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David Morris and Pamela Morris v. West Manheim Township

March 13, 2013

DAVID MORRIS AND PAMELA MORRIS, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
WEST MANHEIM TOWNSHIP, CHIEF TIMOTHY HIPPENSTEEL, OFFICER SCHNEIDER, SCOTT STRAUSBAUGH, MARK BARNEY, AND KEVIN NULL, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: A. Richard Caputo United States District Judge

(JUDGE CAPUTO)

MEMORANDUM

Presently before the Court are Defendants West Manheim Township and Chief Timothy Hippensteel's Motion to Dismiss Pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6) (Doc. 7) and the Motion of Defendants Scott Strausbaugh and Mark T. Barney to Dismiss. (Doc. 12.) Because the Complaint fails to state a claim against these Defendants upon which relief can be granted, the motions to dismiss will be granted.

I. Background

A. Factual Allegations

The facts as alleged in the Complaint are as follows: Plaintiffs David and Pamela Morris claim that Defendants West Manheim Township, two police officers, Chief Timothy Hippensteel ("Hippensteel") and Officer Schneider ("Schneider"), the West Manheim Township Manager Kevin Null ("Null"), and two private citizens, Scott Strausbaugh ("Strausbaugh") and Mark Barney ("Barney"), violated their civil rights. (Compl., ¶ 1.) On or about August 18, 2010, David and Pamela Morris were plaintiffs in a prior federal lawsuit, Morris v. Kesselring, et al., No. 1:09-cv-1739 (M.D. Pa.) (the "2009 Action"), asserting claims for violations of their federally guaranteed rights. (Id. at ¶ 5.) West Manheim Township, Hippensteel, Schneider, Strausbaugh, and Barney were all defendants in the 2009 Action. (Id.) The 2009 Action was ultimately settled as against West Manheim Township, Hippensteel, and Schneider. (Id. at ¶¶ 5-6.) Specifically, those defendants agreed to provide money damages and return certain valuable firearms to Plaintiffs which had been unlawfully taken. (Id. at ¶ 6.) The defendants abrogated the subject agreement, however, by refusing to return the firearms despite numerous requests. (Id.)

In October 2007, Plaintiffs acquired a property at 222 Hobart Road, Hanover, Pennsylvania (the "Property"). (Id. at ¶ 7.) The Property carried with it access to an easement for use of a driveway to allow safe exit and entry from their home to Hobart Road. (Id. at ¶ 8.) The easement had been in uninterrupted use since the 1950s. (Id. at ¶ 11.)

On or about the second or third week of August 2010, Strausbaugh and Barney placed posts and gates across the easement. (Id. at ¶ 9.) Thereafter, on August 18, 2010, Plaintiffs spoke with Schneider who told them they were not allowed to use the easement. (Id. at ¶ 10.) Schneider told Plaintiffs they would be charged with criminal trespass or burglary if they touched or removed the gates or posts. (Id.) Schneider indicated that his orders came from Hippensteel and that the Supervisors voted on it. (Id.)

Plaintiffs then spoke with Hippensteel, the Chief of the West Manheim Township Police Department. (Id. at ¶ 12.) Hippensteel informed Plaintiffs that they would be arrested if they used the easement or interfered with the gates and posts. (Id. at ¶ 13.)

Plaintiffs then initiated their own investigation to determine if permits had been issued for the erection of the gates or posts on the easement. (Id. at ¶¶ 14-15.) Plaintiffs spoke with Heather Neiderer at the West Manheim Township municipal building. Plaintiffs were informed that no permits had been requested or issued, but Ms. Neiderer was not allowed to further discuss the blockage of the easement. (Id. at ¶ 16.) Ms. Neiderer then asked Null to speak with Plaintiffs. (Id.) Null was not interested in talking to Plaintiffs about West Manheim Township's role in facilitating the blockage of the easement. (Id. at ¶¶ 17-18.) Null dismissed Plaintiffs' request for information out-of-hand. (Id. at ¶ 18.)

Without use of the easement, Plaintiffs are required to drive a considerable distance through unsafe traffic conditions to access their mailbox. (Id. at ¶ 19.)

Prior to Strausbaugh and Barney's actions, Plaintiffs received no notice, warnings, or indications that the easement would be blocked. (Id. at ¶¶ 20-21.) West Manheim Township ratified and enforced Strausbaugh and Barney's conduct via police edict. (Id. at ¶ 20.)

After August 18, 2010, Plaintiffs received a letter from a law firm indicating that a survey of the easement had been performed. (Id. at 22.) The survey revealed that the description of the easement's boundaries was incorrect. (Id.)

B. The 2009 Action

1. The District Court Proceedings

Plaintiffs commenced the 2009 Action on September 8, 2009 asserting various claims against multiple individuals and municipalities, including West Manheim Township, Hippensteel, and Schneider. See Morris v. Kesselring, et al., No. 1:09-cv-1739 (M.D. Pa. Sept. 8, 2009), ECF No. 1. On February 2, 2010, Plaintiffs were granted leave to file an amended complaint, and Strausbaugh and Barney were added as defendants to the 2009 Action. See Morris v. Kesselring, et al., No. 1:09-cv-1739 (M.D. Pa. Feb. 2, 2010), ECF No. 44. The defendants then filed a number of motions to dismiss, as well as a motion for a more definite statement. The Court found that the amended complaint failed to sufficiently apprise the defendants of the necessary details to respond to the pleading. Thus, the motion for a more definite statement was granted. See Morris v. Kesselring, et al., No. 1:09-cv-1739 (M.D. Pa. Dec. 6, 2010), ECF No. 107. Plaintiffs, however, were permitted to file a second amended complaint. Id.

The second amended complaint was filed by Plaintiffs on December 28, 2010. See Morris v. Kesselring, et al., No. 1:09-cv-1739 (M.D. Pa. Dec. 28, 2010), ECF No. 111. Prior to the filing of the second amended complaint, the claims against defendants Schneider, Hippensteel, and West Manheim Township were "resolved to the satisfaction of all parties." Id. Accordingly, no claims were asserted against those defendants in the second amended complaint. As against Strausbaugh and Barney, the plaintiffs claimed that they were retaliated against in violation of the First Amendment after they exercised their rights to petition for redress of grievances. See id. Plaintiffs also claimed that their Fourteenth Amendment rights were violated when these defendants were permitted to erect a gate blocking the entrance to a driveway used by the plaintiffs. See id.

A number of the non-settling defendants then sought dismissal of the plaintiffs' second amended complaint. See Morris v. Kesselring, et al., No. 1:09-cv-1739, ECF Nos. 117, 119, 123, 126, 127. On May 9, 2011, the plaintiffs' second amended complaint was dismissed pursuant to Rule 41(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. See Morris v. Kesselring, et al., No. 1:09-cv-1739 (M.D. Pa. May 9, 2011), ECF No. 156. The plaintiffs sought reconsideration of the dismissal of their case, but the motion for reconsideration was denied. See Morris v. Kesselring, et al., No. 1:09-cv-1739 (M.D. Pa. May 23, 2011), ECF No. 157.

Following the dismissal of the plaintiffs' complaint, Strausbaugh and Barney filed a motion for attorney's fees. See Morris v. Kesselring, et al., No. 1:09-cv-1739 (M.D. Pa. May 23, 2011), ECF No. 159. The motion was granted because: defendants were a prevailing party under 42 U.S.C. § 1988 as the 41(b) motion operated as an adjudication on the merits. The Court finds plaintiffs claims against these defendants, i.e., that the defendants violated their Fourteenth and First Amendment rights by blocking access to a driveway, frivolous and without foundation. The complaint is bereft of any plausible allegations that these defendants were "state actors" for purposes of § 1983 or that their blocking access to a private driveway defendants owned constituted civil rights violations. Looking at the factors outlined in Barnes: plaintiffs failed to establish a prima facie case against these defendants, the defendants never offered to settle, there was no trial on the merits, the issue was not one of first impression, and the denial of driveway access did not pose a real threat of injury to plaintiffs. Furthermore, plaintiffs adamant refusal to amend their pleadings in the face of ...


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