaintiff- Appellant
v.
City of Columbia Heights Defendant-Appellee

          Submitted: November 17, 2016

         Appeal from United States District Court for the District of Minnesota - Minneapolis

          Before BENTON and SHEPHERD, Circuit Judges, and EBINGER, [1] District Judge.

          PER CURIAM.

         For approximately six months, Defendant-Appellee City of Columbia Heights, Minnesota (the City), directed its police officers to investigate and strictly sanction Plaintiff-Appellant Haji Azam, the owner and landlord of several historically unmanageable rental properties, for violating the City's municipal code. These enforcement efforts included entering Azam's rental buildings, without consent or a warrant, to look for municipal-code violations and citing Azam for all violations discovered. Based in part on these violations, the City revoked the rental licenses authorizing Azam to rent units to tenants. Azam filed an action against the City for its conduct, alleging, among other claims, the City violated 42 U.S.C. § 1983 by subjecting Azam to the deprivation of his rights, privileges, or immunities under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution. The City filed a motion for summary judgment, and the district court[2] granted the City summary judgment on all of Azam's claims.

         Azam appeals only the court's ruling granting summary judgment on Azam's Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment claims. Thus, there are two issues on appeal. First, whether there is a genuine dispute of material fact as to whether the City-by subjecting Azam to the increased enforcement efforts described in greater detail below-violated Azam's substantive-due-process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment. Second, whether there is a genuine dispute of material fact as to whether the City-in entering the rental buildings' common areas, without consent or a warrant, to look for municipal-code violations-violated Azam's Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable governmental searches.

         For the following reasons, we affirm the district court. We conclude Azam did not demonstrate, as a matter of law, the City violated his substantive-due-process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment. The City's conduct did not overcome the high standard required for a substantive-due-process claim-that is, its conduct was not arbitrary, oppressive, and shocking to the conscience. Also, in viewing the alleged facts in the light most favorable to Azam (as we must do), we conclude there is no genuine dispute of material fact regarding whether the City violated Azam's Fourth Amendment rights. Azam did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the common spaces entered by the City's police officers. Any argument that the police officers may have physically intruded on constitutionally protected areas by trespassing in Azam's buildings to search for incriminating evidence was waived. We address each claim in turn.

         I. Background

         We recount the facts in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. See Myers v. Lutsen Mountains Corp., 587 F.3d 891, 893 (8th Cir. 2009).

         From September 2013 to January 2014, the City directed its police officers to conduct weekly investigations of Azam's rental buildings. The police officers allegedly entered Azam's buildings (even if they were locked), looked for violations of the City's municipal ordinances, and cited Azam for any violations they found. Through these investigations, the City cited Azam numerous times for municipal-code violations, far more frequently than it did for other rental-property owners in the city. Based on these citations and the recurring, significant problems at Azam's properties, the City revoked Azam's rental licenses.

         During the relevant time period, Azam owned five apartment buildings in Columbia Heights, Minnesota. These apartment buildings included one 4-unit building on Pierce Street, two 7-unit buildings on Tyler Street, and two 11-unit buildings on University Avenue. To lease the units in his buildings to tenants, Azam acquired and maintained a rental license for each building, as was required by the Columbia Heights municipal code. See Columbia Heights, Minn., Property Maintenance Code (Property Code) § 5A.401(A).

          According to the City, Azam's rental properties experienced "an inordinate amount of crime and calls for service" beginning in 2009. In an e-mail dated May 23, 2009, Columbia Heights Police Chief Scott Nadeau notified Police Sergeant Matt Markham of the City's complaints regarding Azam's rental properties. Chief Nadeau commented that one of Azam's Tyler Street properties "looks like it continues to be a problem" and that the City should "start to try and document the insanity on that property and in the neighborhood for when (not if) we try to pull the license." From 2009 to 2013, Azam and City officials communicated regarding issues with his properties in person at least twenty-two times and via phone, e-mail, and letter numerous other times. According to Columbia Heights Police Captain Lenny Austin, Azam failed to address the problems at his rental properties and the City "ha[d] not had other rental properties that ha[d] risen to the level of calls for service and criminal activity compared to [Azam's] properties."

         The Columbia Heights municipal code grants the City various powers to deal with properties, including rental properties, that violate the City's housing, nuisance, and safety ordinances. For example, the Columbia Heights City Council may revoke a rental license when it determines the rental property does not comply with the Property Code. Property Code § 5A.408(A)-(B). Also, when two or more rental licenses of the same property owner have been revoked, the property owner is ineligible to hold a Columbia Heights rental license for a period of five years, and thus, any rental license the property owner holds is revoked. Id. § 5A.408(E). The City also may impose a "nuisance call" fee when the City responds to three or more nuisance calls regarding the same property within one year. Columbia Heights, Minn., Public Health and Safety Code (Safety Code) § 8.804(a). Finally, although not established in the Columbia Heights municipal code, the City sometimes enters into a "mitigation plan" with an owner of a rental property experiencing significant criminal activity. Through a mitigation plan, the City recommends certain actions intended to alleviate those issues.

         Azam and the City entered into mitigation plans in 2009 for Azam's Tyler Street properties and in 2010 for his University Avenue properties. Azam implemented the mitigation plans' recommendations. According to Captain Austin, other rental-property owners who had implemented mitigation plans both lowered the levels of criminal activity at their properties and maintained those lower levels. But with Azam's properties, Captain Austin stated, the mitigation plans helped lower the amount of criminal activity only initially, before it again increased.

         On September 18, 2013, Captain Austin sent a memorandum to the City's police officers, notifying them of additional efforts to address problems at Azam's buildings. Captain Austin directed the police officers to investigate the buildings each week and look for municipal-code violations involving "security, safety and health issues." Captain Austin later told the officers that if they were unable to enter the buildings, they should use the buildings' emergency fire keys to unlock the exterior doors and enter. The City did not obtain a warrant to search the properties, nor does it assert it had consent to enter Azam's buildings or conduct the investigations. Although the City's police department conducted this type of investigation at other properties in the past, the police department had not done so on a weekly basis. The police department conducted its investigations of Azam's buildings on a weekly basis, Captain Austin explained, because no other property had experienced "the level of calls for service and criminal activity compared to [Azam's] properties." Captain Austin also stated rental-property investigations were customarily handled by the fire department, rather than the police department.[3]

         From September 15, 2013, through December 22, 2013, the City's police officers cited Azam ten times for a total of thirteen violations associated with his rental properties. [4]Azam received seven violations for failing to have compliant security doors, two violations for failing to secure laundry-room doors, three violations for failing to have smoke detectors, and one violation for failing to promptly remove snow accumulation. Three of the citations, though it is unclear which, occurred while fire- or police-department personnel were in Azam's buildings for emergency or unrelated calls. It appears some of the ...


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