United States District Court, D. Maryland, Southern Division
JOSEPH JOHNSON, JR. Plaintiff,
BETSY DEVOS, SECRETARY U.S. DEP'T OF EDUC, et al., Defendants.
J. HAZEL UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
case. Plaintiff Joseph Johnson. Jr.. "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 1996 and to sue various parties associated with
these loans, "" Johnson v. Expehun Info. Sols.,
Inc.. No. PWG-15-558, 2015 WL 7769502. at *1 (D. Md.
Nov. 17. 2015). aff'd, 670 F. App'x 778 (4th
Cir. 2016), sued the United States Department of Education
and the Secretary ot the Department of
Education. On February 1. 2017. the Court
dismissed Plaintiffs First Amended Complaint, reasoning that
Plaintiffs claims were barred under the doctrine of
collateral estoppel. Johnson v. Duncan. No.
GJH-15-1820. 2017 WL 462049 (D. Md. Feb. 1, 2017). On
February 27. 2017. Plaintiff filed a Motion to Clarify
Memorandum Opinion and Order and for Leave to Amend the
Complaint. ECF No. 51. Plaintiff attached to this Motion a
proposed Second Amended Complaint. ECF No. 51-1. The Court
denied Plaintiffs Motion on August 11. 2017. holding that (1)
amendment of the Complaint would be prejudicial to
Defendants; (2) the proposed amendment was made in bad faith;
and (3) the amendment would be futile as the Department of
Education had not waived sovereign immunity with respect to
the claims in the Second Amended Complaint, thus depriving
the Court of subject matter jurisdiction. Johnson v.
Devos, No. GJH-15-1820. 2017 WL 3475668 (D. Md. Aug. 11,
latched onto the third argument of the Court's Memorandum
Opinion regarding sovereign immunity, and on October 2, 2017,
filed the now-pending Motion for Relief from Judgment from
the Court's dismissal of the First Amended
Complaint, pursuant to Federal Rules of Civil Procedure Rule
60(b), arguing that the Court never had subject matter
jurisdiction over his First Amended Complaint. ECF No. 61. As
sovereign immunity had not been waived. Plaintiff argued, the
Court should not have dismissed his First Amended Complaint
for reasons of collateral estoppel, but should have dismissed
the case on the grounds of sovereign immunity.The motion has
been fully briefed, and the Court determines that a hearing
is not necessary. See Loc. R. 105.6 (D. Md. 2016).
For the following reasons. Defendant's Motion for Relief
STANDARD OF REVIEW
Federal Rules of Civil Procedure Rule 60(b)(4). a court may
relieve a party from a final judgment if "the judgment
is void." "A judgment is void only if the court
that rendered judgment lacked jurisdiction over the subject
matter or the parties or in circumstances in which the
court's action amounts to a violation of due
process." Choice Hotels Int'l. Inc. v.
Bonham, 125 F.3d 847 (4th Cir.1997) (citing Schwartz
v. United States. 976 F.2d 213, 217 (4th Cir.1992)).
While this Rule is "seemingly broad, " the Fourth
Circuit has "narrowly construe[d] the concept of a
"void" order under Rule 60(b)(4)." Wendt
v. Leonard, 431 F.3d 410. 412 (4th Cir. 2005). Indeed,
the Fourth Circuit has pointed approvingly to the Eighth
Circuit's comment that "a federal court judgment is
almost never void because of lack of federal subject matter
jurisdiction." Id. at 413 (citing Kansas
City S. Ry. Co. v. Great Lakes Carbon Corp., 624 F.2d
822. 825 n. 5 (8th Cir. 1980)). A court will treat the
judgment as void only if the jurisdictional error is
"egregious." Wells Fargo Bank. N.A. v. AMH
Roman Two NC LLC, 859 F.3d 295, 302 (4th Cir. 2017).
"Thus, when deciding whether an order is 'void"
under Rule 60(b)(4) for lack of subject matter jurisdiction,
courts must look for the 'rare instance of a clear
usurpation of power."" Wendt, 431 F.3d at
413. A court plainly usurps jurisdiction "only when
there is a 'total want of jurisdiction" and no
arguable basis on which it could have rested a finding that
it had jurisdiction.'* Id. "An error in
interpreting a statutory grant of jurisdiction is not
equivalent to acting with total want of jurisdiction.*'
Id. (internal quotations and brackets omitted).
"an appeal divests a trial court of jurisdiction over
those aspects of the case involved in the appeal."
Fobian v. Storage Tech. Corp., 164 F.3d 887, 890
(4th Cir. 1999) (internal citation and quotation marks
omitted). However, the district court "retains
jurisdiction over matters in aid of the appeal."
including motions for reconsideration under Rule 60.
Id. (internal citation and quotation marks omitted).
The Fourth Circuit has instructed that "[i]f the
district court determines that the motion is meritless, as
experience demonstrates is often the case, the court should
deny the motion forthwith; any appeal from the denial can be
consolidated with the appeal from the underlying order."
Id. at 891.
argues that, consistent with the Court's denial of his
Motion for Leave to Amend the Complaint, the Court never had
subject matter jurisdiction over the First Amended Complaint,
and the Court should declare its initial Order and Memorandum
Opinion void and dismiss instead for lack of subject matter
jurisdiction. Id. at 7. In response. Defendants
argue that only Plaintiffs First Amended Complaint included
various provisions of the Higher Education Act of 1965
("HEA"). and the HEA includes a limited waiver of
sovereign immunity "which is a broad enough wavier [sic]
of the Department of Education's immunity to allow the
Court to exercise jurisdiction over Plaintiffs common law
contract, quasi-contract, and equitable claims in Counts I-IV
of his First Amended Complaint." but which precludes
injunctive relief from being awarded against
Defendants. ECF No. 65 at 6.
Court need not determine whether or not the HEA's
"sue or be sued" waiver was broad enough to cover
the claims in Plaintiffs First Amended Complaint; the Court
need only determine whether the Court made an
"egregious" jurisdictional error in failing to
sua sponte dismiss the First Amended Complaint on
the basis of sovereign immunity. The Court assumes for the
purpose of considering Plaintiffs Motion that the Court did
not have subject matter jurisdiction over the First Amended
Complaint; still, the Court denies Plaintiffs Motion and
finds that it did not make an "egregious"
issue of sovereign immunity barring the claims in Plaintiffs
First Amended Complaint was not raised by the parties at any
point prior to Plaintiffs now-pending Motion. In fact, up to
this point, both parties had argued that this Court had
subject matter jurisdiction, and that sovereign immunity had
been waived. See ECF No. 10 ¶ 4; ECF No. 54 at
7. While the Court must raise the issue of subject matter
jurisdiction sua sponte if it does not have
jurisdiction, Brickwood Contractors, Inc. v. Datanet
Engineering, Inc.. 369 F.3d 385. 390 (4th Cir. 2004).
the fact that the issue was not raised by either party is
relevant to a determination of whether the Court's error
this is not a case where the Court acted on a claim that
clearly fell outside of its federal question or diversity
jurisdictions. Here, neither party disputes that the Court
would normally have subject matter jurisdiction over the
types of claims in the First Amended Complaint were they
brought against a private party, given the federal questions
raised therein. See. e.g., ECF No. 10 at 11.
Instead. Plaintiff argues that Defendants could not be sued,
because there was no "unequivocal waiver of sovereign
immunity for the federal government" which encompassed
the claims contained in the First Amended Complaint. ECF No.
61 at 6. The Court concludes that any error in failing to
dismiss the First Amended Complaint because of sovereign
immunity, when that issue had not been raised by either
party, was not an "egregious" error, but was. at
worst, an "error in interpreting a statutory grant of
jurisdiction." Wendl, 431 F.3d at 413. This did
not constitute a "clear" and "egregious"
"usurpation of power." id., and the
Court's prior Order is not void.
foregoing reasons. Plaintiffs Motion for Relief from
Judgment, ECF No. 61, is denied. ...