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Horton v. City of Vicksburg

Supreme Court of Mississippi, En Banc

May 31, 2018

APRIL HORTON, AS ADMINISTRATOR AND ON BEHALF OF THE ESTATE OF EMMANUEL ERVES, AND WRONGFUL DEATH BENEFICIARIES OF EMMANUEL ERVES
v.
CITY OF VICKSBURG

          DATE OF JUDGMENT: 10/21/2016

          COURT FROM WHICH APPEALED: WARREN COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT HON. M. JAMES CHANEY, JR. TRIAL JUDGE

          TRIAL COURT ATTORNEYS: NICHOLAS DENSON GARRARD ROBERT R. STEPHENSON, JR. NANCY DAVIS THOMAS BOBBY D. ROBINSON.

          ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLANT: RATOYA JANAE GILMER CRYSTAL WISE MARTIN SUZANNE GRIGGINS KEYS.

          ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLEE: JOHN MICHAEL COLEMAN KATELYN ADELE RILEY.

          BEAM, JUSTICE.

         ¶1. This matter comes before the Court on Interlocutory Appeal from the Warren County Circuit Court's entry of summary judgment in favor of the Appellee, City of Vicksburg. April Horton-the estate administratrix for decedent Emmanuel Erves-appeals the circuit court's decision, arguing that the court erred in finding that the City is entitled to immunity under the Mississippi Tort Claims Act (MTCA). However, because Horton's claims against the City of Vicksburg do not support a private cause of action, we fail to reach the merits of her MTCA-immunity arguments. Finding that Horton cannot establish that the City breached any discernable duty owed to the decedent, we affirm the circuit court's decision.

         FACTS

         ¶2. A ninety-eight-year-old home sits at 819 Walnut Street in Vicksburg, Mississippi. Located within the Vicksburg Historic District, this single-family dwelling was converted to a "rooming house" by Malcolm and Rose Carson in early 2000, and then sublet to various tenants throughout the last decade. One of those tenants-Emmanuel Erves-rented a room from the Carsons for several years. On February 24, 2014, Erves tumbled down the home's exterior concrete stairs and died as a result of the injuries he sustained.[1]

         ¶3. Estate administratrix for Erves April Horton filed a complaint in the Warren County Circuit Court alleging negligence by the Carsons and MM&R Land Investments for their failure to provide a reasonably safe premises, failure to provide adequate security, and failure to warn of a dangerous condition. Horton claimed that the condition and configuration of the stairs where Erves fell, along with the absence of a mandatory handrail, violated the city's housing code. She argued that, because of these violations, Erves was unable to regain his balance or break his fall, which ultimately resulted in fatal injuries.

         ¶4. One year later, Horton amended her complaint to include the City of Vicksburg and City Code Inspector Benjie Thomas as defendants in the action. Claiming that Thomas and the City breached their duty to inspect the property adequately, and that the City individually failed to provide reasonable supervision of Thomas in his duties, Horton argued that both parties should have known that the home's exterior steps were not up to code, posing an unreasonable risk of harm to the public.

         ¶5. After a year of discovery and procedural delay, [2] the City filed a motion for summary judgment with the circuit court. Arguing that property-code enforcement is a discretionary function under the International Residential Code (IRC) and the International Property Maintenance Code (IPMC), [3] the City asserted its immunity under the MTCA as a defense to all of Horton's claims. The City then argued that Horton failed to state a cognizable claim under which she could support her prima facie case for negligence. Claiming that the City did not owe Erves a duty related to his tenancy in a private residence, Vicksburg argued that, without such a duty, no claim for negligence could be maintained.

         ¶6. Following a hearing on the matter, the Warren County Circuit Court found that Horton had failed to prove that the City's inaction breached a duty and granted summary judgment in favor of the City. Citing Brantley v. City of Horn Lake, 152 So.3d 1106 (Miss. 2014), the court found that the defendant's enforcement of the property code constituted a discretionary function under the MTCA, precluding Horton from recovering damages from the defendant. The court recognized that the application of MTCA immunity "is a question of law and, therefore, is a proper matter for summary judgment." It then determined that Horton had failed to show that the City was bound to any other ordinance or regulation requiring it to "force a property owner to install a handrail on the exterior steps of a building . . . over fifty years old and located within the City's historical district." Ultimately, the trial court determined that the City's enforcement of the code was discretionary as it applied to homes in the historical district, granting the City immunity under the MTCA.

         ¶7. On appeal, Horton argues that the lower court mischaracterized this Court's holding in Brantley and ignored the Court's holding in Mississippi Transportation Commission v. Adams ex rel. Adams, 197 So.3d 406 (Miss. 2016). She claims that the trial court's misguided reliance on this Court's standard resulted in an erroneous conclusion. It is from this claim of error that Horton appeals.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         ¶8. This Court conducts a de novo review of a trial court's application of the Mississippi Tort Claims Act as well as of that court's determination of a motion for summary judgment. Doe v. Rankin Cty. Sch. Dist., 189 So.3d 616, 619 (Miss. 2015). Summary judgment is appropriate when the record before the Court shows "that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." M.R.C.P. 56(c). When presented with such a judgment, the Court considers all the available evidence "in the light most favorable to the non-moving party." Boroujerdi v. City of Starkville, 158 So.3d 1106, 1109 (Miss. 2015) (quoting M.R.C.P. 56(e)). However, that party also must "set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial" and cannot simply "rest upon the mere allegations or denials of his pleadings." Id. Furthermore, "we must affirm the grant of summary judgment '[i]f any ground raised and argued below will support the lower court's decision.'" Crider v. DeSoto Cty. Convention and Visitors Bureau, 201 So.3d 1063, 1070 (Miss. 2016) (citing Wilbourn v. Stennett, Wilkinson & Ward, 687 So.2d 1205, 1214 (Miss. 1996)).

         ANALYSIS

         Whether the circuit court erred in granting the City of Vicksburg's Motion for Summary Judgment.

         ¶9. In its order granting summary judgment, the circuit court determined that the City's historic-building provision (found in IPMC Section 102.6) provides the City of Vicksburg the authority to enforce the property maintenance code in the historic district at its discretion.[4] Initially, the court agreed that the City's choice to adopt the code created a duty to inspect all private property within the city and to enforce the IPMC provisions. However, because the Section 102.6 exemption limits the only ordinance Horton identified as requiring the City's inspection and regulation of buildings located within the historic district, the court then determined that Horton had failed to prove that the City and the inspector breached any ministerial duty owed to Erves as a tenant of the historic home. Finding the duties at issue to be discretionary, the court granted the City's motion.

         ¶10. The circuit court's order cited IPMC Sections 102.6 and 104.1, [5] interpreting their language as creating discretion for the execution of the inspector's duties and the City's protection from liability for Erves's injuries. The court referenced Section 104.1 as providing the inspector with discretion in interpreting and applying the provisions of the code. Noting this discretion, the court found that the inspector's actions aligned with Section 102.6, where he judged the "designated historic building" to be safe and in the interest of public health, safety, and welfare.

         ¶11. Horton argues that this ruling erroneously interprets Brantley, fails to apply Adams, and accordingly should be reversed. However, we need not address the applicability of these cases or the MTCA on appeal. While the court appropriately entered summary judgment in favor of the City, its analysis of Brantley and its progeny are of no moment. Critical to Horton's appeal is not whether the immunity provided for in the MTCA prevents her recovery, but whether the underlying facts of her complaint support a private cause of action against the City and its employees. As discretionary-function immunity was not the only ground considered by the court under the summary-judgment motion, we may consider any contested issues of fact identified as material. Wilbourn v. Stennett, ...


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