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The Knit With v. Knitting Fever

July 19, 2012

THE KNIT WITH, PLAINTIFF,
v.
KNITTING FEVER, INC., DESIGNER YARNS, LTD., FILATURA PETTINATA V.V.G. DI STEFANO VACCARI & C., SION ELALOUF, DIANE ELOUF, 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 is a Motion for Summary Judgment on Counts IV and V of Plaintiff's Complaint filed by Defendants Knitting Fever, Inc. ("KFI"), Sion Elalouf, and Jay Opperman (collectively, "Defendants" or the "KFI Defendants"). For the following reasons, the Motion is granted and judgment is entered in favor of Defendants on Counts IV and V of the Complaint.

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, TKW, a small, family-owned and operated business retailing specialty yarns and accessories to consumers, and Defendants (a) KFI, a New York corporation that imports and distributes specialty yarns; (b) KFI's officers and directors, including Sion Elalouf, Diane Elalouf, Jay Opperman, and Jeffrey J. Denecke, Jr.; and (c) Filatura Pettinata V.V.G. Di Stefano Vaccari & C. ("Filatura"), Debbie Bliss, and Designer Yarns, Inc. ("Designer Yarns"), all of whom are nonU.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 TKW, representing that the yarns contained a percentage of cashmere, which the yarns 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) injury to business and property pursuant to the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act ("RICO"), 18 U.S.C. § 1962 against Defendant Sion Elalouf; (2) conspiracy to cause injury to business and property pursuant to RICO, 18 U.S.C. §1962(d) against Defendants Sion Elalouf and Jay Opperman; and (3) a piercing the corporate veil allegation against Defendants KFI, Sion Elalouf, and Diane Elalouf. In addition, the KFI Defendants have counterclaims for defamation, tortious interference with existing and prospective contracts, and trade libel.

On March 30, 2012, the KFI Defendants filed the current Motion for Summary Judgment on Counts IV and V of Plaintiff's Complaint. Plaintiff responded on April 16, 2012, Defendants filed a Reply on May 21, 2012, and Plaintiff submitted a Sur-reply on May 31, 2012. This Motion is now ripe for judicial consideration.

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

Summary judgment is proper "if the pleadings, the discovery and disclosure materials on file, and any affidavits show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)(2). A factual dispute is "material" only if it might affect the outcome of the case. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). For an issue to be "genuine," a reasonable fact-finder must be able to return a verdict in favor of the non-moving party. Id.

On summary judgment, the moving party has the initial burden of identifying evidence that it believes shows an absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Conoshenti v. Pub. Serv. Elec. & Gas Co., 364 F.3d 135, 145--46 (3d Cir. 2004). It is not the court's role to weigh the disputed evidence and decide which is more probative, or to make credibility determinations. Boyle v. Cnty. of Allegheny, 139 F.3d 386, 393 (3d Cir. 1998) (citing Petruzzi's IGA Supermkts., Inc. v. Darling-Del. Co. Inc., 998 F.2d 1224, 1230 (3d Cir. 1993)). Rather, the court must consider the evidence, and all reasonable inferences which may be drawn from it, in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986) (citing United States v. Diebold, Inc., 369 U.S. 654, 655 (1962)); Tigg Corp. v. Dow Corning Corp., 822 F.2d 358, 361 (3d Cir. 1987). If a conflict arises between the evidence presented by both sides, the court must accept as true the allegations of the non-moving party, and "all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in his favor." Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255.

Although the moving party must establish an absence of a genuine issue of material fact, it need not "support its motion with affidavits or other similar materials negating the opponent's claim." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). It can meet its burden by "pointing out . . . that there is an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party's claims." Id. at 325. Once the movant has carried its initial burden, the opposing party "must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to material facts." Matsushita Elec., 475 U.S. at 586. "[T]he non-moving party must rebut the motion with facts in the record and cannot rest solely on assertions made in the pleadings, legal memoranda, or oral argument." Berckeley Inv. Group. Ltd. v. Colkitt, 455 F.3d 195, 201 (3d Cir. 2006). If the non-moving party "fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden at trial," summary judgment is appropriate. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322. Moreover, the mere existence of some evidence in support of the non-movant will not be adequate to support a denial of a motion for summary judgment; there must be enough evidence to enable a jury to reasonably find for the non-movant on that issue. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249--50.

III. DISCUSSION

Defendants currently seek summary judgment on Counts IV and V of the Complaint, which are the causes of actions alleging violations of the RICO statute and conspiracy to violate RICO respectively. In support of this Motion, the KFI Defendants put forth two arguments. First, they assert that Plaintiff does not have statutory standing to pursue these alleged violations. Second, they contend that, even assuming Plaintiff could prove statutory standing, Plaintiff nonetheless cannot satisfy any of the other substantive requirements of a RICO claim predicated on mail or wire fraud. Because the Court finds that Defendants' standing argument precludes Plaintiff from further pursuing its RICO actions, the Memorandum focuses solely on discussion of that issue.

Section 1964(c) of the RICO statute confers standing to pursue a RICO cause of action as follows:

Any person injured in his business or property by reason of a violation of section 1962 of this chapter may sue therefor in any appropriate United States district court and shall recover threefold the damages he sustains and the cost of the suit, including a reasonable attorney's fee, except that no person may rely upon any conduct that would have been actionable as fraud in the purchase or sale of securities to establish a violation of section 1962. The exception contained in the preceding sentence does not apply to an action against any person that is criminally convicted in connection with the fraud, in which case the statute of limitations shall start to run on the date on which the conviction becomes final.

18 U.S.C. § 1964(c) (emphasis added). Given this unequivocal language, it has become well settled that the plaintiff cannot prevail upon a Section 1962(c) claim unless he has been injured in his business or property by the conduct constituting the violation. Sedima v. S.P.R.L. v. Imrex Co., 473 U.S. 479, 496 (1985). In other words, to establish standing under Section 1964(c), "a RICO plaintiff [must] make two related but analytically distinct threshold showings . . . (1) that the plaintiff suffered an injury to business or property; and (2) that the plaintiff's injury was proximately caused by the defendant's violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1962." Maio v. Aetna, Inc., 221 F.3d 472, 483 (3d Cir. 2000) (footnote omitted); see also In re Schering Plough Corp. Intron/Temodar Consumer Class Action, 678 F.3d 235, 246 (3d Cir. 2012). Although "RICO is to be read broadly, . . . section 1964(c)'s limitation of RICO standing to persons injured in their business or property has a restrictive significance[.]" Maio, 221 F.3d at 483 (internal citations and quotations omitted). The limitation "helps to assure that RICO is not expanded to provide a federal cause of action and treble damages to every tort plaintiff." Id.

With respect to the injury component of the standing inquiry, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has noted that, "[i]n ordinary usage, 'injury to business or property' does not denote physical or emotional harm to a person. Indeed the Supreme Court has declared that Congress's limitation of recovery to business or property injury 'retains restrictive significance. It would for example exclude personal injuries suffered.'" Genty v. Resolution Trust Corp., 937 F.2d 899, 918 (3d Cir. 1991) (quoting Reiter v. Sonotone Corp., 442 U.S. 330, 339 (1979)); see also Vavro v. Albers, No. Civ.A.05-321, 2006 WL 2547350, at *21 (W.D. Pa. Aug. 31, 2006) (noting that personal injuries, physical pain, mental distress, and financial injuries that derive therefrom, are not compensable under RICO), aff'd, 254 F. App'x 134 (3d Cir. 2007). Moreover, injury to "valuable intangible property" is normally not the type of property which is capable of incurring a concrete financial loss. Anderson v. Ayling, 396 F.3d 265, 271 (3d Cir. 2005) (quoting Steele v. Hosp. Corp. of Am., 36 F.3d 69, 70 (9th Cir. 1994)). Therefore, to prove standing under 18 U.S.C. § 1964(c), a plaintiff must proffer "proof of a concrete financial loss and not mere injury to a valuable intangible property interest." Maio, 221 F.3d at 483 (quotation omitted).

As to the proximate cause component of the standing inquiry, "[t]here must be a direct relationship between the injury asserted and the injurious conduct alleged, and only where proximate cause exists does a plaintiff have standing to raise a RICO claim." Cont'l Cas. Co. v. Slonchka, No. Civ.A.04-1587, 2005 WL 2176834, at *8--9 (W.D. Pa. Aug. 18, 2005). This standard requires a showing (1) that the defendant's alleged RICO violation was the "but for" cause of his injury; and (2) that the violation was the direct or proximate cause of the injury. Holmes v. Secs. Investor Prot. Corp., 503 U.S. 258, 265 (1992). Thus, a RICO plaintiff who complains of "harm flowing directly from the misfortunes visited upon a third person by the defendant's acts" may not recover under § 1964(c). Id. at 268--69.

In the present case, Plaintiff's Preliminary Assessment of Damages sets forth five types of RICO injuries incurred as a result of Defendants' purported conspiracy to distribute mislabeled yarns: (1) attorneys' fees; (2) cost of investigation and recall; (3) cost of replacement goods; (4) harm to goodwill and reputation; and (5) cost of and lost profits from the yarns at issue.*fn2 (Defs.' Mot. Summ. J., Ex. 8). Defendants now contend that none of these categories of damages suffice to establish concrete injury to business or property proximately caused by Defendants' alleged RICO violations. In response, Plaintiff argues that:

Here, the party most directly injured by Defendants now-conceded fraudulent scheme to mislabel wool products is the class of retailers upon whom the success of the fraud depended. . . . Defendants invite the Court to commit reversible error to conclude ultimate victims are more proximately injured despite the presence of a more directly affected victim: the retailer.

Rather than accept the law as it is Defendants disregard the delivery of misbranded wool products directly and inevitably led to TKW's injuries. The claimed injury-being supplied with mis-labeled, non-conforming goods by Defendants (and their use of a commercial interstate common carrier to effect delivery)-is the cause of TKW's injury. No superceding [sic] causal factor intervened to interrupt the causal chain between Defendants' failure to ascertain the composition of their products, Defendants' misrepresentation their products contain the purported amounts of cashmere and acrylic, their delivery of the products and TKW's subsequent inability to legally re-sell these products to consumers. That TKW was unaware until Summer, 2006 of its injured status does not negate its injury. Nor the absence of knowledge of injury interrupt the direct and proximate causal connection between TKW's injury and Defendants' injurious conduct.

Finally, Defendants identify TKW's damages as resulting from its business injury. Each item of damages Defendants cite are recoverable actual damages under a commercial breach of warranty theory. Defendants cite no caselaw to the contrary. (Pl.'s Resp. Opp'n Mot. Summ. J. 6--7.)*fn3

Faced with these competing arguments, the Court must now determine whether Plaintiff has, in fact, established-or, at a minimum, created a genuine issue of material fact as to the question of-concrete damage to injury or property that was proximately caused by Defendants' alleged RICO violations. To do so, the Court considers each category of Plaintiff's claimed damages individually.

A. Attorneys' Fees

The first, and largest, element of Plaintiff's damage claim is its request for attorneys' fees. In particular, Plaintiff's principal and attorney, James Casale, has billed over $2 million in damages. (Defs.' Mot. Summ. J., Ex. 3, Dep. of Dawn Casale ("D. Casale Dep."), 153:18--23, Oct. 24, 2011.) Defendants now assert that, as a matter of law, a pro se plaintiff cannot recover his own attorneys' ...


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