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Benoit v. United States Dep't of Agriculture

September 8, 2008

KIRK BENOIT, ET AL., PLAINTIFFS,
v.
UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE, ET AL.,*FN1 DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Paul L. Friedman United States District Judge

OPINION

This matter is before the Court on defendants' motion to dismiss plaintiffs' complaint for lack of subject matter jurisdiction under Rule 12(b)(1) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.*fn2 Upon consideration of defendants' motion, plaintiffs' opposition, defendants' reply, and the entire record in this case, the Court will (1) grant summary judgment in favor of the defendants on plaintiffs' Equal Credit Opportunity Act claims, and (2) dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction plaintiffs' claims under the United States Constitution, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Administrative Procedure Act, and the common law.

I. OVERVIEW

This is a discrimination suit. Fourteen African American farmers, all but two of whom opted out of the so-called Pigford litigation, see Pigford v. Glickman, 185 F.R.D. 82 (D.D.C. 1999), allege that the United States Department of Agriculture ("USDA") has, over the course of many years, discriminated against them on the basis of race (and, in the case of plaintiff Dorothy Deloney, on the basis of sex as well) in connection with the agency's federally funded credit and benefit programs.*fn3

All of the plaintiffs assert that the USDA's allegedly discriminatory conduct entitles them to monetary damages under the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, 15 U.S.C. §§ 1691 et seq. ("ECOA"); the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution; Section 1981 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 1981 ("Section 1981"); and the Administrative Procedure Act, 5 U.S.C. §§ 551 et seq. Plaintiffs also assert common law tort claims. See Second Amended Complaint ¶¶ 775-801 ("Compl."). As discussed in more detail below, the defendants -- hereinafter referred to collectively as "the USDA" -- maintain that all of the plaintiffs' claims are barred by the doctrine of sovereign immunity.

II. STANDARDS OF REVIEW

The USDA moves to dismiss all of the plaintiffs' claims for lack of subject matter jurisdiction under Rule 12(b)(1) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. This is problematic as a procedural matter because, for reasons discussed below, the Court concludes that the USDA's challenges to plaintiffs' ECOA claims -- unlike the USDA's challenges to plaintiffs' other claims -- are not properly asserted under the rubric of Rule 12(b)(1) but must be considered under the summary judgment standard of Rule 56. The Court therefore sets forth both the standard for resolving motions to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction and the standard for resolving motions for summary judgment.

A. Rule 12(b)(1): Motion to Dismiss for Lack of Subject Matter Jurisdiction

Federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction. They therefore may hear only cases entrusted to them by a grant of power contained in either the Constitution or in an act of Congress. See, e.g., Beethoven.com L.L.C. v. Librarian of Congress, 394 F.3d 939, 945 (D.C. Cir. 2005); Best v. United States, 522 F. Supp. 2d 252, 254 (D.D.C. 2007); Srour v. Barnes, 670 F. Supp. 18, 20 (D.D.C.1987) (citing City of Kenosha v. Bruno, 412 U.S. 507, 511, (1973)). The United States may be sued for money damages only when it has expressly waived its immunity from suit. See FDIC v. Meyer, 510 U.S. 471, 475 (1994) (citing Loeffler v. Frank, 486 U.S. 549, 554 (1988)).

Under Rule 12(b)(1), the plaintiffs bear the burden of establishing subject matter jurisdiction. See Kokkonen v. Guardian Life Insurance Co., 511 U.S. 375, 377 (1994); Moms Against Mercury v. FDA, 482 F.3d 824, 828 (D.C. Cir. 2007) (citing Georgiades v. MartinTrigona, 729 F.2d 831, 833 n.4 (D.C. Cir. 1984)). In determining whether to grant a motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, the Court must accept all of the factual allegations in the complaint as true, but may, in appropriate cases, consider certain materials outside the pleadings. See Jerome Stevens Pharmacies, Inc. v. FDA, 402 F.3d 1249, 1253-54 (D.C. Cir. 2005). The Court may either consider the complaint alone, or "the complaint supplemented by undisputed facts evidenced in the record, or the complaint supplemented by undisputed facts plus the court's resolution of disputed facts." Herbert v. Nat'l Academy of Sciences, 974 F.2d 192, 197 (D.C. Cir. 1992). While the complaint is to be construed liberally, the Court need not accept factual inferences drawn by plaintiffs if those inferences are not supported by facts alleged in the complaint. Nor must the Court accept plaintiffs' legal conclusions. See Best v. United States, 522 F. Supp. 2d at 255; Primax Recoveries, Inc. v. Lee, 260 F. Supp. 2d 43, 47 (D.D.C. 2003).

B. Rule 56: Motion for Summary Judgment

Summary judgment may be granted only if "the pleadings, the discovery and disclosure materials on file, and any affidavits [or declarations] show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." FED. R. CIV. P. 56(c); see also Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247-48 (1986); Holcomb v. Powell, 433 F.3d 889, 895 (D.C. Cir. 2006). "A fact is 'material' if a dispute over it might affect the outcome of a suit under the governing law; factual disputes that are 'irrelevant or unnecessary' do not affect the summary judgment determination." Holcomb v. Powell, 433 F.3d at 895 (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. at 248). An issue is "genuine" if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-moving parties. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. at 248; Holcomb v. Powell, 433 F.3d at 895. When a motion for summary judgment is under consideration, "the evidence of the non-movant is to be believed, and all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in [his or her] favor." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. at 255; see also Mastro v. Potomac Electric Power Co., 447 F.3d 843, 849-50 (D.C. Cir. 2006); Aka v. Washington Hospital Center, 156 F.3d 1284, 1288 (D.C. Cir. 1998) (en banc); Washington Post Co. v. Dep't of Health and Human Services, 865 F.2d 320, 325 (D.C. Cir. 1989). On a motion for summary judgment, the Court must "eschew making credibility determinations or weighing the evidence." Czekalski v. Peters, 475 F.3d 360, 363 (D.C. Cir. 2007).

The non-moving parties' opposition, however, must consist of more than mere unsupported allegations or denials and must be supported by affidavits, declarations or other competent evidence setting forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial. See FED. R. CIV. P. 56(e)(2); Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 324 (1986). The non-moving parties are "required to provide evidence that would permit a reasonable jury to find" in their favor. Laningham v. U.S. Navy, 813 F.2d 1236, 1242 (D.C. Cir. 1987). If the evidence is "merely colorable" or "not significantly probative," summary judgment may be granted. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. at 249-50; see Scott v. Harris, 127 S.Ct. 1769, 1776 (2007) ("[W]here the record taken as a whole could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the non-moving party, 'there is no genuine issue for trial.'") (quoting Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986)). To defeat summary judgment, plaintiffs must produce more than "a scintilla of evidence to support [their] claims." Freedman v. MCI Telecommunications Corp., 255 F.3d 840, 845 (D.C. Cir. 2001).

III. EQUAL CREDIT OPPORTUNITY ACT CLAIMS

A. Background

All fourteen plaintiffs assert that the USDA violated the ECOA by discriminating against them in connection with the USDA's credit and non-credit benefit programs for farmers.*fn4

Generally speaking, plaintiffs have little in common except that they are all parties to this lawsuit. Plaintiffs reside in five states and the United States Virgin Islands; they are or were engaged in very different farming enterprises; and, with a few exceptions, all of their claims are based on different factual allegations.*fn5 Nevertheless, the plaintiffs' similarities are more important than their differences for purposes of this Opinion. Two similarities are most relevant. First, all plaintiffs distill from their distinct factual allegations the same legal claim: that is, that the USDA discriminated against them in violation of the ECOA by, at various times and in various ways, (1) purposely losing or failing to act on their loan applications; (2) unreasonably delaying the processing of their loan applications; (3) denying their loan applications on the basis of race and (in one case) sex; (4) withholding loan funds for which they were approved; (5) requiring them to utilize supervised bank accounts; and/or (6) failing to inform them that local USDA decisions could be appealed. See Compl. ¶ 787. Second, all of the plaintiffs seek to assert ECOA claims that are timely only if they fall within the ambit of Section 741, a provision of law that waives the ECOA's generally applicable two-year statute of limitations for certain individuals. See Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act of 1999, Pub. L. 105-277, § 741, 112 Stat. 2681 (Oct. 21, 1998) (codified at 7 U.S.C. § 2279 Historical and Statutory Notes) (hereinafter "Section 741").

After setting forth the legal framework within which plaintiffs' ECOA claims must be considered, the Court (1) explains why the USDA's motion to dismiss plaintiffs' ECOA claims for lack of subject matter jurisdiction under Rule 12(b)(1) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure is in fact properly resolved as a motion for summary judgment under Rule 56, ...


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