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Boynton v. Federal Correction Institution Dublin

United States District Court, E.D. California

June 29, 2017

PEGGY BOYNTON, Plaintiff and Counter Defendant,
v.
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Defendant and Counter Claimant. AND RELATED COUNTERCLAIM.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          MORRISON C. ENGLAND, JR. UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDSE

         On July 20, 2011, Plaintiff Peggy Boynton (“Plaintiff”) filed the operative First Amended Complaint (“FAC”) against Defendant United States of America (“Defendant” or “government”) seeking redress for the damage caused to her mobile home as a result of Defendant's purported failure to maintain the property on which the mobile home is situated. ECF No. 14. On November 30, 2011, the government filed an Answer to Plaintiff's FAC and a Counterclaim in Ejectment, seeking to recover possession of the property on which Plaintiff's mobile home sits and damages for wrongful retention of that property.[1] Counterclaim, ECF No. 16. Presently before the Court is the government's Motion to Dismiss and/or Motion for Summary Judgment of Plaintiff's Claims, as well as the government's Motion for Summary Judgment of its Counterclaim. Gov't Mot., ECF No. 122. For the reasons set forth below, the government's Motion for Summary Judgment of Plaintiff's Claim is GRANTED, and the government's Motion for Summary Judgment of its Counterclaims is GRANTED. The government's Motion to Dismiss is DENIED as moot.[2]

         BACKGROUND[3]

         Plaintiff is a retired employee of the Board of Prisons (“BOP”) and is the owner of a mobile home situated on Defendant's property at the Federal Correctional Institution, Dublin, California (“FCI, Dublin”). Plaintiff lived in her personally owned mobile home in the staff housing area of FCI, Dublin while she was employed with the BOP from 1995 until her retirement in 2010. Plaintiff's privilege to occupy the mobile home site terminated upon her retirement from the BOP in 2010.

         In July 2007, Plaintiff complained to the BOP that the storm drain above her home was not working properly and had caused her yard to flood. The BOP installed a new drainage system in June 2008, and Plaintiff admitted in a September 2010 letter to the former BOP Director that the new system had fixed the flooding issues.[4] Also in September 2010, Plaintiff filed an administrative tort claim with the BOP seeking damages for the alleged damage to her mobile home, claiming that an open fire hydrant caused erosion and improper drainage around her home, as well as water damage to her home and mold growth.

         After an investigation, the BOP denied her claim, stating that the only fire hydrant that could possibly have caused the alleged damage belonged to an adjacent U.S. Army Reserve facility, not to the BOP. The BOP's investigation also revealed that sometime in 2007, Plaintiff herself constructed an underground irrigation system along the exterior wall of her mobile home, creating a soil barrier around her home. This action had the effect of raising the ground level so that the soil made contact with the wood siding of her home, potentially causing saturation and preventing ventilation. Investigators concluded the damage Plaintiff identified was the result of years of her own failure to maintain the mobile home's exterior. Under BOP Program Statement 4220.02 and Institution Supplement DUB 4220.02(H), an employee like Plaintiff, as a condition of living in staff housing, is solely responsible for the maintenance of his or her mobile home.

         In 2010, Plaintiff retired from the BOP, thus terminating the privilege of living in staff housing at FCI, Dublin. On September 16, 2010, she was issued a formal notice of termination of occupancy, giving her 90 days to either sell her mobile home or remove it from FCI, Dublin grounds. Having failed to sell or remove her home within this time period, the BOP sent Plaintiff another notice on January 12, 2011, giving her until March 12, 2011, to do so. On April 5, 2011, the BOP granted Plaintiff a 90-day extension to July 5, 2011, to remove or sell her home. The April 5, 2011 extension letter provided that if Plaintiff failed to remove or sell by that date, the BOP would initiate steps to have the mobile home transported off FCI, Dublin grounds at Plaintiff's expense. To date, Plaintiff has not sold or removed her mobile home from FCI, Dublin grounds.

         PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         This case has a long and drawn out procedural history, the most relevant of which the Court summarizes here. Plaintiff filed the operative FAC on July 20, 2011, alleging that BOP's negligence resulted in damage to her mobile home. Specifically, Plaintiff claims that an open fire hydrant washed away dirt from around her home, destroying her yard, and weakening the soil and stability of her mobile home. FAC, ECF No. 14, at ¶¶ 7-8. She additionally claims that her storm drain was clogged, which separately caused flooding of her yard. Id. ¶ 16. As a result of erosion, rainwater collected around and under her home. Id. ¶ 17. Plaintiff claims mold began to grow inside her home in 2008, and continued through 2010, and that the BOP was negligent in failing to maintain the property. Id. ¶¶ 17-19.

         On November 30, 2011, the government filed its Answer along with a Counterclaim in Ejectment to Recover Possession of Real Property and Damages for Wrongful Detention. Gov't Counterclaim, ECF No. 16. The government contends that it is the owner of the property upon which Plaintiff's mobile home sits, and therefore seeks restitution of the premises, damages for Plaintiff's unlawful possession in the amount of $222.50 bi-weekly from July 5, 2011 until possession is restored, damages for the cost of repair to the property, and damages for the cost of recovering possession, including the cost of transporting the mobile home off of FCI, Dublin grounds.

         Plaintiff failed to respond to the government's counterclaim, and default was entered on February 7, 2012. ECF No. 19.

         In July 2014, months after an unsuccessful VDRP session (see ECF No. 46), the government informed the Court that the parties reached a tentative settlement. ECF No. 56. After two continuances of the deadline to file dispositional documents (see ECF Nos. 60, 62), the government then informed the Court that it could not reach Plaintiff's counsel. ECF No. 63. In response to the Court's order to show cause (“OSC”) as to why the case should not be dismissed at that point, Plaintiff's counsel filed a response on January 15, 2015, indicating that he had had no direct communication with Plaintiff for more than six months, and requesting that Plaintiff be allowed to retain new counsel. ECF No. 67. Counsel thereafter moved to withdraw as counsel, which request the Court denied because withdrawal would have prejudiced Plaintiff and caused greater delays in an already aging case. ECF Nos. 76, 78, 80.

         The Court's finding of prejudice was based largely on the fact that the government had filed a motion for default judgment on March 24, 2015 (ECF No. 73), and Plaintiff's counsel sought withdrawal just two days before an opposition to the default was due. ECF No. 80, at 5. Despite Plaintiff's failure to oppose the motion for default judgment, the Court denied the motion, reasoning that Plaintiff herself had not been absent in the litigation, Plaintiff's counsel indicated that he would represent his client's interests going forward, and the Court generally favors resolution of cases on the merits. See Findings and Recommendations, ECF No. 98; Order Adopting F&Rs in full, ECF No. 101.

         Then on October 4, 2016, the government filed a motion to dismiss for lack of prosecution based primarily on Plaintiff's failure to attend her court-ordered deposition- which had been ordered after many months of attempting to set Plaintiff's deposition without the Court's intervention. The government further cited Plaintiff's failure to respond to the government's First Set of Requests for Admission, [5] and detailed the many other reasons the case has been delayed by Plaintiff's inaction. ECF No. 107. Plaintiff did not oppose the government's motion, so the Court issued another OSC as to why the case should not be dismissed with prejudice at that time. ECF No. 112. Plaintiff's counsel filed a tardy response to the OSC, indicating that Plaintiff's health issues prevented her from attending her deposition, and also acknowledging that “[t]his case has been challenging for the Court, the United States and counsel for Plaintiff. Ms. Boynton is elderly, ill, and has a distrust of both the government and her own ...


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