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Niemoczynski v. Upper Mount Bethel Township of Pennsylvania

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

January 23, 2017



          STENGEL, J.

         Plaintiffs Leon Niemoczynski, Jr. and Nalina Niemoczynski filed numerous federal and state law claims against Upper Mount Bethel Township of Pennsylvania, the Upper Mount Bethel Township Zoning Board, and Township employees Robert Cartwright, Maureen Sterner, Robert Collura, Jeffrey Manzi, and Ronald Angle, as well as their neighbors Robert and Fran Aponick, in relation to a property owned by the plaintiffs. The Aponicks and the Township Defendants filed separate motions to dismiss the respective claims against them for failure to state a claim pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). For the following reasons, the motions to dismiss are granted.


         The plaintiffs were the successful bidders at an auction for a foreclosed property located at 439 Slateford Road in Mount Bethel, Pennsylvania. (Compl. ¶¶ 1, 15.) The plaintiffs' intention was to purchase the 439 property, demolish the existing structure, and build a family home on the property. (Id. ¶ 12.)

         Beginning in March 2013, the plaintiffs experienced difficulties with their neighbors, Robert and Fran Aponick, because the Aponicks made claims to a strip of land on the 439 property that they wished to use to transport and store their boat and because the Aponicks repeatedly let their dogs loose on the 439 property. (Id. ¶¶ 17, 25, 45.) In June 2013, Robert Aponick trespassed on the 439 property and destroyed a newly constructed fence, and also cut down tree limbs past the property line. (Id. ¶¶ 35-36.) Robert Aponick trespassed and vandalized the 439 property on various dates between December 2013 and July 2014, including by depositing large railroad stones onto the property, pulling up survey stakes, and intimidating workers on the property who had been hired by the plaintiffs. (Id. ¶¶ 49, 50, 51, 62.) In December 2014, Robert Aponick approached Mr. Niemoczynski and pointed what appeared to be a weapon at him while screaming expletives. (Id. ¶ 56.)

         The plaintiffs also experienced difficulties with the Township after purchasing the 439 property. Apparently under the direction of Township employees, a drain on the plaintiffs' property was cut and a speed limit sign on the corner of the plaintiffs' property was removed in order to allow the Aponicks to move their boat across the strip of land. (Id. ¶ 28.) Another Township employee contacted the plaintiffs to demand that they grant an easement so that the Aponicks could have access to a road and storage for their boat, and threatened to have the land declared as unbuildable or to take it through eminent domain. (Id. ¶¶ 39, 41.) Still another Township employee told the plaintiffs that the Township would squash them like a bug if they did not grant the easement. (Id. ¶ 43.)

         The plaintiffs also faced obstacles when trying to obtain various approvals and permits for the work they wanted to do on the 439 property. The plaintiffs believe this was due to the issues with the Aponicks, as well as the Township's inaccurate claims that the property required a FEMA permit and flood elevation certificate and that the plaintiffs' applications required an engineer's signature. (Id. ¶¶ 30, 32.) After the plaintiffs hired an attorney to assist them in dealing with the Township, they learned that the Township required a variance to build on the property because it was now considered to be in a floodplain. (Id. ¶ 37.) Following zoning hearings, the plaintiffs' variance request was denied because of concerns about the Aponicks and other nearby residents. (Id. ¶ 55.) On the Township's advice, the plaintiffs submitted a stipulation package in connection with the requested variance, but were later told that they actually needed a special exception and would therefore have to submit new permits, surveys, and documents. (Id. ¶¶ 59-60.) The plaintiffs hired an engineer, after being ordered to do so by the Township, who told them that they never needed a variance because they did not reside in a floodway, the proposed home was smaller than the original home, and the Township's assertion regarding the required grading was incorrect. (Id. ¶¶ 60-61.)

         During a planning commission meeting on October 21, 2015, the Township's solicitor admitted that the zoning board's denial of the plaintiffs' build permit was for personal reasons, the variance was not needed, and Township employees had used the wrong ordinance. (Id. ¶ 63.) The solicitor also admitted that the Township's concerns that the proposed home would not conform with homes in the surrounding area were misplaced because the proposed home did not need to be elevated. (Id.) Later that month the plaintiffs attended another zoning board meeting to apply for the special exception, during which Township employees Manzi and Angle continued to propose easements and land sales to benefit the Aponicks and another set of neighbors. (Id. ¶ 64.) Manzi and Angle, as well as another board member, raised opposition to the plaintiffs being allowed to rent any home built on the property. (Id. ¶ 65.) During the meeting the plaintiffs' representative alleged a conflict of interest because Manzi runs a rental property three houses away from the 439 property. (Id. ¶ 66.) Also during the meeting, Angle suggested a conditional acceptance of the build request conditioned on a review of the septic system, based on false testimony from Robert Aponick that the home had been sold because of septic failure, rather than because of foreclosure. (Id. ¶ 67.) The 439 property passed a septic inspection at the end of October 2015, but the Township did not issue any permits or written decisions allowing the plaintiffs to build in November or the “early part of December 2015.”[1](Id. ¶ 68.) The plaintiffs were told that documents related to the building permits, which had been submitted and accepted in December 2014, were “missing.” (Id. ¶ 69.)


         Under Rule 12(b)(6), a defendant bears the burden of demonstrating that the plaintiff has not stated a claim upon which relief can be granted. Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6); see also Hedges v. United States, 404 F.3d 744, 750 (3d Cir. 2005). In Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007), the United States Supreme Court recognized that “a plaintiff's obligation to provide the ‘grounds' of his ‘entitle[ment] to relief' requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.” Id. at 555. Subsequently, in Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662 (2009), the Supreme Court defined a two-pronged approach to a court's review of a motion to dismiss. “First, the tenet that a court must accept as true all of the allegations contained in a complaint is inapplicable to legal conclusions. Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice.” Id. at 678. Thus, while “Rule 8 marks a notable and generous departure from the hyper-technical, code-pleading regime of a prior era . . . it does not unlock the doors of discovery for a plaintiff armed with nothing more than conclusions.” Id. at 678-79.

         Second, the Supreme Court emphasized that “only a complaint that states a plausible claim for relief survives a motion to dismiss.” Id. at 679. “Determining whether a complaint states a plausible claim for relief will, as the Court of Appeals observed, be a context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense.” Id. A complaint does not show an entitlement to relief when the well-pleaded facts do not permit the court to infer more than the mere possibility of misconduct. Id.; see also Phillips v. Cnty. of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 232-34 (3d Cir. 2008) (holding that: (1) factual allegations of complaint must provide notice to defendant; (2) complaint must allege facts suggestive of the proscribed conduct; and (3) the complaint's “‘factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level.'” (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555)).

         The basic tenets of the Rule 12(b)(6) standard of review have remained static. Spence v. Brownsville Area Sch. Dist., No. Civ.A.08-626, 2008 WL 2779079, at *2 (W.D. Pa. July 15, 2008). The general rules of pleading still require only a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief and need not contain detailed factual allegations. Phillips, 515 F.3d at 233. Further, the court must “accept all factual allegations in the complaint as true and view them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff.” Buck v. Hampton Twp. Sch. Dist., 452 F.3d 256, 260 (3d Cir. 2006). Finally, the court must “determine whether, under any reasonable reading of the complaint, the plaintiff may be entitled to relief.” Pinkerton v. Roche Holdings Ltd., 292 F.3d 361, 374 n.7 (3d Cir. 2002).


         The Township Defendants and the Aponicks move to dismiss all of the plaintiffs' claims against them for failure to state a claim under Rule 12(b)(6). Having considered the complaint and the parties' briefs, I find that the plaintiffs' federal law claims-the § 1983 due process claims, FHA claim, and § 1983 conspiracy claim-fail as a matter of law for the reasons discussed below, and therefore must be dismissed. As the federal claims are dismissed, I decline to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over the plaintiffs' state law claims, which are therefore also subject to ...

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