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Kornafel v. Chevrolet

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

June 20, 2019

DEL CHEVROLET, et al, Defendants.



         This is the second lawsuit that pro se Plaintiff Stanley E. Kornafel has filed concerning his purchase of a car from Del Chevrolet dealership and litigation relating to the car in state court. He seeks leave to proceed in forma pauper is. For the following reasons, the Court will grant Kornafel leave to proceed in forma pauperis and dismiss his Complaint.

         I. FACTS

         Kornafel's Complaint names Del Chevrolet and Judge James P. MacElree, II as Defendants. Kornafel alleges he purchased a car from Del Chevrolet in August of 2015 that was defective and broke down on his way home from the dealership. Kornafel filed a lawsuit against Del Chevrolet in state court in 2015 raising claims based on the sale of the car. Judge MacElree was assigned to the case. Documents attached to the Complaint reflect that Judge MacElree granted Del Chevrolet's motion for summary judgment. (Compl. at 16.)[1]

         Kornafel claims that Del Chevrolet and Judge MacElree conspired to deprive him of his rights with regard to the adverse resolution of his case in state court and that the state court process was biased and unfair in various respects. The Court understands Kornafel to be raising his claims pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. He seeks a "legally due trial by fairness of a jury on the case's causes of action, matters, issues, merits and evidences." (Id. at 11.)

         As noted above, this is the second lawsuit Kornafel has filed in this Court about the same subject matter. In Kornafel v. Del Chevrolet, Civil Action Number 18-1419, Kornafel sued Del Chevrolet and its owner pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 based on the same sale and state court litigation at issue in the instant case. In an April 11, 2018 Memorandum and Order, the Court granted Kornafel leave to proceed in forma pauperis and dismissed his complaint. The Court explained that it lacked jurisdiction pursuant to the Rooker-Feldman doctrine over any claims seeking review of the adverse state court judgment and that any remaining claims against the Defendants failed because they are not state actors subject to liability under § 1983. Kornafel v. Del Chevrolet, No. CV 18-1419, 2018 WL 1768048, at *2 (E.D. Pa. Apr. 11, 2018). The Court also observed that, if Kornafel sought bring state claims, there was no basis for jurisdiction over any such claims pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1332. Id. Kornafel appealed, and the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed this Court's judgment. Kornafel v. Chevrolet, 734 Fed.Appx. 175, 176 (3d Cir. 2018) (per curiam).


         The Court will grant Kornafel leave to proceed in forma pauperis because it appears that he is not capable of pre-paying the fees to commence this civil action. Because Kornafel has been granted leave to proceed in forma pauperis, § 1915(e)(2)(B)(i) requires the Court to dismiss the Complaint if, among other things, it is frivolous or malicious. A complaint is frivolous if it "lacks an arguable basis either in law or in fact," Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319, 325 (1989), and is deemed legally baseless if it is "based on an indisputably meritless legal theory." Deutsch v. United States, 67 F.3d 1080, 1085 (3d Cir. 1995). "A court that considers whether an action is malicious must, in accordance with the definition of the term 'malicious,' engage in a subjective inquiry into the litigant's motivations at the time of the filing of the lawsuit to determine whether the action is an attempt to vex, injure or harass the defendant." Deutsch v. United States, 67 F.3d 1080, 1086 (3d Cir. 1995). In that regard, "a district court may dismiss a complaint as malicious if it is plainly abusive of the judicial process or merely repeats pending or previously litigated claims." Brodzki v. CBS Sports, Civ. A. No. 11-841, 2012 WL 125281, at *1 (D. Del. Jan. 13, 2012). As Kornafel is proceeding pro se, the Court construes his allegations liberally. Higgs v. Att'y Gen., 655 F.3d 333, 339 (3d Cir. 2011).


         Kornafel's Complaint fails for many reasons. First, pursuant to the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, "federal district courts lack jurisdiction over suits that are essentially appeals from state-court judgments." Great W. Mining & Mineral Co. v. Fox Rothschild LLP, 615 F.3d 159, 165 (3d Cir. 2010). Based on that principle, the Rooker-Feldman doctrine deprives a federal district court of jurisdiction over "cases brought by state-court losers complaining of injuries caused by state-court judgments rendered before the district court proceedings commenced and inviting district court review and rejection of those judgments." Id. at 166 (quotations omitted). "[T]here are four requirements that must be met for the Rooker-Feldman doctrine to apply: (1) the federal plaintiff lost in state court; (2) the plaintiff complains of injuries caused by the state-court judgments; (3) those judgments were rendered before the federal suit was filed; and (4) the plaintiff is inviting the district court to review and reject the state judgments." Id. To the extent Kornafel is seeking review and rejection of Judge MacElree's unfavorable judgment based on harm caused by that judgment, the Court lacks jurisdiction over his claims.

         Second, Kornafel's claims are, at least to some extent, malicious and/or barred by claim preclusion. Res judicata, or claim preclusion, bars claims that were brought or could have been brought in a previous action. In re Mullarkey, 536 F.3d 215, 225 (3d Cir. 2008). Three elements are required for res judicata to apply: "(1) a final judgment on the merits in a prior suit involving (2) the same parties or their privies and (3) a subsequent suit based on the same cause of action." Mormon Coal Co. v. Dir., Office Workers' Compensation Programs, 726 F.3d 387, 394 (3d Cir. 2013) (internal quotation marks omitted). "In determining whether res judicata applies, courts do not proceed mechanically, but focus on the central purpose of the doctrine, to require a plaintiff to present all claims arising out of the same occurrence in a single suit." Egli v. Strimel, 251 F.Supp.3d 827, 835 (E.D. Pa. 2017) (internal quotations omitted). As noted above, Kornafel already raised his claims against Del Chevrolet and claims related to the state court litigation in this Court. That his allegations were unsuccessful the first time does not permit him to reassert duplicative or additional claims in a second lawsuit.

         Third, Kornafel has not adequately alleged an unconstitutional conspiracy. "[T]o properly plead an unconstitutional conspiracy, a plaintiff must assert facts from which a conspiratorial agreement can be inferred." Great W. Mining & Mineral Co, 615 F.3d at 178. "[A] bare assertion of conspiracy will not suffice." Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 556 (2007). '"A conspiracy cannot be found from allegations of judicial error, ex parte communications (the manner of occurrence and substance of which are not alleged) or adverse rulings absent specific facts demonstrating an agreement to commit the alleged improper actions."' Capogrosso v. The Supreme Court of New Jersey, 588 F.3d 180, 185 (3d Cir. 2009) (per curiam) (quoting Crabtree v. Muchmore, 904 F.2d 1475, 1480-81 (10th Cir. 1990)). Here, the basis for the alleged conspiracy appears to be the fact that Kornafel lost in state court. However, "merely resorting to the courts and being on the winning side of a lawsuit does not make a party a co-conspirator or a joint actor with the judge." Dennis v. Sparks, 449 U.S. 24, 28 (1980). Accordingly, Kornafel has not pled a plausible conspiracy claim. For the same reasons, he has not adequately pled that Del Chevrolet could be considered a state actor for purposes of § 1983. See Kornafel, 734 Fed.Appx. at 176.

         Fourth, Judge MacElree is entitled to absolute immunity from Kornafel's § 1983 claims because judges are entitled to absolute immunity from civil rights claims that are based on acts or omissions taken in their judicial capacity, so long as they do not act in the complete absence of all jurisdiction. See Stump v. Sparkman, 435 U.S. 349, 355-56 (1978); Azubuko v. Royal 443 F.3d 302, 303-04 (3d Cir. 2006) (per curiam). Here, Kornafel has sued Judge MacElree for alleged constitutional violations based on unfavorable rulings and/or the manner in which the judge handled Kornafel's case. Those claims are accordingly barred by absolute judicial immunity.

         Finally, there is no other basis for a plausible claim that this Court can discern from the facts alleged. While Kornafel may be disappointed with his state court loss, he may not repeatedly relitigate his claims. Kornafel is again warned that if he continues to file duplicative lawsuits, he may be subjected to filing restrictions in the future including restrictions on his ability to file in forma pauperis. See Kornafel v. U.S. Postal Serv., Civ. A. No. 19-2292, 2019 WL 2387089, at *3 (E.D. Pa. June 3, 2019) ("Kornafel is warned that ...

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