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Press v. United States

United States District Court, D. Maryland

March 7, 2018

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, et al., Defendants.


          James K. Bredar Chief Judge

         Plaintiff Roderick Press brought this action against the United States of America (the “United States”), Knight Sky LLC (“Knight Sky”), and George Knizewski on June 19, 2017. (See Compl., ECF No. 1.) In his complaint, Plaintiff raised a claim of negligence against the United States, and a claim of tortious interference with prospective economic and business relations against Knight Sky and Mr. Knizewski (collectively, “the Knight Sky Defendants”). (Id. ¶¶ 44-66.) Both the United States and the Knight Sky Defendants brought motions to dismiss, Plaintiff has responded to both motions and Defendants have replied. Therefore, both motions are ripe for review. No hearing is necessary to resolve the matter. See Local Rule 105.6 (D. Md. 2016). Plaintiff's claim against the United States is partially barred by sovereign immunity, and he has failed to state a claim against the Knight Sky Defendants. Accordingly, his complaint will be dismissed in part by accompanying order.

         I. Background [1]

         Plaintiff worked in information technology and security, and in 2006 he joined Knight Sky as a network engineer. (Compl. ¶¶ 10, 14.) Knight Sky is a Maryland company that contracted with the Federal Government. (Id. ¶ 14.) Knight Sky's employees had security clearances, and it would use the Joint Personnel Adjudication Verification System (“JPAS”) to process security-related information. (See Id. ¶ 16; id. p. 1 (defining “JPAS”).) JPAS is an “electronic personnel database maintained by the Department of Defense [(“DoD”)] for the purpose of collecting reports touching on a person's ability to use and to handle classified information.” (Id. ¶ 16.) When Plaintiff worked for Knight Sky, his security clearance was “tagged on JPAS for Knight Sky and Knight Sky served as a servicing entity for Plaintiff's security clearance on JPAS.” (Id. ¶ 17.) The exact nature of this relationship is not entirely clear, but what matters is this: Knight Sky was allowed to “update Plaintiff's record during the service relationship.” (Id.) That means that Knight Sky was able to post reports to JPAS that would affect Plaintiff's ability to handle classified information. In 2008 Plaintiff “terminated his business relationship” with Knight Sky. (Id. ¶ 18.) Plaintiff had helped manage Knight Sky's JPAS access, and before leaving in 2008 he “separated himself . . . from the JPAS system, ” such that “Knight Sky was no longer a servicing entity to Plaintiff's security clearance” and could not continue to update his record. (Id. ¶ 19.)

         After leaving Knight Sky, Plaintiff “activated” Astraeos Technologies, Inc. (“Astraeos”), a corporation he had formed a decade earlier, and began bidding on government contracts and competing with Knight Sky. (Id. ¶ 20, 22.) He also took a new job at Northrop Grumman. (Id. ¶ 21.) In March 2009, Knight Sky's CEO, George Knizewski, attended a trade show and told attendees that they should not do business with Astraeos. (Id. ¶ 23.) In April 2009, Astraeos filed suit against the Knight Sky Defendants in Maryland state court, for defamation, tortious interference, and unfair competition. (Id. ¶ 24.) Knight Sky brought several counterclaims, and ultimately a judge granted both parties a directed verdict, finding that Astraeos' claims failed for lack of damages, and Knight Sky's for failure to “present sufficient evidence as to liability and damages.” (Id. ¶ 25.) The verdict was upheld by the Maryland Court of Special Appeals in September 2010. (Id.)

         On October 2010, one month after the Court of Special Appeals' decision and two years after Plaintiff had left Knight Sky, Knight Sky published a security incident report (the “Incident Report”) on Plaintiff's JPAS account. (Id. ¶ 26.) This Incident Report contained nine accusations against Plaintiff, mostly regarding mishandling various sensitive data or inappropriately using various systems, all with the intent to harm Knight Sky financially. (Id.) Plaintiff maintains that the Incident Report “contained falsehoods” and that Knight Sky “did not have a valid [DoD] sponsored account to access JPAS [and] did not have ownership, managing, or service rights to initiate investigations on Plaintiff' [sic] security clearance.” (Id. ¶ 27-28.)

         As a result of Knight Sky's actions “a red flag was placed on Plaintiff's JPAS account.” (Compl. ¶ 28.) The Plaintiff's use of passive voice in this particular allegation is troublesome, given the importance of this event to Plaintiff's claims against the United States, but when read in context, the allegation seems to be this: the substance of the Incident Report “flagged [Plaintiff's] top-secret security clearance” which resulted in a red flag appearing on his JPAS account. (Id.) In other words, it was Knight Sky's actions that resulted in a red flag appearing on Plaintiff's JPAS account.

         Plaintiff discovered the Report in December 2010. (Id. ¶ 30.) The DoD[2] then “reassured Plaintiff that the Incident Report would be favorably adjudicated and removed from his JPAS account.” (Id.) The Incident Report, however, was not removed from Plaintiff's JPAS account, and as a result Plaintiff lost a five year contract and his job at Northrop Grumman in 2011. (Id. ¶¶ 31-32.) For the next several years the DoD continued to make representations to Plaintiff in regards to the adjudication of the Incident Report and the removal of the red flag, but, even though the DoD “resolved the Incident Report . . . in [Plaintiff's] favor” it remained on his JPAS account as of the commencement of this action in 2017. (Id. ¶ 42; see Id. ¶¶ 35, 41-43.)

         On June 19, 2014, the Knight Sky Defendants posted an addendum (“the Addendum”) to Plaintiff's JPAS account. (Id. ¶ 36.) The Addendum discusses the legal action Plaintiff brought against Knight Sky, its resolution, and that, as a result, Knight Sky lost out on a contract and has been forced “into near bankruptcy.” (Id.) Nothing in the addendum seemed to implicate Plaintiff's ability to use or handle sensitive information. Again, Knight Sky did not have valid DoD access to Plaintiff's JPAS account when it posted this information. (Id. ¶ 38.) Again, the DoD made representations to Plaintiff that it would resolve this issue, and it did not do so. (See Id. ¶ 41.) “As a result of Knight Sky's Incident Report and Addendum, Plaintiff has lost contract and employment opportunities” and suffered other harm. (Id. ¶ 43.)

         On June 19, 2017, three years to the day after the Knight Sky Defendants posted the Addendum, Plaintiff brought this action against the Knight Sky Defendants and the United States. Plaintiff brought a claim of tortious interference with prospective economic and business relations against the Knight Sky Defendants, and a claim of negligence against the United States. (See Compl. ¶¶ 44-62.) The Knight Sky Defendants brought a motion to dismiss (ECF No. 12) and the United States did as well (ECF No. 14), and both motions are ripe for review.

         II. Standard for Motions to Dismiss under Rules 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6)

         The United States' motion to dismiss presents, in part, a facial challenge to subject-matter jurisdiction, asserting that the complaint fails to allege facts upon which subject-matter jurisdiction can be based. See Adams v. Bain, 697 F.2d 1213, 1219 (4th Cir. 1982) (discussing the difference between facial and factual challenges to subject-matter jurisdiction). The burden of proving subject-matter jurisdiction is on the plaintiff. Id.

         Both the United States and the Knight Sky Defendants have moved to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), asserting that Plaintiff's complaint does not “state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). Facial plausibility exists “when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678. An inference of a mere possibility of misconduct is not sufficient to support a plausible claim. Id. at 679. As the Twombly opinion stated, “Factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level.” 550 U.S. at 555. “A pleading that offers ‘labels and conclusions' or ‘a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.' . . . Nor does a complaint suffice if it tenders ‘naked assertion[s]' devoid of ‘further factual enhancement.'” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555, 557). Although when considering a motion to dismiss a court must accept as true all factual allegations in the complaint, this principle does not apply to legal conclusions couched as factual allegations. Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555.

         III. Analysis

         The Court will first consider the United States' motion to dismiss, and then turn to the Knight Sky Defendants' motion.

         a. United States' Motion to Dismiss

         “Absent a statutory waiver, the United States is shielded from suit for a civil tort by sovereign immunity.” Doe v. U.S. ex rel. U.S. Dep't of Health and Human Servs., Civ. No. TDC-14-1441, 2015 WL 1461236, at *4 (D. Md. Mar. 27, 2015) (citing Kearns v. United States, 585 F.3d 187, 193-94 (4th Cir. 2009). The United States has, via the Federal Tort Claims Act (“FTCA”), statutorily waived sovereign immunity for certain claims under certain conditions. See Talbert v. U.S., 932 F.2d 1064, 1065-66 (4th Cir. 1991); Fleming v. United States, 200 F.Supp.3d 603, 608 (D. Md. 2016). Plaintiff's claim, the United States contends, is neither one of those certain claims nor was it brought under those certain conditions. The ...

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