Posted by: Patricia Salkin | March 15, 2014

Third Circuit Court of Appeals Finds Owner’s § 1983 Claim Precluded by the State’s Provision of a Full Judicial Mechanism for an Aggrieved Landowner to Challenge the Decision to Deny a Variance

In 2010, Miller acquired a parcel of property located within the Pocono Ranch Lands Property Owners Association Inc. Miller’s third amended complaint—the operative complaint used in this appeal—alleges that the Association, the individuals who control it, and certain Lehman Township officials (collectively, “the defendants”) have acted improperly in the following ways: (1) they have failed to recognize that Miller’s property is deeded commercial, not residential; (2) they have sent fee and assessment bills to her; (3) they denied her request for a variance that would have allowed her to use the property for commercial purposes; and (4) by placing an easement on the property and refusing to allow her to use the property for commercial purposes, they have effectively taken the property.

As to Miller’s claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, the court upheld the District Court’s holding in favor of dismissing them. Miller first contended that the defendants, by denying her request for a variance, violated her procedural-due-process rights. To state a procedural-due-process claim, however, Miller needed to show that the state “procedures available to [her] did not provide due process of law.” Hill v. Borough of Kutztown, 455 F.3d 225, 234 (3d Cir.2006). The court did not find this applicable to the case at bar since Pennsylvania affords a full judicial mechanism for an aggrieved landowner to challenge the decision to deny a variance. See, e.g., DeFilippo v. Cranberry Twp. Bd. of Supervisors, 49 A.3d 939, 941–42 (Pa.Commw.Ct.2012). Since courts have held that these procedures provide due process, Miller’s claim was defeated.

Miller further contended that the defendants violated her substantive-due-process rights. To state a substantive-due-process claim in a land-use case, the plaintiff was required to show that the defendants’ conduct “shocks the conscience.” Eichenlaub v. Twp. of Indiana, 385 F.3d 274, 285 (3d Cir.2004). However, the court cited that in several cases having claims similar to Miller’s—such as that the defendants applied zoning requirements unfairly, pursued unnecessary enforcement actions, and delayed permits and approvals—failed to satisfy this standard. Accordingly, the Third Circuit dismissed these claims as well.

Miller v. Pocono Ranch Lands Prop. Owners Ass’n Inc., 2014 WL 661573 (3d Cir. 2/21/2014)

The opinion can be accessed at: http://www2.ca3.uscourts.gov/opinarch/131477np.pdf


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