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Vorum v. Canton Township

January 23, 2006

DANIEL F. VORUM AND ELIZABETH EELKEMA VORUM, HUSBAND AND WIFE, AND VORUM'S STABLES, LLC, A PENNSYLVANIA LIMITED LIABILITY CORPORATION, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
CANTON TOWNSHIP AND CHAD SMITH AND EMIL STANISH, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS SUPERVISORS OF CANTON TOWNSHIP, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Terrence F. Mcverry United States District Court Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER OF COURT

Before the Court for consideration and disposition are the MOTION TO DISMISS PLAINTIFFS' COMPLAINT PURSUANT TO FEDERAL RULES OF CIVIL PROCEDURE 12(b)(1) AND 12(b)(6) filed by defendant Canton Township (Document No. 6) and the MOTION TO DISMISS PURSUANT TO FED.R.CIV.P. 12(b)(6) OF DEFENDANTS SMITH AND STANISH (Document No. 10). The issues have been fully briefed, and the matter is ripe for disposition. See Document Nos. 7, 11, 13-15.

Background

This case arises out of a zoning dispute over a horse racing track in Washington County, Pennsylvania. The following information is drawn from the Complaint and is taken as true for the purpose of the instant motions. Plaintiffs Daniel F. Vorum and Elizabeth Eelkema Vorum ("the Vorums") are husband and wife and reside in Washington County. Complaint at ¶ 1. Plaintiff Vorum's Stables is a Pennsylvania limited liability corporation which operates and manages a horse racing track and related facilities situated in Canton Township, Washington County. Id. at ¶ 2. Defendants Chad Smith ("Smith") and Emil Stanish ("Stanish") are members of the Canton Township Board of Supervisors, which is the governing body of the Township. Id. at ¶¶ 5-7.

On February 11, 2002, a one-day charity harness racing event was authorized at Plaintiffs' facility by the Pennsylvania Harness Racing Commission; the event was to be held on June 2, 2002 and apparently did not take place. Id. at ¶ 11. Smith and Stanish disapproved of the event due to the possible violation of Canton Township's zoning ordinances. Id. at ¶ 13-14; see also Complaint, Exhibits 2 & 3. The documents attached as to the Complaint as Exhibits 2 and 3 appear to indicate some personal animosity between the Plaintiffs and Smith and Stanish.

On August 19, 2002, the Vorums filed a Notice of Appeal with the Canton Township Zoning Hearing Board ("the ZHB") in which they requested an opinion as to whether a building permit was required for the erection of a judge's tower atop an existing barn at the facility. Id. at ¶ 15. At a hearing before the ZHB Stanish testified in opposition to the Vorums' appeal. Id. at ¶ 17. The ZHB held that a building permit was required, and the Vorums appealed the matter to the Court of Common Pleas of Washington County on or about March 11, 2003.*fn1

The Vorums' facility is located in an R-2 zoning classification, which does not permit horse racing, wagering and the like. Id. at ¶ 22. Thus, the Vorums filed a challenge to the validity of the applicable zoning ordinance with the Canton Township Board of Supervisors, and contemporaneously filed a request for a "Curative Amendment." Id. at ¶ 23. Hearings on the challenge to the validity of the applicable zoning ordinance were held before the Canton Township Board of Supervisors on November 14, 2002, December 12, 2002, and January 9, 2003. Id. at ¶ 25. Stanish purported to abstain from voting on the matter because of a possible conflict of interest,*fn2 but nevertheless participated in the hearings with the other supervisors. Apparently during this time Smith proposed to Samuel R. Stockton, the Township Manager, that Native American artifacts (e.g., arrow heads and broken pottery) be buried on the Vorums' property (and somehow "discovered") in order to frustrate their attempt to utilize their facility for horse racing. Id. at ¶ 30.

Hearings on the "Curative Amendment" were also held on December 12, 2002 and January 9, 2003. Id. at ¶ 32. Stanish participated in these hearings. Id. The Complaint alleges that the Board of Supervisors refused to permit the Vorums' witnesses to testify in rebuttal to the testimony provided by the Township's witnesses. Id. at ¶ 34.

On April 16, 2003, the Board of Supervisors issued a written decision which rejected the "Curative Amendment" sought by Plaintiffs. Id. at ¶ 35. The decision was signed by Stanish, with the caveat that he did not participate in the decision. Id. at ¶ 36. The Vorums appealed the decision to the Court of Common Pleas of Washington County. Id. at ¶ 37.*fn3 Due to the denial of the "Curative Amendment", the Vorums were unable to obtain "the last remaining harness racing license in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania for pari-mutual wagering and related accessory uses upon the horse racing site." Id. at ¶ 38.

On January 20, 2005, Plaintiffs filed a two-count Complaint pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 in the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania. The Complaint alleges violations of Plaintiffs' rights to due process and equal protection of the law. Specifically, the Complaint alleges that "Plaintiffs' due process rights and the right to a full and fair hearing on the proposed Curative Amendment have been denied by the bias and prejudice of Defendant Supervisors," and "by the exclusion of relevant testimony from Plaintiffs' witnesses in their case-in-chief and on rebuttal." Id. at ¶ 42-43. The Complaint also alleges that "Plaintiffs' due process and equal protection rights have been violated where only one supervisor without a conflict signed the order denying the Curative Amendment." Id. at ¶ 44.

Standard of Review

When considering a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) the Court accepts as true all well pleaded allegations of fact. Pennsylvania Nurses Ass'n. v. Pennsylvania State Educ. Ass'n., 90 F.3d 797, 799-800 (3d Cir. 1996), cert. denied, 519 U.S. 1110 (1997). In addition, the Court must view all facts, and reasonable inferences drawn therefrom, in the light most favorable to the non-movant. General Motors Corp. v. New A.C. Chevrolet, Inc., 263 F.3d 296, 325 (3d Cir. 2001). Dismissal is appropriate only "if it is clear that no relief could be granted under any set of facts that could be proved consistent with the allegations." Hishon v. King & Spalding, 467 U.S. 69, 73 (1984); see also Lorenz v. CSX Corp., 1 F.3d 1406, 1411 (3d Cir. 1993).

The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure do not require detailed pleading of the facts on which a claim is based, they simply require "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief," which statement is sufficient to "give the defendant fair notice of what the plaintiff's claim is and the grounds upon which it rests." Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2); see also Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 47 (1957). Notwithstanding this standard, the Court "need not credit a complaint's bald assertions or ...


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