United States District Court, District of Columbia
BERNICE C. ATCHISON Plaintiff,
U.S. DISTRICT COURTS, et al. Defendants. Re Document: 6, 9, 17, 20
RUDOLPH CONTRERAS, United States District Judge
Bernice C. Atchison, proceeding pro se, seeks
damages from various Defendants associated with the series of
lawsuits in this District that culminated in In re Black
Farmers Discrimination Litigation, 856 F.Supp.2d 1
(D.D.C. 2011). Specifically, Ms. Atchison named as Defendants
the United States District Court for the District of Columbia
(“Defendant Court”); Stephen C. Carpenter,
court-appointed Ombudsman in In re Black Farmers
Discrimination Litigation; the law firm Conlon, Frantz
& Phelan, L.L.P.; James Scott Farrin; Andrew H. Marks;
Henry Sanders; Gregorio Francis; Honza Prchal; and the Claim
Facilitator in In re Black Farmers Discrimination
Litigation. See Compl., ECF No. 1.
Defendants have filed motions to dismiss the Complaint in its
entirety on a variety of grounds. For the reasons explained
below, the Court finds that it does not have jurisdiction to
review the decisions of another district court and that
sovereign immunity bars Ms. Atchison’s claims against
the Defendant Court. The Court will therefore dismiss the
Complaint as to Defendant Court for lack of subject matter
jurisdiction pursuant to Rule 12(b)(1) of the Federal Rules
of Civil Procedure. The Court also finds that Ms.
Atchison’s attempts to serve process were untimely. In
this situation, the Court would typically grant an extension
of time for Ms. Atchison to attempt to perfect service, but
an extension would be futile here because the Court finds
that the Complaint fails to state a claim upon which relief
can be granted. Therefore, the Court will grant the remaining
Defendants’ motions and dismiss the Complaint pursuant
to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. For
the same reasons, the Court will dismiss the Complaint as to
the Claims Facilitator on its own initiative.
FACTUAL & PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND
the complex history of the litigation brought by
African-American farmers against the United States Department
of Agriculture (“USDA”), the Court will begin by
providing a brief overview of the historical background. The
Court will then turn to Plaintiff’s allegations and the
motions pending before the Court.
Atchison’s allegations arise from the class-action
litigation brought by African-American farmers against the
USDA. See Compl. at 3. The Complaint refers to those
cases repeatedly, and the Court notes that it may take
judicial notice of publicly filed documents in related
litigation. See Lewis v. DEA, 777 F.Supp.2d 151, 159
(D.D.C. 2011) (citing Covad Commc’ns Co. v. Bell
Atl. Corp., 407 F.3d 1220, 1222 (D.C. Cir. 2005))
(“The court may take judicial notice of public records
from other court proceedings.”).
April 14, 1999, a court in this District approved a consent
decree that settled a class-action lawsuit brought by
African-American farmers alleging racial discrimination by
the USDA in the application of its credit and benefits
programs. See Pigford v. Glickman (Pigford
I), 185 F.R.D. 82 (D.D.C. 1999), aff’d,
206 F.3d 1212 (D.C. Cir. 2000). The Pigford I
consent decree created a “dispute resolution
mechanism” that allowed class members to file
administrative claims seeking compensation for past
discrimination by the USDA. Id. at 95. Pigford
I set a time limit for farmers to file their claims, but
many farmers attempted to file after the deadline had passed.
See In re Black Farmers Discrimination Litig., 856
F.Supp.2d 1, 11 (D.D.C. 2011).
provided a remedy to farmers with time-barred claims through
a provision of the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008
(“2008 Farm Bill”). See Id. That
provision states: “[a]ny Pigford claimant who has not
previously obtained a determination on the merits of a
Pigford claim may, in a civil action brought in the United
States District Court for the District of Columbia, obtain
that determination.” Id. (quoting Pub. L.
110-234, § 14012(b), 122 Stat. 923, 1448 (2008)).
Through at least twenty-three complaints filed in this
District, roughly 40, 000 individuals brought suit under that
provision, and those cases became known as Pigford
II actions. See Id. at 13. Recognizing the case
management challenges posed by the Pigford II cases,
the court consolidated all twenty-three actions into one
miscellaneous case, In re Black Farmers Discrimination
Litigation, No. 08-mc-0511 (PLF). See id.
Pigford II parties negotiated a settlement (the
“Settlement Agreement”) that was ultimately
approved by the court on October 27, 2011 following a
fairness hearing and the consideration of extensive written
submissions by interested parties. See Id. at
The Pigford II Settlement Agreement created a
two-track system for resolving claims-under Track A, any
potential cash award was limited to $50, 000, but the
claimant faced the relatively low burden of proving her claim
by “substantial evidence, ” while under Track B,
a claimant could receive a maximum of $250, 000 in cash, but
she was required to prove her claim by the higher standard of
the preponderance of the evidence. Id. at 22-23.
Track A and Track B claims were evaluated by neutral third
parties, the “Track A Neutral” or the
“Track B Neutral, ” and those determinations were
“final and not subject to appeal.” Id.
at 23. The court explicitly considered a mechanism for
appealing adverse decisions and found that “[g]iven the
costs and benefits of an appeal process . . . the decision .
. . not to offer such a process under the settlement
agreement does not make the agreement or the process it
established unfair or unreasonable.” Id. at
36. The D.C. Circuit dismissed consolidated appeals
challenging the court’s approval of the settlement.
See Latham v. Vilsack, Nos. 11-5326, 11-5334,
12-5019, 2012 WL 10236550, at *1 (D.C. Cir. July 25, 2012)
Ms. Atchison’s Allegations
the outset, the Court notes that a pro se complaint
will be construed liberally and is held to “less
stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted by
lawyers.” Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94
(2007) (per curiam) (quoting Estelle v. Gamble, 429
U.S. 97, 106 (1976)). Although the Complaint is occasionally
difficult to follow, the denial of Ms. Atchison’s Track
B claim appears to form the root of her allegations.
Atchison alleges that she submitted a Track B claim under
Pigford II and that her claim was denied by the
Track B Neutral. See Compl. at 3, 7-8, 23, see
also Id. at 35-36 (attaching “‘Track
B’ Claim Determination Form”). A determination
letter dated July 23, 2013 explained that she “failed
to prove that [she] complained of discrimination to an
official of the United States government before July 1, 1997,
” id. at 36, but Ms. Atchison maintains that
she had evidence to the contrary, id. at 3-4. Ms.
Atchison states that her claim was supported by evidence
including “letters from congressmen, senators and three
Presidents of the United States Government, ” as well
as communications “with other state” and
“County Officials” and Ms. Atchison’s own
testimony before Congress in 2004. Id. at
Ms. Atchison alleges that the Track B Neutral committed
“plain error” in denying her claim. Id.
Complaint further alleges that one of the attorneys
designated as class counsel to assist claimants in the
Pigford II claims process completed half of Ms.
Atchison’s claim form and then refused to complete the
remainder of the form. Id. at 5. Ms. Atchison states
that this action was a “dereliction of the oath he took
to serve” and prevented any other attorney from
assisting her in her claim. Id. at 5-6. Ms. Atchison
also makes general complaints against class counsel, alleging
that they “denied the aid and assistance that had been
promised.” Id. at 6.
Atchison alleges that Defendants’ actions violated her
constitutional rights, including her right to due process.
Id. at 7-8. Further, Ms. Atchison states that the
actions alleged in the Complaint constitute “FRAUD
perpetrated upon the Court and the Plaintiff.”
Id. at 8. Ms. Atchison seeks $331, 050 in
compensatory damages and $500, 000 in pain and suffering
damages. Id. at 10.
Motions before the Court
Conlon, Frantz & Phelan L.L.P., James Scott Farrin, Henry
Sanders, Gregorio Francis, and Honza Prchal (collectively,
the “Conlon Defendants”) move to dismiss the
Complaint for insufficient service of process pursuant to
Rule 12(b)(5) and for failure to state a claim pursuant to
Rule 12(b)(6). See generally Conlon Mot. Dismiss,
ECF No. 6. Defendant Andrew H. Marks moves to dismiss the
Complaint for insufficient service of process pursuant to
Rule 12(b)(5) and for failure to state a claim pursuant to
Rule 12(b)(6). See generally Def. Andrew H.
Marks’s Mot. Dismiss (“Marks Mot.
Dismiss”), ECF No. 9. Defendant Stephen Carpenter moves
to dismiss the Complaint arguing that he is entitled to
absolute or qualified immunity for actions taken as
court-appointed Ombudsman, as well as for insufficient
service of process pursuant to Rule 12(b)(5) and for failure
to state a claim pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6). See
generally Mot. Def. Stephen Carpenter Dismiss Compl.,
ECF No. 17. Defendant Court moves to dismiss the Complaint
for lack of subject matter jurisdiction pursuant to Rule
12(b)(1), for insufficient service of process pursuant to
Rule 12(b)(5), and for failure to state a claim pursuant to
Rule 12(b)(6). See Def. U.S. District Court’s
Mot. Dismiss, ECF No. 20 (“Def. Court Mot.
Dismiss”). These motions are now fully briefed and ripe
move to dismiss the Complaint in its entirety on a number of
grounds, arguing, among other things, that: The Court lacks
subject matter jurisdiction over claims against Defendant
Court, Plaintiff’s service of process was untimely, the
method of Plaintiff’s service of process was
insufficient as to certain Defendants, and the Complaint
fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. The
Court first considers the question of subject matter
jurisdiction, and finds that it has no jurisdiction to review
the judicial acts of other district courts and that sovereign
immunity bars claims against Defendant Court. Next, the Court
finds that service was untimely, but that it would ordinarily
grant an extension of time for Ms. Atchison to perfect
service. Here, however, an extension would be futile because
the Court finds that, as to the remaining Defendants, the
Complaint fails to state a claim upon which relief can be
granted. Thus, the Court will grant the motions to dismiss
and dismiss the Complaint as to all Defendants.
Subject Matter Jurisdiction
to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1), Defendant Court
moves to dismiss the Complaint because this Court lacks
subject matter jurisdiction. See Def. Court Mot.
Dismiss at 1. Specifically, Defendant Court argues that Ms.
Atchison does not have constitutional standing, that a
district court does not have the authority to review the
decisions of other district courts, and that sovereign
immunity bars Ms. Atchison’s claims. See Mem.
Supp. U.S. District Court’s Mot. Dismiss at 7-9
(“Def. Court Mem. Supp.”), ECF No. 20-1. This
Court is not a reviewing court, and it does not have subject
matter jurisdiction to review the decision of other district
courts. Even if review were permitted, the Court finds that
it does not have subject jurisdiction over claims against
Defendant Court because the United States has not waived
sovereign immunity in this context. Thus, the Court will
dismiss Ms. Atchison’s Complaint as to Defendant Court
pursuant to Rule 12(b)(1).
Applicable Legal Standard
previously stated, a pro se complaint is held to
“less stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted
by lawyers.” Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89,
94 (2007) (per curiam) (quoting Estelle v. Gamble,
429 U.S. 97, 106 (1976)). But even pro se litigants
“must comply with the Federal Rules of Civil
Procedure.” Idrogo v. Foxx, 990 F.Supp.2d 5, 6
(D.D.C. 2013) (citing Jarrell v. Tisch, 656 F.Supp.
237, 239 (D.D.C. 1987)).
Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) provides for the dismissal
of an action for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.
See Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(1). Federal courts are
courts of limited jurisdiction, and the law presumes that
“a cause lies outside this limited jurisdiction.”
Rasul v. Bush, 542 U.S. 466, 489 (2004) (quoting
Kokkonen v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. of Am., 511 U.S.
375, 377 (1994)); see also Gen. Motors Corp. v. EPA,
363 F.3d 442, 448 (D.C. Cir. 2004) (“As a court of
limited jurisdiction, we begin, and end, with an examination
of our jurisdiction.”). It is the plaintiff’s
burden to establish that the court has subject matter
jurisdiction. Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife, 504
U.S. 555, 561 (1992). To determine whether jurisdiction
exists, a court may “consider 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.” Coal.
for Underground Expansion v. Mineta, 333 F.3d 193, 198
(D.C. Cir. 2003).
Court argues that it “is axiomatic that a district
court lacks subject matter jurisdiction to review the
decisions of other district court[s]” and this Court
agrees. See Def. Court Mem. Supp. at 7. The federal
district courts “generally lack[ ] appellate
jurisdiction over other judicial bodies, and cannot exercise
appellate mandamus over other courts.” United
States v. Choi, 818 F.Supp.2d 79, 85 (D.D.C. 2011). This
Court’s jurisdiction is drawn from the same statutory
sources as its sister courts, both in this District and
elsewhere. See 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331, 1332;
see also Ortiz v. Pratter, No. 15-cv-0481, 2015 WL
1546252, at *1 (D.D.C. Apr. 3, 2015) (“The Eastern
District of Pennsylvania and this Court have the same
jurisdiction conferred by 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331,
1332.”). Therefore, this Court has no subject matter
jurisdiction to reconsider the decisions of other federal
district courts. See Fleming v. United States, 847
F.Supp. 170, 172 (D.D.C. 1994) (first citing D.C. Court
of Appeals v. Feldman, 460 U.S. 462, 482 (1983); and
then citing Rooker v. Fidelity Trust Co., 263 U.S.
413, 415, 416 (1923)). Thus, to the extent Ms. Atchison
objects to any decision of the court in the Pigford
II litigation, her proper remedy was an appeal of that
decision. The Court finds that it has no subject matter
jurisdiction to hear claims against Defendant Court that
attack the judicial acts of a sister court in a prior case.
this Court had jurisdiction to review the decisions of other
district courts, Defendant Court correctly argues that
sovereign immunity bars Ms. Atchison’s claims. In her
Complaint, Ms. Atchison alleges constitutional violations and
seeks money damages. See Compl. at 8-9 (“Due
process was broken and the [Constitutional] Right to be heard
[was] denied . . . .”). Defendant Court argues that the
federal “government has not waived its sovereign
immunity for claims for money damages in this context.”
Def. Court Mem. Supp. at 9.
immunity shields the federal government and its agencies from
suit and is “jurisdictional in nature.” Am.
Road & Transp. Builders Ass’n v. EPA, 865
F.Supp.2d 72, 79 (D.D.C. 2012) (quoting FDIC v.
Meyer, 510 U.S. 471, 475 (1994)) (other citations
omitted). “If sovereign immunity has not been waived, a
claim is subject to dismissal under Rule 12(b)(1) for lack of
subject matter jurisdiction.” Clayton v. District
of Columbia, 931 F.Supp.2d 192, 200 (D.D.C. 2013)
(citing Meyer, 510 U.S. at 475) (other citations
omitted). The government may waive immunity, but such a
waiver “must be unequivocally expressed in statutory
text, and will not be implied.” Lane v. Pena,
518 U.S. 187, 192 (1996) (citations omitted). To survive a
motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(1), “[t]he plaintiff
bears the burden of establishing both the court’s
statutory jurisdiction and the government’s waiver of
its sovereign immunity.” Am. Road & Transp.
Builders Ass’n, 865 F.Supp.2d at 80 (first citing
Kokkonen v. Guardian Life Ins. Co., 511 U.S. 375,
377 (1994); then citing Tri-State Hosp. Supply Corp. v.
United States, 341 F.3d 571, 575 (D.C. Cir. 2003); and
then citing Jackson v. Bush, 448 F.Supp.2d 198, 200
Ms. Atchison bears the burden of establishing the
government’s waiver of sovereign immunity, she has
failed to identify any such waiver. The Court agrees with
Defendant Court and finds that the government has not waived
its sovereign immunity in this context. The D.C. Circuit has
explained that “suits for damages against the United
States under . . . the Constitution are barred by sovereign
immunity.” Benoit v. U.S. Dep’t of
Agric., 608 F.3d 17, 20 (D.C. Cir. 2010); see ...