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McKenna v. Guglietta

Supreme Court of Rhode Island

June 14, 2018

Sean McKenna et al.
v.
William R. Guglietta, in his capacity as magistrate of the Rhode Island Traffic Tribunal, et al.

          Providence County Superior Court, PC 13-1716, Joseph A. Montalbano Associate Justice.

          For Plaintiffs: William P. Tocco, III, Esq.

          For Defendants: Sean Lyness, Esq. Michael W. Field Assistant Attorney General Ariele Yaffee Special Assistant Attorney General.

          Present: Suttell, C.J., Goldberg, Flaherty, Robinson, and Indeglia, JJ.

          OPINION

          William P. Robinson III Associate Justice.

         The plaintiffs appeal from a May 16, 2014 order of the Superior Court dismissing their second amended complaint with prejudice and a judgment of the same date in favor of defendants.[1] This case came before the Supreme Court for oral argument pursuant to an order directing the parties to appear and show cause why the issues raised in this appeal should not be summarily decided. After reviewing the record and considering the written and oral submissions of the parties, we are satisfied that cause has not been shown and that this appeal may be decided at this time.

         For the reasons set forth in this opinion, we affirm the judgment of the Superior Court.

         I

         Facts and Travel

         On January 10, 2014, plaintiffs filed a second amended complaint[2] in Superior Court challenging the constitutionality of the statutory system for appointing magistrates to the Rhode Island Traffic Tribunal (Traffic Tribunal) and claiming that plaintiffs were due a refund of fines and costs that had previously been assessed by the Traffic Tribunal on the theory that, as a result of defendants' unconstitutional conduct, defendants had been unjustly enriched by levying those fines. In that complaint, plaintiffs alleged that they were residents of Rhode Island who had "had controversies which [had] been adjudicated before the R.I. Traffic Tribunal since 1999, [and had] been forced to pay fines and costs imposed by the putative Defendants and their predecessors." The complaint also alleged that defendants "lack[ed] judicial power to levy fines" because their appointments to the Traffic Tribunal "ha[d] not been approved by the R.I. Judicial Nominating Commission and a Governor * * *." The plaintiffs averred that "[t]he unconstitutional actions of Defendants levying fines have unjustly enriched the R.I. Treasury" and that "[t]he State Treasurer holds those illegal fines in trust to be repaid to the Plaintiffs * * *."

         On February 28, 2014, defendants moved to dismiss plaintiffs' second amended complaint with prejudice pursuant to Rules 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6) of the Superior Court Rules of Civil Procedure, arguing that that complaint was "substantively identical" to the two previous complaints, both of which, defendants argued, had been dismissed without prejudice for failure to "articulate a case in controversy." At the May 13, 2014 hearing on defendants' motion to dismiss, defendants contended that "[t]he State defendants still do not have basic information from the complaint which would allow them to frame any type of responsive pleading"-such as "what is the harm and when did the plaintiff[s] suffer from it."

         At the conclusion of the hearing, the hearing justice issued a bench decision, in which he first assessed the sufficiency of the allegations contained in the second amended complaint pertaining to plaintiffs' challenge to the constitutionality of the system for appointing magistrates to the Traffic Tribunal. The hearing justice, referring to the earlier proceedings before the Traffic Tribunal, observed that "[t]he Supreme Court has said in the past that a party wishing to challenge the authority of a magistrate should do so at the outset of his or her case and continue to press the issue throughout." (Emphasis added.) The hearing justice noted that the second amended complaint failed to allege "whether [plaintiffs] are presently subject to the jurisdiction of the Traffic Tribunal or whether they have matters pending before the Traffic Tribunal or whether [plaintiffs] raised constitutional issues while before the Traffic Tribunal." He further stated that the second amended complaint "specifically [did] not indicate * * * the travel of the cases where the alleged illegal or unconstitutionally-imposed fines applie[d] to each of these 24 plaintiffs."

         The hearing justice next addressed the allegations in the second amended complaint pertaining to plaintiffs' unjust enrichment claim. He concluded that said complaint did not plead sufficient facts to support a claim for unjust enrichment in view of his determination that:

"The second amended complaint does not plead sufficient facts to recover previously-paid traffic fines or fines imposed by members of the Traffic Tribunal. Specificity is woefully lacking * * * as to whether facts have been pled here by any of the 24 plaintiffs that would, under any set of circumstances that could be proved, make this complaint -- ...

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