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Deninno v. Municipality of Penn Hills

January 31, 2007

CHUCK V. DENINNO, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MUNICIPALITY OF PENN HILLS, HOWARD DAVIDSON, DIRECTOR OF PLANNING AND ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT FOR PENN HILLS, IN HIS OFFICIAL CAPACITY, AND IN HIS INDIVIDUAL CAPACITY, DOM COSTA, PUBLIC SAFETY DIRECTOR OF PENN HILLS, IN HIS OFFICIAL CAPACITY, AND IN HIS INDIVIDUAL CAPACITY, DAVID S. DREW, OF THE PENN HILLS POLICE DEPARTMENT, IN HIS OFFICIAL CAPACITY, AND IN HIS INDIVIDUAL CAPACITY, MARLA MARCINKO, MANAGER OF THE MUNICIPALITY OF PENN HILLS, IN HER OFFICIAL CAPACITY, AND IN HER INDIVIDUAL CAPACITY, AND ANTHONY DELUCA, JR., MAYOR OF PENN HILLS, IN HIS OFFICIAL CAPACITY, AND IN HIS INDIVIDUAL CAPACITY, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Arthur J. Schwab United States District Judge

Electronically Filed

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Introduction

Before the Court is the motion for summary judgment filed by defendants, the Municipality of Penn Hills, Howard Davidson, Director of Planning and Economic Development, Police Officer David Drew, Dom Costa, Public Safety Director, Marla Marcinko, Manager, and Mayor Anthony Deluca, Jr. (doc. no. 55). After careful consideration of plaintiff's amended complaint, defendants' motion for summary judgment and plaintiff's response thereto, the memoranda of law in support and in opposition, and the material facts adduced and proffered by the parties to support their respective positions, the Court will grant summary judgment in favor of defendants and against plaintiff on all of his civil rights claims.

Plaintiff Chuck V. DeNinno, through his counsel, previously withdrew a number of state law claims in his brief in opposition to defendants' motions to dismiss, namely: plaintiff's claims under the Pennsylvania Constitution, plaintiff's claims under the Pennsylvania "common law" and "Right to Know Act," and plaintiff's claims for punitive damages against the Municipality of Penn Hills. Although plaintiff also stated that he was voluntarily dismissing his claims under 42 U.S.C. §1983, because section 1983 "confers no substantive rights" (Brief in Opposition to Motion to Dismiss, doc. no. 39, at 9), he did not voluntarily dismiss his federal constitutional claims under the First, Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution of the United States, and because section 1983 is the proper vehicle by which to redress violations of federal constitutional rights in federal court, the Court did not dismiss the section 1983 claims or the underlying constitutional claims. Viewed in light of the requisite liberal pleading standards, this Court could not say, at the motion to dismiss stage of the proceedings, that plaintiff would not be able to state a set of facts to support his remaining claims, and denied the motions to dismiss with regard to plaintiff's constitutional claims, without prejudice to defendants raising the issues set forth therein in motions for summary judgment at the appropriate time following discovery. Discovery having been completed, it is now the appropriate time, and defendants have filed a compelling motion for summary judgment.

Background Facts from Evidence Produced on Motion for Summary Judgment

The record produced in support and in opposition to summary judgment discloses the following: All of the claims presented stem from a series of interactions between plaintiff, Chuck V. DeNinno and various officers and employees of the Municipality of Penn Hills, starting in fall 1999. In October 1999, Penn Hills approved plaintiff's site plan for development of property he owns in Penn Hills which he intends to develop for commercial use, and issued a grading permit. When plaintiff began to develop the property, defendant Davidson, as Director of the Planning and Economic Development Department, deemed his development to be inconsistent with the approved site plan and local ordinances, and he revoked the grading permit for the site. In December, 2002, plaintiff was given a citation for grading his property without a permit.

Subsequently, plaintiff began to submit site plan applications to the Planning Commission, accompanied each time by the $200.00 filing fee, which the Planning Commission deemed deficient for various reasons. The fees are imposed to cover the cost of reviewing the applications by engineers and Penn Hills planners, and to inspect the property, and therefore, are not refunded to unsuccessful applicants. Applicants do not appear before the Planning Commission until their site plans have been initially approved as satisfying the prerequisites. Davidson advised plaintiff in writing each time his application was rejected, and advised him how to go about correcting the deficiencies.

One significant deficiency that Davidson pointed out to plaintiff repeatedly, among other things, was that the ownership of portions of his property was disputed by Joseph and James Dellach, owners of adjoining property on which they ran an auto body business. Davidson advised plaintiff that Penn Hills would not approve any site plan applications while ownership of the property was being contested. The Dellachs claimed that their parking lot at the auto body shop was within the boundary of a disputed abandoned railroad right-of-way shared with plaintiff's property, and brought a quiet title action against plaintiff in the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County. After obtaining a preliminary injunction against plaintiff, Judge Farino, after a bench trial, dissolved the preliminary injunction and dismissed the quiet title action. The Dellachs appealed.

On appeal, the Pennsylvania Superior Court held that the Dellachs were the fee simple owners of one-half of the right-of-way upon its abandonment by the railroad. Dellach v. DeNinno, 862 A.2d 117 (Pa.Super. 2004), petition for allowance of appeal denied, 882 A.2d 479 (Pa. 2005). Because the property dispute provides important background to the claims raised by plaintiff in his Amended Complaint, the Court quotes from the Superior Court opinion as follows:

The facts and procedural history, as supported by the certified record, are as follows. In 1972, United Railroad Corporation abandoned a 66-foot-wide railroad right-of-way along the Plum Creek Branch of the Pennsylvania Railroad. In May 1996, United Railroad Corporation, et al., executed a quitclaim deed to Dennis John Brooks, purporting to convey this right-of-way. In November 2000, Appellee Chuck V. DeNinno obtained that quitclaim deed from Brooks. DeNinno began work along this right-of-way, including digging trenches and dumping bricks therein.

[The Dellachs] own an auto body shop. Their deed lists the right-of-way as one of the property's boundaries. The paved parking lot used by the body shop is within the boundaries of the disputed right-of-way. [The Dellachs], DeNinno and other owners of the surrounding parcels also use an access road that transverses the right-of-way to reach their respective properties.

[The Dellachs] filed a complaint seeking to quiet title over the right-of-way in the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County. A preliminary injunction was subsequently issued, ordering [DeNinno] to stop using [the Dellachs'] parking lot and limiting [DeNinno] from working on the disputed area. A bench trial was held following which the court issued an adjudication and decree nisi dissolving the preliminary injunction and dismissing the action to quiet title. A motion for post-trial relief was filed and denied. This timely appeal followed.

[The Dellachs] raise several issues for our review. However, we will only address the central issue concerning [their] claim of ownership to the right-of-way, as it was the only issue decided by the trial court.

When a railroad abandons an easement, the right-of-way is extinguished and the land is owned in fee simple by the owner or owners of the land on either side of the right-of-way. . . . At the time of abandonment of the right-of-way, the property bordering one side of the right-of-way was owned by [the Dellachs'] predecessors in title, George M. and Theodora Beatty. Accordingly, at the time of the abandonment, the Beattys became owners in fee simple of the half of the right-of-way bordering their property.

The trial court found this much, but further found [the Dellachs] were not the rightful owners of half of the right-of-way because their deed did not include this parcel of land. We disagree. As stated above, [the Dellachs'] deed listed the right-of-way as a boundary. Accordingly, the following law applies:

It is well settled that a grant of land bounded by or abutting on a public highway is presumed to carry the fee to the center line of such highway or easement[.] A railroad is a highway within the meaning of this rule[.] . . .

Accordingly, we find the 33-foot-wide portion of the abandoned 66-foot-wide right-of-way that borders [the Dellachs'] property is theirs in fee and that the trial court erred in dismissing the action to quiet title. We reverse the order and remand for any necessary related proceedings consistent with the holding of this opinion and for entry of an appropriate order.

Order reversed. Case remanded. Jurisdiction relinquished. Dellach v. DeNinno, 862 A.2d at 118-119 (footnotes and citations omitted).

On September 16, 2002, plaintiff filed a statutory appeal in the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County, challenging the Planning Commission's revocation of his grading permit.

That Court denied his statutory appeal, but upon appeal to the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court, plaintiff was successful. On December 30, 2004, the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania vacated the order of the Court of Common ...


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