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Bernett v. Redevelopment Authority of County of Washington

United States District Court, Third Circuit

December 31, 2013



ARTHUR J. SCHWAB, District Judge.

I. Introduction

This case centers on the legality of the demolition of a property located in North Franklin Township, Pennsylvania. Plaintiffs have filed suit against two Defendants raising the following causes of action: (1) violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution; (2) "Wrongful Use of the Legal Process"; and (3) violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution "and Negligence." Doc. No. 1.

Presently before the Court is a Motion to Dismiss Complaint Pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), filed by Defendant Redevelopment Authority of the County of Washington (hereinafter the "RACW" or "Defendant"). The RACW contends that each count of Plaintiffs' Complaint fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted, and that each count, as well as Plaintiffs' claim for punitive damages, should be dismissed with prejudice. Defendant North Franklin Township has not filed a Motion to Dismiss. For the following reasons, Defendant's Motion to Dismiss will be GRANTED IN PART AND DENIED IN PART.

II. Factual Background and Procedural History[1]

Plaintiffs John and Kimberly Bernett jointly own real estate property situated at 16 Mill Street, Washington, Pennsylvania. Doc. No. 1, ¶ 5. This property is located within North Franklin Township. Id. at ¶ 1. Plaintiff John Bernett is co-owner of a Tri-State Restoration Inc., located in the City of Washington, Pennsylvania. Id.

Plaintiffs began remodeling work on their property in September, 2007, and have spent over $42, 000 on these efforts. Id. at ¶ 11; see also Id. at Exhibit D. On or about the morning of March 28, 2013, Mr. Bernett went to the property to continue remodeling work. Id. at ¶ 6. He discovered that the building had been leveled and the land graded. Id . Mr. Bernett inquired into what happened, and ultimately discovered that Defendant RACW demolished the property at the behest of Defendant North Franklin Township. Id. at ¶ 8.

The RACW gave Mr. Bernett several documents related to the procedure leading up to the demolition, including copies of letters the RACW attempted to send to Plaintiffs as early as June 13, 2012, in order to provide written notice. Id. at Exhibit B. However, Plaintiffs never received these letters prior to this point, nor any other form of written notice, and were never obstructed in any way from entering their property prior to its demolition. Id. at ¶¶ 16, 18. Plaintiffs were also not confronted by any governmental authority. Id. at ¶ 16. Mr. Bernett was not able to obtain any significant information from North Franklin Township regarding the demolition, as these actions were undertaken under the direction of its former Code Enforcement Officer. Id. at ¶ 12.

Plaintiffs continuously provided electric service to the property since June 2012, and the structure was in sound condition, with the remodeling efforts being for cosmetic purposes. Id. at ¶ 28. No other owners of a building with a building permit that was undergoing remodeling was destroyed by the Township. Id. at ¶ 15. Other properties are in "far worse condition and abandoned, " but were not demolished. Id.

III. Standard of Review

In considering a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, Federal Courts require notice pleading, as opposed to the heightened standard of fact pleading. Federal Rule of Civil procedure 8(a)(2) requires only "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief, ' in order to give the defendant fair notice of what the... claim is and the grounds on which it rests.'" Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 554, 555 (2007) (quoting Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 47 (1957)).

Building upon the landmark United States Supreme Court decisions in Twombly and Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 1947 (2009), the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit recently explained that a District Court must take three steps to determine the sufficiency of a complaint:

First, the court must "tak[e] note of the elements a plaintiff must plead to state a claim." Ashcoft v. Iqbal 129 S.Ct. [at 1947.] Second, the court should identify allegations that, "because they are no more than conclusions, are not entitled to the assumption of truth.' Id. at 1950. Third, "whe[n] there are well-pleaded factual allegations, a court should assume their veracity and then determine whether they plausibly give rise to an entitlement for relief.' Id . This means that our inquiry is normally broken into three parts: (1) identifying the elements of the claim, (2) reviewing the complaint to strike conclusory allegations, and then ...

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