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MFS, Inc. v. Township of South Annville

November 9, 2006

MFS, INC., PLAINTIFF,
v.
TOWNSHIP OF SOUTH ANNVILLE, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Chief Judge Kane

MEMORANDUM

Plaintiff MFS, Inc. ("MFS") is a Pennsylvania corporation that owns approximately 500 acres of land in South Annville Township, Lebanon County, Pennsylvania. Defendants include the Township of South Annville ("Township"), the Township of Annville Authority ("Authority"), the Township's Board of Supervisors ("Board"), Board Members Umberber, Hoover, Horst, and Heagy ("Individual Defendants"), Steckbeck Engineering & Surveying, Inc., and Jeffrey Steckbeck. MFS alleges that Defendants individually and collectively engaged in a series of retaliatory measures in violation of the First Amendment and the Pennsylvania Constitution after MFS exposed the Township's failure to comply with state law obligations to regulate the control of sewage. Pending before this Court is a motion to dismiss MFS's complaint pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure filed by the Township, Authority, Board, and the Individual Defendants (collectively, "Annville Defendants").*fn1 For the following reasons, the motion will be granted in part and denied in part.

I. Background*fn2

Under the Pennsylvania Sewage Facilities Act, Act of 1965, P.L. 1535, No. 537 ("Act 537"), adopted on January 24, 1966, townships within the Commonwealth are required to develop and implement sewage-treatment plans and construct sewage-treatment systems to service properties within their boundaries. According to the complaint, the Township has never complied with Act 537 or created such a plan. In 1999, MFS unveiled its plans to develop an industrial park on 500 acres of property located in the Township of South Annville, 400 acres of which was zoned for industrial use. MFS's 400 acres are the only land in the Township zoned for industrial use. Because the Township had not implemented a sewage-treatment plan, MFS submitted its own proposed plan to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection ("PaDEP") as part of its development program. The PaDEP thereafter notified MFS that only municipalities are authorized to submit sewer plans for approval. MFS then petitioned the PaDEP and other government officials to compel the Township to submit a sewer plan that included MFS's property.

On September 26, 2000, the PaDEP directed the Township to submit a Sewage Facilities Act Plan Update ("Act 537 Plan Update")*fn3 that would provide sanitary-sewer services to MFS's property. Thereafter, on or about October 12, 2000, the Board announced that it would discuss a possible inter-municipal agreement with Annville Township, whereby Annville Township would provide sewage services to South Annville Township.

In 2001, MFS learned that the Board had been holding nonpublic meetings for the purpose of drafting revisions to the Township's zoning regulations to make them more restrictive. Later that year, the Board passed the new zoning regulations over MFS's objections. These regulations focused primarily on industrial-zoned property. MFS alleges that these regulations targeted MFS's property (as MFS owned the only land in the Township zoned industrial) and were passed so as to retaliate against MFS for petitioning the PaDEP to enforce the Township's obligations under Act 537.

MFS further alleges that Defendants continue to engage in retaliatory conduct in pursuing the development of the sewer service required by the PaDEP. Specifically, MFS alleges that Defendants' proposed "Act 537 Plan Update" would create a separate, more expensive sanitary-sewer service area for MFS than that created for all remaining property owners. MFS also alleges that the Act 537 Plan Update fails to provide or reserve sufficient sewer capacity for MFS. Finally, MFS alleges that Defendants continue to present it with an unreasonable and unfair developer's agreement in connection with the Act 537 Plan Update and have disseminated false information about MFS to the public.

MFS filed this civil action on July 7, 2005. (Doc. No. 1.) On September 12, 2005, the Annville Defendants filed the instant Motion to Dismiss (Doc. No. 18.) pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). The parties have fully briefed and argued the motion (Doc. Nos. 19, 27, 30). The motion is ripe for disposition.

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

A motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure is properly granted when, taking all factual allegations as true, the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Markovitz v. Northeast Land Co., 906 F.2d 100, 103 (3d Cir. 1990). When considering a motion to dismiss, the Court accepts as true all factual allegations contained in the complaint and views them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. United States Express Lines Ltd. v. Higgins, 281 F.3d 383, 388 (3d Cir. 2002). Morever, given the early stage of the proceedings, the Court should not "inquire whether the plaintiffs will ultimately prevail." Nami v. Fauver, 82 F.3d 63, 65 (3d Cir. 1996). Rather, the Court should only inquire as to "whether [the plaintiffs] are entitled to offer evidence to support their claims." Id.

III. DISCUSSION

MFS asserts four claims in its complaint: first, that Defendants unlawfully retaliated against MFS for exercising its First Amendment right to petition the government (Count I); second, that Defendants conspired to deprive MFS of its federal constitutional rights (Count II); third, that Defendants acted in violation of the Pennsylvania Constitution (Count III); and, fourth, that Defendants conspired to deprive MFS of its rights in violation of the Pennsylvania Constitution (Count IV). The Annville Defendants argue that MFS's complaint should be dismissed in part because MFS's claims are barred by the applicable statute of limitations, that Defendants are entitled to legislative immunity, and that MFS's claims are not ripe for disposition. These arguments are addressed in turn.

A. MFS's Claims Relating to the Amended Zoning Ordinances are Time-Barred Under a Two-Year Statute of Limitations

In their motion to dismiss, the Annville Defendants argue that MFS's § 1983 claim is barred by the applicable statute of limitations. Although § 1983 does not itself specify a limitations period, the Supreme Court has directed federal courts to apply the forum state's statute-of-limitations period for personal-injury claims. Wilson v. Garcia, 471 U.S. 261, 276 (1985). Accordingly, in Pennsylvania the applicable statute of limitations for § 1983 claims is two years. Sameric Corp. of Del. v. City of Philadelphia, 142 F.3d 582, 599 (3d Cir. 1998).

In its complaint, MFS identifies two retaliatory measures employed by the Annville Defendants: (1) the 2001 approval of "restrictive and complex revisions to South Annville's industrial zoning ordinance and regulations" (Doc. No. 1, ¶¶ 25-26), and (2) the "on-going efforts to retaliate against MFS . . . so as to further obstruct the development of [MFS's] property" through the adoption of the Act 537 Plan Update (Doc. No. 1, ¶ 28).

Defendants do not dispute that the allegedly retaliatory efforts related to the Act 537 Plan Update occurred within the two-year limitations period. The narrow issue therefore is whether Plaintiff's claims related to the 2001 amendments to the zoning ordinances are timely. Because the complaint was filed nearly four years after the alleged retaliation occurred, those claims are untimely.

MFS argues that its claims arising out of the 2001 amendments to the Township's zoning ordinances should nevertheless be revived under the equitable "continuing-violations" doctrine. This argument is unavailing. The continuing-violations doctrine applies where "a defendant's conduct is part of a continuing practice." Brenner v. Local 514, United Bhd. of Carpenters & Joiners of Am., 927 F.2d 1283, 1295 (3d Cir. 1991). Where an otherwise untimely action is based upon a continuing practice, a court will make an exception "so long as the last act evidencing the continuing practice falls within the limitations period." Id. The doctrine is a ...


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