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Cottrell v. Vilsack

United States District Court, District of Columbia

January 4, 2013

Jeffrey D. COTTRELL, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
Tom VILSACK, Secretary, Department of Agriculture, Defendant.

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

Page 83

Jeffrey D. Cottrell, St. Louisville, OH, pro se.

Lloyd T. Morrison, Bellville, OH, pro se.

Laurie J. Weinstein, United States Attorney's Office, Washington, DC, for Defendant.

OPINION

ROSEMARY M. COLLYER, District Judge.

Pro se plaintiff Jeffrey Cottrell alleges that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) discriminated against him in violation of the Equal Credit Opportunity Act and the Age Discrimination in Federal Programs Act, failed to investigate his civil rights complaints in violation of the Administrative Procedure Act, violated the Privacy Act, and denied him procedural due process. USDA moves to dismiss because the claims are barred by res judicata due to multiple prior law suits; because the claims were filed out of time; and

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because the Complaint otherwise fails to state a claim. As explained below, the motion to dismiss will be granted.

I. FACTS

Starting in 1989, Jeffrey Cottrell filed administrative complaints as well as various federal lawsuits against USDA regarding his attempts to participate in two separate benefits programs— the Production Flexibility Contract (PFC) program and the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). He now sues again, based on the same underlying facts.

A. 1989 CRP Claim

In 1989, Mr. Cottrell was 22 years old. He leased and farmed 2 parcels of land, consisting of more than 538 acres in Coshocton and Knox Counties, Ohio. The land was owned by his grandmother, Lucille Stuller. Mr. Cottrell had entered into long-term leases for the farms, with options to purchase. On July 17, 1989, he and his grandmother applied for a ten-year CRP agreement with USDA.

CRP is an agricultural program created to aid owners and operators of highly erodible cropland in conserving and improving the soil and water resources of their farms or ranches. 16 U.S.C. § 3831(a). To implement the program, USDA is authorized to enter into rental contracts with the owners/operators of eligible land. Id. § 3831(e). Such rental contracts provide that USDA will pay rent to the owner/operator in exchange for the owner/operator's agreement to use the land for purposes that promote conservation such as for grass or pasture. Id. §§ 3832(a)(1), 3833. To qualify for CRP, an applicant must include (1) a conservation plan approved by the district in which the lands are located, 7 C.F.R. § 1410.3, and (2) non-owner operators (like Plaintiff) must provide assurance of control of the land for the duration of the contract period. Id. § 1410.5.

Six weeks after Mr. Cottrell leased the two parcels, on September 4, 1989, Ms. Stuller died. She had four children who were heirs to 1,754 acres of land, including the land she had leased to Mr. Cottrell. While the District Conservationist approved Mr. Cottrell's conservation plan on September 5, 1989 (thereby satisfying the first of the prerequisites to qualify for CRP), on November 14, 1989, the Coshocton County Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service Committee (County Committee) [1] sent Mr. Cottrell a letter indicating that he had not shown that he had control over the land for the full contract period. The County Committee indicated that approval of his application would be delayed pending consent of the executor and all heirs to Ms. Stuller's estate. Mr. Cottrell was not able to obtain the consent of the heirs.

For twelve years after the death of Ms. Stuller, her heirs litigated the rights to her land. Mr. Cottrell and his mother took an adversarial position against his aunts and uncle, who claimed that the leases expired upon Ms. Stuller's death and that the option rights were then extinguished. The heirs sought partition of the land. See Mot. to Dismiss [Dkt. 15], Ex. A (2007 Final Decision) at 3.

In the meantime, Mr. Cottrell pursued his CRP application. He appealed the denial by the County Committee to the State Committee. The State Committee affirmed the denial on July 19, 1990. Mr. Cottrell then appealed to the Deputy Administrator

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of the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service, and on March 3, 1991, the Deputy Administrator also affirmed the denial of his CRP application. The Deputy Administrator noted that its decision concluded Mr. Cottrell's administrative appeal rights.

Before the Deputy Administrator reached a determination of his claim,[2] Mr. Cottrell filed suit against USDA in the Southern District of Ohio, asserting that USDA's denial of his CRP application was arbitrary and capricious. The district court denied the claim and entered judgment in favor of USDA, and the Sixth Circuit affirmed. See Cottrell v. Yuetter, 38 F.3d 1215, 1994 WL 560967 at *1, *3 (6th Cir. Oct. 11, 1994) (Table; Text in Westlaw). The Sixth Circuit noted:

Cottrell must concede that the specter of a will contest between heirs apparent looming on the horizon might well lead one to conclude that there is certainly not satisfactory evidence of Cottrell's long-term control of the land, regardless of the actual outcome of any such will contest.
Id.

About five years later, Mr. Cottrell filed another case in the Southern District of Ohio against the USDA. See Cottrell v. Glickman, Civ. No. 2:99-282 (S.D.Ohio, filed March 18, 1999). In that second suit, he alleged breach of contract, claiming that his CRP application was an offer that USDA accepted when it approved his conservation plan. On July 18, 2000, the district court dismissed the case for three reasons: (1) the district court lacked jurisdiction, since jurisdiction rested with the Court of Claims; (2) Mr. Cottrell failed to exhaust administrative remedies; and (3) res judicata barred the suit since he should have raised the breach of contract claim in the prior district court case. See Cottrell v. United States, 71 Fed.Cl. 559, 561 (Ct.Cl.2006) (relying on the case record and describing the 1999 suit). [3]

In 2001, the family litigation over rights to Ms. Stuller's estate finally ended. The Ohio Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal of a decision by the Ohio Appellate Court. The Appellate Court had ruled that Mr. Cottrell owned the land he had originally leased from his grandmother, since he had exercised his options to purchase. See 2007 Final Decision at 3 (describing Cottrell family litigation in Ohio state courts).[4]

Despite winning ownership rights to the two farms, Mr. Cottrell still continued to litigate. On September 13, 2005, he filed suit against USDA in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims. See Cottrell v. United States, 71 Fed.Cl. 559 (Ct.Cl.2006). He alleged that USDA improperly denied his 1989 CRP application and thus breached a binding contract. The Court of Claims dismissed Mr. Cottrell's CRP claim, finding it was barred by the applicable six-year statute of limitations. Id. at 566.

B. 1996 PFC Claim

In the 2005 Court of Claims suit, Mr. Cottrell also alleged that USDA wrongfully denied ...


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