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Thomas v. Independence Township

September 14, 2006

ANTHONY W. THOMAS, A.W.T., INC., T/D/B/A INDEPENDENCE DELI
v.
INDEPENDENCE TOWNSHIP; JOSEPH CHIODO, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS A MEMBER OF THE INDEPENDENCE TOWNSHIP BOARD OF SUPERVISORS; GENE FLEEGAL, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS A MEMBER INDEPENDENCE TOWNSHIP BOARD OF SUPERVISORS; WENDY POTTS FLEEGAL, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS SECRETARY AND TREASURER OF THE INDEPENDENCE TOWNSHIP BOARD OF SUPERVISORS; FRED SCHMIDT, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS A MEMBER INDEPENDENCE TOWNSHIP BOARD OF SUPERVISORS; SAM BUTLER, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS A MEMBER INDEPENDENCE TOWNSHIP BOARD OF SUPERVISORS JOSEPH CHIODO, GENE FLEEGAL, WENDY POTTS FLEEGAL, FRED SCHMIDT AND SAM BUTLER, APPELLANTS



On Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania (D.C. Civil No. 04-cv-01671) District Judge: Hon. Gary L. Lancaster.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Cowen, Circuit Judge

PRECEDENTIAL

Argued March 31, 2006

BEFORE: SMITH and COWEN, Circuit Judges, and ACKERMAN*fn1, District Judge.

OPINION

The individual defendants appeal the District Court's denial of their qualified immunity defense at the dismissal stage. The District Court found that the allegations of plaintiffs' complaint adequately plead the commission of acts that violate extremely broad, general propositions of law, and, therefore, denied qualified immunity at the dismissal stage. Today, we make clear that a qualified immunity determination must be made in light of the specific factual context of the case, and when a complaint fashioned under the simplified notice pleading standard of the Federal Rules does not provide the necessary factual predicate for such a determination, the district court should grant a defense motion (whether formally or informally made) for a more definite statement regarding the facts underlying the plaintiff's claim for relief.

We continue to stand by established precedent that recognizes that a plaintiff has no pleading burden to anticipate or overcome a qualified immunity defense, and a mere absence of detailed factual allegations supporting a plaintiff's claim for relief under § 1983 does not warrant dismissal of the complaint or establish defendants' immunity. Nevertheless, our decision today recognizes that a lack of factual specificity in a complaint prevents the defendant from framing a fact-specific qualified immunity defense, which, in turn, precludes the district court from engaging in a meaningful qualified immunity analysis. The appropriate remedy is the granting of a defense motion for a more definite statement under Federal Rule 12(e). Even when a defendant does not formally move for a more definite statement, the district court has the discretion to demand more specific factual allegations in order to protect the substance of the qualified immunity defense and avoid subjecting government officials who may be immune from suit to needless discovery and the other burdens of litigation.

Because the complaint in this case presents a textbook example of a pleading as to which a qualified immunity defense cannot reasonably be framed, we will vacate the District Court's order insofar as it relates to qualified immunity and remand to the District Court with instructions to order the plaintiffs to file a more definite statement. In addition, for the reasons given below, we will reverse the District Court's order denying defendants' motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim with respect to the claims brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and § 1986 against Wendy Potts Fleegal and the claim brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1986 against Sam M. Butler, and remand with instructions to grant plaintiffs leave to amend the complaint. For the reasons stated below, we will also reverse the District Court's order denying defendants' motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim with respect to the unlawful taking claim under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments, insofar as the claim is brought against the Individual Defendants.

I.

This is a civil rights action brought by Anthony W. Thomas and A.W.T., Inc. d/b/a Independence Deli ("Independence Deli") against Independence Township ("Township"), Joseph Chiodo, the Chairman of the Township Board of Supervisors, Gene Fleegal, a Township Board member, Fred Schmidt, a Township Board member, Wendy Potts Fleegal, the Township's Secretary and Treasurer, and Sam M. Butler, a member of the Board's recreation committee (the "Individual Defendants"). The complaint purports to assert, against the Individual Defendants, claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for deprivations of equal protection, due process, free speech, and political association, and unreasonable search and seizure, as well as claims for conspiracy under 42 U.S.C. § 1985(3), neglect to prevent conspiracy under 42 U.S.C. § 1986, abuse of process, commercial disparagement, and civil conspiracy.*fn2

The complaint alleges that since January of 2001, plaintiffs have pursued the transfer of a restaurant liquor license to the Independence Deli in the Township. The Township has steadfastly opposed the transfer and denied plaintiffs' successive applications. In response, plaintiffs have petitioned the state court for redress. The crux of plaintiffs' complaint is that during this same time frame, the Individual Defendants have engaged in a campaign of harassment and intimidation against plaintiffs.

Defendant Sam M. Butler has allegedly made false and defamatory statements to the Township's residents about Thomas, his business, and his Lebanese-American ancestry. The Township's police officers, whom Board members Joseph Chiodo, Gene Fleegal, and Fred Schmidt have the statutory authority to supervise, have allegedly engaged in the following conduct: (1) "entering the Plaintiffs['] business without probable cause or valid reason;" (2) wrongly "accusing the Plaintiff, Anthony W. Thomas, of violating the law;" (3) "misrepresenting the laws;" (4) "conducting surveillance of Plaintiffs, their businesses, and patrons from an area located across the street from Plaintiffs' business;" (5) "increasing and heightening police presence and surveillance;" (6) "subjecting the Plaintiffs to unreasonable and unlawful search and seizure;" and (7) threatening and/or "causing unwarranted investigations of the Plaintiffs by other governmental agencies." (Complaint ¶ 40.)

The complaint alleges that Individual Defendants Joseph Chiodo, Gene Fleegal, and Fred Schmidt were aware of the police misconduct but failed to take any action to abate it. In addition, the complaint avers that the Individual Defendants have "portray[ed] the Plaintiff[s] . . . in a false light," "act[ed] under color of state law for an unlawful purpose mainly to prohibit Mr. Thomas from engaging in a lawful enterprise, solely based upon Mr. Thomas' race and ancestry," and "engag[ed] in the foregoing conduct . . . because of his race." (Complaint ¶ 41.)

The Individual Defendants filed a motion to dismiss arguing, inter alia, that the complaint, insofar as it asserts claims against them in their individual capacities, should be dismissed on the basis of qualified immunity. They reasoned that "it is impossible to evaluate whether a particular action of a particular individual defendant violated clearly established law, since it is impossible to know, on the basis of the Complaint, what the action is." (App. at 58.) In an opinion entered March 29, 2005, and a supplemental opinion entered July 27, 2005, the District Court denied the motion to dismiss without prejudice to the Individual Defendants' right to reassert the qualified immunity defense in a motion for summary judgment based on a more fully developed record.

Under the collateral-order doctrine, we have jurisdiction to review the District Court's denial of qualified immunity. Mitchell v. Forsyth, 472 U.S. 511, 530 (1985).

II.

A.

We have stated that "qualified immunity will be upheld on a 12(b)(6) motion only when the immunity is established on the face of the complaint." Leveto v. Lapina, 258 F.3d 156, 161 (3d Cir. 2001) (citations and internal quotation marks omitted). The Individual Defendants have not argued that their conduct as alleged in the complaint does not violate clearly established law. Rather, they make the novel argument that plaintiffs' complaint is subject to dismissal on the basis of qualified immunity because the complaint does not contain any factual allegations that would negate their qualified immunity defense. More specifically, the Individual Defendants claim that they are entitled to qualified immunity because the complaint does not contain factual allegations supporting a claim of violation of clearly established law. This argument is legally unsound.

"[T]he qualified-immunity defense shields government agents from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known." Behrens v. Pelletier, 516 U.S. 299, 305 (1996) (internal quotation marks, brackets, and citations omitted). An essential attribute of qualified immunity is the "entitlement not to stand trial or face the other burdens of litigation, conditioned on the resolution of the essentially legal question whether the conduct of which the plaintiff complains violated clearly established law." Mitchell, 472 U.S. at 526. The immunity is intended to protect officials from the potential consequences of suit, including distraction from official duties, inhibition of discretionary action, and deterrence of able people from public service. Id. "[E]ven such pretrial matters as discovery are to be avoided if possible, as '[i]nquiries of this kind can be peculiarly disruptive of effective government.'" Id. (quoting Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 817 (1982)).

Because qualified immunity bestows immunity from suit, the Supreme Court "repeatedly ha[s] stressed the importance of resolving immunity questions at the earliest possible stage in litigation." Hunter v. Bryant, 502 U.S. 224, 227 (1991). The Supreme Court has admonished that "[u]ntil this threshold immunity question is resolved, discovery should not be allowed." Harlow, 457 U.S. at 818. Thus, "[u]nless the plaintiff's allegationsstate a claim of violation of clearly established law, a defendant pleading qualified immunity is entitled to dismissal before the commencement of discovery." Mitchell, 472 U.S. at 526.

Here, the Individual Defendants argue that plaintiffs' complaint is subject to dismissal because plaintiffs have failed to allege facts showing that the Individual Defendants' conduct "violate[d] clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known." Behrens, 516 U.S. at 305. They also contend that plaintiffs should not be allowed to survive a qualified immunity defense at the motion to dismiss stage by crafting a complaint so lacking in factual detail that it effectively avoids a qualified immunity analysis. (Appellant's Brief 23.) Their argument is not without some appeal since imposition of such a pleading requirement would facilitate the early resolution of the qualified immunity issue and would avoid the risk of subjecting public officials who are immune to suit from the burdens of discovery.

While facially appealing, the Individual Defendants' argument ultimately lacks merit because it conflates qualified immunity with the merits of a plaintiff's cause of action under § 1983. In Gomez v. Toledo, 446 U.S. 635, 635-36 (1980), the Supreme Court considered the issue of whether, in an action brought under ยง 1983 against a public official whose position might entitle him to qualified immunity, a plaintiff must plead allegations in anticipation of the affirmative defense. The Gomez Court began its ...


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