United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania
JOHN R. SEITZ, III, and HICKORY HILL GROUP, LLC, Plaintiffs,
EAST NOTTINGHAM TOWNSHIP, Defendants.
Austin McHugh United States District Judge.
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'
February 2014, HHG 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)).
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.
Due Process and Seventh Amendment Claims Related to the
Property at 1041 Hickory Hill Road
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.
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,  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
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. “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
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.
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 ...