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Clifton v. New Jersey Transit Corp.

October 19, 2009


On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Essex County, Docket No. L-8201-07.

Per curiam.


Submitted: August 25, 2009

Before Judges C.L. Miniman and Simonelli.

Plaintiffs Zachariah Clifton, Jr. (Zachariah), and Constance Clifton (Constance) appeal from an order dismissing their claims against defendants New Jersey Transit Corporation and New Jersey Transit Rail Operations, Inc., under applicable statutes of limitations and on other grounds. Because their claims are clearly as a matter of law barred by statutes of limitations, we affirm.

Defendants employed Zachariah under a Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) until October 29, 2001, when defendants terminated his employment. Pursuant to the CBA, his union grieved, and then arbitrated, this adverse employment action. The arbitrators decided adversely to Zachariah on November 25, 2002, mailing their decision to him on January 3, 2003. On August 6, 2003, Zachariah filed an astute pro se complaint against these defendants in the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey, which he amended on November 5, 2003. Therein, he alleged one cause of action under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), 29 U.S.C.A. §§ 2611 to 2654; three under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD), N.J.S.A. 10:5-1 to -49; and one under the Railway Labor Act (RLA), 45 U.S.C.A. §§ 151 to 188.

Defendants subsequently moved for summary judgment on the FMLA and RLA claims. The District Court judge issued an opinion*fn1 and order on September 22, 2005, dismissing the FMLA and RLA claims and declining to exercise supplemental jurisdiction under U.S.C.A. § 1367(c)(3) because he dismissed all claims over which the court had original jurisdiction. In dismissing the LAD claims, the District Court judge cited Kohn v. AT&T Corp., 58 F. Supp. 2d 393 (D.N.J. 1999). That case states:

Section 1367(c) permits a court to decline to exercise supplemental jurisdiction when "the district court has dismissed all claims over which it has original jurisdiction." 28 U.S.C. § 1367(c)(3); see also Carnegie-Mellon [Univ. v. Cohill, 484 U.S. [343,] 350[, 98 L.Ed. 2d 720, 729-730, 108 S.Ct. 614, 619 (1988)] ("When the Federal-law claims have dropped out of the lawsuit in its early stages and only State-law claims remain, the Federal court should decline the exercise of jurisdiction by dismissing the case without prejudice.") (footnote omitted); Fuentes v. South Hills Cardiology, 946 F.2d 196, 198 n.3 (3d Cir. 1991) (dismissal of "pendent State law claim[]" proper where Federal claims dismissed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction). [Id. at 421-22 (emphasis added).]

The order entered by the judge provided that summary judgment was granted as to the federal claims and the court declined to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over the state claims. It then provided that it was "ORDERED that the Amended Complaint of Plaintiff Zachariah Clifton, Jr., is DISMISSED WITH PREJUDICE" and closed the case. However, it is clear from the opinion that dismissal of the state claims was without prejudice. In any event, no appeal was taken.

With the assistance of counsel, this action was begun on or about October 12, 2007. The complaint alleged four violations of the LAD;*fn2 tortious interference with economic advantage; racketeering, contrary to N.J.S.A. 2C:41-1 to -6.2; violation of the Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA), 45 U.S.C.A. §§ 51 to 60; and loss of consortium. Defendants answered the complaint on or about April 22, 2008, asserting applicable statutes of limitations as one of their affirmative defenses.

Defendants thereafter sought dismissal of the complaint, which was heard on September 12, 2008. The judge granted the motion, finding that "[a]ll of [the] claims are barred by the applicable statute of limitations for all of the reasons placed on the record[,]" although the judge did not place any fact-findings or legal conclusions on the record, contrary to Rule 1:7-4(a). This appeal followed.

Plaintiffs contend that their discrimination claims are not barred by N.J.S.A. 2A:14-2, which our Supreme Court applied to the LAD in Montells v. Haynes, 133 N.J. 282 (1993), because "the trial court failed to consider the extraordinary circumstances that belie [sic] this matter...." Those circumstances were the allegedly erroneous dismissal of the federal complaint with prejudice, "including the state claims that were never decided on the merits." Zachariah also contends he is "a severely mentally handicapped Pro Se, [who] had no knowledge that the District Judge's Order was improper in dismissing the state law claims with prejudice" and he "believed he was left with no recourse." He also claims he was "ambushed" by defendants in the federal action and "bombarded" with discovery requests despite his mental handicap. He urges that dismissing his LAD claims under these circumstances will deprive him of his First Amendment right to access the courts.

Plaintiffs further contend that the judge erred in dismissing their racketeering claims because they did allege the commission of one of the requisite crimes--assault--and because the statute of limitations should not act as a bar for the same reasons stated with respect to the discrimination claims. They urge their failure to include this claim in their federal action is irrelevant because Zachariah "believed he was barred forever from bringing any State law claims regarding any of the issues that were dismissed with prejudice in the Federal Court order."

Finally, plaintiffs contend the judge erred in dismissing their FELA claims for the same reasons stated with respect to the discrimination claims and because they are entitled to the benefit of the discovery rule that applies to the FELA statute of limitations. They contend Zachariah "while becoming disabled in 2001, did not make any causal connection between the disability and the workplace ...

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