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Venner v. Bank of America

November 30, 2009


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


This matter is before the Court upon Defendant Jennings' motion for summary judgment and motion for attorney's fees and costs pursuant to N.J. Stat. Ann. 2A:15-59.1 [Docket Item 44]. As explained in the following opinion, the Court finds that, having now reviewed the extensive history of this case, it lacks subject matter jurisdiction over the case because of the Rooker-Feldman doctrine. Jennings' request for attorney's fees and costs will be denied for the reasons provided below.


Plaintiff Patricia Venner, proceeding pro se, filed this action on August 23, 2007 against Defendants Bank of America ("BOA") and Judith Jennings, Esq., asserting that Defendants violated the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act ("FDCPA"), 15 U.S.C. § 1692.*fn1

The immediate basis of the FDCPA claim against Jennings is an allegedly false accounting of Venner's debt provided to BOA (the holder of Venner's mortgage) as a pay-off amount in 2005.*fn2

The disputed 2005 figure was the final tally resulting from four years of disputes in New Jersey state courts involving Venner, the Summerhill Condominium Association ("SCA"), and the attorney for SCA, Defendant Jennings. (Def.'s Br. Supp. Summ. J., Ex-16 [2005 Itemization].) Because the Court finds that it does not have subject matter jurisdiction over this case because of prior state court decisions, the Court will review and explain the entire history of the present action in some detail.

A. Litigation History Preceding 2003 Settlement (2001-2003)

Beginning in 2001, Jennings commenced a series of court actions to recover for her client unpaid association fees and assessments related to Venner's apartment unit. The first such action was filed in New Jersey Superior Court in 2001 and was dismissed.*fn3 Venner claims the action was dismissed because Jennings went on vacation and missed a hearing.*fn4 A subsequent action by SCA against Venner in 2002 resulted in default judgment but was vacated by the court sua sponte upon the belated discovery that service had been sent to Jennings' office and signed for by a member of her staff instead of by Venner who was never served.*fn5 Venner viewed this as an attempt by Jennings to falsify service in order to obtain the default judgment.

In February 2003, Jennings commenced a third action on behalf of SCA against Venner in New Jersey Superior Court to collect on the assessments and fees owed to SCA, an amount which had continued to grow.*fn6 According to Jennings' complaint in that action, the by-laws of the condominium association provided for reasonable fees for legal counsel, the costs of filing a lien, and "other costs," to be added to the total to be collected from a resident in default of payment for assessments or charges. (Def.'s Br. Supp. Summ. J., Ex-1 [2003 Complaint].) Venner brought counterclaims for fraud and misrepresentation based on the events of the first two actions. (Def.'s Br. Supp. Summ. J., Ex-2.)

This third action went to mediation and a settlement agreement was reached on June 19, 2003. (Pl.'s Br. Opp. Summ. J. Ex-D [2003 Settlement]). Venner agreed to pay SCA $4,559 for "back condo dues, legal fees, and special assessments thru June 2003." (Id.)

Venner subsequently moved to vacate the mediation result. On July 25, 2003, there was a hearing on Venner's motion in Superior Court in front of Hon. Patricia Le Bon. Venner argued that she had learned that Jennings had misled her about what was properly owed and that she would not have agreed to the settlement amount if she had not been misled. (Def.'s Br. Supp. Summ. J., Ex-3, at 2 [Le Bon Hearing].) Specifically, she claimed that Jennings had included in the amount owed under her 2003 complaint debt that had formed the basis of the dismissed 2001 action and vacated 2002 action. (Id.) It is unclear from the incomplete transcript, but Venner appears to have been claiming both that Jennings misrepresented the status of the prior actions to her in the mediation, and that because those actions had been dismissed and vacated, it was improper to include them in the settlement discussion at all. (Id.) Judge Le Bon ruled that there was no evidence of any misrepresentation that would upset the settlement.

B. Post-Settlement Through BOA's Payment of Debts (2004-2005)

On January 20, 2004, Jennings filed an action on behalf of SCA to foreclose on a new lien that had been filed in the amount of $1,770.*fn7 In her answer, Venner re-asserted her growing litany of complaints: the missed 2001 hearing, the improper service in the 2002 action, and the alleged misrepresentations in the 2003 mediation. (Def.'s Br. Supp. Summ. J., Ex-7 [2004 Bookbinder Action, Venner Answer].) On January 28, 2005, Judge Bookbinder ruled in SCA's favor. (Def.'s Br. Supp. Summ. J., Ex-8 [First Bookbinder Action, Order for Summary Judgment].) The Court began foreclosure proceedings and awarded attorney's fees for the period from 2003-2005.*fn8 The court's order did not make any findings with reference to the issues raised in Venner's answer except to say they did not constitute legal or equitable defenses to foreclosure on the basis of the new lien. (Id.)

During the pendency of the January 2004 action in front of Judge Bookbinder, Venner filed an action naming SCA and Jennings as parties and complaining of discriminatory association fees. Venner v. Summerhill Community [sic.] Assoc., et al., Docket No. DC-1711-04 (N.J. Super. Ct. Law Div. June 29, 2004) (transcript of hearing included at Def.'s Br. Supp. Summ. J., Ex-5 [First Hogan Action, Decision]). The case was heard by Hon. Michael Hogan. Judge Hogan's ruling, made from the bench, is not entirely clear from the transcript. Venner raises some of the previously settled issues regarding the validity of the settlement agreement, and the court notes that those issues had been adjudicated. At one point, Judge Hogan states that he will dismiss the action without prejudice so that Venner can obtain legal counsel and better articulate her claims. (Id. at 10) Subsequently, he rules that Venner joined the wrong ...

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