By Jamie Wiggan
Robinson officials are asking a judge to dismiss a lawsuit filed by a resident who claims his property is being improperly seized to benefit a developer with ties to the township.
In a court response filed Sept. 21, township lawyers say officials acted in good faith by beginning eminent domain proceedings in 2018 to obtain a slice of private property owned by James Esposito, a resident and business owner.
While accepting the basic pattern of events outlined in Esposito’s complaint, filed July 15, the township’s response calls for strict proof of the claim they were fueled by underhanded motivations to benefit Michael Dunn, a developer and township official who owns an adjoining land parcel.
“Defendants deny that they are liable to any party and request that this matter be dismissed with costs and attorney fees,” the township’s response states. “...These Defendants acted with objective reasonableness and clearly without malice or deliberate indifference to the known rights of Plaintiffs.”
Esposito is seeking a minimum of $35,000 in compensation plus legal fees, claiming he’s the victim of “malicious prosecution” for which he has sustained “significant damage.”
In addition to the township, the suit lists Dunn as a defendant, along with Planning Director Rick Urbano and Code Enforcement Officer Joseph Schonbeck.
After buying an undeveloped commercial lot next to Esposito’s realty office in 2011, Dunn approached Esposito four years later, proposing to build a joint driveway connecting both lots to the main road, according to Esposito’s civil complaint.
The township’s response accepts this account but denies township officials later embarked on a “civil conspiracy” to aid Dunn when Esposito declined the offer.
Esposito’s filing claims the township issued a string of fabricated violation letters in an attempt to stall his business operations at 5852 Steubenville Pike, and refers to the eminent domain proceedings as the “final dagger.”
The township’s response acknowledges the violation letters sent, and civil and criminal charges brought against Esposito, but again denies any claims of malintent.
After Esposito appealed one of the citations, Commonwealth Court Judge Fizzano Cannon issued an opinion faulting the township’s solicitor for issuing two violation letters that failed to meet the requirements of Pennsylvania’s municipal codes. The same opinion exonerated Esposito and called out Schonbeck for filing the case in criminal rather than civil court.
Esposito also appealed the eminent domain filings, in a case that’s still moving through the courts.
Esposito initially filed his recent civil suit against Robinson in common pleas court, but the township filed a request to remove it to federal court. A judge has called a teleconference Oct. 13 to determine whether both parties consent to the jurisdiction before the case continues.