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Arthur Montana v. Kyran Connor

September 16, 2011

ARTHUR MONTANA, PLAINTIFF,
v.
KYRAN CONNOR, DEFENDANT.



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

OPINION

I. INTRODUCTION

This matter requires the Court to determine whether particular acts taken by a New Jersey Superior Court judge are shielded by absolute judicial immunity. The matter is before the Court on Defendant Kyran Connor's motion to dismiss the Amended Complaint for failure to state a claim pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6). Defendant argues that the acts Plaintiff alleges he has taken were all judicial acts within his jurisdiction as a judge in the New Jersey Superior Court, Family Division, and that he is therefore immune from money damages for any injuries that arose from those acts. Plaintiff Arthur Montana argues, in opposition, that certain of Defendant's actions were administrative rather than judicial, and all actions were taken as part of a conspiracy with other Cape May County defendants who were not subject to judicial immunity. Because the Court finds that the acts alleged fall within the functional definition of judicial acts and were not taken in complete absence of jurisdiction, judicial immunity applies and the Court will grant Defendant's motion to dismiss.

II. BACKGROUND

The facts set forth here are those alleged in the Amended Complaint and attached documents [Docket Item 15], which the Court must accept as true for purposes of a Rule 12(b)(6) motion. In this action, Plaintiff alleges that he suffered retaliation at the hands of Defendant because of the content of his speech and because of his complaints about Defendant and others.

Plaintiff is a juvenile-family crisis counselor employed by the County of Cape May, and has been so employed since 1991. Am. Compl. ¶ 1. Plaintiff works in the Juvenile-Family Crisis Intervention Unit ("JFCIU"), where he "assists families experiencing a 'juvenile-family' crisis . . . through family counseling and/or referral to appropriate agencies in the community." Id. ¶ 2. One of the tasks of a JFCIU counselor is to file petitions with the family court for out-of-home placement of juveniles, and thereafter to appear in court to provide the court with information and recommendations relevant to the petition. Id. ¶¶ 2-3. Defendant was, at all times relevant, a Superior Court Judge, Family Division, in the County of Cape May. Id. at 2. At the time, Defendant was the only Family Division judge in the County who presided over juvenile-family crisis petitions. Id. ¶ 29. Defendant Connor is the only named defendant in this action.*fn1

On January 25, 2007, Plaintiff participated in a hearing before Defendant on a petition for out-of-home custody of a juvenile. Id. ¶ 9. In the hearing, Plaintiff recommended both shelter placement and an order that the juvenile be temporarily schooled at the shelter. Id. Defendant accepted Plaintiff's recommendations and signed an order to that effect. Id.; Am. Compl. Ex. A. Later that day, in response to subsequent contact from Diane Lanzetta, the Department Head of Cape May County Department of Youth Services and Plaintiff's supervisor at the JFCIU, Defendant modified his order in an e-mail.*fn2 Id. ¶¶ 11-12; Ex. B. Plaintiff, believing that Lanzetta's contact with Defendant and Defendant's modification of the order via e-mail were improper, complained to Lanzetta, suggesting the conduct "constituted inappropriate conduct that undermined the integrity of the court system and alienated interested parties." Id. ¶ 13. Defendant allegedly learned of Plaintiff's complaint from Lanzetta. Id. ¶ 14.

On February 8, 2007, Plaintiff participated in another hearing before Defendant regarding the placement and schooling of another juvenile. Id. ¶¶ 18-19. During this hearing, Defendant criticized Plaintiff's recommendations. Id. ¶ 20. Defendant then entered an order disregarding part of Plaintiff's recommendation. Id. ¶ 21. Plaintiff believed that Defendant's "judicial determination" was based on improper criteria: Defendant's out-of-court conversations with Lanzetta. Id.

Later that day, Defendant sent an e-mail to Lanzetta criticizing Plaintiff's courtroom presentation and requested that Lanzetta remove Plaintiff as the counselor from two cases scheduled for hearings in the following weeks. Id. ¶ 27. The following week, Defendant met with Lanzetta in which they further discussed Plaintiff's handling of crisis petitions. Id. ¶ 28. Lanzetta thereafter reassigned two cases Plaintiff had been handling to other CIU staff and prohibited Plaintiff from appearing before Defendant until directed otherwise. Id. ¶ 29; Ex. C. Lanzetta lifted the suspension two months later, on April 27, 2007, with a warning that if she heard of additional complaints from Defendant about Plaintiff's courtroom conduct, Plaintiff could be subject to further discipline. Id. 32.

Three months later, Plaintiff sent a detailed complaint letter regarding his disputes with Defendant and Lanzetta to the Cape May County Board of Freeholders on July 26, 2007. The County Administrator sent a copy of Plaintiff's complaint letter to Defendant, who responded to the Administrator in a letter on August 14, 2007 criticizing Plaintiff's "personal views, character, and performance as a crisis counselor." Id. ¶ 33. Over the course of the next several months, Plaintiff appeared before Defendant "on approximately 20 occasions without any record of incident or complaint." Id. ¶ 35.

On February 15, 2008, Plaintiff filed a civil suit in New Jersey Superior Court naming the Cape May County Board of Freeholders, Lanzetta, and Director of Human Resources Barbara Bakley-Marino as defendants. Id. Shortly thereafter, on March 7, 2008, Defendant sent an e-mail to Lanzetta (at a private e-mail address, apparently registered to her husband) again criticizing Plaintiff's performance and suggesting that Plaintiff "be plugged in somewhere where he couldn't do any harm." Id. ¶ 36; Ex. D. Defendant sent another e-mail to the same address making similar complaints about Plaintiff on April 8, 2008. Id. ¶ 38.

On July 14, 2008, Defendant sent Lanzetta a letter complaining about further disruptive behavior of Plaintiff, this time relating to Plaintiff's conduct outside the courtroom, but related to contact between Plaintiff and litigants appearing before Defendant. Id. ¶ 39; Def.'s Mot. Ex. 2. In the July 14 letter, Defendant "direct[ed] that the County prohibit the Plaintiff from appearing before him in any case." Am. Compl. ¶ 39. In response, Lanzetta directed that Plaintiff's work duties be restructured so that he would no longer appear in court before Defendant. Id. The County HR Director later asked Defendant if he would reconsider his position, and, in an e-mail dated August 8, 2008, Defendant declined to reconsider, stating "that he would insist that Plaintiff be barred from his courtroom." Id. ¶ 40; Ex. E. Lanzetta subsequently conducted a disciplinary hearing against Plaintiff due to the concerns raised by Defendant's letter. Plaintiff was given a 90-day suspension at his disciplinary hearing. Id. ¶ 47. Lanzetta assigned Plaintiff to perform clerical work for other counselors. Id. ¶ 48. Plaintiff was, additionally, passed over for promotion multiple times during the period of his ban from Defendant's court. Id. ¶ 43.

Plaintiff alleges that Defendant's critical letters and e-mails, and his barring Plaintiff from his court, were done as retaliation for Plaintiff's complaints, legal action, and viewpoints. Id. ¶ 44. Plaintiff also alleges that many of Defendant's criticisms of his conduct were false. Id. ¶ 45.

Plaintiff filed this action against Defendant Connor in this Court on July 19, 2010. [Docket Item 1.] Plaintiff subsequently filed an Amended Complaint on December 15, 2010. [Docket Item 14; corrected in Docket Item 15.] Plaintiff's Amended Complaint raises ten counts for relief, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and the Civil Rights Act of New Jersey, N.J. Stat. Ann. § 10:6-2(c). All counts seek damages in compensation for Defendant's acts, alone and in conspiracy with Lanzetta and others, allegedly retaliating against Plaintiff for his protected speech through direct action and by creating a hostile work environment.

Defendant has moved to dismiss the Amended Complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted, claiming that (1) Defendant's actions are shielded from damages liability by judicial immunity, and (2) Plaintiff fails to demonstrate that his protected conduct was a substantial factor in motivating Defendant's allegedly retaliatory acts.

III. DISCUSSION

A. Standard of Review

In order to give defendant fair notice, and to permit early dismissal if the complained-of conduct does not provide adequate grounds for the cause of action alleged, a complaint must allege, in more than legal boilerplate, those facts about the conduct of each defendant giving rise to liability. Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007); Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a) and 11(b)(3). These factual allegations must present a plausible basis for relief (i.e., something more than the mere possibility of legal misconduct). See Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 1951 (2009).

In its review of a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6), Fed. R. Civ. P., the Court must "accept all factual allegations as true and construe the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff." Phillips v. County of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 231 (3d Cir. 2008) (quoting Pinker v. Roche Holdings Ltd., 292 F.3d 361, 374 n.7 (3d Cir. 2002)). The assumption of truth does not apply, however, to legal conclusions couched as factual allegations or to ...


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