May 5, 2011
PHILIP E. HAHN, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
JUDGE DOYNE, JUDGE DE LA CRUZ, DEFENDANTS, AND ROBERT LOGAN, AND VASIOS KELLY & STROLLO, DEFENDANTS-RESPONDENTS.
On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Special Civil Part, Passaic County, Docket No. DC-007954-10.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Argued March 1, 2011
Before Judges Wefing and Payne.
The trial court dismissed plaintiff's complaint for failure to state a claim. R. 4:6-2(e). It then denied plaintiff's motion to reinstate his complaint, and plaintiff has appealed.
After reviewing the record in light of the contentions advanced on appeal, we affirm.
Plaintiff was a patient for a period of time at Bergen Regional Medical Center and, following his discharge, filed several medical malpractice actions seeking damages relating to the care he received while there. These actions were consolidated for discovery and trial, and the defendants in those actions were represented by defendant Robert Logan, Esq., a partner in defendant firm Vasios, Kelly & Strollo, P.A. Ultimately, plaintiff's claims of medical malpractice were dismissed when the defendants were granted summary judgment. The order granting summary judgment was signed by Judge Estella De La Cruz, a judge of the Superior Court assigned to Bergen County. Plaintiff's appeal from that summary judgment remains pending in this court.
Not content with appealing that summary judgment, plaintiff sought additional relief; and he commenced this action, in which he named as defendants Judge Peter Doyne, the Assignment Judge of Bergen County; Judge De La Cruz, who granted summary judgment and dismissed his claims of medical malpractice; Mr. Logan, who obtained summary judgment on behalf of his clients; and Mr. Logan's firm. Plaintiff filed this action in Bergen County; in light of the obvious conflict, the Chief Justice ordered that the matter be transferred to Passaic County.
Defendants Doyne and De La Cruz moved to dismiss this complaint in lieu of filing an answer. Defendants Logan and his firm moved to dismiss this complaint for failure to state a claim. The trial court granted both motions, and this appeal followed.
Plaintiff raises the following contentions in support of his appeal.
1) The original complaint should have been reinstated versus all parties as the original complaint could have been reinstated via R. 4:50-1
2) The plaintiff can appeal the July 2, 2010 and May 21, 2010 decisions as a matter of right with regard to all parties
3) Law created via New Jersey statute trumps Federal Common law
4) Judge Mongiardo was in error in granting Judge Doyne and Judge De La Cruz immunity via the federal law cited by Judge Mongiardo
5) Judge Mongiardo was in error granting Robert Logan and Vasios, Kelly and Strollo immunity for any reason
6) The Tort Claims Act provides avenue to take civil action versus Judge Doyne and Judge De La Cruz
7) The plaintiff's motion to amend the original complaint was denied in error
8) Dismissing plaintiff's claim for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted was in error
9) Failing to let jury decide issues of fact was in error by the court None of these arguments, either singly or combined, entitle plaintiff to relief.
Within his notice of appeal, plaintiff only identified the order of July 2, 2010, which denied his motion to reinstate his complaint, as the order under appeal. He did not identify the trial court's earlier order of May 21, 2010, which dismissed his complaint. We acknowledge the position put forth by defendants Logan and his firm that plaintiff's attempt to include the order of May 21, 2010, within the scope of this appeal is untimely. We elect, however, to deal with the underlying merits of plaintiff's entire claim.
We turn first to plaintiff's claim against Judges Doyne and De La Cruz. The law is clear that both defendants are entitled to absolute immunity.
Few doctrines were more solidly established at common law than the immunity of judges from liability for damages for acts committed within their judicial discretion. This immunity is absolute and attaches at the outset of civil proceedings. Judicial immunity is an immunity from suit, not just from ultimate assessment of damages. Accordingly, judicial immunity is not overcome by allegations of bad faith or malice, the existence of which ordinarily cannot be resolved without engaging in discovery and eventual trial. [Malik v. Ruttenberg, 398 N.J. Super. 489, 495-96 (App. Div. 2008) (citations omitted).]
The underlying policy of the doctrine of judicial immunity is "for the benefit of the public, whose interest it is that judges should be at liberty to exercise their functions with independence and without fear of consequences." Pasqua v. Council, 186 N.J. 127, 150 (2006) (quoting Pierson v. Ray, 386 U.S. 547, 554, 87 S. Ct. 1213, 1218, 18 L. Ed. 2d 288, 294 (1967)). "If judges were personally liable for erroneous decisions, the resulting avalanche of suits, most of them frivolous but vexatious, would provide powerful incentives for judges to avoid rendering decisions likely to provoke such suits." Ibid. (quoting Forrester v. White, 484 U.S. 219, 226-27, 108 S. Ct. 538, 544, 98 L. Ed. 2d 555, 565 (1988)).
Plaintiff seeks to overcome this well-established principle by pointing to his having filed a notice of claim under the Tort Claims Act, N.J.S.A. 59:1-1 to 12-3. This is unavailing. The act of filing a notice of claim is not sufficient to trigger tort liability where none exists. N.J.S.A. 59:3-2(b) (stating that a public employee is not liable for judicial action.)
Plaintiff's claim against Logan and his firm fares no better on appeal. Their obligation in the context of the medical malpractice action was to represent their client. The actions they took on behalf of their client cannot subject them to liability to plaintiff. The litigation privilege affords them complete immunity from plaintiff's claims. Loigman v. The Twp. Comm. of Middletown, 185 N.J. 566 (2006); Hawkins v. Harris, 141 N.J. 207 (1995); Rabinowitz v. Wahrenberger, 406 N.J. Super. 126 (App. Div. 2009).
The trial court's conclusion that plaintiff's complaint should be dismissed, and its subsequent refusal to reinstate that complaint, were entirely correct.
© 1992-2011 VersusLaw Inc.