Heritage Farms, Inc. v. Solebury Tp., No. 81-1234

CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (3rd Circuit)
Writing for the CourtBefore GIBBONS and HIGGINBOTHAM, Circuit Judges, and MEANOR; A. LEON HIGGINBOTHAM, Jr.
Citation671 F.2d 743
PartiesHERITAGE FARMS, INC., Heritage Farm Partnership, Concept Plus, Inc., and Michael G. Lamelza, Appellants, v. SOLEBURY TOWNSHIP, Solebury Township Board of Supervisors, J. Walter Livezey, Jr., Frank J. Soriero, Jr., Patricia D. Knight, Individually and in Their Respective Official Capacities as Members of the Solebury Township Board of Supervisors, Carl L. Lindsay, Jr., Individually and In His Official Capacity as Solicitor of Solebury Township, and William E. Moon, Appellees.
Decision Date10 February 1982
Docket NumberNo. 81-1234

Page 743

671 F.2d 743
HERITAGE FARMS, INC., Heritage Farm Partnership, Concept
Plus, Inc., and Michael G. Lamelza, Appellants,
v.
SOLEBURY TOWNSHIP, Solebury Township Board of Supervisors,
J. Walter Livezey, Jr., Frank J. Soriero, Jr., Patricia D.
Knight, Individually and in Their Respective Official
Capacities as Members of the Solebury Township Board of
Supervisors, Carl L. Lindsay, Jr., Individually and In His
Official Capacity as Solicitor of Solebury Township, and
William E. Moon, Appellees.
No. 81-1234.
United States Court of Appeals,
Third Circuit.
Argued Nov. 19, 1981.
Decided Feb. 10, 1982.

Page 744

Steven L. Friedman (argued), Louis B. Kupperman, Thomas J. Elliott, Philadelphia, Pa., for appellants.

Franklin Poul (argued), Brian P. Flaherty, Stephen B. Harris, Edward J. Marcantonio, Philadelphia, Pa., for appellees.

Before GIBBONS and HIGGINBOTHAM, Circuit Judges, and MEANOR, District Judge. *

Page 745

OPINION OF THE COURT

A. LEON HIGGINBOTHAM, Jr., Circuit Judge.

I.

In this case, we are asked to examine the doctrine of abstention in a rather novel factual setting. For the reasons set forth below, we hold that the district court's decision to abstain was error and therefore the judgment of the district court must be reversed.

The appellants, plaintiffs below, are in the business of purchasing land and developing it into residential housing units in Solebury Township, Bucks County, Pennsylvania. The defendants include Solebury Township, its Board of Supervisors, past and present members of the Board, and the Township Solicitor. The plaintiffs brought suit on June 23, 1980 seeking declaratory and injunctive relief as well as damages for alleged violations of their constitutional rights under the Civil Rights Act of 1871, 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (1976). 1 Because a dismissal (without retention of jurisdiction) on abstention grounds is in the nature of a dismissal under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6), Insurance Federation of Pennsylvania, Inc. v. Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, 669 F.2d 112 at 113 (3d Cir. 1982), for purposes of this appeal we must accept as true the allegations contained in the plaintiffs' complaint.

The complaint alleges that the various defendants conspired to use their offices to cripple and destroy the plaintiffs' business. Their course of conduct, spanning almost three years, was aimed at preventing the plaintiffs from carrying out plans for various residential developments. The attack was waged on various fronts. The defendants unlawfully denied the necessary governmental approval for certain development projects. Building permits were denied despite the knowledge that the denial of the permits was unlawful under Township ordinances. Escrow monies were not released for work completed. Certificates of occupancy were refused for completed and approved developments. The complaint alleges with great specificity a number of "illegal, aribtrary, unreasonable, confiscatory, (and) discriminatory" acts on the part of the defendants "to frustrate, hinder, obstruct, delay and prevent development of plaintiffs' properties solely for the purpose of inflicting economic harm upon plaintiffs under the color of law." Plaintiffs' Complaint, P 38, 39(i). Individual defendants articulated a personal dislike for plaintiff Lamelza and stated their intent to "bankrupt" him and "put him out of business." In addition, defendant Boas attempted to block one of plaintiffs' commercial ventures in order to prevent competition with his own nearby retail store. As both a member of the Board of Supervisors and Police Commissioner, Boas ordered illegal, repetitive and harassing inspections of the plaintiffs' projects. Various defendants intentionally made false statements to financial institutions in an attempt to persuade them not to finance plaintiffs' projects. In addition to running the plaintiffs' credit rating, defendants mounted an adverse publicity campaign against plaintiffs using false and defamatory statements to curtail the plaintiffs' ability to sell their homes. As a result of the defendants' efforts, the plaintiffs suffered severe financial losses as projects were delayed and aborted. In addition, the plaintiffs have suffered injury to their reputation in the business and financial worlds, as well as in the eyes of the community as a whole.

All parties agree that the complaint states on its face a claim under § 1983, and that the district court had jurisdiction over the case. Nevertheless, the defendants

Page 746

asked the district court to abstain and dismiss the complaint. The district court granted the motion, relying upon the doctrines articulated in Railroad Comm'n of Texas v. Pullman Co., 312 U.S. 496, 61 S.Ct. 643, 85 L.Ed. 971 (1941) and Burford v. Sun Oil Co., 319 U.S. 315, 63 S.Ct. 1098, 87 L.Ed. 1424 (1943). The plaintiffs appealed. We must consider whether it was error for the district court to have abstained where there does not exist an unsettled question of state law and where important state policies are not threatened by a decision by a federal court.

II.

Abstention is a judicially created doctrine under which a federal court will decline to exercise its jurisdiction so that a state court or state agency will have the opportunity to decide the matters at issue. The doctrine was born out of a concern for the maintenance of our federal system; seeking to avoid unnecessary conflicts between the federal judiciary and state government. See Railroad Comm'n of Texas v. Pullman Co., 312 U.S. 496, 500-501, 61 S.Ct. 643, 645, 85 L.Ed. 971 (1941). However, the Supreme Court has recognized that abstention is an "extraordinary and narrow exception to the duty of a District Court to adjudicate a controversy properly before it. Abdication of the obligation to decide cases can be justified under this doctrine only in the exceptional circumstances where the order to the parties to repair to the state court would clearly serve an important countervailing interest." County of Allegheny v. Frank Mashuda Co., 360 U.S. 185, 188-89, 79 S.Ct. 1060, 1062-63, 3 L.Ed.2d 1163 (1959). Consistent with its perception of abstention as the exception rather than the rule, the Supreme Court has recognized only three situations in which abstention is appropriate. See Colorado River Water Conservation District v. United States, 424 U.S. 800, 814, 96 S.Ct. 1236, 1244, 47 L.Ed.2d 483 (1976).

One of the three basic types of abstention has its roots in Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37, 91 S.Ct. 746, 27 L.Ed.2d 669 (1971). The Younger doctrine requires a district court to abstain where, absent bad faith, harassment, or a patently invalid state statute, the moving party is attempting to enjoin pending state criminal proceedings. 401...

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164 practice notes
  • Reifer v. Westport Ins. Corp., No. 13–2880.
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (3rd Circuit)
    • April 29, 2014
    ...and state courts are equally capable of applying settled state law to a difficult set of facts.” Heritage Farms Inc. v. Solebury Twp., 671 F.2d 743, 747 (3d Cir.1982) (quoting Note, Land Use Regulation, the Federal Courts and the Abstention Doctrine, 89 Yale L.J. 1134, 1143 n. 55 (1980)). S......
  • Addiction Specialists, Inc. v. Township of Hampton, No. 04-3707.
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (3rd Circuit)
    • June 14, 2005
    ...a municipality violated the corporation's right to reasonable use and development of its land); Heritage Farms, Inc. v. Solebury Township, 671 F.2d 743 (3d Cir.1982) 7. ASI initially claimed that the state proceedings were stayed on June 9, 2004. However, the Court of Common Pleas did not e......
  • Kelly v. Maxum Specialty Ins. Grp., No. 15-3618
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (3rd Circuit)
    • August 21, 2017
    ...capable of applying settled state law to a difficult set of facts." (alteration omitted) (quoting Heritage Farms Inc. v. Solebury Twp. , 671 F.2d 743, 747 (3d Cir. 1982)...
  • Assic. in Obstetrics & Gynecology v. Upper Merion, Civil Action No. 03-2313.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 3th Circuit. United States District Court (Eastern District of Pennsylvania)
    • July 16, 2003
    ...so that a state court or state agency will have an opportunity to decide the matters at issue. Heritage Farms, Inc. v. Solebury Township, 671 F.2d 743 (3d Cir.1982), cert, denied, 456 U.S. 990, 102 S.Ct. 2270, 73 L.Ed.2d 1285 (1982). As abstention is the exception and not the rule, abstenti......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
164 cases
  • Reifer v. Westport Ins. Corp., No. 13–2880.
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (3rd Circuit)
    • April 29, 2014
    ...and state courts are equally capable of applying settled state law to a difficult set of facts.” Heritage Farms Inc. v. Solebury Twp., 671 F.2d 743, 747 (3d Cir.1982) (quoting Note, Land Use Regulation, the Federal Courts and the Abstention Doctrine, 89 Yale L.J. 1134, 1143 n. 55 (1980)). S......
  • Addiction Specialists, Inc. v. Township of Hampton, No. 04-3707.
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (3rd Circuit)
    • June 14, 2005
    ...a municipality violated the corporation's right to reasonable use and development of its land); Heritage Farms, Inc. v. Solebury Township, 671 F.2d 743 (3d Cir.1982) 7. ASI initially claimed that the state proceedings were stayed on June 9, 2004. However, the Court of Common Pleas did not e......
  • Kelly v. Maxum Specialty Ins. Grp., No. 15-3618
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (3rd Circuit)
    • August 21, 2017
    ...of applying settled state law to a difficult set of facts." (alteration omitted) (quoting Heritage Farms Inc. v. Solebury Twp. , 671 F.2d 743, 747 (3d Cir. 1982)...
  • Assic. in Obstetrics & Gynecology v. Upper Merion, Civil Action No. 03-2313.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 3th Circuit. United States District Court (Eastern District of Pennsylvania)
    • July 16, 2003
    ...so that a state court or state agency will have an opportunity to decide the matters at issue. Heritage Farms, Inc. v. Solebury Township, 671 F.2d 743 (3d Cir.1982), cert, denied, 456 U.S. 990, 102 S.Ct. 2270, 73 L.Ed.2d 1285 (1982). As abstention is the exception and not the rule, abstenti......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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