Third Circuit Ruling Leaves Open Questions Surrounding Section 1983 Actions Against Municipal Officials for Land Use Decisions

October 2010Newsletters In the Zone

Locust Valley Golf Club, Inc. v. Upper Saucon Twp., 2010 WL 3096158 (3d Cir. 2010)

Section 1983 of Title 42 of the U.S. Code offers private citizens a means to redress constitutional violations committed by state officials. 42 U.S.C. §1983. Cases involving “zoning decisions, building permits, or other governmental permission required for some intended use of land owned by the plaintiffs” implicate property rights protected by substantive due process. See Woodwind Estates, Ltd. v. Gretowski, 205 F.3d 118 (3d Cir. 2000). The standard courts apply in determining whether a municipal official’s conduct violates substantive due process is whether the official’s conduct “shocks the conscience.” See United Artists Theatre Circuit, Inc. v. Twp. of Warrington, 316 F.3d 392 (3d Cir. 2003). Since the Third Circuit’s application of the “shocks the conscience” standard to land use decisions, §1983 substantive due process claims against municipal officials have enjoyed limited success.

In Locust Valley, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed summary judgment against owners of a golf course who brought a §1983 action against municipal officials who interfered with their efforts to develop the golf course property. In Locust Valley, the appellants entered into an agreement to sell their golf course (the property) in Upper Saucon Township (the township) to McGrath Construction (the developer) for construction of an age-qualified community (AQC). At the time of the agreement, a moratorium on new public sewer connections in the township was in place. The developer met with township officials to discuss possible options for sewer service to an AQC on the property. The township engineer suggested a “pump around” option and conducted a feasibility study that concluded the proposal was viable subject to further testing.

The developer then sought a rezoning to provide for an AQC District. After the township Board of Supervisors (the board) denied the request, the developer submitted plans for a single-family home project that did not require a rezoning but required the township to revise the Act 537 Plan to permit the “pump around” option recommended by the township engineer. In response, the board commissioned the township engineer to conduct a special study to fully assess the “pump around” option. After extended delay and expense, the township engineer ultimately concluded the “pump around” option was not viable. Without publishing the special study for public comment, as required by township procedures, the board accepted the findings of the special study and refused to amend the 537 Plan.

The appellants filed a §1983 civil rights action alleging the township officials violated their substantive due process rights by declining to rezone the property for an AQC by allegedly manipulating the results of the special study, failing to publish the special study for public comment and denying the developer’s proposed amendment to the Act 537 Plan. In support of their claims, the appellants alleged that prior to his election, one of the supervisors twice attempted to purchase the property. When the appellants refused the supervisor’s offer the second time, the supervisor allegedly told the appellants, “This golf course will never be developed while I’m around.” In addition, the appellants provided vivid e-mails between the township supervisors showing their personal animus and opposition to the project. For example, another supervisor allegedly wrote: “Ahrrrg!!!! This … study better turn out the way we would like. Even if the authority supports a 537 change for technical reasons[,] I will ignore it on the basis of ill conformance to the comprehensive plan, etc.”

Despite clear evidence of personal animus and bias on the part of the township supervisors, including what appeared to be a personal conflict on the part of one supervisor, the district court granted summary judgment against the appellants. The court found although the supervisors’ actions were unprofessional, there was no evidence the supervisors were successful in their efforts to manipulate the results of the special study. On appeal, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the district court, holding that as a matter of law, the conduct of the township officials was insufficient to “shock the conscience.”

The decision in Locust Valley leaves open whether §1983 actions against municipal officials for land use decisions are still viable under the “shock the conscience” standard. However, Locust Valley makes clear that vivid e-mails expressing bias and personal animus are insufficient for a substantive due process claim. The Third Circuit indicates that to survive a dispositive motion on a §1983 action against municipal officials, the claimant must provide well-documented allegations of self-dealing, conflict of interest and corruption.

For more information, please contact Clair E. Wischusen at 215.918.3559 or [email protected].