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Casser v. Mayor and Committee for Township of Knowlton

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

October 23, 2017

CLAUDIA CASSER, Plaintiff,
v.
MAYOR AND COMMITTEE FOR THE TOWNSHIP OF KNOWLTON, et al. Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          PETER G. SHERIDAN, U.S.D.J.

         This matter comes before the Court on a motion to dismiss all claims against Defendant, Stuart Rabner, the Chief Justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court, pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(1), for lack of subject matter jurisdiction (Rooker-Feldman Doctrine), and Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6), for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. The latter motion seeks dismissal because there is a lack of plausible facts to support Plaintiff's claim[1]. [ECF No. 40].

         After oral argument on the motion, I entered an oral decision granting the motion to dismiss. Although this decision is substantially the same, I am vacating the oral decision as it was not delivered in a clear manner, and this memorandum better explains my rationale.

         Although Plaintiff is a retired corporate attorney, it is noted that she is a pro se litigant. As such, the sufficiency of pro se pleading will be construed liberally in favor of the plaintiff. See Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007).

         I.

         In order to give context to this motion, Plaintiff had filed an action in state court on basically the same facts. Casser v. Knowlton, 118 A.3d 1071, 1074 ( N.J.Super.Ct.App.Div. 2015), certif. denied, 129 A. 3d 329 (2016) (hereinafter “Prior State Case”). Plaintiff then filed this suit basically seeking the same remedy. In order to distinguish this matter from the Prior State Case and to avoid the appearance that this suit is tantamount to an appeal of the Prior State Case's dismissal, Plaintiff adds Defendant Chief Justice Rabner and tweeks her theory. In broad terms, Plaintiff argues Chief Justice Rabner is an “enforcer “of a judicial policy -- the Rezem precedent[2]. The Rezem precedent requires that in matters concerning decisions of municipal land use boards, the Plaintiff must appeal the decision by way of an action in lieu of prerogative writ prior to filing a civil rights action for inverse condemnation. Plaintiff also argues that Chief Justice Rabner lackadaisically enforces a person's right to a trial when there are disputed facts by allowing overuse of summary judgment.

         II.

         In 1985, Plaintiff, Claudia Casser, purchased over ninety-nine acres of farmland in Knowlton Township, Warren County, New Jersey. (ECF 1 Compl. Ex. A at, 1). She planned to use half of the land as her residence and horse farm and to subdivide the other half into lots for sale. (ECF 1 Compl. Ex. A at ¶2). At that time, Plaintiff hoped to create sixteen residential lots from the subdivided fifty acres. (ECF 1 Compl. Ex. A at ¶3).

         In 1996, the Township of Knowlton adopted a Farmland Preservation Ordinance, and a Cluster Ordinance. The Cluster Ordinance preserved open space and/or agricultural land. The Cluster Ordinance required that on parcels greater than 50 acres, half of the tract is set aside as open space without compensation and cluster development is permitted on the other half. From 1993-2003, the density of development was down zoned from one residence per three acres in 1988 to one residence on 10 acres in 2003. In 2007, Plaintiff filed an application with the Planning Board to subdivide her farm into three 10 acre lots, with a 70 acre remainder. The application noted that upon approval of the application, Plaintiff would seek to sell the 70 acre remainder to a preservation agency. The Planning Board approved some development with significant open space set aside. Plaintiff conformed to the conditions set forth in the approval under protest[3].

         Plaintiff did not appeal the Planning Board's decision by way of an action in lieu of prerogative which must be filed within 45 days of the Planning Board's decision, N.J.R. 4: 69-6(a). An action in lieu of prerogative writ is an appeal of the Planning Board's denial which must be filed in the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division. Id.

         On March 8, 2010 (about three years later[4]), Plaintiff filed the Prior State Case in the Superior Court of New Jersey, against various Township officials. In her complaint, Plaintiff alleged that the Planning Board's selective enforcement of the Cluster Ordinance and the Farmland Preservation Ordinance resulted in an unlawful taking of 50 acres of land without compensation. (ECF 1 Comp. Ex. A ¶¶ 37-47). Thereafter, a Judge dismissed the Plaintiff's action because it was untimely under the precedent set forth in Rezem Family Assocs. LP v. Borough of Millstone, 30 A.3d 1061 ( N.J.Super. Ct. App. Div.), certif. denied, 29 A.3d 739 (2011).

         In Rezem, the Court held that before reviewing a §1983 action arising from a decision of a land use application “the developers [must have] exhausted available administrative and judicial remedies or sought a final decision . . . before Plaintiff filed this civil rights lawsuit.” Casser, 118 A.3d at 1078 (quoting Rezem, 30 A.3d at 1061). That is, an action in lieu of prerogative writ challenging the Planning Board's decision must be filed within 45 days (N.J.R. 4:69-6(a)) prior to filing a civil rights action. Without having filed such an action, the Casser Court held the plaintiff failed to exhaust her remedies, and therefore, the matter was not ripe for adjudication. The Court explained that the rationale for the Rezem precedent is the public “importance of stability and finality to public actions” and to allow a civil rights law suit without having exhausted remedies “would defeat the important policy of repose expressed in the forty-five day time limit.” Casser, 188 A. 3d at 1079-80. The New Jersey Supreme Court denied certification. There was no appeal to the Supreme Court of the United States.

         III.

         Plaintiff brings this suit against Chief Justice Rabner as “administrative head of the Court system . . . [who] oversees management of the State Court.” In paragraph 17 of the Complaint, she generally alleges that Chief Justice Rabner has responsibility “for oversight of the Court rules[, ] . . . application of judicial doctrines that individual judges are required to follow, and granting of petitions for certification.” Within that paragraph there are no facts identifying any particular acts of Chief Justice Rabner with regard to Plaintiff's case. In fact, in Count Seven and Count Eight, Chief Justice Rabner is not mentioned by name. Rather, Count Seven generally indicates that the Supreme Court “declined to review the Rezem Doctrine.” Plaintiff also argues that the Rezem Doctrine “depriv[ed] other plaintiffs of their non-prerogative writs causes of action under both State and [F]ederal law without due process, in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment and 42 U.S.C. §1983.” [ECF1 Ex. A, ¶133; Complaint ¶ 132]. Simultaneously, in Count Eight, Plaintiff avers the Appellate Division and the New Jersey Supreme Court, “give lip service to the Rules requiring that the Trial Court [to] submit disputes regarding material facts to the jury, but have a practice of not adequately enforcing ...


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