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Somerset v. State

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

December 20, 2018

THE STATE OF NEW JERSEY, et al., Defendants.


          Kevin McNulty, U.S.D.J.

         This action grows out of the dissolution of a business venture between longtime friends, Jerry Somerset and Joseph Elam. Mr. Somerset sues under the Americans With Disabilities Act ("ADA''), 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq.. Somerset, who is vision-impaired, alleges that he made the down payment on a van for Elam to drive in connection with their floor refurbishing business. Elam, he says, used the van in another business, in violation of their agreement to share and share alike.

         Somerset sued Elam in state court; the matter went to trial; and judgment was entered in favor of Elam. Somerset v. Elam, No. DC-06311-15 (N.J. Superior Court, Law Division, Special Civil Part) (the "State Court Action"). Now Somerset has brought suit in federal court against the State of New Jersey; the Hon. Frank Covello, J.S.C., who presided in the State Court Action; Lawrence D. Eichen, Elam's attorney in the State Court Action; Joseph Elam; Strategic Delivery Systems (a/k/a SDSR, the Healthcare Delivery Specialists) ("SDSR"), seemingly the other business in which Elam used the van; and Partners Pharmacy LLC.

         Before this Court are motions to dismiss the complaint for lack of jurisdiction or failure to state a claim, filed by Eichen (ECF no. 8); the State and Judge Covello (ECF no. 24); and Partners Pharmacy (ECF no. 25). Partners Pharmacy's motion also includes an application to vacate default. For the reasons stated herein, the motions will be granted.


         A. Rule 12(b)(1)

         The motions, in part, are motions to dismiss the complaint for lack of jurisdiction under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(1). Rule 12(b)(1) challenges may be either facial or factual attacks. See 2 Moore's Federal Practice § 12.30[4] (3d ed. 2007); Mortensen v. First Fed. Sav. & Loan Ass'n, 549 F.2d 884, 891 (3d Cir. 1977). A facial challenge asserts that the complaint does not allege sufficient grounds to establish subject matter jurisdiction, Iwanowa, 67 F.Supp.2d at 438. A court considering such a facial challenge assumes that the allegations in the complaint are true. Cardio-Med. Assoc, Ltd. v. Crozer-Chester Med. Ctr., 721 F.2d 68, 75 (3d Cir. 1983); Iwanowa, 67 F.Supp.2d at 438. "In reviewing a facial attack, the court must only consider the allegations of the complaint and documents referenced therein and attached thereto, in the light most favorable to the plaintiff." Lincoln Ben. Life Co. v. AEI Life, LLC, 800 F.3d 99, 105 (3d Cir. 2015) (citing Gould Elecs. Inc. v. United States, 220 F.3d 169, 176 (3d Cir. 2000)).[1]

         Because the Rule 12(b)(1) component of the defendants' motions relies only on the Complaint and documents properly considered on a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, I treat it as a facial challenge. I will not weigh the evidence, but will construe the allegations in the light most favorable to the plaintiff.

         B. Rule 12(b)(6)

         Rule 12(b)(6) provides for the dismissal of a complaint, in whole or in part, if it fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. The defendant, as the moving party, bears the burden of showing that no claim has been stated. Hedges v. United States, 404 F.3d 744, 750 (3d Cir. 2005). In deciding a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, a court must take the allegations of the complaint as true and draw reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. Phillips v. County of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 231 (3d Cir. 2008).

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a) does not require that a complaint contain detailed factual allegations. Nevertheless, "a plaintiffs obligation to provide the 'grounds' of his 'entitlement to relief requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do." Bell Atl Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). Thus, the complaint's factual allegations must be sufficient to raise a plaintiffs right to relief above a speculative level, so that a claim is "plausible on its face." Id. at 570; see also Umland v. PLANCO Fin. Serv., Inc., 542 F.3d 59, 64 (3d Cir. 2008). That facial-plausibility standard is met "when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556). While "[t]he plausibility standard is not akin to a 'probability requirement'... it asks for more than a sheer possibility." Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678.

         Where the plaintiff, like Mr. Somerset here, is proceeding pro se, the complaint is "to be liberally construed," and, "however inartfully pleaded, must be held to less stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers." Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 93-94 (2007). Nevertheless, "pro se litigants still must allege sufficient facts in their complaints to support a claim." Mala v. Crown Bay Marina, Inc., 704 F.3d 239, 245 (3d Cir. 2013). "While a litigant's pro se status requires a court to construe the allegations in the complaint liberally, a litigant is not absolved from complying with Twombly and the federal pleading requirements merely because s/he proceeds pro se." Thakar v. Tan, 372 Fed.Appx. 325, 328 (3d Cir. 2010) (citation omitted).

         C. Consideration of Complaint exhibits and State Court pleadings on motion to dismiss

          The Complaint and the motions to dismiss rely on matters that are, strictly speaking, extrinsic to the pleadings. Mr. Somerset's Complaint attaches three letters; one of the defense motions attaches certain filings from the prior State Court Action; and Somerset's reply to Partners Pharmacy attaches part of a transcript from the State Court Action. Both sides' attachments are properly considered on a motion to dismiss.

         Attached to the Complaint as exhibits are three letters: one from the U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, and two from the United States Attorney for this District. (ECF no. 1 at 8-10) Those letters concern Mr. Somerset's complaints about the conduct of Judge Covello and Mr. Elam in the prior State Court Action.

         A court considering a Rule 12(b)(6) motion is generally confined to the allegations of the complaint, but it may also consider authentic documents attached or integral to the complaint:

Although [the rule against considering extrinsic documents is] phrased in relatively strict terms, we have declined to interpret this rule narrowly. In deciding motions under Rule 12(b)(6), courts may consider "document[s] integral to or explicitly relied upon in the complaint," In re Burlington Coat Factory Sec. Litig., 114 F.3d 1410, 1426 (3d Cir. 1997) (emphasis in original), or any "undisputedly authentic document that a defendant attaches as an exhibit to a motion to dismiss if the plaintiffs claims are based on the document," PBGC v. White Consol. Indus., 998 F.2d 1192, 1196 (3d Cir. 1993).

In re Asbestos Products Liability Litigation (No. VI), 822 F.3d 125, 134 n.7 (3d Cir. 2016). See also Schmidt v. Skolas, 770 F.3d 241, 249 (3d Cir. 2014); In re Burlington Coat Factory, 114 F.3d at 1426); Pension Ben. Guar. Corp. v. White Consol. Indus., Inc., 998 F.2d 1192, 1196 (3d Cir. 1993). "The rationale underlying this exception is that the primary problem raised by looking to documents outside the complaint-lack of notice to the plaintiff-is dissipated '[w]here plaintiff has actual notice ... and has relied upon these documents in framing the complaint.*" In re Burlington, 114 F.3d at 1426 (quoting Watterson v. Page, 987 F.2d 1, 3-4 (1st Cir. 1993) (quoting Cortec Indus., Inc. v. Sum Holding L.P., 949 F.2d 42, 48 (2nd Cir. 1991)).

         The authenticity of these three letters does not appear to be disputed. They are attached and integral to the Complaint, which in effect incorporates them by reference. Although these letters are of limited significance in relation to the issues on these motions to dismiss, it is permissible to consider them.

         The State and Judge Covello attach to their motion to dismiss certain papers from that State Court Action: the complaint, the judgment, a post-trial motion filed by Mr. Somerset, and the State court's order denying that motion. (ECF no. 24-7) Mr. Somerset's Reply attaches part of a transcript from the State Court Action. (ECF no. 27-1) Although not attached to the Complaint, these documents may be considered integral to its claims, which refer to and are based on the judgment and proceedings in the State Court Action.

         In addition, these State court filings are public records of which a court may take judicial notice:

[O]n a motion to dismiss, we may take judicial notice of another court's opinion-not for the truth of the facts recited therein, but for the existence of the opinion, which is not subject to reasonable dispute over its authenticity. See Kramer v. Time Warner Inc., 937 F.2d 767, 774 (2d Cir. 1991); United States v. Wood, 925 F.2d 1580, 1582 (7th Cir. 1991); see also Funk v. Commissioner, 163 F.2d 796, 800-01 (3d Cir. 1947) (whether a court may judicially notice other proceedings depends on what the court is asked to notice and on the circumstances of the instant case).

S. Cross Overseas Agencies, Inc. v. Wah Kwong Shipping Grp. Ltd., 181 F.3d 410, 426-27 (3d Cir. 1999). See generally Fed. R. Evid. 201.

         Mr. Somerset cites the transcript excerpt in support of his contentions against Partners. (ECF no. 27 at 2) Defendants cite the court documents in support of their contentions that, under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine and principles of res judicata, this action is barred by the prior state court judgment. The documents are relevant, not for facts contained therein, but in order to establish the nature of the prior proceedings and the rulings of the State court. For that limited purpose, I will take notice of them.


         A. The Prior State Court Action

         On November 12, 2015, Mr. Somerset filed the complaint against Joseph Elam in the State Court Action. Somerset v. Elam, No. DC-06311-15 (N.J. Superior Court, Law Division, Special Civil Part) (ECF no. 24-7 at 2) The State Court Action complaint says that Elam did not act properly as Somerset's business partner in that, inter alia, he cheated Somerset and "took the van for his purpose only." The complaint demanded $15, 000 in damages.

         The matter was tried without a jury on April 20, 2016. (See ECF no. 27-1, ECF no. 24-7 at 5) The presiding judge was Hon. Frank Covello, J.S.C. Mr. Somerset appeared pro se; Mr. Elam was represented by Lawrence D. Eichen, Esq.

         In the limited transcript excerpts, Mr. Somerset testifies that he and Mr. Elam agreed to start a business and to reinvest profits in the business. He shows the court and opposing counsel documentation of the price of the van, which was $10, 000. (ECF no. 27-1)

         At the close of the plaintiffs case, Judge Covello granted the motion of Mr. Elam for entry of judgment in his favor. (ECF no. 24-7 at 15) Elam's counterclaim was dismissed on condition that Somerset tender the van keys to the van to Elam.[2] (ECF no. 24-7 at 5)

         After trial, Mr. Somerset moved for reconsideration. The motion states that Somerset was not given the opportunity to present evidence of Elam's breach of contract in relation to their business, S&B Carpet Cleaning & Floor Care Co. He cites a statement in Elam's counterclaim to the effect that the two entered into an agreement to purchase a used 2007 Ford Econoline van for use in their business. He states that their implied agreement did not permit the van to be used for the transportation of medical equipment and supplies. Rather, it was to be used in the parties' joint business, and proceeds were to be shared. Somerset stresses he is not licensed to drive, and says that Elam took advantage of his disability. (ECF no. 24-7 at 8, 10-11)

         On October 31, 2016, Mr. Somerset evidently sent a letter or letters to the United States Attorney's Office for the District of New Jersey (USAO). The USAO sent two letters, both dated November 28, 2016, in response. (ECF no. 1 at 9-10) The letters note that Somerset has lodged complaints against Judge Covello and Joseph Elam in relation to a possible violation of the ADA. The USAO letters state that the Office will not take further action, but has referred the complaints to the appropriate agencies.

         Whether directly from Mr. Somerset, or by referral from the USAO, the U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, received a complaint that Judge Covello had violated the ADA. In a letter dated December 5, 2016, the Division declined to take further action. (ECF no. 1 at 8)

         All three letters state that they are not determinations on the merits.

         B. Complaint in This Action

         On February 14, 2017, Mr. Somerset filed his Complaint in this federal court action. ("Complaint," cited as "Cplt.," ECF no. 1) Its allegations, taken as true for purposes of these motions, are as follows:[3]

         In the 1990s, Mr. Somerset was diagnosed with diabetes. Despite surgery, ...

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