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Shank v. East Hempfield Township

July 20, 2010

BRIAN E. SHANK AND REBECCA M. SHANK, PLAINTIFFS
v.
EAST HEMPFIELD TOWNSHIP, DEFENDANT AND RICHARD J. SZARKO, M.D., INTERVENOR DEFENDANT



The opinion of the court was delivered by: James Knoll Gardner, United States District Judge

OPINION

This matter is before the court on four motions for judgment on the pleadings: (1) Plaintiffs' Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings; (2) Plaintiffs' Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings Directed Against Intervenor [sic] Defendant Richard J. Szarko; (3) defendant East Hempfield Township's Motion for Judgment on Pleadings; and (4) Defendant Richard J. Szarko's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings. Upon consideration of the pleadings and the briefs of the parties and amicus curiae, and for the reasons articulated in this Opinion, I grant defendant's and intervenor's motions for judgment on the pleadings, dismiss plaintiffs' motions for judgment on the pleadings as moot, enter judgment in favor of defendant and intervenor and against plaintiffs, and dismiss this action with prejudice.

Defendant argues that: (1) this court lacks subject matter jurisdiction to entertain this action; (2) the Rooker*fn1 -Feldman*fn2 doctrine divests this court of jurisdiction; and (3) this court should abstain from exercising its jurisdiction pursuant to the doctrine of Younger v. Harris.*fn3 Brief in Support of Defendant, East Hempfield Township's, Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings ("Defendant's Brief").

Intervenor argues that: (1) the actions of the township and the zoning hearing board are not preempted by the Federal Aviation Act of 1958, 49 U.S.C. §§ 40101-50105; (2) the Rooker-Feldman doctrine divests this court of jurisdiction; (3) this court should abstain from exercising its jurisdiction pursuant to the doctrine of Younger v. Harris; and (4) claim preclusion (res judicata) bars the relitigation of plaintiffs' claims. Defendant Szarko's Brief in Support of His Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings ("Intervenor's Brief").

For the reasons that follow, I find defendants' subject matter jurisdiction and Rooker-Feldman doctrine arguments to be misplaced. I also determine that it would be inappropriate for me to abstain pursuant to the doctrine of Younger v. Harris. However, because I find that claim preclusion bars this action, I grant defendant's and intervenor's motions for judgment on the pleadings. I dismiss plaintiffs' motions for judgment on the pleadings as moot.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

Judgment on the pleadings will be granted only if "the movant clearly establishes there are no material issues of fact, and he is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Sikirica v. Nationwide Insurance Company, 416 F.3d 214, 220 (3d Cir. 2005) (citing Society Hill Civic Association v. Harris, 632 F.2d 1045, 1054 (3d Cir. 1980)). The court "must view the facts presented in the pleadings and the inferences to be drawn therefrom in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party."*fn4 Id.

The court considers a motion for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(c) under the same standard as a motion to dismiss pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). E.g., Doe v. McVey, 381 F.Supp.2d 443, 448 (E.D.Pa. 2005) (Pollak, J.); Katzenmoyer v. City of Reading, 158 F.Supp.2d 491, 496 (E.D.Pa. 2001) (Padova, J.).

In deciding a motion for judgment on the pleadings, the court considers the pleadings and exhibits attached thereto,*fn5 undisputedly authentic documents attached to the motion for judgment on the pleadings if plaintiffs' claims are based on the documents,*fn6 and matters of public record.*fn7

PROCEDURAL HISTORY

In July 2008, plaintiffs Brian E. Shank and Rebecca M. Shank flew helicopters above their property located at 2778 Spooky Nook Road in East Hempfield Township, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.*fn8 On July 31, 2008, defendant East Hempfield Township issued plaintiffs a zoning Enforcement Notice alleging that plaintiffs' helicopter operations violated the Township Zoning Ordinance.*fn9

On August 29, 2008, plaintiffs appealed the Enforcement Notice to the East Hempfield Township Zoning Hearing Board.*fn10 On March 16, 2009, the zoning hearing board denied plaintiffs' appeal.*fn11 On April 13, 2009, plaintiffs appealed the decision of the zoning hearing board to the Court of Common Pleas of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.*fn12

Plaintiffs commenced this federal declaratory judgment action by filing a two-count Complaint on May 19, 2009. Plaintiffs seek a judgment declaring that: (a) the United States has exclusive sovereignty over its airspace, including the airspace over plaintiffs' property, pursuant to 49 U.S.C. § 40103; (b) the Enforcement Notice is preempted by 49 U.S.C. § 40103 and the regulations promulgated thereunder; and (c) the township is without legal authority to regulate, through zoning or otherwise, the airspace over plaintiffs' property pursuant to 53 P.S. § 10601. Complaint at paragraphs 43 and 49. Plaintiffs also seek an order enjoining the township from regulating the navigable airspace in which, or height that, helicopters may fly or hover over plaintiffs' property. Id.

On August 11, 2009, the Court of Common Pleas stayed plaintiffs' appeal until this court resolves the issue of federal preemption in this case.*fn13

On September 9, 2009, I granted intervenor Richard J. Szarko, M.D. leave to intervene in this action.

On September 11, 2009, plaintiffs filed Plaintiffs' Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings and defendant filed its Motion for Judgment on Pleadings. On September 25, 2009, intervenor filed Defendant Richard J. Szarko's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings, and on October 12, 2009, plaintiffs filed Plaintiffs' Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings Directed Against Intervenor [sic] Defendant Richard J. Szarko.

On October 23, 2009, I granted Helicopter Association International leave to file a brief as amicus curiae, which brief was filed October 26, 2009.

On November 3, 2009, I ordered each party to file a supplemental brief addressing whether this court should abstain from exercising jurisdiction under the doctrine of Younger v. Harris and whether claim preclusion (res judicata) bars plaintiffs from raising their claims against defendants. Defendant and intervenor defendant filed their supplemental briefs on December 7, 2009. Plaintiffs filed their supplemental brief on December 12, 2009.

DISCUSSION

Subject Matter Jurisdiction Defendant East Hempfield Township first contends that this court should dismiss this action for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. Defendant argues that "[t]he controversy is solely a local zoning matter. As such, this Court does not have jurisdiction over the controversy." Defendant's Brief at 2.

Plaintiffs contend that "this federal action presents a classic federal question over which this Court has original jurisdiction.... The issue before this Court in this declaratory judgment action is whether the Township is preempted by federal law...." (Plaintiffs' Memorandum of Law in Opposition to Defendant Township's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings ("Plaintiffs' Response") at 3-4.)

In this action, plaintiffs seek an order declaring that the Enforcement Notice is preempted by the Federal Aviation Act of 1958, 49 U.S.C. §§ 40101-50105. (Complaint at paragraphs 43 and 49.) "A plaintiff who seeks injunctive relief from state regulation, on the ground that such regulation is pre-empted by a federal statute...presents a federal question [over] which the federal courts have jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1331 to resolve." Shaw v. Delta Air Lines, Inc., 463 U.S. 85, 96 n.14, 103 S.Ct. 2890, 2899, 77 L.Ed.2d 490, 500 (1983); accord Verizon Maryland Inc. v. Public Service Commission of Maryland, 535 U.S. 635, 642, 122 S.Ct. 1753, 152 L.Ed.2d 871 (2002); National Parks Conservation Association v. Lower Providence Township, 608 F.Supp.2d 637, 642 (E.D.Pa. 2009) (Brody, J.).

I conclude that I have subject matter jurisdiction to entertain plaintiffs' action.*fn14 I will therefore proceed to consider the other arguments raised by defendant's and intervenor's motions for judgment on the pleadings.

Rooker-Feldman Doctrine

Defendants next contend that the Rooker*fn15 -Feldman*fn16 doctrine divests this court of jurisdiction because plaintiffs seek to have this court overturn the zoning hearing board's decision. (Defendant's Brief at 4-5; Intervenor's Brief at 9-11.)

It is well-established that "Rooker-Feldman does not apply to a suit seeking review of state agency action." Exxon Mobil Corporation v. Saudi Basic Industries Corporation, 544 U.S. 280, 287, 125 S.Ct. 1517, 1523, 161 L.Ed.2d 454, 463 (2005) (citing Verizon Maryland Inc., 535 U.S. at 644 n.3). "The doctrine has no application to judicial review of executive action, including determinations made by a state administrative agency." Verizon Maryland Inc., 535 U.S. at 644 n.3; see National Railroad Passenger Corporation v. Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, 342 F.3d 242, 257 (3d Cir. 2003).

Plaintiffs' appeal of the zoning hearing board's decision has been stayed by the Court of Common Pleas of Lancaster County.*fn17 Thus, there is no state court judgment here, only the decision of a state administrative agency, and the Rooker-Feldman doctrine does not apply.

Younger Abstention

Defendants next contend that this court should abstain from exercising its jurisdiction pursuant to the doctrine of Younger v. Harris.*fn18

Younger abstention is appropriate only where: "(1) there are ongoing state proceedings that are judicial in nature; (2) the state proceedings implicate important state interests; and (3) the state proceedings afford an adequate opportunity to raise the federal claims." Addiction Specialists, Inc. v. Township of Hampton, 411 F.3d 399, 408 (3d Cir. 2005); Gwynedd Properties, Inc. v. Lower Gwynedd Township, 970 F.2d 1195, 1200 (3d Cir. 1992).

"Even if this test is met, however, abstention is not appropriate if the plaintiff establishes that 'extraordinary circumstances exist...such that deference to the state proceeding will present a significant and immediate potential for irreparable harm to the federal interests asserted.'" Zahl v. Harper, 282 F.3d 204, 209 (3d Cir. 2002) (quoting Schall v. Joyce, 885 F.2d 101, 106 (3d Cir. 1989)).

The Court of Appeals exercises plenary review over the legal determination of whether the requirements for abstention have been met, and then reviews the decision to abstain for abuse of discretion. Addiction Specialists, Inc., 411 F.3d at 408; Zahl, 282 F.3d at 208. Although I find that all three prongs of the Younger abstention test are satisfied here, I decline to abstain in light ...


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