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PHILADELPHIA'S CHURCH OF OUR SAVIOR v. CONCORD TOWNSHIP

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania


February 4, 2004.

PHILADELPHIA'S CHURCH OF OUR SAVIOR, Plaintiff,
v.
CONCORD TOWNSHIP, Defendant

The opinion of the court was delivered by: CHARLES SMITH, Magistrate Judge

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

Currently before the Court is a Motion for Leave to File First Amended Complaint by plaintiff Philadelphia's Church of Our Savior. Having considered the arguments of both parties, the Court will grant the motion and permit plaintiff to file its Amended Complaint.

I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

  On March 26, 2003, plaintiff Philadelphia's Church of Our Savior (the "Church") filed a complaint against Concord Township (the "Township") alleging three counts of defendant's misconduct in violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 ("RLUIP"), 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc, et seq., five counts of misconduct in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and five counts of misconduct in violation of the Pennsylvania Constitution. The complaint specifically contended that the defendants (1) wrongfully rejected the Church's request for a building permit, after Page 2 promising to issue one; (2) improperly demanded a permanent easement from the Church as a quid pro quo for the building permit and; (3) improperly refused to accept for filing or to review the Church's written application for a building permit, despite the fact that the proposed sanctuary complied with all applicable zoning, building and safety codes. Plaintiff asserted this Court's federal question jurisdiction over all federal claims pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331 and 1342(a)(3)-(4), and supplemental jurisdiction over state law claims pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1367.

  The defendant Township filed a motion to dismiss on April 11, 2003, which was denied on June 2, 2003. On April 17, 2003, Judge Clarence C. Newcomer signed and entered a Scheduling Order for the parties, stipulating, among other deadlines, that any amended complaint adding new parties was to be received no later than April 30, 2003. Just prior to that deadline, on April 25, 2003, plaintiff served defendant with its First Set of Interrogatories and Requests for Admissions. In its Responses to that discovery, the Township denied that the officials involved with the denial of the Church's request for a building permit were acting in their official capacities.

  On June 9, 2003, plaintiff filed the instant motion seeking leave to amend its complaint in order to add the five members of the Township's Board of Supervisors, the Township Solicitor and the Township Building Inspector in their individual Page 3 capacities.*fn1 Although defendant had filed no responsive pleading to plaintiff's initial complaint prior to this motion, it subsequently submitted its Answer on June 20, 2003. The matter was referred to the undersigned, on June 13, 2003, for all further proceedings. Accordingly, the Court now considers whether plaintiff's request for leave to amend should be granted.

 II. DISCUSSION

  Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 15(a) states that:

A party may amend the party's pleading once as a matter of course at any time before a responsive pleading is served . . . Otherwise a party may amend the party's pleading only by leave of court or by written consent of the adverse party; and leave shall be freely given when justice so requires.
Fed.R.Civ.P. 15(a). Although decisions on motions to amend are committed to the sound discretion of the district court, Gay v. Petsock, 917 F.2d 768, 722 (3d Cir. 1990), the Third Circuit has commented that courts have generally demonstrated a "strong liberality" in allowing amendments. Heyl v. Patterson Int'l, Inc. v. F.D. Rich Housing of the Virgin Islands, Inc., 663 F.2d 419, 425 (3d Cir. 1981), cert. denied, 455 U.S. 1018, 102 S.Ct. 1714 (1982).

  In Foman v. Davis, 371 U.S. 178, 83 S.Ct. 227 (1962), Page 4 the United States Supreme Court enumerated a series of factors to be considered by the courts in ruling on a Rule 15(a) motion to amend. Specifically, it instructed that:

In the absence of any apparent or declared reason — such as undue delay, bad faith or dilatory motive on the part of the movant, repeated failure to cure deficiencies by amendments previously allowed, undue prejudice to the opposing party by virtue of allowance of the amendment, futility of amendment, etc. — the leave sought should, as the rules require, be "freely given."
Id. 371 U.S. at 182. Under this mandate, "prejudice to the non-moving party is the touchstone for the denial of an amendment." Lorenz v. CSX Corp., 1 F.3d 1406, 1413-1414 (3d Cir. 1993) (quoting Cornell & Co. v. Occupational Safety and Health Review Comm'n, 573 F.2d 820, 823 (3d Cir. 1978)). Absent substantial prejudice, denial must be based on one of the other enumerated factors, such as undue delay, bad faith, dilatory motive, repeated failure to cure deficiencies or futility of the amendment. Lorensz, 1 F.3d at 1414. Without any of these grounds, "it is an abuse of discretion for a district court to deny leave to amend." Alvin v. Suzuki, 227 F.3d 107, 121 (3d Cir. 2000).

  In the case at bar, plaintiff seeks leave to amend the complaint to add seven defendants — specifically the five members of the defendant Township's Board of Supervisors, the Township's Building Inspector and the Township Solicitor — in their individual capacities. As noted above, plaintiff originally brought this action against only Concord Township. In the Page 5 Township's subsequent answers to Interrogatories and Requests for Admissions, however, the Township expressly denied that the Township officials who met with Church officials and acted upon the request for a building permit were acting in their official capacities. Plaintiff now asserts that, if such an averment is true, then a complete resolution of this matter requires that the Township officials be added as parties to the litigation in their individual capacities.

  Defendant does not claim any prejudice or dilatory motive in plaintiff's motion for leave to amend, but rather contends only that the amendment would be futile. Particularly, it asserts that the majority of the allegations in the proposed Amended Complaint concern only Dominic Pileggi, the Chairman of the Board of Supervisors. Throughout the remainder of the proposed Amended Complaint, there are only scant allegations against the Township Solicitor and Building Inspector, and there are no specific allegations concerning the remaining four individual Supervisors. As defendant claims that all of the individuals to be named, with the possible exception of Mr. Pileggi, would be dismissed quickly after the filing of the Amended complaint, the proposed amendment should be denied.

  The Court disagrees with this argument. "Futility," as alleged by defendant, means that the amended complaint would fail to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. Shane v. Page 6 Fauver, 213 F.3d 113, 115 (3d Cir. 2000) (citing In re Burlington Coat Factory Securities Litigation, 114 F.3d 1410, 1434 (3d Cir. 1997)). To assess "futility," the court must determine whether it would survive a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted under Rule 12(b)(6).*fn2 Id.; Alvin, 227 F.3d at 121.

  A court's inquiry into the legal sufficiency of a plaintiff's pleadings, under 12(b)(6), is limited to considering "not whether plaintiff will ultimately prevail but whether the claimant is entitled to offer evidence to support [his] claims." Burlington Coat Factory, 114 F.3d at 1420 (quoting Scheuer v. Rhodes, 416 U.S. 232, 236, 94 S.Ct. 1683, 1686 (1974)). Futility should thus be found "only if, after accepting as true all of the facts alleged in the complaint, and drawing all reasonable inferences in the plaintiff's favor, no relief could be granted under any set of facts consistent with the allegations of the complaint." Trump Hotels and Casino Resorts, Inc. v. Mirage Resorts, Inc., 140 F.3d 478, 483 (3d Cir. 1998).

  In light of this standard, the Court finds that leave to amend should be granted. Under the well-pled allegations of the Page 7 Complaint — allegations which have already withstood a motion to dismiss — the Township's Board of Supervisors, Building Inspector and Solicitor took various actions designed to improperly prevent the Church from obtaining a building permit and to secure approval for a Township easement across the Church's property. Although at least four of the Supervisors are not individually named in the Amended Complaint, the various averments make explicit reference to actions by the Board as a whole, which could constitute grounds for relief. The Township's own answers to Requests for Admissions averred that the actions were not taken by these persons in their official capacities, thereby implying that they acted in their individual capacities.

  We give no weight to defendant's contention that the limited quantity of references to these individuals advocates against plaintiff's motion; that fact is irrelevant. Rather, the Court must consider the substance of the allegations and whether any relief could be granted against these individuals under any set of facts consistent with the Amended Complaint. At this juncture, the Court cannot find that no such relief is possible. Indeed, keeping in mind the liberal nature of Fed.R.Civ.P. 15(a), plaintiff, at the very least, should have the opportunity to develop evidence against these individuals. Accordingly, we grant leave to amend the complaint.

  An appropriate order follows.


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