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Reardon v. Murphy

United States District Court, D. New Jersey, Camden Vicinage

September 27, 2019

JOHN E. REARDON, Plaintiff,
v.
GOVERNOR PHIL MURPHY, et al., Defendants.

          OPINION

          ROBERT B. KUGLER UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         I. INTRODUCTION

         On July 3, 2018, Plaintiff John E. Reardon filed a 3-count, 86-page complaint against 22 individuals[1] that broadly revolved around a series of traffic violations between 1986 and 2016. (Docket Item 1.) The Complaint is difficult to follow, to say the least, but as best as the Court can understand, it attempts to have numerous traffic laws and regulations - such as vehicle registration, driver’s license requirements, vehicle inspection and insurance requirements, and seat belt laws - deemed unconstitutional. It further appears to argue that individuals charged with traffic violations are entitled to jury trials.

         Finally, Plaintiff seems to allege personal constitutional violations based on his convictions under such traffic laws and regulations. The first two counts of the Complaint seek declaratory relief related to Plaintiff’s arguments about the constitutionality of this statutes and the right to a jury trial, respectively. The third count seeks compensatory damages against the named Defendants.

         On July 12, 2018, Plaintiff amended his complaint to add Prosecutor Richard DeMichele as a defendant. (Docket Item 4.) On July 18, 2018, Plaintiff added Prosecutor Paul Dougherty as a defendant and terminated Prosecutor Mathew Gindele as a defendant.[2](Docket Item 6.) On August 28, 2018, the Clerk of Court entered Default against all Defendants. (See Docket.) On September 26, 2018, Defendants Fulton, Grewal, Murphy, and Zane filed a Motion to Vacate the Entry of Default. (Docket Item 10.) On October 1, 2018, Plaintiff filed a Motion for Default Judgment as against all Defendants. (Docket Item 12.) On October 2, 2018, Defendants Luongo and Zonies filed a Motion for Extension of Time to File an Answer. (Docket Item 11.) On November 8, 2018, Defendant John Morelli filed a Motion to Vacate/Deny Entry of Default Judgment and to Dismiss. (Docket Item 24.) On November 19, 2018, Defendants Dougherty, Gleaner, Joyce, Luongo, McCrink, Peterson, Singley, Trabosh, Viola, and Zonies filed a Motion to Dismiss. (Docket Item 29.) On November 28, 2018, Plaintiff filed a Motion for Relief from a Final Judgment, Order, or Proceeding.[3] (Docket Item 33.) On December 10, 2018, Defendants Dougherty, Gleaner, Joyce, Luongo, McCrink, Peterson, Singley, Trabosh, Viola, and Zonies filed a Motion for Sanctions. (Docket Item 36.) On December 17, 2018, Plaintiff filed a Cross-Motion for Leave to Amend “all cases from 1988-1992.” (Docket Item 37.)[4] On January 9, 2019, Defendant Long filed a Motion to Dismiss. (Docket Item 44.) On January 15, 2019, Plaintiff filed another Motion for Default Judgment as against Defendants Addiego, Beach, DeMichele, Gindele, Gregg, Howarth, Madden, and McFeeley. (Docket Item 45.) On March 29, 2019, Defendants Addiego, Beach, Fulton, Grewal, Howarth, Madden, Murphy, and Zane filed a Motion to Vacate Entry of Default. (Docket Item 52.) Finally, on July 22, 2019, Plaintiff filed a “Motion for an Order of Compliance.” (Docket Item 66.)[5] Plaintiff filed responses to each of the above-listed motions. (See generally Docket.) The Court will address these issues in turn.

         II. DISCUSSION

         A. PLAINTIFF’S MOTIONS FOR DEFAULT JUDGMENT

         Rule 55(b)(2) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure authorizes courts to enter a default judgment against a properly served defendant who fails to file a timely responsive pleading. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 55(b)(2). Before granting default judgment, a court must determine whether (1) the plaintiff produced sufficient proof of valid service and evidence of jurisdiction, (2) the unchallenged facts present a sufficient cause of action, and (3) the circumstances otherwise render the entry of default judgment “proper.” Teamsters Health & Welfare Fund of Phila. v. Dubin Paper Co., No. 11-7317, 2012 WL 3018062, at *2 (D.N.J. July 24, 2012). Whether default judgment is proper depends on (1) whether a plaintiff will be prejudiced if default is not granted, (2) whether a defendant has a meritorious defense, and (3) whether the defendant’s delay is the result of culpable misconduct, as opposed to mere excusable neglect. Butler v. Pennsylvania Bd. of Prob. & Parole, 613 Fed.App’x 119, 122 (3d Cir. 2015) (quoting Chamberlain v. Giampapa, 210 F.3d 154, 164 (3d Cir. 2000)). As a general rule, default judgment is disfavored in the Third Circuit, which prefers to decide cases on the merits. See, e.g., Hritz v. Woma Corp., 732 F.2d 1178, 1181 (3d Cir. 2004).

         As to Defendants DeMichele, Gregg, and McFeeley - none of whom have filed a responsive pleading in this matter - Plaintiff has not provided sufficient proof of valid service. As a result, default judgment is inappropriate as to those parties. The Court will dismiss without prejudice Plaintiff’s Motion for Default Judgment against Defendants DeMichele, Gregg, and McFeeley. The Court will also require that Plaintiff provide proof of personal service on Defendants DeMichele, Gregg, and McFeeley before Plaintiff files another Motion for Default Judgment against them. As to the remainder of the Defendants, the Court will construe, as needed, their Motions to Vacate, Motion to Extend, and Motions to Dismiss as opposing Plaintiff’s Motions for Default Judgment. Based on those filings, as well as Plaintiff’s responses, default judgment is not appropriate against the remaining Defendants, either. First of all, there is no indication whatsoever that Plaintiff will be prejudiced if default is not granted in this case. Moreover, Defendants have meritorious defenses to the claims, which include improper service, sovereign immunity, the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, judicial immunity, the Heck doctrine, failure to comply with Rule 8 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and the Twombly/Iqbal pleading standard, res judicata, failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted, statute of limitations, and other defenses. Finally, Defendants’ delay is the result of mere excusable neglect at worst, as opposed to culpable conduct: despite Plaintiff’s assurances that Defendants were all properly served, Defendants assert that they were not properly served nor even aware of this action until well after it was filed. Therefore, the Court will vacate the Clerk’s August 28, 2018 Entry of Default and deny as moot Plaintiff’s Motions for Default Judgment as to Defendants Addiego, Beach, Dougherty, Fulton, Gindele, Gleaner, Grewal, Howarth, Joyce, Long, Luongo, Madden, McCrink, Morelli, Murphy, Peterson, Singley, Trabosh, Viola, Zane, and Zonies. Moreover, the Motions to Vacate filed by Defendants Fulton, Grewal, Murphy, and Zane (Docket Item 10), Defendant Morelli (Docket Item 24), and Defendants Addiego, Beach, Fulton, Grewal, Howarth, Madden, Murphy, and Zane (Docket Item 52) will be granted. The Motion for an Extension filed by Defendants Luongo and Zonies (Docket Item 11) will also be granted.

         B. DEFENDANTS’ MOTIONS TO DISMISS

         Defendants Morelli (Docket Item 24); Dougherty, Gleaner, Joyce, Luongo, McCrink, Peterson, Singley, Trabosh, Viola, and Zonies (Docket Item 29); and Long (collectively, “the moving Defendants”) (Docket Item 44) all filed Motions to Dismiss. Plaintiff responded to each of their Motions. (See Docket Items 25, 30, 32, 34, 35, and 47.)

         Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure permits a court to dismiss a complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. In considering such a motion, the court must “accept all factual allegations as true, construe the Complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, and determine whether, under any reasonable reading of the complaint, the plaintiff may be entitled to relief.” Fleisher v. Standard Ins. Co., 679 F.3d 116, 120 (3d Cir. 2012) (internal citations omitted). In applying this standard to pro se pleadings and other submissions, as here, the Court must liberally construe the well-pleaded allegations, and draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the pro se litigant. Higgs v. Attorney Gen. of the U.S., 655 F.3d 333, 339 (3d Cir. 2011); Capogrosso v. Supreme Court of N.J., 588 F.3d 180, 184 (3d Cir. 2009). Despite this liberality, however, a pro se complaint must still “contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, ” to “state a [plausible] claim to relief.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)); see also Marley v. Donahue, 133 F.Supp.3d 706, 714 (D.N.J. 2015) (explaining the same concept).

         The moving Defendants put forth numerous bases in support of their Motions to Dismiss, including res judicata, the entire controversy doctrine, immunity, the Heck doctrine, the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, and statutes of limitations. For the reasons explained herein, the Court finds that the moving Defendants are immune from suit and therefore the Court will dismiss the Complaint with prejudice as against those Defendants. Since Plaintiff’s claims cannot proceed on these bases, the Court declines to address Defendants’ other arguments for dismissal.

         Judges are generally “immune from a suit for money damages.” Figueroa v. Blackburn, 208 F.3d 435, 440 (3d Cir. 2000) (quoting Mireles v. Waco, 502 U.S. 9, 9 (1991)). Moreover, judicial immunity grants judges “immunity from suit, not just from an ultimate assessment of damages.” Mireles, 502 U.S. at 11. “A judge will not be deprived of immunity because the action he took was in error, was done maliciously, or was in excess of authority . . . .” Stump v. Sparkman, 435 U.S. 349, 356 (1978). Rather, judicial immunity will only be overcome if (1) the challenged actions were not taken in the judge’s judicial capacity or (2) the challenged actions, “though judicial in nature, were taken in the complete absence of all jurisdiction.” Mireles, 502 U.S. at 11-12. The Supreme Court has held that “whether an act by a judge is a ‘judicial’ one relate[s] to the nature of the act itself, i.e., whether it is a function normally performed by a judge, and to the expectations of the parties, i.e., whether they dealt with the judge in his judicial capacity.” Id. at 12 (alteration in original) (quoting Stump, 435 U.S. at 362).

         Similarly, prosecutors are protected from suit by prosecutorial immunity. See Imbler v. Patchman, 424 U.S. 409, 431 (1982). A “prosecutor is immune from a civil suit for damages under § 1983” when the prosecutor merely “initiat[es] a prosecution and . . . present[s] the State’s case.” Id. As the Supreme Court has noted, “acts undertaken by a prosecutor in preparing for the initiation of judicial proceedings or for trial, and which occur in the course of his role as an advocate for the State, are entitled to the protections of absolute immunity.” Buckley v. Fitzsimmons, 509 U.S. 259, 273 (1993).

         In the case at hand, Plaintiff is suing all of the moving Defendants in their capacities as either judges or prosecutors. Even taking the allegations in the Complaint as true and making all reasonable inferences in favor of Plaintiff, there is simply no indication that the moving Defendants’ respective immunities do not apply in the case at hand. Rather, the Complaint specifically seeks to hold the moving Defendants liable for their alleged actions in judging and prosecuting Plaintiff’s traffic offenses while in their roles as judges and prosecutors.

         Therefore, because the moving Defendants are protected by judicial and prosecutorial immunity, the Court will dismiss the Complaint as against each of them.

         C. DEFENDANTS’ ...


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