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Hall v. Nielsen

United States District Court, District of Columbia

November 8, 2018

STEVEN H. HALL, Plaintiff,
v.
KIRSTJEN M. NIELSEN, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          JAMES E. BOASBERG UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         The Department of Homeland Security terminated Plaintiff Steven Hall's employment following a variety of misconduct allegations, prompting him to retain the legal services of Defendant Rosemary Dettling. Unhappy with the result of the subsequent proceedings, Plaintiff has filed a barrage of suits over the last few years, mostly in a pro se capacity, against Dettling and DHS. This is one such case. Dettling alone now moves to dismiss, contending that the doctrine of claim preclusion bars this action against her because she previously prevailed in a substantially similar suit in D.C. Superior Court. The Court agrees and will grant her Motion.

         I. Background

         This is not the Court's first foray into the facts underlying Hall's termination and grievance with Dettling. See Hall v. Dep't of Homeland Sec, 219 F.Supp.3d 112 (D.D.C. 2016), aff'd sub nom. Hall v. Dettling, No. 17-7008, 2017 WL 2348158 (D.C. Cir. May 17, 2017). Because only a summary rehearsal of this saga is necessary to tee up the legal issue in this case, the Court directs readers curious about the full production to its past Opinion.

         Beginning in 2010, DHS employed Hall at the GS-12 grade level. See ECF No. 12 (Am. Compl.) at 2. The Agency reported several disciplinary issues with Plaintiff and decided, in early 2013, to place him on administrative leave. Id., Exh. N (Facts) at 2-3; ECF No. 28 (Pl. Opp.) at 7. This action was followed by an indefinite suspension, which culminated in the termination of Hall's employment. See Am. Compl. Facts ¶ 3. Plaintiff also reports that, preceding his suspension, he had requested relocation to a new facility because his work site - the St. Elizabeth's building in Southeast D.C. - contained dust that exacerbated his respiratory ailments. Id. at 1. Believing his suspension and termination to have been the result of retaliation and discrimination, Hall filed several complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Merit Systems Protection Board. Id. at 5. He hired Dettling to represent him in these matters. Id. She in turn sought the assistance of other attorneys contracted with her firm, the Federal Employees Legal Services Center (FELSC). Id. at 6.

         Aided by counsel, Hall eventually signed a settlement agreement with the Agency. Suffice it to say, however, that the path to this resolution was far from smooth. The record reveals that Hall repeatedly wavered before ultimately agreeing to the settlement, which did not reinstate his employment but did provide for a financial award and attorney fees. Id. at 6-7. In the midst of this process, Hall ended his professional relationship with Dettling and her firm. Id. at 7. Plaintiff makes no bones about his current dissatisfaction with the deal he entered into. See, e.g., Pl. Opp. at 13-15.

         Hall's discontent with his termination, legal representation, and eventual settlement spurred a flurry of lawsuits. By this Court's count, he has filed eight cases in this jurisdiction. See Nos. 16-846, 16-1471, 16-1619, 17-1469, 18-444, 18-461, 18-1283, 18-1548.

         Plaintiff also brought his grievance across the street. On December 30, 2016, he filed suit pro se in D.C. Superior Court against Dettling and FELSC, centrally alleging legal malpractice in their representation in connection with his employment dispute. See Sup. Ct. Dkt. 2016-CA- 9316-B. What happened there plays a central role here. On February 1, 2017, Dettling moved to dismiss that matter, contending that Hall's complaint failed to state a legally viable claim against her. A little over two weeks later, an attorney entered an appearance on behalf of Hall and filed a motion for default judgment, which the court denied. Neither Hall nor his attorney filed any opposition to Dettling's motion to dismiss. On March 20, 2017, Superior Court Judge Jennifer Di Toro granted her motion and dismissed the case. See Sup. Ct. 03/20/2017 Dkt. Entry (Sup. Ct. Op.) (attached to this Opinion as Appendix A). Although the Superior Court noted the lack of any opposition, it nevertheless addressed the motion on its merits, rather than treating it as conceded. Id. at 1, 5. Two days after the Superior Court ruled, Hall filed an opposition to Dettling's motion. He later filed a motion to reconsider. Judge Di Toro considered his motion but held fast to her prior ruling. See Sup. Ct. 09/19/2017 Dkt. Entry. Hall did not appeal.

         Plaintiff now returns to this Court. The players and the protests look familiar. On February 27, 2018, Hall filed his Complaint against Dettling and DHS, signed by the same attorney who had represented him in Superior Court. See ECF No. 1. In May of this year, that attorney withdrew and Hall continued pro se. See ECF No. 5. After several additional filings, Hall submitted the operative Complaint on July 24, 2018. In this Amended Complaint, he again takes aim at Dettling's representation. Although his precise allegations are no beacon of clarity, the Court has done its best to discern the causes of action that Hall seeks to assert against Dettling. A generous reading yields claims for legal malpractice, fraud or misrepresentation, breach of contract, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

         Dettling now moves to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), arguing that the Superior Court decision bars Plaintiff's current suit from proceeding against her.

         II. Legal Standard

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) provides for the dismissal of an action where a complaint fails “to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.” In evaluating Defendant's Motion to Dismiss, the Court “must treat the complaint's factual allegations as true . . . and must grant 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) (quoting Schuler v. United States, 617 F.2d 605, 608 (D.C. Cir. 1979)); see also Jerome Stevens Pharms., Inc. v. FDA, 402 F.3d 1249, 1253 (D.C. Cir. 2005). The Court need not accept as true, however, “a legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation, ” nor an inference unsupported by the facts set forth in the Complaint. See Trudeau v. FTC, 456 F.3d 178, 193 (D.C. Cir. 2006) (quoting Papasan v. Allain, 478 U.S. 265, 286 (1986)). Although “detailed factual allegations” are not necessary to withstand a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, “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, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (internal citation omitted). For a plaintiff to survive a 12(b)(6) motion, the facts alleged in the complaint “must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007).

         While claim preclusion may be brought as “an affirmative defense that is generally pleaded in a defendant's answer, [it] is also properly brought in a pre-answer Rule 12(b)(6) motion when all relevant facts are shown by the court's own records, of which the court takes notice.” Hemphill v. Kimberly-Clark Corp., 605 F.Supp.2d 183, 186 (D.D.C. 2009) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted); see also Stanton v. D.C. Court of Appeals, 127 F.3d 72, 76-77 (D.C. Cir. 1997) (collecting cases allowing parties to assert res judicata on 12(b)(6) motion). In addition, “[a] court may take judicial notice of public records from other proceedings.” Hemphill 605 F.Supp.2d at 186 (citing Covad Comms. Co. v. Bell Atl. Corp., 407 F.3d 1220, 1222 (D.C. Cir. 2005)); see also Does I through III v. District of Columbia, 238 F.Supp.2d 212, 216-17 (D.D.C. 2002).

         III. Analysis

         The Court first addresses the claim-preclusion argument central to Defendant's Motion, before turning to two additional issues: the one cause of action that falls outside that analysis and Defendant's request for sanctions.

         A. Claim Preclusion

         If one thing is clear from Hall's Amended Complaint, it is this: he does not believe that he was given a fair shake. He is upset about both the terms of his settlement with DHS and the process that led to his ultimate agreement. These are issues that Hall has the right to raise in court. But that entitlement is not without limitation. Once a court hears and decides a case, a litigant may not bring the same claims in another tribunal, hoping for a different result. This intuitive principle is given life by the doctrine of claim preclusion, which is a variety of res judicata. See Taylor v. Sturgell 553 U.S. 880, 892 (2008). It serves to shield parties from vexatious litigation and establishes the finality of judgments necessary to engender reliance. See Does I through III, 238 F.Supp.2d at 217.

         When faced with a defense of claim preclusion, the Court draws the applicable rule from the jurisdiction that handed down the initial determination. That is because, under the Full Faith and Credit Act, 28 U.S.C. § 1738, federal courts must grant a state-court judgment “the same respect that it would receive in the courts of the rendering state.” Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Epstein, 516 U.S. 367, 373 (1996). The Court, therefore, looks to the law of the District of Columbia. See Stanton, 127 F.3d at 77 (holding that this rule applies to D.C. courts). Before embarking on this task, one quick preliminary note: As courts have observed, no “material differences” are readily discernable between “the District of Columbia's law of res judicata and the federal common law of res judicata.” Id. at 78 n.4 (quoting U.S. Indus., Inc. v. Blake Constr. Co, 765 F.2d 195, 204 n.20 (D.C. Cir. 1985)). When helpful, this Court thus may also turn to federal common law for guidance.

         Under D.C. law, the application of claim preclusion rests on a three-part test. The Court must ask:

(1) whether the claim was adjudicated finally in the first action; (2) whether the present claim is the same as the claim which was raised or which might have been raised in the prior proceeding; and (3) whether the party against whom the plea is asserted was a party or in privity with a party in the prior case.

Peterson v. Washington Teachers Union, 192 A.3d 572, 575 (D.C. 2018) (quoting Calomiris v. Calomiris, 3 A.3d 1186, ...


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