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Peterson v. HVM L.L.C.

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

December 27, 2018



          Kevin McNulty, United States District Judge.

         Andrea Peterson, pro se, brought this action against HVM L.L.C. ("HVM"), Extended Stay America ("ESA"), Centerbridge Partners LP ("Centerbridge"), Paulson & Company ("Paulson"), and Blackstone Real Estate Partners VI ("Blackstone"). On motion (DE 32), I dismissed all claims against Centerbridge, Paulson, and Blackstone (the "Investors."), as well as certain other claims against ESA and HVA. (DE 52). Now before the Court is the motion of ESA and HVA (for purposes of this Opinion, the "Defendants") for summary judgment on the remaining counts of the complaint (DE 141), as well as Ms. Peterson's cross motion for a stay. (DE 150).

         For the reasons set forth below, I will grant the motion of the Defendants, ESA and HVM, for summary judgment and deny Ms. Peterson's cross motion for a stay.

         I. Summary[1]

         a. Background

         i. The Agreement

         On or about February 19, 2009, Ms. Peterson entered into the Long Term Lodging Agreement (the "Agreement") with the Defendants, pursuant to which Ms. Peterson became a guest at the Extended Stay of America Secaucus Hotel (the "Hotel"). (DSF ¶ 22). Ms. Peterson and Defendants are in accord that the Agreement is a valid contract. (DSF ¶ 23). The Agreement contains a commencement date of February 18, 2009. (DSF ¶ 24). The terms and construction of the Agreement are discussed at Section III.b.2, infra.

         ii. The Lodging Fee

         The original Lodging Fee and the original payment period for the Lodging Fee are both unclear; Ms. Peterson redacted that information from the only copy of the Agreement that is before the Court. (DSF SI 31). Defendants allege that, since 2009, they have demanded in writing that the Lodging Fee be paid every 30 days. (DSF ¶ 32). Ms. Peterson alleges similarly, though not identically, that the Lodging Fee was to be paid monthly. (DE 150). By 2010, Defendants had already filed at least one lawsuit against Ms. Peterson for failing to pay the Lodging Fee. (DSF ¶ 34).

         Defendants assert that they served Notices to Cease and terminated the Agreement, placing Ms. Peterson in holdover status. [See Section III.b.2.b, infra.) On April 1, 2012, pursuant to the holdover provisions of the Agreement, they began charging a Lodging Fee of $33.00 per day, due every 30 days (33 x 30 = $990). (DSF ¶ 35). Ms. Peterson admits that she never paid $33.00 per day for the Lodging Fee after April 1, 2012. (DSF ¶ 36). She asserts that the Lodging Fee should have remained at the rate of $900 per month, not the holdover rate of $990 per 30-day period. (DE 150).

         iii. Eviction Proceedings

         By March of 2012, Ms. Peterson had stayed at the Hotel for over three years. (DSF ¶ 37). In March of 2012, in an effort to start the eviction process, Defendants allege that they sent Ms. Peterson a Notice to Cease. The Notice informed her that she was in arrears in the amount of $174.34. (DSF ¶ 40). It states that the holdover Lodging Fee of $33 per day was thereafter to be paid every 30 days, pursuant to the Agreement. (DSF ¶ 38).

         Defendants allege that they sent Ms. Peterson follow-up Notices to Cease on March 29, 2012, April 30, 2012, May 29, 2012, and June 27, 2012. (DSF ¶ 39). Ms. Peterson alleges that she did not receive any of those Notices to Cease. (DE 150-5, 2, ¶l(b)).

         Each Notice to Cease states that Ms. Peterson is behind on her rent, states an outstanding balance, [2] and warns that she may be evicted if she does not pay her rent. (DSF ¶¶ 40, 41, 42, 43). Each Notice to Cease also reiterates that, pursuant to the notice sent to Ms. Peterson on February 7, 2012, her Lodging Fee increased to $33 per day as of April 1, 2012. (DSF ¶¶ 40, 41, 42, 43). Also, starting March 29, 2012, each Notice to Cease stated that the Lodging Fee of $990 (i.e., $33 x 30) would be due and payable every 30 days. (DSF ¶¶ 41, 42, 43). The Notices to Cease also updated Ms. Peterson on the consecutive No. of months her account was past due. (Id.).

         A Notice to Cease is a typical business record kept in the ordinary course of business. It is mailed to the address listed on the notice and is delivered directly to the guest by sliding a copy under the door of the room listed on the notice. (DSF ¶ 45). Ms. Peterson acknowledges that the address on the Notices to Cease, New York P.O. Box 582, New York, NY 10108 (the "New York P.O. Box"), was the address for notices specified in the Agreement, and that it remained her valid mailing address through 2012. (DSF ¶ 44). The room listed on the notice, which Ms. Peterson admits was her residence address, was Room 507 at die Hotel. That room, at One Plaza Drive in Secaucus, New Jersey, is listed on the Notices to Cease dated May 29, 2012 and June 27, 2012. (DSF ¶ 46).

         Despite the alleged Notices to Cease, Ms. Peterson continued to pay at the prior rate of $900 per month. (DSF ¶ 47). Ms. Peterson alleges that this was "consideration in full." (DE 150). Although die first Notice to Cease was triggered by accrued arrearages in the original Lodging Fee, the Defendants focus here on die post-Notice to Cease Lodging Fees at the holdover rate. (See DSF ¶ 34-35) ("By 2010, Defendants had already filed at least one lawsuit against Plaintiff for failing to pay the Lodging Fee as required by the Agreement . . . Additionally, regardless of what the Lodging Fee was in 2009, on April 1, 2012 Defendants raised die Lodging Fee to $33 per day, due every 30 days, as they were permitted to do pursuant to die Agreement.")(internal citations omitted).

         iv. Landlord-Tenant Actions

         On or about June 21, 2012, Defendants initiated a landlord/tenant action against Ms. Peterson in Hudson County (die "June Action") for her "refusal to pay die $33 per day Lodging Fee, her habitually late payments, and her refusal to comply with the four Notices to Cease." (DSF ¶ 48) (citing DE 141-13). The Defendants' statement of facts cites the June 2012 complaint for a then-current arrearage of $483.34. (Id.) (citing 141-13)) The June 2012 complaint itself, however, does not contain that figure, but claims $1, 164.34 in base rent through June 30, 2012. (DE 141-13, 3)] The summons attached to the complaint includes a notice stating as follows: "die purpose of die attached complaint is to permanently remove you and your belongings from die premises." (DSF SI 49). The affidavit of service reflects that a court officer left it at her hotel room after knocking on the door. (Id.) Ms. Peterson claims she did not receive notice of the June Action. (DSF ¶ 50).

         On August 17, 2012, however, Ms. Peterson received a letter from the Hudson County Superior Court at her Hotel room. She admittedly understood that the letter had legal implications. (Id.). Instead of opening the envelope, however, she wrote on the front of the envelope that her correct mailing address was the New York P.O. Box (the same address to which Defendants had sent the notices to cease). (DSF ¶ 51).

         On or about August 7, 2012, Defendants filed a second landlord/tenant action against Ms. Peterson (the "August Action"). This complaint alleged that she continued to habitually pay the Lodging Fee late and was $1, 563.34 in arrears. (DSF ¶ 52; DE 141-17). The summons for the August Action included a notice stating that eviction was sought: "the purpose of the attached complaint is to permanently remove you and your belongings from the premises." (DSF ¶ 54; a copy of the August summons is not provided, however.). On or about September 4, 2012, Ms. Peterson was served with the copy of the summons and complaint in the August Action. (DSF ¶ 53).

         On September 5, 2012, Ms. Peterson performed an online search of New Jersey public records. (She admits that she did so based on the June complaint, but she is not clear about the circumstances under which she received the June complaint or the August one.)[3] That online search confirmed that Defendants had filed landlord/tenant actions against her and sought her removal from the Hotel. (DSF ¶ 55). The court clerk for Hudson County Superior Court also told Ms. Peterson that Defendants had filed two lawsuits against her because they "want you to leave" the hotel. (DSF ¶56).

         Between September 4, 2012 and October 3, 2012, Ms. Peterson did not take any steps to look for alternative housing. (DSF ¶ 57). Ms. Peterson states that she felt that she had met all of her obligations to Defendants and wished to remain because she had a good rate. (DSF ¶ 57).

         On October 2, 2012, the landlord-tenant court held a hearing concerning the June and August Actions (the "October Court Hearing"). (DSF ¶ 58). During the October Court Hearing, Ms. Peterson declared that she did not want to be considered a tenant and wanted to be treated as a guest of the Hotel pursuant to the terms of the Agreement. (DSF ¶ 59). In response, the landlord/tenant court vacated a default judgment against Ms. Peterson in the June Action, finding that because no landlord/tenant relationship existed between the parties, there was no jurisdiction to hear the action in landlord/tenant court. (DSF ¶ 60).[4]

         When the landlord-tenant court vacated the default judgment in the June action. Defendants voluntarily withdrew the August landlord-tenant Action. (DSF ¶ 61). Ms. Peterson asserts that "when HVM/ESA and its management learned, it management and attorney was in court and heard the judgment vacated, it had no judgment, at no time did it contact me." [sic; DE 150 ¶ 75. See also DE 150 ¶ 100.).

         On October 3, 2012, Defendants denied Ms. Peterson access to her room and stated that she would be denied access to the Hotel. (DSF ¶ 62). She was permitted to collect her belongings. Ms. Peterson signed a document acknowledging that she had collected all of her personal items from the Hotel and that no items were missing. (DSF ¶ 65).[5]

         b. Ms. Peterson's relationship with Safeguard Storage

         On or about December 10, 2008 (i.e. before entering in the Agreement with Defendants), Ms. Peterson entered into a Self-Service Storage Rental Agreement (the "Storage Agreement") with Safeguard Self-Storage ("Safeguard") located in Garfield, New Jersey. (DSF ¶ 66). Safeguard is not a party to this action or this motion.

         Pursuant to the Storage Agreement, Ms. Peterson rented a storage unit (the "Storage Unit") and was required to purchase fire, theft, and casualty insurance on her belongings if her property's value exceeded $1, 000. (DSF ¶ 67-68). Ms. Peterson admits she never took out insurance on her items in the Storage Unit. (DSF ¶ 69).

         In 2012, Ms. Peterson stopped making payments for her Storage Unit. (DSF ¶ 70). She admits that she understood that her failure to make payments would result in the contents of her Storage Units being sold at auction. (Id.).

         Between February and June of 2013, Safeguard sent Ms. Peterson several notices and had numerous phone calls with Ms. Peterson regarding her overdue storage payment fees. (Id.).

         On June 5, 2013, the Safeguard facility manager. Jason Villar, inspected the contents of Ms. Peterson's Storage Unit and prepared a corresponding property inventory (the "Property Inventory"). (DSF ¶ 73). The Property Inventory estimated the value of the items in her Storage Unit to be $500. (Id). The Property Inventory was addressed to Ms. Peterson's New York P.O. Box.

         Ms. Peterson alleges that she stored valuable items, such as a mezzotint by G.H. Rothe (which, she says, is valued at $19, 000.00) and a Henredon section sofa with ottoman (which, she says, are valued at $15, 000), in the unit. (DE 10-1, 76). Mr. Villar does not recall seeing any such valuable items in the Storage Unit. (DSF ¶ 75).

         On July 15, 2013, Safeguard warned Ms. Peterson in an e-mail that her account was past due and had gone into default in January 2013, and that the contents of the Storage Unit would be sold at public auction on July 23, 2013. (DSF ¶77). On that same date, Safeguard also offered Ms. Peterson the opportunity to reclaim all of her belongings if she paid 50% of her outstanding balance. (DSF ¶ 78).

         On July 22, 2013, the contents of Ms. Peterson's Storage Unit were sold at auction. (DE 79; 81). That morning. Safeguard had given Ms. Peterson the opportunity to reclaim her belongings even if she was unable to pay the balance owed. (DSF 79). Ms. Peterson failed to do so. (DSF ¶80).

         c. Procedural history

         I lay out only such portions of this case's convoluted procedural history as may relate to the motions now before the Court.[6]

         On January 24, 2014, Ms. Peterson, who had moved to Georgia, filed her complaint with the United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia. (Cplt). The complaint names as defendants ESA, HVM, and the Investors. (Id.). The complaint asserts a number of claims arising out of Ms. Peterson's alleged eviction, including breach of contract, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and fraud. (Id.). Ms. Peterson also argued that the proceedings in state court violated her constitutional rights. (Id.). The complaint requests damages stemming from the eviction, litigation costs, and compensation for pain and suffering. (Cplt, ¶¶ 27-28). Ms. Peterson alleges that "[d]efendants['] actions cause[d] [her] financial ruin," destroyed her credit, caused her personal items to be sold at auction, and "caused plaintiff extreme emotional pain, devastation." (Cplt., p 3).

         On February 21, 2014, venue of the case was transferred to the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey, where it was assigned to me.

         On January 28, 2015, the Investors, ESA, and HVM moved to dismiss the complaint under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(2) and (b)(6). (DE 32). Ms. Peterson opposed that motion. (DE 46).

         On March 3, 2016, I issued an opinion (DE 51) and order (DE 52) granting in part and denying in part the motion to dismiss. Under Rule 12(b)(2), I dismissed the complaint in its entirety as against the defendant Investors. (DE 51, 52). As against defendants ESA and HVM, I partially granted the 12(b)(6) motion. (Id.) The following claims against ESA and HVM survived the motion to dismiss: (1) breach of contract; (2) breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing, (3) malicious prosecution/abuse of process, and (4) intentional infliction of emotional distress. (Id.).

         On March 29, 2016, Ms. Peterson filed a letter containing several requests, including a request to file an amended complaint. (DE 56). On April 4, 2016, I granted Ms. Peterson a thirty-day extension (i.e., until May 6, 2016) to file an amended complaint. (DE 57).

         Also on April 4, 2016, Ms. Peterson filed a notice of appeal from my opinion and order on the defendants' motion to dismiss. (DE 60). She also filed a motion for extension of time to file an interlocutory appeal. (DE 59). On April 11, 2016, I issued a memorandum and order granting Ms. Peterson's motion for an extension to the extent necessary to render her notice of appeal timely. (DE 61).

         On April 29, 2016, Ms. Peterson filed an amended notice of appeal. (DE 69). Also on April 29, 2016, ESA and HVM filed a letter requesting an extension of time to file their answer. (DE 67). The same day, anticipating that an amended complaint might soon be filed, I granted ESA and HVM a fourteen-day extension to file their answer. (DE 71).

         On May 16, 2016, Ms. Peterson moved for a stay pending appeal. (DE 72). On May 19, 2016, I denied that motion. (DE 73).

         On May 20, 2016, ESA and HVM filed their answer to the complaint. (DE 74).

         On June 14, 2016, Ms. Peterson moved for an extension of time to file a response to ESA and HVM's answers. (DE 78). On June 16, 2016, I denied Ms. Peterson's motion as moot. (DE 79). On June 23, 2016, Ms. Peterson moved for reconsideration of that order. (DE 81). On June 27, 2016, I denied Ms. Peterson's motion for reconsideration. (DE 83). On July 5, 2016, Ms. Peterson filed a notice of appeal from my original order (DE 79) on Ms. Peterson's motion for an extension. (DE 85).

         On August 8, 2016, Ms. Peterson filed a motion to stay. (DE 88). On August 9, 2016, by letter order, I granted Ms. Peterson's motion to stay during the pendency of her appeal. (DE 89). On August 11, 2016, the Third Circuit dismissed both of Ms. Peterson's appeals for lack of jurisdiction, as there had been no final decision in the case. (DE 90, 91).

         A series of motions regarding discovery and settlement ensued. I do not summarize them here. Fact discovery was completed.

         On April 6, 2018, ESA and HVM moved for summary judgment. (DE 141). On April 19, 2018, Ms. Peterson moved for an extension of time to file a response to defendants' motion for summary judgment. (DE 142). On April 26, 2018, Magistrate Judge Clark granted her 30 days from the date of the order to file her opposition. (DE 143). On May 15, 2018, Ms. Peterson filed a Fed.R.Civ.P. 72 objection to Judge Clark's order. (DE 144). On July 18, 2018, I denied Ms. Peterson's Rule 72 motion. (DE 145, 146). On August 13, 2018, in response to my decision, Ms. Peterson moved for reconsideration (DE 147), which I denied (DE 148).

         As of September 18, 2018, I still had received no response to Defendants' motion for summary judgment. I issued a memorandum and procedural order requiring that any response be filed by Ms. Peterson on or before October 23, 2018, and that if no response was received, the Defendants' motion might be treated as unopposed and granted. (DE 149). On October 23, 2018, Ms. Peterson filed an opposition to Defendants' summary judgment motion, as well as another motion to stay. (DE 150, DE 150-6).

         II. Ms. Peterson's Motion for a Stay

         Before addressing Defendants' summary judgment motion, I will briefly address Ms. ...

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