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Hall v. Nielsen

United States District Court, District of Columbia

March 11, 2019

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



         Plaintiff Steven Hall has filed a barrage of pro se suits related to his firing by the Department of Homeland Security and a subsequent settlement. Feeling he was treated unfairly during those proceedings -- despite having obtained $55, 000 -- Hall has continued to sue both his former attorney Rosemary Dettling and various government officials, even as he has repeatedly lost in state and federal court. Although this Court dismissed Hall's latest case, he has recently filed several additional lawsuits against Dettling in D.C. Superior Court. Dettling now moves for an injunction to require Plaintiff to obtain court consent before filing future federal-court suits against her. Additionally, she seeks to halt Hall's current proceedings against her in the Superior Court. The Court will order Plaintiff to show cause why an injunction should not issue in federal court, but it will deny the Motion as it pertains to state court because that is the appropriate venue for Dettling to seek such relief.

         I. Background

         Much ink has already been spilled on the dispute between Hall and Dettling. See Hall v. Nielsen, No. 18-461, 2018 WL 5840663 (D.D.C. Nov. 8, 2018); Hall v. Dep't of Homeland Sec, 219 F.Supp.3d 112 (D.D.C. 2016), affd sub nom. Hall v. Dettling, No. 17-7008, 2017 WL 2348158 (D.C. Cir. May 17, 2017). Just a few facts are relevant here.

         DHS placed Hall on administrative leave in 2013. See ECF No. 12 (Am. Compl.), Exh. N (Facts) at 3. The agency then indefinitely suspended and eventually terminated him. Id at 5. Believing that his firing was 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. Although Hall settled with DHS during the administrative process, he believes he was given a poor deal. See, e.g., ECF No. 28 (Pl. Opp.) at 13-15. His dissatisfaction with both the underlying agreement and his representation in the matter has spurred the flurry of lawsuits that he has filed against both DHS and Dettling. See Hall, 2018 WL 5840663, at *2 (noting that Plaintiff “ha[d] filed eight cases in this jurisdiction” at time of that Opinion).

         Hall's lawsuits against Dettling have not been confined to this Court. On December 30, 2016, he brought claims for legal malpractice in D.C. Superior Court. Id, App. A. These proved unsuccessful, as Judge Jennifer Di Toro granted Defendant's motion to dismiss, concluding that Plaintiffs claims were non-meritorious. Id, App. A at *8-10. Plaintiff then sued Dettling in this Court on July 2, 2018, for breach of contract, malpractice, misrepresentation, and other misconduct. See Am. Compl. at 5-7; ECF No. 8 (Mot. for Compulsory Joinder of Parties) at 2. On November 8, 2018, this Court dismissed the claims against Dettling, holding that the doctrine of claim preclusion barred most of Plaintiff s contentions because they had already been addressed and rejected by Judge Di Toro. See Hall, 2018 WL 5840663, at *3-5. Although the Court chose to deny Dettling's request for sanctions against Hall for vexatious litigation, it cautioned that it might “consider a pre-filing injunction should he continue to sue Dettling for issues arising out of her legal representation.” Id. at *6.

         Dettling now returns to the courthouse seeking that relief. While Hall has not filed additional actions against her in federal court, she has “received three new complaints filed by Plaintiff in the DC Superior Court” since her federal case concluded. See ECF No. 55 (Def. Am. Mot. For Pre-Filing Inj.) at 1. The suits include claims of “Fraudulent Misrepresentation, Slander, and Libel”; “Breach of Warranty/Special Deal”; and “False Witness.” See ECF No. 54 (Def. First Mot. for Pre-Filing Inj.), Exh. A (Feb. 21, 2019, Sup. Ct. Filing) at 4; Exh. B (Feb. 19, 2019, Breach of Warranty/Special Deal Sup. Ct. Filing) at 3; Def. Am. Mot., Attach. 1 (Feb. 19, 2019, False Witness Sup. Ct. Filing) at 3. Dettling argues that this evidence of vexatious litigation warrants an “[o]rder prohibiting Plaintiff from filing further claims against Defendant without prior leave of the Court.” Def. Am. Mot. at 1-2. She also requests that this injunction should be presented to the D.C. Superior Court, presumably to halt the most recent round of proceedings there. Id. at 2.

         II. Analysis

         Dettling seeks injunctive relief in both federal and state court. Although Hall's suits may prove equally burdensome in either forum, this Court's analysis diverges based on the venue where relief is sought. While the Motion for injunctive relief in federal court may proceed, the Motion to halt current and future state proceedings fails to clear the higher bar for federal enjoinment of state proceedings set by the Anti-Injunction Act.

         A. Federal-Court Relief

         Dettling asks this Court to require Plaintiff, prior to filing suit against Dettling, to submit to the Court “(i) an application for leave to file suit; (ii) a copy of the accompanying order; and (iii) a notarized affidavit or declaration stating that the matters raised in the lawsuit have not been raised or decided in any other lawsuit, are brought in good faith, and are not for the purpose of harassment.” See Def. Am. Mot. at 2. Relief of this type is permitted under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 11(c)(1), which allows a court to sanction parties for pleadings or motions that “harass, cause unnecessary delay, or needlessly increase the cost of litigation.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 11(b)(1). Additionally, the All Writs Act reinforces this Court's ability to issue “all writs necessary or appropriate in aid of their respective jurisdictions.” 28 U.S.C. § 1651(a).

         Such relief, however, is not dispensed in gross. This Circuit has acknowledged that pre-filing injunctions “‘remain very much the exception to general rule of free access to the courts,' and ‘the use of such measures against a pro se Plaintiff should be approached with particular caution.'” In re Powell 851 F.2d 427, 431 (D.C. Cir. 1988) (quoting Pavilonis v. King, 626 F.2d 1075, 1079 (1st Cir. 1980)). “In considering whether a pro se litigant should be enjoined from filing suit, the litigant must ‘at least[] be provided with the opportunity to oppose' the injunction, and the Court must ‘make substantive findings as to the frivolous or harassing nature of the litigant's actions.'” Powell v. Davis, No. 18-297, 2018 WL 5621491, at *3 (D.D.C. Oct. 30, 2018) (quoting In re Powell 851 F.2d at 431). The appropriate next step, therefore, is to allow Hall the opportunity to oppose the pre-filing injunction sought in federal court. The Court can then make the required determination, keeping in mind “both the number and content” of Hall's filings thus far to decide if it is necessary to enjoin future federal proceedings in the manner sought. See In re Powell 851 F.2d at 431.

         B. State-Court Relief

         To the extent Dettling also asks this Court to enjoin state-court proceedings, its power to issue such injunctions is further limited by the AIA and federalism principles. The AIA provides that “[a] court of the United States may not grant an injunction to stay proceedings in a State Court except as expressly authorized by Act of Congress, or where necessary in aid of its jurisdiction, or to protect or effectuate its judgments.” 28 U.S.C. § 2283. The Supreme Court has held that these exceptions should be construed narrowly, and “[p]roceedings in state courts should normally be allowed to continue unimpaired by intervention of the lower federal courts.” Atl. Coast Line R.R. Co. v. Bhd. of Locomotive Eng'rs, 398 U.S. 281, 287 (1970). Because “the ...

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