United States District Court for the District of Columbia
January 29, 2004.
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff,
FUNDS FROM PRUDENTIAL SECURITIES et al., Defendants
The opinion of the court was delivered by: RICARDO URBINA, District Judge
DENYING THE PLAINTIFF'S MOTION TO STRIKE;
DENYING THE PLAINTIFF'S REQUEST FOR DEFAULT JUDGMENT; AND
DENYING THE PLAINTIFF'S REQUEST FOR A DECREE OF
If a bull gores a man or a woman to death, the bull must
be stoned to death, and its meat must not be eaten. But
the owner of the bull will not be held
This in rem civil forfeiture*fn2
matter is once again before the court
on the motion of the government ("the plaintiff") to strike the claim of
Latonya Curtis ("the claimant") and its related requests for a default
judgment and a decree of forfeiture. Because the claimant's verified
claim satisfies the requirements of Supplemental Rule C(6) of the Federal
Rules of Civil Procedure, the
court denies the Plaintiff's motion to strike the claimant's claim
and, correspondingly, denies the Plaintiff's pendent requests for a
default judgment and a decree of forfeiture.
A. Factual Background
In February 1999, a joint task force, including the Federal Bureau of
Investigation ("FBI"), the Washington, B.C. Metropolitan Police
Department, and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development,
initiated an investigation of a large heroin-trafficking organization run
principally by the claimant's significant other, Mr. Earl Garner, Sr.*fn4
Compl. at 4, 6. The investigation allegedly revealed that the claimant
assisted Mr. Garner in various aspects of his drug-trafficking
operation. Id. at 6. Court-authorized telephone monitoring of several
members of the drug-trafficking organization allegedly indicated that the
claimant, in addition to serving as Mr. Garner's confidant and advisor,
stored contraband and/or drug proceeds at her residence in North
Bethesda, Maryland. Id. Despite these allegations, and after considering
the evidence against the claimant at trial, the jury returned a verdict
acquitting the claimant.*fn5
B. Procedural Background
Although this case is still in its infancy, it has managed to assemble
a rather lengthy procedural history. On December 21, 2000, the plaintiff
filed a verified complaint for civil forfeiture in rem against the seized
funds totaling $41,091.86.*fn6 The plaintiff alleges that these funds
constitute proceeds traceable to violations of Title II of the Controlled
Substances Act, as amended, 21 U.S.C. § 801 et seq., and the anti-money
laundering provisions of 18 U.S.C. § 1956. Id. at 2.
On January 25, 2001, the claimant responded to the Plaintiff's verified
complaint by filing a claim to the seized funds. According to the
plaintiff, however, the claimant's claim failed to comply with the
governing requirements of Supplemental Rule C(6) of the Federal Rules of
Civil Procedure. Pl.'s Mot. to Treat as Conceded at 3. On March 5, 2001,
the plaintiff sent a letter to the claimant and the attorney representing
her in the related criminal matter, stating that the claimant's verified
claim was defective and that the February 14, 2001 deadline for filing an
answer had passed. Id. In that same letter, the plaintiff proposed to
extend the claimant's filing deadline to March 19, 2001. Id.
Thereafter, on March 12, 2001, the claimant's attorney responded to the
March 5, 2001 letter, alerting the plaintiff to a recent surgical
procedure undergone by the claimant and requesting that the claimant have
through April 15, 2001 to file her answer.[fn6a] Pl.'s Opp'n Ex. V.
Oddly enough, in a March 16, 2001 facsimile to the plaintiff, that same
attorney stated that he did not represent the claimant in the civil
forfeiture matter at bar. Id. at 4 & Ex. VII. On April 27, 2001, 12 days
after the claimant's requested deadline of April 15 had passed, the
claimant filed a motion to late-file her answer, explaining that her
surgery and its attendant recovery period caused her filing delay. Cl.'s
Mot. to Late File at 1.
On May 1, 2001, the court granted the claimant's motion to late-file
her answer. Order dated May 1, 2001. That same day, the claimant filed
both an amended verified claim, which asserted that she owned the
defendant funds, and an answer, reasserting that she was an innocent
owner of the defendant funds. Cl.'s Am. Verified Claim at 1; Cl.'s Answer
Also on that same day, the plaintiff filed a motion to strike the
claimant's claim. The claimant, however, failed to respond. Consequently,
on June 25, 2001, the plaintiff filed a motion asking the court to treat
the motion to strike as conceded, enter default judgment, and issue a
decree of forfeiture. Pl.'s Mot. to Treat as Conceded at 5.
During the following 12 months, the claimant remained silent and
inactive, making no filings. Accordingly, on June 18, 2002, the court
granted the Plaintiff's motion to strike, entered default judgment, and
issued a decree of forfeiture. United States v. Funds from Prudential
Sec., 209 F. Supp.2d 259, 268-69 (D.D.C. 2002) ("Funds I").
On June 20, 2002, the claimant filed a motion, followed by three
additional motions on June 27, 2002, each asking the court to alter or
amend its June 18, 2002 ruling.*fn7 Mindful of the
heightened duty of care owed to pro se litigants, the court vacated its
prior ruling and allowed the claimant to respond to the Plaintiff's motion
to strike and related requests for entry of default judgment and issuance
of a forfeiture decree. United States v. Funds from Prudential Sec.,
245 F. Supp.2d 41 (D.D.C. 2003) ("Funds II").
On March 10, 2003, the claimant filed her response,*fn8 along with an
attached document styled as a verified claim.*fn9 Accordingly, the court
must once again address the Plaintiff's motion to strike and its related
requests for default judgment and a decree of forfeiture.
A. The Plaintiff's Motion to Strike the Claimant's
1. Legal Standard for a Motion to Strike a Claim in
Supplemental Rule C(6) sets forth the governing standards and
procedural requirements that a putative claimant must satisfy in order to
perfect a claim in a federal in rem forfeiture action. FED. R. CIV. P.
SUPP. R. C(6); 18 U.S.C. § 983(a)(4)(A); 21 U.S.C. § 881(b). The rule
states in pertinent part:
The claimant of property that is the subject of an
action in rem shall file a claim . . . verified on
oath or solemn affirmation, and shall state the
interest in the property by virtue of which the
claimant demands its restitution and the right to
defend the action.
"To contest a forfeiture action [under Supplemental Rule C(6)], an
individual bears the burden of demonstrating an interest in the seized
item sufficient to satisfy the court of his standing." United States
v. $47,875 in United States Currency, 746 F.2d 291, 293 (5th Cir.
1984). Specifically, Rule C(6) requires that a putative claimant file a
verified claim under oath or affirmation and include "the claimant's
interest in the property, the right by which [the claimant] demands
restitution, and the right by which [the claimant] defends the action."
United States v. $38,570 in United States Currency,
950 F.2d 1108, 1111 (5th Cir. 1992) (quoting FED. R. Civ. P. SUPP. R.
C(6)); see also United States v. Prop. Identified as $88,260.00 in
United States Currency, 925 F. Supp. 838, 840-41 (D.D.C. 1996)
(noting that the claimant must file a verified claim in an in
rem forfeiture action to acquire statutory standing); United
States v. A Single Story Double Wide Trailer, 727 F. Supp. 149,
152-53 (D. Del. 1989) (stating that "[o]nly by filing a verified claim,
in accordance with C(6), can a claimant demonstrate that he has a
sufficient interest in the seized item to satisfy standing
requirements"); United States v. $288,914.00 in United States
Currency, 722 F. Supp. 267, 270 (E.D. La. 1989) (recognizing that a
claimant must comply with the pleading requirements of Supplemental
Rule C(6)). If a putative claimant fails to file a verified claim or otherwise
follow the provisions set forth in Supplemental Rule C(6), it is within
the court's discretion to strike the deficient claim. United States
v. One 1990 Mercedes Benz 300 CE, 926 F. Supp. 1, 4 (D.D.C. 1996).
2. The Court Denies the Plaintiff's Motion to Strike the
The plaintiff asserts that the court should grant its motion to strike
because the claimant's claim fails to satisfy the requirements of
Rule C(6).*fn10 Pl.'s Opp'n at 8. Specifically, the plaintiff alleges that
the claimant's claim is defective because she has failed to verify it "on
oath or solemn affirmation" and it avows only that the claimant is the
owner of the defendant funds, thereby failing to "state the interest in
the property by virtue of which [she] demands restitution and the right
to defend the action." Id. at 2-3; see also FED. R.
CIV. P. SUPP. R. C(6).
Before addressing the alleged deficiencies in the claimant's claim, the
court takes a moment to consider Rule C(6) and the ways in which other
courts have interpreted it. As an initial matter, the court recognizes
that the rule's underlying goal is to prevent frivolous claims by
ensuring that putative claimants come forward as quickly as possible
after the initiation of forfeiture proceedings so that the court may hear
all interested parties and resolve the dispute without delay. FED. R.
CIV. P. SUPP. R. C(6) advisory committee's note; United States v.
Various Computers & Computer Equip., 82 F.3d 582, 585 (3d Cir.
The plaintiff urges strict compliance with Rule C(6), a construction
that denies the claimant standing for any failure to comply with the
Rule. Pl.'s Opp'n at 2. As one court has stated, "[i]t is not an abuse of
discretion for the district court to require strict compliance with
Supplemental Rule C(6)." United States v. $104,674.00,
17 F.3d 267, 268 (8th Cir. 1994); see also United States v. Commodity Account
No. 549 54930, 219 F.3d 595, 598 (7th Cir. 2000)
(noting that "strict compliance with Supplemental Rule C(6) is
typically required"); $288,914 in United States Currency,
722 F. Supp. at 270 (explaining that "[i]n order to have standing to challenge
a forfeiture proceeding, a claimant must strictly comply with the
pleading requirements of Supplemental Rule C(6)"). Moreover, several
courts demand strict compliance with the rule, even where the case
involves a pro se claimant. E.g., United States v. Gateway
Blvd. W., 123 F.3d 312, 313 (5th Cir. 1997) (denying a pro
se claimant's request for an extension of time after failing to file
a timely verified claim); United States v. Three Parcels of Real
Prop., 43 F.3d 388, 393 (8th Cir. 1994) (stating that "procedural
default is not excused merely because claimants are proceeding pro
se"); $104,674.00, 17 F.3d at 268-69 (upholding a default judgment
against pro se claimants that failed to comply with the
provisions of Rule C(6)); United States v. Eng, 951 F.2d 461,
468 (2d Cir. 1991) (denying the pro se claimant standing after
he filed an order to show cause instead of a verified claim); United
States v. One Dairy Farm, 918 F.2d 310, 312 (1st Cir. 1990)
(explaining that the appellants lacked standing to contest forfeiture
because they failed to file a claim within the time prescribed by
In stark contrast to the strict-compliance approach, numerous courts
interpret "pleadings and procedural practices under the Supplemental
Rules liberally enough" to allow for an appropriate degree of discretion
in cases where the underlying goals of Rule C(6) are not frustrated to
ensure that courts decide controversies on the merits. United States
v. $80,760.00 in U.S. Currency, 781 F. Supp. 462, (N.D. Tex. 1991);
see also United States v. $9,020.00 in United States Currency,
30 Fed. Appx. 855, 858-59 (10th Cir. 2002) (limited precedential value);
Various Computers & Computer Equip., 82 F.3d at 585
(recognizing the "time-honored admiralty principle that pleadings and
procedural practices in maritime actions should be applied liberally");
United States v. One Parcel Real Prop., 942 F.2d 74, 77 (1st
Cir. 1991); United States v. 1 Street A-l, 885 F.2d 994,
999-1000 (1st Cir. 1989) (construing a "verified answer" as both a claim
and an answer under Rule C(6)); United States v. Prop, at 4492 So.
Livonia Rd., 889 F.2d 1258, 1262 (2d Cir. 1989) (excusing technical
noncompliance with procedural rules governing the filing of claims where
the claimant made a sufficient showing of interest in the forfeited
property); United States v. United States Currency in the Amount of
$103,387.27, 863 F.2d 555, 563 (7th Cir. 1988) (reasoning that a
claimant's good-faith effort to comply with procedural rules is a basis
for permitting an extension of time to file a proper claim). For example,
in $9,020.00 in United States Currency, the pro se
claimant filed neither a verified claim, nor an answer, instead filing a
"Petition for Remission" that "self-verified . . . under penalty of
perjury" a claim to the seized funds. $9,020.00 in United States
Currency, 30 Fed. Appx. at 857-58. The Tenth Circuit held that, in
light of the claimant's pro se status and because the claimant's
petition satisfied the requirements and underlying goals of Rule C(6),
the court should broadly construe the claimant's petition as both a
verified claim and an answer. Id. at 859. Moreover, this broad
interpretation coincides with the Supreme Court's pronouncement that, in
the realm of asset forfeiture, "[t]he dignity of a court derives from the
respect accorded to its judgments. That respect is eroded, not enhanced,
by too free a recourse to rules foreclosing consideration of claims on
the merits." Degen v. United States, 517 U.S. 820, 828 (1996).
Against this backdrop of disparate interpretation, the court turns to
assess the alleged deficiencies in the claimant's claim sub
judice. First, the court addresses the Plaintiff's allegation
that the claimant's claim is defective because it is "void of any
verification on oath or affirmation."*fn11 Pl.'s Opp'n at 2-3. The claim
I[,] LaTonya Curtis, am the claimant in the above
entitled action. I have read the foregoing
complaint and know the contents thereof. The
contents of my response are true to my own
knowledge except as to matters therein stated to
be alleged upon information and belief, and as to
those matters[,] I believe them to be true as laid
out in my response.
Cl.'s Verified Claim. While the claimant's claim is
applicable precedent does not require otherwise.
See $9,020.00 in United States Currency, 30 Fed. Appx. at 858
a self-verified petition under Rule C(6)). Given the fact that the
claimant unequivocally asserts the truth of her claim and the plaintiff
proffers nothing indicating that this verification is insufficient, the
court is satisfied that the claimant adequately verified her claim.
See id.; see also United States v. $40,000 in U.S. Currency,
763 F. Supp. 1423, 1426 (S.D. Ohio 1991) (observing that the claimant
adequately verified her claim when she declared under penalty of perjury
that all statements in the claim were true to the best of her knowledge
and when the government stated no reason why the verification was
inadequate). Therefore, the court will not strike the claimant's claim on
the basis of Rule C(6)'s verification requirement.
The court now turns to address the Plaintiff's remaining argument that
the claimant's claim is defective because it fails to "state the interest
in the property by virtue of which [she] demand[s] restitution and the
right to defend the action." Pl.'s Opp'n at 2-3; see also FED.
R. Civ. P. SUPP. R. C(6). In her claim, however, the claimant avers that
she is the "sole owner of the four bank accounts seized by the government
and that she is the sole owner of the $50.00 global express money order
which was taken from her purse." Cl.'s Verified Claim at 1. In addition,
the claimant insists that "[t]hese funds [were] derived from legitimate
sources of income and are in no way sources of drug trafficking as
alleged by the plaintiff." Id. The plaintiff maintains that this
unsubstantiated declaration of ownership fails to satisfy Rule C(6)'s
requirements. Pl.'s Opp'n at 11.
Courts have, however, considered an affirmation or statement under oath
that one is the owner of seized property sufficient to establish standing
to contest a forfeiture. E.g., Torres v. $36,256.80 U.S.
Currency, 25 F.3d 1154, 1157 (2d Cir. 1994) (finding that a
claimant's sworn assertions were sufficient to confer standing for the
purpose of contesting civil forfeiture); United
States v. $191,910.00 in United States Currency, 16 F.3d 1051,
1058 (9th Cir. 1994) (emphasizing that "a simple claim of ownership will
be sufficient to create standing to challenge a forfeiture"); $40,000
in U.S. Currency, 763 F. Supp. at 1427; cf. $80,760.00 in U.S.
Currency, 781 F. Supp. at 467 n.15 (stating that a demand "that
claimants show a legitimate source [explaining their interest in the
res] for the purpose of establishing standing improperly
accelerates the claimants' ultimate burden"). For instance, the court in
$40,000 in U.S. Currency held that a verified claim "need not
supply facts" in support of a claimant's ownership interest. $40,000
in U.S. Currency, 763 F. Supp. at 1427. Instead, the court ruled
that a verified claim must only include a statement under "oath or solemn
affirmation" that the claimant is the owner of the defendant funds.
Id. The court reasoned that "[n]owhere in Supplemental Rule C(6)
is there a requirement that the [c]laimant explain how or when his or her
interest began. Those issues become important later in a forfeiture
proceeding, but they need not be included in the claim." Id.
Conversely, other courts indicate that the claimant must come forth
with some evidence of ownership interest in order to establish standing
to contest a forfeiture. E.g., United States v. Twenty One Thousand
Two Hundred and Eighty Two Dollars, in U.S. Currency, 47 F.3d 972,
973 (8th Cir. 1995) (declining to disturb the district court's decision
to strike the claims and answers of a claimant asserting merely a
"possessory interest" in the seized funds); $38,570 U.S.
Currency, 950 F.2d at 1112 (holding that a "bare assertion of
ownership of the res, without more, is inadequate to prove an
ownership interest sufficient to establish standing"); United States
v. One Parcel of Land, 902 F.2d 1443, 1445 (9th Cir. 1990)
(observing that the claimant had no standing where he failed to present
documentary evidence regarding the purchase of property subject to
forfeiture); Mercado v. United States Customs Serv.,
873 F.2d 641, 644 (2d Cir. 1989)
(refusing to credit the "conclusory and factually unsupported
statement . . . that [the claimant] was `in possession' of the [seized]
money" as sufficient to support standing). In evaluating the sufficiency
of the evidence proffered in verified claims, these courts "generally
look to dominion and control, such as possession, title, [and] financial
stake, as evidence of an ownership interest." $38,570 U.S.
Currency, 950 F.2d at 113. Thus, although the mere assertion of
ownership over the res, without more, is insufficient to
establish standing in those jurisdictions, standing exists where an
assertion of ownership is coupled with an admission by the plaintiff that
the claimant has a relationship to the seized property. United States
v. U.S. Currency, $81,000.00, 189 F.3d 28, 37 (1st Cir. 1999)
(holding that a claimant has standing to assert a claim to the defendant
funds where he exercised sufficient control over the funds in a bank
account in which he was a co-signer); United States v. $515,060.42
in United States Currency, 152 F.3d 491, 500-01 (6th Cir. 1998)
(coupling the claimant's claim of ownership with the government's
allegations of the claimant's involvement with the seized currency to
establish standing); $38,570 U.S. Currency, 950 F.2d at
1112-1113 (declaring that the claimant's claim of ownership together with
the government's allegation that "the claimant exercised some form of
dominion over the currency" was sufficient to establish standing to
contest the forfeiture action); United States v. $260,242.00 U.S.
Currency, 919 F.2d 686, 687 (11th Cir. 1990) (recognizing a
claimant's standing where the government acknowledged seizing the
defendant funds from the trunk of the claimant's automobile); see
also United States v. $8,221,877.16 in United States Currency,
148 F. Supp.2d 427, 432-33 (D. N.J. 2001) (reasoning that the claimant's
"statement under oath, coupled with the [g]overnment's allegations that
[the claimant] controlled the seized funds, convinces the [c]ourt that
[the c]laimants have a sufficient interest in the seized funds" to
rev'd on other grounds, 330 F.3d 141 (3d Cir. 2003); United
States v. $68,580.00 in U.S. Currency, 815 F. Supp. 1479, 1481 (M.D.
Ga. 1993) (reading together the claimant's claim of ownership and the
federal agent's admission that the claimant "owned the money" to
establish statutory standing over the res); United States v.
Forfeiture, Stop Six Center, 794 F. Supp. 626, 632 (N.D. Tex. 1992)
(determining that the government's allegation of the claimant's
involvement with the seized res to be sufficient to establish
In the case at bar, the government alleges that it seized funds in the
amount of $41,041.86 from several bank accounts "in the name of LATONYA
CURTIS," the claimant. Compl. at 2. Furthermore, the government
acknowledges that the FBI seized a $50.00 money order "in connection with
the execution of a search warrant of claimant LATONYA CURTIS's
residence." Id. at 2. These allegations coupled with the
claimant's affirmation that she is the sole owner of the defendant funds
satisfies Rule C(6) by allowing other interested parties to
"reasonably . . . define the extent of the interest claimed to determine
the viability of [the] [c]aimant's right to defend the action." See
$40,000 in U.S. Currency, 763 F. Supp. at 1427; see also U.S.
Currency, $81,000.00, 189 F.3d at 37; $38,570 U.S.
Currency, 950 F.2d at 1112-113; $8,221,877.16 in United States
Currency, 148 F. Supp.2d at 432-33; $68,580.00 in U.S.
Currency, 815 F. Supp.at 1481; Forfeiture, Stop Six
Center, 794 F. Supp. at 632. As a result, the court need not
determine which strand of judicial thinking it must apply in resolving
the issue of standing because the claimant's verified claim satisfies
either line of precedent. The court, therefore, concludes that the
claimant's verified claim satisfies the mandates of Rule C(6) and denies
motion to strike.*fn13 FED. R. CIV. P. SUPP. R. C(6); One 1990
Mercedes Benz 300 CE, 926 F. Supp. at 4.
3. Breakdown in the Adversarial Process
At this juncture, the court gives pause to consider the tangled web
that this case has become, focusing particularly on the adversaries' lack
of diligence in accurately and comprehensively addressing legal
precedent. Indeed, if the claimant or, for that matter, the
plaintiff*fn14 discussed the legal precedent addressed herein, the
adversarial process would have saved the court from issuing its June 18,
2002 ruling and, consequently, would have prevented the court from having
to reconsider that ruling. But alas, this breakdown in the adversarial
process has left the court's prior decisions vulnerable to its own
As the D.C. Circuit has recognized, a fundamental premise of our
adversarial system is that courts do not sit as self-selected forums of
"legal inquiry and research, but essentially as arbiters of legal
questions presented and argued by the parties before them." Carducci
v. Regan, 714 F.2d 171, 177 (D.C. Cir. 1983) (cited in Tom v.
Heckler, 779 F.2d 1250, 1259-60 (7th Cir. 1985) (Posner, J.,
dissenting)). This court, like any court, relies on the adversarial
system to present relevant and appropriate issues to ensure just and fair
results in the cases before it. The
mere fact that a litigant is proceeding pro se should not
displace this court's reliance on the adversarial system. Indeed, while
courts frequently afford pro se litigants considerable latitude,
the court is reluctant to stretch this accommodation so far as to allow
such a litigant to wholly abandon his or her role in the adversarial
system simply because she is proceeding pro se.*fn15 "Unlike
the Emperor Nero, litigants cannot fiddle as Rome burns. A party who sits
in silence . . . does so at his [or her own] peril." Vasapolli v.
Rostoff, 39 F.3d 27, 36 (1st Cir. 1994).
B. The Plaintiff's Requests for Default Judgment and a Decree of
The government's remaining requests for relief require little
discussion, for the allowance of such relief depends on a favorable
ruling on the government's motion to strike the claimant's claim. Because
today's ruling denies the government's motion to strike, it naturally
follows that the court must deny the government's pendent requests for
default judgment and a decree of forfeiture.
For all of the foregoing reasons, the court denies the Plaintiff's
motion to strike and requests for entry of default judgment and a decree
of forfeiture. An order directing the parties in a manner consistent with
this Memorandum Opinion is separately and contemporaneously issued this
29th day of January 2004.