SHAH v. BANK OF AMERICA, NA et al
OPINION filed. Signed by Judge Anne E. Thompson on 10/20/2016. (eaj)
NOT FOR PUBLICATION
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
DISTRICT OF NEW JERSEY
Civ. No. 16-6168
BANK OF AMERICA, N.A., PNC BANK
N.A., NATIONSTAR MORTGAGE, LLC,
This matter comes before the Court sua sponte based on the Court’s review of the
complaint filed by pro se Plaintiff Peter Shah (“Plaintiff”). (ECF No. 1). The Court ordered
Plaintiff to show cause why this matter was not barred by the Rooker-Feldman doctrine and
should not be dismissed on those grounds. (ECF No. 4). Plaintiff filed two briefs in response to
the order to show cause. (ECF Nos. 5, 6). For the reasons stated herein, Plaintiff’s complaint
will be dismissed without prejudice because consideration of this matter is barred by the RookerFeldman doctrine.
This matter concerns Defendants’ allegedly fraudulent actions—replacing the description
of property from the mortgage with a different description of property—in a state foreclosure
action, and Defendants falsifying documents in the subordination agreements between them.
Plaintiff alleges that Defendant Bank of America fraudulently replaced the description of the
mortgaged property in the judgment with a different, “fabricated” description in the writ of
execution. (Compl. ¶ 7-8, ECF No. 1). Defendant PNC Bank, who held a subordinate mortgage,
continued to perpetrate Bank of America’s fraud by filing a non-contesting answer in the
foreclosure case that included the fabricated description of property. (Compl. ¶¶ 14-16, ECF No.
1). Nationstar Mortgage, who also held a subordinate mortgage, allegedly trespassed on the
property and harassed Plaintiff and his family subsequent to the foreclosure action by taking
pictures and surveying the property. (Compl. ¶ 22-29, ECF No. 1).
Plaintiff alleges that Defendants’ actions resulted in fraud in the foreclosure proceeding,
trespass and photo taking of the house and premises, damages to the value of the house, loss of
credit worthiness/score, and taking and slander of title. He requests both actual damages for loss
of value of property and punitive damages for the alleged fabrication, forgery, and fraud and
emotional stress to his family.
Plaintiff’s exhibits include an email from him to a Nationstar representative
acknowledging the pending Sheriff’s Sale and requesting that Nationstar desist sending
appraisers until after the sale. (Exhibit I, p. 2, ECF No. 1-2).
The court may dismiss a complaint sua sponte for lack of subject matter jurisdiction
under Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(1). The court must consider first whether it has jurisdiction, because
if not, all other questions become moot.
When a court reviews a motion for lack of subject matter jurisdiction under Fed. R. Civ.
P. 12(b)(1), it accepts as true all material factual allegations in the complaint. The plaintiff bears
the burden of proving by a preponderance of the evidence that subject matter jurisdiction exists,
and a district court may properly dismiss a case for lack of subject matter jurisdiction under Rule
12(b)(1) if it lacks the statutory or constitutional power to adjudicate it.
Where, as here, the plaintiff is proceeding pro se, the complaint is “to be liberally
construed,” and, “however inartfully pleaded, must be held to less stringent standards than
formal pleadings drafted by lawyers.” Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 93-94 (2007).
Nevertheless, “pro se litigants still must allege sufficient facts in their complaints to support a
claim.” Mala v. Crown Bay Marina, Inc., 704 F.3d 239, 245 (3d Cir. 2013). “[A] litigant is not
absolved from complying with Twombly and the federal pleading requirements merely because
s/he proceeds pro se.” Thakar v. Tan, 372 Fed.Appx. 325, 328 (3d Cir. 2010) (citation omitted).
The Rooker-Feldman doctrine dictates that federal district courts have no jurisdiction to
review final decisions of state courts. See Rooker v. Fidelity Trust Co., 263 U.S. 413 (1923);
District of Columbia Court of Appeals v. Feldman, 460 U.S. 462 (1983) (interpreting 28 U.S.C. §
1257). The statute states, “[f]inal judgments or decrees rendered by the highest court of a state in
which a decision could be had, may be reviewed by the Supreme Court....” 28 U.S.C. § 1257.
“Since Congress has never conferred a similar power of review on the United States District
Courts, the Supreme Court has inferred that Congress did not intend to empower District Courts
to review state court decisions.” Desi's Pizza, 321 F.3d 411, 419 (3d Cir. 2003). Lower federal
courts do not sit as appellate courts over final state-court judgments. Kawall v. State of N.J., No.
15-6973 (KM), 2016 WL 4154135, at *2 (D.N.J. Aug. 1, 2016) (citing Lance v. Dennis, 546 U.S.
459, 463, 126 S. Ct. 1198 (2006)). This doctrine was limited by the Supreme Court’s decision in
Exxon Mobil, but the doctrine still bars “cases brought by state-court losers complaining of
injuries caused by state-court judgments rendered before the district court proceedings
commenced and inviting district court review and rejection of those judgments.” Exxon Mobil
Corp. v. Saudi Basic Indus. Corp., 544 U.S. 280 (2005). Thus, the doctrine applies where “(1)
the federal plaintiff lost in state court; (2) the plaintiff complain[s] of injuries caused by [the]
state-court judgments; (3) those judgments were rendered before the federal suit was filed; and
(4) the plaintiff is inviting the district court to review and reject the state judgments.” Great W.
Mining & Mineral Co. v. Fox Rothschild LLP, 615 F.3d 159, 166 (3d Cir. 2010).
Plaintiff argues there is an exception to the Rooker-Feldman for claims of fraud
perpetrated on the state court. Plaintiff cites Goddard v. Citibank, N.A. for the idea that “[i]f a
federal plaintiff presents some independent claim… there is jurisdiction and state law determines
whether the defendant prevails under principles of preclusion,” even if the result of the
independent claim conflicts with the state court finding. 2006 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 19651, 2006
WL 842925 (E.D.N.Y. Mar. 27, 2006) (citing Exxon Mobil v. Saudi Basic Industries Corp., 544
U.S. 280, 293 (2005)). Thus, the federal court cannot review the state court foreclosure action
directly, but may entertain a collateral claim related to the foreclosure action, even if the federal
court can only find for the federal plaintiff if it finds the foreclosure action invalid, that is a
cognizable, independent claim. Furthermore, “a federal court may entertain a collateral attack on
a state court judgment which is alleged to have been procured through fraud, deception, accident,
or mistake…” Goddard at 17, (citing In re Sun Valley Foods Co., 801 F.2d 186, 189 (6th Cir.
1986)). In Goddard, the court found that it could not review the substance of the foreclosure
action because of the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, but that the plaintiff had independent claims for
conversion and intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED), not available in state court,
because her house was allegedly foreclosed upon due to fraud in the procurement of judgment
and she suffered a stroke in the courtroom as a result. Id. at 18.
In this case, Plaintiff does not challenge the result of the foreclosure action itself (Pl.’s
Br. ¶¶ 1-3, ECF No. 5), which would be barred by the Rooker-Feldman doctrine. In fact,
Plaintiff included an email sent by Plaintiff to a representative of Defendant NationStar, asking
them to desist taking pictures until after the Sheriff’s sale could be finalized. (Compl. Ex. I at 2,
ECF No. 1-2). Thus, he is not challenging the foreclosure action but rather seeking damages for
fraud in the procurement of the judgment and execution of the writ for the foreclosure.
However, the basis for damages that Plaintiff seeks are: damages to the value of the
house and loss of equity, in the amount of $500,000; loss of credit worthiness/score; taking and
slander of title; trespassing and photo taking of the house and premises; fabrication, forgery, and
fraud. Additionally, Plaintiff notes emotional damages in his “Statement for Complaint,” saying
Defendants’ actions “cost us our sleep… and above all, has made my son worried about
intruders, eviction and shelter.” (Statement Compl. ¶ 11.5, ECF No. 1-1). Plaintiff requests
$3,000,000 in punitive damages for the latter issues, as well as rescission of the mortgage
contract, award of costs and fees, and any other appropriate remedy.
Damages to the value of the house, loss of credit worthiness/score, taking and slander of
title, trespassing and photo taking of the house and premises, and related stress are the natural
result of foreclosure and thus are subsumed by the state foreclosure action and barred from
consideration by the federal courts under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine. Furthermore, the alleged
fabrication, forgery, and fraud did not result in a separate cause of action such as illegal
conversion of property, as in Goddard. Lastly, Plaintiff’s alleged emotional damages—resulting
in anxiety and loss of sleep for himself and his family—could be liberally construed as an
attempt to describe an IIED claim parallel to that brought in Goddard. However, the Third
Circuit has stated that concern, anxiety, headaches, and loss of sleep did not constitute severe
emotional distress sufficient to support recovery for IIED. Michel v. Levinson, 437 F. App'x
160, 163 (3d Cir. 2011) (“Michel's concern and anxiety—the extent and duration of which are
unspecified—are insufficient as a matter of law to warrant recovery (citing Buckley v. Trenton
Saving Fund Soc., 544 A.2d 857, 865 (N.J. 1988) (evidence of “aggravation, embarrassment, an
unspecified number of headaches, and loss of sleep” did not constitute severe emotional distress
sufficient to support recovery on intentional infliction of emotional distress))). Thus, Plaintiff
has failed to state a claim independent of that heard in the state court proceeding and the Court
must dismiss the complaint for lack of subject matter jurisdiction pursuant to the RookerFeldman doctrine.
For the foregoing reasons, Plaintiff’s complaint is dismissed without prejudice for lack of
subject matter jurisdiction—failing to state a claim independent of that heard in the state court
proceeding. An appropriate order will follow.
/s/ Anne E. Thompson
ANNE E. THOMPSON, U.S.D.J.
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