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Sieverding v. United States Dep't of Justice

March 15, 2010

DAVID AND KAY SIEVERDING, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: John D. Bates United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Kay and David Sieverding, proceeding pro se, have sued the United States Department of Justice alleging violations of the Privacy Act, as well as a number of other claims arising under federal law. Currently before the Court is [8] the Department's motion to dismiss the Sieverdings' complaint or in the alternative for summary judgment. Also pending are over a dozen motions filed by the Sieverdings, as well as a motion for a protective order filed by the Department. For the reasons detailed below, the Court will grant the Department's motion to dismiss or in the alternative for summary judgment, and will deny all other pending motions, other than a few procedural ones.

BACKGROUND

The Sieverdings originally sued dozens of individuals and entities in 2002 for damages arising out of a property dispute with their neighbors. See Sieverding v. Colo. Bar Ass'n, 2003 WL 22400218, at *1 (D. Colo. 2003). The district court, adopting a magistrate judge's recommendation, dismissed the Sieverdings' complaint in full. See Sieverding v. Colo. Bar Ass'n, 469 F.3d 1340, 1342-43 (10th Cir. 2006) ("Sieverding I"). In light of what it described as the Sieverdings' "abusive litigation practices," the district court also imposed filing restrictions on the Sieverdings. See Sieverding v. Colo. Bar Ass'n, No. 02-cv-1950 (D. Colo. filed Oct. 11, 2002) [Docket Entry 788]; see also Sieverding I, 469 F.3d at 1343-45 (affirming filing restrictions in part). Ms. Sieverding apparently failed to comply with these filing restrictions, and was arrested and jailed for civil contempt several times between 2005 and 2007. See Sieverding I, 469 F.3d at 1343; Sieverding v. Colo. Bar Ass'n, 244 Fed. Appx. 200, 205 (10th Cir. 2007). In this case, the Sieverdings allege dozens of Privacy Act and other violations stemming from these arrests and incarcerations.*fn1

STANDARD OF REVIEW

All that the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure require of a complaint is that it contain "'a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief,' in order to 'give the defendant fair notice of what the . . . claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.'" Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007) (quoting Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 47 (1957)); accord Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 93 (2007) (per curiam). Although "detailed factual allegations" are not necessary to withstand a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, to provide the "grounds" of "entitle[ment] to relief," a plaintiff must furnish "more than labels and conclusions" or "a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action." Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555-56. "To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to 'state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'" Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 1949 (2009) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570); accord Atherton v. Dist. of Columbia Office of the Mayor, 567 F.3d 672, 681 (D.C. Cir. 2009). A claim to relief is plausible on its face "when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. at 1949. This amounts to a "two-pronged approach," under which a court first identifies the factual allegations entitled to an assumption of truth and then determines "whether they plausibly give rise to an entitlement to relief." Id. at 1950-51.

The notice pleading rules are not meant to impose a great burden on a plaintiff. See Dura Pharms., Inc. v. Broudo, 544 U.S. 336, 347 (2005); see also Swierkiewicz v. Sorema N.A., 534 U.S. 506, 512-13 (2002). When the sufficiency of a complaint is challenged by a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), the plaintiff's factual allegations must be presumed true and should be liberally construed in his or her favor. See Leatherman v. Tarrant County Narcotics & Coordination Unit, 507 U.S. 163, 164 (1993); Phillips v. Bur. of Prisons, 591 F.2d 966, 968 (D.C. Cir. 1979). The plaintiff must be given every favorable inference that may be drawn from the allegations of fact. See Scheuer v. Rhodes, 416 U.S. 232, 236 (1974); Sparrow v. United Air Lines, Inc., 216 F.3d 1111, 1113 (D.C. Cir. 2000). Moreover, "[c]courts must construe pro se filings liberally." Richardson v. United States, 193 F.3d 545, 548 (D.C. Cir. 1999). However, "the court need not accept inferences drawn by plaintiffs if such inferences are unsupported by the facts set out in the complaint." Kowal v. MCI Commc'ns Corp., 16 F.3d 1271, 1276 (D.C. Cir. 1994). Nor does the court accept "a legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation," or "naked assertions devoid of further factual enhancement." Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. at 1949-50 (internal quotation marks omitted); see also Aktieselskabet AF 21. November 2001 v. Fame Jeans Inc., 525 F.3d 8, 17 n.4 (D.C. Cir. 2008) (the D.C. Circuit has "never accepted legal conclusions cast in the form of factual allegations" (internal quotation marks omitted)).

Along with its motion to dismiss the Sieverdings' complaint, the Department has moved in the alternative for summary judgment under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56. The Department has offered affidavits in support of its motion, and the Sieverdings have filed voluminous documentation to support their position. When, on a motion to dismiss, "matters outside the pleadings are presented to and not excluded by the court, the motion must be treated as one for summary judgment under Rule 56," and "[a]ll parties must be given a reasonable opportunity to present all the material that is pertinent to the motion." Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(d); see also Yates v. Dist. of Columbia, 324 F.3d 724, 725, (D.C. Cir. 2003). To the extent the Sieverdings' allegations may be resolved on the evidentiary record before it, then, the Court will treat the government's motion as one for summary judgment.

Summary judgment is appropriate when the pleadings and the evidence demonstrate 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). The party seeking summary judgment bears the initial responsibility of demonstrating the absence of a genuine dispute of material fact. See Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). The moving party may successfully support its motion by identifying those portions of "the pleadings, the discovery and disclosure materials on file, and any affidavits" that it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c); see Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323.

In determining whether there exists a genuine issue of material fact sufficient to preclude summary judgment, the court must regard the non-movant's statements as true and accept all evidence and make all inferences in the non-movant's favor. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986). A non-moving party, however, must establish more than the "mere existence of a scintilla of evidence" in support of its position. Id. at 252. By pointing to the absence of evidence proffered by the non-moving party, a moving party may succeed on summary judgment. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322. "If the evidence is merely colorable, or is not significantly probative, summary judgment may be granted." Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249-50 (citations omitted). Summary judgment is appropriate if the non-movant fails to offer "evidence on which the jury could reasonably find for the [non-movant]." Id. at 252.

ANALYSIS

As one district judge put it, the Sieverdings' pleadings are "verbose, prolix and virtually impossible to understand." Sieverding, 2003 WL 22400218, at *1. Nonetheless, the Court has identified numerous legal claims in both their original and amended complaint.*fn2 Many of these claims arise under the Privacy Act, and the Court will address those allegations first.*fn3 At the outset, however, the Court notes that David Sieverding lacks standing to sue on behalf of his wife. See Fair Employment Council v. BMC Mktg. Corp., 28 F.3d 1268, 1277 (D.C. Cir. 1994) ("[O]rdinarily, a plaintiff 'must assert his own legal interests, rather than those of third parties.'" (quoting Gladstone, Realtors v. Bellwood, 441 U.S. 91, 100 (1979))).

I. Privacy Act Allegations

The Privacy Act, 5 U.S.C. § 552a et seq., "imposes a set of substantive obligations on agencies that maintain systems of records." Skinner v. Dep't of Justice, 584 F.3d 1093, 1096 (D.C. Cir. 2009). It also "'authorizes civil suits by individuals . . . whose Privacy Act rights are infringed.'" Wilson v. Libby, 535 F.3d 697, 707 (D.C. Cir. 2008) (quoting Sussman v. United States Marshals Serv., 494 F.3d 1106, 1123 (D.C. Cir. 2007)).

Under the Act, every agency that maintains a system of records*fn4 may only keep "such information about an individual as is relevant and necessary to accomplish a purpose of the agency required to be accomplished by statute or by executive order of the President." 5 U.S.C. § 552a(e)(1). Agencies must also "maintain all records which are used by the agency in making any determination about any individual with such accuracy, relevance, timeliness, and completeness as is reasonably necessary to assure fairness to the individual in the determination."

Id. at § 552a(e)(5). With limited exceptions, agencies are also prohibited from maintaining records "describing how any individual exercises rights guaranteed by the First Amendment." Id. at § 552a(e)(7).

Individuals may petition agencies to amend records concerning the individual that are not "accurate, relevant, timely, or complete." Id. § 552a(d)(2). If an agency refuses to amend an individual's record, that person may sue in federal court for de novo consideration of whether amendment is warranted. See id. § 552a(g)(1)(A), (g)(2)(A).

The Privacy Act also restricts the disclosure of records. Subject to various exceptions, "[n]o agency shall disclose any record which is contained in a system of records by any means of communication to any person, or to another agency," without the consent of the individual to whom the record pertains. Id. § 552a(b). Also, for many disclosures, the agency must "keep an accurate accounting of the date, nature, and purpose of each disclosure of a record . . . and the name and address of the person or agency to whom the disclosure is made." Id. § 552a(c)(1).

"The obligations created by the Act are not absolute, however. The Act permits agencies to exempt certain systems of records from some of its requirements." Doe v. FBI, 936 F.2d 1346, 1351 (D.C. Cir. 1991). Specifically, any agency "which performs as its principal function any activity pertaining to the enforcement of criminal laws" may exempt from the Act's maintenance and amendment requirements (among others) any system of records consisting of:

(A) information compiled for the purpose of identifying individual criminal offenders and alleged offenders and consisting only of identifying data and notations of arrests, the nature and disposition of criminal charges, sentencing, confinement, release, and parole and probation status; (B) information compiled for the purpose of a criminal investigation, including reports of informants and investigators, and associated with an identifiable individual; or (C) reports identifiable to an individual compiled at any stage of the process of enforcement of the criminal laws from arrest or indictment through release from supervision.

5 U.S.C. § 552a(j)(2).

Here, Kay Sieverding alleges a number of Privacy Act violations by the Federal Bureau of Investigation ("FBI"), the United States Marshals Service ("the Marshals" or "USMS"), and the Department of Justice ("the Department" or "DOJ").*fn5 The Court takes ...


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