John E. Long, Inc. v. Borough of Ringwood

Citation61 F.Supp.2d 273
Decision Date14 August 1998
Docket NumberNo. CIV.A.96-5318 (MTB).,CIV.A.96-5318 (MTB).
PartiesJOHN E. LONG, INC., a New Jersey Corporation, and John E. Long, individually, Plaintiffs, v. THE BOROUGH OF RINGWOOD, Defendant.
CourtU.S. District Court — District of New Jersey

Ernest J. Nuzzo, Mahwah, NJ, for Plaintiffs.

Richard J. Clemack, Bloomingdale, NJ, for Defendant.

OPINION

CHESLER, United States Magistrate Judge.

I. INTRODUCTION

This matter comes before the Court on the motion of Defendant, the Borough of Ringwood, for summary judgment pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56. Defendant requests dismissal of all counts in Plaintiffs' Complaint. The parties consented to having the matter resolved by the undersigned, see 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), and an Order of Reference was entered by the Honorable Maryanne Trump Barry, U.S.D.J., on December 3, 1997.1 Oral argument was heard on May 26, 1998. For the reasons stated below, Defendant's motion for summary judgment will be granted in its entirety.

II. BACKGROUND

On November 8, 1991, John E. Long, Inc., John E. Long (together "Plaintiffs"), and Colonial Custom Homes, Inc. ("Colonial") purchased a tract of land in the Borough of Ringwood, New Jersey, designated on the official municipal tax map as Block 751, Lots 4, 5, and 6 (the "Property"). Applications to subdivide the Property were submitted to the Ringwood Planning Board ("Planning Board") and preliminary and final approval were granted. Subsequent to their subdivision approval, Plaintiffs and Colonial filed re-zoning applications with the Planning Board on February 8, 1993. See Forsa Aff. Ex. A. The Owners sought to change the zoning from R-40V Residential to R-40 Residential.2

The Borough of Ringwood3 ("Defendant") has a two step process that must be completed in order to obtain the re-zoning of a piece of land. The first step in the process is to submit an application to the Planning Board which then investigates and conducts hearings on the proposal. See Forsa Aff. Ex. B. After completing the investigation and conducting the hearings, the Planning Board makes a non-binding recommendation to the governing body. See Forsa Aff. Ex. B. The second step in the process is for the governing body, here the Borough Council, to conduct a de novo hearing to determine whether it will introduce an amendment to the zoning ordinance. See Forsa Aff. Ex. B.

Subsequent to the filing of the zone change application, the Planning Board deemed Plaintiffs' submission incomplete. See Forsa Aff. ¶ 5(a). By November 30, 1993, Plaintiffs had submitted all of the needed materials to make their application complete and ready for review and on January 3, 1994, the Planning Board deemed the application complete. See Forsa Aff. ¶ 5(c) and Ex. D. The Planning Board held work sessions on February 7, 1994, and March 28, 1994, and a public hearing was held on April 25, 1994. See Forsa Aff. ¶¶ 5(e), (f) and Ex. E, F, and G. At the April 25, 1994, public meeting, the Planning Board voted not to recommend the zone change to the Borough Council and ordered that a resolution be prepared by the Board's attorney and submitted to the Board for the May 2, 1994, meeting. The resolution was adopted at the Board's May 2, 1994, meeting.

The re-zoning request was heard at the Borough Council's meeting on October 31, 1994. See Forsa Aff. Ex. I. The Council passed a resolution denying the application on November 22, 1994. See Forsa Aff. Ex. J. The Council's reasons for denying the application included the lack of expert planning testimony supporting the application, the applicant's sole reliance on the potential benefit that sewering the Property would have on the community as a whole, and the impact that the development would have on drainage, traffic, erosion, school population, and other similar situations. See Forsa Aff. Ex. H. Subsequent to the zone change denial, Plaintiffs conveyed their entire interest in the Property to Colonial on June 29, 1995. See Forsa Aff. Ex. B.

On November 13, 1996, Plaintiffs John E. Long, Inc., as a corporation, and John E. Long, as an individual, filed this action alleging that Defendant violated their Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment rights by denying them substantive due process. First, Plaintiffs allege that the municipality favored another similarly situated developer, Cheshire Properties, Inc. ("Cheshire"), who was seeking to re-zone a sixty-seven acre parcel of land from R-40V Residential to R-40 Residential. See Complaint, Count 1 ¶ 16. Plaintiffs allege that piece of land which Cheshire sought to re-zone was extremely similar to that owned by Plaintiffs. Plaintiffs also allege that Cheshire's almost identical application was approved by the Planning Board because they were a "favored applicant." Id. Cheshire's application for re-zoning, however, was withdrawn prior to being heard by the Borough Council. See Forsa Aff. ¶¶ 6-10.

Additionally, Plaintiffs allege that certain Borough officials were biased against them and that this bias led to the deprivation of their constitutional rights to substantive due process. See Long Dep. 31:12-15. First, Plaintiffs allege that the Planning Board chairman, Mr. Van Weezel ("Van Weezel"), was hostile towards him in that he continuously interrupted Mr. Long with technical questions while Mr. Long was testifying at the Planning Board meeting. Id. at 31:22-25; 32:1-10; 37:16-20. A second instance of alleged bias occurred when a borough resident, Pat Wallace, was told by a member of the Planning Board that Plaintiffs' application for a zoning change was proceeding with no problems until Long "pissed off Van Weezel." Id. 38:1-14. Finally, Plaintiffs allege that the Planning Board's consultant, Dr. Harvey Moskowitz, was "pre-programmed by the board" against Plaintiffs and that he was closed minded in his analysis of, and his position on, the application. Id. 46:5-7; 48:19-25.

Plaintiffs' Complaint also alleges that the above actions by the Borough and its officials constituted "an unlawful taking and destruction of Plaintiffs' rights and interests in real estate without legal authority or probable cause." See Complaint, Count Two ¶ 2. Finally, Plaintiffs allege that their constitutional right to procedural due process was infringed upon by the Defendants. Id. Fourth Count ¶¶ 2, 3. Specifically, Plaintiffs' claim that the above actions of the Borough and its officials deprived them of an impartial and fair tribunal with regard to their re-zoning hearings. Id. ¶ 2. Plaintiffs argue that the above mentioned conduct constituted a continuous pattern and practice of civil rights violations. Id. First Count, ¶ 24. Accordingly, Plaintiffs argue that Defendant is liable to them for damages pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Id. ¶ 23.

III. DISCUSSION

Defendant moves for summary judgment and requests that Plaintiffs' Complaint be dismissed with prejudice. Defendant contends that because Plaintiffs failed to establish that any municipal official acted with bias or in a discriminatory manner that their Complaint cannot stand. Additionally, Defendant contends that because the Borough Council never took any action on the "favored" applicant's re-zoning proposal, they could not have discriminated against Plaintiffs. Plaintiffs oppose the motion and argue that their constitutional rights in the property at issue were violated and that the proceedings with the Planning Board and Borough Council were rife with conflicts of interest. Each argument will be discussed in turn.

A. Summary Judgment

The Court may grant summary judgment when, drawing all inferences in favor of the non-moving party, the pleadings, supporting papers, affidavits, and admissions on file, demonstrate that there is no genuine issue of material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c); see Todaro v. Bowman, 872 F.2d 43, 46 (3d Cir.1989); Davis v. Portline Transportes Maritime Internacional, 16 F.3d 532, 536 n. 3 (3d Cir.1994); Chipollini v. Spencer Gifts, Inc., 814 F.2d 893, 896 (3d Cir.) (in banc), cert. dismissed, 483 U.S. 1052, 108 S.Ct. 26, 97 L.Ed.2d 815 (1987). The Court's function is not to weigh the evidence and discern the truth of the matter, but to determine whether there is a genuine issue of material fact for trial. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986); Petruzzi's IGA v. Darling-Delaware, 998 F.2d 1224, 1230 (3d Cir.), cert. denied, 510 U.S. 994, 114 S.Ct. 554, 126 L.Ed.2d 455 (1993). An issue is "genuine" if a reasonable jury could possibly hold in the non-movant's favor with regard to that issue. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248, 106 S.Ct. 2505; Miller v. Indiana Hospital, 843 F.2d 139, 143 (3d Cir.), cert. denied, 488 U.S. 870, 109 S.Ct. 178, 102 L.Ed.2d 147 (1988). A fact is material if it influences the outcome of the action under the governing substantive law. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248, 106 S.Ct. 2505.

The moving party bears the burden of establishing that there are no genuine issues of material fact for trial regardless of who bears the ultimate burden of proof at trial. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986). Where the non-moving party bears the burden of proof at trial, as Plaintiffs do here, the moving party may satisfy its burden in a motion for summary judgment by showing that the non-moving party has failed to adduce evidence sufficient to establish an essential element that the non-movant would have to prove at trial. Id.

Once that burden is met, the non-moving party "may not rest upon the mere allegations" of its complaint to raise a genuine issue of fact, but must submit evidence specifically showing that there is a genuine issue for trial. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e); Robin Const. Co. v. United States, 345 F.2d 610, 614-15 (3d Cir.1965). If the party opposing the motion fails to do so, the "factual record will be taken as presented by the moving party and judgment will be...

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