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Seitz v. East Nottingham Township

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

May 24, 2017



          Gerald Austin McHugh United States District Judge.

         This case arises out of a dispute between a Chester County business owner and local government officials. Plaintiffs John R. Seitz, III, and Hickory Hill Group, LLC, allege that Defendants East Nottingham Township and various officers thereof deprived them of numerous constitutional rights by illegally seizing their private driveway and converting it into a public right-of-way, arbitrarily enforcing land-use and signage ordinances, and attempting to have Seitz arrested on false charges. Upon consideration of Defendants' Motions to Dismiss, I conclude that the only surviving claim is one for deprivation of substantive due process based on Defendants' alleged appropriation of Plaintiffs' driveway.

         I. FACTS

         In February 2014, HHG[1] purchased a property located at 1041 Hickory Hill Road, East Nottingham Township, Chester County, Pennsylvania. The Amended Complaint does not include an extensive description of the property, but this much is clear: 1041 Hickory Hill Road is a triangular parcel bounded by two public thoroughfares, Hickory Hill and Oxford Roads, and by the disputed roadway that is the focal point of this case. Viewed on a map, the disputed roadway would, if open to traffic, constitute a continuation of Fulton Road, an existing public right-of-way.

         Plaintiffs contend that the roadway in dispute is a private driveway. They note that historical Township maps and surveys do not list the roadway as a public street and that the Township refused a request from Joseph Coates, the previous owner of the property, to maintain it as such. Plaintiffs further maintain that Coates blocked the northern entrance to the roadway when requested to do so by State Police in 2005 and that the roadway remained inaccessible to the public until 2014. According to Plaintiffs, when they acquired 1041 Hickory Hill Road in early 2014, they understood the roadway to be their private property, posted signs to that effect, maintained Coates's barrier, and used the area as a loading zone and storage area.[2]

         Defendants-East Nottingham Township, the Township Board of Supervisors, and eight individually named Township officials-apparently had a different view. According to Plaintiffs, in July 2014, the Board of Supervisors met and, without first providing notice, voted to evict Plaintiffs from the roadway. In September, the Supervisors (again purportedly without notice to Plaintiffs) authorized spending for survey and engineering work necessary to convert the roadway into a county road. Plaintiffs claim that the survey was overseen by Defendant Winifred Moran Sebastian, Esq., the Township Solicitor, who authorized the use of “fabricate[d]” data and “unconventional methods” to portray the roadway as an extension of nearby Fulton Road. Am. Compl. ¶¶ 69-70. Plaintiffs further maintain that, in October 2014, Sebastian ordered Defendant William Weaver, the Township Road Master, to remove Plaintiffs' barricades and private property signs and occupy the roadway. With the roadway under township control, Weaver and Defendant Mark Deimler, the Township Engineer and Building Code Official, allegedly removed what had been a functioning drainage system and replaced it with a “negligently]” designed “seepage pit/dry well, ” resulting in significant flood damage to the structures at 1041 Hickory Hill Road. ¶ 113.

         Plaintiffs cite the Township's appropriation of their private driveway as the most glaring example of what they broadly characterize as a coordinated effort to “trample[] upon their constitutional rights.” ¶ 137. In support of this theory, Plaintiffs allege that Defendant Pamela Scheese, the Township Zoning Officer, denied their building permit request and twice denied their application to post public signs, each time for “arbitrary and capricious reasons.” ¶ 122, 134. In a similar vein, Plaintiffs maintain that Scheese and Deimler sent them notifications of non-existent zoning and building code violations. ¶¶ 147-53. Finally, Plaintiffs contend that Defendants Patricia Brady, Township Secretary, and Scott Blum, a former Township Supervisor, conspired with unnamed “cronies” in an attempt to have Seitz falsely arrested because he supported a rival candidate for an open seat on the Board of Supervisors. ¶¶ 161-64.

         Before me now are two Motions to Dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6), one on behalf of Defendant Sebastian and one on behalf of the other nine Defendants.

         II. STANDARD

         A complaint is properly dismissed under Rule 12(b)(6) when it fails “to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). In considering a 12(b)(6) motion, the court must first separate the factual and legal elements of a claim, accepting as true all well-pleaded facts while disregarding any legal conclusions. Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 210 (3d Cir. 2009). The court must then “determine whether the facts alleged in the complaint are sufficient to show that the plaintiff has a ‘plausible claim for relief” Id. (quoting Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 679 (2009)).


         Plaintiffs seek relief under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. To prevail, they must show that Defendants “acted under the color of state law and denied [them] a federally protected constitutional or statutory right.” Angelico v. Lehigh Valley Hosp., Inc., 184 F.3d 268, 277 (3d Cir. 1999). Plaintiffs bring claims under a variety of constitutional theories: (1) due process and Seventh Amendment right-to-jury-trial claims related to the property at 1041 Hickory Hill Road; (2) a facial First Amendment challenge to the Township's signage ordinance; and (3) First Amendment and due process claims related to the alleged conspiracy to have Seitz arrested on false charges. I consider each group of claims in turn.

         A. Due Process and Seventh Amendment Claims Related to the Property at 1041 Hickory Hill Road

         Plaintiffs allege that Defendants' interference with their property interests in 1041 Hickory Hill Road deprived them of their Fourteenth Amendment rights to substantive and procedural due process, and their Seventh Amendment right to civil trial by jury. Specifically, Plaintiffs claim that Defendants abridged these rights by: (1) “negligent[ly]” designing and installing a drainage system that resulted in flooding of, and structural damage to, Plaintiffs' real property; (2) denying Plaintiffs' request for building and sign permits and notifying Plaintiffs of zoning and building code violations; and (3) appropriating Plaintiffs' private driveway. Defendants raise three threshold objections. First, they argue that Plaintiffs lack Article III standing to bring claims based on these actions. Next, Defendant Sebastian claims that Plaintiffs have failed to state a claim against her because she did not act under color of state law within the meaning of § 1983. And finally, Defendants contend that Plaintiffs' claims are unripe.

         The three requirements of Article III standing are (1) “an injury in fact” that is “concrete and particularized, ” (2) a “causal connection between the injury and the conduct complained of, ” and (3) a likelihood “that the injury will be redressed by a favorable decision.” Lujan v. Defs. of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555, 560-61 (1992). Defendants seize on language in Lujan, which describes an injury in fact as an “invasion of a legally protected interest.” Id. at 560. Armed only with this ambiguous phrase, [3] they attack Plaintiffs' standing to bring claims related to 1041 Hickory Hill Road, arguing that Plaintiffs do not own that property and therefore have no “legally protected property interest, ” the “invasion” of which would give rise to an injury in fact.

         Defendants make a credible case that Plaintiffs lack valid legal title to 1041 Hickory Hill Road, but that argument goes to the merits, not to standing, and in any case is premature.[4] “In the context of a motion to dismiss . . . the injury-in-fact element is not Mount Everest. The contours of the injury-in-fact requirement, while not precisely defined, are very generous, requiring only that claimant allege some specific, identifiable trifle of injury.” In re Horizon Healthcare Servs. Inc. Data Breach Litig., 846 F.3d 625, 633 (3d Cir. 2017). Plaintiffs clearly carry that minimal burden by alleging that Defendants' appropriation of their driveway and denial of permits hindered their business activities and damaged their real property. These direct and immediate economic losses fit squarely within the recognized injury-in-fact categories and easily satisfy the first requirement of Article III standing. See Danvers Motor Co. v. Ford Motor Co., 432 F.3d 286, 293 (3d Cir. 2005) (“Monetary harm is a classic form of injury-in-fact . . . . Indeed, it is often assumed without discussion.”). So Defendants' standing argument fails.

         Next, Defendant Sebastian, the Township Solicitor, argues that Plaintiffs have failed to state a § 1983 claim against her because she did not act under color of state law. A party acts under color of law when (1) she “exercise[s] . . . some right or privilege created by the State or by a rule of conduct imposed by the state or by a person for whom the State is responsible, ” and (2) she “may fairly be said to be [a] state actor.” Angelico, 184 F.3d at 277. Sebastian maintains that as a private attorney representing a municipal client, she was not a state actor within the meaning of § 1983. Generally, a state actor is one who “is a state official, . . . has acted together with or has obtained significant aid from state officials, ” or engages in conduct that is, “by its nature, chargeable to the state.” Id. As Sebastian notes, courts in this Circuit have refused to label as “state actors” township solicitors who “render[] advice, draft[] correspondence . . . as to legal disputes, or otherwise engage[] in litigation and equivalent legal activities” on behalf of their government clients. Belkowski v. Kruczek, No. 209-CV-1549, 2010 WL 1433099, at *3 (W.D. Pa. Apr. 7, 2010). But courts have also found that these attorneys may become state actors when taking actions outside the scope of a traditional attorney-client relationship. See Id. Such is the case here.

         The Amended Complaint alleges that Sebastian deprived Plaintiffs of their rights to due process by supervising the creation of a survey to support the Township's claim of ownership over the disputed roadway, and by “personally direct[ing]” a Township employee to enter and seize Seitz's driveway. ¶¶ 67-75. Accepting these allegations as true, the complaint shows that Sebastian acted well outside the bounds of a traditional attorney-client relationship, adopting responsibilities akin to those of a city manager or engineer. I therefore find that she ...

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