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Conklin v. Warrington Township

November 30, 2007


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Conner


This is a § 1983 action, in which plaintiff Stephen Conklin*fn1 ("Conklin") alleges that defendants Warrington Township and Warrington Township Zoning Board (collectively "the Township") violated his rights to due process and equal protection and retaliated against him for filing the instant lawsuit. Presently before the court is the Township's motion for summary judgment (Doc. 54). The motion has been fully briefed and is ripe for disposition. For the reasons that follow, the motion will be granted and the case will be closed.

I. Statement of Facts*fn2

Conklin owns a one-hundred acre farm in Warrington Township. (Doc. 57, Ex. A at 19.) In May of 2003, the Township issued a notice of violation and cease and desist order alleging that Conklin's property failed to comply with eight provisions of the Township's zoning ordinance.*fn3 (Doc. 56 ¶ 2; Doc. 71 ¶ 2.) Conklin appealed the notice and order. A hearing on his appeal was held before the Township's zoning board on August 19, 2003. (Doc. 56 ¶ 3; Doc. 71 ¶ 3.) During the hearing, the Township's solicitor allegedly referred to African American children who frequented Conklin's property as "those kids"; however, this statement was omitted from the official transcript of the hearing. (Doc. 56 ¶ 4; Doc. 71 ¶ 4; see also Doc. 1 ¶ 1.) Approximately one month after the hearing, the zoning board issued a decision upholding four of the eight ordinance violations. Conklin appealed the board's decision to the York County Court of Common Pleas and the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court, both of which affirmed. (Doc. 56 ¶¶ 5, 7-8, 11; Doc. 71 ¶¶ 5, 7-8, 11.) Conklin did not file an appeal with the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. (Doc. 56 ¶ 15; Doc. 71 ¶ 15.)

In January or February of 2006, representatives of the York County Conservation District ("YCCD") and a Township zoning officer visited Conklin's property and requested permission to search for evidence of soil disturbance and/or unlawful timber removal. Conklin refused, and the YCCD representatives indicated that they intended to return with a search warrant. (Doc. 57, Ex. L at 67; Ex. P at 199, 203-07.) A short time later, a Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection ("DEP") representative visited Conklin's property and requested permission to search, which Conklin again refused. The DEP representative then informed Conklin of his intent to return with a search warrant. (Doc. 57, Ex. P at 199, 210-11.) Finally, on May 4, 2006, representatives of the YCCD, the DEP, and the Pennsylvania State Police conducted a thirty-five minute search of Conklin's property pursuant to a warrant. No evidence of soil disturbance or unlawful timbering was found, and no citations were issued. (Doc. 57, Ex. L at 24; Ex. P at 194, 200, 215-16.) Conklin acknowledges that there have been no additional visits to or searches of his property since mid-2006. (Doc. 57, Ex. P at 220.)

On August 19, 2005, Conklin filed the instant action, alleging that the Township had violated his Fourteenth Amendment rights to due process and equal protection by: (1) enacting an ordinance that was unconstitutionally vague and overbroad, and (2) unconstitutionally applying that ordinance to Conklin's property because of racial animus and economic motivations. (See Doc. 1 ¶ 1.)*fn4 On May 26, 2006, Conklin filed an amended complaint, claiming that the visits to and search of his property violated his First Amendment right to petition the government for redress of grievances and his Fourth Amendment right to be free from unlawful searches and seizures. (See Doc. 32 ¶ 1.)*fn5 On January 12, 2007, the Township filed the instant motion for summary judgment (Doc. 54), claiming that Conklin had failed to establish a prima facie case of retaliation and that his remaining claims were barred by principles of claim and issue preclusion. Three months later, Conklin voluntarily agreed to withdraw with prejudice all claims that were based upon the unconstitutional drafting or application of the Township's ordinance. (See Docs. 85, 87.) Only the First and Fourth Amendment claims remain.

II. Standard of Review

Through summary adjudication the court may dispose of those claims that do not present a "genuine issue as to any material fact," and for which a jury trial would be an empty and unnecessary formality. See FED. R. CIV. P. 56(c). It places the burden on the non-moving party to come forth with "affirmative evidence, beyond the allegations of the pleadings," in support of its right to relief. Pappas v. City of Lebanon, 331 F. Supp. 2d 311, 315 (M.D. Pa. 2004); FED. R. CIV. P. 56(e); see also Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986). This evidence must be adequate, as a matter of law, to sustain a judgment in favor of the non-moving party on the claims. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 250-57 (1986); Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587-89 (1986); see also FED. R. CIV. P. 56(c), (e). Only if this threshold is met may the cause of action proceed. Pappas, 331 F. Supp. 2d at 315.

III. Discussion

Section 1983 of Title 42 of the United States Code offers private citizens a means to redress violations of federal law committed by state officials. See 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The statute provides, in pertinent part, as follows: Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State or Territory or the District of Columbia, subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress . . . .

Id. Section 1983 is not a source of substantive rights, but merely a method for vindicating violations of other federal laws. Gonzaga Univ. v. Doe, 536 U.S. 273, 284-85 (2002); Kneipp v. Tedder, 95 F.3d 1199, 1204 (3d Cir. 1996). To establish a claim under this section, the plaintiff must show a deprivation of a "right secured by the Constitution and the laws of the United States . . . by a person acting under color of state law." Id. (quoting Mark v. Borough of Hatboro, 51 F.3d 1137, 1141 (3d Cir. 1995)).

Conklin's amended complaint includes two remaining § 1983 claims: retaliation in violation of the First Amendment and unlawful search and seizure in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The court will address these claims seriatim.

A. First Amendment Retaliation

To state a prima facie case of retaliation, a plaintiff must allege that: (1) he or she engaged in an activity protected by the First Amendment, (2) the defendants' actions were adverse to the plaintiff's interests, and (3) the protected activity was a "substantial motivating factor" behind the alleged adverse actions. Hill v. Borough of Kutztown, 455 F.3d 225, 241 (3d Cir. 2006); see also Baldassare v. New Jersey, 250 F.3d 188, 195 (3d Cir. 2001); Chambers v. Pennsylvania, Civ. A. No. 1:04-CV-0714, 2006 WL 3831377, at *7 (M.D. Pa. Dec. 28, 2006). A defendant can rebut a prima facie case of retaliation by showing that "the same adverse action would have taken place in the absence of the protected conduct." Chambers, 2006 WL ...

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