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Hahn v. United States Department of Commerce

United States District Court, Third Circuit

June 18, 2013

PHILIP E. HAHN, Plaintiff,


ESTHER SALAS, District Judge.

I. Introduction

Before the Court is a motion to dismiss Plaintiff Philip E. Hahn's ("Plaintiff" or "Hahn") Complaint pursuant to Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6). (D.E. No. 89). The Court has considered the unopposed motion, and decides the matter without oral argument pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 78(b). This Court has jurisdiction over this matter pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331 and 1343(a)(3), as well as 42 U.S.C. § 1983. For the reasons set forth below, Defendants Borough of Tenafly ("Tenafly") and Thomas B. Hanrahan's ("Hanhrahan") motion to dismiss is GRANTED.

II. Background[1]

This matter arises from Plaintiff's temporary psychiatric commitment to the Bergen Regional Medical Center and the litigation that ensued. Hahn v. U.S. Dep't of Commerce, No. 11-6369, 2012 WL 3961739, at *1 (D.N.J. Sept. 10, 2012) ("Prior Opinion").[2] The crux of Plaintiff's Complaint, while essentially devoid of factual allegations, is that Plaintiff was denied his legal right to a trial by jury in the state court proceedings.[3] (Compl., D.E. No. 1). This general allegation led to the present motion, wherein the attorney and law firm who filed and argued motions seeking dismissal of Plaintiff's state court complaint and the municipality that oversees the police department that engaged a mental health screening facility, seek dismissal of the federal action. (Defs. Tenafly & Hahnrahan's Br. in Support of Their Motion to Dismiss Pl.'s Compl. 1-4 ("Defs. Br."), D.E. No. 89-1).

This Court now decides Tenafly and Hanrahan's motion to dismiss.

III. Legal Standards

A. Motion to Dismiss Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1)

A motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(1) challenges the existence of a federal court's subject matter jurisdiction. "When subject matter jurisdiction is challenged under Rule 12(b)(1), the plaintiff must bear the burden of persuasion." Symczyk v. Genesis Health Care Corp., 656 F.3d 189, 191 n.4 (3d Cir. 2011). In considering a Rule 12(b)(1) motion, "the district court may not presume the truthfulness of plaintiff's allegations, but rather must evaluat[e] for itself the merits of [the] jurisdictional claims." Hedges v. United States, 404 F.3d 744, 750 (3d Cir. 2005) (internal citation & quotation marks omitted).

B. Motion to Dismiss Under Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6)

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a)(2) requires a complaint to set forth "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that a pleader is entitled to relief." The pleading standard announced by Rule 8 does not require detailed factual allegations; it does, however, demand "more than an unadorned, the-defendant-unlawfully-harmed-me accusation." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (internal citation omitted). In addition, the plaintiff's short and plain statement of the claim must "give the defendant[s] fair notice of what the... claim is and the grounds upon which it rests." Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). For a complaint to survive dismissal, it "must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'" Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570). A claim has facial plausibility when "the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Id. (internal citation omitted).

In evaluating the sufficiency of a complaint, a court must accept all well-pleaded factual allegations contained in the complaint as true and draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the non-moving party. See Phillips v. Cnty. of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 234 (3d Cir. 2008). But, "the tenet that a court must accept as true all of the allegations contained in a complaint is inapplicable to legal conclusions, " and "[a] pleading that offers labels and conclusions' or a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.'" Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555). Furthermore, "[when] deciding a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, a court must consider only the complaint, exhibits attached [thereto], matters of the public record, as well as undisputedly authentic documents if the complainant's claims are based upon these documents." Mayer v. Belichick, 605 F.3d 223, 230 (3d Cir. 2011).

"[I]f a complaint is subject to a Rule 12(b)(6) dismissal, a district court must permit a curative amendment unless such an amendment would be inequitable or futile." Phillips, 515 F.3d at 245; see also Ray v. First Nat'l Bank of Omaha, 413 F.Appx. 427, 430 (3d Cir. 2011) ("A district court should not dismiss a pro se complaint without allowing the plaintiff an opportunity to amend his complaint unless an amendment would be inequitable or futile."). Furthermore, in ruling on the present motion, the Court "must construe [Plaintiff's] complaint liberally as he is proceeding pro se." Huertas v. Galaxy Asset Mgmt., 641 F.3d 28, 32 (3d Cir. 2011) (citing Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007)).

IV. Analysis[4]

A. Thomas B. Hanrahan

Hahn seeks relief from Thomas B. Hanrahan Esq. and Thomas B. Hanrahan & Associates ("Hanrahan Defendants"), a lawyer and law firm, who allegedly deprived the Plaintiff of his right to a trial by jury. (Compl. 56-61, ¶¶ 184-215).[5] Thus, the Court must determine whether Plaintiff may utilize § 1983 to sue the firm for allegedly "allow[ing] incompetent attorneys to argue in the Bergen Superior Court and Appellate Court of New Jersey causing the plaintiff to... be denied his right to a trial by jury in the matters of BER-L-3935-09 and A-738-10, " ( id. 56, ¶ 184), as well as the lawyers who, while representing their client, filed motions seeking dismissal of Plaintiff's state-court complaints, argued those motions when requested by the court, deprived Plaintiff of his filing fees for actions, and opposed Plaintiff's appeals, ( see, e.g., id. 56 ¶ 188; 57 ¶ 189; 59 ¶ 202; 60 ¶¶ 209-10; 61 ¶¶ 212-14).

In light of these allegations, the Court now concludes that Plaintiff has failed to state a claim for which he is entitled to relief for the following two reasons. First, "[a]ttorneys performing their traditional functions will not be considered state actors solely on the basis of their positions as officers of the court." Angelico v. Lehigh Valley Hosp., Inc., 184 F.3d 268, 277 (3d Cir. 1999) (emphasis added). The Court finds that the Hanrahan Defendants in this case were performing their traditional functions as zealous advocates. The Hanrahan Defendants filed motions on behalf of their client and argued those motions before courts of competent jurisdiction. Therefore, the Court will not consider Hanrahan Defendants to be state actors. Consequently, because a violation under § 1983 requires state action, Plaintiff's claims against the Hanrahan Defendants fail as a matter of law. See Groman v. Twp. of Manalapan, 47 F.3d 628, 638 (3d Cir. 1995).

Notwithstanding the Court's first reason, the Court also holds that the Hanrahan Defendants are immune from suit under New Jersey's litigation privilege. New Jersey recognizes an "absolute litigation privilege, " Roggio v. McElroy, Deutch, Mulvaney, & Carpenter, 415 F.Appx. 432, 433 (3d Cir. 2011), which "is well-established and broadly applicable." Rickenbach v. Wells Fargo Bank, N.A., 635 F.Supp.2d 389, 401 (D.N.J. 2009) (internal citation omitted). The litigation privilege "immuniz[es] from liability statements made during the course of judicial, administrative, or legislative proceedings." Kersey v. Becton Dickinson & Co., 433 F.Appx. 105, 110 (3d Cir. 2011) (internal citation & quotation marks omitted). "The privilege applies to any communication (1) made in judicial or quasi-judicial proceedings; (2) by litigants or other participants authorized by law; (3) to achieve the objects of litigation; and (4) that have connection or logical relation to the action." Id. (internal citation & quotation marks omitted). Furthermore, "[t]he only limitation New Jersey places upon the privilege is that the statements at issue have some relation to the nature of the proceedings." Rabinowitz v. Wahrenberger, 406 N.J.Super. 126, 134 ( N.J.Super. Ct. A.D. 2009).

In light of the preceding discussion, the Court finds that Plaintiff's claims are barred by the New Jersey litigation privilege. First, all of the Hanrahan Defendants' communications were made in judicial proceedings. Second, the Hanrahan Defendants are lawyers who are authorized by law to make communications on behalf of their client. Third, the Hanrahan Defendants' communications were made to achieve the object of litigation-namely, to have claims filed against their client dismissed, and to have those dismissals affirmed. Finally, Hanrahan Defendants' communications had a direct connection to the action pending before the respective courts. Therefore, because each element is satisfied, the Court concludes that extending the litigation privilege to the Hanrahan Defendants is warranted.

Moreover, this Court notes that "[l]awyers... must be free to pursue the best course charted for their clients without the distraction of a vindictive lawsuit looming on the horizon." Loigman v. Twp. Comm. of Twp. of Middletown, 185 N.J. 566, 587-88 (N.J. 2006). This Court will "not allow the frightful specter of retributive civil actions against attorneys to paralyze them from exercising mundane trial duties on behalf of their clients." Id. at 589. Accordingly, Plaintiff's claims are barred, and the Court will dismiss the Hanrahan Defendants from this litigation with prejudice.

B. Borough of Tenafly

Plaintiff claims that "the Borough of Tenafly, did become liable via a title 42 U.S.C. 1983 [sic]... action when members of the Tenafly Police Department did falsely imprison the plaintiff on March 7, 2008" and by failing to provide proper training to the offending officers of the Tenafly Police Department. (Compl. 31, ¶¶ 6-8).

The Court finds that Plaintiff has failed to allege a viable cause of action under § 1983 for the following reasons. First, the Court finds that the doctrine of res judicata bars Plaintiff's claims against Tenafly.[6] "The doctrine of res judicata applies to federal civil actions brought under § 1983, and, in this context, we must afford a state-court judgment the same preclusive effect as would be given that judgment under the law of the State in which the judgment was rendered.'" Cycle Chem., Inc. v. Jackson, 465 F.Appx. 104, 109 (3d Cir. 2012) (quoting Jones v. Holvey, 29 F.3d 828, 829-30 (3d Cir. 1994)). Res judicata bars the relitigation of "matters actually determined in an earlier action, [and] to all relevant matters that could have been so determined." Watkins v. Resorts Int'l Hotel & Casino, Inc., 124 N.J. 398, 412 (N.J. 1991). "If, under various theories, a litigant seeks to remedy a single wrong, then that litigant should present all theories in the first action. Otherwise, theories not raised will be precluded in a later action.'" Cycle Chem., Inc., 465 F.Appx. at 109 (quoting Watkins, 124 N.J. at 412). "Under New Jersey law, res judicata applies when (1) the judgment in the first action is valid, final and on the merits; (2) there is identity of the parties, or the parties in the second action are in privity with those in the first action; and (3) the claim in the later action grows out of the same transaction or occurrence as the claim in the first action." Id. (internal citation & quotation marks omitted).

The Court concludes that each element has been satisfied. First, the judgments in the prior actions were valid, final, and on the merits. See Hahn v. Johnson & Johnson, Inc., 2011 WL 4529780 ( N.J.Super. A.D. Oct. 3, 2011). Second, identity of the parties exists because Hahn and Tenafly were involved in prior litigation.[7] Finally, there can be no question that Plaintiff's federal lawsuit, i.e., the later action, grows out of the same occurrence that led to the Plaintiff's earlier litigations-both litigations involved allegations that the Tenafly Police Department falsely imprisoned the Plaintiff on March 7, 2008. ( Compare Compl., Hahn v. Johnson & Johnson, Inc., No. L-3935-09 ("The Tenafly Police Department did falsely imprison the plaintiff at the Bergen Regional Medical Center on March 7, 2008.") (Ex. A to Cert. of Ruby Kumar-Thompson, Esq. in Support of Defs.' Mot. to Dismiss Pl.'s Compl.), with Compl. 31, ¶¶ 6-8 ("the Borough of Tenafly did become liable... when members of the Tenafly Police Department did falsely imprison the plaintiff on March 7, 2008), and Hahn, 2011 WL 4529780, at *1 ("To summarize, in connection with his temporary psychiatric commitment to the Bergen Regional Medical Center [] in March 2008, plaintiff sued... the Tenafly [] police department[], [who was] involved... in telephoning a screening service.").

Plaintiff attempts to utilize § 1983 as a pretextual basis for this Court's jurisdiction. This Court is not so persuaded. Plaintiff is asking this Court to relitigate and decide matters in contravention of firmly-ingrained res judicata principles. Plaintiff has been afforded his day in court, during which he presented and argued his claims before a court of competent jurisdiction. To that end, this Court declines to relitigate matters growing out of the same transaction that formed the basis of Plaintiff's earlier state court litigations.

Second, Plaintiff's claims for false imprisonment against Tenafly are barred by the relevant statute of limitations. It is beyond cavil that claims for false imprisonment are governed by a two-year statute of limitations, which "accrues on the... date the false imprisonment ends." Pitman v. Ottehberg, No. 10-2538, 2011 WL 6935274, at *12 (D.N.J. Dec. 30, 2011) (citing Montgomery v. DeSimone, 159 F.3d 120, 126 (3d Cir. 1998) and Wallace v. Kato, 549 U.S. 384, 389-92 (2007)); see also Ross v. Twp. of Woodbridge, No. 09-1533, 2010 WL 1076275, at *3 (D.N.J. Mar. 23, 2010) ("Plaintiffs' false imprisonment claims... [are governed by a] two-year statute of limitations...."). In this case, although Plaintiff alleges that "the Borough of Tenafly did become liable... when members of the Tenafly Police Department did falsely imprison [him] on March 7, 2008, " Plaintiff's claim for false imprisonment began to accrue on March 17, 2008, i.e., the date his purported self-imprisonment ended. Hahn, 2011 WL 4529780, at *2. Thus, Plaintiff was required to file suit by March 17, 2010. Notwithstanding that fact, Plaintiff filed the present suit on October 31, 2011, which falls outside of the requisite two-year statutory period. Consequently, Plaintiff's claim for false imprisonment is time-barred.

Finally, Plaintiff's Complaint fails to comply with the pleading requirements imposed by Iqbal. Specifically, Plaintiff's assertions of alleged wrongdoing are conclusory statements, amounting to nothing "more than [] unadorned, the-defendant-unlawfully-harmed-me accusation[s]." See Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678. Consequently, these "conclusory statements, do not suffice." See id.

The Court concludes that Plaintiff does not have a cognizable claim under § 1983. Furthermore, because any amendment would be futile, the Court dismisses Plaintiff's Complaint, as it relates to the Borough of Tenafly, with prejudice.

V. Conclusion[8]

For the foregoing reasons, Defendants' motion to dismiss Plaintiff's Complaint pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) is granted. An appropriate Order shall follow.

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