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R.I. Seekonk Holdings, LLC v. Hines

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

November 21, 2019

R.I. SEEKONK HOLDINGS, LLC and H. CHARLES TAPALIAN, SR., Plaintiffs,
v.
MICHELLE A. HINES, individually, and in her capacity as a Member of the TOWN OF SEEKONK BOARD OF SELECTMEN, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          Denise J. Casper United States District Judge

         I. Introduction

         Plaintiffs R.I. Seekonk Holdings, LLC (“RISH”) and H. Charles Tapalian, Sr., (“Tapalian”) (collectively, “Plaintiffs”) have filed this lawsuit against Defendant Michelle A. Hines (“Hines”), a member of the Town of Seekonk Board of Selectman, alleging a violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983, a violation of Mass. Gen. L. c. 12 § 11H-11I and defamation. D. 1-3. Hines has moved for judgment on the pleadings. D. 17. For the reasons stated below, the Court DENIES the motion.

         II. Standard of Review

         Rule 12(c) allows a party to move for judgment on the pleadings at any time “[a]fter the pleadings are closed-but early enough not to delay trial.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(c). A motion for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(c) is “ordinarily accorded much the same treatment” as a Rule 12(b)(6) motion. Aponte-Torres v. Univ. of P.R., 445 F.3d 50, 54 (1st Cir. 2006). To survive a motion for judgment on the pleadings, therefore, a plaintiff must plead “enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). Because a motion for judgment on the pleadings “calls for an assessment of the merits of the case at an embryonic stage, ” the Court “view[s] the facts contained in the pleadings in the light most favorable to the nonmovant and draw[s] all reasonable inferences therefrom” in their favor. Pérez-Acevedo v. Rivero-Cubano, 520 F.3d 26, 29 (1st Cir. 2008) (citation omitted).

         On a Rule 12(c) motion, unlike a Rule 12(b) motion, the Court considers the pleadings as a whole, including the answer. See Aponte-Torres, 445 F.3d at 54-55. Those assertions in the answer that have not been denied and do not conflict with the assertions in the complaint are taken as true. See Santiago v. Bloise, 741 F.Supp.2d 357, 360 (D. Mass. 2010). In addition, “[t]he court may supplement the facts contained in the pleadings by considering documents fairly incorporated therein and facts susceptible to judicial notice.” R.G. Fin. Corp. v. Vergara-Nuñez, 446 F.3d 178, 182 (1st Cir. 2006). Still, “[l]ike Rule 12(b)(6), Rule 12(c) does not allow for any resolution of contested facts; rather, a court may enter judgment on the pleadings only if the uncontested and properly considered facts conclusively establish the movant's entitlement to a favorable judgment.” Aponte-Torres, 445 F.3d at 54.

         III. Factual Background

         Unless otherwise indicated, the following summary is based on the facts as alleged in the complaint and the exhibits referenced therein, D. 1-3, and, to the extent they are not disputed, the facts contained in Hines's answer, D. 5. RISH owns and operates a development of luxury apartments known as Greenbrier Village Luxury Apartments (“Greenbrier Village”) in Seekonk, MA. D. 1-3 ¶¶ 8-11. Tapalian is a majority member and manager of RISH. Id. ¶ 2. An approximately twenty-two acre parcel of land known as the Showcase Property abuts Greenbrier Village. Id. ¶ 24. The Showcase Property sits in a split zoning district where a portion of the property is zoned “Highway Business” and the remainder of the property is zoned “Rural Residential.” Id. ¶ 26. In 2017, the Town of Seekonk-through its Board of Selectmen and Planning Department-considered rezoning the entire Showcase Property to “Highway Business.” Id. ¶ 27. Plaintiffs, through Tapalian, attended various meetings discussing the proposed rezoning of the Showcase Property. Id. ¶¶ 28-31. At these meetings, Plaintiffs expressed significant concerns that the rezoning would permit the opening of a used car lot or auto auction which would impact the abutting Greenbrier Village. Id. ¶ 30. The proposal to change the Showcase Property's zoning failed to pass during the Town's 2017 Annual Fall Meeting. Id. ¶¶ 32-37. In January 2018, the Town considered renewing its effort to rezone the Showcase Property as Highway Business. Id. ¶¶ 38-43. At one meeting considering the Showcase Property's rezoning, Hines, one member of the Seekonk Board of Selectman, expressed concern that statements made by members of the public about used car lots were “insulting” and “defamatory.” Id. ¶ 40.

         To protect the Showcase Property from being rezoned, Plaintiffs purchased the Showcase Property and created a plan to develop the portion abutting Greenbrier Village into additional residential units. Id. ¶¶ 44-46. Pursuant to this plan, Plaintiffs submitted to the town a petition which sought to incorporate the rear portion of the Showcase Property currently zoned Rural Residential into the adjacent Multifamily Development Overlay District (“Plaintiffs' Rezoning Proposal”). Id. ¶¶ 47-48. On December 27, 2018, the Seekonk Board of Selectmen met to discuss Plaintiffs' Rezoning Proposal. Id. ¶ 51.

         The December 2018 meeting was open to the public and televised live on local access channels. Id. ¶¶ 70-71. RISH's legal representative, Tapalian, town officials and Seekonk residents attended the meeting. Id. ¶¶ 52, 70. During this December 2018 meeting, Hines questioned Plaintiffs' counsel about their proposal. D. 1-3 Exh. 1 at 4:21-26:45. As part of her questioning, Hines said that Plaintiffs should not have “maligned used car dealers in town” and expressed concern that Seekonk lost an auto auction business. D. 1-3 ¶¶ 63-64. Hines further expressed concern that Plaintiffs had not kept up with promises to its purchasers. Id. ¶ 57. Hines explained that she would oppose Plaintiffs' effort to rezone in addition to any further efforts by Plaintiffs to construct condominiums in town. Id. ¶¶ 66-67. Hines was the only member of the Seekonk Board of Selectman to vote against establishing Plaintiffs' proposed zoning change as a warrant article, scheduling a special town meeting on the petition and referring it to the Planning Board for consideration and public hearing. Id. ¶ 68.

         IV. Procedural History

         Plaintiffs instituted this action on January 11, 2019, in Bristol Superior Court, D. 1-3, and on February 4, 2019, Hines removed the case to this Court, D. 1. Hines has now moved for judgment on the pleadings as to all claims. D. 17. The Court heard the parties on the pending motion and took these matters under advisement. D. 24.

         V. Discussion

         A. Count I: 42 U.S.C. ...


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