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Pelumi v. City of Woonsocket

Superior Court of Rhode Island

January 12, 2015

HAKEEM PELUMI
v.
CITY OF WOONSOCKET, alias John Doe; THOMAS BRUCE, alias John Doe in his official capacity as Treasurer for the City of Woonsocket; THOMAS S. CAREY, alias John Doe, individually and in his official capacity as the Chief of Police for the City of Woonsocket; RICHARD FINNEGAN, alias John Doe, individually and in his official capacity as the Bail Commissioner for the State of Rhode Island; EDWARD DOURA, alias John Doe, individually and in his capacity as Patrol and Arraigning Officer for the City of Woonsocket; JOHN DOE (1), alias John Doe, individually and in his official capacity as a Patrol Officer for the City of Woonsocket

Providence County Superior Court

For Plaintiff: Hakeem Pelumi, pro se

For Defendant: Arthur M. Read, II, Esq., Krista J. Schmitz, Esq.

DECISIONz

VAN COUYGHEN, J.

Before the Court is a Motion for Summary Judgment filed by Defendants City of Woonsocket, [1] Thomas Bruce (Mr. Bruce), in his official capacity as Treasurer of the City of Woonsocket; Thomas S. Carey (Mr. Carey), individually and in his official capacity as Chief of Police for the City of Woonsocket; and Edward Doura (Mr. Doura), individually and in his capacity as Patrol and Arraigning Officer for the City of Woonsocket (collectively, Defendants).[2] Also before the Court is a Motion to Dismiss the Complaint and a separate Motion for Summary Judgment filed by Defendant Richard Finnegan (Mr. Finnegan), individually and in his capacity as Bail Commissioner for the State of Rhode Island.[3] Mr. Finnegan additionally seeks attorneys' fees and costs. Jurisdiction is pursuant to Super. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6), Super. R. Civ. P. 56, and G.L. 1956 § 8-2-14.

I

Facts and Travel

The genesis of this litigation is the July 3, 2007 arrest of Plaintiff Hakeem Pelumi, pro se, for disorderly conduct in violation of G.L. 1956 § 11-45-1. See Defs.' Ex. C. On July 4, 2007, Plaintiff appeared before Mr. Finnegan for a bail hearing at the Woonsocket Police Station. See id; Aff. of Richard Finnegan at 2. On July 23, 2007, Plaintiff's plea of nolo contendere to the underlying charge was entered. See Crim. Compl. As a result, he received a six-month suspended sentence with probation and was ordered to pay court costs. Id.

On March 21, 2008, Plaintiff filed a Complaint, C.A. No. 08-105ML, pro se, in the United States District Court for the District of Rhode Island against the State of Rhode Island and the Rhode Island District Court Administrator for Rhode Island District Court, Sixth Division. See Defs.' Ex. E. In his complaint, Plaintiff asserted that Mr. Finnegan, who was not named as a party, willfully and intentionally took money from him on July 4, 2007, in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983; 18 U.S.C. § 242; and article 1, section 5 of the Rhode Island Constitution. See Defs.' Ex. E. at 1.

In addition to C.A. No. 08-105ML, Plaintiff, pro se, had seven separate complaints pending in the federal court. Therefore, on Apri1 4, 2008, United States District Court Magistrate Judge Lincoln D. Almond issued a Consolidated Report and Recommendation for Summary Dismissal Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e) of all seven cases.[4] See Defs.' Ex. F. With respect to C.A. No. 08-105ML, the Magistrate Judge recommended dismissal for failure to state a viable claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.[5] See Defs.' Ex. F. at 9. He then recommended that "[i]n view of the absence of any viable federal claims, [Plaintiff's] state constitutional claim is not viable in federal court due to the absence of diversity jurisdiction." Id.

On April 17, 2008, before the District Court acted upon the Magistrate Judge's recommendation, Plaintiff amended his Complaint in C.A. No. 08-105ML. See Defs.' Ex. G. In doing so, he omitted his federal criminal allegations and substituted the Rhode Island District Court Administrator with the Rhode Island District Court, Sixth Division. See Defs.' Ex. G. The Plaintiff also added Mr. Finnegan, individually and in his official capacity as Bail Commissioner for the City of Woonsocket, the City of Woonsocket, and the Woonsocket Police Department as party defendants. Id.

On May 30, 2008, Magistrate Judge Almond issued a Second Consolidated Report and Recommendation for Summary Dismissal Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e). See Defs.' Ex. H.[6]The Magistrate Judge again recommended dismissal of the federal claims in C.A. No. 08-105ML for failure to state a viable claim, observing that Plaintiff "had adequate remedies under state law[, ]" because he could have tried "to pursue a criminal action . . . [or] a common law tort claim for conversion." Id. at 9. On June 30, 2008, United States District Court Chief Judge Lisi adopted the Reports and Recommendations previously issued by the Magistrate Judge in full and dismissed the Amended Complaint in that action. See Defs.' Ex. I. On the same day, the federal court entered a Judgment reflecting the dismissal of the Amended Complaint. See id. Plaintiff appealed the ruling and, on March 4, 2009, the United States First Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the judgment. See Defs.' Ex. J.

On June 1, 2009, Plaintiff, pro se, filed C.A. No. 09-257ML in federal court against the State of Rhode Island; the City of Woonsocket; Michael Houle, in his capacity as Chief of the Woonsocket Police Department; and Richard Finnegan, individually and in his official capacity as Bail Commissioner. See Defs.' Ex. K. The Plaintiff again accused Mr. Finnegan of stealing his money during the July 4, 2007 bail hearing and, again, he alleged that defendants had committed various state and federal civil rights violations. See id. Magistrate Judge Almond consolidated C.A. No. 09-257ML with four unconnected complaints filed by Plaintiff, pro se, and issued a Consolidated Report and Recommendation for Summary Dismissal Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e) on June 16, 2009. See Defs.' Ex. L.

In his Report and Recommendation, the Magistrate Judge concluded that the "newly filed Complaints" (including C.A. No. 09-257ML) were barred under the doctrine of res judicata and he recommended that they "be DISMISSED with prejudice." See Defs.' Ex. L. at 5 and 7. On August 6, 2009, Chief Judge Lisi "adopt[ed] the Report and Recommendation in its entirety" and dismissed all of the Complaints. (Defs.' Ex. M at 2.) Plaintiff appealed and, on October 13, 2009, the United States First Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed Plaintiff's appeal "[s]ubstantially for the reasons given in the thorough Second Consolidated Report and Recommendation of Magistrate Judge Almond . . . ." See Defs.' Ex. N.

On July 1, 2010, Plaintiff filed the instant action, pro se. The Amended Complaint contains six counts. Count I asserts a claim of negligence against the Defendants.[7] Count II, entitled "Negligence, " alleges an intentional tort committed by Defendants. Count III, entitled "Deprivation, " appears to allege that Defendants committed theft. Counts IV, V, and VI assert 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claims against Defendant Thomas Carey, Woonsocket Police Officers, and the City of Woonsocket, respectively. Additional facts will be supplied in the analysis portion of this Decision as needed.

II

Analysis

A

The Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment

In their Motion for Summary Judgment, a Motion that has been adopted and joined by Defendant Finnegan, the Defendants assert that Plaintiff's action is barred under the doctrine of res judicata because the United States District Court for the District of Rhode Island previously dismissed two actions that raised substantially similar allegations to those raised in the present case. They further contend that Plaintiff has failed to set forth a valid cause of action.

1

Standard of Review

When deciding a motion for summary judgment, the trial justice must keep in mind that it '"is a drastic remedy and should be cautiously applied.'" Steinberg v. State, 427 A.2d 338, 339– 40 (1981) (quoting Ardente v. Horan, 117 R.I. 254, 256-57, 366 A.2d 162, 164 (1976)). When ruling on a motion for summary judgment, the preliminary question before the court is whether there is a genuine issue as to any material fact which must be resolved. R.I. Hosp. Trust Nat'l Bank v. Boiteau, 119 R.I. 64, 376 A.2d 323 (1977); O'Connor v. McKanna, 116 R.I. 627, 359 A.2d 350 (1976).

The moving party is the one who "bears the initial burden of demonstrating the absence of questions of material fact." Mills v. State Sales, Inc., 824 A.2d 461, 467 (R.I. 2003). To satisfy that burden, the moving party may "submit[] evidentiary materials, such as interrogatory answers, deposition testimony, admissions, or other specific documents, and/or point[] to the absence of such items in the evidence adduced by the parties." Id. It is only when "the moving party satisfies this initial burden[] [that] the nonmoving party then must identify any evidentiary materials already before the court or present its own evidence demonstrating that factual questions remain." Id. If an examination of the parties' pleadings, affidavits, admissions, answers to interrogatories, and other similar matters, viewed in the light most favorable to the opposing party, reveals no genuine issue of material fact, the suit is ripe for summary judgment. R.I. Hosp. Trust Nat'l Bank, 119 R.I. at 66, 376 A.2d at 324; Harold W. Merrill Post. No. 16 Am. Legion v. Heirs-at-Law, Next-of-Kin and Devisees of Smith, 116 R.I. 646, 360 A.2d 110 (1976).

The party who opposes a summary judgment motion "carries the burden of proving by competent evidence the existence of a disputed material issue of fact and cannot rest on allegations or denials in the pleadings or on conclusions or legal opinions." Accent Store Design, Inc. v. Marathon House, Inc., 674 A.2d 1223, 1225 (R.I. 1996); see also McAdam v. Grzelczyk, 911 A.2d 255, 259 (R.I. 2006). It is not sufficient "simply [to] show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts." Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986). Rather, Super. R. Civ. P. 56 "requires the nonmoving party to go beyond the [unverified] pleadings" and present some type of evidentiary material in support of its position. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 324 (1986). Although inferences may be drawn from underlying facts contained in material before the trial court, neither vague allegations and conclusory statements, nor assertions of inferences not based on underlying facts will suffice. First Nat'l Bank of Boston v. Slade, 379 Mass. 243, 246, 399 N.E.2d 1047, 1050 (Mass. 1979).

2

Res Judicata

Counts IV, V, and VI of the Amended Complaint assert 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claims against Mr. Carey, Woonsocket Police Officers, and the City of Woonsocket, respectively. Defendants assert that these claims, as well as all of the state claims, are barred under the doctrine of res judicata.

Recently, our Supreme Court comprehensively addressed the doctrine of res judicata in Reynolds v. First NLC Fin. Servs., LLC, 81 A.3d 1111 (R.I. 2014). In that case, the Court specifically discussed whether "res judicata precluded a party from relitigating in state court issues that had already been litigated in [federal court]." Id. at 1116. It concluded that where "a claim had been disallowed in [a] bankruptcy proceeding, [and] the federal district court entered an order of confirmation, . . . res judicata precluded the relitigation of the matter in a state court proceeding." Id. (citing DiSaia v. Capital Indus., Inc., 113 R.I. 292, 298, 320 A.2d 604, 607 (1974)). In so ruling, the Court issued a cogent guideline for determining whether a case is barred by the res judicata doctrine that is worthy of quoting here in full:

"Res judicata, or claim preclusion, bars the relitigation of all issues that were tried or might have been tried in an earlier action. Usually asserted in a subsequent action based upon the same claim or demand, the doctrine precludes the relitigation of all the issues that were tried or might have been tried in the original suit, as long as there is (1) identity of parties, (2) identity of issues, and (3) finality of judgment in an earlier action.
"Determining whether there is identity of parties requires resolving whether the parties to this second action are identical to or in privity with the parties involved in the [prior action]. A party to an action has been defined as [a] person who is named as a party to an action and subjected to the jurisdiction of the court * * *. Further, [p]arties are in privity when there is a commonality of interest between the two entities and when they sufficiently represent each other's interests.
"The second requirement necessary to apply the doctrine of res judicata is identity of issues. In determining the scope of the issues to be precluded in the second action, we have adopted the broad transactional rule. In accordance with that rule, res judicata precludes the relitigation of all or any part of the transaction, or series of connected transactions, out of which the [first] action arose.
"Finally, the application of res judicata requires that there be finality of judgment in the earlier action. The burden is upon the party asserting res judicata to prove that the prior judgment on which it is relying was final." Reynolds, 81 A.3d at 1115-16 (internal citations and quotations omitted).

In the instant matter, the Court first observes that Magistrate Judge Almond specifically found that there was an identity of the parties between the previous two federal actions. See Defs.' Ex. L at 7) ("Comparing the suits, Plaintiff has sued substantially the same parties in the later filed case[] as he did in [the] case[] that [was] dismissed by this Court.") The defendants in the second federal court action consisted of the State of Rhode Island; the City of Woonsocket, through its Treasurer, Carol Touzin; the Woonsocket Police Department; Michael Houle as Chief of the Woonsocket Police Department, and Mr. Finnegan, individually and in his official capacity as Bail Commissioner. (See Defs.' Ex. K.) In the present case, the named Defendants consist of the City of Woonsocket; Thomas Bruce, in his official capacity as Treasurer for the City of Woonsocket; Thomas S. Carey, in his official capacity as Chief of Police for the City of Woonsocket; Edward Doura, individually and in his capacity as Patrol and Arraigning Officer for the City of Woonsocket;[8] and Mr. Finnegan, individually and in his official capacity as Bail Commissioner for the State of Rhode Island. It is clear from the foregoing that the parties in the instant action either are identical to the previous parties or are in privity with the City of Woonsocket, which was a named defendant in all of the actions. See e.g. Huntley v. State, 63 A.3d 526, 531 (R.I. 2013) ("[W]here defendants are all members of state government or employees of the Attorney General's office, they are clearly in privity with the named defendant State of Rhode Island.") Consequently, the Court concludes that the identity of parties element of res judicata is satisfied.

The Court next will determine whether there was a sufficient identity of issues for purposes of res judicata. It is undisputed that Plaintiff's claims arose out of the same series of transactions; namely, his July 2007 arrest and subsequent arraignment. As a result, the Court is satisfied that there is a sufficient identity of issues under the broad transactional rule. See Reynolds, 81 A.3d at 1116 (stating that the broad transactional rule "precludes the relitigation of all or any part of the transaction, or series of connected transactions, out of which the [first] action arose"). Accordingly, the Court concludes that there is a sufficient identity of issues under the doctrine of res judicata.

Finally, the Court must determine whether there was a final judgment on the merits of Plaintiff's claims in federal court. In his original complaint in federal court, C.A. No. 08105ML, Plaintiff alleged violations of 42 U.S.C. § 1983, 18 U.S.C. § 242, and article 1, section 5 of the Rhode Island Constitution. See Defs.' Ex. E. Magistrate Judge Almond recommended dismissal of the complaint for failure to state a viable claim because "damages are not recoverable under Section 1983 against a state and a state employee in his or her official capacity because they do not constitute 'persons' within the meaning of the statute." Defs.' Ex. F at 9 (citing Will v. Michigan Dep't of State Police, 491 U.S. 58, 71 (1989)). Magistrate Judge Almond further recommended that "[i]n view of the absence of any viable federal claims, Pelumi's state constitutional claim is not viable in federal court due to an absence of diversity jurisdiction." Id.

Before the federal district court acted upon the recommendation, Plaintiff amended the complaint in his first federal court action to name Mr. Finnegan as a defendant, both individually and in his official capacity. See Defs.' Ex. G. The amended complaint again alleged violations of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 in addition to "Civil Rights Violation[s]" of the United States and Rhode Island Constitutions. See Defs.' Ex. G at 3-4. Thereafter, Magistrate Judge Almond issued a "SECOND CONSOLIDATED REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION FOR SUMMARY DISMISSAL PURSUANT TO 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)" in which he stated that "even if Mr. Finnegan did intentionally steal money from Pelumi, that alone would not constitute a violation of the procedural requirements of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, as long as adequate post-deprivation state-law remedies exist." See Defs.' Ex. H at 9 (citing Palmer v. Hudson, 468 U.S. 517, 530-35 (1984); Hadfield v. McDonough, 407 F.3d 11, 19-20 (1st Cir. 2005)). Magistrate Judge Almond further found that:

"Pelumi had adequate remedies under state law. He could have, for example, attempted to pursue a criminal action by filing a police report, and he could have pursued a common law tort claim for conversion. For these reasons, there is no viable claim under § 1983 . . . Accordingly, Pelumi's Amended Complaint . . . must be DISMISSED." Id.

The federal district court adopted the recommendation in full and dismissed the amended complaint. See Defs.' Ex. I. On March 4, 2009, the United States First Circuit Court of Appeals entered a judgment summarily ...


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