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Li v. Babner

United States District Court, S.D. New York

April 21, 2015

FENG LI, Plaintiff,
v.
STUART BABNER et al., Defendants.

OPINION & ORDER

KATHERINE B. FORREST, District Judge.

Plaintiff, Feng Li ("Li'), an attorney who is proceeding pro se, paid the filing fee to bring this action alleging that his constitutional rights were violated during New Jersey state court proceedings that resulted in his disbarment in that state.[1] The Court dismisses the complaint for the reasons set forth below.

I. BACKGROUND

The complaint sets forth the following facts. Li came to the United States from China in 1991 at the age of 25; English is his second language. In 1994, Li earned a master's degree in civil engineering from Louisiana Tech University. In 2003, Li graduated from Rutgers Law School, and the following year he was admitted to practice law in New York and New Jersey. (ECF No. 1 ("Compl.") ¶ 14.) In 2013, Li was disbarred in New Jersey for conduct arising out of litigation in the New York State Supreme Court, Queens County (the "Queens case"). (Compl. ¶¶ 15, 17.) Li's New Jersey disbarment is the subject of this complaint. Named as defendants in this action are Stuart Babner, Justice of the State of New Jersey; Arthur Bergman, Judge of the State of New Jersey; Bernard A. Kuttner, Special Ethics Master of the State of New Jersey; Janice L. Richter, Counsel of Office of Ethics Counsel; Office of Attorney Ethics Disciplinary Review Board; the Supreme Court of New Jersey; the Superior Court of New Jersey; and the State of New Jersey. (Compl. ¶¶ 4-12.)

It was no small feat for this Court to unravel the facts underlying this matter. At 126 pages long, Li's complaint is both repetitive and disjointed. Further complicating matters, Li has attached 500 pages of documents to the complaint, including portions of submissions and transcripts from the Queens case, appeals, and related litigation in New York and New Jersey courts. The Court gained some insight into how all these events fit together by reviewing the decision in Li v. Peng , 516 B.R. 26 (D.N.J. 2014), appeal pending, No. 14-3738 (3d Cir. 2014) (the "bankruptcy appeal decision").[2]

In 1990, attorneys other than Li filed the Queens case, which asserted fraud and breach of fiduciary duty claims in connection with a soured real estate deal. After the Queens case languished for over a decade, in 2005 the plaintiffs in that action hired Li to represent them. (Compl. ¶ 17.) At the time, Li was a relatively newly minted attorney. (Compl. ¶ 21.) However, Li and the plaintiffs were comfortable with each other, in part because they shared a common ethnic heritage. (Compl. ¶ 16.) Li and the plaintiffs signed a contingency fee agreement entitling Li to one-third of any monies recovered. (Compl. ¶¶ 22-25 & ex. 4.) The bankruptcy appeal decision characterized the fee agreement as "hastily drafted and contain[ing] numerous, serious ambiguities and omissions." Li , 516 B.R. at 31.

In any event, "[a]fter what all parties acknowledge[d] was a significant expenditure of effort by" Li "over four years, including a full trial, " the plaintiffs won a $3.5 million judgment that included "both damages and substantial prejudgment interest." Li , 516 B.R. at 31. However, when it came time to disburse the money, a dispute arose over Li's fee. The Court declines to recount the specifics of the dispute because it is unnecessary for the resolution of this matter, although Li explores it at great length in his complaint. Suffice it to say that Li believed that he was entitled to prejudgment interest as part of his fee, and his clients disagreed. Li apparently moved a substantial sum of money out of his attorney trust account before the dispute was resolved.

According to the bankruptcy appeal decision, the plaintiffs filed a lawsuit against Li in the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Middlesex County. Li filed a lawsuit in the Supreme Court of New York, Westchester County, seeking to enjoin the New Jersey action. The Westchester Supreme Court declined to grant Li that relief, and the Second Department affirmed that decision. Li filed for bankruptcy in New Jersey, and the plaintiffs filed a complaint against Li with the New Jersey Office of Attorney Ethics, which led to Li's disbarment. Li , 516 B.R. at 32-34; Li, 65 A.3d 254.

The crux of Li's argument in this complaint is that New Jersey lacked jurisdiction to disbar him because the underlying matter was litigated in New York; the parties and subject property in that case were in New York; the fee agreement was signed in New York and was governed by New York law; and that he deposited the disputed funds in his New York attorney trust account. (See, e.g., Compl. ¶¶ 22-25, 42-44.) Li asserts under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 that his constitutional rights were violated, and he seeks injunctive relief and money damages.

II. LEGAL STANDARD FOR DISMISSAL

The Court has the authority to dismiss a frivolous complaint sua sponte, even when the plaintiff has paid the filing fee. See Fitzgerald v. First East Seventh Tenants Corp. , 221 F.3d 362, 363-64 (2d Cir. 2000) (per curiam). A claim is "frivolous when either: (1) the factual contentions are clearly baseless, such as when allegations are the product of delusion or fantasy; or (2) the claim is based on an indisputably meritless legal theory." Livingston v. Adirondack Beverage Co. , 141 F.3d 434, 437 (2d Cir. 1998) (internal quotation marks omitted).

The Court is obliged to construe pro se pleadings liberally, Harris v. Mills , 572 F.3d 66, 72 (2d Cir. 2009), and to interpret them to raise the "strongest arguments that they suggest, " Triestman v. Fed. Bureau of Prisons , 470 F.3d 471, 474-75 (2d Cir. 2006) (quoting Pabon v. Wright , 459 F.3d 241, 248 (2d Cir. 2006)) (emphasis in original). However, "the appropriate degree of special solicitude is not identical with regard to all pro se litigants, " and "a lawyer representing himself ordinarily receives no such solicitude at all." Tracy v. Freshwater , 623 F.3d 90, 102 (2d Cir. 2010).

III. DISCUSSION

A. Eleventh ...


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