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Gulla v. North Strabane Tp.

June 08, 1998

RONALD GULLA
v.
NORTH STRABANE TOWNSHIP; NORMA WINTERMYER, INDIVIDUALLY AND IN HER CAPACITY AS NORTH STRABANE TOWNSHIP SUPERVISOR; ALAN A. AXELSON, M.D.; LINDENCREEK ASSOCIATES; T.A. WARD CONSTRUCTORS ADVANCED BUILDING DEVELOPMENT RONALD GULLA AND EVELYN GULLA* (*PURSUANT TO RULE 12(A), F.R.A.P.), APPELLANTS



ON APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE WESTERN DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA

Before: Nygaard and Alito, Circuit Judges, and Debevoise, District Judge*fn*

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Alito, Circuit Judge:

Civil Action No. 96-cv-01232

Argued December 12, 1997

Opinion filed: June 8, 1998

OPINION OF THE COURT

Appellants Ronald and Evelyn Gulla challenge the dismissal of their federal civil rights claims based on the Rooker-Feldman doctrine. Because we conclude that the Gullas' claims are not barred by that doctrine, we reverse.

I.

The Gullas own a home in North Strabane Township, Pennsylvania.*fn1 In April 1993, Lindencreek Associates ("Lindencreek") applied to the Township for permission to subdivide and develop land adjacent to the Gullas' property. The Township's Board of Supervisors approved Lindencreek's proposal on June 28, 1994.

The Gullas were first informed of the Board's approval in July 1994 when Lindencreek notified them that construction of the subdivision would interfere with their spring, which was located on land within the new subdivision, and the right-of-way that conveyed spring water to the Gullas' home. Shortly after Lindencreek gave this notice, its contractors T.A. Ward Constructors ("Ward") and Advanced Building Development ("ABD"), began excavating on the subdivision property. This excavation destroyed the Gullas' spring and a water line in their right- of-way. The Gullas demanded that Lindencreek and its contractors restore the spring and water line, but Lindencreek did not make the requested repairs.

The Gullas appealed the Board of Supervisors' approval of the subdivision to the Court of Common Pleas of Washington County. In that court, the Gullas alleged that the actions and policies of the Township "violate[d] due process and equal protection provisions of the state and United States Constitutions." The Gullas further alleged that the Board's decision to approve the Lindencreek subdivision was "invalid, arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion and contrary to law." The Court of Common Pleas affirmed the Board's approval of the subdivision and dismissed the Gullas' appeal. The court held that, under Pennsylvania law, the Gullas lacked standing to challenge the subdivision approval. Alternatively, the court concluded that the Township followed the applicable ordinances and statutes governing the subdivision process. The Gullas appealed this decision to the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania, which affirmed the lower court's decision. The Gullas filed an allocatur petition with the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, which granted review. That appeal is pending.

After the Commonwealth Court issued its opinion, the Gullas brought suit in federal district court. The Gullas alleged that Lindencreek, its owner Alan Axelson, Ward, ABD, North Strabane Township, and Norma Wintermyer (a member of the Township Board of Supervisors) violated their civil rights as guaranteed by the Due Process, Equal Protection, and Just Compensation Clauses of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution. The Gullas also asserted pendent state-law causes of action against all of the defendants except the Township.

The defendants to the Gullas' federal suit moved to dismiss. The district court granted this motion because it concluded that the Gullas' federal claims were barred by the Rooker-Feldman doctrine. The district court declined to exercise jurisdiction over the Gullas' remaining state-law claims and therefore dismissed ...


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