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Skoorka v. Kean University

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

December 21, 2017




         The Council of New Jersey State College Locals, the Kean Federation of Teachers, and the American Federation of Teachers (collectively, "Union Defendants"), with support from the State of New Jersey, Kean University, Board of Trustees of Kean University, Kenneth Green, Joy Moskovitz, Jeffrey Toney, and Dawood Farahi (collectively, "Kean Defendants"), have moved for sanctions in the form of a filing injunction and attorneys' fees against the plaintiff, Dr. Bruce Skoorka, under Rule 11 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Though this motion stems from a complaint filed in June 2016 (ECF no. 1), it has its roots in previous cases (both in federal and state court) going as far back as 2001. After reviewing the actions of Dr. Skoorka in this case and taking into account his pro se status, I will deny the motion for sanctions under Rule 11 and will not at present grant the defendants' request for attorneys' fees or for a filing injunction.

         I. Summary of Litigation

         a. Current Complaint

         The current iteration of this litigation began with Dr. Skoorka filing a complaint in the Southern District of New York on June 2, 2016. (ECF no. I)[1]In this complaint, he makes claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (42 U.S.C. § 2000e), the New Jersey Conscientious Employee Protection Act (N.J.S.A. 34:19-1 et seq.), the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (N.J.S.A. 10:5-1 et seq.), the New York City Human Rights Law (Administrative Code of the City of New York, § 8 et seq.), and the New York State Human Rights Law N.Y. Exec. Law § 290 et seq.) (Id. ¶¶ 237-313.) After an initial screening of the complaint by the Pro Se Litigation Office of the Southern District (ECF no. 2), the Honorable Ronnie Abrams concluded that the complaint concerned events occurring in New Jersey and that Dr. Skoorka's allegations were insufficient to satisfy Title VII's venue provisions for the case to proceed in that District. (ECF no. 3, at 2-3.) She thus transferred the case to this District sua sponte. [Id.) The Kean Defendants then moved to dismiss the complaint on a variety of grounds, including failure to follow a previous order barring the assertion of new claims, res judicata, and waiver preemption. (See ECF no. 8.) The Union Defendants joined the motion, contending that Dr. Skoorka has been "engag[ing[ in frivolous litigation" and noting that "[n]ot a single action has ever been fully adjudicated in his favor." (ECF no. 9.) Dr. Skoorka opposed the motion (ECF no. 12), but then requested a 120-day stay on the litigation due to "hardship and inequity." (ECF no. 16.) That request was denied. (ECF no. 18.) The motion to dismiss has yet to be decided.

         In April 2017, the Union Defendants then filed a motion for sanctions pursuant to Rule 11. (ECF no. 22.) Specifically, they asked for Dr. Skoorka to be sanctioned for the filing of the most recent complaint filed in the Southern District, to pay their attorneys' fees incurred in preparing a response to that complaint, and to be enjoined from filing any other action against them without express leave of the Court. [Id. at 37 (Brief in Support of Motion).) The Kean Defendants joined the motion, requesting the same relief. (ECF no. 23.) Both parties cited the tortured legal history between themselves and Dr. Skoorka in their briefs, which I will address in more detail below.

         b. History Involving Litigants

         The litigation history between Dr. Skoorka and both groups of defendants stretches as far back as 2001.[2] Dr. Skoorka was a tenured associate professor of Economics and Finance at Kean University. (McGovern Cert., Ex. A, at 1.) He filed a complaint in the Law Division of the Superior Court of New Jersey in Union County, where he complained of religious discrimination, retaliation for being a whistleblower, and other unlawful employment actions. (McGovern Cert., Ex. B.) After various summary judgment decisions and appeals, Dr. Skoorka lost at trial. See Skoorka v. Kean Univ. [Skoorka 2015], No. 09-3428, 2015 WL 3533878, at *24 (D.N.J. June 2, 2015).[3]

         In 2007, Mr. Skoorka then filed an action in federal district court, which was docketed as Civ. No. 07-1629. Skoorka 2017, at *1 (explaining that the case was later refiled in 2009 as Civ. No. 09-3428). He again sued the Kean Defendants and the Union Defendants. Id. Now, he asserted that the defendants had retaliated against him for asserting his rights in the previous, unsuccessful state court action. Id. I partially disposed of that action on summary judgment. Id. At the time, I stated that the bulk of Dr. Skoorka's allegations "fail[ed] to meet the minimal threshold . . . there is not sufficient evidence to permit an inference that they occurred at all, that defendants had anything to do with them, or that they were retaliatory." Id. (quoting the summary judgment opinion, at page 7, Docket No. 09-3428, ECF nos. 130-31). In 2014, Dr. Skoorka filed a substantially similar complaint in the District Court for the Southern District of New York, claiming that it was not possible for him to obtain a fair hearing of his claims in New Jersey. Id. at *2 (quoting Mr. Skoorka's briefin opposition to a motion for transfer). Venue was immediately transferred back to this district and the transferred case was assigned to me. Id. This action, Dr. Skoorka then argued, was (despite all outward appearances) not a mere duplicate of the 2007 action, but an update of the claims contained within the 2007 complaint. Id.

         I consolidated the two actions and permitted Dr. Skoorka to resubmit an amended version of his complaint, redrafted as an update of his earlier claims. Id. I specifically instructed Dr. Skoorka to "state clearly, with dates, places, and names of participants, the acts that he alleges post-date those encompassed by the [2007 complaint] . . . and not rehash the history of events already subject to the [2007 complaint] and summary judgment motions." Id. at *2-3 (quoting the Consolidation Opinion, Docket No. 14-4561, ECF no. 137). Dr. Skoorka submitted a "First Supplemental and Amended Complaint." I granted nearly all of the defendants' motion to dismiss that First Supplemental and Amended Complaint with prejudice. Id. at *10.

         It was during those proceedings that Dr. Skoorka filed a second complaint in the Southern District of New York. That second complaint, like its predecessor transferred to this District, is the operative complaint in the above-captioned action. It is also the subject of this motion for sanctions, and is referred to herein, unless otherwise specified, as the "Complaint." Supra Section I.a. Since the filing of the sanctions motion, both groups of defendants have brought to my attention to the filing of still more complaints in other jurisdictions. On April 10, 2017, Dr. Skoorka filed another complaint against the same defendants in the Eastern District of New York, with Docket No. 17-2178. (ECF. no. 30, ex. A.) Then, on July 10, 2017, Dr. Skoorka filed another complaint in the Supreme Court of the State of New York, County of New York, with Index No. 100957/17. (ECF no. 36 (attachment).) Although worded and formatted differently, both complaints make similar allegations and assert essentially the same causes of action. (ECF no. 30, ex. A; ECF no. 36 (attachment).)

         II. Rule 11 and Sanctions Standard

         Rule 11 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure requires that any "pleading, written motion, or other paper" filed or submitted to the Court "not be[ ] presented for any improper purpose, such as to harass, cause unnecessary delay, or needlessly increase the cost of litigation." Fed.R.Civ.P. 11(b). The goal of Rule 11 is accountability, Keister v. PPL Corporation, 677 Fed.App'x 63, 68 (3d Cir. 2017), and its central purpose is to deter baseless filings. Howe v. Litwark, 579 Fed.App'x 110, 115 (3d Cir. 2014) (quoting Cooter & Geil v. Hartmarx Corp., 496 U.S. 384, 393 (1990)).

         Should this principle be violated and an appropriate sanction desired, "a motion for sanctions must be made separately from any other motion and must describe the specific conduct that allegedly violates [the rule]." R. 11(c)(2). After notice is served pursuant to Rule 5, a 21 day period is triggered whereby the party served may withdraw or appropriately correct the challenged paper or claim. See R. 11(c)(2). If after notice and a reasonable opportunity to respond, the court determines that there has been a violation, the court may impose an appropriate sanction on the party that violated the rule. R. 11(c)(1). However, any sanction imposed must be limited to what suffices to deter repetition of the conduct or comparable conduct by others similarly situated. R. 11(c)(4). Though the party moving for the rule may obtain monetary penalties, the purpose of the rule is not to shift fees. See Ario v. Underwriting Members of Syndicate 53 at Lloyds for 1998 Year of Account,618 F.3d 277, 297 (3d Cir. 2010) ("Rule 1 l's primary purpose is not wholesale fee ...

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