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Hall v. McAleenan

United States District Court, District of Columbia

June 21, 2019

STEVEN H. HALL, Plaintiff,
v.
KEVIN MCALEENAN, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          JAMES E. BOASBERG UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiff Steven Hall has filed a flood of pro se suits against Defendant Rosemary Dettling - his former attorney - as well as other parties, all arising from an employment dispute he had with the Department of Homeland Security. Undeterred by repeated dismissals of his claims, as well as warnings that sanctions would ensue should he continue filing suits, Hall has persisted in initiating claims against Dettling and others. She now seeks a pre-filing injunction against him, arguing that his suits are harassing and frivolous. Agreeing, the Court will issue such an injunction, barring Plaintiff from filing further actions about this issue without prior leave of this Court.

         I. Background

         Hall has filed approximately nine cases in this Court and four in the D.C. Superior Court regarding his dispute with DHS and Dettling. See Hall v. Nielsen (Nielsen V), No. 19-1013; Hall v. Nielsen (Nielsen IV), No. 18-1548; Hall v. Nielsen (Nielsen III), No. 18-1283; Hall v. Nielsen (Nielsen II), the current suit, No. 18-461; Hall v. Nielsen (Nielsen I), No. 18-444; Hall v. EEOC (EEOC), 17-1469; Hall v. DOC (DOC), No. 16-1619; Hall v. DHS (DHS), No. 16-1471; Hall v. DOL (DOL), No. 16-846; Hall v. Pohlman (Pohlman), Super. Ct. No. 19-1102; Hall v. Dettling (Dettling III), Super. Ct. No. 19-965; Hall v. Dettling (Dettling II), Super. Ct. No. 19-791; Hall v. Dettling (Dettling I), Super. Ct. No. 16-9316. Hall himself estimates that he has filed 40 suits and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaints regarding these same basic facts. See Nielsen V, ECF No. 1 (Compl.) at 20.

         Plaintiff's vendetta against Dettling began in 2015. He retained her to represent him in his employment-discrimination dispute, which arose out of his suspension and ultimate termination by DHS. See Nielsen II, ECF No. 20 (Mot. to Dismiss), Exh. 1 (Dettling I (Sup. Ct. Op. Mar. 20, 2017)); Nielsen II, 2019 WL 1116911, at *1 (D.D.C. Mar. 11, 2019). Hall, with Dettling as counsel, initially contested his DHS termination in front of the Merit Systems Protection Board. During that process, Dettling advised him to accept a settlement agreement with DHS, and Hall did so on November 23, 2015. DHS, ECF No. 1 (Compl.), Exh. D (Misc. Papers) at 51-55; Dettling I at 2. After settling, however, he promptly got cold feet and revoked the settlement the next day. Dettling I at 2. A few days later, he fired Defendant as counsel. See DHS, Compl., Exh. J (Email Messages) at 120. Plaintiff, however, then had another change of heart, telling the MSPB Judge that he intended to rescind the revocation and that he would like to accept the settlement after all. See Dettling I at 2. As a result, Plaintiff was permitted to enter into the settlement agreement on December 1, 2015, and he thereby received a total of $55, 000. See Nielsen II, 2019 WL 250972, at *1 (D.D.C. Jan. 17, 2019).

         A month later, he again reversed course and decided he wanted out. On January 2, 2016, Hall petitioned the MSPB to review the settlement, arguing that Dettling and the MSPB Judge had coerced him into accepting the agreement. See DHS, Compl. at 16, 39, 41 (attaching Hall v. Nielsen, U.S. MSPB Docket No. 0752-14-0243-I-1). The MSPB rejected Plaintiff's petition for review on June 23, 2016, pronouncing that Hall “was not misled” and that he “knowingly and voluntarily signed the settlement agreement, he waived further Board appeal rights concerning his removal, and the waiver is enforceable.” Id. at 19-20. This would be the first of many findings that Plaintiff's claims against Defendant arising out of the DHS negotiations lacked merit.

         Plaintiff resolutely forged ahead, initiating more complaints and investigations. He next complained about Dettling to the District of Columbia Bar's Office of Disciplinary Counsel on October 12, 2016, and again on November 29, 2016. See Nielsen II, ECF No. 28 (Resp. MTD), Attach. 2 (Misc. Papers) at 19, 21, 23; Dettling I at 3. Hall also filed a complaint against her regarding her representation with the D.C. Bar's Attorney/Client Arbitration Board (ACAB) in 2017. The ACAB and the D.C. Bar's Office of Disciplinary Counsel found in Defendant's favor. See Nielsen II, MTD, Exh. 2 (ACAB Papers); Nielsen II, Resp. MTD, Attach. 2 (Misc. Papers) at 22, 38.

         Undiscouraged by these findings, Hall then filed suit against Dettling (as well as others) in U.S. District Court, alleging fraud, collusion, and malpractice, as well as other claims. See DHS, Compl. at 2. In that case, he again accused her of “entic[ing]” and “coerc[ing]” him into signing the settlement agreement. See DHS, Compl. at 10. In an Order issued on December 1, 2016, this Court rejected Plaintiff's theory of coercion, finding that he “eventually decided to proceed with the settlement after he had terminated Dettling's representation.” DHS, 219 F.Supp.3d 112, 115 (D.D.C. 2016), aff'd sub nom. Hall v. Dettling, No. 17-7008, 2017 WL 2348158 (D.C. Cir. May 17, 2017).

         Instead of accepting the conclusions of the MSPB or this Court, Hall looked for a more sympathetic ear. He thus filed suit in the D.C. Superior Court, restating his claims that Dettling had committed fraud and misrepresentation, as well as other torts. See Dettling I at 5-9. Judge Jennifer A. Di Toro rejected Plaintiff's arguments and granted Defendant's motion to dismiss these claims against her on March 20, 2017. Id. at 9.

         His business still unfinished, Plaintiff next filed suit against Dettling in this Court on February 27, 2018, again alleging the same torts he had previously raised - namely, malpractice and misrepresentation. See Nielsen II, 2018 WL 5840663, at *4 (D.D.C. Nov. 8, 2018). On November 8, 2018, this Court granted Dettling's motion to dismiss and cautioned Hall that it would “consider a pre-filing injunction” should he continue to file suits against Dettling. Id. at *6.

         Hall has not heeded this warning. After receiving this Court's admonition, he set in motion three more suits against Dettling in the Superior Court. She responded by filing the current Motion for a Pre-Filing Injunction. Nielsen II, 2019 WL 1116911, at *1-2. This Court initially refused to enjoin the proceedings in Superior Court, explaining that the stringent standards set by the Anti-Injunction Act had not been met. Id. at *2-4. Regarding an injunction in this Court, however, the Court deferred a decision in order to give Plaintiff an opportunity to respond. Id. at *2. Hall then replied in his “Show Cause” memorandum of April 2. See Nielsen II, ECF No. 59 (Resp. Mem. Op.). This memorandum primarily reiterated his list of grievances against Dettling. Id. The pre-filing injunction issue is now ripe for decision.

         II. Analysis

         Given this confluence of actions, largely against an individual, the Court must decide whether a pre-filing injunction is warranted to finally terminate Hall's conduct. Such injunctions are an extreme sanction and are a limited exception to the “general rule of free access to the courts.” In re Powell, 851 F.2d 427, 431 (D.C. Cir. 1988) (quoting Pavilonis v. King, 626 F.2d 1075, 1079 (1st Cir. 1980)). Pre-filing injunctions should be used sparingly, especially against pro se plaintiffs. Id. (citing Pavilonis, 626 F.2d at 1079). The court, however, has the duty and authority to issue injunctions “to protect the integrity of the courts and the orderly and expeditious administration of justice.” Urban v. United Nations, 768 F.2d 1497, 1500 (D.C. Cir. 1985). Because courts have “the inherent power and the constitutional obligation to protect their jurisdiction from conduct that impairs their ability to carry out Article III functions, ” they can impose pre-filing injunctions both in response to the filings of a party or sua sponte. See Baum v. Blue Moon Ventures, LLC, 513 F.3d 181, 189 (5th Cir. 2008) (quoting In re Martin-Trigona, 737 F.2d 1254, 1261 (2d Cir. 1984)).

         When considering an injunction, a court must first ensure that the plaintiff has “notice and an opportunity to be heard.” Unitronics (1989) (R''G) Ltd. v. Gharb, 85 F.Supp.3d 118, 130 (D.D.C. 2015) (quoting In re Powell, 851 F.2d at 431). Once that has been accomplished, courts should assess the volume of a plaintiff's filings and the extent to which they are harassing or ...


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