December 30, 2009
DARYL MURRAY, INDIVIDUALLY, AND D/B/A MURRAY COMMUNICATIONS, LLC, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
JOSE ACOSTA, DEFENDANT, AND PINNACLE FOODS CORPORATION, DEFENDANT-RESPONDENT.
On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Burlington County, Docket No. L-3456-06.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Argued April 21, 2009
Before Judges Skillman and Graves.
Plaintiff Daryl Murray (Murray) appeals from a Law Division order entered in Burlington County on February 2, 2007, dismissing his fraudulent concealment of evidence claims against Pinnacle Foods Corporation (Pinnacle).*fn1 After reviewing the record and applicable law in light of the arguments advanced on appeal, we affirm.
On October 12, 2004, Murray and Pinnacle entered into a "Consulting and Confidentiality Agreement" (Agreement). The Agreement provided that Murray was to be paid at the rate of $65 per hour for computer programming and technical consulting services. The Agreement also stated that Murray was an independent contractor and that either party could cancel the Agreement "at any time by providing the other with fourteen (14) days written notice." However, on November 8, 2004, without prior notice, Pinnacle informed Murray it was not satisfied with the progress of his work and terminated the Agreement.
In December 2004, plaintiff filed suit in Camden County against Pinnacle and several of its employees alleging breach of contract and related claims. In August and September 2005, Murray served Pinnacle with requests for documents pursuant to Rule 4:18-1, and Murray subsequently filed a motion to strike Pinnacle's answer and to suppress its defenses for failure to provide discovery. In response to plaintiff's motion, Pinnacle provided Murray with "282 pages of Bates stamped documents" and advised the court it had "produced the discoverable documents requested by plaintiff." The court denied plaintiff's motion on November 4, 2005, and his motion for reconsideration on December 16, 2005.
On March 21, 2006, Murray moved for leave to file a supplemental complaint, which contained a fraudulent concealment of evidence count against Pinnacle. In his moving papers, Murray stated the new cause of action was based upon "Pinnacle's intentional concealment of material evidence previously noticed but not produced during discovery." That motion was denied by the court on April 28, 2006, because the case was scheduled for trial on May 8, 2006, and the proposed supplemental complaint would unduly delay the trial.
However, after the trial date was adjourned several times, the court ultimately granted plaintiff's motion to file a supplemental complaint asserting that he was wrongfully terminated in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1981. Pinnacle then removed the Camden County action to the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey.
On March 12, 2008, Murray filed a motion in federal district court for leave to file a supplemental complaint with a fraudulent concealment of evidence count based upon his claim that Pinnacle had failed to properly respond to his discovery requests while the case was pending in state court. Pinnacle opposed the motion, arguing that the federal district court was bound to uphold the previous ruling of the state court, which denied a similar motion on April 28, 2006. The federal district court rejected Pinnacle's procedural argument, however, and considered the motion on its merits:
It is plain to this Court that the justification for denying plaintiff's motion was that the motion was filed after the discovery deadline expired and shortly before the then scheduled May 8, 2006 trial date. As a result of these scheduling issues, the state court did not address the merits of plaintiff's fraudulent concealment claim but instead denied plaintiff's amendment as untimely. Now that the case has been removed to federal court where a new discovery deadline and trial date will be set, the justification for denying plaintiff's request to amend on timeliness grounds is no longer compelling. Therefore, the Court rejects defendant's argument that the prior state court order denying plaintiff's motion to amend compels the denial of the instant motion. Rather, because the compelling reason for denying plaintiff's motion to amend in state court no longer exists, the Court will address the merits of plaintiff's motion anew. [(Footnotes omitted).]
After considering the merits of plaintiff's application in light of Rosenblit v. Zimmerman, 166 N.J. 391 (2001), the federal district court denied the motion because the proposed complaint did not contain any facts "to support plaintiff's argument that defendant 'intentionally withheld, altered or destroyed' relevant evidence." Therefore, the court concluded that plaintiff's proposed pleading was "not sufficient to support a cause of action." Nevertheless, the federal district court ruled that Murray would be given an opportunity to conduct discovery to determine "whether additional relevant documents should be produced."
In light of these circumstances, we must determine whether we should reverse an order entered in Burlington County on February 2, 2007, dismissing plaintiff's fraudulent concealment of evidence count against Pinnacle. Plaintiff's Burlington County complaint named Pinnacle and Jose Acosta as defendants. After Pinnacle terminated its agreement with Murray on November 8, 2004, Pinnacle hired Acosta to complete the work that Murray had started. Murray's Burlington County action asserted tortious interference and related claims against Acosta, and a fraudulent concealment of evidence count against Pinnacle. In his fraudulent concealment count, Murray alleged that Pinnacle had failed to properly respond to his discovery requests in the Camden County action. Thus, the fraudulent concealment count that was dismissed in the Burlington County action was virtually identical to the fraudulent concealment count that was considered and rejected on its merits by the federal district court on June 27, 2008.
"The term 'res judicata' refers broadly to the common-law doctrine barring relitigation of claims or issues that have already been adjudicated." Velasquez v. Franz, 123 N.J. 498, 505 (1991). "The doctrine evolved in response to the specific policy concerns of providing finality and repose for the litigating parties; avoiding the burdens of relitigation for the parties and the court; and maintaining judicial integrity by minimizing the possibility of inconsistent decisions regarding the same matter." Ibid. (citation omitted). "[F]or purposes of issue preclusion... 'final judgment' includes any prior adjudication of an issue in another action that is determined to be sufficiently firm to be accorded conclusive effect." Restatement (Second) of Judgments § 13 at 132 (1982). Moreover, "[a] federal court dismissal for failure to state a claim is an adjudication on the merits under the federal rule, thus barring a subsequent state court action." Pressler, Current N.J. Court Rules, comment 33.2.1 on R. 4:5-4 (2010).
In the present matter, the record confirms that plaintiff's fraudulent concealment count in the Burlington County action was essentially the same as the proposed fraudulent concealment count that was rejected by the federal district court. Accordingly, res judicata principles, which serve important policy goals, prohibit the relitigation of plaintiff's fraudulent concealment allegations in the present action. See Tarus v. Borough of Pine Hill, 189 N.J. 497, 521 (2007) (finding of probable cause for arrest in plaintiff's federal action defeated plaintiff's related claims in state action for false arrest and malicious prosecution).