Posted by: Patricia Salkin | November 11, 2011

Fed. Dist. Court in PA Refuses to Dismiss RLUIPA Claims and Claims of Malicious Prosecution and Code Enforcement Abuse

Editor’s note: Although this is a really a procedural motion and would not normally be included on Law of the Land, the alleged eggregious behavior on the part of local officials makes this a case of interest to wacth for further proceedings (if it is not settled).

Plaintiffs, the Women of War Ministries and the organization’s Executive Director Claudette Miles, brought an action for civil rights violation under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA), against the Borough of Lansdowne and a number of local officials.  The plaintiffs claim that they were subjected to a series of abusive actions by local officials after purchasing property within the Lansdowne Borough and attempting to obtain a permit to construct, occupy, and use the property as a church.  They claim that, after the permit was denied, the Ministry received a number of subsequent, allegedly unjustified citations and fines for such violations as chipped paint and failure to remove snow, which plaintiffs claim were meant to harass the Ministry, exhaust its resources, and force it to abandon its plans to use the property for a church.  In 2008, the plaintiffs reached an agreement with the local tax assessor to pay $1,000 per month to address arrearages related to the Ministry’s property.  The Ministry claims it made these payments until August 2010, when the Borough’s tax assessment office refused to accept further payments.                           

Meanwhile, on a Friday in March 2009, Miles went to the Borough’s Code Enforcement office to apply for a construction permit which would allow the Ministry to make repairs to address code citations against the property.  While Miles was waiting for an application, the Code Enforcement Officer arrived with a police officer, who arrested Miles under a warrant issued for failure to pay fines arising from code citations against the Ministry’s property.  At about 4 p.m. the day of her arrest, the Magisterial District Judge, also a defendant in this case, informed Miles that she would be required to pay the outstanding fines in order to be released, or else be incarcerated.  Miles was unable to pay the fines personally and ended up spending the weekend in jail.  In May 2009, the case against Miles was overturned because the warrant on the code violations had been issued in her name, rather than the name of the property owner – the Ministry. 

In late 2009 or early 2010, the Ministry also hired a licensed roofer to perform repairs on the building’s leaking roof – another issue that had been subject to code citations.  The roofer obtained a construction permit, but Borough officials ordered him to stop work after only 15 percent of the project had been completed, causing water damage and further deterioration of the roof.  Engineers estimated that repairing the roof would cost $125,000 – more than the value of the property.  The Ministry filed for another permit in April 2010, but the application was again denied.  Local officials allegedly told the Ministry there was only one parcel on the zoning map where they could potentially obtain a permit to operate a church, and that there was already a church operating there. 

Plaintiff Miles filed the original complaint in March 2011, within the statute of limitations under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, naming as defendants several “unknown” officials of Lansdowne Borough and alleging that her incarceration in March 2009 violated her procedural due process rights.  A first Amended Complaint was filed in June 2011 against the same defendants.  In both of the first two complaints, Miles was acting pro se.  In August 2011, Miles was joined by the Ministry as a second plaintiff and was represented by counsel, and a Second Amended Complaint was filed, naming the specific public officials listed in the original complaints, as well as Lansdowne Borough and Delaware County.  

Three of the individual defendants here claim that the statute of limitations had expired on the claims against them, since they were unnamed defendants in the first and the amended complaints.  For that reason, and because they believe plaintiffs failed to plead any specific Constitutional violations or cognizable supplemental state claims, they moved to dismiss the case. 

The District Court held that, while the individual defendants did go unnamed on the initial filings, they were described in those complaints as the “code enforcement agent,” the “arresting officer,” and the “legal counsel” for the Borough.  Since these descriptions easily related back to the individual defendants – who were the only ones who fit the titles—and since the individual defendants and the government defendants named in the original complaint were represented by the same counsel, the court held that the individual defendants were on constructive notice that they were implicated in the suit.  Further, the court held that the plaintiffs had properly pled both the Constitutional and the state law violations.  For those reasons, the court denied the defendant’s motion to dismiss plaintiffs’ claims. 

Miles v. Lansdowne Borough, 2011 WL 4852429 (E.D.Pa. 10/13/2011) 

The opinion can be accessed at:

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