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LAL v. BOROUGH OF KENNETT SQUARE

July 25, 1996

AMRIT LAL
v.
BOROUGH OF KENNETT SQUARE, et al.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: DITTER

 Ditter, J.

 July 25, 1996

 In this action the plaintiff claims civil rights, RICO, and state law violations by a borough, a county, their officials, a state legislator, a common pleas court judge, and a court-appointed property receiver. The case arises out of Plaintiff Amrit Lal's failure to comply with numerous municipal housing code provisions during his ownership and operation of two apartment buildings in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania.

 Lal's failure to comply resulted in several criminal and civil sanctions. Between 1988 and 1995, he was investigated, charged, prosecuted, convicted, and fined for hundreds of housing code violations occurring at the apartment buildings. In December, 1993, in a civil equity proceeding in state court, Chester County Court of Common Pleas Judge Thomas G. Gavin took control of the buildings from Lal and appointed a receiver to operate them. Judge Gavin also presided over many of the criminal prosecutions of Lal. The Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court affirmed several of Lal's criminal convictions and Judge Gavin's order in the civil equity proceeding. See Borough of Kennett Square v. Lal, 665 A.2d 15 (Pa. Cmwlth. 1995); Borough of Kennett Square v. Lal, 165 Pa. Commw. 573, 645 A.2d 474 (Pa. Cmwlth.), appeal denied, 540 Pa. 613, 656 A.2d 119 (1994); Borough of Kennett Square v. Lal, 164 Pa. Commw. 654, 643 A.2d 1172 (Pa. Cmwlth.), appeal denied, 540 Pa. 586, 655 A.2d 517 (1994). *fn1"

 Lal now has filed an original complaint asserting claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and an amended complaint adding other claims, including one under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, 18 U.S.C. § 1961, et. seq. He names as defendants the Borough of Kennett Square, its mayor, police chief, solicitors, housing code inspector, and council members, Judge Gavin, the receiver appointed to operate the apartment buildings, Chester County and several of its commissioners, and the borough's state representative.

 In Count I, Lal alleges that the borough and its officials violated his federal constitutional rights by investigating, charging, and prosecuting him for criminal violations of the housing code. In Count II, Lal contends that Pennsylvania State Representative Joseph Pitts violated his rights by pressuring the borough to adopt policies which discriminated against him and by preventing consideration of his requests for federal and state money to renovate the apartment buildings. In Count III, Lal claims that Judge Gavin and Marita M. Hutchinson, Esquire, the court-appointed receiver, violated his rights during the civil equity proceeding. In that count, Lal also contends that Judge Gavin violated his rights during the criminal prosecutions. In Count IV, Lal alleges that all of the defendants improperly interfered with the operation of his business and a contract to sell the buildings, failed to manage the buildings properly, and did not consider his requests for funds to renovate them. Finally, in Count V, Lal contends that the defendants' actions violated RICO.

 For the following reasons, I will grant the defendants' motions to dismiss. In summary, the requests for money damages against Judge Gavin must be dismissed because judicial immunity protects him from suit. The claims relating to Lal's criminal convictions must be dismissed because they are not cognizable in a section 1983 action. Finally, I will dismiss Lal's remaining claims because, under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, I do not have subject matter jurisdiction to hear them. Also, Judge Gavin, the borough, and the borough's officials filed motions for sanctions. Because I conclude that Lal's complaint was filed for the improper purpose of harassing the defendants, and is not warranted by existing law or a nonfrivolous argument for its extension or reversal, I will grant the motions and sanction Lal. *fn2"

 I. THE MOTIONS TO DISMISS

 Along with other relief, Lal seeks punitive, compensatory, and "exemplary" damages against Judge Gavin for actions he took in the civil and criminal proceedings in state court. The doctrine of judicial immunity requires that I dismiss those claims with prejudice. *fn3"

 A judge may only be sued for money damages when one of two circumstances is present: either when the actions complained of are not "judicial acts" or when the judge acts in the clear absence of all jurisdiction. Stump v. Sparkman, 435 U.S. 349, 356-57, 55 L. Ed. 2d 331, 98 S. Ct. 1099 (1977). Because judges must feel free to act without fear of incurring personal liability for their actions in court, judicial immunity remains in force even if the actions are alleged to be legally incorrect, in bad faith, malicious, or corrupt. Mireles v. Waco, 502 U.S. 9, 11-12, 116 L. Ed. 2d 9, 112 S. Ct. 286 (1991).

 Lal contends that Judge Gavin is not immune from suit because his actions were not judicial and because he acted without jurisdiction. Lal's arguments are frivolous. First, what Judge Gavin did was clearly judicial. "Whether an act by a judge is a 'judicial' one relates to the nature of the act itself, i.e., whether it is a function normally performed by a judge, and to the expectations of the parties, i.e. whether they dealt with the judge in his judicial capacity." Waco, 502 U.S. at 12. Judge Gavin's actions -- his appointing Hutchinson, prohibiting Lal from interfering with the operation of the buildings, directing Hutchinson not to pay certain obligations, and trying, convicting, and sentencing Lal for criminal violations -- are clearly normally performed by judges. See, e.g., Waco, 502 U.S. at 12-13 (court order directing court officers to bring attorney before court is judicial act); Stump, 435 U.S. at 351, 359-60 (ordering mildly retarded woman to undergo sterilization procedure judicial act). Indeed, all of the actions of which Lal complains may only be performed by judges.

 Moreover, Judge Gavin's actions also appeared judicial, lending further support to the fact that the parties believed they were dealing with the judge in his judicial capacity. The actions occurred either in written orders or in a courtroom, at a judicial hearing, while the judge was on the bench, in open court, and with all the interested attorneys or parties present. Lal complained of several of those actions in at least three different appeals. Given those circumstances, there is no doubt that the parties dealt with Judge Gavin in a judicial capacity and not, for example, as an employer or administrator.

 Second, Pennsylvania law plainly gave Judge Gavin jurisdiction to take these actions. Title 42 Pa. C.S. § 931(a) provides that "the courts of common pleas shall have unlimited original jurisdiction of all actions and proceedings, including all actions and proceedings by law and usage in the courts of common pleas." As far as the civil equity proceeding is concerned, Pennsylvania law makes clear that equitable relief exists when there is not an adequate remedy at law. See Lal, 645 A.2d at 479. Judge Gavin's actions were within this broad grant of jurisdiction. Indeed, in the related state court litigation, the commonwealth court specifically held that in light of Lal's outrageous conduct and repeated failure to abide by the housing code, granting equitable relief in this case was properly within Judge Gavin's jurisdiction. Id. At most, Lal's allegations amount to a charge that the judge committed legal error which is not sufficient to void judicial immunity. Stump, 435 U.S. at 359. The fact that Lal now characterizes the takeover of his property as a "de facto condemnation" does not affect this conclusion.

 Lal's argument that Judge Gavin acted without jurisdiction has even less application to the criminal proceedings. There is no dispute that Lal was charged with numerous violations of borough ordinances and that Judge Gavin fined him within the range specifically allowed by those ordinances. Allegations that Judge Gavin conducted the proceedings in an unconstitutional manner, even were they true, would not divest the Chester County Court of Common Pleas of jurisdiction. Such actions, even had they been legally incorrect, would not void Judge Gavin's immunity. See Stump, 435 U.S. at 359. Thus, because the allegations in Lal's complaints, if true, do not establish that Judge Gavin's actions were ...


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