June 7, 2010
ELIZABETH LIGGON-REDDING, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
FIDELITY NATIONAL TITLE INSURANCE COMPANY; CONGRESS TITLE; AND KEY PROPERTIES/GMAC REALTY, DEFENDANTS-RESPONDENTS,
MR. AND MRS. QUINN; ANTHONY BALBONI; LINDA HULLER; TAHIR ZAMAN; CHRISTINE LAPOINTE; AND CHARLES WEXTON, ESQ., DEFENDANTS.
On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Burlington County, Docket No. C-77-08.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted May 19, 2010
Before Judges Sabatino and Kestin.
Plaintiff Elizabeth Liggon-Redding, pro se, appeals an order entered by the Chancery Division on September 12, 2008 dismissing her complaint, which she filed against defendants, Fidelity National Title Insurance Company ("Fidelity National"), Congress Title (a wholly-owned subsidiary of Fidelity National), Key Properties/GMAC Realty ("Key Properties"), Mr. and Mrs. Quinn (full names not specified), Anthony Balboni, Linda Huller, Tahir Zaman, Christine Lapointe, and Charles Wexton, Esq., on the grounds that the complaint, which followed a series of related lawsuits brought by plaintiff in the federal court, was precluded under the doctrines of res judicata and collateral estoppel. Plaintiff also appeals the Chancery Division's order of November 7, 2008, denying reconsideration.
Plaintiff's complaint arises out of the sale of her former residence in Willingboro Township--which she owned jointly with her husband--to Zaman for $138,000. The closing took place on June 30, 2006. Fidelity National and Congress Title served as the title insurers for the transaction. Key Properties was the real estate closing agent. Balboni and Huller were employed by or affiliated with Key Properties. Lapointe was employed by or affiliated with Congress Title, and Wexton acted as its attorney.
In connection with the sale, the signatures of plaintiff and her husband appear on an affidavit of title and on a deed conveying the property to Zaman. Plaintiff contends that she was fraudulently induced to execute those documents. She also contends that she was not present at the closing.
In July 2006, plaintiff filed a pro se action in the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey against Congress Title, Fidelity National, and Key Properties, alleging that she had been defrauded in connection with the 2006 sale of her home. See Liggon-Redding v. Congress Title, No. 06-CV-3127 (D.N.J. Feb. 1, 2007) ("Congress Title I"), appeal dismissed, 229 Fed. App'x 105 (3d Cir. 2007).*fn1 On February 1, 2007, the District Court dismissed the complaint without prejudice for lack of federal subject matter jurisdiction. Ibid. On March 9, 2007, the District Court denied plaintiff's motion for reconsideration of the dismissal, indicating within its order that "[i]f [p]laintiff has a state fraud claim over which this
[c]court lacks subject matter jurisdiction, perhaps she may be able to pursue it in the state court system." Id. (slip op. at 2-3). Shortly thereafter, on April 25, 2007, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit dismissed plaintiff's appeal of the orders in 06-CV-3127 for lack of appellate jurisdiction. Liggon-Redding v. Congress Title, 229 Fed. App'x 105 (3d Cir. 2007).
Rather than filing a complaint in state court at that point, as had been suggested by the federal judge, plaintiff filed two more lawsuits in the District Court. On April 20, 2007, plaintiff filed a complaint against Balboni, Huller, Zaman, Lapointe, Wexton, Oren Klein, Esq. (another attorney for the title insurer), Congress Title, Fidelity National, and Key Properties.*fn2 Liggon-Redding v. Congress Title, No. 07-CV-1863 (D.N.J. Mar. 7, 2008), ("Congress Title II") vacated in part by 351 Fed. App'x 674 (3d Cir. 2009). In her complaint, plaintiff alleged that defendants violated the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act ("RICO"), 18 U.S.C.A. §§ 1961-68, through their conduct in the allegedly fraudulent sale of plaintiff's house. Id. (slip op. at 4-5). Around the same time, plaintiff filed a separate civil RICO action in the District Court under Docket No. 07-CV-1890, against various Willingboro police officers who allegedly had intimidated her and used excessive force against her. Ibid.
On March 7, 2008, the District Court dismissed both of plaintiff's civil RICO actions, pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 41(b), because of her failure to comply with numerous Rules of Civil Procedure and court orders in prosecuting those complaints. Congress Title II, supra, (slip op. at 14). Among other things, the District Judge noted in his accompanying opinion that plaintiff had "demonstrated a pattern of circumventing [o]rders of this [c]court by filing new complaints[,]" filed amended complaints without leave of court or consent of her adversary, served papers by improper methods, and "demonstrated considerable willfulness" in "attempt[ing] end-runs around [o]rders of this [c]court by filing new complaints involving the same occurrences to those alleged in her previous cases and seeking identical relief." Id. (slip op. at 10-15). With particular reference to plaintiff's claims against Congress Title and the other private parties involved in her real estate sale, the District Judge noted that plaintiff had not "coherently set forth the fraud, enterprise, or predicate acts" that would make them liable, and alleged "no facts linking [such defendants] to [p]laintiff's harm." Id. (slip op. at 14-15). Consequently, the District Court ruled that "the extreme sanction of dismissal is warranted as to both cases[,]" given "[p]laintiff's problematic conduct in light of her behavior over the life of her cases[.]" Id. (slip op. at 15).
After plaintiff appealed these dismissals, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit issued an opinion on June 2, 2009 affirming the dismissal of all of her claims except those alleging excessive force by the municipal police officers. Liggon-Redding, supra, 351 Fed. App'x at 678-79. In its opinion, the Court of Appeals commended the District Court for its restraint and patience in the face of plaintiff's "failures to heed helpful suggestions." Id. at 678. Nevertheless, the Court of Appeals chose to "address the merits in this case rather than impose sanctions." Ibid. Having done so, the Court of Appeals concluded that the "extensive pleadings" did not support plaintiff's claims, except for the excessive force claims, which were remanded to the District Court. Ibid.
During the interval between the District Court's order of March 7, 2008 dismissing Docket Nos. 07-CV-1863 and 07-CV-1890 and the Court of Appeals decision of June 2, 2009, plaintiff filed the present action in the Chancery Division on June 11, 2008. The complaint, which is labeled as a "Suite (sic) for Quiet Title for Fraudulent Transfer of Property," names numerous defendants who had all been included in one or more of plaintiff's prior unsuccessful federal actions. The complaint repeats plaintiff's general theme that she had been "tricked" into signing documents in connection with the sale of her residence, asserting, among other things, that she is legally blind and that defendants had taken advantage of her.
Defendants moved to dismiss the Chancery action on various grounds, mainly arguing that principles of res judicata and collateral estoppel bar plaintiff from relitigating issues that were, or could have been, raised in her prior federal lawsuits. Defendants also contended that: (1) plaintiff's allegations against them failed to state a claim upon which relief may be granted; (2) plaintiff did not properly effectuate service of process; and (3) plaintiff failed to plead fraud with sufficient particularity.
After considering plaintiff's opposition, Chancery Judge Michael J. Hogan issued a written opinion and order on September 12, 2008, dismissing the complaint with prejudice on the grounds of res judicata and collateral estoppel. The judge noted that, in her state court action, plaintiff "seeks nearly identical relief as was sought in the [federal] actions . . . and various appeals and motions for reconsideration." Judge Hogan noted that "[t]hose issues were litigated and briefed at length, and judgment was thereafter granted on the merits of those claims." Plaintiff moved for reconsideration, supplying additional materials to Judge Hogan on an ex parte confidential basis, in a final effort to revive her claims, including medical records to show that she was not present at the closing. The court denied reconsideration in an order dated November 7, 2008. In a companion opinion, Judge Hogan reiterated his finding that plaintiff had improperly sought to raise claims and issues that had already been presented in the unsuccessful federal litigation.
On the present appeal, plaintiff argues, without citing any relevant case law, that the Chancery Division erred in its application of principles of res judicata and collateral estoppel. Having fully considered her arguments, we affirm the determinations of the trial court, substantially for the reasons set forth in Judge Hogan's two written decisions.*fn3
Even though plaintiff's first federal complaint in Docket No. 06-CV-3127 was dismissed without prejudice and explicitly invited her to file her claims of fraud in the state court, plaintiff disregarded that suggestion. Instead, she persisted in bringing additional complaints in the federal court, including Docket No. 07-CV-1863. By operation of law, the dismissal of Docket No. 07-CV-1863 pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 41(b) operates as an adjudication on the merits, and precludes another complaint against defendants, whether in federal or state court, arising out of the same subject matter. See Watkins v. Resorts Int'l Hotel & Casino, 124 N.J. 398, 416 (1991) (noting the applicability of res judicata to a state court action following a federal action dismissed under Fed. R. Civ. P. 41(b)); Brunetti v. Borough of New Milford, 68 N.J. 576, 587-88 (1975) (reciting general principles of res judicata). Both the District Court and the Court of Appeals expressly noted the conclusive, on-the-merits nature of the dismissal orders.
We have no authority to overturn those determinations by the federal court. Consequently, the orders of the Chancery Division are affirmed.*fn4