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Johnson v. United States

United States District Court, District of Columbia

June 10, 2019




         Like many Americans, pro se plaintiff Joseph Johnson, Jr., owes thousands of dollars in student loans. And he has turned to the courts for relief . . . a lot. This is his twelfth lawsuit arising out of his loans. Because Johnson already filed-and lost-at least one other federal case raising the same claims he brings here, the Court will dismiss this latest suit under the doctrine of res judicata.

         I. Background

         Johnson enrolled at the University of Maryland University College in fall 1993. Johnson v. U.S. Dep't of Educ., 580 F.Supp.2d 154, 155 (D.D.C. 2008), aff'd without op., No. 08-5468 (D.C. Cir. Apr. 10, 2009). From 1993 to 1996, he obtained several federally guaranteed loans. Id. Johnson consolidated those loans in April 2004 under the William D. Ford Federal Direct Loan Program. Compl., ECF No. 1, ¶ 5. At the time of consolidation, Johnson had $24, 447.43 in outstanding student loan debt. Id.[1] By January 2012, despite his alleged efforts to repay the loans, Compl. ¶¶ 13-26, Johnson's debt had risen to $35, 556.58, id. ¶ 27.

         In February 2012, Johnson sent the Department of Education a check for $12, 390.00. Id. ¶ 28. Johnson alleges that this payment should have reduced his consolidated principal amount from $24, 447.33 to $12, 057.33, id.; instead, billing records that month reflected that the Department applied the check to reduce the $35, 556.58 to $23, 179.32, id. ¶ 29. Johnson alleges that the Department accepted his $12, 390 payment but failed to credit it to reduce his overall debt. Id. ¶¶ 30.[2] He contends that although he has never defaulted on his loans, the Department continues to falsely report to credit agencies that he failed to make payments and is now delinquent. Compl. ¶¶ 31-33.

         As mentioned above, Johnson has brought numerous lawsuits against a variety of defendants arising out of these loans. This is the twelfth. Relevant to the government's motion to dismiss under the res judicata doctrine is Johnson's eleventh lawsuit.

         In June 2015, Johnson sued the Department of Education in federal district court in Maryland for breach of conditional settlement, promissory estoppel, unjust enrichment, and violations of the Fair Credit Reporting Act, the Debt Collection Improvement Act of 1996, and the Higher Education Act of 1965. Johnson v. Duncan, No. GJH-15-1820, 2017 WL 462049, at *1 (D. Md. Feb. 1, 2017). He claimed that the Department was misreporting the amount he owed on his student loans. Id. at *2. He also contended that by cashing his $12, 390 check, the Department agreed to accept a partial payment to settle his entire outstanding debt. Id.

         The Maryland district court denied Johnson's motion for partial summary judgment and granted the Department of Education's motion for judgment on the pleadings. The court concluded that Johnson was collaterally estopped from relitigating the issue of whether his $12, 390 check was a valid settlement, which had been determined in two prior cases in which Johnson attempted to enforce the alleged settlement against other defendants. Id. at *5-6. Because all of Johnson's claims were premised on that issue, the court dismissed the case with prejudice. Id.

         In October 2017, Johnson filed suit in this Court. He brings claims against the United States for conversion (count 1), money had and received (count 2), violation of the Fair Credit Reporting Act (count 3), violation of consumer protection and debt collection laws (count 4), [3]negligence (count 5), and declaratory judgment (count 6). He says that counts 1, 2, 4, and 5 are brought under the Federal Tort Claims Act (“FTCA”). Id. at 8.

         As in the Maryland case, his claims all relate to how the Department of Education handled his check for $12, 390. Unlike in that case, however, Johnson does not allege here that his partial payment should have settled his entire student debt; rather, he alleges that the Department has failed to properly credit his account by applying the funds from his check to a principal balance that was too high.

         The government filed a motion to dismiss in February 2019. See MTD, ECF No. 18. After Johnson moved to strike that motion as filed by the wrong party (the government filed the motion on behalf of the Department of Education rather than the United States, the named defendant), the government filed a supplemental motion to dismiss. See Suppl. MTD, ECF No. 26. The Court denied Johnson's motion to strike and instructed him to respond to the government's two motions, which it would construe as a “consolidated motion to dismiss.” See March 11, 2019 Minute Order. The United States has moved to dismiss on three grounds: (1) in the original motion to dismiss, the government argues that the Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction over Johnson's statutory claims; (2) in the alternative, the government argues that the Court should dismiss the entire complaint as precluded under the doctrine of res judicata; and (3) in its supplemental motion to dismiss, the government incorporates the previous two bases and also argues that counts 1 and 2 are time barred.

         The government has also filed a counterclaim to recover the outstanding balance of Johnson's student debt, which it says totaled $33, 314.91 as of February 8, 2019. See Counterclaim ¶ 21. Johnson answered the counterclaim and asserted thirty-six affirmative defenses. See Plaintiff/Counter-Defendant's Answer, ECF No. 24.

         II. Standard of Review

         As relevant here, the United States moves to dismiss Johnson's complaint as barred under the doctrine of res judicata. “When res judicata bars a claim, it is subject to dismissal under [Federal Rule of Civil Procedure] 12(b)(6).” Alford v. Providence Hosp., 60 F.Supp.3d 118, 123 (D.D.C. 2014). In analyzing a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), the Court must determine whether the complaint “contain[s] 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) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). The Court takes all of the factual allegations in the complaint as true and construes those facts “liberally in the plaintiff's favor with the benefit of all reasonable inferences derived from the facts alleged.” Stewart v. Nat'l Educ. Ass'n, 471 F.3d 169, 173 (D.C. Cir. 2006). Finally, when ...

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