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Samuel v. Hogan

United States District Court, D. Maryland, Southern Division

March 9, 2018

TIBEBE SAMUEL, Plaintiff,
v.
LARRY HOGAN, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          Paul W. Grimm United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff Tibebe Samuel (who is proceeding without counsel) brings claims against a series of Maryland State Officials sued only in their official capacities for violations of the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Compl. 2, ECF No. 1. His claims stem from the suspension of his driver's license for failure to pay child support, and Mr. Samuel's belief that he was denied due process and discriminated against because he is a Black man. He seeks $350, 000.00 and various forms of retrospective and prospective injunctive relief. Id. at 6-7. Defendants have filed a motion to dismiss all of Plaintiff's claims. ECF No. 10.[1] Because neither the State of Maryland nor its officials sued in their official capacity are “persons” for purposes of § 1983, Mr. Samuel cannot bring a suit for monetary damages against the State of Maryland or Governor Hogan and Secretaries Padilla and Rahn (“State Defendants”)[2] for retrospective relief. Therefore, these claims will be dismissed. Additionally, Mr. Samuel has pleaded claims that are time-barred and has failed to state a plausible Due Process or Equal Protection Clause claim. Because I have determined that amending his Complaint would be futile, I will dismiss his Complaint with prejudice.

         Background[3]

         Mr. Samuel and his then-wife filed for and received a divorce in the Circuit Court for Prince George's County, Maryland. State Ct. Dockets CAD05-13475, CAD06-08853.[4] At the time the final order was entered, Mr. Samuel was represented by Dennis Gottesmann. State Ct. Docket CAD06-08853. Mr. Samuel alleges that, during the proceedings, his ex-wife and her attorney, Patricia McCarthy (neither of whom is a party to this litigation), “submitted a fraudulent pay stub to inflate [his] income, ” and that his “former wife committed perjury under [oath] claiming that she made $30, 000/year before her marriage to [him].” Compl. § III.H. On April 2, 2007, Mr. Samuel's ex-wife was granted custody of their minor children and he was ordered to pay $1, 211.00 per month in child support, plus $302.00 per month until he paid an arrearage of $6, 055.00. State Ct. Docket CAD06-08853, Entry 61. The state court order also granted Gottesmann's request to withdraw as Mr. Samuel's counsel because “[n]either plaintiff [Mr. Samuel's ex-wife] nor any counsel has had any form of contact with the defendant since December 20, 2006, and his whereabouts are unknown.” Divorce Order & Modifications, ECF No. 10-2. Mr. Samuel alleges that he was ordered to pay in child support “an amount he can't possibly pay.” Compl. III.H. However, in October, 2016, he filed a motion to modify his child support payments (his third), which was granted in March 2017. Id. § III.G. His new monthly payment was $346.00. Divorce Order & Modifications 9.

         Plaintiff alleges that the effective date of his child support payment modification was March 1, 2017, and that he made a payment on March 9, 2017. Compl. III.G. However, the record shows that his payments were not modified until March 16, 2017.[5] Divorce Order & Modifications 9-10. He alleges that because of the “fraud and perjury committed during [his] divorce proceedings, ” he owes $117, 000.00 in unpaid child support. Compl. § III.E. As a result, the State of Maryland has attempted to collect the arrearage. Id.

         On July 18, 2016, Mr. Samuel attempted to renew his driver's license at the Motor Vehicle Administration (“MVA”); however, his license had been suspended for failure to pay child support. Id. § III.B. Mr. Samuel filed a motion to reinstate his driver's license in the Circuit Court for Prince George's County, which was granted on November 22, 2016. Id. § III.C; see also CAD06-08853, Entry No. 315. Mr. Samuel alleges that, armed with the state court order reinstating his license, he attempted to retrieve it from the MVA on December 5, 2016, but was turned down. Id. However, he admits that he did receive his driver's license on January 17, 2017. Compl. III.C.

         On May 8, 2017, Mr. Samuel received a letter from the Maryland MVA “informing [him] that his license would be suspended effective May 30, 2017, at the request of the Maryland Office of Child Support Enforcement Administration.” Id. § III.A. The letter, which Mr. Samuel attached to his Opposition, advised that he could request a hearing in the case of mistaken identity, contact Prince George's County to avoid suspension of his license, or contest the accuracy of the information relied on by the Support Enforcement Administration. Suspension Ltr., ECF No. 12-1.[6] Eschewing the process afforded to him to challenge the suspension, on May 17, 2017, Mr. Samuel filed this lawsuit against Governor Larry Hogan, Secretary Lourdes Padilla of Maryland's Department of Human Resources, Secretary Pete Rahn of Maryland's Department of Transportation, and Director Jarnice Johnson of Prince George's County Office of Child Support Enforcement. Compl.

         Mr. Samuel alleges that in seeking the money owed by him for child support and by suspending his license on two occasions, the State of Maryland and Prince George's County- through the named Defendants in their official capacities-have violated the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment. Specifically, he states that his license was suspended without due process, that he was prejudiced in his divorce proceedings, and that Defendants “never corrected the egregious error made.” Id. § III.H. In conjunction with his Equal Protection Clause claim, he alleges (without any factual particularity) that the procedures employed in Maryland to award and enforce child support favor custodial parents, and makes the conclusory allegation that ninety percent of noncustodial parents are men “and the majority are black men.” Id. § III.I. Mr. Samuel seeks $350, 000.00 in compensatory damages, punitive damages, and injunctive relief in the following forms: (1) that Defendants “change the law in the State of Maryland to assist non-custodial parents”; (2) that the Court issue an injunction preventing the suspension of his license; (3) that the Court “waive” his child support arrearages that allegedly were procured by fraud and perjury; and (4) that the State refrain from reporting his missed child support payments to the credit reporting agencies. Id. at 6-7.

         Defendants have moved to dismiss Mr. Samuel's Complaint in its entirety, arguing that, based on the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, this Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction;[7] that this lawsuit is barred because of Eleventh Amendment immunity; that Mr. Samuel fails to state a claim for which relief can be granted; that his Complaint is time barred; and that Defendants Governor Hogan and Secretary Rahn have no official responsibilities for “determination[s] with respect to child support enforcement.” Defs.' Mem. 1-2.

         Standard of Review

         Defendants move to dismiss pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6), which provides for “the dismissal of a complaint if it fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.” Velencia v. Drezhlo, No. RDB-12-237, 2012 WL 6562764, at *4 (D. Md. Dec. 13, 2012). This rule's purpose “is to test the sufficiency of a complaint and not to resolve contests surrounding the facts, the merits of a claim, or the applicability of defenses.” Id. (quoting Presley v. City of Charlottesville, 464 F.3d 480, 483 (4th Cir. 2006)). To that end, the Court bears in mind the requirements of Fed.R.Civ.P. 8, Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007), and Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662 (2009), when considering a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6). Specifically, a complaint must contain “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief, ” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2), and must state “a plausible claim for relief, ” as “[t]hreadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice, ” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678-79; see Velencia, 2012 WL 6562764, at *4 (discussing standard from Iqbal and Twombly). Similarly, “unsupported legal allegations need not be accepted.” Nam v. 2012 Inc., No. DKC-15-1931, 2016 WL 107198, at *3 (D. Md. Jan. 11, 2016) (citing Revene v. Charles Cty. Comm'rs, 882 F.2d 870, 873 (4th Cir. 1989)). Although the filings of self-represented parties are afforded a more generous construction by the Court than those submitted by counsel, see Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, 520 (1972), that deference does not absolve them from complying with the essential requirements of pleading plausible claims, see Holsey v. Collins, 90 F.R.D. 122, 128 (D. Md. 1981) (citing Inmates v. Owens, 561 F.2d 560, 562-63 (4th Cir. 1977)).

         Although at this stage of the proceedings, I must accept the well pleaded facts alleged in Mr. Samuel's Complaint as true, see Aziz v. Alcolac, 658 F.3d 388, 390 (4th Cir. 2011), when reviewing a motion to dismiss, I “may consider documents attached to the complaint as well as documents attached to the motion to dismiss, if they are integral to the complaint and their authenticity is not disputed.” Sposato, 2013 WL 1308582, at *2 (D. Md. Mar. 28, 2013); see also CACI Int'l v. St. Paul Fire & Marine Ins. Co., 566 F.3d 150, 154 (4th Cir. 2009); see also Fed. R. Civ. P. 10(c) (“A copy of a written instrument that is an exhibit to a pleading is a part of the pleading for all purposes.”). Moreover, where the allegations in the complaint conflict with an attached written instrument, “the exhibit prevails.” Fayetteville Inv'rs v. Commercial Builders, Inc., 936 F.2d 1462, 1465 (4th Cir. 1991); see Azimirad v. HSBC Mortg. Corp., No. DKC-10-2853, 2011 WL 1375970, at *2-3 (D. Md. Apr. 12, 2011).

         Discussion

         “Person” for § 1983 Purposes, Eleventh Amendment Immunity

         To state a claim under § 1983, a plaintiff must name a defendant who qualifies as a “person” for purposes of § 1983.[8] See Bixler v. Harris, No. WDQ-12-1650, 2013 WL 2422892, at *5 (D. Md. June 3, 2013) (“Section 1983 provides a remedy against any person who, acting under color of law, deprives another of constitutional rights.” (emphasis added) (citing 42 U.S.C. § 1983)). A state is not “a ‘person' within the meaning of 42 U.S.C. § 1983.” Kelly v. Bishop, No. RDB-16-3668, 2017 WL 2506169, at *4 (D. Md. June 9, 2017) (citing Will v. Michigan Dep't of State Police, 491 U.S. 58, 64-65 & 70-71 (1989)). And, a § 1983 action for monetary damages and retrospective relief against state officers in their official capacity is viewed as a lawsuit against the State itself. See Will, 491 U.S. at 64-65, 70-71, n.10 (“Obviously, state officials literally are persons. But a suit against a state official in his or her official capacity is not a suit against the official but rather is a suit against the official's office. As such, it is no different from a suit against the State itself.”). Therefore, a State official sued in his official capacity is not subject to a § 1983 action for monetary damages and retrospective relief. See id.

         Pursuant to § 1983, Mr. Samuel seeks $350, 000.00 and relief for the suspension of his driver's license in July 2016 (notwithstanding the fact that, after corresponding with numerous state officials, the status of his license was resolved on January 17, 2017 when he presented a court order reinstating his license to the MVA, and his license was returned to him).[9] Compl. §§ I.4, III.B-C. Governor Hogan is the Chief Executive Officer of Maryland, and Secretaries Padilla and Rahn are the heads of Maryland State Agencies. Md. Code Ann., Hum. Servs. §§ 2-202, 3-101; Md. Code Ann., Transp. § 2-102; Md. Code Ann., State Gov't § 3-302. To the extent that the Plaintiff claims that they were deficient in the performance of their official duties, he is attempting to sue them in their official capacity for monetary damages and retrospective relief, and all such claims must be dismissed because they are not “persons” for purposes of § 1983. See Will, 490 U.S. at 64-65, 70-71; Kelly, 2017 WL 2506169, at *4. This includes his claim against these Defendants for the alleged violation of his Equal Protection and Due Process Rights regarding the suspension of his license from July 2016 until January 2017, because his request for injunctive relief is moot (his driver's license having been restored to him), leaving only a claim for monetary damages which cannot be brought against these Defendants.

         Additionally, Defendants assert that they are immune from liability under the Eleventh Amendment, because the state has not waived its sovereign immunity. Defs.' Mem. 7-8. As Judge Bennett of this Court has aptly and succinctly stated, “the state of Maryland is immune from liability under the Eleventh Amendment from suit in federal court” for monetary and retrospective injunctive relief. Kelly, 2017 WL 2506169 at * 4. Therefore, both the statutory defense and Eleventh Amendment Immunity require that Samuel's claims for monetary relief and retrospective relief against the State Defendants be dismissed.

         However, Mr. Samuel also seeks prospective injunctive relief, and “a state official in his or her official capacity, when sued for injunctive relief, would be a person under § 1983 because ‘official-capacity actions for prospective relief are not treated as actions against the State.'” Will, 491 U.S. at 71 n.10 (quoting Kentucky v. Graham, 473 U.S. 159, 167 n. 14 (1985)); see also Edelman v. Jordan, 415 U.S. 651, 676-77 (1974) (holding that Eleventh Amendment Immunity bars retrospective monetary relief only and permits prospective injunctive relief) (citing Ex parte Young, 209 U.S. 123 (1908)). Therefore, Secretaries Padilla and Rahn, as well as Governor Hogan potentially are subject to a § 1983 action for prospective injunctive relief, see Will, 490 U.S. at 71 n.10, if Samuel has managed to allege a plausible violation of his federally protected rights entitling him to prospective relief only. But, as discussed below, he has not plausibly alleged such a claim.

         As for Director Johnson, a suit against a county official in her official capacity “serve[s] as [a] suit[] against the County, ” not the State. Huggins v. Prince George's Cty., Md., 683 F.3d 525, 532 (4th Cir. 2012). For that reason, Prince George's County is a local unit of government potentially susceptible to suit if a plausible claim for violation of federally protected rights has been alleged, and, accordingly, qualifies as a “person” for purposes of § 1983, see Peterson v. Prince George's Cty., No. PWG-16-1947, 2017 WL 2666109, at *2 (D. Md. June 21, 2017) (citing Monell v. Dep't of Social Servs., 436 U.S. 658, 690-91 (1978); DiPino v. Davis, 729 A.2d 354, 368 (Md. 1999)). By logical extension, a county official sued in her official capacity also is a “person” for purposes of § 1983. See id.; see also Huggins, 683 F.3d at 532. Accordingly, the fourth defendant, Johnson, is susceptible to an otherwise properly pleaded § 1983 action for damages and retrospective and injunctive relief. See Peterson, 2017 WL 2666109, at *2. However, for the reasons stated below, Samuel's claims against Director Johnson must be dismissed on other grounds.

         Statute of Limitations

         Defendants also argue that Mr. Samuel's claims are time barred, as his claims were filed more than three years after his state court divorce proceedings, from which all his claims flow. Defs.' Mem. 13-14. Mr. Samuel argues that Defendants' claim that his complaint is untimely is “baseless, ” as they are continuing to violate his rights. Pl.'s Opp'n. 12. He states that

Plaintiff's driver [sic] license was suspended in 2016 and 2017. He is harassed by the State actors even today demanding payment for more than $100, 000.00 (One hundred thousand dollars). This case is not just about the Prince George [sic] Circuit court's decision, this case is about the violation of plaintiff's fundamental right [sic] which is ongoing.

Id. Despite alleging in conclusory terms that his rights are continually being violated, Mr. Samuel does not dispute that the State divorce proceedings that resulted in the award of custody to his former wife and order requiring him to pay child support occurred over a decade ago. See id.; see also Defs.' Reply 7.

         Section 1983 does not contain a statute of limitations. Courts therefore look to state law for the appropriate limitations period. Jersey Heights Neighborhood Assoc. v. Glendening, 174 F.3d 180, 187 (4th Cir. 1999). Based on Maryland law, claims alleging violations of the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses must be brought within three years of accrual. Id.; Halle Dev., Inc. v. Anne Arundel Cty., 121 F. App'x 504, 507 (4th Cir. 2005) (citing Md. Code Ann., Cts. & Jud. Proc. § 5-101). “The time of accrual of a section 1983 action is governed by federal law, and the claim accrues when the affected party knew or should have known of the injury that is the basis of the action.” Halle Dev., Inc., 121 Fed. App'x at 507.

         The focus of Mr. Samuel's suit is the state court divorce and custody action that resulted in his ex-wife being awarded custody of the children and him being ordered to pay child support. It is from these court orders that all his current grievances flow. On April 2, 2007, the Circuit Court for Prince George's County ordered Mr. Samuel to pay monthly child support as well as monthly payments for a $6, 055.00 arrearage.[10] Mr. Samuel's Complaint requests that this Court “waive” this child support ...


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