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NINAL v. EVANGELISTA

United States District Court, D. New Jersey


October 20, 2005.

MAXIMO A. NINAL, JR., Plaintiff,
v.
JODI EVANGELISTA, DEBORAH HEINZ, AND THE NEW JERSEY DEP'T OF COMMUNITY AFFAIRS, Defendants.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: JOEL PISANO, District Judge

OPINION

Plaintiff, Maximo Ninal, brings this action against the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs (the "Department"); Deborah Heinz, Supervising Program Development Specialist at the Department; and Jodi Evangelista, Director of Human Resources at the Department. Plaintiff alleges that the Defendants engaged in employment discrimination against him in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e et seq. (2005), and N.J.S.A. §§ 10:5-4 and 10:5-12 when they allegedly refused to re-hire Plaintiff as a field representative.*fn1 Defendants submitted a motion for summary judgment or, in the alternative, for dismissal of Plaintiff's complaint for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. For the following reasons, Defendants motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction is granted.*fn2

  I. Background

  Plaintiff was employed as a field representative in the Department's Section 8 housing assistance program from 1994 through April, 2001. In his capacity as a field representative, Plaintiff was responsible for determining eligibility and meeting the housing needs of clients in the Section 8 program.

  The Department filed two Notices of Disciplinary Action against the Plaintiff. First, on December 5, 2000, the Department charged Plaintiff with falsifying his time sheet for the afternoon of September 27, 2000. Plaintiff filed an untimely appeal of this charge with the Merit System Board on January 5, 2001. In support of his appeal, Plaintiff submitted a field appointment schedule dated September 27, 2000. The Department realized that the field appointment schedule submitted to the Merit System Board was inconsistent with the field appointment schedule for the same day that Plaintiff previously submitted to the Department.*fn3 As a result of this inconsistency, the Department filed a second Notice of Disciplinary Action against the Plaintiff on March 2, 2001. The Department charged Plaintiff with falsifying a field appointment schedule and soliciting statements from other persons to support his falsified field appointment schedule.

  The Department sanctioned Plaintiff by (1) suspending him for ten days for his initial act of falsifying time records, the subject of the December 5, 2000 disciplinary action; and (2) removing Plaintiff from his position as a field representative as of April 19, 2001 because of the March 2, 2001 disciplinary action.

  Plaintiff appealed the Department's disciplinary actions to the Merit System Board. In addition, Plaintiff filed an Unfair Practice Charge with the State of New Jersey Public Employment Relations Committee ("PERC") alleging that the Department improperly engaged in retaliation, harassment, and discrimination against the Plaintiff in his workplace.

  Plaintiff's appeals of the disciplinary actions and his Unfair Practice Charge were all consolidated before the Office of Administrative Law for a hearing before Administrative Law Judge Robert J. Giordano. Judge Giordano conducted a plenary hearing in this matter on October 16, 2003. During this hearing, the parties engaged in significant settlement negotiations and ultimately reached a settlement agreement.

  The parties agree that under the settlement agreement discussed on October 16, 2003, the Plaintiff would do the following: (1) withdraw his appeals from the two disciplinary actions as well as his Unfair Labor Charge; and (2) waive any claims for back pay, vacation pay, or any other "emolument of employment." The parties concur that the Department agreed to do the following in return: 1) withdraw the disciplinary charges against the Plaintiff; (2) remove any references to the disciplinary charges from Plaintiff's personnel file and instead include in the file a reflection of Plaintiff's resignation in good standing; (3) issue a "to whom it may concern" departmental acknowledgment letter stating that Plaintiff resigned from employment in good standing; and (4) pay Plaintiff $35,000.00.

  Defendants assert that the Plaintiff also agreed that he would: (1) release the Department from "any and all claims that may arise out of the within incidents;" and (2) not seek employment in the future with the Department. Although Plaintiff's opposition brief fails to list these conditions as terms of the settlement agreement discussed on October 16, 2003, the record of the proceedings before Judge Giordano clearly indicate that these terms were conditions of the agreement.*fn4 Thereafter, the Plaintiff refused to sign a written agreement memorializing these settlement terms. The parties appeared for another hearing before Judge Giordano on March 24, 2004. Plaintiff argued that he did not want to sign the agreement because he did not understand its terms. Plaintiff claimed that he thought that the discussions were merely a settlement offer and that there was no agreement until a written document was actually signed. Judge Giordano found that Plaintiff understood the terms of the agreement and entered into it freely and voluntarily at the October 16, 2003 hearing and, therefore, that the agreement was enforceable. The Merit System Board and PERC, in a joint decision, affirmed Judge Giordano's decision.

  Plaintiff did not appeal Judge Giordano's ruling to the New Jersey Appellate Division. Instead, on July 21, 2004, Plaintiff filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC"). Plaintiff alleged that he was discriminated against because he applied for re-hire with the Department in October, 2003 and March, 2004 and was denied re-hire. The EEOC found that Plaintiff did not establish a statutory violation and dismissed Plaintiff's action. Subsequently, on August 31, 2004, Plaintiff cashed the $35,000.00 check that the Department sent to him pursuant to its obligations under the settlement agreement. Plaintiff then filed suit in this Court on November 19, 2004.

  In the instant suit, Plaintiff alleges that the Defendants discriminated against him in violation of both federal and New Jersey law by refusing to re-hire him as a field representative on October 16, 2003. Plaintiff states that Heinz and Evangelista both spoke to Plaintiff's counsel, Robert H. Jaffe, Esq., on October 16, 2003, and informed him that they did not want to re-hire Plaintiff as an employee of the Department. However, Plaintiff offers no evidence that he specifically spoke to Heinz or Evangelista about being re-hired for a position at the Department outside of the context of the settlement discussions and hearing on October 16, 2003. Further, both Heinz and Evangelista submitted affidavits stating that they had not spoken with Plaintiff since the October 16, 2003 hearing before Judge Giordano. Both Heinz and Evangelista further stated in their respective affidavits that to their knowledge Plaintiff had not reapplied for a position at the Department.

  Thus, the only possible interpretation of Plaintiff's claims that he was discriminated against because the Department refused to re-hire him must stem from the settlement reached at the hearing before Judge Giordano on October 16, 2003. Plaintiff now apparently claims that because the Department sought Plaintiff's agreement that he would not seek re-employment with the Department as part of the settlement discussed on October 16, 2003, the Department discriminated against him on the basis of his race, sex, and national origin. II. Legal Discussion

  A. Standard for Motion to Dismiss for Lack of Subject Matter Jurisdiction

  Defendants bring this motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine which is discussed in detail below. The Court will treat Defendants' motion as a motion to dismiss pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1). See Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(1); see also 19th Street Baptist Church v. St. Peter's Episcopal Church, No. Civ.A. 99-CV-5085, 2003 WL 22849592, at *2 (E.D. Pa. Nov. 26, 2003) (applying Rule 12(b)(1) to motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction under Rooker-Feldman doctrine); Hanover Group, Inc. v. Manufactured Home Communities, Inc., No. IP00-0739-C-T/G, 2000 WL 1124877, at *2 (S.D. Ind. Jul. 12, 2000) ("A Rooker-Feldman defense should be presented through a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(1).").

  When subject matter jurisdiction is challenged under 12(b)(1), the plaintiff has the burden to show that the court has the requisite jurisdiction to hear the case. Hedges v. United States, 404 F.3d 744, 750 (3d Cir. 2005). Further, the district court "may not presume the truthfulness of plaintiff's allegations, but rather must evaluat[e] for itself the merits of [the] jurisdictional claims." Id. (citing Mortensen v. First Fed. Savings & Loan Ass'n., 549 F.2d 884, 891 (3d Cir. 1977)).

  B. The Rooker-Feldman Doctrine

  The Rooker-Feldman doctrine prevents a federal court from exercising subject matter jurisdiction over a matter in which the plaintiff is a losing party in a state court lawsuit who "filed suit in federal court after the state proceedings ended, complaining of an injury caused by the state-court judgment and seeking the federal court's review and rejection of that judgment." Exxon Mobile Corp. v. Saudi Basic Indus. Co., 125 S. Ct. 1517, 1526 (2005). The doctrine is based on the established premise that federal district courts are empowered to exercise original jurisdiction, not act as appellate courts in review of state court judgments. See Knapper v. Bankers Trust Co., 407 F.3d 573, 580 (3d Cir. 2005).

  Under the Rooker-Feldman Doctrine, lower federal courts cannot entertain constitutional claims*fn5 that are inextricably intertwined with a state adjudication." See Chajkowski v. Bosick, 132 Fed. Appx. 978, 979 (3d Cir. 2005); Knapper, 407 F.3d at 580.*fn6 This analysis necessarily entails two inquiries: (1) the Court must determine if the state court proceeding was an adjudication, see, e.g., District of Columbia Court of Appeals v. Feldman, 460 U.S. 462, 478 (1983); see also Forchion v. Intensive Supervised Parole, 240 F. Supp. 2d 302, 306 (D.N.J. 2005) ("the doctrine only applies when the action taken by the state body is judicial and not legislative, ministerial, or administrative in nature"); (2) if there is a state court adjudication, the Court must determine whether the federal claim, in this case, a Title VII employment discrimination claim, is "inextricably intertwined" with the state court adjudication.

  This Court finds that the joint decision of the Merit System Board and PERC is "judicial in nature" and thus, qualifies as an adjudication the Rooker-Feldman doctrine. Whether a particular proceeding before a state tribunal is judicial in nature is a question of law to be determined by the Court. See Feldman, 460 U.S. at 476. A judicial inquiry "investigates, declares and enforces liabilities as they stand on present or past facts and under law supposed already to exist. . . . Legislation on the other hand looks to the future and changes existing conditions by making a new rule to be applied thereafter. . . ." Id. at 477. The nature of the proceeding depends "not on the character of the body but upon the character of the proceedings." Id.

  The Merit System Board and the PERC were called upon to investigate the circumstances surrounding the settlement agreement and reach a legal conclusion as to its validity. This was clearly not rulemaking or the disposition of a purely ministerial matter, but instead, the application of legal principles to a live dispute. Thus, the Rooker-Feldman doctrine is applicable. Cf. Feldman, 460 U.S. at 479-82 (finding that state court proceeding was judicial and not legislative, administrative, or ministerial); Guarino v. Larsen, 11 F.3d 1151, (3d Cir. 1993) (finding that state court proceeding revoking judge's senior status was adjudicative because the court applied state law to reach legal conclusions in the proceeding).

  Since this Court finds that a prior state adjudication exists, the Court must now determine whether the federal claim presented is "inextricably intertwined" with the joint decision of the Merit System Board and PERC. A federal claim is inextricably intertwined with a prior state adjudication where "the relief requested in the federal action would effectively reverse the state decision or void its ruling." See Chajkowski, 132 Fed. Appx. at 979; Whiteford v. Reed, 155 F.3d 671, 673-674 (3d Cir. 1998).

  This Court holds that Plaintiff's Title VII claim is "inextricably intertwined" with the joint decision by the Merit System Board and PERC and thus, that the Court lacks the subject matter jurisdiction to adjudicate Plaintiff's claim under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine. Since the joint decision found that the settlement agreement reached on October 16, 2003 was enforceable, Plaintiff was a losing party in the state court adjudication. Although Plaintiff does not specifically ask the Court to review and reject the findings of the joint decision, the Court is unable to grant Plaintiff's requested relief without effectively voiding that decision. See Cambria County Children & Youth Services v. Lucas, 137 Fed. Appx. 448, 449 (3d Cir. 2005) (dismissing Plaintiff's claims under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine where the claims either "expressly or implicitly [attempted] to reverse the state court decisions" (emphasis added)). The joint decision held that the settlement agreement, including the condition that Plaintiff not seek re-employment with the Department, was enforceable. In order for this Court to find that Defendants discriminated against Plaintiff by prohibiting him from seeking re-employment with the Department as a condition of the settlement agreement, the Court would have to review the terms of the settlement agreement and ultimately find the settlement to be unenforceable, thus voiding the joint decision by the Merit System Board and PERC.

  Plaintiff fails to demonstrate how the relief he seeks in federal court will leave the state court adjudication enforcing the settlement agreement intact. See Bolus v. Cappy, 141 Fed. Appx. 63, 65 (3d Cir. 2005) (dismissing Plaintiff's § 1983 claim under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine because Plaintiff "failed to demonstrate how any of his federal claims regarding his state court proceedings and appeals are entitled to federal district court review). In fact, Plaintiff's entire opposition to Defendants' motion is that the motion should be denied because Defendants have breached the settlement agreement between the parties.*fn7 This position actually supports the application of the Rooker-Feldman doctrine because the Plaintiff is specifically asking the Court to consider whether the Defendants breached the settlement agreement.

  The application of the doctrine is further supported by one of the crucial terms of the settlement agreement of October 16, 2003. Under the agreement, the Plaintiff agreed to release the Department from "any and all claims that may arise out of the within incidents." In order to consider whether Plaintiff can even bring the instant claims, the Court would have to consider the enforceability of the settlement agreement.

  Thus, this claim is inextricably intertwined with the prior state adjudication and this Court lacks the requisite subject matter jurisdiction to hear Plaintiff's claims. See, e.g., Knapper, 407 F.3d at 581 (holding that court lacked subject matter jurisdiction under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine because Plaintiff can only prevail "if a federal court concludes that the state courts' default judgments were improperly obtained" and thus, the claims were "inextricably intertwined"); Untract v. Weimann, 141 Fed. Appx. 46, (3d Cir. 2005) (dismissing Plaintiff's § 1983 claim for lack of subject matter jurisdiction under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine because "not only [did Plaintiff] seek to undo state court orders, but almost all of the actions . . . are directly related to the state court proceedings.").*fn8

  Should Plaintiff seek review of the joint decision by the Merit System Board and PERC affirming Judge Giordano's decision to enforce the settlement agreement of October 16, 2003, he should file an appeal with the New Jersey Appellate Division raising his concerns. This Court cannot act as an appellate tribunal to hear Plaintiff's grievances.

  Without jurisdiction to hear the federal claims present in this action, the Court declines to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over Plaintiff's remaining state law claims under N.J.S.A. §§ 10:5-4 and 10:5-12. See 28 U.S.C. § 1367(c)(3) ("The district courts may decline to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over a claim . . . if the district court has dismissed all claims over which it has original jurisdiction."); see also Mackenzie v. Donovan, 375 F. Supp. 2d 312, 320-21 (S.D.N.Y. 2005) (dismissing plaintiff's state law claims after all federal claims were dismissed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction under Rooker-Feldman doctrine). III. Conclusion

  For the reasons stated above, the Court grants Defendants' motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. An appropriate order accompanies this opinion.

20051020

© 1992-2005 VersusLaw Inc.



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