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Bonnie Hynoski, Stephen v. Columbia County

March 11, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Christopher C. Conner United States District Judge

Judge Conner


Plaintiffs Bonnie Hynoski, Stephen Hynoski, Christine Hynoski, Tom Hynoski, the Borough of Centralia, Harold Mervine (as executor of the estate of Lamar Mervine, Jr. and Lana Mervine), John Koschoff, Helen Hynoski, and Walter Hynoski (collectively, "plaintiffs") filed the above-captioned case, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, against defendants Columbia County Redevelopment Authority, Rosenn Jenkins and Greenwald, LLP, John T. Zelinka, Gary Taroli, Blaschak Coal Corporation, Steven Fishman, the Commonweath of Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development, and C. Alan Walker.*fn1 Presently before the court is plaintiffs' motion (Doc. 2) for preliminary injunctive relief. Plaintiffs seek to enjoin any and all defendants, or anyone acting on their behalf, from taking any action in furtherance of certain eminent domain proceedings presently pending in state court. For the following reasons, plaintiffs' motion for preliminary injunctive relief will be denied.*fn2

I. Factual Background and Procedural History

In 1962, an underground mine fire was discovered in the vicinity of the Borough of Centralia. After prolonged and unsuccessful attempts to extinguish the fire, the government relocated certain residents of the Borough pursuant to a voluntary relocation process, and it initiated eminent domain proceedings against others. (Doc. 1 at 3-4). Material to the instant matter, in 1993, the government filed declarations of taking. (Id. at 5; Doc. 2, Exh. 7). By operation of law, title to the Centralia properties immediately passed to the Commonwealth, on the date of filing the declaration of taking. (26 PA. CONS. STAT. § 302(a)). The only issue remaining in the pending proceedings is that of just compensation for the takings. According to the complaint, the government "withdrew" its declaration of taking with respect to one property in the fire impact area (the "Netchel property") and permitted the owner to keep said property. It is this act of relinquishing title in one of the Centralia properties that is the linchpin of plaintiffs' claims.

Plaintiffs filed this action on October 27, 2010, alleging, in pertinent part, that the difference in treatment between their properties and the Netchel property violates their Fourteenth Amendment right to equal protection of the laws.*fn3 Two days after filing the complaint, plaintiffs filed the instant motion for a preliminary injunction to restrain defendants from taking any action in furtherance of the eminent domain proceedings. The parties have sufficiently addressed the issues raised by the motion, which may be summarily addressed without the need for an evidentiary hearing.

II. Discussion

The requirements for preliminary injunctive relief are well settled. In order to obtain this extraordinary remedy, the moving party must establish that: (1) there is a reasonable probability of success on the merits, (2) irreparable injury will result without injunctive relief, (3) granting the injunction will avoid a comparably greater hardship than denying it, and (4) the injunction is in the public interest. See Swartzwelder v. McNeilly, 297 F.3d 228, 234 (3d Cir. 2002); BP Chems., Ltd. v. Formosa Chem. & Fibre Corp., 229 F.3d 254, 263 (3d Cir. 2000). While each factor need not be established beyond doubt, they must combine to show the immediate necessity of injunctive relief. See 11A CHARLES ALAN WRIGHT ET AL., FEDERAL PRACTICE AND PROCEDURE § 2948.3 (2d ed. 1995) ("[T]he degree of likelihood of success is not determinative. Rather it must be considered and balanced with the comparative injuries of the parties."). If, however, the moving party fails to show both a reasonable probability of success on the merits and irreparable injury, then the court must deny preliminary injunctive relief. In re Arthur Treacher's Franchisee Litig., 689 F.2d 1137, 1143 (3d Cir. 1982); Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith, Inc. v. Chamberlain, 145 F. Supp. 2d 621, 625 (M.D. Pa. 2001).

A. Reasonable Probability of Success on the Merits

To establish a reasonable probability of success on the merits, the moving party must produce sufficient evidence to satisfy the essential elements of the underlying cause of action. See Punnett v. Carter, 621 F.2d 578, 582-83 (3d Cir. 1980). This requires examination of the legal principles controlling the claim and potential defenses available to the opposing party. See BP Chems., 229 F.3d at 264. However, the mere possibility that the claim might be defeated does not preclude a finding of probable success if the evidence clearly satisfies the essential prerequisites of the cause of action. Highmark, Inc. v. UPMC Health Plan, Inc., 276 F.3d 160, 173 (3d Cir. 2001) (citing 11A WRIGHT ET AL., supra, § 2948.3).

In the matter sub judice, plaintiffs advance a claim that defendants violated their rights under the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause, which is actionable pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Section 1983 offers private citizens a means to redress violations of federal law 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 to vindicate violations of federal law committed by state actors. Kneipp v. Tedder, 95 F.3d 1199, 1204 (3d Cir. 1996). To establish a claim under this section, a 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)).

The constitutional right at issue in the pending matter is plaintiffs' right to equal protection of the laws. The Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment directs that all similarly situated individuals be treated alike, see City of Cleburne v. Cleburne Living Ctr., 473 U.S. 432, 439 (1985), and plaintiffs allege that they were deprived of this right. Two theories exist upon which a plaintiff may predicate an equal protection claim: the traditional theory and the class-of-one theory. The traditional theory protects individuals from discriminatory treatment based upon membership in a protected class such as race, national origin, or religion. See, e.g., id.; McLaughlin v. Florida, 379 U.S. 184, 192 (1964). Under the class-of-one theory, a plaintiff may advance an equal protection claim absent membership in a protected class if he or she shows irrational and intentional differential treatment when compared with similarly situated individuals. See Village of Willowbrook v. Olech, 528 U.S. 562, 564 (2000). This theory allows a plaintiff to assert an equal protection claim regardless of protected class when the government irrationally treats the plaintiff differently than similarly situated individuals. Id. at 564; Hill v. Borough of Kutztown, 455 F.3d 225, 239 (3d Cir. 2006). To assert a class-of-one claim, plaintiffs must demonstrate (1) that defendants treated them "differently from others similarly situated," (2) that defendants "did so intentionally," and (3) that "there was no rational basis for the difference in treatment." Hill, 455 F.3d at 239.

Plaintiffs allege only class-of-one claims. They allege that defendants treated them differently from the owners and occupants of the Netchel property, that they did so intentionally, and that they had no rational basis for the disparate treatment. In response, defendants argue that plaintiffs' claims cannot succeed, for a variety of reasons, of which the undersigned will address two.*fn4 First, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development ("DCED") argues that is entitled to immunity under the Eleventh Amendment to the United States ...

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