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Atchison v. U.S. District Courts

United States District Court, District of Columbia

May 27, 2016

BERNICE C. ATCHISON Plaintiff,
v.
U.S. DISTRICT COURTS, et al. Defendants. Re Document: 6, 9, 17, 20

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          RUDOLPH CONTRERAS, United States District Judge

         I. INTRODUCTION

         Plaintiff 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”);[1] Stephen C. Carpenter, court-appointed Ombudsman in In re Black Farmers Discrimination Litigation; the law firm Conlon, Frantz & Phelan, L.L.P.;[2] James Scott Farrin;[3] Andrew H. Marks; Henry Sanders; Gregorio Francis; Honza Prchal;[4] and the Claim Facilitator in In re Black Farmers Discrimination Litigation.[5] See Compl., ECF No. 1.

         Multiple 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.

         II. FACTUAL & PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         Given 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.

         A. Historical Background

         Ms. Atchison’s allegations arise from the class-action litigation brought by African-American farmers against the USDA. See Compl. at 3.[6] 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.”).

         On 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).

         Congress 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.

         The 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 6-7.[7] 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.

         Both 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) (per curiam).

         B. Ms. Atchison’s Allegations

         From 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.

         Ms. 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”).[8] 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 3-4.[9] Ms. Atchison alleges that the Track B Neutral committed “plain error” in denying her claim. Id. at 3.

         The 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.

         Ms. 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.

         C. Motions before the Court

         Defendants 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 for decision.[10]

         III. DISCUSSION

         Defendants 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.

         A. Subject Matter Jurisdiction

         Pursuant 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).[11]

         1. Applicable Legal Standard

         As 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)).

         Federal 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).

         2. Analysis

         Defendant 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.

         Even if 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.

         Sovereign 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 (D.D.C. 2006)).

         Although 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 ...


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