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Wood v. Maryland Department of Transportation

United States District Court, D. Maryland

June 20, 2019

DAVID WOOD, Plaintiff,


          James K. Bredar Chief Judge

         In 2016, Plaintiff David Wood sued the Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT) and Motor Vehicle Administration (MVA) ("Defendants"), alleging that the denial of his application to renew his driver's license violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), 42 U.S.C. §§ 12131 et seq., and the Rehabilitation Act, 29 U.S.C. § 794. That suit was dismissed, and the Fourth Circuit affirmed. Wood v. Md. Dep't of Tramp. (Wood J), Civ. No. JFM-16-3727 (D. Md. Mar. 17, 2017), aff'd, 732 Fed.Appx. 177 (4th Cir. 2018) (unpublished). Plaintiff then filed this lawsuit, renewing his ADA and Rehabilitation Act claims and seeking the same declaratory and injunctive relief as his first suit, (ECF No. 1.) Defendants filed a motion to dismiss arguing that the claims are barred by res judicata. (ECF No. 11.) No. hearing is required. See Local Rule 105.6 (D. Md. 2018). For the reasons stated below, the motion will be granted.

         I. Background and Prior Litigation

         Wood has an ocular condition, retinitis pigmentosa, that affects his peripheral vision. (Compl. ¶ 7, ECF No. 1.) In 2015, Wood applied to renew his Maryland driver's license, but his application was denied. (Id.) Maryland law requires "[a] continuous field of vision of at least 140 degrees" as a condition of eligibility for an unrestricted noncommercial license and permits restricted licenses for applicants with "[a] continuous field of vision of at least 110 degrees." Md. Code Ann., Transp. § 16-110.1(a)(1)(ii), (c)(1)(ii). Wood admits he did not meet the minimum field of vision requirement for a restricted license at the time of his application. (Compl. ¶ 42.) Notwithstanding that fact, he contends he is "otherwise qualified" for a Maryland license because he is a safe driver with a spotless record. (Id. ¶¶ 59-60.) He argues that the visual field requirement is unreasonable, and that the ADA and Rehabilitation Act require "an individualized assessment of his driving ability" before he can be denied a license. (Id. ¶¶ 5, 58.)

         In the first lawsuit, Judge J. Frederick Motz dismissed Wood's case, concluding, first, that, "[unquestionably, Wood does not meet Maryland's field of vision requirement," and, second, that "individualized consideration [of an applicant's ability to drive] is unnecessary under the law." Wood I, Civ. No. JFM-16-3727, at 1 (quotations omitted). Judge Motz cited guidance from the Department of Justice (DOJ), which states that "[a] public entity may establish ., . vision requirements that would exclude some individuals with disabilities, if those requirements were essential for the safe operation of a motor vehicle." Id. Judge Motz acknowledged Wood's contention that Maryland's field of vision requirement was "outdated," but held that Wood failed to provide factual allegations in support of that assertion. Id.

         Wood appealed, and the Fourth Circuit affirmed. Wood v. Md. Dep't of Transp. (Wood II), 732 Fed.Appx. 177, 185 (4th Cir. 2018) (unpublished). The court ruled that Wood "does not and cannot" meet the field of vision requirement, with or without an accommodation, id. at 184-85, that Maryland was permitted under federal law to promulgate "reasonable vision standards" for drivers' licenses, id. at 183, that federal disability statutes do not require an individualized assessment before denying a license under such a standard, id., and that Wood "proffer[ed] no plausible argument for why [Maryland's standard] is unreasonable" or "somehow inconsistent with Congress's intent," id. at 183-84, 185.

         In this lawsuit, Wood seeks to "correct[] factual misunderstandings in the [Fourth Circuit opinion] [and] plead[] facts deemed missing from the first complaint." (Compl. ¶ 3.) Wood newly alleges: that Maryland's field of vision standard is inconsistent with decades of ophthalmological research recommending individualized assessment for cases like Wood's, (id. ¶¶ 52-60); that crash avoidance technology available in many modern cars can provide a "reasonable accommodation" to compensate for visual field impairment, (id.¶ 40); and that, contrary to the Fourth Circuit opinion, his field of vision in 2009, when he was permitted to renew his license without demonstrating a 110-degree field of vision, and in 2015, when his renewal application was denied, was "substantially similar," (id. ¶¶ 23-25).

         II. Legal Standard

         On a motion to dismiss, the plaintiff must plead "sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to 'state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'" Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). The court takes well-pled allegations as true and views facts in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. Ibarra v. United States, 120 F.3d 472, 474 (4th Cir.1997). But, the court need not accept as true '"naked assertion[s], '" Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555, 557) (alteration in original), nor "legal conclusions couched as facts," Wag More Dogs, LLC v. Cozart, 680 F.3d 359, 365 (4th Cir. 2012).

         III. Discussion

         "Res judicata, also known as claim preclusion, bars a party from relitigating a claim that was decided or could have been decided in an original suit." Laurel Sand & Gravel, Inc. v. Wilson, 519 F.3d 156, 161 (4th Cir. 2008); see also Pueschel v. United States, 369 F.3d 345, 355-56 (4th Cir. 2004). Its purpose is to "protect 'litigants from the burden of relitigating an identical issue with the same party'" and to promote '"judicial economy by preventing needless litigation.'" Laurel Sand, 369 F.3d at 161-62 (quoting Parklane Hosiery Co. v. Shore, 439 U.S. 322, 326 (1979)). The doctrine bars an action when three elements are met:

(1) the prior judgment was final and on the merits, and rendered by a court of competent jurisdiction in accordance with the requirements of due process; (2) the parties are identical, or in privity, in the two actions; and (3) the claims in the second matter are based upon the same cause of action involved in the earlier proceeding.

Pittston Co. v. United States, 199 F.3d 694, 704 (4th Cir. 1999) (quoting First Union Commercial Corp. v. Nelson, Mullins, Riley & Scarborough, 81 F.3d 1310, 1315 (4th Cir. 1996)); see also Restatement (Second) of Judgments § 17 (Am. Law Inst. 1982). Here, the elements are met: this lawsuit involves parties and claims identical to the prior suit, which was dismissed with prejudice and affirmed. None of Plaintiff s arguments to the contrary has merit.

         With respect to the first element, Plaintiff attempts to characterize the prior lawsuit as having been "dismissed without prejudice." (Compl. ¶ 2). He argues that, because Judge Motz's dismissal order "did not explicitly say that the case was dismissed for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted," it should be construed otherwise. (Opp'n Mot. Dismiss at 5, ECF No. 14.) This reading is incorrect. The dismissal order plainly granted a motion made under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). See Dismissal Order at ¶ 1, Wood I, Civ. No. JFM-16-3727 (ECF No. 17) (granting the motion docketed at ECF No. 9); Motion to Dismiss at 1, Wood I, Civ. No. JFM-16-3727 (ECF No. 9) (moving under Rule 12(b)(6)). Plaintiff suggests that, without language to the contrary, a dismissal is without prejudice, but the Rules set out the opposite presumption: "[u]nless the dismissal order ...

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