United States District Court, D. New Jersey
JORDAN STRASSMAN, in his capacity as trustee of the Robert H. Strassman Revocable Trust and in his individual capacity, and THE ROBERT H. STRASSMAN REVOCABLE TRUST, Plaintiffs,
ESSENTIAL IMAGES, d/b/a Essential Images Fine Art and Antique Appraisal Service, JOHN W. ROCKAFELLOW, and SALLY ROCKAFELLOW, Defendants.
MCNULTY, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
Jordan Strassman and the Robert H. Strassman Revocable Trust
allege that they engaged defendants Essential Images, John W.
Rockafellow, and Sally Rockafellow, to appraise and sell
personal and Trust property. Plaintiffs claim that defendants
have failed to provide an accounting of sales and have not
forwarded sale proceeds. Plaintiffs first brought an action
in the Superior Court of New Jersey, where the Judge
dismissed all claims by the Trust for lack of personal
jurisdiction and all of Strassman's personal claims for
failure to state a claim. Plaintiffs then filed this federal
before the court is defendants' motion to dismiss the
complaint on grounds of collateral estoppel and failure to
state a claim.
Jordan Strassman ("Strassman"), a New Jersey
resident, is the trustee of the Robert H. Strassman Revocable
Trust ("Trust"), whose situs is in Virginia.
(Compl. ¶¶ 9-10). Strassman contacted defendant
Essential Images, a "fine arts and antique appraisal
service" based in Littlestown, Pennsylvania and
Washington, D.C., to sell Trust assets as well as his
personal property. (Compl. ¶¶ 11, 22-23). Strassman
had several phone conversations with John W. Rockafellow
("Rockafellow"), a Pennsylvania resident who owns
or works for Essential Images. (Compl. ¶¶ 12, 23).
Sally Rockafellow, too, is a Pennsylvania resident who owns
or works for Essential Images. (Compl. ¶ 13).
October 8, 2012, Rockafellow traveled to Virginia to review
and inventory the Trust property. (Compl. ¶ 24).
Rockafellow valued the property and stated prices that he
could sell items for. (Compl. ¶ 24). On October 23,
2012, Strassman retained Essential Images to complete the
appraisal of Trust property. (Compl. ¶¶ 24-25).
Pursuant to the agreement, Essential Images would keep a
twenty percent commission on the total sale. (Compl. ¶
27). Essential Images would send the Trust sale proceeds
within ten days and communicate sales and inventory
information to Strassman. (Compl. ¶ 27). If any items
were not sold within 120 days, they would be returned to the
Trust within seven working days thereafter. (Compl. ¶
took items from the Trust's Virginia property to
Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C. for sale. (Compl.
¶¶ 33-34). Strassman alleges that Rockafellow took
possession of items that were not part of die agreement and
failed to inventory certain items. (Compl. ¶¶
28-31). At that time, Rockafellow represented that he had
sold several items. (Compl. ¶ 37). Rockafellow also
provided Strassman with a detailed receipt that showed each
item sold, the value of each sale, the total dollar volume
for the day, Essential Images' commission, and the net
amount due to the Trust. (Compl. ¶ 37).
the Virginia transactions, Strassman agreed that Rockafellow
would travel to New Jersey to appraise and sell the personal
property of Strassman and his parents. (Compl. ¶¶
35-36). On December 18, 2012, representatives of Essential
Images came to New Jersey to Strassman's parents'
residence, Strassman's storage unit, and Strassman's
residence to collect personal property for sale. (Compl.
¶ 36). Strassman asked Rockafellow whether they needed
to form a separate agreement or contract. (Compl. ¶ 36).
Rockafellow said, "You are covered by the original
contract. You signed it personally." (Compl. ¶ 36).
Rockafellow told Strassman he had sent an email that listed
the items sold. (Compl. ¶ 39). Strassman had not
received the email and verified his email address. (Compl.
¶ 39). Rockafellow forwarded a "test" email,
which Strassman confirmed receiving. (Compl. ¶ 39).
Strassman still did not receive an accounting of die items
sold. (Compl. ¶ 39). Rockafellow explained that his
computer system was not working. (Compl. ¶ 39).
April 29, 2013, Strassman sent Rockafellow an email that
stated, "I still have not received any of the
e-mails" and therefore "have no idea what has or
has not been sold so far." (Compl. ¶ 39).
Rockafellow responded that everything had been sold except
for the camera equipment and the trailer. (Compl. ¶ 40).
Rockafellow then stated, "I have the trailer sold ... I
have buyers for most of the other pieces from the house ... I
am working on finalizing the sale of the garage
equipment." (Compl. ¶ 41). In June 2013,
Rockafellow sent an email to Strassman that stated, "The
sale that I'm having with your camera equipment is on the
weekend starting on the 28th ... I've had a lot of
interest so far and believe it will all sell." (Compl.
continued to request that Rockafellow send him checks from
the sale proceeds. (Compl. ¶ 43). Rockafellow left a
voicemail in July 2013 stating that someone from Essential
Images would send him a check as soon as possible. (Compl.
¶ 43). In September 2013, Rockafellow sent Strassman an
email that stated, "I am working on your estate and will
get a check out to you sometime this week." (Compl.
¶ 43). Rockafellow also told Strassman by phone that he
would send a check immediately. (Compl. ¶ 43).
months of not receiving checks, Strassman sent a written
demand for payment, (Compl. ¶ 44). Essential Images has
represented that almost all of the items were sold and that
Strassman should have received an accounting for those sales.
(Compl. ¶ 45). Strassman has still not received an
accounting of the property transferred to defendants or
checks for the sales of the property. (Compl. ¶¶
46-47). Essential Images and Rockafellow have failed to
communicate with Strassman about the status of the property.
(Compl. ¶ 47).
New Jersey Superior Court Action
2, 2016, plaintiffs filed an action in the Superior Court of
New Jersey, asserting claims against Essential Images, John
W. Rockafellow, and Sally Rockafellow. (Def. Ex. B). The
complaint included eight counts under New Jersey law for
alleged violations of the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act,
breach of contract, violations of good faith and fair
dealing, misrepresentation, common law fraud, promissory
estoppel, conversion, conspiracy to commit a tort, and aiding
the commission of a tort. (Def. Ex. B).
September 30, 2016, Judge Camille M. Kenny of the Superior
Court of New Jersey dismissed plaintiffs' complaint, with
prejudice, as to all claims by the Robert H. Strassman
Revocable Trust. (Def. Ex. C). At the motion hearing, Judge
Kenny stated that New Jersey courts did not have personal
jurisdiction over the claims arising from the Trust. (Pl. Ex.
Kenny dismissed Strassman's personal claims against
defendants without prejudice; she would have permitted
Strassman to submit a new complaint to pursue causes of
action on his own behalf. (Def. Ex. C). Plaintiffs filed a
motion for reconsideration, which was denied by Judge Kenny
on November 18, 2016. (Def. Ex. D).
Filing in Federal Court
12, 2017, Strassman and die Trust filed this action in
federal court against Essential Images, John W. Rockafellow,
and Sally Rockafellow. (Compl.). The complaint alleges thirty
counts under New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and
Washington, D.C. law.
New Jersey law, plaintiffs allege violations of the New
Jersey Consumer Fraud Act, breach of contract, violation of
good faith and fair dealing, misrepresentation, common law
fraud, promissory estoppel, conversion, breach of
quasi-contract, breach of fiduciary duty, conspiracy to
commit a tort, and aiding die commission of a tort. (Compl.
¶¶ 48-98). Under Pennsylvania law, plaintiffs
allege violations of the Pennsylvania Unfair Trade Practice
and Consumer Protection Law, breach of contract, unjust
enrichment, breach of fiduciary duty, common law fraud,
conversion, and conspiracy. (Compl. ¶¶ 99-127).
Under Virginia law, plaintiffs allege violations of the
Virginia Consumer Protection Act, breach of contract, common
law fraud, negligent misrepresentation, conversion, and
breach of quasi-contract. (Compl. ¶¶ 128-155).
Under Washington, D.C. law, plaintiffs allege breach of
contract, violation of good faith and fair dealing, negligent
misrepresentation, common law fraud, unjust enrichment,
breach of fiduciary duty, and violations of the District of
Columbia Consumer Protection Procedures Act. (Compl.
have moved to dismiss this action on the grounds of
collateral estoppel. They argue that the New Jersey Superior
Court's dismissal bars plaintiffs from relitigating the
issue of personal jurisdiction. In the alternative,
defendants claim that this complaint does not fulfill basic
pleading requirements because it fails to differentiate
Strassman's individual claims from those asserted on
behalf of the Trust. (Def. Br. 1-2, 6-13). Plaintiffs argue
in the alternative that if collateral estoppel prevents them
from relitigating the issue of personal jurisdiction, the
action should be transferred to an appropriate venue. (Pl.
preclusion "prevents parties from relitigating an issue
that has already been actually litigated." Peloro v.
United States, 488 F.3d 163, 174 (3d Cir. 2007).
"[T]he principle is simply that later courts should
honor the first actual decision of a matter that has been
actually litigated." 18 Wright & Miller, Federal
Practice & Procedure § 4416 (3d ed. 2016). This
doctrine ensures that "once an issue is actually and
necessarily determined by a court of competent jurisdiction,
that determination is conclusive in subsequent suits based on
a different cause of action involving a party to the prior
litigation." Montana v. United States, 440 U.S.
147, 153 (1979); see Parklane Hosiery Co. v. Shore,
439 U.S. 322, 326 (1979); Burlington N. R.R. v. Hyundai
Merchant Marine Co., 63 F.3d 1227, 1232 (3d Cir. 1995).
district court sitting in diversity applies the collateral
estoppel rules of the state in which it sits. Nationwide
Mut. Fire Ins. Co. v. George V. Hamilton, Inc., 571 F.3d
299, 310 (3d Cir. 2009) (citing Semtek Int'l Inc. v.
Lockheed Martin Corp., 531 U.S. 497, 508 (2001)). In New
Collateral estoppel, which is also known as issue preclusion,
prohibits relitigation of issues if its five essential
elements are met. Those elements are that (1) the issue to be
precluded is identical to the issue decided in the prior
proceeding; (2) the issue was actually litigated in the prior
proceeding; (3) the court in the prior proceeding issued a
final judgment on die merits; (4) the determination of the
issue was essential to the prior judgment; and (5) the party
against whom die doctrine is asserted was a party to or in
privity with a party to the earlier proceeding.
Allen v. V & A Bros., Inc., 26 A.3d 430, 444
(N.J. 2011) (citations omitted).
underlying principles of issue preclusion include securing
peace for the parties and promoting the court's efficient
resolution of claims. See Allen v. McCurry, 449 U.S.
90, 94 (1980). Thus issue preclusion is concerned with
"the defendant's interest in avoiding the burdens of
twice defending a suit, " and also "the avoidance
of unnecessary judicial waste." Arizona v.
California,530 U.S. 392, 412-13 (2000) (citing
United States v. Sioux Nation of Indians, 448 U.S.
371, 432 (1980) (Rehnquist, J., dissenting)). ...