PHA Didn't Violate Constitution with Bedbug Eradication Efforts
Facts: A group of residents filed a class action lawsuit against a PHA. The residents claimed that the PHA’s actions with regard to the site’s bedbug infestation amounted to a violation of their due process rights. They claimed that the PHA’s extermination methods exacerbated the infestation and injured the residents.
The site is a seven-story apartment building that caters to elderly and disabled adults. In 2008, the residents began complaining to the building’s management that bedbugs were infesting their apartments. By 2013, the site faced a severe infestation. That year, the PHA hired a local, two-person extermination company “to inspect and chemically treat the infestation unit-by-unit.” The residents “complained that the inspections and spraying . . . were not eradicating the bedbug problem, and were spreading the problem to new apartments and other areas of the building.” The PHA continued to use the same exterminators despite these complaints.
According to the complaint, the PHA didn’t mention the infestation to prospective tenants or residents renewing their leases. Further, the PHA didn’t mention the infestation in “resident meetings, notices, or other communications,” and told at least one resident to keep quiet about the bedbugs. Some residents “complained about bed bugs within their apartments, but were told they were unable to find any. On these occasions, the housing authority did not take any remedial actions despite residents complaining that they had identified bed bugs within their apartments and experienced bites from bed bugs.”
The residents claimed that the infestation has been traumatic for them—some have had difficulty sleeping due to anxiety about being bitten, they risked infections and allergic reactions, and they’ve been subjected to the general stigma associated with bedbugs. Some residents left their homes to sleep in other places. Many residents have been anxious about spending time with their friends and family due to a fear of carrying the bedbugs with them.
Ruling: A New York district court granted the PHA’s request to dismiss the case.
Reasoning: To succeed on a due process claim, the residents had to show that the PHA’s conduct shocks the conscience or is offensive to human dignity. According to the court there are times when deliberate indifference could rise to the conscience-shocking level.
Here, although residents alleged that in recent years the chemical treatment became ineffective, the PHA persisted in its attempts to deal with the infestation by treating individual apartments, as many as 20 times over a three-year period. The risks associated with the PHA’s course of action wasn’t so obvious that a jury could have found that the PHA was aware that its actions exacerbated the risk. In other words, it was by no means obvious that the unit-by-unit treatments would cause the infestation to spread. Thus, the residents’ complaint fails to plausibly allege that the PHA knew, or should have known, that unit-by-unit treatment definitively will spread an infestation.
The court further stated that, at best, the facts alleged in the complaint constitute negligent conduct, which is insufficient to support a substantive due process claim.
- Barber v. Rome Hous. Auth., March 2018