On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Monmouth County, Docket No. L-5209-02.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted December 10, 2008
Before Judges C.L. Miniman and King.
Plaintiff Kenneth McPeek appeals the dismissal of his suit against several state officials for violation of his civil rights under the New Jersey Civil Rights Act (NJCRA), N.J.S.A. 10:6-1 to -2, McPeek's horse trainer's license was suspended after a race in which one of his horses was injured and was euthanized. Although the suspension never was effective due to a stay pending the successful administrative appeal, McPeek sued the defendant state entities and officials in Federal District Court for violation of his federal and state civil rights.
The District Court dismissed McPeek's federal claims with prejudice and his state claims without prejudice. McPeek then filed a similar suit in the Superior Court, Law Division, Monmouth County. The trial judge concluded, and McPeek's counsel agreed, that the State constitution offered no greater relief in this regard than its Federal counterpart. The judge then dismissed the state action and this appeal followed.
We agree with the trial judge the plaintiff's claims were properly dismissed, and believe that in any case they are barred under res judicata and collateral estoppel principles. We affirm.
This is the factual background. On September 17, 1993 "Mean Doris Dean," recently arrived from Kentucky, fell and broke her leg during a race at the Meadowlands track. The horse was euthanized. McPeek, the trainer, was in Kentucky at the time of the race but he had applied for a New Jersey trainer's license from the New Jersey Racing Commission (Commission). Although the Commission did not issue McPeek a trainer's license until September 23, 1993 he did receive a temporary license on September 6, 1993.
After "Mean Doris Jean" was destroyed, two former employees complained to the Commission that, although McPeek knew the horse had swollen and inflamed ankles and was not in a condition to race, he still decided to race her. Following this complaint, the Commission's Board of Stewards conducted a disciplinary hearing on December 8, 1993. On December 11, 1993 the Board of Stewards suspended McPeek's license for thirty days, concluding that he (1) had acted detrimentally to racing, contrary to N.J.A.C. 13:70-1.15; (2) had entered or started a horse not in serviceable, sound racing condition, contrary to N.J.A.C. 13:70-20.11; and (3) had committed questionable conduct, contrary to N.J.A.C. 13:70-16.23.
After the Board of Stewards hearing, defendant Zanzuccki, the Commission's Executive Director, issued a ruling on December 29, 1993, that McPeek had knowingly entered "Mean Doris Jean" in the race in an unfit condition and ordered his trainer's license suspended for one year. McPeek then appealed Zanzuccki's and the Board of Steward's suspensions to the Racing Commission pursuant to N.J.A.C. 13:70-13A-1 and sought a hearing. The matter was referred to an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) for hearing as a contested case. Pursuant to N.J.A.C. 13:70-13A.5. McPeek on January 4, 1994 then requested a stay and Zanzuccki stayed the suspension pending a decision by the ALJ. The ALJ who reviewed the matter issued an initial decision on October 4, 1999 recommending that the Commission dismiss its ruling that McPeek had violated its regulations. (The reason for this five-year delay is not present in the record.) The Commission then adopted the ALJ's initial decision on December 21, 1999 and dismissed the suspension.
On October 3, 2001 McPeek filed suit in the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey alleging that defendants had violated his federal civil rights under the Federal Civil Rights Act, 42 U.S.C.A. §§ 1983, 1985, 1985, 1986, 1988; and Amendments Four, Five, and Fourteen of the Federal Constitution, as well as claims arising under state law and the parallel provisions of the New Jersey Constitution. (Because of the multiplicity of defendants, we will refer to them collectively as the Attorney General. The Attorney General's Office has at all times represented the defendants involved.) The Attorney General then filed a motion to dismiss pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) in lieu of a reply. Judge Cooper treated this as a motion for summary judgment, and in a twenty-five page opinion dated September 26, 2002, first dismissed all claims against the State entities on Eleventh Amendment grounds. She also dismissed the claims against the individual defendants Zanzuccki, Kaufmann, and Frei under the doctrine of qualified immunity. In doing so, Judge Cooper observed that although an occupational license is a property interest, and thus McPeek was entitled to due process before its deprivation, the Board of Stewards held an adequate hearing before ordering the suspension of his license. Further, although Zanzuccki increased the suspension from thirty days to one year, he stayed the suspension before it actually went into effect. Judge Cooper thus found that at no time was McPeek ever deprived of a property interest without due process.
Judge Cooper also noted that "bare allegations of malice" were insufficient to overcome a claim of qualified immunity. She found that since 42 U.S.C.A. §§ 1985, 1986, and 1988 require a plaintiff to allege that defendants engaged in a conspiracy to deprive him of equal protection under the law or equal privileges or immunities under the law where there exists a racial or class-based animus behind the conspirators' actions, all individual defendants were entitled to ...