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Grell v. Trump

United States District Court, District of Columbia

September 12, 2018

DONALD J. TRUMP, et al., Defendants.



         As the nation ponders current political controversies, this case evokes one from the past: the Reagan Administration's covert effort to undermine Nicaragua's Sandinista government in the 1980s. Pro se plaintiff Richard Grell is a U.S. Army veteran who was deployed to Central America in the 1980s and objects to how the government categorizes the missions in which he served. Grell insists that he engaged in combat operations in aid of an undeclared war in Nicaragua, while the military classifies his service as mere training and war games exercises. In a sprawling, 98-page complaint, Grell brings suit against five government defendants in their official capacities: President Donald Trump, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (collectively, “defendants”). Grell alleges unspecified constitutional violations on his own behalf and on behalf of other veterans who served in similar circumstances. Grell's complaint also vaguely sketches a claim under the Administrative Procedure Act (“APA”), seeking review of an Army Board for Correction of Military Records (“ABCMR”) determination. He requests both monetary damages and equitable relief to remedy the loss of recognition and benefits that he claims to have suffered as a result of the government's misclassification of his service.

         Defendants move to dismiss all claims on either jurisdictional or merits grounds; alternatively, they urge the Court to strike Grell's Amended Complaint. After review of the parties' briefing, the Court concludes that Grell's constitutional claims are barred by the political question doctrine and therefore grants defendants' motion to dismiss them. But the Court will strike the remainder of the Amended Complaint, and permit Grell to re-file a more concise complaint that clarifies any APA claim he wishes to bring against a proper government defendant.

         I. Factual Background

         Mr. Grell, a U.S. Army veteran, was stationed in Central America from approximately September 1983 to August 1985. Amended Complaint (“Am. Compl.”) at 2. During that period, he was deployed to Honduras for three months in 1984. Id. at 6-7. He was part of an assignment in Panama with a military police company for about three weeks in 1985. Id. at 7. And in the spring of 1985, he was part of a military police special reaction team assigned to guard a residential facility in Panama. Id. at 7-8.

         These stints in Honduras and Panama have been classed as “training and war games” exercises rather than “combat zones.” Id. at 4, 8, 17-18, 22, 26, 33, 36. Grell objects to this categorization. Id. He believes that his military assignments were not practice or simulation but efforts to overthrow neighboring Nicaragua's Sandinista government, clandestinely ordered by President Ronald Reagan to avoid congressional oversight. Id. at 2, 10, 19, 20, 33, 64. According to Grell, this means that he and his fellow soldiers were in an active war zone, id. at 6-9, 11, as part of efforts that violated the War Powers Resolution. Id.; 50 U.S.C. §§ 1541-1548. Grell contends that the government labeled these “practice” missions to surreptitiously circumvent legislative restrictions on military involvement in Nicaragua. Am. Compl. at 2, 10, 19, 20, 33, 64.

         Grell alleges that he and other soldiers who served in Central America from 1979 to 1992 have suffered unspecified constitutional violations. Id. at 2. He states that neither the Army nor any other part of the U.S. government has recognized his role in a “combat mission” or in “support of a combat mission, ” in spite of his active combat. See id. at 4, 24, 17, 19-20. Grell contends that he and his fellow soldiers have suffered myriad injuries from their inability to claim involvement in combat operations: (1) lack of administrative recognition, including denial of consideration for various military awards and societies; (2) denial of special pay for hostile-fire service; (3) denial of death-classification as “killed in action”; (4) withholding of tax credits; (5) denial of special leave and “rest and recuperation” periods; (6) lost employment opportunities; (7) denial of veterans' discounts and related perks; (8) denial of disability benefits; and (9) denial of more expansive employment and healthcare benefits. Id. at 3-4, 15.

         Grell requests numerous forms of relief. Id. at 92-98. Specifically, he asks the Court to issue an order directing the executive and legislative branches to: (1) designate Honduras, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala during the relevant time periods as “combat zone areas, ” “combat zone tax exclusion areas, ” “direct support of combat operations areas, ” “qualified hazardous duty areas, ” “hostile fire/imminent danger areas, ” and/or “hardship duty locations”; (2) create and/or issue various medals to Grell and other soldiers; (3) declare that the various incidents in Central America were hostile and, therefore, should have been reported under the War Powers Resolution and the Arms Export Control Act; (4) create an independent bipartisan commission to investigate congressional misconduct; (5) direct the formation of an independent veterans' commission; (6) classify soldier Jeffry Schwab as “killed in action”; (7) issue various posthumous medals to Mr. Schwab; (8) issue “gold stars” to the Schwab family; (9) determine that Grell's return date from Honduras to Panama was May 11, 1984; and (10) correct military documents to reflect Grell's requests. Id. Grell also asks that this Court assert permanent jurisdiction over all issues raised in the Amended Complaint. Id. at 96.

         Grell also seeks monetary damages for himself and other soldiers in the form of: (1) back-payment of federal/state income taxes and interest (Grell personally seeks $296, 572.98); (2) unpaid hostile-fire pay and hardship pay (Grell personally seeks $187, 255.99); (3) back-payments in compensation for denied leave and “rest and recuperation periods”; (4) back-payment of withheld “special savings account allotments”; and (5) compensation for Service Group Life Insurance payments (Grell personally seeks $2, 636.41). Id. at 92-98.

         Defendants now move to dismiss Grell's complaint in its entirety. They raise various objections to this Court's jurisdiction under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1). And even assuming the Court has jurisdiction, defendants argue that Grell has failed to state a claim under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). In the alternative, defendants ask the Court to strike Grell's long, discursive complaint and instruct him to file a new one that conforms to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8's requirement that complaints contain a “short and plain” statement of their claims.

         II. Legal Background

         In evaluating a motion to dismiss under either Rule 12(b)(1) or 12(b)(6), a court must “treat the complaint's factual allegations as true . . . and must grant [the] plaintiff ‘the benefit of all inferences that can be derived from the facts alleged.'” Sparrow v. United Air Lines, Inc., 216 F.3d 1111, 1113 (D.C. Cir. 2000) (internal citations omitted), quoting Schuler v. United States, 617 F.2d 605, 608 (D.C. Cir. 1979); see also Am. Nat'l Ins. Co. v. FDIC, 642 F.3d 1137, 1139 (D.C. Cir. 2011). Nevertheless, a court need not accept inferences drawn by a plaintiff that are unsupported by facts alleged in the complaint, nor must the court accept a plaintiff's legal conclusions. Browning v. Clinton, 292 F.3d 235, 242 (D.C. Cir. 2002).

         A. Subject Matter Jurisdiction

         Under Rule 12(b)(1), a plaintiff bears the burden of establishing jurisdiction by a preponderance of the evidence. See Lujan v. Defs. of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555, 561 (1992); Shekoyan v. Sibley Int'l Corp., 217 F.Supp.2d 59, 63 (D.D.C. 2002). Federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction and the law presumes that “a cause lies outside this limited jurisdiction.” Kokkonen v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. of Am., 511 U.S. 375, 377 (1994). “[B]ecause subject-matter jurisdiction is ‘an Art[icle] III as well as a statutory requirement . . . no action of the parties can confer subject-matter jurisdiction upon a federal court.'” Akinseye v. District of Columbia, 339 F.3d 970, 971 (D.C. Cir. 2003), quoting Ins. Corp. of Ireland, Ltd. v. Compagnie des Bauxites de Guinee, 456 U.S. 694, 702 (1982). When reviewing a jurisdictional ...

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