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Turner v. City of Camden

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT DISTRICT OF NEW JERSEY


March 11, 2004

DENNIS TURNER, PLAINTIFF,
v.
CITY OF CAMDEN, STATE OF NEW JERSEY, NORTON N. BONAPARTE, DEFENDANTS.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Joseph E. Irenas, S.U.S.D.J.

ORDER GRANTING DEFENDANTS' MOTION TO DISMISS

This matter having appeared before the Court upon Defendants' Motion to Dismiss, pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(c), the Court having reviewed the submissions of the parties, and it appearing that:

1. This case arises out of an employment dispute between Dennis Turner ("Plaintiff") and the State of New Jersey, the City of Camden and Norton N. Bonaparte, the City Administrator for the City of Camden ("Defendants"). Plaintiff claims that while working as a legal assistant for the City of Camden, he was performing the duties of the Director of Economic and Industrial Development ("DEID"), but was never recognized or compensated as such by the Defendants. Plaintiff argues that this dispute led to his undeserved termination.

2. Plaintiff began work as a legal assistant for the City of Camden in 1997. In approximately April, 1999, Plaintiff was designated the administrator of Camden's Urban Enterprise Zone ("UEZ") program. Administrating the UEZ program was the primary responsibility of the DEID. However, Plaintiff was only given the specific responsibilities of DEID on September 30, 2000. (Comp., ** 5-14).

3. At that time, due to its financial distress, the City of Camden was directly supervised by the State of New Jersey and was subject to a complete hiring freeze. (Comp., * 16). Accordingly, to fully promote Plaintiff to the position of DEID, the Camden City Administrator, then Preston Taylor, required a waiver from the relevant state official, Ulrich Steinberg. *fn1 Id.

4. Steinberg soon replaced Preston Taylor with Defendant Bonaparte, who was opposed to promoting Plaintiff to the position of DEID. (Comp., ** 17-21). Therefore, on May 1, 2001, Plaintiff took his request for promotion to DEID to the New Jersey Department of Personnel. He complained that he had been appointed DEID without official recognition or compensation. (Comp., * 24). On June 21, 2001, the Department of Personnel's Division of Human Resource Management ("DHRM") evaluated Plaintiff's position and determined that Plaintiff should be officially given the title of DEID. (Comp., ** 29-31).

5. However, on September 6, 2001, Defendant Bonaparte appealed the DHRM decision on the grounds that he had not received a waiver from the State to promote Plaintiff. (Comp., * 32). Plaintiff alleges that on September 21, 2001, Juliet Smith, a personnel officer for the City of Camden, offered him the position of Economic Development Representative 2 in exchange for dropping his complaint with the DHRM - and if he did not, the funding for his position as legal assistant would expire at the end of the year. (Def's. Br, * 7).

6. Plaintiff responded on November 9, 2001 by requesting that the Merit System Board enforce the DHRM decision officially appointing him as DEID. While Plaintiff's request was pending, Plaintiff was terminated from his position as a legal assistant, allegedly due to lack of funding and the fact that the waiver request for a promotion had not been approved. *fn2 (Def's. Ex. C, ** 34-39).

7. On February 4, 2002, the Merit System Board ruled against Plaintiff, granting the City of Camden's request to keep the position of DEID vacant. (Pl's. Br., * 12). Plaintiff then filed an appeal of the Board's decision with the Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division (Def's. Ex. C). On October 17, 2003, the Appellate Division approved the ruling of the Merit System Board, again denying Plaintiff's request for a promotion. (Def's Ex. B).

8. While Plaintiff's appeal to the Appellate Division was pending, he filed the present action in the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, which Defendants removed to this Court. (Def's. Ex. A). In this action, Plaintiff alleges that Defendants violated: (1) his rights under N.J.S.A. 34:15-1 et seq., the Conscientious Employee Protection Act ("CEPA"); and (2) his Fourteenth Amendment procedural due process and First Amendment free speech rights pursuant to 42 U.S.C. * 1983.

9. The decision of the Appellate Division to deny Plaintiff's promotion sets the stage for Defendants' motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(c). Defendants argue that the doctrines of res judicata and/or collateral estoppel dictate that Plaintiff's claims have already been decided, and that he is not entitled to raise them again before this Court. *fn3 The thrust of Plaintiff's response is that Defendants' terminated his position in retaliation for his seeking a promotion to the position of DEID, and that argument was not considered by either the Merit System Board or the Appellate Division. *fn4 This Court finds that issue preclusion, or collateral estoppel, merits dismissal of Plaintiff's claims pursuant to Rule 12(c). Original jurisdiction to hear the case is based on 28 U.S.C. * 1331.

10. Under Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(c), any party may move for judgment on the pleadings after the pleadings have closed. Under Rule 12(c), a court must accept all factual averments as true and draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the non-moving party. Society Hill Civic Ass'n v. Harris, 632 F.2d 1045, 1054 (3d Cir. 1980). A party moving for judgment on the pleadings under Rule 12(c) must demonstrate that there are no disputed material facts and that judgment should be entered as a matter of law. Jablonski v. Pan American World Airways, Inc., 863 F.2d 289, 290-91 (3d Cir. 1988). Judgment may only be entered where "no set of facts could be adduced to support the plaintiff's claim for relief." Bryson v. Brand Insulations, Inc., 621 F.2d 556, 559 (3d Cir. 1980).

11. Issue preclusion, or collateral estoppel, prohibits parties from relitigating issues that were actually decided in a prior judgment. In order for the doctrine to apply, a party must show: (1) the issue to be precluded is identical to the issue decided in the prior proceeding; (2) the issue was actually litigated in the prior proceeding; (3) the court in the prior proceeding issued a final judgment on the merits; (4) the determination of the issue was essential to the prior judgment; and (5) the party against whom the doctrine is asserted was a party to or in privity with a party to the prior proceeding. In re: Estate of Dawson, 641 A.2d 1026, 1033 (N.J. 1994).

12. The issues that Plaintiff raises in this case are identical to the issues raised before the Appellate Division. The Appellate Division found that the City of Camden's decision to refuse to promote Plaintiff and eventually terminate him was based on financial concerns. This determination is applicable to all of Plaintiff's current claims. *fn5

13. Nevertheless, Plaintiff argues that the Appellate Division left one major issue unaddressed: whether he was terminated in retaliation for seeking the position of DEID. However, the Appellate Division was clear on this point. On page four of its opinion, it acknowledges that Plaintiff asserts that "he is entitled to reinstatement as his dismissal resulted from reprisal." In the Matter of Director of Economic and Industrial Development, City of Camden, No. A-3546-01T1, slip op. at 4 (N.J. Super. App. Div. Oct. 17, 2003). The only additional mention of the reprisal issue comes at the opinion's conclusion: "We have carefully reviewed appellant's additional contentions and find that they are without merit." Id. at 8.

14. Plaintiff interprets these statements to mean that the issue of reprisal was not truly considered by the Appellate Division. However, Plaintiff simply fails to make a very reasonable connection between the Appellate Division's reasoning and his reprisal argument. In upholding the Merit Board's decision, the Appellate Division essentially found that as a financially distressed city, Camden, and by extension Defendant Bonaparte, had good cause to oppose the expense of Plaintiff's promotion. Id. at 7-8. This finding can be easily extended to suggest that financial distress, not reprisal, motivated Defendants' actions with regard to Plaintiff's termination. Consequently, this Court finds the reprisal issue was in fact decided by the Appellate Division. *fn6

15. The question of whether Plaintiff's current claims were actually litigated in the prior proceeding is more easily answered. In his brief before the Appellate Division, the facts that Plaintiff alleged were overwhelmingly identical to those alleged in the present action. (Def's Ex. C). On the specific question of reprisal, Plaintiff devoted nearly ten pages of his sixty-five page Appellate Division brief to precisely that issue. Id. The Appellate Division was completely briefed on all the facts of this case, including the question of whether Plaintiff's termination was retaliatory. Therefore the second element of the collateral estoppel test is satisfied.

16. The third element of the test evaluates whether the prior court issued a final judgment on the merits. There is no question that the Appellate Division issued a final judgment on the merits as to Plaintiff's claims. Plaintiff's petition for certiorari to the New Jersey Supreme Court was denied. In the Matter of Director of Economic and Industrial Development, 841 A.2d 92 (N.J. 2003).

17. The fourth element of the collateral estoppel test, whether determination of the present issue was essential to the prior judgment, was determined by the Appellate Division when it held that Plaintiff's termination was motivated by financial concerns. That judgment necessarily considered Plaintiff's current claims and dismissed them.

18. Finally, the last element of the collateral estoppel test, that the party against whom the doctrine is being asserted was a party to the prior case, is satisfied here; the parties have not changed. Because Plaintiff satisfies all five elements of the collateral estoppel analysis, the doctrine appropriately prevents him from relitigating those claims before this Court. Dismissal pursuant to Rule 12(c) is merited.

And for good cause shown,

IT IS on this 11th day of March, 2004, ORDERED THAT:

Defendants' Motion to Dismiss, pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(c), is GRANTED.


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