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Conklin v. Warrington Township

July 7, 2008


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Conner


This is a § 1983 action instituted by plaintiff Stephen G. Conklin ("Conklin") against the following groups of defendants: (1) Warrington Township and Rebecca Knaub (collectively "the Warrington Township defendants"), (2) Pamela Lee, Gregory Gettle, Sue Doe, and David Doe (collectively "the prothonotary defendants"), (3) Edwin A.D. Schwartz, Paul Lutz, and Leon Haller (collectively "the attorney defendants"), and (4) Chase Bank of Texas, Saxon Mortgage Company, EMC Mortgage Corporation, Meritech Mortgage Company, and Deutsche Bank*fn1 (collectively "the financial institution defendants"). Conklin seeks to hold defendants liable for: (1) retaliating against him in violation of his First Amendment right to petition the government for redress of grievances, (2) violating his Fourteenth Amendment rights to substantive due process, procedural due process, and equal protection, (3) engaging in a civil conspiracy in violation of state law, and (4) committing fraud in violation of state law. (Doc. 27 at 33, ¶¶ 11-15.)

Presently before the court are the motions to dismiss Conklin's amended complaint (Docs. 39, 41, 42, 44, 61, 71) filed by all defendants who have been served in this matter.*fn2 The motions have been fully briefed and are ripe for disposition.

I. Factual Background*fn3

Conklin owns over one hundred acres of real property situated in Warrington Township, York County, Pennsylvania (the "Warrington Property"). (Doc. 27 at 2, ¶ 16.) In 1997, Conklin secured a mortgage on the Warrington Property, but by the following year, he had fallen into arrears on this mortgage. (Id. at 2, ¶¶ 17-18.) Shortly thereafter, Conklin filed a bankruptcy petition. (Id. at 2, ¶ 21.)

To alleviate some of his financial difficulties, Conklin sought to subdivide the Warrington Property, anticipating that a sale of the most valuable three acres of land would generate enough income to eliminate his arrearages. (Id. at 2-3.) Ultimately, Conklin hoped to develop a subdivision plan that would facilitate the sale of parcels sufficient to satisfy his entire mortgage debt. (Id.)

A. Alleged Wrongdoing by the Warrington Township Defendants

Conklin commissioned a survey of the Warrington Property, which he filed with Warrington Township along with a conditionally approved subdivision plan. (Id. at 4.) When Conklin later attempted to move forward with the subdivision plan, he "was told by Warrington Township officials that he needed to 'get a fresh signature and stamp' and update his subdivision application." (Id.; see also id. at 8 ("Rebecca Knaub . . . repeatedly emphasized to the plaintiff that he needed to get a fresh signature and a new stamp on his survey.")). Conklin asserts that he had no legal obligation to "update" his application and that this "false directive thwarted [his] efforts to avoid a sheriff's sale and the subsequent loss of his real estate." (Id. at 4.) Conklin alleges, without explanation, that he did not "learn of the unlawful nature of the township's actions" until 2006. (Id. at 3-5.) He now asserts that the Warrington Township defendants' actions violated his rights to due process and equal protection. (See id. ¶¶ 7-8.)

B. Issues Relating to Conklin's Bankruptcy Proceedings

Charles DeHart ("DeHart"), a non-party to the above-captioned action, was appointed trustee for Conklin's bankruptcy proceedings. (Id. ¶ 22.) At a point unspecified by the amended complaint, a payment plan was issued and approved by DeHart and Conklin's creditors. (Id.) The plan called for Conklin to make payments in an amount exceeding his pre-petition debt service by twenty-five percent. (Id. ¶ 25.)

Conklin asserts a variety of claims in connection with the bankruptcy proceedings. By way of example, Conklin alleges that DeHart failed to notify him of deficiencies in the bankruptcy plan, improperly suspended payments, purposefully failed to secure an adversarial hearing when "significant resources remained in controversy," improperly sought to modify the bankruptcy plan, and deliberately made misrepresentations to the bankruptcy court about Conklin's financial abilities. (See id. ¶¶ 22, 24-27, 35-38.)

Conklin also avers that defendant Leon Haller ("Haller"), an attorney, colluded with DeHart to benefit an unidentified mortgagor of Conklin's property whom Haller was representing. (Id. at 6, ¶ 28.) Defendant Paul Lutz ("Lutz"), Conklin's personal attorney during the bankruptcy proceedings, allegedly engaged in fraud with Haller to utilize Conklin's status as a bankrupt "to unlawfully take his money and force him into an even more tenuous financial situation." (Id. at 6.) For example, Lutz requested that a temporary restraining order protecting Conklin's interests in the Warrington Property be lifted, allegedly in an effort to prevent Conklin from meeting his financial obligations. (Id. ¶¶ 40-41.) Furthermore, at Lutz's instruction, Conklin issued six checks to Haller totaling in excess of $14,000, and one check to Lutz in the amount of $2,050. (Id. at 7, ¶¶ 10, 31.) Although this money was to be placed toward the mortgage debt on the Warrington Property, Conklin has been unable to trace the destination of the funds and suggests that Lutz and Haller engaged in wrongdoing with respect to the funds. (Id. at 7, ¶ 10.) Conklin alleges that in October of 2004, the bankruptcy judge "expressly referred to the appearance of 'collusion'" between Lutz and Haller. (Id. at 6-7, ¶ 37.) Thereafter, on November 18, 2004, the judge allegedly dismissed his case "for lack of time" without investigating the alleged collusion. (Id. ¶ 38.) Conklin alleges that he did not learn the extent and nature of Haller and Lutz's misconduct until late November 2004. He now asserts that their actions constitute a civil conspiracy and were fraudulent and intended to deprive him of his property without due process of law.*fn4 (Id. ¶¶ 44, 53.)

C. Alleged Misdeeds by the Financial Institution Defendants

Conklin alleges that defendant Chase Bank of Texas ("Chase"), the mortgage holder at the time Conklin fell into arrears, accepted his plan to subdivide the Warrington Property as a way to satisfy his mortgage debt. (Id. at 3-4.) However, Conklin suggests that Chase acquiesced only because he "was dangerously close to exposing . . . unlawful predatory financing practices." (Id. at 3 (internal citation omitted)). Conklin further alleges that he "has never been given any figures as to what he owes, nor any accounting as to what he paid." (Id. at 6; see also id. at 2, ¶¶ 23, 33.)

Conklin also alleges that the financial institution defendants improperly transferred and assigned the mortgage, note, and mortgage service contract for the Warrington Property during the pendency of his bankruptcy proceedings without informing him.*fn5 (Id. at 5, ¶¶ 46, 48, 58.) These transactions and other unidentified efforts by the financial institution defendants allegedly "made it impossible for him to be able to make payments and to be able to account for those innumerable payments he had already made." (Id. at 5.) Furthermore, Conklin claims that Chase instituted foreclosure proceedings on the wrong property. (Id.; see id. ¶ 47.)*fn6

D. Alleged Difficulties with the York County Prothonotary's Office

Conklin also alleges that individual employees of the York County Prothonotary's Office, namely Prothonotary Pamela Lee ("Lee"), Deputy Prothonotaries "David" Doe ("David") and "Sue" Doe ("Sue"), and Solicitor Gregory Gettle ("Gettle"), deprived Conklin of his rights to due process and equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment. (Id. ¶¶ 9, 50, 55-56.) Conklin alleges that these individuals intentionally failed to "docket[] properly filed documents, which if properly filed, would have resulted in plaintiff's right to a hearing regarding the unlawful conduct of the defendant Lutz."*fn7 (Id. ¶ 9; see also id. ¶ 50.)

The amended complaint also details several exchanges between Conklin and the prothonotary defendants that occurred in January 2007. (See id. ¶¶ 61-131.) After learning that "unlawful efforts were under way in the York County Prothonotary's office to take his home and land away,"*fn8 Conklin went to the prothonotary's office to review the docket in his case numbered 2006-SU-433-YO6. (Id. ¶¶ 61, 63-65.) On January 24, 2007, Conklin reviewed a copy of the docket in that case which did not reflect an entry of default judgment against him. However, when Conklin returned to the prothonotary's office five days later, he was informed that a praecipe for default judgment had been entered by defendant EMC Mortgage Corporation ("EMC") in the amount of $422,047.35. (Id. ¶¶ 61-75.) When Conklin inquired about the date of this filing, a non-defendant deputy prothonotary stated that the praecipe for default judgment had been filed on January 19, 2007. After Conklin indicated that the praecipe was not reflected on the docket he had reviewed on January 24, 2007, the deputy prothonotary responded that it must have been docketed on January 25, 2007.*fn9 (Id. ¶¶ 75-78, 87.) Conklin then filed several documents, including a praecipe for non pros against EMC, before leaving the prothonotary's office. (Id. ¶ 79.)

Conklin returned to the prothonotary's office the following day to retrieve a certified copy of the docket. (Id. ¶¶ 83-85.) As he was exiting the office, Conklin told Lee that he would be back. She purportedly responded "in a snide and condescending manner" with, "I'm sure you will." (Id. ¶ 88.) Shortly thereafter, Conklin examined the certified docket and discovered that his praecipe for non pros did not appear thereon. (Id. ¶ 90.) Conklin telephoned the prothonotary's office and asked to speak directly to Lee. When his requests were denied, he spoke to David, who informed him that the praecipe was being returned because of a defect, the exact nature of which was unknown to David. (Id. ¶¶ 89-102.) After David repeatedly denied Conklin's requests to speak directly with Lee, Conklin was transferred to Sue, who explained that it was she who had determined that his praecipe was defective. Nonetheless, Sue allegedly did not reveal the exact nature of the defect. (Id. ¶¶ 99-114, 128.) Sue also denied Conklin's requests to speak with Lee, stating that Lee was not familiar with his case. (Id. ¶¶ 106-110.) When the conversation between Sue and Conklin became heated, Sue informed Conklin that further inquiries should be directed to Gettle. (Id. ¶¶ 114-127.) In response, Conklin mentioned that he was suing Gettle and Lee. (Id. ¶ 126.) Conklin asserts that the prothonotary defendants' conduct in January of 2007 was motivated by a desire to violate his due process and equal protection rights and to retaliate against him for filing the original complaint in the above-captioned action against Gettle and Lee. (Id. ¶¶ 10a, 129.)

E. Conklin's Requested Relief

Conklin seeks both legal and equitable relief as a result of the defendants' actions. He requests compensatory and punitive damages from all defendants. He also seeks an injunction "prevent[ing] any proceedings to sell his property until there is a resolution of who owes what to who [sic] and whether or not the various defendants engaged in predatory financial and lending practices which still prevents them from providing Mr. Conklin an accounting." Finally, he seeks as an injunction "to prevent the Prothonotary's office of York County from denying him his procedural due process rights and . . . taking away his interest in property." (Id. ¶¶ 12-15.)

II. Standard of Review

Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides for the dismissal of complaints that fail to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. FED. R. CIV. P. 12(b)(6). When ruling on a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), the court must "accept as true all [factual] allegations in the complaint and all reasonable inferences that can be drawn therefrom, and view them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff." Kanter v. Barella, 489 F.3d 170, 177 (3d Cir. 2007) (quoting Evancho v. Fisher, 423 F.3d 347, 350 (3d Cir. 2005)). Although the court is generally limited in its review to the facts in 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 require the complaint to "give the defendant fair notice of what the . . . claim is and the grounds upon which it rests." Sershen v. Cholish, No. 3:07-CV-1011, 2007 WL 3146357, at *4 (M.D. Pa. Oct. 26, 2007) (quoting Erickson v. Pardus, ___ U.S. ___, 127 S.Ct. 2197, 2200 (2007)). The plaintiff must present facts that, if true, demonstrate a plausible right to relief. 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"); Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, ___ U.S. ___, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 1965 (2007) (requiring plaintiffs to allege facts sufficient to "raise a right to relief above the speculative level"); Victaulic Co. v. Tieman, 499 F.3d 227, 234 (3d Cir. 2007). Thus, courts should not dismiss a complaint for failure to state a claim if it "contain[s] either direct or inferential allegations respecting all the material elements necessary to sustain recovery under some viable legal theory." Montville Twp. v. Woodmont Builders LLC, No. 05-4888, 2007 WL 2261567, at *2 (3d Cir. 2007) (quoting Twombly, ___ U.S. at ___, 127 S.Ct. at 1969). Under this liberal pleading standard, courts should generally grant plaintiffs leave to amend their claims before dismissing a complaint that is merely deficient. See Grayson v. Mayview State Hosp., 293 F.3d 103, 108 (3d Cir. 2002); Shane v. Fauver, 213 F.3d 113, 116-17 (3d Cir. 2000). In addition, complaints alleging fraud must satisfy the heightened pleading requirements set forth in Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 9(b).

See FED. R. CIV. P. 9(b) ("In all averments of fraud or mistake, the circumstances constituting the fraud or mistake shall be stated with particularity.").

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)).

In the action sub judice, Conklin alleges that defendants violated his Fourteenth Amendment rights to due process and equal protection and retaliated against him in violation of the First Amendment. Conklin also asserts state law claims of fraud and civil conspiracy. The four defendant groups ...

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