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Briar Meadows Developments, Inc. v. South Centre Township Board of Supervisors

October 13, 2010

BRIAR MEADOWS DEVELOPMENTS, INC. AND LIME RIDGE CENTER, LLC, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
SOUTH CENTRE TOWNSHIP BOARD OF SUPERVISORS, FRANK C. BAKER, JAMES KNORR, AND FRANK YORTY, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hon. John E. Jones III

MEMORANDUM

I. INTRODUCTION

Before the Court in this action asserted under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 is Defendants South Centre Township Board of Supervisors ("the Board"), Frank C. Baker ("Baker"), James Knorr ("Knorr"), and Frank Yorty's ("Yorty") (collectively, "Defendants"), Motion to Dismiss the Complaint pursuant to Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6) or, in the alternative, for Summary Judgment pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56 ("the Motion"). (Doc. 8.) The Motion has been fully briefed (see Docs. 12, 24, 25) and thus is ripe for disposition. For the reasons articulated in this Memorandum, the Court shall grant the Motion and dismiss the Complaint on 12(b)(6) grounds for Plaintiffs' failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. An appropriate Order shall enter.

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

When considering a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(1), a court must distinguish between facial and factual challenges to its subject matter jurisdiction. See Mortensen v. First Fed. Sav. & Loan Ass'n, 549 F.2d 884, 891 (3d Cir. 1977). A facial attack challenges whether the plaintiff has properly pled jurisdiction. Id. "In reviewing a facial attack, the court must only consider the allegations of the complaint and documents referenced therein and attached thereto, in the light most favorable to the plaintiff." Gould Elecs., Inc. v. United States, 220 F.3d 169, 176 (3d Cir. 2000) (citing Mortensen, 549 F.2d at 891). A factual attack, in contrast, challenges jurisdiction based on facts apart from the pleadings. Mortensen, 549 F.2d at 891. "When a defendant attacks subject matter jurisdiction 'in fact,'... the Court is free to weigh the evidence and satisfy itself whether it has power to hear the case. In such a situation, 'no presumptive truthfulness attaches to plaintiff's allegations, and the existence of disputed material facts will not preclude the trial court from evaluating for itself the merits of jurisdictional claims.'" Carpet Group Int'l v. Oriental Rug Importers Ass'n, 227 F.3d 62, 69 (3d Cir. 2000) (quoting Mortensen, 549 F.2d at 891).

In considering a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6), 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." Phillips v. County of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 231 (3d Cir. 2008) (quoting Pinker v. Roche Holdings, Ltd., 292 F.3d 361, 374 n.7 (3d Cir. 2002)). In resolving a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6), a court generally should consider only the allegations in the complaint, as well as "documents that are attached to or submitted with the complaint,... and any matters incorporated by reference or integral to the claim, items subject to judicial notice, matters of public record, orders, [and] items appearing in the record of the case." Buck v. Hampton Twp. Sch. Dist., 452 F.3d 256, 260 (3d Cir. 2006).

A Rule 12(b)(6) motion tests the sufficiency of the complaint against the pleading requirements of Rule 8(a). Rule 8(a)(2) requires that a complaint contain a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief, "in order to give the defendant fair notice of what the claim is and the grounds upon which it rests." Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007) (quoting Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 47 (1957)). While a complaint attacked by a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss need not contain detailed factual allegations, it must contain "sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to 'state claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'" Ashcroft v. Iqbal, --- U.S. ---, ---, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 1949 (2009). To survive a motion to dismiss, a civil plaintiff must allege facts that 'raise a right to relief above the speculative level...." Victaulic Co. v. Tieman, 499 F.3d 227, 235 (3d Cir. 2007) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555). Accordingly, to satisfy the plausibility standard, the complaint must indicate that defendant's liability is more than "a sheer possibility." Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. At 1949. "Where a complaint pleads facts that are 'merely consistent with' a defendant's liability, it 'stops short of the line between possibility and plausibility of entitlement to relief.'" Id. (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 557).

Under the two-pronged approach articulated in Twombly and later formalized in Iqbal, a district court must first identify all factual allegations that constitute nothing more than "legal conclusions" or "naked assertions." Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555, 557. Such allegations are "not entitled to the assumption of truth" and must be disregarded for purposes of resolving a 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss. Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. at 1950. Next, the district court must identify "the 'nub' of the... complaint -- the well-pleaded, nonconclusory factual allegation[s]." Id. Taking these allegations as true, the district judge must then determine whether the complaint states a plausible claim for relief. See id.

However, "a complaint may not be dismissed merely because it appears unlikely that the plaintiff can prove those facts or will ultimately prevail on the merits." Phillips, 515 F.3d at 231 (citing Twombly, 127 S.Ct. 1964-65, 1969 n.8). Rule 8 "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." Id. at 234.

III. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

Plaintiff Briar Meadows Development, Inc. ("Briar Meadows") and Lime Ridge Center, LLC ("Lime Ridge Center"), (collectively, "Plaintiffs") commenced this action by filing suit in this Court on May 11, 2010. (Doc. 1.) Based upon the following facts*fn1, Plaintiffs assert three counts against Defendants: (1) deprivation of Plaintiffs' procedural and substantive due process rights secured by the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution ("Fourteenth Amendment"); (2) deprivation of equal protection of the law in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment; and (3) civil conspiracy. This Court has jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331 and 1343.

Briar Meadows held two option contracts to purchase two separate, contiguous pieces of property in South Centre Township, Columbia County; the "Seesholtz parcel" and the "Schultz parcel." (Doc. 1 ¶¶ 12, 13.) Plaintiffs reserved the exclusive right to purchase each property, and subsequently exercised that right to purchase the Schultz parcel. (Id. ¶ 14.) To date, Briar Meadows retains the exclusive right to purchase the Seesholtz parcel. (Id.) The Schultz parcel is located partly in the Agricultural Zoning District and partly in the Commercial-Industrial Zoning District of South Centre Township. (Id. ¶ 17.) The currently unpurchased Sheesholtz parcel is located entirely within the Agricultural Zoning District. (Id.) Laura Baker, the mother of Defendant Baker, owns several adjacent properties zoned as Commercial-Industrial, and operates several businesses on those properties. (Id. ¶ 18.)

On or about July 13, 2007, Briar Meadows applied for a Curative Amendment of the South Centre Township Zoning map to re-zone the Seesholtz and Schultz parcels from Agricultural to Commercial-Industrial. (Doc. 1 ¶ 19, 20.) After an eventual hearing*fn2, at which Plaintiffs allege Defendants acted poorly*fn3, the Board closed the record and subsequently issued a decision denying the application on December 5, 2007. (Id. ¶¶ 46-47.) Briar Meadows' request to reopen the record to permit additional testimony was denied by the Board. (Id. ¶ 49.)

Briar Meadows appealed the Board's decision to the Court of Common Pleas in the 26th Judicial District (Columbia County). In 2008, the Court of Common Pleas granted Briar Meadows' motion for leave to present additional evidence, and the case was remanded to the Board to hold a de novo hearing. (Doc. 1 ¶ 52.) The Board petitioned for reconsideration of that order, and the proceedings were stayed by a stipulation of the parties to allow Briar Meadows time to apply instead for a use variance. (Id. ¶¶ 53-54.) The use variance was likewise denied, and the Columbia County Court amended its previous order and scheduled a hearing for purpose of taking additional testimony and evidence. All Columbia County Court judges thereafter recused themselves from further proceedings and, by order dated October 9, 2008, transferred the matter to the Northumberland County Court of Common Pleas. (Id. ¶ 54.)

The Northumberland County Court conducted a hearing in 2009 at which Briar Meadows introduced its plan for development of the lots if the Curative Amendment was granted. On July 31, 2009, the Northumberland County Court denied Briar Meadows' request for a Curative Amendment, thereby affirming the Board's original decision. The Northumberland Court found that Briar Meadows demonstrated no defect in the ordinance designating the land as Agricultural rather than Commercial-Industrial. (Id. ¶ 56.)

Briar Meadows appealed the Northumberland County Court's decision to the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court. The Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court held, on August 18, 2010, that the decision of the Board comports with Pennsylvania law, and thereby affirmed the mandate of the Northumberland County Court.

While the appeal at the Commonwealth Court was pending, Plaintiffs filed the instant Complaint in this Court on May 11, 2010. (Doc. 1.) Plaintiff Lime Ridge Center joined Briar Meadows in the three-count Complaint, albeit for reasons unknown to the Court because the former is mentioned in a single paragraph that merely identifies its office address. Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, Plaintiffs assert that, based upon the above-mentioned facts, the Defendants deprived Plaintiffs of procedural and substantive due process, denied Plaintiffs equal protection of the law, and civilly conspired to do so. Defendants posit that the Complaint should be dismissed for want of jurisdiction, specifically for lack of standing and pursuant to Rooker-Feldman, res judicata, and Younger abstention.

In the alternative, Defendants assert that the Complaint Should be dismissed pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) for failure to state a constitutional ...


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