BENCKINI v. UPPER SAUCON TOWNSHIP MUNICIPAL AUTHORITY et al
MEMORANDUM AND/OR OPINION. SIGNED BY CHIEF JUDGE LAWRENCE F. STENGEL ON 10/19/17. 10/20/17 ENTERED AND COPIES MAILED TO PRO SE AND E-MAILED.(mbh, )
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA
GENE C. BENCKINI t/a Benckini
Nurseries, et al.,
UPPER SAUCON TOWNSHIP
SEWAGE TREATMENT PLANT,
October 19, 2017
This matter arises from a string of litigation brought in this and other courts by pro
se plaintiff Gene Benckini. 1 The claims in this action are the result of nearly forty years
of friction between Mr. Benckini and the Upper Saucon Township Municipal Authority
Sewage Treatment Plant and Upper Saucon Township Police Department. Viewing the
complaint generously, Mr. Benckini alleges several civil rights violations under 42
See Benckini v. Coopersburg Police Dep’t, No. 03-3671 (E.D. Pa. filed Jun. 16, 2003) (summary
judgment entered in defendant’s favor); Benckini v. Keystone Farm Credit, No. 03-5864 (E.D. Pa. filed
Oct. 23, 2003) (transferred); Benckini v. Upper Saucon Twp., No. 04-4304, Mem., 2005 U.S. Dist.
LEXIS 23765, *22 (E.D. Pa. Oct. 17, 2005), ECF No. 54 (granting summary judgment after finding that
“Benckini has failed to present even a scintilla of evidence in support of his claims”); Benckini v. Ford,
No. 05-1417 (E.D. Pa. filed Mar. 3, 2005) (dismissed); Benckini v. Borough of Coopersburg, No. 055122 (E.D. Pa. filed Sept. 27, 2005) (summary judgment granted in defendant’s favor); Benckini v. Upper
Saucon Twp., No. 07-3580 (E.D. Pa. filed Aug. 28, 2007) (summary judgment entered in defendant’s
favor); Benckini v. Pa. State Police Bureau of Forensic Servs., 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 59968 (E.D. Pa.
2011); Benckini v. Grant, 2015 Pa. Dist. & Cnty. Dec. LEXIS 9112 (Pa. C.P. Nov. 10, 2015) (summary
judgment entered in defendant’s favor. Affirmed).
U.S.C. § 1983. The defendants have filed a motion to dismiss the complaint. In
response, Mr. Benckini filed Objections to the defendants’ motion, and motioned the
court for leave to amend the complaint. For the following reasons, I will deny the
plaintiff’s motion to amend, grant the defendants’ motion to dismiss, and dismiss the case
in its entirety with prejudice.
The tension between the parties in this case began in 1978 when “raw sewage
sludge” began to spill onto Mr. Benckini’s property from the Township’s neighboring
sewage treatment plant. Mr. Benckini alleges in his complaint that each time a spill
occurred, the Township refused to clean the raw sewage off of his property. The sewage
contaminated the Saucon Creek, which runs adjacent to Mr. Benckini’s property, killing
trout and turtles and turning the stream black “for over a mile and a half.” Mr. Benckini
reported the sewage sludge spills to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental
Protection in July 1979. Following Mr. Benckini’s complaint to the DEP, the sewage
treatment plant was closed down.
Mr. Benckini alleges that these spills also contaminated the well on his property.
At the time of these spills, Mr. Benckini lived with his dear friend Edwin Moyer, his
elderly mother, and his five children on the property. Mr. Benckini asserts that exposure
to the “sewage sludge” by way of airborne dust and contamination of the well over the
course of approximately ten years caused health problems for himself and Mr. Moyer.
Mr. Moyer suffered from liver cancer and passed away in 1995. Mr. Benckini was
diagnosed with leukemia in 1993 and prostate cancer in 2003.
Mr. Benckini believes that the township and police department began conspiring
against him almost immediately after he reported the sewage spills to the DEP. He
alleges this conspiracy has resulted in the defendants creating an “all-out war” against
him and a “hostile environment.” Mr. Benckini alleges that as a result of this conspiracy,
the Upper Saucon Township police spread malicious lies about him, constantly badgered
him, and charged him with “bogus claims.” Mr. Benckini additionally avers that Police
Chief Coyle and Officer Amy Hawk aided and abetted Charles Grant of Grant’s Auto
Salvage in the theft of his truck and nursery equipment.
II. LEGAL STANDARD
A complaint must set forth “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that
the pleader is entitled to relief.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a)(2). This statement must “give the
defendant fair notice of what the . . claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.” Bell
Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007) (quoting Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41,
47 (1957)). A complaint need not contain detailed factual allegations, but a plaintiff must
provide “more than labels and conclusions” or “a formulaic recitation of the elements of a
cause of action” to show entitlement to relief as prescribed by Rule 8(a)(2). Id. at 1965;
Evancho v. Fisher, 423 F.3d 347, 350 (3d Cir. 2005). A defendant may attack a
complaint by a motion under Rule 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim upon which relief
can be granted.
In deciding a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), I may consider “the
allegations contained in the complaint, exhibits attached to the complaint and matters of
public record.” Pension Ben. Guar. Corp. v. White Consol. Indus., Inc., 998 F.2d 1192,
1196 (3d Cir. 1993). The court is required to accept as true all of the factual allegations
in the complaint, Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89 (2007), and all reasonable inferences
permitted by the factual allegations, Watson v. Abington Twp., 478 F.3d 144, 150 (3d
Cir. 2007), viewing them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. Kanter v. Barella,
489 F.3d 170, 177 (3d Cir. 2007). The court is not, however, “compelled to accept
unsupported conclusions and unwarranted inferences or a legal conclusion couched as a
factual allegation.” Baraka v. McGreevey, 481 F.3d 187, 195 (3d Cir. 2007) (quotations
and citations omitted). If the facts alleged are sufficient to “raise a right to relief above
the speculative level” such that the plaintiffs’ claim is “plausible on its face,” a complaint
will survive a motion to dismiss. Bell Atlantic Corp., 127 S. Ct. at 1965, 1974; Victaulic
Co. v. Tieman, 499 F.3d 227, 234-35 (3d Cir. 2007).
When presented with a pro se complaint, the court should construe the complaint
liberally and draw fair inferences from what is not alleged as well as from what is
alleged. Dluhos v. Strasberg, 321 F.3d 365, 369 (3d Cir. 2003). Such a complaint “must
be held to less stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers.” Estelle v.
Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 106 (1976). “[A] district court should not dismiss a pro se
complaint without allowing the plaintiff leave to amend unless amendment would be
inequitable or futile. Hill v. Rozum, 447 F.App’x 289, 290 (3d Cir. 2011) (citing Alston
v. Parker, 363 F.3d 229, 235 (3d Cir.2004); Grayson v. Mayview State Hosp., 293 F.3d
103, 108 (3d Cir.2002)).
A. Application of Res Judicata
Res Judicata, or claim preclusion, is designed to avoid piecemeal litigation of
claims arising from the same events. GE v. Deutz AG, 270 F.3d 144, 158-59 (3d Cir.
2001). Whether two suits are based on the same cause of action turns on the essential
similarity of the underlying events giving rise to the various legal claims. Id. In order to
successfully invoke res judicata, a party must show that “there has been: (1) a final
judgment on the merits in a prior suit involving (2) the same parties or their privies and
(3) a subsequent suit based on the same causes of action.” United States v. Athlone
Industries, Inc., 746 F.2d 977, 983 (3d Cir. 1984). “The law is clear that summary
judgment is a final judgment on the merits sufficient to raise the defense of res judicata
in a subsequent action between the parties.” Hubicki v. ACF Industries, Inc., 484 F.2d
519, 524 (3d Cir. 1973).
1. Claims Arising from the Sewage Spills
Mr. Benckini’s claims arising from the sewage sludge spills are res judicata.
Here, Mr. Benckini asserts that as a result of exposure to the sewage spills, both his own
health and that of Mr. Moyer were adversely affected. However, Mr. Benckini has
previously brought a Section 1983 claim against the Township for damages to his
property and business as a result of the same sewage spills. Benckini v. Upper Saucon
Twp., 2005 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 23765* (E.D. Pa. Oct. 17, 2005). In Benckini v. Upper
Saucon Twp., the Honorable Berle M. Schiller granted the defendant’s motion for
summary judgment and stated:
Benckini contends that, for a number of years, a sewage
plant owned by the Township dumped sewage onto his
property, damaging his land and his business. The
dumping began in the fall of 1976, and although it is
unclear exactly when it ended, the plant closed no later
than 1993. Although it is not entirely clear what cause of
action Benckini is asserting, the statute of limitations has
long since passed on a § 1983 claim.
Id. at *15 (internal citations omitted). Although Mr. Benckini is attempting to recover for
slightly different damages in the present suit, this case arises from the same cause of
In the previous action, Mr. Benckini brought suit against Upper Saucon Township
and the Upper Saucon Police Department. It is well-established that res judicata may be
invoked against a plaintiff who has previously asserted essentially the same claim against
different defendants where there is a close or significant relationship between successive
defendants. Gambocz v. Yelencsics, 468 F.2d 837, 841 (3d Cir. 1972). It is clear that the
Upper Saucon Township and the Upper Saucon Police Department have a significant
relationship with the Upper Saucon Township Municipal Authority Sewage Treatment
Plant and individual officers of the Upper Saucon Township Police Department.
Mr. Benckini’s claims arising from the sewage spills in this suit are essentially
identical to those he previously brought in 2005. This court has already provided a final
judgment on this dispute. Therefore, Mr. Benckini’s claims arising from the sewage
spills are res judicata, and will be dismissed here.
2. Conspiracy Claims
All actions constituting the conspiracy against the plaintiff have previously been
precluded by the statute of limitations or res judicata or have been dismissed by
subsequent motion for summary judgment. In Benckini v. Upper Saucon Twp., Mr.
Benckini brought an action alleging, among other things, that “because he reported ‘their
sewage plant violations and pollution of fresh water streams,’ [the] Township… and the
other defendants have retaliated against [him] through the decades.” Benckini v. Upper
Saucon Twp., 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 38723, 4* (E.D. Pa. May 13, 2008). The current
defendants Upper Saucon Township, Officer Brian Hawk, Officer Amy Hawk (then Amy
Getz), Officer Edward Hartman, and Police Chief Robert Coyle were all parties to the
2008 case. New in the present case are Officers Stephen Kuebler and Roger Miller.
In the previous case, all but three claims were precluded by the statute of
limitations or res judicata. Id. at *41. The remaining claims were then given a final
judgment on the merits when the court granted the defendants’ motion for summary
judgment. Benckini v. Hawk, 654 F. Supp. 2d 310, 325 (E.D. Pa. Sept. 15, 2009). The
claims in the 2008 case arose from a “(26) year history of malice, malicious slander and
abuse of illegal and bogus criminal charges and arrests against the plaintiff for blowing
the whistle on their illegal malfunctioning and illegality.” Benckini v. Upper Saucon
Twp. at *4. Here, the allegations against the Upper Saucon defendants arise out of the
same “all-out war” and “hostile environment” against the plaintiff. The factual basis for
the alleged conspiracy has not changed since 2008. As the Honorable Gene E.K. Pratter
previously stated, “Mr. Benckini cannot circumvent this Court’s prior Orders in an effort
to assert previously dismissed claims by instituting yet another lawsuit against a slightly
different group of interrelated defendants.” Id. at *18.
3. Removal of Plaintiff’s Various Nursery Equipment
The only claims remaining in the present action are those that arise from the
removal of Mr. Benckini’s truck, trailer, and various nursery equipment from neighbor
Lloyd Lichtenwalner’s property. However, Mr. Benckini has previously litigated this
controversy also, thus barring his claims here as res judicata. In Benckini v. Grant, Mr.
Benckini’s third amended complaint averred that Charles Grant, through the operation of
his business Grant’s Auto Salvage, wrongfully removed vehicles and trees belonging to
Mr. Benckini from Lloyd Lichtenwalner’s property sometime between 2012 and 2013.
Benckini v. Grant, 2015 Pa. Dist. & Cnty. Dec. LEXIS 9112 (Pa. C.P. Nov. 10, 2015).
The trial court found that Mr. Benckini’s blanket assertions about the vehicles being
removed between 2012 and 2013 were wholly unsupported. Id. Instead, Mr. Grant
offered an affidavit from Police Chief Coyle to the contrary. Id. In his affidavit, Chief
Coyle indicated that Mr. Lichtenwalner reported the subject vehicles as abandoned on
May 4, 2007 and the vehicles were removed by Mr. Grant on May 18, 2007. Id. The
action was, therefore, barred by the statute of limitations and the defendant’s motion for
summary judgment was granted. Id. The court’s decision was affirmed on appeal. See
Benckini v. Grant, 2016 Pa. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 3812 (2016).
It was previously determined and then affirmed that the removal of the truck and
equipment at issue here was proper. There is additionally no reason Mr. Benckini could
not have brought his “aiding and abetting” claims against Police Chief Coyle and Officer
Amy Hawk in the previous action where he was permitted to amend his complaint three
times. Thus, any claims arising from the removal of the various nursery equipment from
a neighbor’s property are res judicata.
B. Plaintiff’s Motion to Amend his Complaint
While pro se plaintiffs should be afforded an opportunity to amend their complaint
before the complaint is dismissed with prejudice, I believe granting Mr. Benckini leave to
amend his complaint would be futile. This court has an obligation to liberally construe a
pro se complaint and apply the relevant law, “irrespective of whether a pro se litigant has
mentioned it by name.” Holley v. Dep’t of Veteran Affairs, 165 F.3d 244, 247-48 (3d
Cir. 1999). Although Mr. Benckini does not specifically assert any claims under Section
1983, a very generous reading of his complaint favors this interpretation of his
allegations. Here, Mr. Benckini asserts essentially three Section 1983 claims. The first
alleges damages to the health of Mr. Benckini and that of his friend Edwin Moyer as a
result of exposure to the sewage spilled onto his property from the Township’s sewage
treatment plant. The second alleges a conspiracy against Mr. Benckini by the Township
and the police-officer defendants. The third alleges the wrongful removal of Mr.
Benckini’s nursery equipment from a neighbor’s property. There is no reason to believe
that Mr. Benckini would be able to file a meritorious complaint if given leave to amend
because all of Mr. Benckini’s claims are res judicata.
In conclusion, Mr. Benckini shows great determination to recover damages for an
array of alleged wrongs against him in the past forty years. However, the doctrine of res
judicata prevents him from continuously attempting to litigate these same claims. Thus,
permitting the plaintiff to amend the complaint would be a waste of judicial resources and
unfair to the defendants. Accordingly, I will grant the defendants’ motion to dismiss in
its entirety with prejudice, and find that any amendment to the complaint would be futile.
An appropriate Order follows.
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