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Nhs Human Services v. Lower Gwynedd Township

January 20, 2012


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Pratter, J.


NHS Human Services ("NHS") brought this action against Lower Gwynedd Township, Lower Gwynedd Township Zoning Hearing Board, Francis Vitetta, Cary Levinson, and Dennis Daly *fn1 (collectively "Township Board"), alleging that they violated the Fair Housing Amendments Act, the Rehabilitation Act, and the ADA and denied NHS and its constituents equal protection under both the Pennsylvania and U.S. Constitutions when they refused to grant NHS a special exception to open a "family residence" for severely mentally retarded individuals in a house NHS purchased in Lower Gwynedd Township. The Township Board has moved to dismiss all of NHS's claims. For the reasons discussed below, the Court will grant the Township Board's motion in part and deny it in part.

Factual and Procedural History

Unless otherwise stated, these facts are drawn from Plaintiff's Complaint and accepted as true for the purposes of this motion. NHS alleges that it and its subsidiary organization, Allegheny Valley School, provide community based services to individuals with intellectual developmental disabilities. As part of their mission to improve the quality of life for people suffering from such disabilities, NHS and Allegheny try to integrate them into community settings by placing them in conventional residential homes, rather than in institutions. NHS chooses individuals with similar needs and diagnoses and places them in a home where they "function much like a family"--they live together, eat together, perform chores together, and the like, under the supervision of NHS employees.

In April, 2010, NHS and Allegheny bought a home at 761 Tennis Avenue, Lower Gwynedd, PA ("the Property"). The single-family dwelling, located in the Township's A-Residential Zoning District, was purchased with the intent to house four adults with intellectual developmental disabilities, as well as a full-time, live-in caregiver. According to the Complaint, the four individuals have a "high level of functioning" but are unable to live on their own without support and assistance in performing basic tasks like cooking, hygiene, cleaning, dressing, transportation, and other daily tasks. NHS alleges that this use of the property would not detrimentally affect the health, safety, and welfare of the surrounding neighbors or the Township.

On March 29, 2010, NHS submitted an application for a special exception to allow four unrelated adults and one full-time staff member to reside at the Property and also asked that the Township interpret Lower Gwynedd Ordinance § 1257.02(a)(2) to encompass NHS's proposed use. The relevant ordinance allows only single-family detached dwellings and certain other specific uses that are patently inapplicable to NHS and defines "family" as follows:

"Family" means any number of individuals living together as a single, nonprofit housekeeping unit and doing their cooking together and on the premises, provided that not more than one of such number are unrelated to all others by blood, marriage or legal adoption. As a special exception, the Zoning Hearing Board may interpret the term "family" to include:

A. A group of individuals, not exceeding five (if more than one of the individuals is unrelated to all others by blood, marriage or adoption) domiciled together in a single-family dwelling unit and whose relationship is of a continuing, nontransient, domestic character and who are cooking and living together as a single, housekeeping unit. This definition shall specifically not include occupants of a club, fraternity house, lodge, rooming house, hotel, motor court, bed-and-breakfast, hospital, assisted-living facility, life-care facility or the like.

Lower Gwynedd Code §1250.04(a)(27). At a hearing lasting for three Township Board sessions, NHS presented testimony that the five proposed residents would function as a single nonprofit housekeeping unit and that, barring unforeseen medical issues, the four disabled individuals would live together for the rest of their lives. NHS alleges that a number of residents and neighbors spoke at the meeting and opposed the application because of "concerns related to the suspected [disability] limitation and needs of the individuals."

On November 11, 2010, the Township Board denied NHS's request. In the denial, attached as Exhibit E to the Board's motion,*fn2 the Township Board interpreted the proposed use as specifically barred by the special exception portion of the ordinance because the home would be licensed as an "Intermediate Care Facility for Mentally Retarded Persons," which, according to the Township Board, by definition is either an "assisted-living" facility or "the like." The Township focused heavily on the word "facility" and its connotations. Also, while accepting that NHS and Allegheny are non-profits, the Township Board cited the "profit-motive" of the NHS and Allegheny staff as supporting the interpretation of the proposed use as a business rather than a home.

The Township Board also dedicated much of its attention in its opinion specifically analyzing the parking and traffic burdens that would come with operating the home. Not mentioned in the Complaint, but included in the Township Board opinion, is the fact that Tennis Avenue is a busy road with no street parking, the Property and three other homes are located on a one-lane private road off of Tennis Avenue, and not only would a live-in staff person reside at the Property, but an additional staff member or two would be at the home 24 hours a day in eight-hour shifts to assist in the residents' care. According to the Township opinion, at the end of each shift, the departing staff members would overlap with the arriving staff members for half an hour. In addition, according to the opinion, there was conflicting testimony at the hearing presented about daily visits of a nurse and regular visits of other administrative staff and family members of the residents. The Township Board found that all of this activity at the home would create a burden on the neighborhood by increasing the traffic and parking difficulties. The Township Board also specifically noted that NHS did not apply for a variance or claim that the Ordinance was unconstitutional.

In its Complaint, NHS claims that this denial violated the FHAA, ADA, and Rehabilitation Act, alleging that the denial constituted discrimination in that it reflected a failure to make a reasonable accommodation under the relevant statutes and a denial of the right of disabled individuals to live in the community. Although NHS does not specifically say so in its Complaint, in its Opposition, NHS claims that it is making these statutory claims under three theories: reasonable accommodation, disparate treatment and disparate impact. NHS also brings two equal protection claims, alleging that the Board unlawfully discriminated against NHS because of the disabilities of its constituents, thereby violating both the United States and Pennsylvania Constitutions.

The Township Board filed a motion to dismiss or for summary judgment, which the Court, as discussed at oral argument, will treat solely as a motion to dismiss.*fn3 NHS challenges the motion, arguing that not only is its Complaint sufficient to withstand a motion to dismiss, but that to the extent that the Township Board seeks summary judgment, its motion is premature.


A Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss tests the sufficiency of a complaint. Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 45--46 (1957). Although Rule 8 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure requires only "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief," Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a)(2), 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) (internal quotation marks omitted) (alteration in original) (quoting Conley, 355 U.S. at 47), the plaintiff must provide "more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do." Id. (citation omitted).

To survive a motion to dismiss, the plaintiff must plead "factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 1949 (2009); see also Matrixx Initiatives, Inc. v. Siracusano, 131 S. Ct. 1309, 1323 (2011). Specifically, "[f]actual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level . . . ." Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555(citations omitted). The question is not whether the claimant will ultimately prevail but whether the complaint is "sufficient to cross the federal court's threshold." Skinner v. Switzer, 131 S. Ct. 1289, 1296 (2011) (citation omitted). An assessment of the sufficiency of a complaint is thus "a context-dependent exercise" because "[s]ome claims require more factual explication than others to state a plausible claim for relief." West Penn Allegheny Health Sys., Inc. v. UPMC, 627 F.3d 85 (3d Cir. 2010) (citations omitted).

In evaluating the sufficiency of a complaint, the Court adheres to certain well-recognized parameters. For one, the Court "must only consider those facts alleged in the complaint and accept all of those allegations as true." ALA, Inc. v. CCAIR, Inc., 29 F.3d 855, 859 (3d Cir. 1994) (citing Hishon v. King & Spalding, 467 U.S. 69, 73 (1984)); see also Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555 (stating that courts must assume that "all the allegations in the complaint are true (even if doubtful in fact)"); Mayer v. Belichick, 605 F.3d 223, 230 (3d Cir. 2010) ("[A] court must consider only the complaint, exhibits attached to the complaint, matters of public record, as well as undisputedly authentic documents if the complainant's claims are based upon these documents."). Concomitantly, the Court must also accept as true all reasonable inferences that may be drawn from the allegations, and view those facts and inferences in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Rocks v. Philadelphia, 868 F.2d 644, 645 (3d Cir. 1989); Revell v. Port Auth. of N.Y. & N.J., 598 F.3d 128, 134 (3d Cir. 2010). Nonetheless, the Court need not accept as true "unsupported conclusions and unwarranted inferences," ...

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