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Halchak v. Dorrance Township Board of Supervisors

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

September 30, 2019

ANTHONY HALCHAK, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
DORRANCE TOWNSHIP BOARD OF SUPERVISORS, et al., Defendants.

          Carlson Magistrate Judge.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Robert D. Mariani United States District Judge.

         I. INTRODUCTION and PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Presently before the Court is a Report and Recommendation ("R&R") (Doc. 35) by Magistrate Judge Martin C. Carlson in which he recommends that The Dorrance Township Board of Supervisors and Alan Snelson's Motion to Dismiss Amended Complaint (Doc. 2) and Motion of Defendants, Code Inspections, Inc. and Ken Fenstermacher, to Dismiss Plaintiffs' Amended Complaint for Failure to State a Claim upon Which Relief Can Be Granted, Pursuant to F.R.C.P. 12(b)(6) (Doc. 7) be granted as to Plaintiffs' Fourteenth Amendment Procedural Due Process claims and Plaintiffs' state law claims be dismissed without prejudice for renewal in state court (Doc. 35 at 20-22). For the reasons discussed below, the Court disagrees.

         The operative complaint is the Amended Complaint filed in the Court of Common Pleas of Lackawanna County (Doc. 2-1) and removed to this Court on June 26, 2018, by Defendants Dorrance Township Board of Supervisors and Alan Snelson ("Dorrance Defendants") (Doc. 1). Defendants Code Inspections, Inc. and Ken Fenstermacher ("CII Defendants") consented to the Notice of Removal. (Doc. 1 at 3 ¶ 9.) Although the Amended Complaint contains five counts, the Court of Common Pleas denied Plaintiffs' Petition as to Counts II and III (Doc. 2 ¶ 3 & n.1) with the result that Counts I, IV, and V are before this Court. Count I does not identify a specific cause of action. (See Doc. 2-1 at 1.) However, as discussed in the R&R, Count I contains federal procedural due process claims which provide the basis for federal jurisdiction. (Doc. 35 at 3-4.)

         Magistrate Judge Carlson provided the following brief factual summary of the underlying action:

This litigation involves a longstanding local land use dispute between Anthony and Kelly Halchak, who have for the past ten years sought an occupancy permit to operate a used car business on a parcel of land which they own, and Dorrance Township, Alan Snelson, the township zoning officer, as well as Code Inspections, Inc., a private firm hired by the township to provide code inspection and enforcement services for the township, and one of its employees, Ken Fenstermacher. (Doc. 2-1.)

(Doc. 35 at 2.) There is no dispute that Plaintiffs' application for an occupancy permit was never granted or denied. (See, e.g., Doc. 8 at 5.)

         Plaintiff filed objections to the R&R and a brief in support of the objections on September 13, 2019. (Docs. 36, 36-1.) Defendants did not file objections to the R&R and the time for doing so has passed. Dorrance Defendants and Cll Defendants each filed a timely response to Plaintiffs' objections. (Docs. 37, 38.)

         A District Court may "designate a magistrate judge to conduct hearings, including evidentiary hearings, and to submit to a judge of the court proposed findings of fact and recommendations for the disposition" of certain matters pending before the Court. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B). If a party timely and properly files a written objection to a Magistrate Judge's Report and Recommendation, the District Court "shall make a de novo determination of those portions of the report or specified proposed findings or recommendations to which objection is made." Id. at § 636(b)(1)(C); see also Fed. R. Civ. P. 72(b)(3); M.D. Pa. Local Rule 72.3; Brown v. Astrue, 649 F.3d 193, 195 (3d Cir. 2011). "If a party does not object timely to a magistrate judge's report and recommendation, the party may lose its right to de novo review by the district court." EEOC v. City of Long Branch, 866 F.3d 93, 99-100 (3d Cir. 2017). However, "because a district court must take some action for a report and recommendation to become a final order and because the authority and the responsibility to make an informed, final determination remains with the judge, even absent objections to the report and recommendation, a district court should afford some level of review to dispositive legal issues raised by the report." Id. at 100 (internal citations and quotation marks omitted).

         Having conducted the required de novo review, the Court concludes that Defendants have not shown that Plaintiffs' Amended Complaint does not state a plausible claim for relief based on the asserted Fourteenth Amendment procedural due process violation.

         II. ANALYSIS

         Plaintiffs object to the R&R's recommendation that Defendants' motions be granted as to their federal procedural due process claims, summarizing their position as follows: "[t]he Report is focused on the Pennsylvania procedural schemes with regard to land use issued, but the Report fails to review the actions or inactions of Dorrance and its code enforcement official and how their actions or inactions effectively prevented the Halchaks from any procedural process resulting in an absolute denial of their due process rights." (Doc. 36 at 9 ¶ 31.) For the reasons that follow, the Court concludes that Defendants and the R&R do not adequately address Plaintiffs' Amended Complaint and facts asserted therein in the appropriate context regarding their claimed Fourteenth Amendment Procedural Due Process Clause violation.

         At the outset, the R&R identified federal courts' general consideration of local land use disputes, noting that

federal courts have repeatedly []
emphasize[d]... our reluctance to substitute our judgment for that of local decision-makers, particularly in matters of such local concern as land-use planning, absent a local decision void of a "plausible rational basis." Pace, 808 F.2d at 1035. We decline to federalize routine landuse decisions. Rather, the validity of land-use decisions by local agencies ordinarily should be decided under state law in state courts.
Sameric Corp. of Delaware v. City of Philadelphia, 142 F.3d 582, 596 (3d Cir. 1998). Thus, decisional case law in federal court studiously "avoid[s] converting federal courts into super zoning tribunals." Eichenlaub v. Twp. of Indiana, 385 F.3d 274, 285 (3d Cir. 2004).

(Doc. 35 at 1-2.)

         The Magistrate Judge then looked to the legal standards governing federal procedural due process claims in local land use ...


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