The community of Sunbury, PA, had enacted an ordinance defining a “nuisance property” as one which had received three or more “founded” code violations in a 12 month period. Plaintiffs, residential landlords, were cited for violations, however, they contended they were not “founded” and that no procedural mechanism had been established in the ordinance permitting a property owner to challenge either the citations or the “nuisance property” designation. Plaintiffs further contended their reputation had been damaged by virtue of their inclusion on the list, that one of them had suffered severe physical and emotional trauma as a result of Sunbury’s conduct and that this trauma was confirmed in an independent psychological examination.
When coupled with “additional deprivation” of a protected right, injury to reputation may be considered an interest protected by the constitution. The plaintiff alleged her undisputed physical and psychological injury constituted the additional protected interest necessary to state a claim.
Mr. Kroll argued the psychological injury at issue was not a loss or deprivation independent of the stigmatization associated with the allegedly negative labeling of the property and thus did not state a constitutional claim. The Third Circuit agreed: “If we were to hold that the emotional trauma resulting from government defamation was, without more, sufficient to constitute the plus factor necessary in a Fourteenth Amendment due process liberty claim, virtually every defamation plaintiff would have a constitutional claim ready-made to survive at least to summary judgment, because defamatory remarks or acts, by their very nature, often cause severe distress to their target.”
This important holding may now be cited on behalf of municipalities defending constitutional claims, even when plaintiff presents undisputed physical and psychological injury associated with allegations of defamatory conduct.
Copies of the opinion are available upon request.