United States District Court, D. Massachusetts
For Najas Realty, LLC, Petra Building Corporation, Plaintiffs: Eric S. Brainsky, LEAD ATTORNEY, Kailey L. Wildenhain, Michael E. Levinson, Brainsky Levinson, LLC, Seekonk, MA.
For The Seekonk Water District, Robert Bernardo, individually and in his capacity as the Superintendent of the Seekonk Water District, Defendants: John J. Davis, LEAD ATTORNEY, Seth B. Barnett, Pierce, Davis & Perritano, LLP, Boston, MA.
MEMORANDUM OF DECISION AND ORDER ON DEFENDANTS' MOTION FOR PARTIAL JUDGMENT ON THE PLEADINGS
Judith Gail Dein, United States Magistrate Judge.
This action arises out of the opposition of the defendants, the Seekonk Water District (" SWD" ) and its Superintendent, Robert Bernardo (" Bernardo" ), to the development by the plaintiffs of a 10 acre parcel of land in Seekonk, Massachusetts known as the Pine Hill Estates. The plaintiffs contend that in retaliation for their having outbid the defendants for the property, the defendants maliciously and baselessly opposed the development, citing unfounded concerns about the nitrate levels
in the town's drinking water supply. Despite this opposition, the Project was eventually approved. Nevertheless, the plaintiffs have brought a 15 count complaint alleging violations of their federal and state constitutional rights, as well as common law claims.
The defendants have moved for partial judgment on the pleadings on the grounds that the plaintiffs have failed to allege a violation of their constitutional rights to petition government (Counts I & II), their rights of free speech (Counts III & IV), their rights to equal protection (Counts X & XI), and their substantive due process rights (Counts XII and XIII). In addition, Bernardo contends that he is entitled to qualified immunity from suit in his individual capacity for all civil rights violations pleaded against him (Counts I-IV, X-XIII), and common law immunity for speaking on matters of public concern as the Water District Superintendent, which precludes the maintenance of a claim for intentional interference with advantageous business relations against him (Count XV). Finally, the defendants contend that the plaintiffs have failed to state any claims against the Water District pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983.
For all the reasons detailed herein, the defendants' motion for judgment on the pleadings is ALLOWED. This case falls within the principle that " [t]he Civil Rights Act cannot be used as a rack upon which every disappointed developer can stretch a community that fails to roll out the red carpet for him." Chongris v. Board of Appeals of the Town of Andover, 811 F.2d 36, 46 (1st Cir. 1987).
II. STATEMENT OF FACTS
Scope of the Record
The defendants are seeking judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(c). The legal standard for evaluating a motion for judgment on the pleadings is essentially the same as the standard for evaluating a motion to dismiss under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6), except that a Rule 12(c) motion " implicates the pleadings as a whole." Aponte-Torres v. Univ. of P.R., 445 F.3d 50, 54-55 (1st Cir. 2006). Therefore, the court must " view the facts contained in the pleadings in the light most flattering to the nonmovants (here, the plaintiffs) and draw all reasonable inferences therefrom in their favor." Id. at 54. " The court may supplement the facts contained in the pleadings by considering documents fairly incorporated therein and facts susceptible to judicial notice." Curran v. Cousins, 509 F.3d 36, 44 (1st Cir. 2007) (quoting R.G. Fin. Corp. v. Vergara-Nunez, 446 F.3d 178, 182 (1st Cir. 2006)). Applying this standard, the relevant facts are as follows.
Pine Hill Estates
Najas Realty, LLC and Petra Building Corporation are Rhode Island entities owned principally by Steven Najas (collectively, " Najas" unless otherwise indicated). (Compl. ¶ ¶ 1-2). Najas Realty is a real estate development and property holding company, while Petra is a home building company. (Id.
¶ ¶ 8-9). The Seekonk Water District is an independent governmental entity
chartered by the Massachusetts Legislature in 1946.
¶ 3; Mass. St. 1945, c. 381). It is charged with ensuring and maintaining safe drinking water for the Town of Seekonk. See Mass. St. 1945, ch. 381, § 1. A three-member Board of Water Commissioners oversees the policy and procedural issues of the Water District. Id. § § 2, 9. Day-to-day operations are managed by the defendant Robert Bernardo, Superintendent of the Seekonk Water District. Id. § 11; see generally Seekonk Water District " Rules & Regulations." Bernardo is being sued in both his individual and official capacity. (Compl. ¶ 4).
In or about early 2012, Najas purchased a ten acre parcel of land in Seekonk, Massachusetts, known as the Pine Hill Estates Property for the purpose of building a 10-lot residential subdivision on the site. (Id. ¶ ¶ 10-11, 17). In purchasing the Property, Najas outbid Bernardo (in his capacity as the Seekonk Water Superintendent) and the Seekonk Water District. (Id. ¶ 12-14). As detailed in the meeting minutes supplied by the plaintiffs in opposition to the motion for judgment on the pleadings (Docket No. 49-1), the Seekonk Water District opposed any development of the Pine Hill Estates Property on the stated grounds that development could result in an increase in the nitrate levels of the town's drinking water. (See id. at 6-8). A nearby middle school was under monitoring obligations imposed by the Department of Environmental Protection (" DEP" ) due to the level of nitrates in the water. (Id. at 18-19; Compl. ¶ ¶ 20-21). Thus, the defendants' desire to purchase the property was to prevent any development, not to develop the Property for their own purposes.
The plaintiffs allege generally as follows:
15. Following Najas's purchase of the Pine Hill Estates Property, the Water District, lead by Bernardo, engaged in a retaliatory campaign of harassment, intimidation, abuses of governmental power, defamation and tortious interference with Najas's business and contractual interests and relations, which were designed to interfere with and ultimately destroy its business and reputation.
16. Such action by Bernardo and the Water District was designed to punish Najas for outbidding them in purchasing the Pine Hill Estates Property, to punish Najas for taking efforts to develop the Pine Hill Estates Property, and to coerce Najas to abandon the Pine Hill Estates Project ..., all in violation of its Constitutional, statutory and other legal rights.
(Compl. ¶ ¶ 15-16). In particular, the plaintiffs object to the following actions and statements.
An initial meeting regarding the Pine Hill Estates Project was held by the Seekonk Board of Health on April 25, 2012. (Id. ¶ 20). Bernardo appeared and expressed concerns about the Project's proximity to one of the Town's ...