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Johnson v. James

March 25, 2009


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Honorable Paul A. Crotty, United States District Judge


Pro se Plaintiff Theodore F. Johnson filed a Complaint on January 3, 2008, alleging federal civil rights violations as well as identity theft, fraud, and violations of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act ("RICO"). As far as the Court can tell from the Complaint, Plaintiff alleges that Defendants wrongfully seized his house on 118th Street in Manhattan and allowed it to be sold to a third party. Seven of the nine defendants move to dismiss the Complaint. As this is the fifth lawsuit that Plaintiff has brought in the Southern District of New York based on the same nucleus of facts, many of Plaintiff's claims are barred by the principle of res judicata. The claims that are not barred fail for vagueness. For the reasons discussed below, the Defendants' motions to dismiss are GRANTED.


I. The West 118th Street Property

Plaintiff is an 81-year-old African-American and former owner of a brownstone at 121 West 118th Street. The background of Mr. Johnson's control of the property is not completely clear. On April 7, 1995, the New York City Department of Housing Preservation & Development ("HPD") obtained a $111,000 judgment against Mr. Johnson in New York Civil Court for failure to provide heat and hot water to tenants at the building. (See Declaration of Frances Henn ("Henn Decl.") Ex. 10.) HPD later placed a lien on his property. (Id. Ex. 11.) According to Mr. Johnson's Complaint, on October 12, 2001, HPD "seized" his building and placed an "entire vacate" order on the building. (See Complaint ("Comp.") ¶ 23.) He alleges that HPD "completely sealed all entrances" to the building "with bricks and cinder blocks." (Id. ¶ 24.) He alleges that on June 14, 2002, the New York City Department of Finance ("DOF") "fraudulently sold" his property to a third party "in an illegal third party tax scheme." (Id. ¶ 27.)

Adding to the confusion, Mr. Johnson signed a contract to sell the building to Defendant Natalia Swan for $725,000 on July 25, 2002. (See Declaration of Thomas Hyland ("Hyland Decl.") Ex. A.) While in the process of selling the property, Plaintiff allegedly discovered that it had been transferred without his knowledge to a company called West 118th Realty Corp. in 1999, but not recorded until 2002. (See Compl. Ex. G ¶ 4.) Mr. Johnson subsequently brought a suit to quiet title, but the ownership questions delayed the sale of the property. Ms. Swan, represented by Defendant Alterman & Boop, LLP ("Alterman"), subsequently filed suit in New York County to force Mr. Johnson to perform on the contract of sale. Defendant William Schaap also represented Ms. Swan at some point in the purchase. On December 18, 2006, Judge Debra A. James, a defendant in this case, granted relief for Ms. Swan and ordered a receiver to take possession of the property and to convey it to Ms. Swan for the formerly agreed-on price. (Hyland Decl. Ex. B.) The assigned receiver was Defendant Robert S. Sikorski. Defendant Fidelity National Title Insurance Company was Ms. Swan's title insurer. Yolanda Chang was the broker on the property sale. The final Defendant, Gwenerva Cherry, filed a petition on Mr. Johnson's behalf to strike the allegedly fraudulent 1999 transfer. (Compl. Ex. F.)

II. The Prior Federal Lawsuits

Plaintiff has a 10-year history of filing lawsuits in federal court over disputes about the property. Mr. Johnson filed a suit on May 12, 1999, in the Southern District of New York against HPD, the New York City Department of Buildings ("DOB"), a tenant in his building, and two officials of the New York State Division of Housing and Community Renewal ("DCHR"). (See Henn Decl. Ex. 2, containing Report and Recommendation of Magistrate Judge Maas.) Mr. Johnson alleged a violation of his equal protection and due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment because HPD allegedly misclassified his property in a housing category that prevented him from leasing two vacant apartments and collecting rent on the other apartments. (Id.) Mr. Johnson sought compensatory damages of $10 million. (Id.) Magistrate Judge Maas issued a Report and Recommendation (R&R) to Judge Stein on August 15, 2000, recommending dismissal of Mr. Johnson's complaint. Judge Stein accepted the recommendation on September 25, 2000. (Id.)

Plaintiff again filed a claim in the Southern District of New York on June 13, 2001, alleging violations of his civil rights under 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983 and 1985. Mr. Johnson named DOF, HPD Emergency Repair Unit, the Department of Real Estate, and a tenant in his building, Yvette Brickhouse. (Id. Ex. 3.) Judge Marrero noted that the Complaint pled the exact same claims as the 1999 lawsuit and was filed on the same day that Mr. Johnson filed an appeal of the decision in his first suit. (See id. Ex. 4, containing Order of Judge Marrero.) Judge Marrero noted that the 2001 Complaint contained only one claim distinct from the 1999 action-relating to a tax dispute-and he dismissed the entire action because even the new claim relied on "the same nucleus of core facts" as the prior lawsuit. (Id. at 2.)

On October 24, 2001, Mr. Johnson filed a third complaint in the Southern District of New York, this one naming Brickhouse, HPD, two unnamed police officers and a tenant named LeShawn Smith. (See id. Ex. 5.) Plaintiff claimed he was falsely arrested in connection to a dispute with his tenants. Mr. Johnson withdrew his claim by stipulation on April 30, 2004, and the dismissal was so ordered by Judge McKenna on May 4, 2004. (Id. Ex. 6.)

Plaintiff filed a fourth complaint in the Southern District on October 29, 2004, naming HPD, two attorneys for HPD, and a tenant. (See Declaration of Olga Minkina ("Minkina Decl.") Ex. 1.) Mr. Johnson claimed violations of his civil and constitutional rights relating to the HPD lien on his house, his allegedly false arrest, and the allegedly fraudulent transfer of the property in 2002. On November 23, 2005, Judge Pauley dismissed Mr. Johnson's case based on res judicata and because any claims not barred by res judicata were "unsupported and ambiguous." (See id. Ex. 2 at 7.) The Second Circuit affirmed Judge Pauley's decision on January 10, 2007. (Id. Ex. 3.)

III. The Current Lawsuit

Plaintiff's current claim continues the trend from his prior lawsuits; it repeats many of the same allegations, while adding some new allegations and a few new defendants. Much of the claim is based on the same nucleus of facts as the prior suits. The Complaint again alleges that DOF "fraudulently sold" his property (Compl. ¶ 27) and that he was illegally arrested. (Id. ¶ 22.)

This new Complaint also adds allegations against many of the individuals and organizations involved in the court-ordered sale of the property to Ms. Swan in 2006. For instance, Mr. Johnson alleges that Judge James "aided, abetted, and was in concert with" Ms. Swan, Alterman, Mr. Schaap, Mr. Sikorski, Ms. Cherry, and Fidelity National Title Insurance. (Id. ΒΆ 40.) He also alleges that all those defendants should have known that the contract with Ms. ...

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