Posted by: Patricia Salkin | October 23, 2019

Fed. Dist. Court of PA Dismisses Due Process Claim for Failure to Exhaust State Remedies

This post was authored by Matthew Loeser, Esq.

This case arose from a local land use dispute between Anthony and Kelly Halchak, who sought an occupancy permit to operate a used car business on their land, and Dorrance Township, Alan Snelson, the township zoning officer, 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. In 2015, Plaintiffs filed this lawsuit in state court seeking statutory and mandamus relief under state law. The parties then engaged in protracted state litigation, and conducted extensive proceedings in state court over the following three years. Ultimately, the state court judge approved the filing of this amended complaint, which for the first time raised federal procedural due process claims. The defendants then removed the case to federal court based upon these federal due process violations alleged in the amended complaint, and then moved to dismiss the plaintiffs’ amended complaint.

The court found that with respect to the third essential element of a federal procedural due process claim, federal courts frequently found that Pennsylvania’s scheme for judicial review of administrative land use decisions had passed constitutional muster. Here, plaintiffs failed to show the third element of a procedural due process claim in this setting was satisfied because the Halchaks had state law paths they could follow which would afford them procedural due process. Moreover, the record reflected that, while the plaintiffs failed to pursue one legal avenue which was available to them, an administrative appeal, they actively exercised their due process rights through another avenue by seeking state court judicial review of these land use decisions. Accordingly, plaintiffs’ federal procedural due process claim, which formed the sole basis for the removal of this lawsuit to federal court, failed as a matter of law.

Lastly, the plaintiffs claimed the state court’s February 2017 ruling, which denied a request by the defendants under state law to dismiss the original complaint filed by the Halchaks for failure to exhaust available state remedies, constituted the law of the case and barred any consideration of the amended complaint. At that time the state court was considering the plaintiffs’ original complaint, plaintiffs did not assert federal constitutional claims; those claims were first proposed by the plaintiffs ten months after this state court ruling, and only became part of this litigation in May and June of 2018 when the state court granted the Kalchaks leave to amend their complaint. As such, the law of the case doctrine was not a bar to the federal court. Accordingly, the magistrate judge recommended that the defendants’ motions to dismiss be granted.

Halchak v Dorrance Township Board of Supervisors, 2019 WL 4794773 (MD PA 8/30/2019)

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