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Sosinavage v. Thomson

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

February 8, 2019

JOHN A. SOSINAVAGE, Plaintiff,
v.
JOHN SCOTT THOMSON, et al., Defendants.

          Cheryl L. Cooper, Esq. LAW OFFICES OF CHERYL L. COOPER 342 Egg Harbor Road, Suite 1-A Sewell, N.J. 08080 Attorney for Plaintiff

          Christine O'Hearn, Esq. BROWN & CONNERY, LLP 360 Haddon Avenue Westmont, N.J. 08108 Attorney for County Defendants

          OPINION

          JEROME B. SIMANDLE U.S. District Judge.

         I. INTRODUCTION

         This matter comes before the Court on a renewed motion for sanctions filed by Defendants County of Camden, Police Chief Thomson, Deputy Chief Cuevas, Deputy Chief Lynch, and Louis Vega in their capacity as employees of the County of Camden and Camden County Police Department (collectively, “the County Defendants”) pursuant to Rule 11, Fed. R. Civ. P., and the New Jersey Frivolous Claims Act, N.J.S.A. § 2A:15-59.1. [Docket Item 189.] For the reasons discussed below, the Court will grant the sanctions motion pursuant to Rule 11 and order that Plaintiff's attorney, Ms. Cheryl L. Cooper, Esq., reimburse the County Defendants' for reasonable fees and expenses, as a deterrent to Rule 11 violations, in an amount to be determined, subject to Ms. Cooper's ability to pay.

         II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY[1]

         On May 22, 2014, Ms. Cooper initiated this 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action in federal court on behalf of Plaintiff John A. Sosinavage (“Plaintiff”), a former Lieutenant in the Camden City Police Department, against the City of Camden, the County of Camden, and Officers John Scott Thomson, Orlando Cuevas, Michael Lynch, and Louis Vega in their individual and official capacities as employees of both the City of Camden and County of Camden.[2] [Docket Item 1.] Shortly thereafter, an Amended Complaint was filed a matter of right. [Docket Item 4.] The Amended Complaint only asserted § 1983 liability as to the Camden County Defendants “on the basis that the County of Camden took over the City of Camden's Police Department, ” and “[n]othing in the Amended Complaint alleges any retaliatory action taken by the County against Plaintiff.” [Docket Item 24 at ¶ 2.]

         On February 17, 2015, Ms. Cooper moved to file a Second Amended Complaint to add claims against the County Defendants based on a failure-to-hire theory of liability for age discrimination under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination and/or retaliation and Monell claims under § 1983. [See Docket Item 26-2 at ¶¶ 207-44.] Specifically, the Proposed Second Amended Complaint alleged that the County Defendants discriminated against Plaintiff based on age and/or retaliated against Plaintiff by not sending him a letter expressly inviting him to apply for employment with the Camden County Police Department when his name was on a state-wide reemployment list, commonly referred to as a “Rice List.” [Id.] The County Defendants opposed the motion to amend on the basis of factual and legal futility. [Docket Item 27.] The County Defendants argued in 2015 that amendment would be futile since Plaintiff was alleging discriminatory failure to hire when “Plaintiff admittedly has never applied for employment with the County Police Department” and, according to the County Defendants, they “indisputably have never used a ‘Rice List' to appoint police officers to the County Police Department.” [Id. at 4.]

         On March 5, 2015, counsel for the County Defendants, Ms. Christine P. O'Hearn, Esq., transmitted a letter to Ms. Cooper demanding that she withdraw all claims against the County Defendants, including those in the Proposed Second Amended Complaint alleging discrimination and/or retaliation for failure to hire, and advising Ms. Cooper that, if she did not do so, the County Defendants would pursue sanctions under Fed.R.Civ.P. 11, the New Jersey Frivolous Claims Act, and/or other state and federal remedies related to frivolous litigation. [Docket Item 189-3 at 2-3.] Ms. Cooper did not respond to the March 5, 2015 letter, nor did she withdraw any of the proposed claims against the County Defendants. [Docket Item 189-2 at ¶ 3.]

         On March 23, 2015, Ms. O'Hearn formally served Ms. Cooper with a Rule 11 motion and notified her of the twenty-one-day safe harbor period within which to withdraw all claims against the County Defendants. [Docket Item 189-3 at 5.] Three days later, Ms. O'Hearn agreed by email to extend the twenty-one-day period for an additional fourteen days as a courtesy, and further stated “[i]f for some reason that is not enough time, let me know and we can discuss at that point.” [Docket Item 189-3 at 7-8.] Accounting for the extension of time, the safe harbor period expired on April 27, 2015. [Docket Item 189-2 at ¶ 6.] Ms. Cooper again did not withdraw any proposed claims against the County Defendants. [Id. at ¶ 7.]

         On May 1, 2015, the County Defendants filed on the electronic docket a motion for sanctions pursuant to Rule 11, Fed. R. Civ. P.[3] [Docket Item 29-1.] Ms. Cooper untimely[4] filed an opposition brief to the sanctions motion [Docket Item 32], and the County Defendants filed a reply. [Docket Item 35.]

         In an Order dated July 28, 2015, the late Judge Joseph E. Irenas, to whom this case was previously assigned, granted Plaintiff's motion to amend in part and denied without prejudice the County Defendants' motion for sanctions. [Docket Item 36.] With respect to Plaintiff's motion to amend claims against the County Defendants, Judge Irenas found:

[W]ith regard to the claims involving the alleged Rice List, [the County] Defendants' argument boils down to nothing more than a simple denial of a fact alleged in the Proposed Second Amended Complaint. Such an argument is irrelevant to the inquiry here, which is whether Plaintiff has stated a claim. Plaintiff alleges a Rice List was used; [the County] Defendants assert it was not. Presumably, discovery will reveal which allegation is correct.

[Docket Item 36 at ¶ 5.] In denying the County Defendants' motion for sanctions without prejudice, Judge Irenas further explained: “[the County] Defendants assert Plaintiff's allegation is without evidential support, but this case is only at the pleading stage. The sanctions issue is better determined after Plaintiff has had the opportunity to develop his proofs through discovery.” [Id. at ...


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