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KITCES v. WOOD

March 15, 1996

ANNA KITCES, Plaintiff,
v.
PATRICIA MOORE WOOD, Defendant.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: ORLOFSKY

 ORLOFSKY, District Judge:

 This matter comes before the Court on Defendant's Motion to Dismiss Plaintiff's Complaint pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(2), for Lack of Personal Jurisdiction, Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(3), for Improper Venue, and Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6), for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted due to the expiration of the Statute of Limitations. The issue presented to this Court, one of first impression in this Circuit, is whether a state court's order dismissing Plaintiff's complaint for lack of personal jurisdiction should be given preclusive effect by this Court. For the reasons set forth below, I conclude that the state court's disposition of the jurisdictional issue is binding upon this Court. Therefore, Defendant's motion to dismiss the complaint is granted.

 PROCEDURAL HISTORY

 On August 4, 1994, Plaintiff, Anna Kitces ("Kitces"), a resident of Burlington County, New Jersey, filed a civil complaint against Defendant, Patricia Moore Wood ("Wood"), a resident of Bucks County, Pennsylvania, in the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Burlington County. In that complaint, Kitces alleged that Wood's negligent operation of her motor vehicle caused it to collide with Kitces' motor vehicle while waiting in line at the toll booth on the Trenton-Morrisville Toll Bridge, on August 26, 1992. (Superior Court Complaint, attached to Brief in Support of Defendant's Motion to Dismiss Plaintiff's Complaint ("Defendant's Brief") as Exhibit "A"). The Delaware River Joint Toll Bridge Commission Accident Report ("Accident Report") indicates that the alleged accident occurred on the Bucks County, Pennsylvania, side of the bridge. (Accident Report, attached to Defendant's Brief as Exhibit "E").

 Wood moved to dismiss the New Jersey action on the ground that the Court could not, consistent with Due Process, exercise personal jurisdiction over her. On March 17, 1995, the New Jersey Superior Court entered an Order Dismissing Plaintiff's Complaint For Lack of Jurisdiction without prejudice on the ground that the "defendant is not a citizen or resident of New Jersey and that [the] Court lacks jurisdiction over [the] defendant." (Superior Court Order, attached to Defendant's Brief as Exhibit "F"). Plaintiff did not oppose the motion and no appeal was taken from the Order of Dismissal.

 Prior to the New Jersey state court's dismissal of Kitces' complaint, Kitces filed a complaint in the Court of Common Pleas of Bucks County, Pennsylvania. The Pennsylvania state court action, filed on February 10, 1995, contains claims which are virtually identical to those alleged in the New Jersey Superior Court complaint. (Bucks County Complaint, attached to Defendant's Brief as Exhibit "B"). Although neither party has attached a copy of the Order of Dismissal of the Bucks County action, Kitces admits that this action was not successful "due to the running of the statute of limitations in Pennsylvania, and non cooperation of plaintiff with counsel..." (Plaintiff's Brief in Opposition to Defendant's Motion to Dismiss Plaintiff's Complaint ("Plaintiff's Brief") at 1).

 On March 8, 1995, Kitces filed a complaint in this Court which was virtually identical to the two prior complaints filed in the New Jersey and Pennsylvania state courts, respectively. It is this complaint which is the subject of Wood's Motion to Dismiss.

 Lack of Personal Jurisdiction

 Wood first contends that this Court should dismiss Kitces' complaint because this Court does not have personal jurisdiction over her. Wood asserts that the issue of personal jurisdiction has already been conclusively decided by the Superior Court of New Jersey, and therefore, cannot be relitigated in this forum. Wood also claims that, notwithstanding the prior adjudication of this jurisdictional issue in state court, this Court should find independently that it lacks personal jurisdiction over her.

 The issue presented is whether the New Jersey Superior Court's Order Dismissing Plaintiff's (Kitces') Complaint For Lack of Jurisdiction entered on March 17, 1995, following its determination that it lacked personal jurisdiction over Wood, should be accorded preclusive effect in this Court. Kitces' complaint filed in this Court is virtually identical to the complaint she filed in the Superior Court. No new or different facts are alleged in Kitces's federal complaint which would impact upon a court's determination of personal jurisdiction.

 In a diversity action such as this, whether a nonresident defendant is subject to the Court's personal jurisdiction is determined by the law of the state in which the district court sits. See DeJames v. Magnificence Carriers, Inc., 654 F.2d 280, 284 (3d Cir.), cert. denied, 454 U.S. 1085, 70 L. Ed. 2d 620, 102 S. Ct. 642 (1981); Database America v. Bell South Advertising & Publishing Corp., 825 F. Supp. 1195 (D.N.J. 1993). Accordingly, this Court must apply New Jersey law to decide the question of personal jurisdiction. Personal jurisdiction in New Jersey is governed by New Jersey Court Rule 4:4-4, the New Jersey long-arm rule. Since the New Jersey Superior Court dismissed Kitces' complaint for lack of personal jurisdiction, it has already determined that New Jersey's long-arm rule does not subject Kitces to the personal jurisdiction of a New Jersey court.

 The doctrine of collateral estoppel, or issue preclusion, forecloses Plaintiff from prosecuting in this Court an action which is identical to the action dismissed by the Superior Court of New Jersey for lack of personal jurisdiction. Collateral estoppel precludes "the relitigation of an issue that has been put in issue and directly determined adversely to the party against whom the estoppel is asserted." Melikian v. Corradetti, 791 F.2d 274, 277 (3d Cir. 1986); Tonka Corp. v. Rose Art Indus., 836 F. Supp. 200, 211 (D.N.J. 1993). The principles of collateral estoppel apply with equal force to a prior determination by a court that it lacks personal jurisdiction over a party. Therefore, once a New Jersey state court has concluded that it lacks personal jurisdiction over a party, that jurisdictional issue cannot be relitigated in this Court. See Baldwin v. Iowa State Traveling Men's Association, 283 U.S. 522, 525-526, 75 L. Ed. 1244, 51 S. Ct. 517 (1931) (adjudication of personal jurisdictional issue precludes subsequent relitigation of same issue); Deckert v. Wachovia Student Financial Services, 963 F.2d 816, 817 (5th Cir. 1992); Kendall v. Overseas Development Corp., 700 F.2d 536, 538 (9th Cir. 1983). See also 1B Moore's Federal Practice P 0.405[5] at III-46-48.

 In Deckert v. Wachovia Student Financial Services, 963 F.2d at 817, the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court's refusal to permit the parties to relitigate the personal jurisdiction issue, where the Texas state court had already dismissed the plaintiff's complaint for lack of jurisdiction over the defendant. Similarly, in Kendall v. Overseas Development Corp., 700 F.2d at 538, the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court's dismissal of the complaint based upon the Idaho state court's determination in an earlier action that it lacked personal jurisdiction over the ...


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