Justice v. Meares

Decision Date27 July 2021
Docket Number3:19-CV-185
PartiesLORING JUSTICE, individually and as Next of Friend of N.N./N.J., a minor, Plaintiff, v. MARTHA MEARES, PAUL DILLARD, MEARES AND DILLARD, and MEARES AND ASSOCIATES, Defendants.
CourtU.S. District Court — Eastern District of Tennessee

Debra C. Poplin Magistrate Judge

MEMORANDUM

CURTIS L. COLLIER UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

Before the Court is a motion for judgment on the pleadings by Defendants Martha Meares, Paul Dillard, Meares & Dillard and Meares & Associates (collectively Defendants). (Doc. 59.) Plaintiff Loring Justice has responded in opposition (Doc. 63), and Defendants have filed a reply (Doc. 64). For the reasons below, the Court will GRANT Defendants' motion (Doc. 59).

I. BACKGROUND

The following summary of the facts accepts all factual allegations in Plaintiff's Amended Complaint (Doc. 46) as true. See Gunasekera v. Irwin, 551 F.3d 461, 466 (6th Cir. 2009).

Plaintiff and Kim Nelson have a son, “N, ” together. Plaintiff and Nelson have been in litigation in state court over custody and visitation of N since at least 2004. This case arises from the alleged conduct of Nelson and her three attorneys-David Valone, Martha Meares, and Paul Dillard-during the dispute.

A. The State-Court Custody Dispute

The most recent state-court custody case between Plaintiff and Nelson began in or around 2012. At the start of the dispute, Nelson was the Clerk of the Circuit and Juvenile Courts of Roane County.

On or about August 23, 2013, Valone filed an emergency petition for an injunction on Nelson's behalf. The petition claimed Plaintiff represented a danger to N unless Plaintiff's parenting time was on a strictly supervised basis. On September 3, 2013, the state court granted the emergency petition orally at a hearing on the motion and subsequently issued a written order on September 13, 2013. On September 24, 2013, the state court granted permission for Plaintiff to file an interlocutory appeal of the petition. The court asked Plaintiff to file a proposed order and statement of reasons to that effect, which he did. The judge later rejected Plaintiff's proposed order.

In 2014, a condition was imposed on Plaintiff that required him to see a family therapist in order to see N on an unsupervised basis. A state-court judge gave Nelson the sole authority to choose the family therapist for Plaintiff to see, and the court appointed Dr. Nancy Brown at Nelson's request. Nelson later opposed Dr. Brown's appointment, and Dr. Brown was eventually dismissed. Dr. Brown testified that Valone told her to not express opinions in favor of Plaintiff or against Nelson and that she should not say anything to antagonize the judge. Meares allegedly threatened Dr. Brown in an attempt to influence her testimony. The subsequent therapist, also chosen by Nelson, was Dr. Thomas Hanaway, but he likewise left the case after some time. Dr. Hanaway later indicated he left because he was afraid of angering Nelson and was intimidated by Valone and Meares.

The custody dispute was scheduled for trial in August 2016, and the parties engaged in settlement negotiations until the hours leading up to trial. During those negotiations, Defendants offered Plaintiff unsupervised parenting time with N. Additionally, Defendants allegedly offered Plaintiff even more unsupervised parenting time if he paid them $400, 000. Plaintiff agreed. A proposed settlement order incorporated the agreed-upon terms, describing the $400, 000 as $200, 000 for attorney fees and $200, 000 in child-support arrearages. At that time, no child-support arrearages were outstanding. The trial was postponed due to the settlement negotiations. On August 14, 2016, at Defendants' request, Plaintiff furnished a $200, 000 cashier's check to see N unsupervised. Plaintiff was able to see N unsupervised for a short time until the settlement negotiations broke down.

The case went to trial in early 2017. Defendants maintained that Plaintiff should not be permitted to have unsupervised parenting time with N. Specifically, on February 21, 2017, Nelson testified that she never felt comfortable enough to allow Plaintiff unsupervised parenting time with N. This testimony conflicted with both the previous offer of unsupervised parenting time and the terms of the proposed settlement order.

On the last day of trial, March 29, 2017, Defendants submitted affidavits in support of a request for attorney fees. The affidavits allegedly conflicted with prior testimony as to the amount of attorney fees Nelson had accumulated at that time and included duplicative entries and entries for work not directly related to the dispute. On April 11, 2017, the court found Nelson had accrued $375, 000 in attorney fees. In May 2017, Defendants moved for discretionary costs. However, the requested costs included costs not recoverable under Tennessee law. Nelson also was awarded appellate attorney fees. In support of those fees, Defendants submitted documentation that included duplications and fees for non-existent filings.

On October 18, 2019, the state court issued a sanctions order against Plaintiff. On or about November 19, 2019, Plaintiff filed a motion to alter or amend the sanctions order under the Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure, explaining that the sanctions were improperly imposed. Before the sanctions order became final, Defendants used the order to file a lien against Plaintiff's real property in Knoxville, Tennessee. On January 13, 2020, the state court granted Plaintiff's motion to alter or amend and removed all sanctions against Plaintiff.

B. Procedural History

On May 21, 2019, Plaintiff filed this lawsuit against Nelson, Valone, the Law Office of David Valone, and Defendants. (Doc. 1.) On February 19, 2020, upon Plaintiff's request, the Court granted Plaintiff leave to file an amended complaint. (Doc. 45.) The Amended Complaint asserts twelve counts: (1) extortion, attempted extortion, and conspiracy to commit extortion; (2) intentional infliction of emotional distress; (3) tortious and attempted interference with parental rights; (4) civil conspiracy; (5) coercion, duress, or undue influence; (6) abuse of process and conspiracy to abuse process; (7) fraud and conspiracy to commit fraud; (8) blackmail and conspiracy to commit blackmail; (9) civil remedies under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO)[1]; (10) violation of civil rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983; (11) conspiracy to interfere with civil rights under 42 U.S.C § 1985(2); and (12) conspiracy to interfere with civil rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1985(3). (Doc. 46.)

On November 24, 2020, the Court dismissed Plaintiff's claims against Nelson, Valone, and the Law Office of David Valone pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. (Docs. 56, 57.) As a result, Plaintiff's only remaining claims are against Defendants.

Defendants move for a judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure on four grounds.[2] (Doc. 59.) First, Defendants argue the claims against them should be dismissed under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine because the case is a collateral attack on a state-court judgment. (Doc. 60 at 19-22.) Second, they argue Rule 408 of the Federal Rules of Evidence (Rule 408) bars Plaintiff's claims arising from the custody dispute's settlement discussions. (Id. at 23-24.) Third, Defendants contend the claims against them should be dismissed based on the litigation privilege, which protects the conduct of attorneys acting within the scope of their representation. (Id. at 22-23.) Fourth, they assert Plaintiff's claims should be dismissed for failure to state a claim for relief. (See generally id.)

Plaintiff has filed a response in opposition to Defendants' motion. (Doc. 63.) Plaintiff asserts the Rooker-Feldman doctrine does not apply because Plaintiff is neither appealing nor asking the Court to enjoin the enforcement of the state court's decision. (Id. at 21-22.) He also argues Rule 408 does not bar his claims because it does not protect extortionate threats. (Id. at 16- 19.) Plaintiff also asserts Defendants are not protected by the litigation privilege. (Id. at 4-5, 9- 12.) Finally, Plaintiff explains how he has stated a claim upon which relief can be granted for each claim against Defendants.[3] (See generally id.)

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(c), a party may move for a judgment on the pleadings after the pleadings are closed, but early enough not to delay trial. The standard of review for a motion on the pleadings is the same standard applied in a motion to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b). Sensations, Inc. v. City of Grand Rapids, 526 F.3d 291, 295 (6th Cir. 2008). A court must construe the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff and accept all factual allegations as true. Coley v. Lucas Cnty, Ohio, 799 F.3d 530, 537 (6th Cir. 2015). In addition, all ambiguities must be resolved in the plaintiff's favor. Carter by Carter v. Cornwell, 983 F.2d 52, 54 (6th Cir. 1993) (citing Jackson v. Richards Med. Co., 961 F.2d 575, 577 (6th Cir. 1992)). Bare legal conclusions, however, need not be accepted as true. See Papasan v. Allain, 478 U.S. 265, 286 (1986).

The defendant bears the burden of showing that the complaint has not stated a claim for relief. Coley, 799 F.3d at 537. To survive a motion on the pleadings, a complaint must present sufficient facts which, if true, “state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Bell Atl Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). A claim is plausible on its face when there are sufficient facts to “allow[] the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, ...

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