CASSER v. TOWNSHIP OF KNOWLTON et al
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER granting 40 Motion to Dismiss; that all claims against Chief Justice Stuart Rabner are hereby dismissed with prejudice; that Plaintiffs request to amend her complaint to name the Supreme Court of New Jersey or the Superior Court of New Jersey is denied. Signed by Judge Peter G. Sheridan on 10/23/2017. (mmh)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE DISTRICT OF NEW JERSEY
Civil Action No.: 17-cv-01174 -PGS-LHG
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER
MAYOR AND COMMITTEE FOR THE
TOWNSHIP OF KNOWLTON, et al.
This matter comes before the Court on a motion to dismiss all claims against Defendant,
Stuart Rabner, the Chief Justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court, pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P.
12(b)(1), for lack of subject matter jurisdiction (Rooker-Feldman Doctrine), and Fed. R. Civ. P.
12(b)(6), for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. The latter motion seeks
dismissal because there is a lack of plausible facts to support Plaintiff’s claim1. [ECF No. 40].
After oral argument on the motion, I entered an oral decision granting the motion to
dismiss. Although this decision is substantially the same, I am vacating the oral decision as it was
not delivered in a clear manner, and this memorandum better explains my rationale.
Although Plaintiff is a retired corporate attorney, it is noted that she is a pro se litigant. As
such, the sufficiency of pro se pleading will be construed liberally in favor of the plaintiff. See
Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007).
In addition, at the motion hearing, Plaintiff orally moved for leave to amend her complaint to
bring Count Seven and Count Eight against the Superior Court or the Supreme Court of New Jersey,
rather than naming the Chief Justice as a defendant.
In order to give context to this motion, Plaintiff had filed an action in state court on
basically the same facts. Casser v. Knowlton, 118 A.3d 1071, 1074 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div.
2015), certif. denied, 129 A. 3d 329 (2016) (hereinafter “Prior State Case”). Plaintiff then filed
this suit basically seeking the same remedy. In order to distinguish this matter from the Prior State
Case and to avoid the appearance that this suit is tantamount to an appeal of the Prior State Case’s
dismissal, Plaintiff adds Defendant Chief Justice Rabner and tweeks her theory. In broad terms,
Plaintiff argues Chief Justice Rabner is an “enforcer “of a judicial policy -- the Rezem precedent2.
The Rezem precedent requires that in matters concerning decisions of municipal land use boards,
the Plaintiff must appeal the decision by way of an action in lieu of prerogative writ prior to filing
a civil rights action for inverse condemnation. Plaintiff also argues that Chief Justice Rabner
lackadaisically enforces a person’s right to a trial when there are disputed facts by allowing overuse
of summary judgment.
In 1985, Plaintiff, Claudia Casser, purchased over ninety-nine acres of farmland in
Knowlton Township, Warren County, New Jersey. (ECF 1 Compl. Ex. A at, 1). She planned to
use half of the land as her residence and horse farm and to subdivide the other half into lots for
sale. (ECF 1 Compl. Ex. A at ¶2). At that time, Plaintiff hoped to create sixteen residential lots
from the subdivided fifty acres. (ECF 1 Compl. Ex. A at ¶3).
Rezem Family Assocs. LP v. Borough of Millstone, 30 A.3d 1061 (N.J. Super. Ct. App.
Div.), certif. denied, 29 A.3d 739 (2011).
In 1996, the Township of Knowlton adopted a Farmland Preservation Ordinance, and a
Cluster Ordinance. The Cluster Ordinance preserved open space and/or agricultural land. The
Cluster Ordinance required that on parcels greater than 50 acres, half of the tract is set aside as
open space without compensation and cluster development is permitted on the other half. From
1993-2003, the density of development was down zoned from one residence per three acres in
1988 to one residence on 10 acres in 2003. In 2007, Plaintiff filed an application with the Planning
Board to subdivide her farm into three 10 acre lots, with a 70 acre remainder. The application noted
that upon approval of the application, Plaintiff would seek to sell the 70 acre remainder to a
preservation agency. The Planning Board approved some development with significant open space
set aside. Plaintiff conformed to the conditions set forth in the approval under protest3.
Plaintiff did not appeal the Planning Board’s decision by way of an action in lieu of
prerogative which must be filed within 45 days of the Planning Board’s decision, N.J.R. 4: 696(a). An action in lieu of prerogative writ is an appeal of the Planning Board’s denial which must
be filed in the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division. Id.
On March 8, 2010 (about three years later4), Plaintiff filed the Prior State Case in the
Superior Court of New Jersey, against various Township officials. In her complaint, Plaintiff
alleged that the Planning Board’s selective enforcement of the Cluster Ordinance and the Farmland
Preservation Ordinance resulted in an unlawful taking of 50 acres of land without compensation.
(ECF 1 Comp. Ex. A ¶¶ 37-47). Thereafter, a Judge dismissed the Plaintiff’s action because it was
The facts in the Appellate Division decision are different from those herein. According to the
Appellate Division, Plaintiff was entitled to develop 10 new houses plus the existing house. Casser v.
Knowlton, 118 A. 3d 1071, 1074 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. 2015), certif. denied, 129 A. 3d 329 (2016).
According to the Appellate Division, the delay was caused by market conditions. That is, Plaintiff
realized that after three years had passed the Planning Board approval was important because the Plaintiff
was “unable to sell the lots due to the real estate crash of 2008.” Casser, 118 A. 3d at 1074.
untimely under the precedent set forth in Rezem Family Assocs. LP v. Borough of Millstone, 30
A.3d 1061 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div.), certif. denied, 29 A.3d 739 (2011).
In Rezem, the Court held that before reviewing a §1983 action arising from a decision of a
land use application “the developers [must have] exhausted available administrative and judicial
remedies or sought a final decision . . . before Plaintiff filed this civil rights lawsuit.” Casser, 118
A.3d at 1078 (quoting Rezem, 30 A.3d at 1061).
That is, an action in lieu of prerogative writ
challenging the Planning Board’s decision must be filed within 45 days (N.J.R. 4:69-6(a)) prior to
filing a civil rights action. Without having filed such an action, the Casser Court held the plaintiff
failed to exhaust her remedies, and therefore, the matter was not ripe for adjudication. The Court
explained that the rationale for the Rezem precedent is the public “importance of stability and
finality to public actions” and to allow a civil rights law suit without having exhausted remedies
“would defeat the important policy of repose expressed in the forty-five day time limit.” Casser,
188 A. 3d at 1079-80. The New Jersey Supreme Court denied certification. There was no appeal
to the Supreme Court of the United States.
Plaintiff brings this suit against Chief Justice Rabner as “administrative head of the Court
system . . . [who] oversees management of the State Court.” In paragraph 17 of the Complaint,
she generally alleges that Chief Justice Rabner has responsibility “for oversight of the Court
rules[,] . . . application of judicial doctrines that individual judges are required to follow, and
granting of petitions for certification.” Within that paragraph there are no facts identifying any
particular acts of Chief Justice Rabner with regard to Plaintiff’s case. In fact, in Count Seven and
Count Eight, Chief Justice Rabner is not mentioned by name. Rather, Count Seven generally
indicates that the Supreme Court “declined to review the Rezem Doctrine.” Plaintiff also argues
that the Rezem Doctrine “depriv[ed] other plaintiffs of their non-prerogative writs causes of action
under both State and [F]ederal law without due process, in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment
and 42 U.S.C. §1983.” [ECF1 Ex. A, ¶133; Complaint ¶ 132].
Simultaneously, in Count Eight,
Plaintiff avers the Appellate Division and the New Jersey Supreme Court, “give lip service to the
Rules requiring that the Trial Court [to] submit disputes regarding material facts to the jury, but
have a practice of not adequately enforcing them.” (ECF 1 Ex. A Compl. ¶148).
To clarify the
argument in Count Seven, Plaintiff alleges the Supreme Court was an “enforcer,” rather than a
“judicial decision maker,” when it denied certification in the Prior State Case. As such the Rezem
exhaustion requirement is an unconstitutional bar to bringing a civil rights law suit.
Within the Complaint, Plaintiff does not relate her cause of action to any particular action
of Chief Justice Rabner except to generally allege that the “Supreme Court declined to review the
Rezem precedent in 2011, and again when it was applied to this case” and that Chief Justice Rabner
failed “to adequately supervise and enforce” a litigant’s right to a jury trial of disputed material
facts. (Complaint ¶ 148).
Plaintiff argues that Chief Justice Rabner was cognizant of the Rezem
precedent and was aware of the alleged overuse of summary judgment even when disputed facts
existed, but there are no specific facts alleged except the denial of certification. (ECF 44 Pl. Opp.
pg. 18). These allegations are insufficient to support that the Justice was an enforcer or played a
substantial role in the Prior State Case.
The above rationale is intertwined with the issue of whether Chief Justice Rabner is a
proper defendant. Ordinarily, Judges are immune from suit for actions taken in the course of their
function, however there are exceptions. There are three key Third Circuit cases instructive in
determining whether judges are proper parties to a Section 1983 suit: Brandon E. ex rel. Listenbee
v. Reynolds, 201 F.3d 194 (3d Cir. 2000); Georgevich v. Strauss, 772 F.2d 1078 (3d Cir. 1985) (en
banc); and Allen v. Debello, 861 F.3d 433, 440 (3d Cir. 2017) (holding that the judges named as
defendants in a child custody action were not proper parties because they did not initiate the action
for declaratory relief, nor did they promulgate the statute or standards that plaintiff objected to).
These cases apply a test borrowed from the First Circuit's seminal case on this subject, In re
Justices of Supreme Court, 695 F.2d 17 (1st Cir., 1982). Under the In re Justices test, a judge who
acts as a neutral and impartial arbiter of a statute is not a proper defendant to a Section 1983 suit
challenging the constitutionality of the statute. However, a judge who acts as an enforcer or
administrator of a statute can be sued under Section 1983 for declaratory or (if declaratory relief
is unavailable) injunctive relief. Similarly a judge who issued a gag order may not have immunity
because he was enforcing a particular statute, and he can properly be named as a defendant in a
lawsuit challenging the statute.”). Nichols v. Sivilli, 2014 WL 7332020, at *3 (D.N.J. Dec. 19,
As the Supreme Court explained in Forrester v. White, 484 U.S. 219, 227 (1987) for the
purposes of judicial immunity there is an "intelligible distinction between judicial acts and the
administrative, legislative, or executive functions that judges may on occasion be assigned by law
Here, there are a lack of facts alleged to determine the "intelligible distinction
between judicial acts and the administrative [acts].” The denial of certification of Plaintiff’s Prior
State Case by the Chief Justice is not sufficient to establish any administrative role. In fact, in the
body of Counts Seven and Eight, do not mention Chief Justice Rabner.
Plaintiff’s allegations lack credibility because they imply that Chief Justice Rabner reviews
and is the enforcer of every decision made within the Superior Court of New Jersey. If Plaintiff
were to be allowed the relief requested it would effectively mean that Chief Justice Rabner would
be held responsible for every decision and action taken within the Superior Court of New Jersey.
The rationale is far-fetched.
Although the analysis could end there, the Court also reviews the Rooker-Feldman
Doctrine for the sake of completeness.
Defendant moves to dismiss Plaintiff’s Complaint pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(1) for
lack of subject matter jurisdiction, asserting that Plaintiff’s claims are barred by the RookerFeldman doctrine. The Rooker-Feldman doctrine “precludes a United States district court from
exercising subject-matter jurisdiction” in an action brought by a state-court loser who complains
of injuries caused by the state-court judgment and who invites a district court to review and reject
that judgment. Great W. Mining & Mineral Co. v. Fox Rothschild LLP, 615 F.3d 159, 166 (3d Cir.
2010). It is this Court’s critical task to “identify those federal suits that profess to complain of
injury by a third party, but actually complain of injury ‘produced by a state court judgment and
not simply ratified, acquiesced in, or left unpunished by it.” Id. (quoting Hoblock v. Albany Cnty.
Bd. of Elections, 422 F.3d 77, 88 (2d Cir. 2005)).
In order to apply Rooker-Feldman, four elements must be shown. They are: (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. The second and fourth
requirements are the key to determining whether a federal suit presents an independent, non-barred
claim. Great Western Mining & Mineral Co., 615 F.3d at 166 (internal citations omitted).
Plaintiff meets the first requirement because she lost in State Court. There is also no
dispute as to the timing of the judgment, as per the third factor. However, factors two and four
require more analysis.
Regarding the second factor of the test, case law instructs us to look carefully at the cause
of the injury.
See Great Western Mining & Mineral Co., 615 F.3d at 167. The Allen case
addresses this point. In Allen, the Plaintiffs challenged the New Jersey State Court Judges
discretion to enter summary judgment under the best interest of the child standard without plenary
hearing in custody cases where there are disputed facts. Evidently, under the case law, a plenary
hearing is not required in every contested custody matter; and a plenary hearing occurs only when
there are disputed facts and the trial judge determines that a hearing would be helpful. In Allen,
the court found that Rooker-Feldman did not bar suit against the Superior Court because the suit
challenged the practice of entering such a judgment without a hearing where disputed facts existed.
Id. at 437-38.
This case is distinguishable from Allen. Here, Plaintiff argues that her injury was caused
by Chief Justice Rabner because he became an enforcer of an action by denying certification and
allowing the Rezem precedent standard to stand. To this Court, this looks like an appeal rather
than some broad practice as discussed in Allen. In short, Plaintiff’s argument appears to be an
attempt to side run around the application of Rooker-Feldman. For example, by undertaking a
review of the application of the Rezem precedent to this case would constitute a review of the Prior
State Case. The following excerpts from the Appellate decision serve to shed light on the nature
of the claim brought by Plaintiff. Within Count Seven, the Complaint alleges that the Court
systematically imposed the Rezem precedent without even considering the unique facts of her case.
However, the Appellate Court opinion does consider the specific facts of the case. For example
the court noted:
Further, we agree with the trial court that the interests of justice do
not warrant relaxing the forty-five day time limit under Rule 4:696(c). The record reflects that plaintiff was not deprived of the right
to develop or sell her land. To the contrary, she owned about 100
acres of land subject to ten-acre zoning; the Board's decision
safeguarded her right to subdivide the land and build ten houses. She
has already sold the twenty-five acre subdivided lot. The fact that
the variance terms may have prevented her from also selling
development rights to the State does not give rise to a takings cause
of action. See Pheasant Bridge Corp. v. Twp. of Warren, 169 N.J.
282, 298, 777 A.2d 334 (2001) (noting, in a zoning context, that
"neither diminution of land value itself nor impairment of the
marketability of land alone constitutes a taking"), cert. denied, 535
U.S. 1077, 122 S. Ct. 1959, 152 L. Ed. 2d 1020 (2002). Finally,
defendants' expert report thoroughly debunked plaintiff's theory that
many other landowners were treated more favorably than she was.
Casser, 118 A.3d at 1081.
In her Complaint Plaintiff alleges that the Superior Court “slammed” the door on Plaintiff’s
claims by imposing the Rezem precedent retroactively to her case, by “shortening the statute of
limitations for seeking inverse condemnation from six years to 45 days.” In one sense, Plaintiff
has a point: she filed the 2010 action, the Rezem precedent was announced in 2011, and her claims
were denied in 2013 under the Rezem Doctrine. However, this argument was addressed in the
Casser decision. The Appellate Division declared that “contrary to Plaintiff’s argument, Rezem
did not establish a new principle of law and there is no reason to apply the case prospectively only
. . . “ Moreover, the Appellate Division reasoned:
The problem plaintiff faces here is of her own making. She is an attorney and
a former zoning board member. If she wanted to challenge the terms of the
variance granted her by the Planning Board she had forty-five days in which
to file an action in lieu of prerogative writ. She makes no claim here that she
was unaware of the deadline set by Rule 4:69-6(a). Instead she waited three
years to file this lawsuit, and her complaint would have been untimely even
if one or more of the counts were deemed as a prerogative writ challenge. Her
proposed amended complaint was even more untimely. Casser, 118 A.3d at
Lastly, Plaintiff alleges that imposing exhaustion requirement as a prerequisite for filing a
civil rights suit violated her 14th Amendment right to due process. The Appellate Division also
recognized this issue, it reasoned:
Plaintiff may not circumvent the exhaustion requirement by waiting until it
is years too late to file a prerogative writ action, and then claiming that she
need not exhaust remedies because that action is time-barred. Allowing her
to proceed in that fashion would make a mockery of the exhaustion doctrine,
and would defeat "the important policy of repose expressed in the forty-five
day" time limit set by Rule 4:69-6(a). Rocky Hill Citizens for Responsible
Growth v. Planning Bd. of Rocky Hill, 406 N.J. Super. 384, 398, 967 A.2d
929 (App.Div.2009) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). Indeed,
“[b]ecause of the importance of stability and finality to public actions, courts
do not routinely grant an enlargement of time to file an action in lieu of
prerogative writs," and "[t]he longer a party waits to mount its challenge, the
less it may be entitled to an enlargement." Tri-State Ship Repair & Dry Dock
Co. v. City of Perth Amboy, 349 N.J. Super. 418, 423-24, 793 A.2d 834
(App.Div.) (citations omitted), certif. denied, 174 N.J. 189, 803 A.2d 1161
(2002). Id. at 1080-81. Casser, 118 A.3d at 1080.
The point is that all of Plaintiff’s arguments in this case were decided in the Prior State Case. The
motion to dismiss Chief Justice Rabner as a defendant is therefore granted. The motion to amend
the Complaint to include the Superior Court of New Jersey or the New Jersey Supreme Court as a
defendant is denied because the allegations set forth by Plaintiff are so vague that it would be an
exercise in futility.
For the foregoing reasons,
IT IS, on this 23rd day of October, 2017
ORDERED that Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss (ECF No. 40) is hereby granted; and
it is further
ORDERED that all claims against Chief Justice Stuart Rabner are hereby dismissed with
prejudice; and it is further
ORDERED that Plaintiffs request to amend her complaint to name the Supreme Court of
New Jersey or the Superior Court of New Jersey is denied.
s/Peter G. Sheridan
PETER G. SHERIDAN, U.S.D.J.
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