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Bernett v. Washington County Redevelopment Authority

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

August 8, 2014



ARTHUR J. SCHWAB, District Judge.

I. Introduction

This case centers on the demolition of a property located in North Franklin Township, Pennsylvania. Doc. No. 1. John S. Bernett and his wife Kimberly ("Plaintiffs") have filed suit against the Washington County Redevelopment Authority ("RACW") and North Franklin Township alleging that their property was demolished without notice. Plaintiffs have advanced causes of action under Title 42 United States Code Section 1983 for violations of the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses, Wrongful Use of Legal Process, unlawful seizure of property in violation of the Fourth Amendment, and negligence. ("Equal Protection Banning Plaintiffs From Use Of Their Property And To Be Secure In Their Property" (Count I); Wrongful Use of the Legal Process (Count II); and "42 U.S.C. § 1983 Fourth Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment and Negligence" (Count III). In December 2013, this Court granted Defendants' Motion to Dismiss as to Plaintiffs' claims for punitive damages. Doc. No. 14. Defendants' Motion to Dismiss Counts I-III was denied. Id.

Presently before the Court is Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment, in which Defendants move this Court to enter judgment in their favor on all of Plaintiffs' claims. Doc. No. 34. Plaintiffs oppose this Motion in its entirety. Doc. Nos. 38 and 45. The matter has been fully briefed and is ready for disposition. Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 34) will be granted in part and denied in part for the following reasons.

II. Statement of Facts

The following material facts are undisputed by the Parties:

Plaintiffs owned real property located at 16 Mill Street in North Franklin Township (identified by Defendants as "16 Pine Street"), which was purchased in 2007. Doc. No. 36, ¶ 1, Doc. No. 42, ¶ 1. The property had been condemned by North Franklin Township. Id. at ¶¶ 2. Plaintiff John S. Bernett obtained a building permit from North Franklin Township. Id. at ¶¶ 3. Plaintiff, and several of his employees, worked on the property. Id. at ¶¶ 4. At a minimum, Plaintiff, and his employees, repaired the roof and installed temporary electric service. Id. at ¶¶ 6.

In March 2010, the front porch of the building collapsed. Id. at ¶¶ 7. North Franklin Township personnel were aware of the collapse and photographed the building. Id . Plaintiff John S. Bernett, and his employees, removed the porch debris and boarded up the front door and windows of the structure. Id. at ¶¶ 8. Plaintiffs own other properties and it is common for break-ins to occur on these property despite posted "No Trespassing Signs." Id. at ¶¶ 13. The building was spray painted at some point in 2012. Id. at ¶¶ 14.

North Franklin Township has a "Dangerous Structure Ordinance, " which authorizes the condemnation and demolition of dilapidated and damaged structures or those otherwise unfit for human habitation. Id. at ¶¶ 19. In 2011 and 2012, North Franklin Township's Manager was working with the Township's Solicitor to compile a list of properties for demolishment pursuant to the ordinance. Id. at ¶¶ 20. During this same time, North Franklin Township's Manager and Code Enforcement Officer Peter Grieb "drove by" the building to "look for signs of progress on the structure." Id. at ¶¶ 16. On February 22, 2012, the Township Manager sent a list of properties to be condemned/demolished to the Township Solicitor, which stated, in relevant part: "John Bernett 16 Mill Street. This property has been vacant for some time, but the owners claim they are renovating it for sale. Their business is TriState Restoration. I feel that due to lack of progress that [sic] it should be demolished." Id. at ¶¶ 21. In April 2012, the list of properties to be condemned/demolished was delivered to Code Enforcement Office Harold Ivery, Jr. Id. at ¶¶ 22. Officer Ivery confirmed the addresses of the listed property owners through the Washington County website. Id. at ¶¶ 23.

Plaintiffs contend that they did not receive any notice of condemnation. Id. at ¶¶ 29. A certified letter addressed to Plaintiffs at their residential address was returned to North Franklin Township ("Return to Sender. Unclaimed. Unable to Forward") by the United States Postal Service. Id. at ¶¶ 27.

Tamara Mayton, Community Development Specialist for the Redevelopment Authority of the County of Washington, will testify that she photographed the Plaintiffs' property in September 2012. Id. at ¶¶ 33. The Township is required to provide the RACW with a notarized certification confirming that the Township has gone through the proper procedure to condemn a property. Id. at ¶¶ 43. The RACW customarily relies on this certification. Id. at ¶¶ 44.

On or about January 9, 2013, North Franklin Township delivered a signed certification to RACW, which stated that the Township condemned Plaintiffs' property (among others) after taking appropriate steps to notify the property owners of their rights and available recourse to avoid demolition. Id. at ¶¶ 45. RACW was authorized to act as an agent for the Township in contracting the demolition using community block funds. Id . RACW contracted for the demolition of structures on the list provided by North Franklin Township. Id. at ¶¶ 47. Plaintiffs' structure was demolished by a contracted contractor on or about March 28, 2013. Id . Plaintiffs will testify that there are structures in the Township that are in comparable or worse condition, but have not been condemned or demolished. Id. at ¶¶ 48. Plaintiffs did not reside in North Franklin Township and did not have a combative relationship with any of the representatives of the Township. Id. at ¶¶ 49.

III. Standard of Review

The Court shall grant summary judgment if, drawing all inferences in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, "the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); see also Melrose, Inc. v. Pittsburgh, 613 F.3d ...

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