FIELDS v. CITY OF SALEM HOUSING AUTHORITY et al
OPINION. Signed by Judge Noel L. Hillman on 7/6/2016. (dmr)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
DISTRICT OF NEW JERSEY
ALBERT J. FIELDS, JR.,
Civil No. 14-778 (NLH/KMW)
FRANCINE DICKERSON and
Albert J. Fields, Jr.
P.O. Box 1052
Salem, New Jersey 08079
Plaintiff Pro Se
Bruce W. Padula
Ashley Elizabeth Malandre
Cleary Giacobbe Alfieri Jacobs, LLC
5 Ravine Drive
P.O. Box 533
Matawan, NJ 07932
Attorneys for Defendants Elizabeth Loyle
Brian Patrick Budic
Florio Perrucci Steninhardt & Fader, LLC
1010 Kings Highway South
Cherry Hill, NJ 08034
Lester E. Taylor, III
Florio Perrucci Steninhardt & Fader, LLC
218 Rt. 17 North
Rochelle Park, NJ 07662
Attorneys for Defendant Francine Dickerson
HILLMAN, District Judge:
This action concerns an eviction which took place on
November 13, 2013.
Presently before the Court is a motion for
summary judgment [Doc. No. 21] filed by Plaintiff Albert J.
Fields and two cross-motions for summary judgment filed by the
remaining Defendants in this case, Francine Dickerson [Doc. No.
35] and Elizabeth Loyle [Doc. No. 39].
Plaintiff avers that on July 12, 2010, he entered into a
residential lease agreement with the Salem Housing Authority for
a one-bedroom unit located at 133 Anderson Drive, Salem, New
(Am. Compl. ¶ 6 [Doc. No. 3].)
On April 21, 2011, the
Salem Housing Authority performed its annual rent evaluation and
increased Plaintiff’s rent from $50 to $364 per month.
In July 2011, Plaintiff was unable to make his rent
payments and the Salem Housing Authority filed a complaint for
non-payment of rent.
(Id. ¶ 9.)
Plaintiff entered into a
repayment agreement, presumably resolving that dispute. (Id. ¶
In February 2012, the Salem Housing Authority filed a
second complaint against Plaintiff in the Superior Court of New
Jersey for non-payment of rent.
(Id. ¶ 12.)
In March 2012,
the Superior Court entered a judgment of possession against
Plaintiff in the amount of $2,399.50, which was subsequently
reduced to $1,972.50.
(Id. ¶ 14.)
In May 2012, the Salem Housing Authority performed another
rent evaluation and determined Plaintiff’s new rental amount to
be $206 per month.
(Am. Compl. ¶ 15.)
From May 16, 2012 to
October 15, 2012, Plaintiff was incarcerated and consequently
lost his job.
(Id. ¶ 16.)
On June 17, 2012, Plaintiff
requested a financial hardship exemption to avoid eviction.
(Id. ¶ 17.)
Following this request, Plaintiff’s rent was
reduced to $50 a month.
(Id. ¶ 18.)
On August 23, 2012, the
Salem Housing Authority informed Plaintiff of its intent to move
forward with eviction procedures for non-payment of rent. (Id. ¶
When Plaintiff was released from jail on October 15, 2012,
he discovered that a default judgment of possession had been
entered in the amount of $662 for unpaid rent.
(Am. Compl. ¶
Plaintiff appealed that order, and the Superior Court of
New Jersey, Appellate Division vacated the default judgment.
(Id. ¶¶ 23, 40.)
The Salem Housing Authority apparently
declined to proceed in that eviction action.
(Id. ¶ 40.)
In June 2013, the Salem Housing Authority performed its
annual rent evaluation and increased Plaintiff’s rent from $50
per month to $308.
(Am. Compl. ¶ 30.)
Plaintiff opposed the
rent adjustment in writing, arguing that there should be an
exemption for child support and an “income disregard.”
Despite his obligation to pay $308 per month, Plaintiff
paid only $50 rent for June and July 2013.
On August 5, 2013, the Salem Housing Authority advised
Plaintiff by letter that given his unreported past earnings, he
owed $2,521 in retroactive rent by August 21, 2013.
Budic Cert., Exhibit C [Doc. No. 35-3].)
(Id. ¶ 32;
The letter also
advised Plaintiff of his right to contest this finding or
request a formal grievance hearing.
On September 30,
2013, the Salem Housing Authority then filed a complaint for
non-payment of rent seeking $2,521 as unreported income, rent in
the amount of $258 for the month of July, and $308 in rent for
the months of August, September and October 2013.
(Am. Compl. ¶
The Superior Court entered a judgment of possession on
October 18, 2013 for the Salem Housing Authority in the amount
Plaintiff was removed from the property on November
13, 2013 pursuant to a warrant of removal, and the locks were
changed by the landlord.
(Id. ¶¶ 36, 41.)
On November 1, 2013, Plaintiff moved in Superior Court to
vacate the judgment for possession.
(Budic Cert., Exhibit J.)
Plaintiff argued that when his rent was increased in June 2013,
a grievance procedure should have been initiated.
argued the failure to notify him of the grievance procedure was
grounds to vacate the judgment of possession.
December 13, 2013, the Honorable Darrell M. Fineman, J.S.C.,
denied Plaintiff’s motion to vacate the judgment of possession.
(Budic Cert., Exhibit L.)
Following Judge Fineman’s determination in the Superior
Court of New Jersey, Plaintiff filed the instant federal
complaint against the Salem Housing Authority, Dickerson, and
Loyle on February 7, 2014.
On August 7, 2014, Plaintiff again moved to vacate the
judgment in Superior Court arguing that the Salem Housing
Authority misrepresented to the Court that he did not initiate a
(Budic Cert., Exhibits N, O.)
In a written decision
dated October 30, 2014, Judge Fineman denied Plaintiff’s second
motion and found:
[Mr. Fields] contends that he was not given an
opportunity for an informal grievance discussion, nor
a formal hearing, but did admit upon the record dated
October 18, 2013 that he had not requested the
informal discussion nor had he requested a formal
hearing in writing. A notification dated August 5,
2013 was sent to Mr. Fields from the Salem Housing
Authority, and Mr. Fields admitted to receipt of this
notice at oral argument. The letter complied with all
the requirements codified under federal law, including
alerting [Mr. Fields] to his rights to the grievance
(Oct. 30, 2014 Decision at 2-4; Malandre Cert., Exhibit P.)
Further, Judge Fineman found that even if Plaintiff could prove
the notice was deficient, the grievance process would have been
futile because it was “undisputed” Plaintiff owed the Salem
Housing Authority retroactive rent for concealed income.
Plaintiff thereafter filed a motion for reconsideration
on November 14, 2014. (Budic Cert., Exhibit Q.)
In a January
20, 2015 written opinion, Judge Fineman denied Plaintiff’s
motion and found:
The Court is satisfied that the Salem Housing
Authority fulfilled its obligations in offering [Mr.
Fields] an opportunity for an informal and formal
hearing . . . [the Salem Housing Authority] complied
with the notice and grievance requirements set forth
in 24 CFR § 966.50, et seq., of which [Mr. Fields]
failed to avail himself.
(Budic Cert., Exhibit T [Doc. No. 35-4].)
Plaintiff then filed
a notice of appeal to the New Jersey Appellate Division on
January 23, 2015. (Budic Cert., Exhibit U.)
Plaintiff originally brought this action in federal court
related to the same events against the Salem Housing Authority
and two of its employees, Elizabeth Loyle and Francine
(Am. Compl. ¶¶ 3, 4.)
On July 10, 2015, this Court
screened Plaintiff’s amended complaint pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §
1915(e) and found that Plaintiff failed to state a plausible
claim for relief against the Salem Housing Authority in Counts
The Court determined, however, that Plaintiff’s Section
1983 claims contained in Count IV of his amended complaint
against Dickerson and Loyle could proceed.
Op. and Order [Doc. Nos. 4, 5].)
(See July 10, 2015
On July 16, 2015, Plaintiff
informed the Court that he did not wish to further amend his
complaint and would proceed against only Loyle and Dickerson.
(July 16, 2015 Letter [Doc. No. 6].)
Plaintiff contends in Count IV of his complaint that he
submitted a written grievance to Dickerson and Loyle concerning
an increase in his rent, but they failed to provide him with an
informal hearing and instead commenced eviction proceedings.
Plaintiff asserts claims pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and
the Court exercises subject matter jurisdiction over this action
pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331.
III. SUMMARY JUDGMENT STANDARD
Summary judgment is appropriate where the Court is
satisfied that “‘the pleadings, depositions, answers to
interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the
affidavits, if any,’ . . . demonstrate the absence of a genuine
issue of material fact” and that the moving party is entitled to
a judgment as a matter of law.
Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477
U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986) (citing Fed. R. Civ. P. 56).
An issue is “genuine” if it is supported by evidence such
that a reasonable jury could return a verdict in the nonmoving
Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242,
A fact is “material” if, under the governing
substantive law, a dispute about the fact might affect the
outcome of the suit.
“In considering a motion for summary
judgment, a district court may not make credibility
determinations or engage in any weighing of the evidence;
instead, the non-moving party’s evidence ‘is to be believed and
all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in his favor.’”
Marino v. Indus. Crating Co., 358 F.3d 241, 247 (3d Cir. 2004)
(citing Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255).
Initially, the moving party bears the burden of
demonstrating the absence of a genuine issue of material fact.
Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323 (“[A] party seeking summary judgment
always bears the initial responsibility of informing the
district court of the basis for its motion, and identifying
those portions of ‘the pleadings, depositions, answers to
interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the
affidavits, if any,’ which it believes demonstrate the absence
of a genuine issue of material fact.”); see also Singletary v.
Pa. Dept. of Corr., 266 F.3d 186, 192 n.2 (3d Cir. 2001)
(“Although the initial burden is on the summary judgment movant
to show the absence of a genuine issue of material fact, ‘the
burden on the moving party may be discharged by ‘showing’ -that is, pointing out to the district court -- that there is an
absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party’s case’ when
the nonmoving party bears the ultimate burden of proof.”)
(citing Celotex, 477 U.S. at 325).
Once the moving party has met this burden, the nonmoving
party must identify, by affidavits or otherwise, specific facts
showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.
U.S. at 324.
A “party opposing summary judgment ‘may not rest
upon the mere allegations or denials of the . . . pleading[s.]’”
Saldana v. Kmart Corp., 260 F.3d 228, 232 (3d Cir. 2001).
“the non-moving party[ ] to prevail, [that party] must ‘make a
showing sufficient to establish the existence of [every] element
essential to that party’s case, and on which that party will
bear the burden of proof at trial.’”
Cooper v. Sniezek, 418 F.
App’x 56, 58 (3d Cir. 2011) (citing Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322).
Thus, to withstand a properly supported motion for summary
judgment, the nonmoving party must identify specific facts and
affirmative evidence that contradict those offered by the moving
Anderson, 477 U.S. at 257.
Defendants argue that Plaintiff’s remaining claim is barred
by the doctrine of collateral estoppel.
Collateral estoppel, or
issue preclusion, “refers to the effect of a judgment in
foreclosing relitigation of a matter that has been litigated and
Migra v. Warren City Sch. Dist. Bd. of Educ., 465
U.S. 75, 77 n.1 (1984).
Precluding “parties from contesting
matters that they have had a full and fair opportunity to
litigate protects their adversaries from the expense and
vexation attending multiple lawsuits, conserves judicial
resources, and fosters reliance on judicial action by minimizing
the possibility of inconsistent decisions.”
Montana v. United
States, 440 U.S. 147, 153–54 (1979).
With regard to issues first presented to a state tribunal,
federal courts have consistently afforded preclusive effect to
issues decided by state courts, and, thus “res judicata and
collateral estoppel not only reduce unnecessary litigation and
foster reliance on adjudication, but also promote the comity
between state and federal courts that has been recognized as a
bulwark of the federal system.”
Allen v. McCurry, 449 U.S. 90,
95–96 (1980); see also 28 U.S.C. § 1738 (providing that the
rulings of state courts “shall have the same full faith and
credit in every court within the United States ... as they have
by law or usage in the courts of such state ... from which they
In determining the preclusive effect of a state court
judgment, the Court applies the rendering state’s law of
See Marrese v. Am. Acad. of Orthopaedic Surgeons,
470 U.S. 373, 381 (1985).
Thus, whether Plaintiff’s claim is
precluded turns on the law of New Jersey.
Under New Jersey law, in order for the doctrine of
collateral estoppel to apply the party asserting the doctrine
must show that: (1) the issue to be precluded is identical to
the issue decided in the prior proceeding; (2) the issue was
actually litigated in the prior proceeding; (3) the court in the
prior proceeding issued a final judgment on the merits; (4) the
determination of the issue was essential to the prior judgment;
and (5) the party against whom the doctrine is asserted was a
party to or in privity with a party to the earlier proceeding.
Olivieri v. Y.M.F. Carpet, Inc., 897 A.2d 1003, 1009 (N.J. 2006)
(further citation omitted).
Even where the five requirements are met, however, courts
may exercise their discretion to deny preclusion where its
application would be unfair.
Allen v. V & A Bros., 26 A.3d 430,
The Supreme Court of New Jersey has outlined a
number of factors that weigh against preclusion, including
whether: “the party against whom preclusion is sought could not
have obtained review of the prior judgment; the quality or
extent of the procedures in the two actions is different; it was
not foreseeable at the time of the prior action that the issue
would arise in subsequent litigation; and the precluded party
did not have an adequate opportunity to obtain a full and fair
adjudication in the prior action.”
Id. (further citation
Likewise, factors that weigh in favor of preclusion
include: “conservation of judicial resources; avoidance of
repetitious litigation; and prevention of waste, harassment,
uncertainty and inconsistency.”
Here, it is very clear the five factors are met, and that
fairness weighs in favor of preclusion.
First, Defendants seek
to preclude a claim identical to one decided in the prior
In Count IV of Plaintiff’s amended complaint he
alleges that Loyle and Dickerson “deprived [him] of the
opportunity for a hearing under the Public Housing grievance
procedure prior to eviction . . .”
(Am. Compl. at 18-19.)
Likewise, in the October 30, 2014 decision, Judge Fineman denied
Plaintiff’s motion to vacate the judgment for possession entered
on October 18, 2013.
Judge Fineman summarized Plaintiff’s
argument as follows:
“[Mr. Fields] contends that he was not
given an opportunity for an informal grievance discussion, nor a
(Oct. 30, 2014 Decision at 2).
presented to this Court - whether Plaintiff was given an
opportunity to engage in informal and formal grievance
procedures - was the exact issue decided by Judge Fineman in the
Superior Court of New Jersey.
The same issue was again litigated when Plaintiff filed a
motion for reconsideration which was denied in a January 20,
2015 written decision.
(Jan. 20, 2015 Decision at 2 (“The Court
is satisfied that the Salem Housing Authority fulfilled its
obligations in offering [Mr. Fields] an opportunity for an
informal and formal hearing, and that the Court that entered
judgment therefore had jurisdiction over the mater, and properly
Thus, the issue was actually litigated in
the prior proceedings.
Further, both decisions were findings on
Additionally, the determination of this issue was essential
to the prior judgments.
A matter is essential when it was
necessary to support the judgment rendered in the final action.
Matter of Estate of Dawson, 641 A.2d 1026, 1035 (1994) (citing
Warren Twp. v. Suffness, 542 A.2d 931 (App. Div. 1988), certif.
denied, 552 A.2d 166 (1988)).
Plaintiff filed a motion to
vacate the judgment of possession on November 1, 2013, a second
motion to vacate the judgment on August 7, 2014, and a motion
for reconsideration on November 14, 2014, all of which were
opposed by the Salem Housing Authority.
Plaintiff then appealed
The finding that Plaintiff was not denied any
procedural right was essential to the state judgments.
Finally, Defendants seek to invoke collateral estoppel
defensively against Plaintiff, who was a party to the state
In New Jersey, mutuality of parties is not
required for collateral estoppel to apply; rather, the party
preclusion is asserted against must be a party or in privity to
a party in the first proceedings.
676 A.2d 1065, 1071 (N.J. 1996).
Zirger v. Gen. Acc. Ins. Co.,
Here, because Dickerson and
Loyle are seeking to preclude Plaintiff from relitigation and
Plaintiff was a party to the original proceeding, the final
factor for collateral estoppel is satisfied.
Additionally, the Court is convinced that fairness weighs
in favor of preclusion.
By applying the doctrine of collateral
estoppel, the Court is avoiding repetitious litigation and
preventing waste, harassment, uncertainty and inconsistency.
Plaintiff’s remaining claim was considered at least three times
by the state court.
Plaintiff had more than an adequate
opportunity to obtain a full and fair adjudication in the prior
Dickerson and Loyle offer several other reasons why the
Court should dismiss Plaintiff’s amended complaint. First,
defendants argue that Plaintiff’s claims are barred by res
judicata, or claim preclusion. We have questions regarding the
application of res judicata in this case since it is not clear
that the individual defendants are in privity with the
defendants in the state action. Privity is required. Jones v.
Holvey, 29 F.3d 828, 830 (3d Cir. 1994) (for res judicata to
apply there must be identity of the parties, or the parties in
the second action must be in privity with those in the first
action)(citing Watkins v. Resorts Int'l Hotel & Casino, Inc.,
591 A.2d 592, 599 (N.J. 1991)). Dickerson and Loyle were not
named as defendants in the state action and privity does not
extend to government employees sued in their individual
capacities. Edmundson v. Borough of Kennett Square, 4 F.3d 186,
191 (3d Cir. 1993). However, in light of our decision to
dismiss on grounds of issue preclusion we need not reach this
issue. Similarly, we need not address defendants’ argument that
Plaintiff's claims are barred by the Rooker-Feldman abstention
doctrine or Loyle’s more generic plea for abstention. See Rooker
v. Fidelity Trust Co., 263 U.S. 413 (1923); cf., Turner v.
Crawford Square Apartments III, L.P., 449 F.3d 542, 547 (3d Cir.
2006) (federal claims against housing agency were not barred by
the Rooker-Feldman doctrine because the claims were attributable
For the reasons set forth above, Defendants’ motions for
summary judgment will be granted and Plaintiff’s motion for
summary judgment will be denied.
An Order consistent with this Opinion will be entered.
_s/ Noel L. Hillman_____
NOEL L. HILLMAN, U.S.D.J.
Date: July 6, 2016
At Camden, New Jersey
to the defendants' alleged FHA violations that preceded the
state court judgment).
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