Third Circuit Refuses to Block Township’s Decision to Eliminate PA Fire Department

The Third Circuit Court of Appeals has refused to block a Pennsylvania township from eliminating one of its two volunteer fire companies. The Sassamansville Fire Co. No. 1 brought the action after New Hanover Township voted to eliminate it, claiming a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The facts were explained by the Third Circuit as follows:

  • For many years, New Hanover Township had two authorized fire departments.
  • Starting in 1948, the Sassamansville Fire Company No. 1 provided fire protection services, and later in 1970, the New Hanover Township Volunteer Fire Company No. 1 began doing the same.
  • But in 2010, the township hired a consulting firm to prepare a Fire Services Assessment.
  • The firm conducted a four-month review, and it reported that operational conflicts between the two departments detracted from response times and firefighting efforts.
  • Often, New Hanover Township Volunteer Fire Company would arrive first – due, in part, to closer proximity to high-risk areas – but when the Sassamansville Fire Company [*3]  arrived, it would seek to take charge.
  • The consulting firm recommended a merger. Sassamansville Fire Company initially resisted, but eventually relented, signing a resolution to memorialize the merger and transferring its fire house, equipment, and trucks to the merged entity.
  • Despite the merger, New Hanover’s township code still authorized Sassamansville Fire Company as a separate entity.
  • The merger did not go smoothly. In December 2015, after a disagreement, New Hanover Township Volunteer Fire Company prohibited Sassamansville Fire Company from participating in firefighting efforts.
  • That led to litigation between the two fire departments in Pennsylvania state court.
  • Although the fire departments resolved that dispute through a settlement, New Hanover Township sought greater repose.
  • Its board of supervisors discussed the issue at its public meetings, and they ultimately voted unanimously to amend the township code to remove Sassamansville Fire Company as a township-authorized fire department.
  • Sassamansville Fire Company then commenced this suit.

The suit was originally filed in the Court of Common Pleas for Montgomery County alleging substantive due process and equal protection violations. The township had the case removed to federal court due to the federal constitutional issues. The trial court granted the township’s motion to dismiss the federal claims, prompting the appeal to the Third Circuit.

In upholding the trial court, the Third Circuit explained that the substantive due process analysis in this case rested upon what is known as “rational basis” review. Rational basis review is a rather minimal analysis that courts apply to cases that do not involve fundamental rights or protected classifications such as race, gender, religion, etc. So long as the township has a rational basis for its decision to eliminate Sassamansville, the decision would not violate due process. Quoting from the decision:

  • The township’s amendment to its code to delist Sassamansville Fire Company is an economic regulation, which does not operate along suspect lines or infringe on fundamental rights.
  • And when such legislation is challenged on either due-process or equal-protection grounds, it receives rational-basis review.
  • Under that standard, the challenged governmental action will be upheld if it is rationally related to a legitimate governmental purpose.
  • The township’s decision to delist Sassamansville Fire Company clears that standard by a wide margin.
  • It was rational for the township to conclude it did not need two competing fire departments.
  • And there was at least one conceivable reason for eliminating Sassamansville Fire Company and keeping the New Hanover Township Volunteer Fire Company: even before the merger, according to the Fire Services Assessment, the New Hanover Township Volunteer Fire Company tended to arrive at the scene first.

Here is a copy of the decision:

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 45 years of fire service experience and 35 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014, 4th ed. 2022) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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