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Charmaine Klatch-Maynard and William v. Sugarloaf Township

February 8, 2011

CHARMAINE KLATCH-MAYNARD AND WILLIAM MAYNARD (H/W),
v.
SUGARLOAF TOWNSHIP, ROBERT STANZIOLA,
EARL MILLER, JOYCE P. STEVENS, POLICE CHIEF JOHN HUDSON, SUGARLOAF TOWNSHIP SOLICITOR, JAMES SCHNEIDER, ALL IN THEIR INDIVIDUAL
CAPACITIES, DEFENDANTS



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Munley

MEMORANDUM

Before the court for disposition is Magistrate Judge Martin C. Carlson's report and recommendation that defendants' motions to dismiss the amended complaint be granted. Plaintiffs have filed objections to the report and recommendation.

Background*fn1

Between 2004 and 2008, the plaintiffs, Charmaine Klatch-Maynard and William Maynard, resided in Sugarloaf Township and owned property within the Hazleton School District. The Maynards were also involved in litigation with Sugarloaf Township, having filed a federal lawsuit against the township relating to zoning matters. According to the plaintiffs, this lawsuit ended unsuccessfully for the Maynards after a jury trial.

At the same time that the above-mentioned federal litigation was pending, the Maynards also had apparently accrued unpaid and delinquent real estate taxes owed both to the township and to the Hazleton School District. As part of the exercise of their right to petition for redress of grievances, the Mayanards launched a twofold approach to litigating their unpaid tax claims.

First, in the autumn of 2005, the Maynards pursued a successful appeal of their real estate assessment before the Luzerne County Board of Assessment Appeals. When this assessment appeal initially resulted in a reduction of the assessed value of their real estate, plaintiffs contacted the Hazleton School District, advising the district of their successful assessment appeal and asking the district to forgive their tax delinquencies in light of this successful appeal.

The plaintiffs' complaint then alleges that their vigorous petitioning activity inspired the school district, through its counsel, to exercise its own right to petition for redress of grievances by challenging in court the revised real estate assessment that the plaintiffs had received from the Luzerne County Board of Assessment Appeals. Specifically, plaintiffs assert that between the autumn of 2005 and the summer of 2006, Defendant James Schneider, the solicitor for Sugarloaf Township, and Defendant Edward McNelis, the attorney for the Hazleton School District, exchanged a series of communications concerning the plaintiffs, the plaintiffs' various real estate tax delinquencies, the plaintiffs' effort to reduce their real estate tax assessments, and the plaintiffs' requests to have their tax delinquencies forgiven. In these communications, the attorneys allegedly discussed whether to appeal this lowered real estate assessment decision to the Court of Common Pleas.

The attorneys also allegedly discussed another financial matter relating both to the legal petitioning of the plaintiffs and to their ability to pay the back taxes that they owed. In the context of these discussions, attorneys Schneider and McNelis referred to a report that the plaintiffs had successfully settled yet another, unrelated, civil lawsuit for $50,000, thus providing them the means of paying their tax debts. On the basis that this information was allegedly disclosed by an attorney who formerly represented them, Defendant George Hludzik, plaintiffs name Hludzik and his law firm as additional defendants in this matter. Ultimately, Hazleton School District appealed the assessment decision to the state court.

While the defendants weighed their options regarding whether to petition the state court to redress their grievances concerning this real estate reassessment, the plaintiffs were vigorous in re-asserting their right to petition by filing the instant lawsuit in April 2006. In its original form, the plaintiffs' 2006 complaint alleged, among other claims, violations of the plaintiffs' First Amendment rights to petition township officials by attending and speaking out at various township meetings. Indeed, plaintiffs alleged that their right of access to these public meetings was impeded, curtailed and chilled in a variety of ways on as many as forty-eight occasions between 2004 and 2006.

In October 2008, plaintiffs sought leave to amend the complaint to assert new claims against additional defendants. After almost ten months of contentious litigation, plaintiffs filed an amended complaint in August 2009. This amended complaint is an 81-page document, containing 301 paragraphs of factual averments, and describing 22 separate causes of action. The first fifteen counts of the amended complaint appear to relate to the original lawsuit brought by the plaintiffs. The remaining seven counts - Counts 16 through 22 - bring a series of new causes of action, all of which appear in some fashion to stem out of the legal efforts by Hazleton School District to challenge the plaintiffs' favorable real estate reassessment decision by the Luzerne County Board of Assessment Appeals in state court. The amended complaint thus names as defendants in the new counts the following: the Hazleton School District, its counsel, McNelis, and his law firm, Sugarloaf Township, its counsel, Schneider, and his law firm, as well as the plaintiffs' own former attorney Hludzik, and his law firm.

According to the amended complaint, the actions of these defendants in petitioning the state court to review the real estate assessment: (1) violated the plaintiffs' Fourteenth Amendment substantive due process rights by depriving them of property (Count 16); (2) constituted a violation of the Equal Protection clauses of the United States and Pennsylvania Constitutions (Count 17); (3) amounted to a conspiracy to deprive the plaintiffs of their federally protected civil rights in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1985(3) (Count 18); (4) violated Pennsylvania state law, specifically a state criminal statute, 18 PA. CONS. STAT. ANN. § 5101; (5) constituted a civil racketeering conspiracy in violation of the federal Racketeer Influenced Corrupt Organizations Act, ("RICO"), 18 U.S.C. § 1962, and Pennsylvania's anti-racketeering statue, 18 PA. STAT. CONS. ANN. § 911 (Count 20); and (6) violated Pennsylvania's wrongful use of civil proceedings statute, 42 PA. CONS. STAT. ANN. § 8351 (Counts 21 and 22). (Doc. 97, Report and Recommendation of Nov. 8, 2010, 2 - 7).

Motions to dismiss Counts 16 through 22 of the amended complaint were filed by Defendants Hludzik, Hludzik law office, McNelis, the McNelis law office and Hazleton School District. The magistrate judge recommends granting the motions to dismiss. The plaintiffs object to the report and recommendation, bringing the case to its present posture.*fn2

Jurisdiction

As plaintiffs bring suit to vindicate their federal civil rights as well as a federal RICO action, we have jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. ยง 1331 ("The district courts shall have original jurisdiction of all civil actions arising under the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States."). We have supplemental ...


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