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Lease v. Fishel

April 3, 2009


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


Before the Court are Rule 12(b)(6) Motions to Dismiss filed by Defendants Brian Coffey ("Coffey") (Doc. No. 23); George A. Taughinbaugh ("Taughinbaugh") and Ron Plank ("Plank") (Doc. No. 25); Ronald Balutis ("Balutis"), Timothy Beard ("Beard"), and Hamilton Township (Doc. No. 28); and David Ogle ("Ogle") and Douglas Fishel ("Fishel") (Doc. No. 40). Additionally, Defendants Plank and Taughinbaugh have filed a motion for sanctions against Plaintiff's counsel pursuant to Rule 11 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. (Doc. No. 27.) Finally, Plaintiff's counsel, Don Bailey, has moved to withdraw from the case due to irreconcilable differences that have developed with the Plaintiff. (Doc. No. 56.) These motions are ripe for disposition, and the Court will consider them together in this Memorandum. For the following reasons, Plank and Taughinbaugh's motion to dismiss and motion for sanctions will be granted, Lease will be required to file an amended complaint with the Court, the remaining motions to dismiss will be denied as moot, and Mr. Bailey will be allowed to withdraw as counsel for the Plaintiff.


A. Factual Background

The allegations in this complaint arise out of a land development dispute between Defendant Hamilton Township and the Plaintiff David R. Lease ("Lease"). (Doc. No. 1 ¶ 8.) Lease alleges that the Defendants have acted unlawfully together to intimidate and retaliate against him because he "vigorously and successfully defended his rights . . . ." in resolving the dispute with Hamilton Township in state court. (Id. ¶ 19.) Many of the Defendants have no apparent connection to each other, but Lease alleges that their retaliatory conspiracy "to harm or otherwise injure the plaintiff" in furtherance of the interests of Hamilton Township is "evidenced by all of the defendants' individual unlawful actions." (Id.)

B. Procedural Background

This case comes before the Court in an unusual procedural posture, in that the alleged retaliation and conspiracy has already been the subject of one action before this Court (involving some of the same parties and events that underlie the present complaint), captioned as Lease v. Tyler, at docket number 1:05-CV-00618 ("Lease I"). Before commencing the present action, Lease sought leave to file a second amended complaint in Lease I to include the claims presented in the instant action. (Lease I, Doc. No. 44.) The Court denied this request as untimely (Lease I, Doc. No. 54), and Lease commenced the present case on January 2, 2007. (Doc. No. 1.) The Court ultimately granted summary judgment for the Defendants in Lease I on June 30, 2008, (Lease I, Doc. No. 82), after the present motions to dismiss were already ripe.

C. Standard of Review

The Supreme Court's recent opinion in Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 127 S.Ct. 1955 (2007), has altered the standard of review for a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6). Phillips v. County of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 230 (3d Cir. 2008). In construing the Rule 12(b)(6) standard generally, the Court required the plaintiff to provide more than a formulaic recitation of a claim's elements that amounted to mere labels and conclusions. Twombly, 127 S.Ct. at 1964-65. Additionally, the Court held that the complaint's "factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level." Id. The Third Circuit has held that this language in Twombly applies generally to all motions brought under Rule 12(b)(6) and summed up the Twombly standard as follows: "stating . . . a claim requires a complaint with enough factual matter (taken as true) to suggest the required element. This does not impose a probability requirement at the pleading stage, but instead simply calls for enough facts to raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence of the necessary element." Phillips, 515, F.3d at 234 (internal quotations and citations omitted). After Twombly, it is still true that "courts accept all factual allegations as true, construe the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, and determine whether, under any reasonable reading of the complaint, the plaintiff may be entitled to relief." Id. at 232 (quoting Pinker v. Roche Holdings Ltd., 292 F.3d 361, 374 n.7 (3d Cir. 2002)).


All of the Defendants have moved to reform or strike the complaint in this case, either to remove allegations that do not comply with Rules 8 and 10 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure or requesting a more definite statement. (See Doc. No. 23 ¶ 13; Doc. No. 26 at 13; Doc. No. 29 at 15; Doc. No. 40 ¶ 15.)

The Court agrees that the complaint must be amended. Rule 8 requires that pleadings contain "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief, Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a)(2), and further requires that each allegation must be "simple, concise, and direct," Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(d)(1). Rule 10 additionally prescribes that "[a] party must state its claims or defenses in numbered paragraphs, each limited as far as practicable to a single set of circumstances," and that "if doing so would promote clarity, each claim founded on a separate transaction or occurrence . . . must be stated in a separate count or defense." Fed. R Civ. P. 10(b).

The present complaint does not satisfy Rules 8 and 10. Most glaringly, Paragraph 1, included under the title "Introductory Statement," effectively takes up 8 of the complaint's 18 pages. (Doc. No. 1 ¶ 1 at 1-8.) The mash of allegations in this introductory statement read more like a novel than a legal pleading and frequently digress into improper argumentative detail. See Burks v. City of Philadelphia, 904 F. Supp. 421, 424 (E.D. Pa. 1995). This single numbered paragraph also includes many of the most pertinent allegations against each Defendant, which is clear from Lease's own briefs citing it repeatedly to set out the procedural and factual history of the case. (See Doc. No. 33 at 2; Doc. No. 42 at 2-3.) The use of this meandering "Introductory Statement" violates Rules 8 and 10 and does not comport with Plaintiffs' obligations, especially given the multiple defendants and separate transactions that Lease is trying to articulate as the bases for his relief; the result is a confusing mess that reduces efficiency and will complicate issues as the case goes forward. Further, because it seems that several critical allegations are made in the introductory statement that are not made elsewhere in the complaint, it is not even possible to simply strike paragraph 1 and rely on other sections of the complaint. Even if the Court were to rely on the remainder of the complaint, other portions of the complaint suffer from the same deficiencies. (See Doc. No. 1 ¶ 23.)

Additionally, since the complaint was filed, the Court has issued a memorandum and order granting summary judgment to the defendants in Lease I. (Lease I, Doc. No. 82.) Some of the allegations and issues in the present case overlap with Lease I, especially with respect to Defendant Coffey-sued specifically for his role with Kevin Tyler and Douglas Fishel in the same events taking place on March 17, 2004 that the Court determined did not violate Lease's constitutional rights-and the plaintiff may be precluded from litigating them again. Because the Court's summary judgment order in Lease I was not available when the present complaint was filed, the Plaintiff should re-assess the viability of the claims and allegations made in this action to ensure the Court has not already preclusively determined these issues.

As the Court will require Lease to submit an amended complaint, the pending motions to dismiss will be denied as moot. The Court will review the claims made against Plank and Taughinbaugh, see Burks, 904 F. Supp. at 424, however, because they are the subject of a Rule 11 motion for sanctions that must be addressed before proceeding with the litigation to guide counsel in their future filings in this matter.


Though the complaint itself frequently fails to distinguish between Defendants, there does not appear to be any dispute that the claims against Defendants Plank and Taughinbaugh in the instant action solely arise from an inspection of Lease's property conducted during discovery in Lease I. (See Doc. No. 26 at 2; Doc. No. 33 at 2.) Lease alleges that this was an "unlawful search . . . under the guise of discovery (in [Lease I]). This search was conducted by the defendants Taughinbaugh and Plank asserting a right to do so pursuant to this court's authority in the pending case . . . . There was virtually no probable cause, or factual basis for this search either." (Doc. No. 1 ¶ 1 at 3.) Suspecting that Plank and Taughinbaugh had iniquitous motives during the inspection, Lease's counsel queried them about their purpose for the inspection. (Id. at 6.) In response, "[b]oth Mr. Plank . . . and Mr. Taughinbaugh, . . . literally blurted out . . . that the so-called 'view' was about showing that Lease was "stealing electricity from his tenants." (Id.) Lease contends that this inspection was a fishing expedition "irrelevant to the pending federal action," and that it was undertaken in cooperation with Hamilton Township "to retaliate against him for litigating against Hamilton Township and . . . for filing [Lease I] . . . ." (Id.) Based on these allegations, Lease asserts claims against Plank and Taughinbaugh for violations of his First and Fourth Amendment rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, conspiracy to deprive him of his rights, and abuse of legal process "as a matter of federal and state law." (Id. at 18.) It seems Lease also believes that this conduct amounts to defamation, but admits the statute of limitations on those claims has expired. (Id. at 17.)

The Defendants argue that these claims are frivolous and were advanced in violation of Rule 11 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. (Doc. No. 27.) The ...

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