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Wood v. Wood

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

January 5, 2017

TARA THOMFORDE WOOD, Plaintiff,
v.
DAVID WOOD, WILBERT A. STINESPRING and THE WEST VIRGINIA CONFERENCE OF THE UNITED METHODIST CHURCH, Defendants.

          OPINION AND ORDER Re: ECF Nos. 16 and 19

          MAUREEN P. KELLY, CHIEF UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

          Plaintiff Tara Thomforde Wood (“Plaintiff”) initiated this action against Defendants David Wood (“Wood”), Wilbert A. Stinespring (“Stinespring”), and The West Virginia Conference of the United Methodist Church (“the Conference”) (collectively, “Defendants”), alleging that Defendants unlawfully and fraudulently conspired to have Plaintiff enter into a fraudulent and void marriage in order to obtain money, property and sex from her.

         Presently before the Court is a Motion to Dismiss filed on behalf of Defendant Wood and a Motion to Dismiss submitted on behalf of Defendants Stinespring and the Conference. ECF Nos. 16, 19, respectively. For the reasons that follow, both Motions will be granted.

         I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         According to the Complaint, sometime prior to July of 2008, Plaintiff, who lived in Canonsburg, Washington County, Pennsylvania, and Wood, who resided in West Virginia, met on the internet and decided to get married. ECF No. 1 ¶¶ 7.A, 7.C. Plaintiff and Wood filled out a marriage license application in the Register of Wills Office of Washington County, Pennsylvania, on July 14, 2008. Id. ¶ 7.E; ECF No. 1-5 at 1. According to the license application, which was executed by both Plaintiff and Wood, the couple was to be married on July 19, 2008, at Plaintiff's home in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania. Id. Plaintiff alleges, however, that Wood insisted that they be married by his family's minister, Defendant Stinespring, and that the ceremony actually took place in Stinespring's home in Parkersburg, West Virginia.[1] ECF No. 1, ¶¶ 7.F, 7.G. Plaintiff claims that Defendants knew, and concealed from Plaintiff, that the marriage license issued in Pennsylvania was not valid in West Virginia and lulled Plaintiff into believing that she had entered into a valid marriage. Id. ¶¶ 7.H, 7.I, 7.J, 9. Plaintiff contends that Defendants fraudulently and knowingly conspired to induce Plaintiff to “cross state lines . . . to participate in a sham and void marriage” in order to “obtain money, property, sex and other items from [Plaintiff.]” Id. ¶¶ 7.I, 8.A.v.

         Plaintiff further alleges that Wood “used his position as [Plaintiff's] ‘husband' to intimidate and coerce her into cutting contacts with her friends;” that Wood unlawfully opened Plaintiff's mail addressed to her chiropractic offices; concealed mail from Plaintiff; monitored her phone calls; bullied her; and would abandon her while he made secretive trips. Id. ¶ 11. Plaintiff also alleges that Wood, who had worked as an automotive body technician and appraiser, induced Plaintiff to pay in excess of $10, 000.00 for an “SCA franchise” and thousands of dollars to train Wood at the SCA franchise in Berkley, California; that Wood embezzled money from Plaintiff's chiropractic practice; coerced and defrauded Plaintiff into spending money on a house and garage Wood claimed to own in West Virginia and to pay for renovating Wood's home in West Virginia; and that Wood was verbally and mentally abusive to Plaintiff which included an incident where Wood allegedly flashed a “secretly purchased” handgun at Plaintiff in an attempt to intimidate and coerce her into allowing Wood to spend Plaintiff's earnings for his own purposes. Id. ¶¶ 12-16.

         Plaintiff filed a Divorce Complaint in the Court of Common Pleas of Washington County, Pennsylvania, on May 16, 2013, which she contends she would not have done if she had known that her marriage to Wood was void. Id. ¶¶ 17, 18.[2] Wood, who was and/or is unemployed, subsequently filed for spousal support, which Plaintiff alleges was an act in furtherance of Defendants' illegal acts, and which ultimately resulted in Plaintiff being ordered to pay Wood $2, 496.11 a month, and arrears at $200.00 a month. In addition, Plaintiff claims that a lien in an amount in excess of $22, 000.00 was placed on her for arrears and that she was also ordered to pay Wood's health insurance. Id. ¶ 20. Consequently, Plaintiff claims, she has been denied credit and business opportunities which Defendants knew would occur and cause Plaintiff economic harm. Id. ¶¶ 21, 21.B.

         Plaintiff alleges that she did not learn that her marriage to Wood was void until December of 2015, when she met with Attorneys Brzustowicz and Marotta who, although no longer representing Plaintiff, filed a stipulation on her behalf on July 7, 2015, relative to the support proceedings in state court, and initiated the instant action on Plaintiff's behalf. Id. ¶ 17.D; ECF No. 16-8; ECF No. 1 at 53.

         Plaintiff filed the instant Complaint on July 1, 2016, bringing federal claims against all three Defendants for violations of the federal Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (“RICO”), 18 U.S.C. §§ 1961-1968 (Count I); the Mann Act, 18 U.S.C. §§ 2421, et seq. (Count II); and the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution (Count VIII). Plaintiff has also brought state law claims against all three Defendants for fraud (Count IV); negligent misrepresentation (Count V); and common law conspiracy (Count VI), as well as a state law claim for negligence against the Conference alone (Count III). In addition, at Count VIII of the Complaint, Plaintiff sets forth a Motion to Stay the on-going state court divorce and support proceedings pending resolution of this lawsuit.

         Defendant Wood filed a Motion to Dismiss and brief in support on September 26, 2016, ECF Nos. 16, 17, and Defendants Stinespring and the Conference filed a Joint Motion to Dismiss and accompanying brief on that same date. ECF Nos. 19, 20. Plaintiff filed a Brief in Opposition to Defendants' Motions to Dismiss on November 18, 2016, addressing both Motions. ECF No. 32. As such, both Motions are ripe for review.

         II.STANDARD OF REVIEW

         In assessing the sufficiency of the complaint pursuant to a motion to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), the Court must accept as true all material allegations in the complaint and all reasonable factual inferences must be viewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. Odd v. Malone, 538 F.3d 202, 205 (3d Cir. 2008). The Court, however, need not accept bald assertions or inferences drawn by the plaintiff if they are unsupported by the facts set forth in the complaint. See California Pub. Empl. Ret. Sys. v. The Chubb Corp., 394 F.3d 126, 143 (3d Cir. 2004), citing Morse v. Lower Merion Sch. Dist., 132 F.3d 902, 906 (3d Cir. 1997). Nor must the Court accept legal conclusions set forth as factual allegations. Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). Rather, “[f]actual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level.” Id., citing Papasan v. Allain, 478 U.S. 265, 286 (1986). Indeed, the United States Supreme Court has held that a complaint is properly dismissed under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6) where it does not allege “enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face, ” id. at 570, or where the factual content does not allow the court "to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). See Phillips v. Cty. of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 231 (3d Cir. 2008) (finding that, under Twombly, “labels, conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action” do not suffice but, rather, the complaint “must allege facts suggestive of [the proscribed] conduct” and that are sufficient “to raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence of the necessary element[s] of his claim”).

         III.DISCUSSION

         A. Plaintiff's RICO Claims (Count I)

         Plaintiff purports to bring RICO claims under 18 U.S.C. §§ 1962(b), (c) and (d), which provide:

(b) It shall be unlawful for any person through a pattern of racketeering activity or through collection of an unlawful debt to acquire or maintain, directly or indirectly, any interest in or control of any enterprise which is engaged in, or the activities of which affect, interstate or foreign commerce.
(c) It shall be unlawful for any person employed by or associated with any enterprise engaged in, or the activities of which affect, interstate or foreign commerce, to conduct or participate, directly or indirectly, in the conduct of such enterprise's affairs through a pattern of racketeering activity or collection of unlawful debt.
(d) It shall be unlawful for any person to conspire to violate any of the provisions of subsection (a), (b), or ...

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