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WILLIAMS v. STONE

April 16, 1996

MICHAEL AND MARILYN WILLIAMS
v.
ELLIOT W. STONE, HAROLD G. STONE, RICHARD ABT, JOHN L. BARRY and AL BISCARDI



The opinion of the court was delivered by: JOYNER

 JOYNER, J.

 APRIL 16, 1996

 Plaintiffs Michael and Marilyn Williams are former owners of a West Coast Video (WCV) franchise located in Maryland. The Williamses purchased the franchise in March, 1989, opened the store in September, 1989 and sold the franchise, with WCV's consent, to a third party in December, 1991. As a condition of WCV's consent to the sale, Plaintiffs signed a Release of any and all claims against WCV and its officers, directors, agents and employees.

 In February, 1996, Plaintiffs brought this action against WCV and various of its executives, employees and agents. The Amended Complaint alleges violations of the civil provisions of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), 18 U.S.C. §§ 1961-1968 (1984 & Supp. 1996); Federal Trade Commission Act, 15 U.S.C. §§ 41-77 (1973); the Aid to Small Business Act, 15 U.S.C. §§ 631-651 (1976 & Supp. 1996); the Mail Fraud Act, 18 U.S.C. §§ 1341-1346 (1984 & Supp. 1996); and the Maryland Franchise Registration and Disclosure Act (MFR&DA), Md. Bus. Reg. Code Ann. §§ 14-200 et al. (1957 & Supp. 1994). Plaintiffs seek compensatory and consequential damages as well as treble damages and attorney's fees under the civil RICO provisions.

 Standard of Review

 In considering a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, a court must primarily consider the allegations contained in the complaint, although matters of public record, orders, items appearing in the record of the case and exhibits attached to the complaint may also be taken into account. *fn1" Chester County Intermediate Unit v. Pennsylvania Blue Shield, 896 F.2d 808, 812 (3d Cir. 1990). The Court must accept as true all of the allegations in the pleadings and must give the plaintiff the benefit of every favorable inference that can be drawn from those allegations. Schrob v. Catterson, 948 F.2d 1402, 1405 (3d Cir. 1991); Markowitz v. Northeast Land Co., 906 F.2d 100, 103 (3d Cir. 1990). A complaint is properly dismissed only if it appears certain that the plaintiff cannot prove any set of facts in support of its claim which would entitle it to relief. Ransom v. Marrazzo, 848 F.2d 398, 401 (3d Cir. 1988).

 Discussion

 Defendants bring this Motion to Dismiss on several grounds, first, that the Release acts as a total defense to all the claims against them; second, that Plaintiffs' RICO claims are barred by the statute of limitations; and third, that Plaintiffs have failed to adequately plead a pattern of racketeering activity under RICO.

 We begin by exploring Defendants' Release argument. According to the Amended Complaint, in December, 1991, WCV's fraud forced Plaintiffs to sell their franchise to a third party, but the Franchise Agreement required WCV's written approval before any such transfer could be made. As a condition to granting that written approval, WCV insisted that Plaintiffs sign a general release pursuant to Article IX, P2(e) of the Franchise Agreement. This Release, attached to the Amended Complaint, states in pertinent part:

 
For Value Received, Michael E. Williams and Marilyn E. Williams ("Assignors") . . . Do Hereby Release absolutely, unconditionally and forever discharge Franchisor and its officers, directors, affiliates, shareholders, agents and servants from any and all claims, actions, causes of action, damages, costs, debts, obligations, responsibilities and liabilities of every name, nature, kind and description whatsoever, whether in tort, in contract, or under statute, arising directly or indirectly out of the negotiation of, execution of, performance or, nonperformance of, or breach of the Franchise Agreement specified above.

 According to Defendants, the plain language of this Release covers the subject matter of this litigation. Also according to Defendants, the Release is enforceable under Pennsylvania law.

 In Pennsylvania, a release is effective absent fraud, duress, accident or mutual mistake. Buttermore v. Aliquippa Hosp., 522 Pa. 325, 329-30, 561 A.2d 733, 735 (1989); Holmes v. Lankenau Hosp., 426 Pa. Super. 452, 627 A.2d 763, 767 (1993), app. denied, 538 Pa. 671, 649 A.2d 673 (1994); Popovich v. Empire Beauty Schs., Inc., 567 F. Supp. 1440, 1442 (E.D. Pa. 1983). Duress is not found when there is simple financial pressure. Three Rivers Motors Co. v. Ford Motor Co., 522 F.2d 885, 893 (3d Cir. 1975). Rather, the pleader must allege threats of physical harm to show duress. Id. (citing Carrier v. Wm. Penn Broadcasting Co., 426 Pa. 427, 430-31, 233 A.2d 519 (1967)); Killian v. McCulloch, 873 F. Supp. 938, 943 (E.D. Pa. 1995).

 Defendants properly point out that there are no allegations in the Amended Complaint that could reasonably support the inference that this Release was obtained by fraud, duress, accident or mutual mistake. While there are allegations of fraud in the Amended Complaint, these allegations do not concern the circumstances surrounding the signing of the Release, but rather concern the negotiations for the franchise and acts related to that. Am. Complaint at PP 47, 48. Even if the Amended Complaint could be read to allege that Plaintiffs signed the Release under duress because they had to sell ...


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