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Johnson v. Devos

United States District Court, D. Maryland, Southern Division

August 13, 2017

JOSEPH JOHNSON, JR. Plaintiff,
v.
BETSY DEVOS, SECRETARY U.S. DEP'T OF EDUC, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          GEORGE J. HAZEL UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         In a previous Memorandum Opinion, the Court granted Defendants" Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings, dismissing Plaintiff Joseph Johnson. Jr.'s action against Arne Duncan. then-Secretary of the United States Department of Education.[1] and the Department of Education ("the Department") (collectively, ''Defendants"), for breach of conditional settlement, promissory estoppel, unjust enrichment, and violations of the Consumer Credit Reporting Reform Act of 1996 or Fair Credit Reporting Act ("FCRA"). the Debt Collection Improvement Act of 1996. and the Higher Education Act of 1965. all arising from Johnson's student loan debt.[2] Now pending before the Court is Plaintiffs Motion to Clarify and for Leave to Amend the Complaint. ECT No. 51. and Defendants" Motion to Strike Plaintiffs Motion. ECF No. 52. No hearing is necessary. See hoc. R. 1 05.6 (D. Md. July 1. 201 6). For the following reasons. Plaintiffs Motion is denied and Defendants" Motion to Strike is denied.

         I. DISCUSSION

         A. Defendants' Motion to Strike

         As an initial matter. Johnson filed his pro se Motion. ECF No. 51. while he was represented by counsel. Brian S. Jablon. A district court is not required to accept such a motion. See United States v. Gadsden, No. CRIM. WDQ-11-0302. 2013 WL 6145109. at *4(D. Md. Nov. 20. 2013). affd, 616 F, App'x 539 (4th Cir. 2015). Indeed. Local Rule 102.l(a)(i) provides that "[w]hen a party is represented by counsel, the Clerk shall accept for filing only documents signed by a member of the Bar of this Court whose appearance is entered on behalf of that party." Loc. R. 102.1(a)(i) (D. Md. July 1. 2016). Jablon has not filed a Motion to Withdraw in this matter, and Defendants have moved to strike Plaintiff's Motion on this basis. ECF No. 52.

         However, a new attorney. Kathleen Hyland. entered aft appearance as counsel of record on March 27. 2017. See ECF No. 53. On the same day. Hyland filed an Opposition to Defendant's Motion to Strike on Plaintiffs behalf, and in the alternative, requested leave to amend to cure the cited error under I.oc. R. 102.1(a)(i). ECF No. 54. In the Opposition to the Motion to Strike. Plaintiff indicates that he reasonably believed that Jabron was no longer going to represent him following judgment, and therefore tiled the Motion for Reconsideration at issue here pro se. See ECF No. 54 at 4. Therefore, it would appear that Plaintiff may have been "between attorneys" when he filed, notwithstanding Jabron's failure to withdraw. The Court thus will, in its discretion, entertain the merits of Johnson's Motion, and deny Defendants' Motion to Strike.

         B. Plaintiffs Motion to Clarify or for Leave to Amend

         The Court may not grant a post-judgment motion to amend the complaint unless the court first vacates its judgment pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 59(e) or 60(b). See Calvary Christian Center v. City of Fredericksburg. Virginia, 710 F.3d 536. 539 (4th Cir. 2013). Under Rule 59(e). a party may file a motion to alter or amend a judgment no later than 28 days alter the entry of the judgment. Fed.R.Civ.P. 59(e); see also Ford v. United States, No. GJH-11-3039. 2016 WI. 3430673. at *1 (D. Md. Mar. 16. 2016). The Court may alter or amend an earlier judgment only ""(1) to accommodate an intervening change in controlling law: (2) to account for new evidence not available at trial: or (3) to correct a clear error of law or prevent manifest injustice." United Stales ex. rel. Becker v. Westinghouse Savannah River Co., 305 F.3d 284. 290 (4th Cir. 2002) (citing Pac. Ins. Co. v. Am. Sat 7 Fire his. Co., 148 F.3d 396. 403 (4th Cir. 1998)).

         Under Rule 60(h). the Court may relieve a party from an adverse judgment if the party shows (1) mistake, inadvertence, surprise, or excusable neglect: (2) newly discovered evidence that, with reasonable diligence, could not have been discovered in time to move for a new trial; (3) fraud, misrepresentation, or misconduct by an opposing party: (4) the judgment is void: (5) the judgment has been satisfied, released, or discharged: it is based on an earlier judgment that has been reversed or vacated: or applying it prospectively is no longer equitable; or (6) any other reason that justifies relief. Fed.R.Civ.P. 60(b): see also Robinson v. Wix Filtration Corp. LLC, 599 F.3d 403, 411 (4th Cir. 2010).

         However, the Fourth Circuit has clarified that for post-judgment requests to amend the complaint, as here, "[t]o determine whether vacatur is warranted . . . the court need not concern itself with either of those rules" legal standards. The court need only ask whether the amendment should be granted, just as it would on a prejudgment motion to amend pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 15(a)." Katyle v. Penn Nat. Gaining. Inc., 637 F.3d 462. 471 (4th Cir. 2011). Accordingly "a court should evaluate a postjudgment motion to amend the complaint "under the same legal standard as a similar motion tiled before judgment was entered-for prejudice, bad faith, or futility."" Id., (citing Later v. Harvey, 438 F.3d 404. 427 (4th Cir. 2006)).

         "Whether an amendment is prejudicial will often be determined by the nature of the amendment and its timing." Laber, 438 F.3d at 427. An amendment is often found to be prejudicial where, for example, it "raises a new legal theory that would require the gathering and analysis of facts not already considered by the defendant and is offered shortly before or during trial.'' Id. (citations omitted): see also Deasy v. Hill, 833 F.2d 38. 42 (4th Cir. 1987) (noting that "[b]elated claims which change the character of litigation are not favored"); Isaac v. Harvard University, 769 F.2d 817. 829 (1st Cir. 1985) (affirming denial of proposed amendment which would "very materially change the nature of the complaint").

         Since June 2015. Plaintiff has proceeded on a theory that his February 2012 check in the amount of $12, 390.00 (the "Purported Settlement") fully satisfied his outstanding principal balance of $35, 556.58. and therefore discharged Plaintiffs student loan obligations. See FCF Nos. 1 and 10. Now. nearly two years later - and after Plaintiffs claim that his debt has been extinguished has been repeatedly rejected by this Court and others - Plaintiff seeks to amend his Complaint for the second time, post-judgment, and proceed on a theory that the Department of Education failed to "apply valid check payments"" and reduce Johnson's principal balance. Plaintiff also adds a barrage of new claims, including three claims of breach of contract, conversion, and "invasion of privacy by intrusion upon seclusion." See ECF No. 51-1 at 9-17. Requiring the Department to now defend against these claims at this late juncture is prejudicial. See Rhodes v. E.l. Du Pont De Nemours & Co., No. CIV.A. 6:06-CV-00530. 2009 WL 3380351. at *1 (S.D. W.Va. Oct. 16. 2009) (denying leave to amend where "adding a new and substantially different cause of action" would prejudice the defendants): Omni Outdoor Advertising, Inc. v. Columbia Outdoor Advertising, Inc., 974 F.2d 502. 506 (4th Cir. 1992) (denying leave to amend, noting that "[t]rying eases one claim at a time is both unfair to the opposing party and inefficient for the judicial system").

         Moreover, Plaintiff has had ample opportunity to present these claims, and he has offered no justification for omitting these claims in his Complaint or First Amended Complaint. See Glaser v. Enzo Biochem, Inc., 126 F.App'x 593. 602 (4th Cir. 2005) (affirming denial of leave to amend where plaintiff had "many opportunities to present their claim""): Hemphill v. ARAMARK Corp., No. 1:12-CV-01584-ELII. 2014 WI. 1248296. at *25 (D. Md. Mar. 25, 2014). aff'd. 582 F.App'x 151 (4th Cir. 2014) (denying leave to amend where plaintiff knew the underlying facts when he filed the earlier complaint). The timing of his amendment is thus prejudicial to Defendants.

         In addition, "where the movant first presents a theory difficult to establish but favorable and, only after that fails, a less favorable theory, denial of leave to amend on the grounds of bad faith may be appropriate." Dussouy v. Gulf Coast Inc. Corp.660 F.2d 594. 599 (5th Cir. 1 981). In this case. Johnson first presented a theory that his "conditional settlement constitutes a valid accord and satisfaction" of his student loans. ECF No. 10 at 14. and now. only after the Court has found that such a theory is barred by collateral estoppel. Johnson advances a theory that the settlement check "should have reduced" the balance. See ECF No. 51-1 at 7-8. See Horton v. Vinson, No. E14CV192. 2015 WI. 4774276. at *29 (N.D. W.Va. Aug. 12. 201 5) (denying leave to amend and agreeing that "[o]nly after [plaintiff] became aware of the limitations on pleading . . . [the] claims through motions practice did he mention any of these new factual allegations, leading to the natural conclusion that he has chosen to add these allegations in bad faith . ..") (internal citations and alterations omitted). This, coupled with Johnson's well-established history as "a serial litigator who is on a decade-long quest (undeterred by lack of success at each instance) to avoid paying student loans that he took out from 1993 to ...


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