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Rumanek v. Fallon

United States District Court, D. Delaware

September 17, 2018

SHERRY FALLON, et al., Defendants


          Christopher C. Conner, Chief Judge United States District Court Middle District of Pennsylvania.

         Plaintiff Sandra Rumanek (“Rumanek”), proceeding pro se, advances various claims against attorneys, court staff, judicial officers, and others involved in two prior civil lawsuits: Rumanek v. Coons, No. N11C-04-108 (Del. Super. Ct. 2011), and Rumanek v. Independent School Management, Inc., No. 1:12-CV-759 (D. Del. 2012). She alleges that defendants conspired amongst themselves to violate her constitutional and civil rights by deliberately withholding information concerning United States Magistrate Judge Sherry R. Fallon's involvement in those lawsuits. Rumanek's operative and proposed amended pleadings lack any factual basis to support her speculative conspiracy theory. We will grant defendants' motions to dismiss, deny Rumanek's requests for leave to amend, and dismiss the above-captioned action with prejudice.

         I. Factual Background & Procedural History

         Rumanek is an aggrieved litigant disappointed with the results of two prior lawsuits. Rumanek avers that nearly everyone involved in those lawsuits-from her own counsel, to defense counsel, to judges, court staff, and public officials-actively worked to achieve and conceal a fraud on the court and to effect a violation of her constitutional and civil rights. (See Doc. 93 at 1-4). The factual summation that follows derives from Rumanek's sixth amended complaint filed in this action, as well as the public record available in the state court litigation (“Rumanek I”), the federal litigation (“Rumanek II”), and judicial decisions entered in those cases.[1]

         A. State Personal Injury Case: Rumanek I

         In April 2011, Rumanek commenced a civil personal injury action in the Superior Court of Delaware arising out of two separate motor vehicle accidents. (See Doc. 93 ¶¶ 7, 11); Rumanek v. Coons, No. N11C-04-108 (Del. Super. Ct. 2011). Rumanek brought that lawsuit against two parties: Margaret Coons (“Coons”), who was the other driver in the first accident, and Theresa Theodore (“Theodore”), who was the other driver in the second accident. (See Doc. 93 ¶ 6); see also Rumanek v. Coons, No. N11C-04-108, 2013 WL 5288796, at *1 (Del. Super. Ct. Sept. 13, 2013). Rumanek claimed that she suffered head trauma and a cognitive disability as a result of the initial accident. See Rumanek, 2013 WL 5288796, at *1.

         Defendant Joseph J. Rhoades (“Attorney Rhoades”) represented Rumanek in the state court litigation. (Doc. 93 ¶ 6). Defendant Sandra F. Clark (“Attorney Clark”) represented Coons during the bulk of pretrial proceedings, and defendant Louis J. Rizzo, Jr. (“Attorney Rizzo”) took over the representation a few weeks prior to trial. (Id.) Judge Fallon, then an attorney, represented Theodore in the early phases of the state court litigation; Judge Fallon withdrew her appearance upon appointment to the bench in March 2012.[2] (Id. ¶¶ 6-7, 27-28). Defendant David Culley (“Attorney Culley”) succeeded Judge Fallon as Theodore's counsel. (Id.) Rumanek had not yet been deposed at the time of the substitution; hence, then-attorney Fallon never had contact with Rumanek. (See Id. ¶¶ 7, 22, 27, 29). The case was assigned to Delaware Superior Court Judge Richard R. Cooch (“Judge Cooch”). (Id. ¶ 6).

         After discovery and a pretrial conference, Theodore (presumably through Attorney Culley) presented an offer of judgment of $8, 000 to settle Rumanek's claim against her. (Id. ¶ 119). Rumanek avers that Attorney Rhoades “pressure[d]” her to accept the settlement, advising that Rumanek “could not win against Theodore's counsel Culley.” (Id.) Rumanek accepted the offer of judgment in late May 2013. (Id.) At approximately the same time, Rumanek learned that Judge Cooch “was being replaced” by defendant Superior Court Judge Charles E. Butler (“Judge Butler”). (Id. ¶ 105).

         The case against Coons proceeded to jury selection on June 10, 2013, with trial commencing the following day. (Id. ¶¶ 131-32). Rumanek's injuries-the extent thereof and whether they were caused by the first accident with Coons, the second accident with Theodore, or neither-were a central issue at trial. Rumanek, 2013 WL 5288796, at *1. The jury found in Rumanek's favor on liability and awarded her nominal damages of $1. (Doc. 93 ¶ 134). According to Rumanek, Attorney Rhoades stated after the verdict “that the decision and the award made a successful appeal of the verdict very unlikely.” (Id.)

         Attorney Rhoades filed a motion for new trial. (Id. ¶ 135). Before the motion was filed, Rumanek asked Attorney Rhoades to challenge a statement by Attorney Rizzo during closing arguments that Rumanek was “double-dipping” by pursuing a federal disability discrimination claim against her employer. (See Id. ¶¶ 136-38). Attorney Rhoades declined to raise the issue, indicating that the alleged statements did not appear in the trial transcript. (Id. ¶ 139). Rumanek hypothesizes that one of the state court stenographers-“perhaps” defendants Lisa Amatucci (“Amatucci”), Annette Furman (“Furman”), or Patrick O'Hare (“O'Hare”), purportedly at the behest of Judge Butler-altered the trial transcripts to remove these statements.[3](Id. ¶ 140). Rumanek suspects that defendant Matthew Denn (“Attorney General Denn”), the Attorney General for the state of Delaware, is aware of and allows the secret alteration of transcripts and has thus clothed Delaware state court judges with power to “annul or evade” litigants' constitutional rights. (Id. ¶¶ 230, 232).

         Attorney Rhoades' post-trial motion filed on June 27, 2013 raised the following arguments: that the jury verdict was against the weight of the evidence; that Attorney Rizzo's statements during closing arguments obscurely referencing insurance improperly influenced the jury; and that Judge Butler's instruction to the jury clarifying the meaning of the term “right to sue letter” likewise improperly influenced the jury. (See Id. ¶¶ 135-36); Rumanek, 2013 WL 5288796, at *1. Judge Butler denied the motion. (See Doc. 93 ¶ 144); Rumanek, 2013 WL 5288796, at *4. Attorney Rhoades appealed Judge Butler's post-trial ruling. The Supreme Court of Delaware affirmed Judge Butler's decision in an order without published opinion on February 25, 2014. Rumanek v. Coons, 86 A.3d 1119 (Del. 2014) (unpublished table decision).

         B. Federal Disability Discrimination Case: Rumanek II

         On June 15, 2012-more than a year after she commenced the state court litigation and nearly a year prior to the jury's verdict-Rumanek filed a lawsuit in this court against her employer, Independent School Management, Inc. (“ISM”). (Doc. 93 ¶ 33); Rumanek, No. 1:12-CV-759, Doc. 1 (D. Del. June 15, 2012). Rumanek alleged that ISM failed to accommodate injures resulting from the automobile accidents involved in Rumanek I. See generally Rumanek v. Indep. Sch. Mgmt. Inc., 619 Fed.Appx. 71 (3d Cir. 2015). She asserted claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”), 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq.; the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq.; the Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”), 29 U.S.C. § 2601 et seq.; and two Delaware state laws concerning discrimination in employment. Rumanek, 619 Fed.Appx. at 73-74 & n.2. Attorneys in the case acknowledged at the outset that some of the issues forming the basis of the state action were “inextricably intertwined” with the federal action, including Rumanek's lost income, performance as an employee, and the reasons for her departure from employment. (Doc. 93 ¶ 53).

         Rumanek alleges that Judge Fallon either “solicited” or “was assigned” to Rumanek II shortly after the case was filed. (Id. ¶ 34). Defendants Bernard Conaway (“Attorney Conaway”), Nicholas W. Woodfield (“Attorney Woodfield”), and R. Scott Oswald (“Attorney Oswald”) represented Rumanek in that litigation.[4](Id. ¶¶ 6, 33). Defendants Matthew Boyer (“Attorney Boyer”), Timothy M. Holly (“Attorney Holly”), and Mary I. Akhimien (“Attorney Akhimien”) were counsel for ISM. (Id.) Rumanek avers that, by virtue of prior involvement in the state court litigation, Judge Fallon had knowledge of the material fact that “Rumanek was cognitively disabled by her injuries.” (Id. ¶ 34).

         On July 23, 2012, Judge Fallon convened a telephonic conference with the parties to discuss the court's referral process and provide the parties information concerning the procedures for consenting to magistrate judge jurisdiction. (Id. ¶ 36) During that conference, Judge Fallon advised the parties:

One thing I want to point out to counsel, and particularly, I guess for the plaintiff as well, I'm fairly new to the bench. As you both may be aware, I took my position back at the end of April, and I come from a litigation firm, Tybout, Redfearn, and Pell, and I practiced there for over 25 years.
I say and give you my background only because of the many, many cases that I handled, primarily through insurance companies who referred cases to me and members of my firm to defend in personal injury litigation. I represented a number of individuals, and I no longer have access to the firm's database to check for any potential conflicts.
And the name of the plaintiff is kind of an unusual name. It's not like Smith or Jones or anything like that. And for whatever reason, it seems to have familiarity to me, and I can't say why. And without access to my firm's database anymore, I can't personally myself check for conflicts. All that I can say is the name has a ring of familiarity. That's it. If it's a matter that I handled or a member of my firm handled, I can't speak to that. But what I would ask - just because I don't want to get too deep into this and the[n] have the plaintiff appear at a court conference or something and possibly recognize me as someone who may have represented her or one of my associates represented her at the firm. I just can't recall.
I would ask that the plaintiffs meet with Ms. Rumanek and mention to her, if you haven't already, my name. In private practice, it was Sherry Ruggiero Fallon. The court has shortened it to Sherry R. Fallon. But just [give] her the full name, and see if that rings a bell with her. Otherwise, we'll go forward.
And if it does, we'll have another teleconference to the extent it poses a conflict for anyone. I don't feel it's a conflict because, honestly, I don't remember anything about Ms. Rumanek other than that's a familiar-sounding name to me, and I can only assume that's from somewhere along my 25 years of private practice.

(Id.) Attorney Woodfield advised Judge Fallon that he had mentioned her name to Rumanek but would do so again and report back if there was an issue. (Id.) Judge Fallon added:

I apologize. I wish I could give you more detail, but I figured to err on the safe side and mention it because it does have a ring of familiarity to me. Beyond that, I can't recall a specific detail about a specific case I handled.
If it rings a bell with her, I think counsel . . . needs to confer and see if that poses a real conflict. Because if you come back and can provide me with more information, perhaps it will jog a further memory of what the case may be about.
In all likelihood, it may not be anything beyond defense of an auto accident case. And depending on whether or not it went to a jury trial, in all likelihood, it may have been sent to me, but I probably would have referred it to an associate in my office to handle short of a jury trial.
Anyway, so I appreciate counsel making an inquiry on that point.

(Id.) Rumanek reported to her counsel that she did not recognize Judge Fallon's name, and the case continued before Judge Fallon. (See id.)

         On April 3, 2013, Judge Fallon held a telephonic conference with the parties to hear oral argument concerning a defense request for a psychiatric examination of Rumanek. (Id. ¶ 84). The following exchange took place during that conference:

Mr. Conaway: Your Honor?
The Court: Yes[.]
Mr. Conaway: Bernard Conaway. I apologize for interjecting. During the course of the hearing, there was reference made to a state action and I took it upon myself to go to the docket and see what's going on.
The Court: I appreciate that. What's happening in that[?]
Mr. Conaway: Unfortunately, what I had noticed is that Your Honor had entered an appearance in that case on behalf of one of the defendants.
The Court: And I did bring this to the attention of everyone with regard - I did no activity in this case and that case was assigned to my partner David [Culley] . . . and I think it was in it's [sic] fairly early stages when that case came into our office and was assigned to my partner.
Mr. Conaway: I apologize if it's already been addressed but I was in panic mode.
The Court: When this case was referred to me by Judge Robinson, I mentioned that and the fact that it was referred to my partner, that I did not actively do anything with regard to the defense in that case and if the docket shows otherwise, you will have to refresh my recollection, Mr. Conaway, but I don't recall taking an active role in the case.
Mr. Conaway: All I noticed, Your Honor, is that there was an Answer filed on behalf of one of the co-defendants and they got Notice of Records Request. There's an entry of appearance on behalf of Sherry Fallon for defendant Teresa (sic) Theodore and thereafter, Answers to the Complaint and some request for records. Here is where I'm coming from, Your Honor, and I'm sorry to interject if this is old ground but I was unaware of it but I felt compelled to raise it if it hadn't been because I didn't think I should sit and do nothing.
The Court: No. You did the right thing. I addressed it with all counsel on the original teleconference when we were doing the Rule 16 and indicated that I would recuse ...

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