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Kaleta v. Clausi

United States District Court, Third Circuit

May 6, 2013

DAVID F. KALETA, Plaintiff,
v.
VINNY CLAUSI, STEPHEN BRIDY and COUNTY OF NORTHUMBERLAND, Defendants.

REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

MARTIN C. CARLSON, Magistrate Judge.

I. INTRODUCTION

Now pending in this action is the defendants' motion to dismiss the plaintiff's amended complaint. For the reasons that follow, it is recommended that the motion be denied.

II. BACKGROUND AND STATEMENT OF THE CASE

A. Overview of the Plaintiff's Claims in this Litigation

The plaintiff in this action, David Kaleta, initiated the above-captioned litigation against Northumberland County (the "County") and two of its Commissioners, Vincent Clausi and Stephen Bridy, on September 17, 2012, in the Northumberland County Court of Common Pleas. After the plaintiff prevailed on a motion for preliminary injunctive relief before the Court of Common Pleas, which effectively permits the plaintiff to use the AOAA property, the defendants retained new counsel, who on October 3, 2012, promptly moved to remove the action to this Court pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 1441 and 1331. (Doc. 1.)

In a nutshell, the plaintiff's complaint alleges that the defendants violated the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, and Pennsylvania's Sunshine Act, when they flatly denied his request to access a 6, 500 acre area known as the Anthracite Outdoor Adventure Area ("AOAA"), which the County Commissioners are in the process of developing into a recreational park. The AOAA is an area of land that has been used for years by off-road vehicle enthusiasts and other individuals, after being largely abandoned by the coal mining industry. The plaintiff has been actively involved for more than a decade in efforts to enhance the area environmentally, through planting over 40, 000 trees, and working to develop wildlife habitats. The plaintiff has received public recognition and commendation for his efforts, including being granted a statewide award. During this time, the plaintiff appears also to have regularly accessed the land that makes up the AOAA.

In July 2011, the plaintiff executed a waiver of liability form that was requested by the County's Planning Department head, Patrick Mack, in order to lawfully access the AOAA. After signing this waiver, the plaintiff continued regularly to access the AOAA land, while at the same time he became increasingly vocal and critical in various forums about the approach that the County was taking with respect to the development of the AOAA. According to Mack, the plaintiff's public statements created a tense relationship between the plaintiff and the County, and with the Chairman of the Board of Commissioners, Vinny Clausi.

The following summer, in August 2012, it appears that these tensions between the plaintiff and some County representatives came to a head. During this time, the plaintiff submitted another waiver form for individual access to the AOAA, which was provided to Patrick Mack. Mack consulted with Commissioner Clausi about the plaintiff's request to access the AOAA, and the decision was thereafter made to deny the plaintiff's request. A letter from Mack to the plaintiff represented that two of the County's three Commissioners had decided not to accept the plaintiff's waiver, thereby effectively preventing the plaintiff from accessing and using the AOAA, as he had done previously.

The plaintiff claims in this lawsuit that the County's decision entirely to deny his request to access the AOAA, through two of its Commissioners, in private, violated Pennsylvania's Sunshine Act, 65 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. §§ 701 et seq., which generally guarantees the right of the public to be present at meetings of government agencies, and "to witness the deliberation, policy formulation and decisionmaking of agencies" which is deemed "vital to the enhancement and proper functioning of the democratic process...." 65 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 702(a). The Act further establishes the public policy of the Commonwealth to ensure the right of citizens to have notice of and the right to attend meetings of agencies at which agency business is discussed or acted upon. Id. § 702(b). In order to implement these overarching policies, the Act requires that "[o]fficial actions and deliberations by a quorum of the members of an agency shall take place at a meeting open to the public...." Id. § 704. In this case, the plaintiff contends that the defendants violated the Sunshine Act by undertaking official County action or business - namely, considering and denying his request for access to the AOAA - in private and outside of a public meeting.

The plaintiff also claims that the County's actions, through two of its three Commissioners, constituted violations of the First Amendment, both as a prior restraint on public speech, and as retaliation for the plaintiff's exercise of protected First Amendment activity through his public criticism of the Commissioners.

Now pending in this action is the defendants' motion to dismiss the plaintiff's amended complaint pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, arguing that although a state court has already found the plaintiff likely to prevail on the merits of his claims, that the complaint nevertheless actually fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. We disagree, and find that the plaintiff has adequately pleaded claims for relief under both the Sunshine Act and for alleged violations of the First Amendment with respect to the County's decision to deny his request to access the AOAA lands in August 2012.

Moreover, we find that the defendant is really attempting to do is move the court to enter summary judgment in its favor rather than arguing that dismissal is appropriate on the amended complaint itself. In this regard, we note that the defendants rely almost exclusively on evidence that was taken before the state court during a hearing held on the plaintiff's motion for a preliminary injunction on which the plaintiff actually prevailed; but now, before this court, the defendants argue that the same evidence taken by the state court should actually result in the preliminary dismissal of the plaintiff's claims.

In sum, given the unusual factual posture of this case, where defendants' motion relies upon what was contested evidence at a preliminary injunction hearing, evidence which convinced a state court to issue an injunction in favor of the plaintiff, notwithstanding suggestions in the defendants' motion to the contrary, we find that whether summary judgment ultimately may be appropriate in this case is not properly before the court at this juncture. Furthermore, we find that the defendants err in their assertion that evidence taken during a hearing on the plaintiff's successful motion for a preliminary injunction should form the predicate for granting the defendants' motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6).

In our consideration of the motion to dismiss under the familiar standards applicable to motions brought pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6), we are confined to considering whether the facts alleged in the complaint plausibly state a claim upon which relief can be granted. Limited in this way, we decline the defendants' invitation to evaluate the evidence taken at another judicial proceeding in this action, and to rely upon such plainly disputed evidence to recommend that the District Court rule in the defendants' favor on a motion that tests the legal sufficiency of the pleading itself.[1] For the reasons discussed briefly below, we find that the plaintiff's amended complaint adequately pleads facts to support claims for violations of the Sunshine Act and the First Amendment. Accordingly, we will recommend that the motion to dismiss be denied. Defendants' arguments in favor of judgment as a matter of law rely upon ...


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