Posted by: Patricia Salkin | February 13, 2016

Third Circuit Court of Appeals Reverses Dismissal of Equal Protection and Substantive Due Process Claims Against Town Officials on Alleged Interference with Renovation Project

Plaintiff William Huff is the managing member of co-plaintiff Ecotone Farm LLC and the owner of a 31–acre plot of land in Harding Township, New Jersey. This case arose out of Huff’s efforts to renovate a house and two barns on the Property, which he claims were thwarted by twelve defendants: his neighbors Edward and Sally Ward; the Township of Harding; the Harding Township Committee; the individual members of the Harding Township Committee (Edward Ward, Marshall Bartlett, Louis Lanzerotti, Regina Egea, James Rybka, and Nicholas Platt); the township engineer Paul Fox. The Wards owned the adjacent parcel with an ingress/egress easement permitting them to use Huff’s land for a driveway to the public road. Litigation broke out between Huff and the Wards when Huff installed speed bumps in the driveway to prevent the Wards from speeding through, and the Wards responded by destroying the speed bumps. After Ward was elected to the Township Committee in 2008, he became Fox’s “boss” and “enlisted” Fox to interfere with Huff’s renovation. In January 2009, Ward tried and failed to have the police halt the renovation by claiming that it made the driveway unsafe. Then in January 2009, Ward emailed Fox court documents from the earlier driveway litigation, and Fox then circulated the documents, along with his own amateur legal analysis, to other township officials and stated his intent to condition his approval of Huff’s renovation plans on Ward’s approval of any changes near the driveway.

This is an appeal from an amended opinion and order of the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey, dismissing at the pleadings stage all federal claims against the defendants on qualified immunity grounds because the plaintiffs had not adequately alleged that their constitutional rights were violated, and declining to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over the state-law claims. Here, under the “class-of-one” theory, the totality of the complaint described a “pattern of unjustified harassment”, which meant that specific descriptions of others similarly situated were not required at the pleadings stage. Additionally the complaint described a factual setting in which there was no violation of the easements, no real question about whether the renovation was a “major development” for storm water management purposes, and therefore no legitimate rationale for the defendants to impose barriers to the renovation. Moreover, the Fox’s Notice of Violation was issued in September 2009 and the enforcement action filed in October 2009 on the basis of the original soil disturbance plan, even though months earlier on April 23, 2009, Fox received Huff’s revised soil disturbance plan that took account of Storage Area 2. Accordingly, the district court erred in dismissing the equal protection, class of one claim.

As to the due process claim, the plaintiffs alleged that Ward and Fox conspired to use their government positions to harass them repeatedly and obstruct full enjoyment of their land over the course of several years, motivated by personal vendettas and the expectation that their own private interests would be advanced. The court found that these accusations rose above the mere allegation of an “improper” motive and depict corruption and repeated abuse of government power with the deliberate aim of harming someone. As such, it found that the claims were conscience-shocking and sufficient to sustain a substantive due process claim at the pleadings stage. Accordingly, the court held the judgment of the District Court should be reversed and remanded as to the plaintiffs’ equal protection claim as against defendants Ward, Fox, and Harding Township, the substantive due process claim as against defendants Ward and Fox, and the pendent state-law claims.

Ecotone Farm, LLC v Ward, 2016 WL 335837 (3rd Cir CA 1/28/16)

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