Nicholas Malfitano Dec. 31, 2015, 10:35am


PHILADELPHIA – The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has upheld a trial court ruling against a Camp Hill couple who claim the municipality of East Pennsboro discriminated against them based on their ethnicity and religious beliefs.

Gnana and Suganthini Chinniah appealed an order of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, which denied the opening of a judgment in their civil rights discrimination case against East Pennsboro and its Building Inspector/Code Enforcement Officer, Jeffrey S. Shultz.

The Chinniahs, then East Pennsboro property owners, filed their original litigation in 2008 claiming the township and Shultz violated the Equal Protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution by treating them poorly compared to previous owners of their property who were Caucasian – and doing so based on their Indian ethnicity and belief in Hinduism. 

The Chinniahs believed this was a pattern of behavior from the township and its agents against similarly situated residents of the same ethnicity and spirituality. After a four-day trial in November 2013, a jury found for the defendants on all claims, and the Chinniahs then made their initial appeal.

“We affirmed the judgment of the District Court, concluding that the jury’s verdict was supported by adequate evidence in the record and that the Chinniahs offered no meritorious basis for reversal,” the Third Circuit said in that decision.

Afterwards, the Chinniahs filed a subsequent motion to open the original trial court judgment, claiming their then-counsel “abandoned” their case and thus justifying relief from the trial court’s judgment. Finding the plaintiffs were represented “diligently” by their counsel, this action was later denied by the trial court, and the Chinniahs appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.

In a collective, per curiam ruling, Third Circuit judges Michael A. Chagares, Cheryl Ann Krause and Morton I. Greenberg found the Chinniahs’ appeal to be “meritless.”

“Raising the same arguments yet again and simply re-characterizing them as an example of counsel’s ‘virtual abandonment’ does not transform them from speculative arguments into meritorious ones,” the Third Circuit said.

Additionally, the Third Circuit commented the trial court was in the best position to determine whether or not the conduct of the Chinniahs’ counsel was proper and did not see reasons for dissenting from their perspective.

“We see no reason to disturb that conclusion,” the Third Circuit’s decision stated. “Because the Chinniahs have not demonstrated that the District Court based its decision upon a clearly erroneous finding of fact, an erroneous conclusion of law, or an improper application of law to fact, we cannot conclude that the District Court abused its discretion. For essentially the same reasons set forth by the District Court in its well-reasoned order, we will affirm.” 

The plaintiffs have no formal legal representation, according to court records.

The defendants are represented by Brandon S. Harter of Nikolaus & Hohenadel and Christopher S. Underhill of Hartman, Underhill & Brubaker, both in Lancaster.

U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit case 15-2911

U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania case 1:08-cv-01330

From the Pennsylvania Record: Reach Courts Reporter Nicholas Malfitano at nickpennrecord@gmail.com

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