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The Knit With v. Knitting Fever

March 29, 2011

THE KNIT WITH, PLAINTIFF,
v.
KNITTING FEVER, INC.,
DESIGNER YARNS, LTD.,
FILATURA PETTINATA V.V.G. DI STEFANO VACCARI & C., SION ELALOUF, DIANE ELALOUF, JEFFREY J. DENECKE, JR., JAY OPPERMAN, AND
DEBBIE BLISS, DEFENDANTS.
THE KNIT WITH, PLAINTIFF,
v.
EISAKU NORO & CO., LTD.,
KNITTING FEVER, INC., SION ELALOUF, DIANE ELALOUF, AND JAY OPPERMAN, DEFENDANTS.



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

MEMORANDUM

Currently pending before the Court are Motions to Dismiss filed by Defendants Diane Elalouf, Jay Opperman, and Jeffrey J. Denecke, Jr. (collectively "Moving Defendants"). For the reasons which follow, Diane Elalouf's Motion is granted, Jeffrey Denecke's Motion is granted, and Jay Opperman's Motion is denied.

I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

The factual background of this case is one familiar to both the parties and the Court and has been reiterated in several of this Court's prior opinions.*fn1 This matter arises between Plaintiff, The Knit With ("The Knit"), a small, family-owned and operated business retailing specialty yarns and accessories to consumers, Defendant Knitting Fever, Inc. ("KFI"), a New York corporation that imports and distributes specialty yarns, KFI's officers and directors, and Defendants Filatura Pettinata V.V.G. Di Stefano Vaccari & C. ("Filatura"), Debbie Bliss, and Designer Yarns, Inc. ("Designer Yarns"), all of whom are non-U.S. entities that design, manufacture, and/or distribute specialty yarns. At the core of the dispute is Plaintiff's claim that KFI sold designer knitting yarns to The Knit, representing that the yarns contained a percentage of cashmere, which they allegedly did not.

Following extensive motion practice by both parties, the Court has dismissed multiple claims and Defendants. The sole claims remaining in this action are: (1) breach of the express warranty of merchantability against Defendants KFI, Sion Elalouf, and Jay Opperman; (2) breach of the implied warranty of merchantability against Defendants KFI, Filatura, Sion Elalouf, and Jay Opperman; (3) injury to business and property pursuant to the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act ("RICO"), 18 U.S.C. § 1962 against Defendant Sion Elalouf; (4) conspiracy to cause injury to business and property pursuant to RICO, 18 U.S.C. §1962(d) against Defendants Sion Elalouf, Diane Elalouf, Jeffrey J. Denecke, Jr., and Jay Opperman; and (5) a piercing the corporate veil allegation against Defendants KFI, Sion Elalouf, and Diane Elalouf. In addition, Defendants Knitting Fever, Inc., Sion Elalouf, Diane Elalouf, Jeffrey J. Denecke, Jr., and Jay Opperman (collectively "the KFI Defendants") have Counterclaims for defamation, tortious interference with existing and prospective contracts, and trade libel.

On January 24, 2011, the Moving Defendants each filed a Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(c), claiming that the Complaint fails to adequately state a RICO conspiracy claim against them. Plaintiff filed separate Responses to each Motion on February 22, 2011.*fn2

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

Under Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, "[a]fter the pleadings are closed -but early enough not to delay trial -- a party may move for judgment on the pleadings." FED. R. CIV. P. 12(c). The moving party bears the burden of demonstrating that the plaintiff has not stated a claim upon which relief can be granted. Hedges v. United States, 404 F.3d 744, 750 (3d Cir. 2005).*fn3

In Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007), the United States Supreme Court recognized that "a plaintiff's obligation to provide the 'grounds' of his 'entitle[ment] to relief' requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do." Id. at 555. It emphasized that it would not require a "heightened fact pleading of specifics," but only "enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Id. at 570.

Following the basic precepts of Twombly, the Supreme Court, in the subsequent case of Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. 1937 (2009), enunciated two fundamental principles applicable to a court's review of a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim. First, it noted that "the tenet that a court must accept as true all of the allegations contained in a complaint is inapplicable to legal conclusions. Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice." Id. at 1949. Thus, although "[Federal] Rule [of Civil Procedure] 8 marks a notable and generous departure from the hyper-technical, code-pleading regime of a prior era . . . it does not unlock the doors of discovery for a plaintiff armed with nothing more than conclusions." Id. at 1950. Second, the Supreme Court emphasized that "only a complaint that states a plausible claim for relief survives a motion to dismiss." Id. "Determining whether a complaint states a plausible claim for relief will . . . be a context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense." Id. The Supreme Court explained:

The plausibility standard is not akin to a "probability requirement," but it asks for more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully. Where a complaint pleads facts that are "merely consistent with" a defendant's liability, it "stops short of the line between possibility and plausibility of 'entitlement to relief.'"

Id. at 1949 (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556-57).

Expanding on the Twombly/Iqbal standards, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit succinctly summarized the two-prong analysis to be undertaken by district courts during a Rule 12(b)(6) review:

[A]fter Iqbal, when presented with a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, district courts should conduct a two-part analysis. First, the factual and legal elements of a claim should be separated. The district court must accept all of the complaint's well-pleaded facts as true, but may disregard any legal conclusions. Second, a district court must then determine whether the facts alleged in the complaint are sufficient to show that the plaintiff has a "plausible claim for relief." In other words, a complaint must do more than allege the plaintiff's entitlement to relief. A complaint has to show such an entitlement with its facts. As the Supreme Court instructed in Iqbal, where the well-pleaded facts do not permit the court to infer more than the mere possibility of misconduct, the complaint has alleged -- but it has not shown -- that the pleader is entitled to relief. This plausibility requirement will be a context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense.

Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 210-11 (3d Cir. 2009) (internal citations omitted).

Notwithstanding the foregoing, nothing in Twombly, Iqbal, or Fowler altered some of the fundamental underpinnings of the Rule 12(b)(6) standard of review. Arner v. PGT Trucking, Inc., No. CIV.A.09-565, 2010 WL 1052953, at *2 (W.D. Pa. Mar. 22, 2010); Spence v. Brownsville Area Sch. Dist., No. CIV.A.08-626, 2008 WL 2779079, at *2 (W.D. Pa. July 15, 2008). Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8 still requires only a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief and need not contain detailed factual allegations. FED. R. CIV. P. 8; Phillips v. Cnty. of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 233 (3d Cir. 2008). Further, the court must "accept all factual allegations in the complaint as true and view them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff." Buck v. Hampton Twp. Sch. Dist., 452 F.3d 256, 260 (3d Cir. 2006). Finally, the court must "determine whether, under any reasonable reading of the complaint, the plaintiff may be entitled to relief." Pinkerton v. Roche Holdings Ltd., 292 F.3d 361, 374 n.7 (3d Cir. 2002); see also Mayer v. Belichick, 605 F.3d 223, 229-30 (3d Cir. 2010).

III. DISCUSSION

The present Motions task the Court with determining the viability of Plaintiff's claim that the Moving Defendants participated in an unlawful conspiracy pursuant to the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act ("RICO"), 18 U.S.C. § 1962(d). Specifically, Moving Defendants contend that Plaintiff has failed to allege particularized factual allegations demonstrating that they knowingly agreed either to participate in the alleged conspiracy or to the commission of any RICO predicate acts in furtherance of that conspiracy.

Under 18 U.S.C. § 1962(d), it is unlawful for any person to conspire to violate subsections (a), (b), or (c) of RICO. 18 U.S.C. § 1962(d). The essential elements of a § 1962(d) conspiracy include: (1) knowledge of the corrupt enterprise's activities and (2) agreement to facilitate those activities. Salinas v. United States, 522 U.S. 52, 66 (1997); Rose v. Bartle, 811 F.2d 331, 366 (3d Cir. 1989). Because there is no requirement of some overt or specific act, the RICO conspiracy provision is even more comprehensive than the general conspiracy offense. Salinas, 522 U.S. at 63. Thus, "a defendant may be held liable for conspiracy to violate section 1962(c) if he knowingly agrees to facilitate a scheme which includes the operation or management of a RICO enterprise." Smith v. Berg, 247 F.3d 532, 538 (3d Cir. 2001); see also Salinas, 522 U.S. at 64 ("If conspirators have a plan which calls for some conspirators to perpetrate the crime and others to provide support, the supporters are as guilty as the perpetrators."); Dongelewicz v. PNC Bank Nat'l Ass'n, 104 Fed. Appx. 811, 818 (3d Cir. 2004) (adopting Smith standard). "In certain circumstances, a defendant may be held liable under § 1962(d) even where its own actions would not amount to a substantive RICO violation." In re Ins. Brokerage Antitrust Litig., 618 F.3d 300, 372 (3d Cir. 2010). Nonetheless, "[u]nderlying a § 1962(d) claim is the requirement that plaintiff must show that defendants agreed to the commission of a 'pattern of racketeering.'" Breslin v. Brainard, No. CIV.A.01-7269, 2003 WL 22351297, at *13 (E.D. Pa. Oct. 14, 2003) (quoting Banks v. Wolk, 918 F.2d 418, 421 (3d Cir. 1990)), aff'd, 128 Fed. Appx. 237 (3d Cir. 2005). The Third Circuit has emphasized that those who innocently provide services will not incur § 1962(d) liability; rather "liability will only arise from services which were purposefully and knowingly directed at facilitating a criminal pattern of racketeering activity." Smith, 247 F.3d at 538 n.11.

In light of these legal tenants, a RICO conspiracy complaint "must contain sufficient information for the court to determine whether or not a valid claim for relief has been stated and to enable the opposing side to prepare an adequate responsive pleading." 5 WRIGHT & MILLER, FED. PRAC. & PROC. CIV.3D § 1233 (3d ed. 2010). "Although mere inferences from the complaint are inadequate to establish the necessary factual basis . . . a court may look to any 'factual allegations of particular acts' within the complaint as a whole incorporated by the conspiracy claim to provide this basis." Rose, 871 F.2d at 336 (citations omitted). The elements which must be pled to allege a RICO conspiracy claim include: "(1) an agreement to commit the predicate acts of fraud, and (2) knowledge that those acts were part of a pattern of racketeering activity conducted in such a way as to violate § 1962(a), (b), or (c)." Odesser v. Cont'l Bank, 676 F. Supp. 1305, 1312 (3d Cir. 1987); see also In re Jamuna Real Estate, LLC, 416 B.R. 412, 428-29 (Bankr. E.D. Pa. 2009) (citing Rose, 871 F.2d at 366). Further, a conspiracy claim must contain statements addressing "the period of the conspiracy, the object of the conspiracy, and the certain actions of the alleged conspirators taken to achieve that purpose." Shearin v. E.F. Hutton Group, Inc., 885 F.2d 1162, 1166 (3d Cir. 1989), abrogated on other grounds byBeck v. Prupris, 529 U.S. 494 (2000); see alsoMeeks-Owens v. Indymac Bank, F.S.B., 557 F. Supp. 2d 566, 573 (M.D. Pa. 2008) (noting that the above elements must be properly pled to set forth a § 1962(d) conspiracy). These required supportive factual allegations "must be sufficient to describe the general composition of the conspiracy, some or all of its broad objectives, and the defendant's general role in that conspiracy." Rose, 871 F.2d at 366 (internal quotations and citations omitted).

To be clear, "allegations of conspiracy are not measured under the . . . [Fed. R. Civ. P.] 9(b) standard, which requires greater particularity of allegation of fraud, but are measured under the more liberal . . . [Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a)] pleading standard." Odesser, 676 F. Supp. at 1313. Nevertheless, it is not enough for a complaint to simply make "conclusory allegations of concerted action but [be] devoid of facts actually reflecting joint action." Abbott v. Latshaw, 164 F.3d 141, 148 (3d Cir. 1998); see also District 1199P Health & Welfare Plan v. Janssen, L.P., Nos. CIV.A.06-3044, 07-2224, 07-2608, 07-2860, 2008 WL 5413105, at *15-16 (D.N.J. Dec. 23, 2008). Moreover, "mere inferences from the complaint are inadequate to establish the necessary factual basis." Rose, 871 F.2d at 366. Rather, the "[p]laintiff must allege facts to show that each Defendant objectively manifested an agreement to participate, directly or indirectly, in the affairs of a RICO enterprise through the commission of two or more predicate acts." Smith v. Jones, Gregg, Creehan & Gerace, LLP, No. CIV.A.08-365, 2008 WL 5129916, at *7 (W.D. Pa. Dec. 5, 2008). "Bare allegations of conspiracy described in general terms may be dismissed." Id.

In the present case, Defendants Diane Elalouf, Jeffrey J. Denecke, Jr., and Jay Opperman*fn4 are all cited by Plaintiff as participants in an unlawful RICO conspiracy. In light of the fact-sensitive and individualized nature of this cause of action, the Court considers each Defendant separately.*fn5

A. Diane Elalouf

The Complaint against Defendant Diane Elalouf sets forth the following pertinent allegations:

8. Defendant Diane Elalouf, is a citizen of New York and natural person residing at 22 Longwood Road, Sands Point, NY 11050-1260. At times material to this Complaint, Mrs. Elalouf is believed to be a KFI officer, director or shareholder, to have participated in and have been the beneficiary of KFI's corporate policies. Without being a 'Monday to Friday' KFI employee, Mrs. Elalouf is the sole person, other than her husband Sion, within KFI to have access to, and responsibility for scrutinizing, approving and paying invoices received from KFI's foreign suppliers, thereby facilitating her husband's cashmere caper and, further, is believed to have participated in KFI's perfidious dealing. . . .

34. Pursuant to the plan described in ¶¶ 27-33, between July 5, 2000 and certainly by June 9, 2001, [Sion] Elalouf is believed to have discovered indistinguishable versions of a yarn called Cashmerino; the versions, one spun with a quantity of cashmere and the other with no cashmere at all, could constitute, to a merchant of a certain character, a remarkable find -- especially so because:

a. ) with Mr. Elalouf's extensive experience in the yarn trade, even he could not readily distinguish between the versions;

b.) as Mr. Elalouf has since stated, without expert fiber analysis, it is virtually impossible to confirm the presence of cashmere in a spun yarn; and

c. ) based upon Mr. Elalouf's 20 years of experience in commercial transactions with retail yarn shops, Mr. Elalouf knew the overwhelming majority of US retailers lack both access to and the resources to retain the professional expertise to determine the fiber content of finished yarns -- or other ...


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