United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania
December 2, 2005.
LONZETTA TRUCKING AND EXCAVATING COMPANY, Plaintiff
HAZLE TOWNSHIP ZONING BOARD, et al., Defendant.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: JOHN JONES III, District Judge
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER
THE BACKGROUND OF THIS ORDER IS AS FOLLOWS:
Before this Court is a Report and Recommendation by Magistrate
Judge Blewitt recommending that Defendant Thomas Bast's, Hazle
Township Zoning Officer ("Bast"), Motion for Summary Judgment be
denied. A single issue in this case, namely whether Bast is
entitled to absolute immunity in his individual capacity, was
remanded to Magistrate Judge Blewitt from the Third Circuit Court
of Appeals. Magistrate Judge Blewitt's Report and Recommendation
is devoted to the disposition of this remanded issue.
Objections to Magistrate Judge Blewitt's Report and
Recommendation have been filed by the parties. (Rec. Docs.
123-125). Therefore, this matter is now ripe for disposition. STANDARD OF REVIEW:
When objections are filed to a report of a magistrate judge, we
make a de novo determination of those portions of the report or
specified proposed findings or recommendations made by the
magistrate judge to which there are objections. See United
States v. Raddatz, 447 U.S. 667 (1980); see also
28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1); Local Rule 72.31. Furthermore, district judges have
wide discretion as to how they treat recommendations of a
magistrate judge. See id. Indeed, in providing for a de
novo review determination rather than a de novo hearing,
Congress intended to permit whatever reliance a district judge,
in the exercise of sound discretion, chooses to place on a
magistrate judge's proposed findings and recommendations. See
id., see also Mathews v. Weber, 423 U.S. 261, 275 (1976);
Goney v. Clark, 749 F.2d 5, 7 (3d Cir. 1984).
FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND:
Defendant Bast was the Hazle Township Zoning Officer for all
relevant times of this case. Plaintiff, Lonzetta Trucking and
Excavating Company ("Plaintiff" or "Lonzetta"), is the lessee and
operator of a quarry in Hazle Township, Pennsylvania. On December
6, 2000, Bast issued a Notice of Violation to Plaintiff directing
Plaintiff to cease and desist all quarrying operations. It is
disputed whether or not Bast was directed by Zoning Board Member
Benyo ("Benyo") to issue the cease and desist order. Bast alleges that
he was not directed to issue the order and that he did not
consult Benyo prior to its issuance. However, Benyo testified
that on December 5, 2000, he directed Bast to issue the order.
On January 4, 2002, Plaintiff filed a complaint (doc. 1) in the
United States District Court for the Middle District of
Pennsylvania. Thereafter, this case was assigned to Magistrate
Judge Blewitt on March 20, 2002. (Rec. Doc. 10). The parties
filed cross-motions for summary judgment on November 3, 2003
(doc. 43) and December 5, 2003. (Rec. Doc. 52). On March 15,
2004, Magistrate Judge Blewitt entered a Report and
Recommendation (doc. 67) denying Plaintiff's motion for summary
judgment and granting in part and denying in part Defendants'
motion for summary judgement.*fn1 (Rec. Doc. 67). On June 9,
2004, we adopted the Report and Recommendation in its entirety.
(Rec. Doc. 88).
On June 22, 2004, Defendants filed an appeal of our Order (doc.
88) adopting the Report and Recommendation. (Rec. Doc. 92). On
March 31, 2005, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals remanded to
Magistrate Judge Blewitt for disposition the issue of whether or
not the Zoning Board members were entitled to absolute immunity
in their individual capacities. (Rec. Doc. 97). Plaintiff conceded that the Defendant members of the Zoning Board were
performing quasi-judicial function and are therefore entitled to
absolute immunity from this action in their individual
capacities. (Rec. Doc. 109, n. 1).
Therefore, the sole issue disposed of by Magistrate Judge
Blewitt in his Report and Recommendation was whether Bast was
performing quasi-judicial functions and thereby entitled to
absolute immunity in his individual capacity. Magistrate Judge
Blewitt found that Bast was not performing quasi-judicial
functions, and recommended that Defendant Bast's motion for
summary judgment requesting absolute judicial immunity in his
individual capacity be denied.
A. Summary Judgment Standard
Summary judgment is appropriate if "there is no genuine issue
as to any material fact and . . . the moving party is entitled to
judgment as a matter of law." FED.R. CIV. .P. 56(c); see also
Turner v. Schering-Plough Corp., 901 F.2d 335
, 340 (3d Cir.
1990). The party moving for summary judgment bears the burden of
showing "there is no genuine issue for trial." Young v.
Quinlan, 960 F.2d 351
, 357 (3d Cir. 1992). Summary judgment
should not be granted when there is a disagreement about the
facts or the proper inferences which a fact finder could draw
from them. See Peterson v. Lehigh Valley Dist. Council,
676 F.2d 81
, 84 (3d Cir. 1982).
Initially, the moving party has a burden of demonstrating the
absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Celotex Corporation
v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). This may be met by the
moving party pointing out to the court that there is an absence
of evidence to support an essential element as to which the
non-moving party will bear the burden of proof at trial. Id. at
Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56 provides that, where such a
motion is made and properly supported, the non-moving party must
then show by affidavits, pleadings, depositions, answers to
interrogatories, and admissions on file, that there is a genuine
issue for trial. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e). The United States Supreme
Court has commented that this requirement is tantamount to the
non-moving party making a sufficient showing as to the essential
elements of their case that a reasonable jury could find in its
favor. Celotex Corp., 477 U.S. at 322-23.
It is important to note that "the non-moving party cannot rely
upon conclusory allegations in its pleadings or in memoranda and
briefs to establish a genuine issue of material fact." Pastore
v. Bell Tel. Co. of Pa., 24 F.3d 508, 511 (3d Cir. 1994)
(citation omitted). However, all inferences "should be drawn in
the light most favorable to the non-moving party, and where the
non-moving party's evidence contradicts the movant's, then the
non-movant's must be taken as true." Big Apple BMW, Inc. v. BMW of N. Am., Inc., 974 F.2d 1358, 1363
(3d Cir. 1992), cert. denied, 507 U.S. 912 (1993) (citations
Still, "the mere existence of some alleged factual dispute
between the parties will not defeat an otherwise properly
supported motion for summary judgment; the requirement is that
there be no genuine issue of material fact." Anderson v.
Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247-48 (1986) (emphasis in
original). "As to materiality, the substantive law will identify
which facts are material." Id. at 248. A dispute is considered
to be genuine only if "the evidence is such that a reasonable
jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Id.
B. Absolute Immunity Standard
Under the doctrine of judicial immunity, judges are immune from
suit for an individual's actions taken in a judicial capacity.
The theory behind judicial immunity allows that "most judicial
mistakes or wrongs are open to correction through ordinary
mechanisms of review, which are largely free of the harmful
side-effects inevitably associated with exposing judges to
personal liability." Assoc. In Ob. & Gyn. v. Upper Merion Tp.,
270 F. Supp. 2d 633, 661 (quoting Forrester v. White,
484 U.S. 219, 227 (1988)). Immunity is absolute with respect to
claims relating to the exercise of judicial functions, therefore,
"a judge is not deprived of immunity if he acted in error or with
malicious intent." Stump v. Sparkman, 435 U.S. 349, 356 (1978); see also Antoine v. Byers & Anderson,
508 U.S. 429, 433 n. 8 (1993). Thus, judicial officers have
absolute immunity against civil suit when they are performing in
a judicial capacity or within their jurisdiction. See Milres
v. Waco, 502 U.S. 9, 11-12 (1991) (per curiam).
The doctrine of judicial immunity has been extended to
officials who perform quasi-judicial functions. "When judicial
immunity is extended to officials other than judges, is because
their judgments are functionally comparable to those of judges,
that is, because they, too, exercise a discretionary judgment as
part of their function." Schiazza v. Zoning Hearing Board,
168 F. Supp. 2d 361, 374 (M.D. Pa. 2001). Accordingly, Zoning Officer
Bast is immune from claims against him in his individual capacity
if his actions can be characterized as quasi-judicial in nature.
To determine whether absolute immunity should be extended to an
official, the courts use a functional approach to assess the
nature of the function performed, and not the identity of the
actor who performed it. See Stump, 435 U.S. at 359; see
also Imbler v. Pachtman, 424 U.S. 409, 431 (1976). The
Supreme Court has identified six characteristics to assist in
(1) the need to assure that the individual can
perform his function without harassment or
intimidation; (2) the presence of safeguards that reduce the need
for private damages actions as a means of controlling
(3) insulation from political influence;
(4) the importance of precedent;
(5) the adversarial nature of the process; and
(6) the correctability of error on appeal.
See Cleavinger v. Sayner, 476 U.S. 193, 202 (1985); see
also Butz v. Economou, 438 U.S. 506, 612 (1978); Lonzetta v.
Hazle Twp. Zoning Hearing Board, Appeal No. 04-2758, slip op.
pp. 10-11, March 31, 2005, 2005 WL 730363 (3d Cir. 2005).
C. Review of Zoning Officer Bast's Functions
At the outset we note that we agree with Magistrate Judge
Blewitt's assessment of the six-factor test as it relates to Bast
and the subsequent recommendation of the Magistrate Judge.
However, we shall undertake a brief analysis of the factors for
the sake of completeness.
With respect to the first factor, there is no evidence before
this court to suggest that in order to be free from harassment or
intimidation, Bast requires the cloak of judicial immunity.
Therefore, the first factor does not favor extending absolute
immunity to Bast. Defendants argue that Bast's action in issuing the
cease-and-desist order was taken pursuant to the quasi-judicial
order of Zoning Board Member Benyo, thus entitling him to
absolute immunity in his individual capacity. However, if Bast
was acting in a quasi-judicial manner, the procedural safeguards
of notice, a hearing or court adjudication would have been
associated with Bast's conduct. Because they were not, the second
factor does not favor extending absolute immunity to Bast.
Bast was appointed by the Board of Supervisors and was a
Township employee, serving at the pleasure of the Board of
Supervisors. (Doc. 113 at 15). Therefore, he is clearly subject
to influence from the Board of Supervisors. Furthermore, Bast's
decision was not made in an adversarial proceeding. Therefore,
both the third and fifth factors do not favor extending absolute
immunity to Bast.
Furthermore, we, like Magistrate Judge Blewitt, agree with
Plaintiff that Bast is not entitled to absolute immunity because
he was not authorized under state law to regulate the quarry.
Regulation of the quarry was not within Hazle Township's
authority and, therefore it follows that Bast, an employee of the
Township, was not legally empowered to regulate the quarry. We
cannot extend Bast judicial immunity for performing a function
that was outside the scope of his authority as Hazle Township's Zoning Officer. (See Doc. 120 at
NOW, THEREFORE, IT IS HEREBY ORDERED THAT:
1. The Report and Recommendation (doc. 120) issued on
September 27, 2005 by Magistrate Judge Blewitt is
adopted in its entirety for the reasons cited herein.
2. Defendant Bast's Motion for Summary Judgment
requesting absolute judicial immunity in his
individual capacity is DENIED.
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