SOUTHERSBY DEVELOPMENT CORPORATION v. TOWNSHIP OF SOUTH PARK et al
MEMORANDUM OPINION indicating that Defendants Township of South Park and Michael G. Wargo's Motion to Dismiss 32 is granted, in part, and denied, in part. It is granted to the extent that the Township of South Park is immune from the breach of fiduciary duty, fraud, and civil conspiracy claims, to the extent that they seek monetary damages for said claims. It is denied in all other respects. Defendants Herbert, Rowland & Grubic, Inc. and Scott Swansinger's Motion to Dismiss 36 is denied. An approrpiate Order follows. Signed by Judge Nora Barry Fischer on 4/17/2015. (nlz)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE WESTERN DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA
TOWNSHIP OF SOUTH PARK, MICHAEL
G. WARGO, in his individual and official
capacity, HERBERT, ROWLAND &
GRUBIC, INC., AND SCOTT
Civil Action No. 14-1248
Judge Nora Barry Fischer
Presently before the Court are two Motions to Dismiss filed by Defendants Township of
South Park (“the Township”) and Michael Wargo (“Wargo”) (collectively “Township
Defendants”), (Docket No. 32), and Defendants Herbert, Rowland & Grubic, Inc. (“HRG”) and
Scott Swansinger’s (“Swansinger”) (collectively “HRG Defendants”), (Docket No. 36). The
Township and HRG Defendants submitted briefs in support, (Docket Nos. 33, 42), and Plaintiff
filed Responses and Briefs in opposition, (Docket Nos. 42-45). The HRG Defendants then filed a
Reply. (Docket No. 48).
The Court has heard Argument from the parties, (Docket No. 52), and already dismissed
Plaintiff’s RICO claims by Memorandum Order, (Docket No. 59). The Motions otherwise are
ripe for disposition.
This matter involves a dispute between the real estate developer Plaintiff, the Township
and its manager, Wargo, the engineering firm HRG, and its engineer-in-training, Swansinger.
Plaintiff owns real property in the Township known as the Della Strada subdivision, which was
purchased to be developed and then sold as individual lots for profit. (Docket No. 28 at ¶¶ 1112). Plaintiff is developing Della Strada in two phases: Phase 1 and Phase 2. (Id. at ¶ 11).
Plaintiff and the Township are parties to two agreements, the Subdivision Development
Agreement (“SDA”) and the Erosion Sedimentation Control and Storm Water Facilities
Maintenance and Monitoring Agreement (“ECA”), both of which were negotiated with the
assistance of counsel. (Id. at ¶¶ 27, 37); (Jan. 12, 2015 Trans. at 6:6-7:1).2 Paragraphs 19 and 24
of the SDA, Paragraph 5d of the ECA, and Township Ordinance 118.60.3 require Plaintiff to
post a cash escrow with the Township. (Docket No. 28 at ¶ 29). The Township, as escrow agent,
was to use the funds for payment of inspection services rendered by the Township Engineer,
Swansinger. (Id. at ¶¶ 18, 27). Neither Swansinger nor HRG are parties to either agreement, but
HRG represents the Township, and Swansinger is designated as the Township Engineer. (Id. at ¶
As this Court has previously written, the central disputes here include fee disputes for
alleged excess billing by HRG and the Township Solicitor, Paul Gitnik, Esq. (“Gitnik”), and
conflicting interpretations of Pennsylvania’s Municipal Planning Code. (Docket No. 59 at 9).
Plaintiff contends that Swansinger falsified digital photographs to support his fraudulent and/or
excess bills. (Docket No. 28 at ¶ 224). In turn, it claims that the Township Defendants approved
the fraudulent invoices and facilitated payment from the escrow account over its objections. (Id.
As the Court writes for the parties, it does not set forth an exhaustive review of the allegations in Plaintiff’s
Amended Complaint, which consists of 414 separate paragraphs. (Docket No. 28).
The official transcript of the proceeding has not been prepared; therefore the Court relies on its rough-draft copy.
at ¶ 229). Further, Plaintiff alleges that the Township Defendants actively concealed said
fraudulent scheme by withholding the identified invoices despite Plaintiff’s demands for same
and creating false escrow activity statements. (Id. at ¶¶ 230-31).
Plaintiff’s remaining claims include violations of its substantive due process, Equal
Protection, and First Amendment rights under the Pennsylvania and United States Constitutions.
(Docket No. 28). It also alleges state fraud, civil conspiracy, breach of contract, negligence,
unjust enrichment, breach of fiduciary duty, and aiding and abetting claims. (Id.). The HRG
Defendants moved to dismiss all of the federal question claims and request that this Court
remand the state law claims to state court. (Docket Nos. 36, 37, 48). The Township Defendants
seek dismissal of all claims other than the breach of contract claims. (Docket Nos. 32, 33). For
the reasons discussed below, the Motions are denied, in part, and granted, in part.
Standard of Review
A motion to dismiss pursuant to FED.R.CIV.P. 12(b)(6) challenges the legal sufficiency of
a complaint. The Supreme Court of the United States has held that “a plaintiff's obligation to
provide the ‘grounds’ of his ‘entitle[ment] to relief’ requires more than labels and conclusions,
and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.” Bell Atlantic Corp. v.
Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007) (citing Papasan v. Allain, 478 U.S. 265, 286 (1986))
(alterations in original).
The Court must accept as true all well-pleaded facts and allegations and must draw all
reasonable inferences therefrom in favor of the plaintiff. See Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678-79;
Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555. As the Supreme Court made clear in Twombly, however, the “factual
allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level.” Twombly, 550
U.S. at 555. The Supreme Court has subsequently broadened the scope of this requirement,
stating that “only a complaint that states a plausible claim for relief survives a motion to
dismiss.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679 (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556). This standard requires
showing “more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at
678 (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556). “Where a complaint pleads facts that are ‘merely
consistent with’ a defendant’s liability, it ‘stops short of the line between possibility and
plausibility of entitlement to relief.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 557).
“This ‘plausibility’ determination will be ‘a context-specific task that requires the reviewing
court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense.’” Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578
F.3d 203, 211 (3d Cir. 2009) (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679).
After Iqbal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit explained that a
district court must conduct the following analysis to determine the sufficiency of a complaint:
First, the court must “tak[e] note of the elements a plaintiff must
plead to state a claim.” Second, the court should identify
allegations that, “because they are no more than conclusions, are
not entitled to the assumption of truth.” Finally, “where there are
well-pleaded factual allegations, a court should assume their
veracity and then determine whether they plausibly give rise to an
entitlement for relief.”
Santiago v. Warminster Twp., 629 F.3d 121, 130 (3d Cir. 2010) (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 675,
679); see also Burtch v. Milberg Factors, Inc., 662 F.3d 212, 221 (3d Cir. 2011), cert. denied,
132 S.Ct. 1861 (Apr. 2, 2012); Malleus v. George, 641 F.3d 560, 563 (3d Cir. 2011).
Twombly and Iqbal have not changed the other pleading standards for a motion to dismiss
pursuant to FED.R.CIV.P. 12(b)(6), and the requirements of FED.R.CIV.P. 8 must still be met. See
Burtch, 662 F.3d at 220.
Rule 8 requires a showing, rather than a blanket assertion, of
entitlement to relief, and “contemplates the statement of circumstances, occurrences, and events
in support of the claim presented and does not authorize a pleader's bare averment that he wants
relief and is entitled to it.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555 n.3 (internal alterations, citations, and
quotations omitted). The Supreme Court has explained that a complaint need not be “a model of
the careful drafter’s art” or “pin plaintiffs’ claim for relief to a precise legal theory” so long as it
states “a plausible ‘short and plain’ statement of the plaintiff’s claim.” Skinner v. Switzer, 562
U.S. 521 (2011); see also Matrixx Initiatives, Inc. v. Siracusano, 131 S.Ct. 1309, 1322 n.12
(2011) (emphasizing that “to survive a motion to dismiss, respondents need only allege ‘enough
facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face’”) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570)).
With respect to allegations of fraud, “a party must state with particularity the circumstances
constituting fraud or mistake.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 9(b).
In deciding a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, the Court generally may consider “only
the allegations in the complaint, exhibits attached to the complaint, matters of public record, and
documents that form the basis of a claim.” Lum v. Bank of Am., 361 F.3d 217, 222 n.3 (3d Cir.
2004). A court may, however, “look beyond the complaint to matters of public record, including
court files and records, decisions of government agencies and administrative bodies, and
documents referenced in the complaint or essential to a plaintiff's claim which are attached to
either the [c]omplaint or the defendant's motion.” Spence v. Brownsville Area Sch. Dist., 2008
WL 2779079, at *3 (W.D. Pa. July 15, 2008) (citing Pension Benefit Guar. Corp. v. White
Consol. Indus., 998 F.2d 1192, 1196 (3d Cir. 1993)).
A. Constitutional Claims
Plaintiff sets forth claims pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for alleged violations of:
substantive due process; equal protection of the laws; and retaliation for invoking protections
secured by the First Amendment. (Docket No. 28). It also brings parallel claims under the
Pennsylvania Constitution. (Id.). The HRG and Township Defendants move to dismiss all of the
constitutional claims. (Docket Nos. 32, 33, 36, 37).
Section 1983 provides that “every person who, under color of [state law] subjects, or
causes to be subjected, any . . . person within the jurisdiction [of the United States] to the
deprivation of any rights . . . secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party
injured in an action at law [or] suit in equity.” 42 U.S.C. § 1983. In other words, section 1983
does not create substantive rights but provides a vehicle by which violation of rights created by
the Constitution or federal law may be vindicated. Baker v. McCollan, 443 U.S. 137, 144 n. 3
(1979); Morse v. Lower Merion School Dist., 132 F.3d 902, 907 (3d Cir. 1997). To state a claim
under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, a plaintiff must meet two threshold requirements: 1) the alleged
misconduct was committed by a person acting under color of state law; and 2) the defendants'
conduct deprived the plaintiff of rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution or
laws of the United States. Parratt v. Taylor, 451 U.S. 527, 535 (1981), overruled in part on other
grounds by Daniels v. Williams, 474 U.S. 327, 330–31 (1986).
1. Whether the HRG Defendants Are State Actors
As a threshold matter, the Court addresses the HRG Defendants’ argument that HRG, as
a private corporate entity, and Swansinger, as a private individual, are not state actors and did not
act under color of state law. (Docket No. 37 at 21-22). The Amended Complaint avers that “[a]t
all times relevant hereto, the actions and conduct of Wargo, HRG and Swansinger were under
the color of state law.” (Docket No. 28 at ¶ 211). Further, Plaintiff claims that “through a formal
procedure or working relationship with the Township [Defendants],” the HRG Defendants “were
draped with the power of the state.” (Docket No. 45 at 16). It contends that the HRG Defendants
“acted in concert with, and took orders directly from, the Township.” (Docket No. 45 at 15-18)
(citing Docket No. 44 at ¶¶ 10, 47-49).
Accepting Plaintiff’s allegations as true and drawing all reasonable inferences in the light
most favorable to the plaintiff, as this Court must, it is plausible that the HRG Defendants acted
under color of state law. At a minimum, Plaintiff has alleged that HRG and its employee,
Swansinger, as the designated Township Engineer, conspired with the Township to excessively
bill for their engineering services. (See Docket No. 28 at ¶¶ 64, 89, 90, 114, 116, 117). In
furtherance of the alleged conspiracy, Plaintiff avers that Swansinger falsified digital
photographs to support HRG’s bills, which were submitted to the Township. (Id. at ¶¶ 134-38,
153-56). Further, Plaintiff contends that Wargo instructed HRG to provide full-time inspection
services at the Della Strada subdivision and knowingly permitted HRG to submit the false and
fraudulent invoices to the Township. (Id. at ¶ 228). The Amended Complaint alleges that HRG
and/or the Township intentionally made misrepresentations to Plaintiff with respect to these
invoices, that Plaintiff objected to these invoices, and Plaintiff was subject to disparate treatment
compared to other similarly situated developments in the Township. (Id. at ¶ 157).
In this Court’s estimation, taking Plaintiff’s allegations as true, it is plausible that the
HRG Defendants played a role, either directly or indirectly, in causing the alleged constitutional
harms suffered by Plaintiff. Where a plaintiff has claimed that similar engineer defendants: “(1)
prohibited Plaintiff from accessing the public water system, (2) intentionally and arbitrarily
refused to undertake any actions in conformity with the Berks County Court of Common Pleas
Consent Order, and (3) refused to start the necessary process with the PADEP in violation of the
Consent Order,” such claims have survived a motion to dismiss. Perano v. Twp. of Tilden, 2010
WL 1462367, at *5 (E.D. Pa. Apr. 12, 2010) aff'd, 423 F. App'x 234 (3d Cir. 2011). Another
Court in this district denied a motion to dismiss an engineer defendant because “[t]he plaintiffs
allege[d] that the Engineer defendant is a person acting under color of state law, who irrationally
singled them out for disparate treatment, and conspired with the other defendants and Carnegie
Borough to prevent them from occupying their home, resulting in a temporary loss of the use and
enjoyment of their property, for which the plaintiffs suffered damages.” Prosperi v. Twp. of
Scott, 2006 WL 2583754, at *8-9 (W.D. Pa. Sept. 7, 2006) (J. Cercone) (internal docket citations
Accordingly, in light of this authority and the governing legal standard as to a motion to
dismiss, the HRG Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss is denied. Said Defendants can renew this
argument at the summary judgment stage.3
2. Substantive Due Process
“To establish a substantive due process claim, a plaintiff must prove the particular
interest at issue is protected by the . . . due process clause and the government’s deprivation of
that protected interest shocks the conscience.” Chainey v. Street, 536 F.3d 200, 219 (3d Cir.
2008) (citing United Artists Theatre Circuit v. Twp. of Warrington, 316 F.3d 392, 400-02 (3d
Cir. 2003)). The Court addresses the parties’ arguments as to these requirements, in turn.
Defendants argue that Plaintiff has failed to allege the loss of a fundamental property
right. (Docket No. 32 at 4); (Docket No. 36 at ¶ 51); (Docket No. 37 at 25-26). Plaintiff responds
that the HRG Defendants “interrupted, interfered with, or impinged upon Plaintiff’s property
rights,” i.e. the real property it is seeking to develop in the Township. (Docket No. 44 at ¶ 57).
Further, it argues that it does not need to show that the interest was terminated or that the
development was rendered impossible. (Docket No. 43 at 11). The Court agrees.
As explained by the late Magistrate Judge Amy Reynolds Hay in prior litigation
involving another of Plaintiff’s development disputes, “[i]t is undisputed that the Plaintiff’s
ownership of real property satisfies the first element.” Southersby Devel. Corp. v. Boro. of
Jefferson Hills, et al., No. 09-208 Docket No. 32 (W.D. Pa. Apr. 20, 2010) (Am. Memo. Opn.)
(citing DeBlasio v. Zoning Bd. of Adjustment for Twp. of W. Amwell, 53 F.3d 592, 600 (3d Cir.
For the remainder of this Memorandum Order, any reference to unqualified “Defendants” will be a reference to all
Defendants, unless noted otherwise.
1995) abrogated on other grounds by United Artists, 316 F.3d 392 (recognizing that “ownership
is a property interest worthy of substantive due process protection”). Defendant’s Motion to
Dismiss is denied to the extent that Defendants argue that Plaintiff does not have a sufficient
property interest. The Court now continues its analysis.
The Township Defendants further contend that Plaintiff has “failed to allege any facts to
establish the egregious official conduct needed to meet the ‘shocks the conscience’ standard for a
substantive due process claim.” (Docket No. 33 at 12). Plaintiff avers that “[i]t is axiomatic that
land use decisions fall within this standard when government action to restrict use is ‘arbitrary
and irrational.’” (Docket No. 43 at 12). As support, it argues that the Amended Complaint
alleges corruption or self-dealing. (Id.).
The test to determine whether official conduct shocks the conscience is “not precise” and
“varies depending on the factual context.” Eichenlaub v. Township of Indiana, 385 F.3d 274, 285
(3d Cir. 2004) (quotations omitted). To this end, conduct such as self-dealing, corruption of
government officials, intentional bias against an ethnic group, interference with constitutionally
protected activities or other sufficiently egregious conduct has been held to constitute a violation
of substantive due process. Id. However, such allegations must be supported by facts. Southersby
v. Jefferson Hills, No. 09-208, Docket No. 32 at 7-9 (citing Eichenlaub, 385 F.2d at 286). “The
point at which conduct becomes conscience-shocking for constitutional purposes is a question of
law for a court to decide, not a question of fact amenable to resolution by a jury.” Whittaker v.
County of Lawrence, 674 F. Supp. 2d 668, 698 (W.D. Pa. Dec. 7, 2009) (citations omitted); see
also Cranberry Promenade, Inc. v. Cranberry Twp., 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 149222, 71 (W.D.
Pa. Dec. 29, 2011).4
The Court acknowledges that it has previously dismissed a substantive due process claim at this stage. Whittaker v.
Cnty. of Lawrence, 674 F. Supp. 2d 668, 672 (W.D. Pa. 2009) aff’d, 437 F. App’x 105 (3d Cir. 2011). However, as
In its 2009 case before Judge Hay, Plaintiff’s substantive due process claim was
dismissed at the motion to dismiss stage. Southersby v. Jefferson Hills, No. 09-208 Docket No.
32. While many of the paragraphs in the instant Amended Complaint contain substantially
similar, if not identical, language, the Court distinguishes the two matters. Here, the specific
factual allegations supporting the claimed fraud and self-dealing by Defendants arguably rise to
the level of “conscience shocking.” To this end, Plaintiff contends that it has been charged for
services that were not performed by HRG and Swansinger. (See, e.g. Docket No. 28 at ¶ 215). It
supports this position with its expert report from bit-x-bit5 showing that Swansinger altered the
metadata in his digital photographs to conform said photographs with the dates and times of the
alleged overcharged services on the disputed HRG invoices. (Id. at ¶ 155). Certainly, Plaintiff’s
allegations that the Township knowingly approved said false invoices could shock the
conscience. (Id. at ¶¶ 228-31). If true, such inflated engineering bills would inure to the benefit
of HRG Defendants. Moreover, Plaintiff’s allegations of conspiracy between HRG and
Township Defendants to intentionally inflate Plaintiff’s bills as retaliation for its complaints may
rise to the level of egregious behavior by government officials, their agents, and co-conspirators.
See Cnty. of Sacramento v. Lewis, 523 U.S. 833, 846 (1998) (citations and quotations omitted)
(“[T]he Due Process Clause was intended to prevent government officials “from abusing [their]
power, or employing it as an instrument of oppression.”).
was the case in Cranberry Promenade, this matter is distinguishable from Whittaker. In Whittaker, the Court had
the “benefit of a complete record which was developed in state proceedings arising from a taking of property after
the defendants’ exercise of eminent domain power.” Cranberry Promenade, Inc. v. Cranberry Twp., 2010 WL
653915, at *5 (W.D. Pa. Feb. 22, 2010) (citing Whittaker). No such record is present here. In fact, whether
Defendants actually violated the Municipal Planning Code remains an open question, as on January 12, 2015,
Plaintiff filed a land use appeal related to this development dispute in the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny
County. (Southersby Devel. Corp. v. Twp. of S. Park, Docket No. SA-15-39). Based on this Court’s research, said
appeal remains pending.
Per its website, “bit-x-bit is a computer forensics, data loss prevention and e-discovery consulting firm.” Available
at http://www.bit-x-bit.com/ (last visited Apr. 13, 2015).
While discovery may reveal that this is a “fairly run-of-the-mill dispute between a
developer and local government officials,” Cranberry Promenade, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS
149222, at *71 (citing Maple Properties, Inc. v. Twp. of Upper Providence, 151 F. App’x 174,
179 (3d Cir. 2005)), the Court must accept Plaintiff’s allegations as true at this juncture. Having
done so and for the reasons stated above, the Court denies Defendants’ Motions to Dismiss the
substantive due process claim.
3. Equal Protection
Plaintiff next alleges that it is similarly situated with two developments, Saddle Brook
and Brookfield Manor, yet subjected to disparate treatment. (Docket No. 28 at ¶¶ 280-81).
Included in its claim is that the Township improperly required it to post a $5,000 maintenance
bond. (Id. at ¶ 288).
The Township Defendants argue that Plaintiff’s Equal Protection claim fails because the
Subdivision Development Agreement (“SDA”) and Erosion Control Agreement (“ECA”) both
imposed requirements upon the parties which define the relationship between the Township and
Plaintiff. (Docket No. 33 at 14). Moreover, they contend that that the Amended Complaint does
not allege that the contracts between South Park and the Brookfield Manor and Saddle Brook
subdivisions had similar provisions and requirements.6 (Id.).
Lastly, the Township Defendants argue that the Plaintiff’s “class of one” theory fails,
because it cannot simultaneously maintain that it is a class of one and allege that the Township
had a custom of allowing Wargo to selectively, arbitrarily, and irrationally apply and enforce
laws, codes, and ordinances. (Id.). The Township Defendants finally contend that the $5,000,
These contracts are not presently before the Court.
which was to be placed into an escrow account and to which Plaintiff objects, was contractually
required per the ECA.7 (Id. at 14-15).
Plaintiff also pleads an Equal Protection violation of Article I, § 26 of the Pennsylvania
Constitution.8 As the Township Defendants correctly set forth, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court
has adopted the thinking of the Supreme Court of the United States in interpreting and applying
the Equal Protection provisions of the Pennsylvania Constitution. St. Margaret Mem’l Hosp. v.
Borough Council of Borough of Aspinwall, 641 A.2d 1270, 1272 (Pa. 1994).
Under the Equal Protection Clause, “[n]o State shall . . . deny to any person within its
jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” U.S. CONST. AMEND. XIV, § 1. Yet, this Clause
“creates no substantive rights.” Vacco v. Quill, 521 U.S. 793, 799 (1997). “Instead, it embodies a
general rule that States must treat like cases alike but may treat unlike cases accordingly.” Id.
Plaintiff relies on a “class of one” theory, as set forth in Village of Willowbrook v. Olech,
528 U.S. 562, 564 (2000). Under such theory, it is Plaintiff’s burden to demonstrate that it was
“treated differently from others similarly situated and that there was no rational basis for such
disparate treatment.” Whittaker, 674 F. Supp. 2d at 691-92 (emphasis in original) (citing Phillips
v. Cnty. of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 243 (3d Cir. 2008). It must show that it was subject to
“intentionally different treatment [that] is ‘irrational and wholly arbitrary.’” Eichenlaub, 385
F.3d at 286 (quoting Village of Willowbrook, 528 U.S. at 564)). The Court notes that the Third
Circuit has recognized that “[t]he ‘irrational and wholly arbitrary’ standard is doubtless difficult
for a plaintiff to meet in a zoning dispute.” Eichenlaub, 385 F.3d at 287.
The HRG Defendants argue that the Equal Protection claim must be dismissed because they are not state actors and
they did not act under color of state law. (Docket No. 36 at ¶¶ 44-46). The Court has already rejected this argument
herein. See p. 6-8, supra.
Section 26 provides that “[n]either the Commonwealth nor any political subdivision thereof shall deny to any
person the enjoyment of any civil right, nor discriminate against any person in the exercise of any civil right.” PA.
CONST. ART. I, § 26.
As set forth in the Amended Complaint and its Exhibits as well as made clear at oral
argument, Plaintiff heavily negotiated its contract with the Township. (Docket No. 28); (Jan. 12,
2015 Trans. at 6:9-13, 55:7-14). Despite same, Plaintiff maintains that it is similarly situated to
the Saddle Brook and Brookfield Manor developments, as they are also located, albeit partially,
in the Township. (Docket No. 28 at ¶ 180). It also avers that the Brookfield Manor and Saddle
Brook Subdivisions are similarly situated to Della Strada for the following reasons:
they are subdivisions developed in phases, which phases are within the same
geographical proximity to the Della Strada Subdivision;
they were all in development in the same or recent time frame;
they were all residential developments and subject to the same Township
Ordinances regulating land development;
they all required the same public infrastructure improvements, including, but not
limited to storm sewers and sanitary sewers;
they were all subject to progress and final inspections by the Township and its
Engineer during construction of the public infrastructure; and,
they were all overseen or regulated by Wargo and an HRG representative,
(Id.). While discovery may reveal that these two developments are not similarly situated with
respect to their relationships with South Park, i.e. that they did not have heavily negotiated SDAs
as Plaintiff did, the Court cannot make such a determination based on the record at this juncture
and must accept Plaintiff’s allegations in the Amended Complaint as true. The Court finds that
Plaintiff has sufficiently pled that it was similarly situated with the Saddle Brook and Brook
Field Manor developments. Thus, the Court’s analysis proceeds.
Plaintiff sets forth a litany of alleged unequal and discriminatory actions to which it was
subjected, including: unreasonably stringent inspections by the Township and Wargo; excessive
inspection, engineering, and municipal legal fees; fraudulent invoices; interference with business
and contractual obligations; frivolous complaints to the Allegheny County Conservation
District;9 intentional delays of the completion report for the Della Strada Phase 1 final plat; and
intentional delays for the application for final plat approval of Della Strada Phase 2. (Docket No.
28 at ¶ 281). Plaintiff further contends that the Saddle Brook and Brook Field Manor
subdivisions were not subject to any of these actions.
Taking these allegations as true, the Court finds that Plaintiff has adequately pled
disparate treatment by Defendants. Thus, the Court denies Defendants’ motions to dismiss
Plaintiff’s Equal Protection claims brought pursuant to both the Pennsylvania and United States
4. First Amendment Retaliation
Plaintiff alleges that Defendants retaliated against it based on its protected activity of
protesting South Park and HRG’s unlawful actions in violation of the First Amendment of the
United States Constitution and Article I, §§ 710 and 2011 of the Pennsylvania Constitution.
(Docket No. 28 at 99-112). The Township Defendants maintain that they did not retaliate against
Plaintiff, as it was provided with opportunities to present its claims of fraud and other matters at
meetings and frequently complained and objected during the entirety of the Della Strada
project.12 (Docket No. 33 at 17-18).
To demonstrate a First Amendment retaliation claim, Plaintiff must first show that its
conduct was constitutionally protected, i.e., that it was exercising rights protected by the First
The Allegheny County Conservation District is an agent for the Department of Environmental Protection Agency.
(Docket No. 28 at ¶ 306). Plaintiff alleges that Wargo’s frivolous complaints to said District caused it to undergo
unnecessary inspections. (Id.).
Pursuant to Section 7, “[t]he free communication of thoughts and opinions is one of the invaluable rights of man,
and every citizen may freely speak, write and print on any subject, being responsible for the abuse of that liberty.”
PA. CONST. ART. I, § 7.
Section 20 provides that “[t] he citizens have a right in a peaceable manner to assemble together for their common
good, and to apply to those invested with the powers of government for redress of grievances or other proper
purposes, by petition, address or remonstrance.” PA. CONST. ART. I, § 20.
The HRG Defendants deny that they are state actors, alleging that their actions were “the normal activities of a
consultant company” and were not retaliatory for Plaintiff’s complaints. (Docket No. 37 at 26-27). Once again, this
argument was already rejected for the purposes of these Motions.
Amendment of the United States Constitution. Mt. Healthy City Sch. Dist. Bd. of Educ. v. Doyle,
429 U.S. 274, 287 (1977); Ambrose v. Township of Robinson, Pa., 303 F.3d 488, 493 (3d Cir.
2002) (citing Bd. of County Comm’rs. v. Umbehr, 518 U.S. 668, 675 (1996)). Second, it must
show that its claimed “protected activity was a substantial or motivating factor in the alleged
retaliatory action.” Ambrose, at 493. The burden then shifts to Defendants who “may defeat the
[P]laintiff's case by showing that [they] would have taken the same action even in the absence of
the protected conduct.” Id.; see also Hill v. City of Scranton, 411 F.3d 118, 127 (3d Cir. 2005).
“[T]he right of access to courts for redress of wrongs is an aspect of the First Amendment right
to petition the government.” Borough of Duryea, Pa. v. Guarnieri, — U.S. —, 131 S. Ct. 2488,
2494 (2011) (quotations and citations omitted).
In Eichenlaub, the Third Circuit upheld the plaintiffs’ First Amendment retaliation claim
where they alleged, inter alia, violations of their First Amendment and state-law rights when
[A]pplied subdivision requirements to their property that were not
applied to other parcels; . . . pursued unannounced and unnecessary
inspection and enforcement actions; . . . delayed certain permits
and approvals; . . . improperly increased tax assessments; and . . .
maligned and muzzled the Eichenlaubs.
385 F.3d at 286. Here, Plaintiff has pled numerous claims of retaliation as to Phase 1 at
paragraph 306 and as to Phase 2 at paragraph 307 of the Amended Complaint. (Docket No. 28 at
¶¶ 306, 307). Such examples include: HRG’s threatened opposition at a potential arbitration;
assessment of additional solicitor fees; duplicative and full-time engineer inspections; Wargo’s
frivolous complaints to the Allegheny County Conservation District; refusal to present inquiries
to the Board of Supervisors; and intentional delay of the completion report and execution of the
final plats for Phases 1 and 2. (Id.).
The Court notes that the Amended Complaint as well as the emails and letters attached
thereto set forth numerous instances in which Plaintiff made objections and complaints relative
to the underlying disputes, both in the form of writings and during its representatives’ attendance
at Board of Supervisors meetings. (Docket No. 28, passim). Said complaints and objections
were made by both Plaintiff’s counsel and its principals, Tom and Ann Stewart Murphy. (Id.,
passim). Plaintiff has further alleged that Defendants’ conduct was taken in “direct retaliation”
for its complaints. The timing is such that the actions by the Township Defendants seem to
coincide with Plaintiff’s complaints. (Docket No. 43 at 16).
The Court notes the Third Circuit’s guidance that “it is generally a question of fact
whether a retaliatory campaign of harassment has reached the threshold of actionability under §
1983.” Suppan v. Dadonna, 203 F.3d 228, 233 (3d Cir. 2000). Given same and construing the
allegations in Plaintiff’s favor, the Court finds that Plaintiff has adequately pled First
Amendment retaliation claims under the Free Speech and Petition Clauses of the United States
Constitution and violations of Article I, §§ 7, 20 of the Pennsylvania Constitution.
B. State Law Claims
1. Immunity under the Pennsylvania Political Subdivision Tort Claim
The Township argues that it is immune from Plaintiff’s state law claims under the
PSTCA, codified at 42 Pa.C.S. §§ 8541, et seq., because the tort claims are based on fraudulent,
willful conduct. (Docket No. 33 at 20). The Township Defendants also maintain that the
negligent supervision and breach of contract claims are not exceptions to immunity under the
Plaintiff submits that the Township is not immune from the negligence claim, as the
escrow funds are “personal property” within “the Township’s possession and control,” thereby
falling into one of the enumerated exceptions to immunity under the PSTCA. (Docket No. 43 at
As to the remainder of its state law claims, Plaintiff correctly notes that the immunity
conferred by the PSTCA extends only to suits seeking monetary relief and does not apply to suits
that seek equitable relief, such as an injunction. (Id. at 18); DiSalvio v. Lower Merion High Sch.
Dist., 158 F. Supp. 2d 553, 564 (E.D. Pa. 2001) (citing Centennial Sch. Dist. v. Independence
Blue Cross, 885 F. Supp. 683, 689 (E.D. Pa. 1994)). Thus, to the extent that the Court finds the
Township immune under the PSTCA, those claims are only dismissed to the extent that Plaintiff
seeks monetary damages.
Under the PSTCA, “no local agency shall be liable for any damages on account of an
injury to a person or property caused by any act of the local agency or any employee thereof[,]”
unless the action falls under one of eight enumerated exceptions to immunity. 42 Pa.C.S. § 8541
et seq. Plaintiff submits that its claims fall into the “care, custody or control of personal
property” exception set forth at 42 Pa.C.S.A. § 8542(b)(2) which provides:
[t]he care, custody or control of personal property of others in the
possession or control of the local agency. The only losses for
which damages shall be recoverable under this paragraph are those
property losses suffered with respect to the personal property in the
possession or control of the local agency.
42 Pa. C.S. § 8542(b)(2).
The enumerated exceptions provide for potential liability if the following conditions are
met: (1) the damages alleged are otherwise recoverable under common law or statute; 14 (2) an
injury was caused by a negligent act of a local agency or employee acting within the scope of his
official duties; and (3) the negligent act of the local agency falls within one of the eight
Plaintiff does not dispute that the Township is a local agency.
Other than asserting that Pennsylvania does not recognize a claim for civil aiding and abetting, the Township does
not dispute that Plaintiff’s damages are recoverable under common law or statute. The Court addresses the aiding
and abetting claim, infra.
enumerated categories. 42 Pa.C.S. § 8542; Repko v. Chichester Sch. Dist., 904 A.2d 1036, 1040
(Pa. Commw. Ct. 2006). Because the legislative intent of the PSTCA is to insulate political
subdivisions from liability, the exceptions to immunity are to be interpreted narrowly. Mascaro
v. Youth Study Ctr., 523 A.2d 1118, 1123 (Pa. 1987); see also Love v. City of Phila., 528 A.2d
531, 532 (Pa. 1988).
Plaintiff claims that the escrow funds held by the Township were its personal property in
the possession and control of the Township, because it was not permitted to have any discretion
in the disbursement of the funds. (Docket No. 43 at 19). The PSTCA does not define personal
property; however, courts have found that it encompasses “everything that is the subject of
ownership, not coming under the denomination of real estate.” Klingner v. Pocono International
Raceway, Inc., 433 A.2d 1357, 1361 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1981). As noted by Plaintiff, the
Commonwealth Court has explained that, “under the appropriate circumstances, the negligent
undertaking of a fiduciary duty on the part of a governmental agency with respect to a loan
fund—clearly a res constituting personal property—could give rise to a cause of action in tort.”
Rousseau v. City of Philadelphia, 514 A.2d 649, 652 (Pa. Commw. Ct. 1986). Moreover, it has
defined “control” as denoting that a “person has some power over the actual property, i.e., to
authorize transactions involving the property or to make disbursements.” Borough of W.
Fairview v. Hess, 568 A.2d 709, 715 (Pa. Commw. Ct. 1989), superseded on other grounds by
rule as stated in Muth v. Ridgway Twp. Mun. Auth., 8 A.3d 1022 (Pa. Commw. Ct. 2010). Thus,
the Court finds that Plaintiff’s negligence claim against the Township may proceed.
To the extent that Plaintiff argues that the Township is liable for the negligent supervision
of Wargo, the record is presently insufficient to make such a finding.15 Accordingly, at this stage,
the Court does not find the Township to be immune under the PSTCA for the negligence claim.
The PSTCA provides that, while municipal employees are not immune for their willful
and wanton acts pursuant to § 8550,16 the agency’s immunity is not so abrogated. Williams v. Cty
of Chester, 2015 WL 224384, at *3 (E.D. Pa. Jan. 15, 2015) (citing Smith v. Cty of Chester, 851
F.Supp. 656, 659 (E.D. Pa. 1994) (same)). Plaintiff provides no authority or argument to
overcome the Township’s immunity as to the fraud claim. Similarly, the breach of fiduciary duty
and civil conspiracy claims do not fall within one of the PSTCA exceptions. Hankin Family
P'ship v. Upper Merion Twp., 2012 WL 43599, at *17 (E.D. Pa. Jan. 6, 2012) (citing Schlichter
v. Limerick Twp., 2005 WL 984197 (E.D. Pa. Apr. 26, 2005) (civil conspiracy)); Ortega 2015
WL 337394, at *10; Shadie v. Forte, 2011 WL 607447, at *7 (M.D. Pa. Feb. 15, 2011) (breach
of fiduciary duty). Thus, to the extent that Plaintiff seeks monetary damages against the
Township, the fraud, civil conspiracy, and breach of fiduciary duty claims are dismissed, with
Turning to the conversion claim, it is not settled that such a claim is an intentional tort in
Pennsylvania. Conner v. Borough of Eddystone, Pa., 2015 WL 1021363, at *6 (E.D. Pa. Mar. 6,
The Court points out that, while these cases are not factually similar to the issue at hand, other courts have
expressly made clear that negligent supervision does not fall within any of the exceptions to immunity under the
PSTCA. Davis v. Corizon Health, Inc., 2015 WL 518263, at *3 (E.D. Pa. Feb. 9, 2015) (citing Clark v.
Southeastern Pennsylvania Transp. Auth., 691 A.2d 988, 992 (Pa. Commw. Ct. 1997) (holding that a claim of
negligent supervision does not fall within any of the PSTCA)); Ortega v. Roulhac, 2015 WL 337394, at *9 (E.D. Pa.
Jan. 22, 2015) (finding that the PSTCA barred plaintiff’s vicarious liability claim against the defendant school
Section 8550 provides:
In any action against a local agency or employee thereof for damages on account
of an injury caused by the act of the employee in which it is judicially
determined that the act of the employee caused the injury and that such act
constituted a crime, actual fraud, actual malice or willful misconduct, the
provisions of sections 8545 (relating to official liability generally), 8546
(relating to defense of official immunity), 8548 (relating to indemnity) and 8549
(relating to limitation on damages) shall not apply.
42 Pa.C.S. § 8550.
2015) (citing L.B. Foster Co. v. Charles Caracciolo Steel & Metal Yard, Inc., 777 A.2d 1090,
1095 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2001) (“[T]he tort of conversion does not rest on proof of specific intent to
commit a wrong.”)). Further, Plaintiff has pled that the escrow funds were solely in the “care,
custody or control” of the Township. 42 Pa.C.S. § 8542(b)(2). For these reasons and finding that
discovery is required for this Court to make such a determination as to whether specific intent
was present here, the Court rejects the Township’s argument that it is immune to the conversion
claim at this stage of the proceedings. See Conner, 2015 WL 1021363, at *6 (permitting Plaintiff
to amend its conversion count depending on how the subject pension funds were held by the
In sum, the Court finds that the Township is immune from Plaintiff’s breach of fiduciary
duty, fraud, and civil conspiracy claims to the extent monetary damages are sought. The Court
proceeds to address the remainder of Defendants’ arguments for dismissal of the state law
The Court has already determined that the Township is not immune from a negligence
claim. Other than alleging that the Court does not have federal question jurisdiction and thus it
cannot exercise supplemental jurisdiction in this matter, Defendants do not move to dismiss the
negligence count. The Court has federal question jurisdiction over the § 1983 claims and thus
maintains its supplemental jurisdiction over this and the other remaining state law claims.
3. Fraud / Conspiracy to Defraud
The Township Defendants move for dismissal of the fraud claim on the basis that
Plaintiff was aware that the invoices and reports at issue were fraudulent, and thus cannot show
justifiable reliance.17 (Docket No. 33 at 20-22). Plaintiff argues that, under Rule 12(b)(6), the
standard is whether it adequately pled the necessary elements of fraud. (Docket No. 43 at 20-21).
In Pennsylvania, those elements are:
(1) a representation;
(2) which is material to the transaction at hand;
(3) made falsely, with knowledge of its falsity or recklessness as to whether it is
true or false;
(4) with the intent of misleading another into relying on it;
(5) justifiable reliance on the misrepresentation; and
(6) the resulting injury was proximately caused by the reliance.
Eigen v. Textron Lycoming Reciprocating Engine Div., 874 A.2d 1179, 1185 (Pa. Super. Ct.
2005) (citations omitted).
As the parties are aware, the Court has already dismissed the RICO claims, which were
based on the predicate acts of mail and wire fraud. (Docket No. 59). The Court pointed out that
the “Amended Complaint overwhelmingly establishes that, despite its suspicion and actual
knowledge of Defendants’ alleged ‘fraud,’ [Plaintiff] continued to transact with the Defendants.”
(Docket No. 59 at 10) (citing Docket No. 28, passim). The Court found that Plaintiff failed to
“allege the requisite deceit.” (Id.). While the Court held that the fraud alleged in the Amended
Complaint did not rise to a RICO claim, Plaintiff has sufficiently pled a cause of action for
common law fraud.
Here, Plaintiff avers that Wargo and/or the Township instructed Swansinger to inflate
and/or falsify invoices, causing Plaintiff to incur damages for payment of same. (Docket No. 28
at ¶¶ 214-38). It also alleges that the Township actively concealed the fraud. (Id. at ¶ 226). The
Defendants’ representations that the invoices were accurate were certainly material to the
transaction and were made with knowledge of the falsity of the invoices and the intent of
The HRG Defendants concede that Plaintiff “has pleaded the elements of a simple case of fraud.” (Docket No. 37
at 2). Accordingly, this claim remains as to those Defendants.
misleading Plaintiff. (Id. at ¶¶ 214-238). Further, Plaintiff justifiably relied on the
misrepresentation that its inspections were being conducted with the same frequency as other
developments. (Id. at ¶ 233). Lastly, this conduct proximately caused Plaintiff to continue to fund
the escrow account and incur expenses related to the Della Strada development. (Id. at ¶ 234).
Given these allegations, the Court finds that Plaintiff has adequately pled the elements for fraud.
Accordingly, the Township’s motion to dismiss the fraud claim is denied.
4. Breach of Fiduciary Duty
The Township Defendants next argue that the escrow accounts in the present case do not
impose a fiduciary duty on the parties. (Docket No. 33 at 22-23). They also claim that HRG was
the eventual grantee/transferee of the escrow account, as funds from the accounts were used to
pay HRG for inspections and reports. (Id. at 23). Thus, as HRG was not a party to the agreements
creating the accounts, the SDA and ECA, an escrow agreement was not created. (Id.).
Plaintiff maintains that it had a fiduciary relationship with the Township Defendants visà-vis the escrow accounts for Della Strada Phase 1 inspection fees and Della Strada Phase 2
review fees. (Docket Nos. 42 at ¶ 99, 43 at 25-27). The SDA provides:
[in] order to secure its obligations to so reimburse the Township,
the Developer, may elect to post with the Township cash escrow
account in an amount estimated by the Township Engineer, to
cover all such engineering fees and expenses. . . If the account is
exhausted prior to payment of all such fees and expenses, it shall
be replenished in an amount originally deposited or such lesser
amount as may be deemed reasonable by the Township Engineer.
Any funds remaining in the account after payment of all such fees
and expenses shall be promptly returned to the Developer.
(Docket No. 28-1 at 21). In the ECA, the parties agreed that:
Owner agrees to place into an escrow account, for the sole benefit
of the Township, as Escrow Agent and escrowee, an initial sum of
not less than Five Thousand Dollars ($5,000.00) restricted to
secure the inspection, repair, maintenance, operation, replacement,
reconstruction and/or elimination of any component, part, or all of
the Facilities during the term of this Agreement . . .
Owner agrees that the Sediment Basin and Storm Water
Maintenance and Monitoring Escrow Amount shall be used to
reimburse the Township for any and all expenses, fees and charges
incurred by the Township for the inspection, provided that said
inspections shall be conducted in the same manner and frequency
as similarly situated developments located within the Township,
repair, maintenance, operation, replacement, reconstruction and/or
elimination of any component, part, or all of the Facilities. . .
The Township shall have the sole discretion when or if, the funds
in the Sediment Basin and Storm Water Maintenance and
Monitoring Escrow Account are released to the Owners.
(Docket No. 28-2 at 6-7).
As an initial point, a fiduciary duty may arise from a contract. McDermott v. Party City
Corp., 11 F. Supp.2d 612, 626 n. 18, 627 (E.D. Pa. 1998). “An ordinary escrow agreement
creates a fiduciary relationship between the agent [the depository institution] and the transferor.”
In re Mushroom Transp. Co., Inc., 382 F.3d 325, 347 (3d Cir. 2004) (quoting Knoll v. Butler,
675 A.2d 1308, 1312 (Pa. Commw. Ct. 1996). The relevant portions of the ECA and SDA,
quoted above, demonstrate the Township Defendants’ duty to Plaintiff to act in a fiduciary
capacity with respect to the escrow accounts. (Docket Nos. 28-1 at 21, 28-2 at 6-7).
Further, the Amended Complaint alleges that Wargo, as an agent of the Township,
intentionally and willfully breached his fiduciary duty to Plaintiff by, inter alia, concealing the
fraudulent or false HRG invoices, improperly withholding said invoices, and falsifying escrow
activity statements. (Docket No. 28 at ¶ 335). Plaintiff charges that Wargo improperly,
intentionally, and willfully charged and paid for false and/or fraudulent Phase 1 and 2 invoices to
retaliate against Plaintiff. (Id.).
Plaintiff asserts that such conduct resulted in significant financial harm and also harmed
its business relationship with NVR, Inc. d/b/a Ryan Homes. (Id. at ¶ 337). Taking these
allegations as true, Plaintiff has sufficiently pled a breach of fiduciary duty claim.
The Township Defendants argue that the conversion claim must be dismissed because
Plaintiff did not have an immediate right to possess its money in the escrow account at the time it
was allegedly converted. (Docket No. 33 at 23-24). Plaintiff maintains that Defendants may be
liable for conversion if it demonstrates that Defendants disbursed the escrow funds in a manner
inconsistent with the escrow agreement. (Docket No. 43 at 27).
Conversion is defined in Pennsylvania as “the deprivation of another’s right of property
in, or use or possession of, a chattel, without the owner's consent and without lawful
justification.” Shonberger v. Oswell, 530 A.2d 112, 114 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1987) (citing Stevenson
v. Economy Bank of Ambridge, 197 A.2d 721, 726 (Pa. 1964)). Money may be a chattel for the
purposes of conversion in Pennsylvania. Id. (citing Pearl Assurance Co. v. National Ins. Agency,
30 A.2d 333, 337 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1943). To be so considered, the funds must be in some way
“identifiable.” Pioneer Commercial Funding Corp. v. Am. Fin. Mortgage Corp., 855 A.2d 818,
827, n.21 (Pa. 2004). There are a number of ways that funds can be identified, including by
description or segregation from other funds. In re Zambrano Corp., 2010 WL 8354694, at *6
(Bankr. W.D. Pa. Aug. 24, 2010). But, however they are identified, there must be “an obligation
on the part of the defendant to return the specific coin or notes [e]ntrusted to his care.”
Alexander & Co. v. Goldstein, 13 Pa. Super. 518, 522 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1900) (emphasis added).
The requisite intent to establish a conversion claim is the exercise of dominion or control
over the goods inconsistent with the plaintiff's rights. Shonberger, 530 A.2d at 114. (citations
omitted). As pointed out by Plaintiff, courts have found that an escrow agent may be liable for
conversion “if he or she delivers the funds subject to the escrow agreement in a manner
inconsistent with that agreement.” Frenkel v. Baker, 2014 WL 5697449, at *5 (E.D. Pa. Nov. 4,
2014) (citing Samango v. Pileggi, 526 A.2d 417, 421–22 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1987)). Given same and
construing the Amended Complaint’s allegations in the light most favorable to Plaintiff, the
Court finds a conversion claim has been adequately pled.
6. Unjust Enrichment
The Township Defendants argue that Plaintiff’s unjust enrichment claim should be
dismissed because two contracts already exist between the parties, i.e. the SDA and ECA.
(Docket No. 33 at 24-25). Plaintiff points out that the Defendants expressly deny a valid escrow
agreement, especially with regard to the HRG Defendants. (Docket No. 43 at 27-28). Further, it
submits that it is premature to dismiss such a claim at this stage, as it is permitted to plead, in the
alternative. (Id. at 28). The Court agrees.
Unjust enrichment is shown by “benefits conferred on defendant by plaintiff, appreciation
of such benefits by defendant, and acceptance and retention of such benefits under such
circumstances that it would be inequitable for defendant to retain the benefit without payment of
value.” Filippi v. City of Erie, 968 A.2d 239, 242 (Pa. Commw. Ct. 2009) (citing Wiernik v. PHH
U.S. Mortgage Corp., 736 A.2d 616, 622 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1999), appeal denied, 751 A.2d 193
(Pa. 2000)). Here, Plaintiff has alleged that it paid Defendants for Swansinger’s excessive and/or
fraudulent bills. (Docket No. 28 at ¶¶ 224, 229-31). It has further claimed that it requested
certain invoices from the Township Defendants, but they withheld them and fabricated escrow
activity statements to support HRG’s retention of said fees. (Id. at ¶¶ 230-31). Accordingly, the
Court finds that Plaintiff has sufficiently pled a claim for unjust enrichment and now addresses
Defendants’ argument that this claim is precluded by the SDA and ECA.
It is well-established in Pennsylvania that, where an express contract exists which
governs the rights and liabilities of the parties, a claim for unjust enrichment is precluded. See
Schott v. Westinghouse Elec. Corp., 259 A.2d 443, 448 (Pa. 1969) (“[T]his Court has found the
quasi-contractual doctrine of unjust enrichment inapplicable when the relationship between
parties is founded on a written agreement or express contract.”); see also Hershey Foods Corp. v.
Ralph Chapek, Inc., 828 F.2d 989, 999 (3d Cir. 1987) (citations omitted). However, plaintiffs
may plead an unjust enrichment claim in the alternative with a breach of contract action where
there is some dispute as to whether a valid, enforceable written contract exists. See Montanez v.
HSBC Mortgage Corp. (USA), 876 F. Supp.2d 504, 516 (E.D. Pa. July 17, 2012); Premier
Payments Online, Inc. v. Payment Sys. Worldwide, 848 F. Supp. 2d 513, 527 (E.D. Pa. Jan. 27,
2012); AmerisourceBergen Drug Corp. v. Allscripts Healthcare, LLC, 2011 WL 3241356, at *3
(E.D. Pa. July 29, 2011). Additionally, the Court notes that Plaintiff’s allegations may be outside
the scope of the ECA and SDA.
In light of permissive alternate pleading under Rule 8 and taking Plaintiff’s allegations as
true, clearly there is a dispute as to whether a valid escrow agreement exists between the parties.
Thus, Plaintiff’s unjust enrichment claim cannot be dismissed at this stage.
7. Aiding and Abetting
The Township Defendants’ sole argument for the dismissal of Plaintiff’s aiding and
abetting claim is that such a claim does not exist in Pennsylvania. (Docket No. 33 at 25). In
response, Plaintiff correctly notes that this Court has previously predicted that Pennsylvania
would recognize a cause of action for aiding and abetting the tortious conduct of another in
accordance with § 876(b) of the Second Restatement of Torts. Panthera Rail Car LLC v. Kasgro
Rail Corp., 2013 WL 4500468, at *9 (W.D. Pa. Aug. 21, 2013). Given same, the Court denies
the Township Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss on this basis.
8. Gist of the Action Doctrine
In a footnote, the Township Defendants argue that Plaintiff’s fraud, breach of fiduciary
duty, conversion, and unjust enrichment claims must be dismissed because they arise out of the
parties’ contracts and are thus barred by the “gist of the action” doctrine. (Docket No. 33 at 25,
n.6). Plaintiff correctly claims that such a determination is inappropriate at this stage. (Docket
No. 43 at 27).
Under the “gist of the action” doctrine, a plaintiff cannot maintain a tort claim where it is
essentially identical to a breach of contract action. Etoll, Inc. v. Elias/Savion Adver., Inc., 811
A.2d 10, 14 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2002). Courts in the Third Circuit caution against deciding whether
the gist of the action is a contract or tort at the motion to dismiss stage. See, e.g. Always in Serv.,
Inc. v. Supermedia Servs.–E., Inc., 2012 WL 717233, at *8 (E.D. Pa. Mar. 5, 2012); Weber
Display & Packaging v. Providence Washington Ins. Co., 2003 WL 329141, at *3 (E.D. Pa. Feb.
10, 2003); Caudill Seed & Warehouse Co. v. Prophet 21, Inc., 123 F. Supp. 2d 826, 834 (E.D.
Pa. 2000) on reconsideration in part sub nom. Caudill Seed & Warehouse Co.. v. Prophet 21,
Inc., 126 F. Supp. 2d 937 (E.D. Pa. 2001). Moreover, a “certain tension exists, at the motion to
dismiss stage, between Pennsylvania's gist of the action doctrine and Rules 8(d)(2) and (3) of the
Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, which expressly condone pleading in the alternative.” Am.
Auto. Ins. Co. v. L.H. Reed & Sons, Inc., 2015 WL 1566224, at *3 (M.D. Pa. Apr. 8, 2015).
Despite its potential applicability at later stages of these proceedings, the Court declines to
dismiss Plaintiff’s claims on a gist of the action theory at this time.
Upon consideration of the Amended Complaint and the parties’ arguments, the Court
finds that the Township is immune from the breach of fiduciary duty, fraud, and civil conspiracy
claims to the extent that Plaintiff seeks monetary damages for same. The Court denies
Defendants’ Motions as to the remaining constitutional and state law claims. An appropriate
Dated: April 17, 2015
s/ Nora Barry Fischer
Nora Barry Fischer
United States District Judge
cc/ecf: All counsel of record.
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