Court upholds ruling against Colebrookdale residents who received zoning violation

By Tomas Kassahun | Nov 16, 2018

The Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania has affirmed the trial court’s decision, ruling against residents who were issued zoning violations at their property.

HARRISBURG - The Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania has affirmed a trial court’s ruling against residents who were issued zoning violations at their property. 

According to the opinion, Edward L. Filby and Elizabeth L. Davidson appealed to the Court of Common Pleas of Berks County's ruling, sustaining the preliminary objections filed by Colebrookdale Township. Judge Ellen Ceisler of the appellate court said the appellants have been involved in a series of disputes with their neighbors for several years. 

“According to appellants, their neighbors repeatedly complained to Township officials that items stored outside of their property — including old trucks, a refrigerator, furniture, cabinets, carpets and tools — were ‘junk,’” the opinion stated. “Appellants also averred that their neighbors complained about overgrown hedges on the Property.”

As a result of these complaints, the Colebrookdale Township issued zoning violations against Elizabeth L. Davidson as the property owner, the opinion stated. The violations were based on appellants’ accumulation of excessive trash on the property and their failure to obtain a zoning permit to maintain a junkyard on the property, according to the court.

Appellants asserted causes of action for “official oppression” against David Viola, the Township Chief of Police; Cindy Conrad, the Township Manager; and Allan Stauffer and Paul Labe, two Township Zoning Officers, the opinion stated.

“Our appellate courts have determined that the crime of official oppression cannot be the basis for civil liability against public officials,” the higher court said. “Therefore, we conclude that appellants failed to state a cognizable claim of ‘official oppression’ against Mr. Viola, Ms. Conrad, Mr. Stauffer, Mr. Labe, and Mr. Karver.”

Appellants also asserted a cause of action for “conflict of interest” against Karver, the opinion stated.

“Appellants averred that Mr. Karver’s law partner, Craig Boyd, represented Mr. Filby in a mortgage foreclosure action and that Mr. Karver drafted Mr. Filby’s father’s will,” the opinion stated. “Because Mr. Filby was dissatisfied with Mr. Boyd’s representation, Mr. Filby ‘sought other means to settle the mortgage foreclosure matter.’”

The higher court ruled that Pennsylvania law doesn’t recognize a common law tort claim against a public official for “conflict of interest.” 

According to the opinion, the Ethics Act defines “conflict of interest” as a public official’s use of the authority of his office to obtain a private pecuniary benefit for himself, a member of his immediate family, or a business with which he or a member of his immediate family is associated. 

“Here, appellants did not allege that Mr. Karver used his public office to obtain any pecuniary gain,” the opinion stated. 

The appellants also argued that the appellees violated their procedural due process rights, the higher court added. 

“Specifically, appellants claim that the ‘Township has infringed upon their rights to their property, by attempting to control the activity at the property and issuing citations based on known false statements,” the opinion stated. 

According to the higher court, appellants argue that their “asset in their property has been wrongfully seized, without due process, and without proper notice.”

“In their complaint, however, appellants did not plead a due process violation, nor did they allege any facts to support their claim, made for the first time on appeal, that appellees violated their procedural due process rights,” the opinion stated. 

The court said it’s unable to discern what due process violations appellees purportedly committed.

“In sum, appellants simply didn’t plead facts that, if accepted as true, established their right to relief under any of the causes of action asserted against appellees,” the opinion stated. “Accordingly, we affirm the trial court’s order.”

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