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Plonka v. Weaver

United States District Court, Middle District of Pennsylvania

February 20, 2014

CAROLINE PLONKA, Plaintiff
v.
MARY WEAVER, et al., Defendants.

Caputo Judge

REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

Martin C. Carlson United States Magistrate Judge

I. Statement of Facts and of the Case

In this case the pro se plaintiff, Caroline Plonka, continues to turn to the federal courts to adjudicate an appeal of an adverse state court decision in a zoning appeal. Plonka’s initial pro se complaint, was filed in United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania on June 3, 2013, and was then transferred to this Court. In this complaint Plonka named six defendants: Mary Weaver, a borough codes enforcement officer; two attorneys who were involved in this state court zoning litigation, Michael Briechle and Thomas Smith; the Susquehanna Borough Council and Zoning Hearing Boards; and the Court of Common Pleas of Susquehanna County. (Doc. 3)

After identifying these defendants, Plonka detailed the history of her unsuccessful zoning litigation, litigation that concluded in the Common Pleas Court with an adverse ruling in May of 2013. Alleging that this ruling was evidence of unfairness by the defendants against her, Plonka sought in this self-described “land use appeal, ” to recover damages of $250, 000 from each defendant. (Id.)

Along with her complaint, Plonka sought, and received, leave to proceed in forma pauperis. (Doc. 2) However, upon a screening review of Plonka’s complaint, we recommended that the complaint be dismissed without prejudice to Plonka endeavoring to file an amended complaint which addressed the deficiencies identified in our Report and Recommendation. (Doc. 6) That recommendation was adopted by the district court on August 1, 2013, and Plonka’s complaint was dismissed with leave to file an amended complaint. (Doc. 11)

On August 26, 2013, Plonka filed an amended complaint. (Doc. 12) This amended complaint was a five page handwritten document, which listed 19 institutional and individual defendants in the caption of the complaint, but contained virtually no factual averments relating to these defendants beyond a talismanic legal assertion that the defendants sought to deny Plonka’s rights. (Id.) While the amended complaint is enigmatic in its factual recitals, it is specific in its demand for compensation. Plonka’s amended complaint seeks damages of $250, 000 from each defendant along with an additional $1, 000, 000 in damages for her pain and suffering. (Id.) The defendants have now moved to dismiss this amended complaint. (Docs. 25 and 26) These motions to dismiss are fully briefed and ripe for resolution. Plonka, in turn, has filed a motion to add new defendants to this case, (Doc. 21), although Plonka has not filed a brief in support of this motion, as required by the Local Rules of this Court. Therefore, this motion, which has been opposed by the defendants, (Doc. 31), will also be deemed ripe for resolution.

For the reasons set forth below, it is recommended that the motions to dismiss be granted, and the motion to add new defendants be denied.

II. Discussion

A. Motion to Dismiss Rule 12(b)(6)–Standard of Review

Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, provides that a complaint should be dismissed for “failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). With respect to this benchmark standard for legal sufficiency of a complaint, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has aptly noted the evolving standards governing pleading practice in federal court, stating that:

Standards of pleading have been in the forefront of jurisprudence in recent years. Beginning with the Supreme Court's opinion in Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007) continuing with our opinion in Phillips [v. County of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 230 (3d Cir. 2008)] and culminating recently with the Supreme Court's decision in Ashcroft v. Iqbal __ U.S. __, 129 S.Ct. 1937 (2009) pleading standards have seemingly shifted from simple notice pleading to a more heightened form of pleading, requiring a plaintiff to plead more than the possibility of relief to survive a motion to dismiss.

Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 209-10 (3d Cir. 2009).

In considering whether a complaint fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, the court must accept as true all allegations in the complaint and all reasonable inferences that can be drawn therefrom are to be construed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. Jordan v. Fox Rothschild, O’Brien & Frankel, Inc., 20 F.3d 1250, 1261 (3d Cir. 1994). However, a court “need not credit a complaint’s bald assertions or legal conclusions when deciding a motion to dismiss.” Morse v. Lower Merion Sch. Dist., 132 F.3d 902, 906 (3d Cir. 1997). Additionally a court need not “assume that a ... plaintiff can prove facts that the ... plaintiff has not alleged.” Associated Gen. Contractors of Cal. v. California State Council of Carpenters, 459 U.S. 519, 526 (1983). As the Supreme Court held in Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007), in order to state a valid cause of action a plaintiff must provide some factual grounds for relief which “requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of actions will not do.” Id. at 555. “Factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level.” Id.

In keeping with the principles of Twombly, the Supreme Court has underscored that a trial court must assess whether a complaint states facts upon which relief can be granted when ruling on a motion to dismiss. In Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662 (2009), the Supreme Court held that, when considering a motion to dismiss, a court should “begin by identifying pleadings that, because they are no more than conclusions, are not entitled to the assumption of truth.” Id. at 679. According to the Supreme Court, “[t]hreadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice.” Id. at 678. Rather, in conducting a review of the adequacy of complaint, the Supreme Court has advised trial courts that they must:

[B]egin by identifying pleadings that because they are no more than conclusions are not entitled to the assumption of truth. While legal conclusions can provide the framework of a complaint, they must be supported by factual allegations. When there are well-pleaded factual allegations, a court should assume their veracity and then determine whether they plausibly give rise to an entitlement to relief.

Id. at 679.

Thus, following Twombly and Iqbal a well-pleaded complaint must contain more than mere legal labels and conclusions. Rather, a complaint must recite factual allegations sufficient to raise the plaintiff’s claimed right to relief beyond the level of mere speculation. As the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has stated:

[A]fter Iqbal, when presented with a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, district courts should conduct a two-part analysis. First, the factual and legal elements of a claim should be separated. The District Court must accept all of the complaint's well-pleaded facts as true, but may disregard any legal conclusions. Second, a District Court must then determine whether the facts alleged in the complaint are sufficient to show that the plaintiff has a‘plausible claim for relief.’ In other words, a complaint must do more than allege the plaintiff's entitlement to relief. A complaint has to ‘show’ such an entitlement with its facts.

Fowler, 578 F.3d at 210-11.

In practice, consideration of the legal sufficiency of a complaint entails a three-step analysis: “First, the court must ‘tak[e] note of the elements a plaintiff must plead to state a claim.’ 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. Finally, ‘where 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.” Santiago v. Warminster Tp., 629 F.3d 121, 130 (3d Cir. 2010).

In addition to these pleading rules, a civil complaint must also comply with the requirements of Rule 8(a) of the Federal Rule of Civil Procedure which defines what a complaint should say and provides that:

(a) A pleading that states a claim for relief must contain (1) a short and plain statement of the grounds for the court’s jurisdiction, unless the court already has jurisdiction and the claim needs no new jurisdictional support; (2) a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief; and (3) a demand for the ...

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