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Johnston v. Borough

May 22, 2006


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Conner


Presently before the court is a motion (Doc. 4) filed by defendants, a Middle Paxton Township Supervisor, and various members of the Dauphin Borough Council and Dauphin Borough Zoning Hearing Board, to dismiss the claims of plaintiffs Matthew Johnston, Neil Focht, and Wayne F. Henry brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for alleged violations of their Fourteenth Amendment rights. For the reasons that follow, the motion will be granted in part and denied in part.

I. Statement of Facts*fn1

Plaintiffs are owners of a single-family home located in the Borough of Dauphin ("Borough"). (Doc. 1 ¶ 20.) On March 5, 2003, plaintiffs applied to the Borough for permits to conduct interior and exterior work on the property, as part of a project to renovate the structure into a multi-family rental property. (Doc. 1 ¶¶ 21-22, 24.) Defendant Gary Guth ("Guth"), the Manager and Secretary of Dauphin Borough, calculated and accepted from plaintiffs the fee for the exterior permit, and granted a permit for exterior renovations. (Doc. 1 ¶ 24.) Guth advised plaintiffs that they needed a special exception or variance for the interior work, and, hence, a permit could not be granted until the application was considered by the Borough's Zoning Hearing Board. (Doc. 1 ¶ 24.) Following Guth's advice, plaintiffs submitted an application for a special exception or variance to undertake the interior renovations. (Doc. 1 ¶ 24.) Guth told plaintiffs that they were not required to pay the fee at that time because it could not be calculated until after the Zoning Hearing Board reviewed the matter. (Doc. 1 ¶¶ 25-26.)

Over the next month and a half plaintiffs telephoned Guth to inquire when the Zoning Hearing Board would meet to consider their application for the interior renovations. (Doc. 1 ¶ 27.) Guth relayed that he would schedule the hearing when he could coordinate plaintiffs' application with others in need of a hearing. (Doc. 1 ¶ 28.) According to plaintiffs, the Borough Municipal Planning Code requires that hearings on applications for special exceptions and variances be held within sixty days of application, or the application is deemed approved. (Doc. 1 ¶¶ 30, 34.) A hearing on plaintiffs' application was never held and, on May 7, 2003, sixty-three days after the application was filed, Guth issued to plaintiffs a permit for the interior renovations. (Doc. 1 ¶¶ 30, 31, 33.)

Plaintiffs began renovating the interior of their property immediately upon receipt of the permit. (Doc. 1 ¶¶ 35, 36.) Over the next three months defendant- neighbors-an employee of Middle Paxton Township and various members of the Borough Zoning Hearing Board-"threatened and harassed" plaintiffs, and stated that the property would never be converted to a multi-family unit. (Doc. 1 ¶ 37.) On August 1, 2003, after the renovations were substantially completed, the Borough sent a letter to plaintiffs, purportedly at the direction of these neighbors, directing plaintiffs to cease and desist all interior work. (Doc. 1 ¶¶ 38, 39.)

Plaintiffs complied with the cease and desist letter, and requested a hearing on the matter. (Doc. 1 ¶¶ 41, 45.) On August 28, 2003, plaintiffs met with the Borough and, following the meeting, again requested a hearing. (Doc. 1 ¶ 46.) The Borough never held an open hearing, but purportedly held a closed-door, executive session and, on September 9, 2003, revoked plaintiffs' interior permit for failing to pay the applicable filing fee. (Doc. 1 ¶ 48.)

The instant action was commenced on July 29, 2005. (See Doc. 1.) The complaint alleges that defendant-neighbors unlawfully interfered with plaintiffs' renovations and induced the Borough to issue the cease and desist letter. (Doc. 1 ¶ 42.) It also avers that the cease and desist letter is vague and fails to comply with Pennsylvania statutes. (Doc. 1 ¶ 50.) The complaint alleges that members of the Borough Council violated plaintiffs' Fourteenth Amendment procedural due process rights by failing to schedule a hearing on the matter as required by Pennsylvania statute (Doc. 1 ¶¶ 52, 54, 55), that the defendants violated plaintiffs' substantive due process rights by acting "recklessly and with callous disregard" because Guth informed plaintiffs that they did not have to pay the filing fee at the time that the application was filed (Doc. 1 ¶ 56), and that the defendants violated plaintiffs' equal protection rights by revoking and invalidating the permit (Doc. 1 ¶¶ 61-65). The complaint also sets forth a state law claim for "willful misconduct," purportedly pursuant to 42 PA. CON. STAT. ANN. § 8550.

The instant motion to dismiss argues that the complaint fails to state a Fourteenth Amendment claim. (Doc. 5 at 5-8.) The motion avers that the individual board members are entitled to absolute quasi-judicial immunity, that claims against the defendants in their official capacities must be dismissed, and that the defendants are otherwise entitled to qualified immunity. (See Doc. 5.) Finally, it argues that Pennsylvania's Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act, 42 PA. CON. STAT. §§ 8541-8550, immunizes defendants from plaintiffs' claim of willful misconduct. (See Doc. 5.) The motion has been fully briefed and is now ripe for disposition.

II. Standard of Review

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) provides for the dismissal of claims that fail to assert a basis upon which relief can be granted. FED. R. CIV. P. 12(b)(6).

In the context of a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), the court must accept as true all of the factual allegations in the complaint and all reasonable inferences that can be drawn therefrom. Langford v. City of Atlantic City, 235 F.3d 845, 847 (3d Cir. 2000) (citing Nami v. Fauver, 82 F.3d 63, 65 (3d Cir. 1996)). Although the court is generally limited in its review to the face of the complaint, it "may also consider matters of public record, orders, exhibits attached to the complaint and items appearing in the record of the case." Oshiver v. Levin, Fishbein, Sedran & Berman, 38 F.3d 1380, 1384 n.2 (3d Cir. 1994); see also In re Burlington Coat Factory Sec. Litig., 114 F.3d 1410, 1426 (3d Cir. 1997).

Federal notice pleading rules do not require plaintiffs to allege affirmatively every aspect of their claims, but only to present sufficient facts to allow the opposing party to conduct discovery and prepare a defense. See FED. R. CIV. P. 8(a) (stating that the complaint should include "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief"); see also Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 45-46 (1957). Thus, courts should not dismiss a complaint for failure to state a claim unless "it appears beyond doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of his claim which would entitle him to relief." Id.; see Swierkiewicz v. Sorema N.A., 534 U.S. 506, 514 (2002). Under this liberal pleading policy, courts should generally grant plaintiffs leave ...

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