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Cornish v. Norris Square United Presbyterian Congregation

May 27, 2009

LAURA RIVERA CORNISH, PLAINTIFF,
v.
NORRIS SQUARE UNITED PRESBYTERIAN CONGREGATION AND PRESBYTERY OF PHILADELPHIA, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Pollak, J.

MEMORANDUM

Defendants Norris Square United Presbyterian Congregation ("Norris Square" or "the Congregation") and Presbytery of Philadelphia have filed a motion to dismiss plaintiff Laura Rivera Cornish's complaint pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 41(b) for failure to prosecute. Plaintiff, who is proceeding pro se, has not filed a response despite receiving additional time to do so. The motion is ripe for disposition.

I. Background

Given that defendants' request for relief arises under Poulis v. State Farm Fire & Casualty Co., 747 F.2d 863 (3d Cir. 1984) (discussed infra), which requires a detailed examination of the circumstances of a lawsuit, the court will set out the facts and procedural history of this action in some detail.

In July 2007, Laura Rivera Cornish, a resident of Puerto Rico, filed suit in the District Court for the District of Puerto Rico against defendants Norris Square and Presbytery of Philadelphia as well as against the Superior Court of New Jersey and plaintiff's former husband Theodore Frederick Cornish. The District Court of Puerto Rico dismissed the claims against the latter two and then transferred the case against Norris Square and the Presbytery to this court pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1404 in August 2007. Because the District Court of Puerto Rico issued these decisions sua sponte, the district judge permitted plaintiff twenty days to respond before it issued its order; Rivera Cornish never responded.

Plaintiff's lawsuit against the moving defendants concerns her employment with Norris Square in Philadelphia starting in the summer of 2003 and continuing to sometime in 2005. Her claims for relief sound, or appear to sound, in Title VII, the ADA, the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), fraud, defamation, and invasion of privacy.*fn1 Plaintiff contends that the Congregation and members of its staff sexually harassed her, threatened her, discriminated against her, and defamed her. Rivera Cornish also charges that the Congregation falsified salary stubs for her, withheld the salary reported on these stubs, stole her identity, and committed other acts of fraud regarding her employment. As relief, she seeks, inter alia, a court-ordered investigation of the alleged fraud and misdeeds by defendants, return of her personal property, payment of unpaid wages, and monetary damages.

Plaintiff moved for default judgment in the District of Puerto Rico two weeks after the case was transferred to the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. The motion was transferred to this court and was denied. Plaintiff then moved this court to appoint counsel for her. In November 2007, Magistrate Judge M. Faith Angell denied the motion for appointed counsel, ordered Rivera Cornish to file an amended complaint by the end of February 2008, and further ordered her to seek counsel to help her either move her suit forward or settle it with the defendants. Judge Angell also scheduled a status conference for February 28, 2008.

Rivera Cornish mailed a letter to the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, addressed to the Clerk of Court, in mid-February asking for help in obtaining Social Security benefits and recounting that she needed help finding representation for her civil suit; she also described mounting health problems and requested help with the portions of her lawsuit that were dismissed by the district judge in Puerto Rico. At no time did the plaintiff file an amended complaint as ordered by Judge Angell. At the February 28, 2008 status conference, which plaintiff joined via telephone, it was plain that Rivera Cornish had taken no steps to advance this litigation. Judge Angell placed the case in suspense and referred the matter to the Employment Attorney Panel (EAP) to help plaintiff obtain counsel. Judge Angell further ordered that the parties participate in a May 15, 2008 status conference to assess the case.

An attorney from the EAP contacted plaintiff and began to gather information on her claims. Plaintiff responded, via email, to some of the requests but not others. The attorney then informed Rivera Cornish that, due to her failure to respond, he would be returning her file to this court and declining the representation. Plaintiff responded, inter alia, that the attorney should not contact her again. In light of this turn of events, Judge Angell vacated the referral order. In early May, Rivera Cornish sent another letter to the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, again addressed to the Clerk of Court, seeking guidance in applying for Social Security benefits and recounting her struggles with her appointed counsel.

Despite these setbacks, plaintiff participated in the May 15, 2008 status conference by phone, and Judge Angell ordered the lawsuit to progress into discovery. Judge Angell set a date of September 18, 2008 for the close of discovery and for another status conference. Shortly after the May 15 conference, however, official court correspondence sent to plaintiff as certified mail was returned to the court as unclaimed. Defendants sent Rivera Cornish interrogatories and requests for production of documents in June 2008, but plaintiff never responded to them (though, apparently, these communications, unlike the court's certified letters, were not returned to the senders). During the fall conference (continued from September 18, 2008, to October 2), plaintiff offered no explanation for her lack of responsiveness or noncompliance with court orders.

Defendants filed the instant motion on October 16, 2008. About a week later, Rivera Cornish mailed the court some of her personal medical records (addressing the envelope to me) without any explanation of their import; plaintiff did not submit any opposition to defendants' motion to dismiss, however. In December 2008, my law clerk wrote a letter to Rivera Cornish inquiring whether she planned to file any sort of opposition (Docket No. 26). Plaintiff did not respond and has submitted no further documents or correspondence to the court since her October mailing.

II. Analysis

Defendants have moved to dismiss the complaint with prejudice, pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 41(b) and Poulis, supra, for failure to prosecute and to comply with court orders. Because the balance of ...


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