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Ranasinghe v. Kennell

United States District Court, S.D. New York

January 24, 2017

PREMALAL RANASINGHE, Plaintiff,
v.
PATRICK M. KENNELL, et al., Defendants.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          JESSE M. FURMAN, United States District Judge

         It is a “fundamental precept” of the American legal system “that a right, question or fact distinctly put in issue and directly determined by a court of competent jurisdiction . . . cannot be disputed in a subsequent suit between the same parties or their privies.” Montana v. United States, 440 U.S. 147, 153 (1979) (internal quotation marks omitted). This precept, embodied in the doctrines of res judicata and collateral estoppel, is “central to the purpose for which civil courts have been established, the conclusive resolution of disputes within their jurisdictions.” Id. Indeed, “[t]o preclude parties from contesting matters that they have had a full and fair opportunity to litigate” not only “protects their adversaries from the expense and vexation attending multiple lawsuits, ” but also “conserves judicial resources[] and fosters reliance on judicial action by minimizing the possibility of inconsistent decisions.” Id. at 153-54.

         These principles apply with full force to this case, brought by Premalal Ranasinghe, proceeding pro se, against Great West Casualty Company (“Great West”) and various attorneys and law firms that represented Great West and its interests in previous lawsuits (together, “Defendants”).[1] Indeed, Ranasinghe asserts in this case claims that he has repeatedly pressed in other fora and continues to press in a pending appeal before the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. On that basis and others, Defendants move, pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, to dismiss all of Ranasinghe's claims. (Docket Nos. 53, 57). Several Defendants also move for sanctions - namely, for a pre-filing injunction barring Ranasinghe from filing any further lawsuits relating to the matters pressed here and for attorney's fees. (Docket No. 64). For the reasons stated below, Defendants' motions to dismiss are GRANTED, and their motion for sanctions is GRANTED in part and DENIED in part.

         BACKGROUND

         The following facts are taken from the Third Amended Complaint and documents of which the Court can take judicial notice. See, e.g., Karmely v. Wertheimer, 737 F.3d 197, 199 (2d Cir. 2013); Anderson v. Rochester-Genesee Reg'l Transp. Auth., 337 F.3d 201, 205 n.4 (2d Cir. 2003) (noting that a court may take judicial notice of official court records in a related proceeding and citing cases). Where taken from the Third Amended Complaint, the facts are assumed to be true. See Karmely, 737 F.3d at 199.

         Defendants' legal saga with Ranasinghe began with the death of Sarath Sapukotana, a Sri Lankan native working as a truck driver in the United States. (Docket No. 48 (“Third Am. Compl.”) ¶¶ 21-39). In January 2008, Mr. Sapukotana died after being struck by another truck in Arizona. (Id. ¶ 21). Later that year, Martha Sapukotana, purporting to be Mr. Sapukotana's wife, brought a wrongful death action in the United States District Court for the District of Arizona against the driver who struck Mr. Sapukotana and the driver's company - both of which were insured by Defendant Great West. (Docket No. 54 (“Kennell Decl.”), Ex. E at 2-3 (“Wrongful Death Case Docket”); see also Third Am. Compl. ¶¶ 23-39). Defendant Joseph Popolizio and his law firm, Defendant Jones, Skelton & Hochuli P.L.C. (“Jones Skelton”) represented the defendants in that case. (Third Am. Compl. ¶ 23-24).

         In late November 2009, a few weeks before the close of discovery in the wrongful death suit, Palihawadanage Ramya Chandralatha Fernando, a Sri Lankan woman, moved to intervene, claiming she was Mr. Sapukotana's actual surviving spouse. (See Wrongful Death Case Docket at 8; Kennell Decl., Ex. F at 1). Ranasinghe - purporting to be acting as Ms. Fernando's “attorney-in-fact” by virtue of a “Power of Attorney” - provided Defendant Popolizio with documents allegedly showing that Ms. Sapukotana's marriage to Mr. Sapukotana was a sham. (Third Am. Compl. ¶¶ 25, 29, 197-99; see also Kennell Decl., Ex. K (“Ranasinghe I Summ. J. Order”) at 3-4). The Arizona District Court, however, denied Ms. Fernando's motion to intervene. (Ranasinghe I Summ. J. Order at 2-3). On appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed, concluding that “[Ms.] Fernando is not [Mr.] Sapukotana's surviving wife.” (See Id. at 4). In June 2012, Ms. Sapukotana's wrongful death suit settled. (Wrongful Death Case Docket at 14; Third Am. Compl. ¶ 39).

         In July 2013, Ranasinghe, represented by counsel, filed a lawsuit (“Ranasinghe I”) in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York (“E.D.N.Y.”) against Popolizio, Jones Skelton, and another Jones Skelton attorney, Phillip H. Sanfield (together, the “Jones Skelton Defendants”), as well as Great West. (Kennell Decl., Ex. G (“Ranasinghe I Dismissal Order”) at 1; Third Am. Compl. ¶ 40). Ranasinghe asserted breach-of-contract claims against Great West and malpractice claims against the Jones Skelton Defendants. (Ranasinghe I Dismissal Order at 1). Specifically, Ranasinghe alleged that Great West had breached an agreement to compensate Ms. Fernando for Mr. Sapukotana's death and that the Jones Skelton Defendants had orally agreed to compensate him for providing documents showing that Ms. Sapukotana was not Mr. Sapukotana's surviving spouse. (Id. at 2-3; Third Am. Compl. ¶¶ 29-30). The E.D.N.Y. Court dismissed Ranasinghe's claims against the Jones Skelton Defendants for lack of personal jurisdiction. (Ranasinghe I Dismissal Order at 4-5; Third Am. Compl. ¶¶ 43-44). When Ranasinghe refiled his claims against the Jones Skelton Defendants in the District of Arizona, the E.D.N.Y. Court transferred the remaining breach-of-contract claim against Great West to Arizona. (Kennell Decl., Ex. H at 1; Kennell Decl., Ex. J (“Ranasinghe I Ariz. Case Docket”) at 9-10; Third Am. Compl. ¶¶ 45-46).

         In January 2015, the Arizona District Court granted summary judgment to Great West, holding that “Ranasinghe's testimony and evidence do not present a coherent picture of the terms of the parties' alleged contract” and that “a contract cannot be enforced.” (Ranasinghe II Summ. J. Order at 13; Third Am. Compl. ¶ 139). The next month, the Court dismissed Ranasinghe's claims against the Jones Skelton Defendants on the ground that Ranasinghe “fail[ed] to state a claim for relief.” (Docket No. 59 (“Bauer Aff.”), Ex. F at 1, 8; see also Bauer Aff., Ex. G at 4; Third Am. Compl. ¶ 221). Thereafter, applying Arizona state law, the Court ordered Ranasinghe to pay Great West $234, 498.70 in attorneys' fees. (Ranasinghe I Ariz. Case DocketJ at 16; Ex. M at 6; Third Am. Compl. ¶ 88). Ranasinghe then filed three motions - the first two through counsel and the third, after withdrawal of counsel, on his own behalf - seeking reconsideration of the Arizona District Court's orders and judgment. (Bauer Aff., Ex. S at 2; Third Am. Compl. ¶¶ 79-80). In the motions (and other submissions), Ranasinghe repeatedly argued that Great West and its counsel had filed a “false and fabricated affidavit” from Popolizio. (See, e.g., Kennell Decl., Ex. O at 4, 6; Ex. P at ¶ 19; Ex. R at 5-9). Notably, in its order denying the first motion, the Arizona District Court held that Ranasinghe had “not presented any understandable basis for revisiting the summary judgment order.” (Kennell Decl., Ex. Q at 2). And in its order denying the second motion, the Court went further, observing that Ranasinghe had presented “arguments previously made and rejected as well as new arguments that have no legal or factual basis.” (Kennell Decl., Ex. T at 1). The Court continued, bluntly warning that Ranasinghe's “filings cannot continue” and that, if he did file “additional motions similar to his previous motions, the Court will pursue sanctions against both [Ranasinghe] and his counsel.” (Id.).

         Ranasinghe, proceeding pro se, appealed the Ranasinghe I judgment and various orders to the Ninth Circuit, arguing, among other things, that the Arizona Court had erred in relying on the allegedly fabricated affidavit. (Kennell Decl., Ex. Y at 5). That appeal remains pending. See Ranasinghe v. Great West Cas. Co., No. 15-15247 (9th Cir. filed July 18, 2013). Since the appeal was filed, Great West has tried in vain to collect the $234, 498.70 from Ranasinghe. (See, e.g., Docket No. 55 (“Great West Mem.”) at 12-13). On multiple occasions, Great West was forced to seek judicial relief, prompting at least two warnings to Ranasinghe that failure to comply with his post-judgment discovery obligations might result in contempt. (Id. at 12; Kennell Decl., Exs. DD & EE). Around the same time, Great West offered to settle the matter for a nominal sum, but Ranasinghe refused, demanding $100, 000 in cash to settle. (Great West Mem. 13; Kennell Decl., Ex. GG (“Ranasinghe Email Exchange”) at 1). Ranasinghe threatened that, if Great West did not agree to his terms, he would bring a new lawsuit and name Great West's attorneys as well. (See Ranasinghe Email Exchange 1). On January 13, 2016, he filed the present lawsuit in New York state court, making true on his threat to add Great West's counsel in Ranasinghe I - Patrick M. Kennell and his law firm at the time, Nelson Brown & Co. (“Nelson Brown”), as well as Kennell's current firm, Kaufman Dolowich & Voluck (“Kaufman Dolowich”) - as Defendants. (Kennell Decl., Ex HH at 1). After Ranasinghe amended his complaint to add a claim under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (“RICO”) Act, 18 U.S.C. §§ 1961 et seq., Defendants removed the action to this Court. (Kennell Decl., Ex. JJ; Docket No. 1 (notice of removal)). Thereafter, Ranasinghe amended his complaint again (dropping his RICO claim), and Defendants filed the present motions. (See Third Am. Compl.; Docket Nos. 53, 57, 64).[2]

         THE MOTIONS TO DISMISS

         In light of Ranasinghe I, the present suit can and should be swiftly dismissed. It is well established that district courts have broad discretion to stay or dismiss duplicative litigation. See Colorado River Water Conservation Dist. v. United States, 424 U.S. 800, 817 (1976) (“As between federal district courts, . . . though no precise rule has evolved, the general principle is to avoid duplicative litigation.”); see also Curtis v. Citibank, N.A., 226 F.3d 133, 138 (2d Cir. 2000) (“As part of its general power to administer its docket, a district court may stay or dismiss a suit that is duplicative of another federal court suit.”); Adam v. Jacobs, 950 F.2d 89, 92 (2d Cir. 1991) (“[W]here there are two competing lawsuits, the first suit should have priority, absent the showing of balance of convenience . . . or . . . special circumstances . . . giving priority to the second.”). A comparison of Ranasinghe's briefs in the Ninth Circuit appeal and the Third Amended Complaint in this action make plain that Ranasinghe's claims here are fundamentally the same as the claims that he is still litigating in Ranasinghe I. (See Great West Mem. 24 (chart comparing issues alleged in Ranasinghe I and the instant action)). He may have repackaged them slightly and added new legal theories (for example, a violation of New York Judiciary Law Section 487), but the gravamen of the claims is identical: that Defendants submitted a false and fraudulent affidavit in the underlying contract action in the Arizona District Court. There is no reason to entertain those claims here when they are still pending before the Ninth Circuit. (Compare Kennell Decl., Exs. Y & AA, with Third Am. Compl. ¶¶ 73-75, 133-35, 137, 181, 215). On that basis alone, the case can be and is dismissed.

         Separate and apart from being duplicative, however, Ranasinghe's claims are barred by the related doctrines of res judicata and collateral estoppel. “Under res judicata, a final judgment on the merits of an action precludes the parties or their privies from relitigating issues that were or could have been raised in that action.” Allen v. McCurry, 449 U.S. 90, 94 (1980).[3]“Under collateral estoppel, once an issue is actually and necessarily determined by a court of competent jurisdiction, that determination is conclusive in subsequent suits based on a different cause of action involving a party to the prior litigation.” Montana v. United States, 440 U.S. 147, 153 (1979). The former doctrine applies “where an earlier decision was (1) a final judgment on the merits, (2) by a court of competent jurisdiction, (3) involving the same cause of action; and (4) in a case involving the same parties or their privies.” Gertskis v. New York Dep't of Health and Mental Hygiene, No. 13-CV-2024 (JMF), 2014 WL 2933149, at *4 (S.D.N.Y. June 27, 2014). For collateral estoppel to apply, “(1) the issues of both proceedings must be identical, (2) the relevant issues [must have been] actually litigated and decided in the prior proceeding, (3) there must have been ‘full and fair opportunity' for the litigation of the issues in the prior proceeding, and (4) the issues [must have been necessary] to support a valid and final judgment on the merits.” Leather v. Eyck, 180 F.3d 420, 425-26 (2d Cir. 1999). Finally, to the extent relevant here, the doctrine of non-mutual estoppel allows a defendant who was not party to the previous litigation to rely on res judicata or collateral estoppel to bar claims or issues raised in subsequent litigation, assuming the issue was fully and fairly litigated in the first instance. See Austin v. Downs, Rachlin & Martin Burlington St. Johnsbury, 270 F. App'x 52, 54 (2d Cir. 2008); see also Blonder-Tongue Labs., Inc. v. Univ. of Illinois Found., 402 U.S. 313, 329 (1971) (“Permitting repeated litigation of the same issues as long as the supply of unrelated defendants holds out reflects either the aura of the gaming table or a lack of discipline and of disinterestedness on the part of the lower courts.” (internal quotation marks omitted)).

         Both doctrines are applicable here. First, Ranasinghe had a full and fair opportunity to litigate the issues and claims that he presses here in Ranasinghe I. Indeed, Ranasinghe challenged the veracity of Popolizio affidavit on at least three separate occasions before the Arizona District Court: in his opposition to Great West's motion for summary judgment (Bauer Aff. ¶ 20; Bauer Aff., Ex. J, at 7, 9-12); in his motion for reconsideration of the grant of summary judgment (Bauer Aff. ¶ 23; Bauer Aff., Ex. M at 3-6, 11-12); and in his motion to vacate the summary judgment order (Bauer Aff. ¶ 27; Bauer Aff., Ex. P at 10-15). In each instance, the Arizona District Court rejected Ranasinghe's arguments and those rejections are final for purposes of res judicata and collateral estoppel notwithstanding the pending appeal. See, e.g., Yeiser v. GMAC Mortg. Corp., 535 F.Supp.2d 413, 421 (S.D.N.Y. 2008) (“It is long settled in this Court . . . that a summary judgment dismissal is considered a decision on the merits for res judicata purposes.”); see also ...


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