United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina
MARIE-THERESE H. ASSA'AD-FALTAS, Plaintiff,
TANDY CARTER, et al., Defendants.
MEMORANDUM OPINION, ORDER, AND RECOMMENDATION OF UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
L. PATRICK AULD, Magistrate Judge.
This case comes before the Court on Plaintiff's Motion for Leave to Proceed in forma pauperis (Docket Entry 1), filed in conjunction with her pro se Complaint (Docket Entry 2) and Motion for Leave to File Electronically (Docket Entry 4). For the reasons that follow, the Court will permit Plaintiff to proceed as a pauper solely to allow consideration of a recommendation of dismissal.
I. Legal Background
"The federal in forma pauperis statute, first enacted in 1892 [and now codified at 28 U.S.C. § 1915], is intended to guarantee that no citizen shall be denied access to the courts solely because his poverty makes it impossible for him to pay or secure the costs." Nasim v. Warden, Md. House of Corr. , 64 F.3d 951, 953 (4th Cir. 1995) (en banc) (internal quotation marks omitted). "Dispensing with filing fees, however, [is] not without its problems.... In particular, litigants suing in forma pauperis d[o] not need to balance the prospects of successfully obtaining relief against the administrative costs of bringing suit." Nagy v. Federal Med. Ctr. Butner , 376 F.3d 252, 255 (4th Cir. 2004). To address this concern, the in forma pauperis ("IFP") statute provides that "the court shall dismiss the case at any time if the court determines... (B) the action... (i) is frivolous or malicious; (ii) fails to state a claim on which relief may be granted; or (iii) seeks monetary relief against a defendant who is immune from such relief." 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2).
As to the first of these grounds, the United States Supreme Court has explained that "a complaint, containing as it does both factual allegations and legal conclusions, is frivolous where it lacks an arguable basis either in law or in fact." Neitzke v. Williams , 490 U.S. 319, 325 (1989). In assessing such matters, this Court may "apply common sense." Nasim , 64 F.3d at 954; see also Nagy , 376 F.3d at 256-57 ("The word frivolous is inherently elastic and not susceptible to categorical definition." (internal quotation marks omitted)). Coordinately, "[a] complaint plainly abusive of the judicial process is properly typed malicious." Crisafi v. Holland , 655 F.2d 1305, 1309 (D.C. Cir. 1981); accord Davis v. Shekita, No. 5:12CV504H, 2014 WL 2505485, at *3 (E.D. N.C. June 3, 2014) (unpublished); Galeas v. Byrd, No. 3:11CV543RJC, 2011 WL 6370373, at *3 (W.D. N.C. Dec. 20, 2011) (unpublished), aff'd, 469 F.Appx. 236 (4th Cir. 2012); see also Cain v. Virginia , 982 F.Supp. 1132, 1136 (E.D. Va. 1997) ("[C]omplaints which merely repeat previously litigated claims may be dismissed as malicious. However, maliciousness is not confined to such a narrow class of complaints. A litigant may be deemed to act maliciously if his actions import a wish to vex, annoy, or injure another, or an intent to do a wrongful act, and may consist in direct intention to injure, or in reckless disregard of another's rights." (internal brackets, citations, and quotation marks omitted)).
Alternatively, a plaintiff "fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, " 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B)(ii), when the complaint does not "contain 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) (internal citations omitted) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly , 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). "Where a complaint pleads facts that are merely consistent with' a defendant's liability, it stops short of the line between possibility and plausibility of entitlement to relief.'" Id . (quoting Twombly , 550 U.S. at 557). This standard "demands more than an unadorned, the-defendant-unlawfully-harmed-me accusation." Id . In other words, "the tenet that a court must accept as true all of the allegations contained in a complaint is inapplicable to legal conclusions." Id.
The third ground for dismissal under 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B) generally applies to situations in which doctrines established by the United States Constitution or at common law immunize governments and/or government personnel from liability for damages. See, e.g., Pennhurst State Sch. & Hosp. v. Halderman , 465 U.S. 89 (1984) (discussing sovereign immunity of states and state officials under the Eleventh Amendment); Pierson v. Ray , 386 U.S. 547 (1967) (describing interrelationship between 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and common-law immunity doctrines); cf. Allen v. Burke , 690 F.2d 376, 379 (4th Cir. 1982) (noting that, even where "damages are theoretically available under [certain] statutes..., in some cases, immunity doctrines and special defenses, available only to public officials, preclude or severely limit the damage remedy").
II. Plaintiff's Complaint
Plaintiff's Complaint alleges that she "was falsely arrested and imprisoned... by the City of Columbia and Richland County Sheriff's Department [and that]... [i]n the process of defending herself, [she] discovered extreme corruption, criminality and/or unconstitutionality in South Carolina state government and its subdivisions...." (Docket Entry 2 at 2.) As a result, Plaintiff seeks monetary and non-monetary relief from (according to the Complaint's caption) over 100 Defendants, including the United States Attorney for the District of South Carolina, the State of South Carolina, South Carolina's Governor, South Carolina's Attorney General, South Carolina's General Assembly, South Carolina's Judicial Merit Selection Commission ("JMSC"), South Carolina's Supreme Court Chief Justice and Clerk, South Carolina's Court of Appeals Clerk and Deputy Clerk, the Sheriff of Richland County, South Carolina, his Department ("RCSD"), and several of his Deputies, the Mayor, City Council, and Assistant City Manager of Columbia, South Carolina, the Columbia Police Department ("CPD") and 20 or more CPD officers, as well as numerous judges and prosecutors in Richland County and Columbia. (Id. at 1-2).
Consistent with the large number of governmental bodies and high-ranking officials named as Defendants, the Complaint demands declaratory and injunctive redress on an epic scale. (See id. at 26 (requesting that the Court "declare any bond condition preventing a criminal defendant from returning to the only home she has as per se violative of the Eighth Amendment... [and] a right to immediate evidentiary hearing for every criminal defendant who has evidence that the Prosecution intends to use falsehoods against her"), 29 (proposing that the Court "hold South Carolina's harassment and stalking statute and unlawful use of a telephone statute, as well as bond procedures wherein the alleged victim is not sworn or cross-examined all unconstitutional"), 31 (seeking a "find[ing] that CPD has become a crime syndicate and should be dissolved immediately with all its members retrained before any of them applies to be rehired by the to-be-newly-constituted unified County law enforcement force"), 62 (praying that the Court "order [the Sheriff of Richland County] to establish and maintain a separate and safe detention facility for [Richland County's] female detainees with all due dispatch"), 64 (asking the Court "to hold JMSC unconstitutional on its face and as applied to Plaintiff and her class, to order JMSC dissolved, and to replace [South Carolina's] peculiar system of election of judges with one of popular election or election of new judges and retention of sitting judges upon the nomination and vote of the sitting judiciary, and not any other branch of government, with impeachment preserved").)
However, despite such grand objectives, by its express terms:
This Complaint addresses only: (a)(i) the Wednesday, 2 December 2009, false arrest of Plaintiff on two false charges of harassment "in the first degree" of which she was fully and finally exonerated in September/October 2012 and (a)(ii) all robbery and ransacking of Plaintiff's apartment and car that day under invalid search and seizure warrants and procedures; (b)(i) the false arrest of Plaintiff on Saturday, 12 December 2009, on false charge of "unlawful use of telephone" which was resolved in her favor on 6 October 2010, and (b)(ii) Defendants' continued efforts to bring that false charge to trial until July 2012 and March 2013; and (c)(i) Plaintiff's 23 March 2011 false arrest by RCSD on false charge of "trespass" unto the public courthouse, and (c)(ii) the continued unjustified denial of Plaintiff's access to the Richland County courthouse and to the CMC [Columbia Municipal Court] building and the services both offer to the public.
Claims for any and all acts of other entities... and for any and all other acts of [D]efendants... are expressly reserved for other complaints....
(Id. at 3-4 (bold in original); see also id. at 6-32 (setting out 245 paragraphs of allegations under heading "The False Arrest and Imprisonment on the False Harassment Charges"), 32-50 (setting out 57 paragraphs of allegations and incorporating 15 pages of purported transcript excerpts under heading "The Saturday, 12 December 2009 False Arrest on False Charges of Unlawful Use of Telephone"), 50-62 (setting out 65 paragraphs of allegations under heading "The False 23 March 2011 Arrest, Imprisonment, and Deliberate Indifference to Medical Needs"), 62-64 (setting out 18 paragraphs of allegations under heading "South Carolina's Unconstitutional Judicial Systems"), and 64-70 (setting out 35 paragraphs of allegations under heading "Motion for Injunction against [South Carolina's Supreme Court Chief Justice] in her Administrative Capacity").)
III. Plaintiff's Prior Closely-Related Litigation
The Complaint acknowledges that Plaintiff previously pursued relief for the above-identified events, but emphasizes that "[n]one of the causes of action herein was previously dismissed with prejudice." (Id. at 3 (emphasis in original).) In fact, the United States District Court for the District of South Carolina has reviewed most (if not all) of Plaintiff's instant claims and has found them legally deficient and/or frivolous (although it nonetheless dismissed such claims without prejudice); specifically:
1) in Assa'ad-Faltas v. City of Columbia, SC, No. 3:13CV2715, 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 188115 (D.S.C. Nov. 1, 2013) (unpublished), recommendation adopted, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 87526 (D.S.C. June 26, 2014), the district court accepted the recommendation of "summary dismissal" of claims that a CPD officer "illegally arrested [Plaintiff] on December 12, 2009, for unlawful use of a telephone, " as well as that the defendants unlawfully "continued efforts to bring that false charge to trial until July 2012 and March 2013, '" Assa'ad-Faltas, 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 188115, at *10-13 (quoting paragraph four of Plaintiff's complaint in said case)), although the district court effected the dismissal of the entire action (and thus the foregoing claims) without prejudice, Assa'ad-Faltas, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 87526, at *3;
2) in Assa'ad-Faltas v. Richland Cnty. Sheriff's Dep't, No. 3:13CV1629, 2013 WL 5273817 (D.S.C. Aug. 26, 2013) (unpublished), a United States Magistrate Judge, considering Plaintiff's claims for damages and injunctive relief, inter alia, because (A) a South Carolina circuit court judge "issued a bizarre' order on April 1, 2010, limiting Plaintiff's access to the RCJC [Richland County Judicial Center], " id. at *1, (B) another such judge later "concurr[ed] with th[at] order, " id. at *2, and (C) on March 23, 2011, RCSD deputies arrested Plaintiff for trespassing at the RCJC, id., concluded that said circuit court judges "[we]re entitled to summary dismissal... [of] claims [for damages and injunctive relief] associated with their judicial actions to include the issuance of orders, " id. at *4, and that Plaintiff's claim(s) related to her trespassing arrest failed under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a), id. at *6, whereafter the district court agreed with those conclusions and dismissed the action (albeit again without prejudice) and the Fourth Circuit affirmed, Assa'ad-Faltas v. Richland Cnty. Sheriff's Dep't, No. 3:13CV1629, 2013 WL 5273813 (D.S.C. Sept. 17, 2013) (unpublished), aff'd, ___ F.Appx. ___, 2014 WL 2199375 (4th Cir. May 28, 2014) (unpublished);
3) in Assa'ad-Faltas v. Toal, No. 3:12CV2991 (D.S.C.), Docket Entry 1, Plaintiff alleged that she "was falsely arrested on 2 December 2009 on false charges of harassment in the first degree, " id. at 1, and that, "on 23 March 2011, [a RCSO deputy] also falsely arrested [her] on false charges of trespass after notice, '" id. at 2; however, after "carefully review[ing]  [P]laintiff's claims..., [the district] [c]ourt f[ound] it apparent and clear from the face of the complaint that [P]laintiff fail[ed] to state a claim on which relief may be granted, and, in addition, that [P]laintiff's allegations in the above-captioned case [we]re frivolous, " Assa'ad-Faltas v. Toal, No. 3:12CV2991, Docket Entry 62 (D.S.C. Apr. 16, 2013) (unpublished) (dismissing action without prejudice), aff'd, 546 F.Appx. 286 (4th Cir. 2013).
IV. Plaintiff's Broader Litigation History
The foregoing cases represent only a small fraction of Plaintiff's prodigious record of pro se litigation. A search of the PACER database revealed that, from 1987 to 2009, she commenced approximately a dozen federal actions and two dozen federal appeals and that, remarkably, from 2010 to the present, she instituted more than two dozen additional federal actions and more than two dozen additional federal appeals. See https://pcl.uscourts.gov (search for Plaintiff's name) (last performed Aug. 22, 2014). Moreover, judicial decisions show that Plaintiff repeatedly has abused the litigation process (both in state and federal courts); for example:
1) in Assa'ad v. Thomas , 87 N.C.App. 276, 277-79, 360 S.E.2d 503, 504-05 (1987), the court (while affirming the directed verdict entered against Plaintiff on her medical malpractice claim) declared that "Plaintiff ha[d] failed to follow the Rules of Appellate Procedure..., she ha[d] attempted to advance many immaterial and irrelevant arguments... [, and she had identified] no evidence in the record as to what th[e] defendant did or failed to do in performance of duties to [P]laintiff";
2) in Assa'ad-Faltas v. Virginia, 738 F.Supp. 982, 985-87 (E.D. Va. 1989), aff'd, Nos. 89-3283 , 89-3302, 902 F.2d 1564 (table), 1990 WL 64620 (4th Cir. July 2, 1990) (unpublished), the district court (in addition to dismissing Plaintiff's federal claims and declining to exercise jurisdiction over related state claims) "considered [her] motion in support of sanctions against [the] defendants and her motion for transfer or change of venue... [and] f[ound] that both of th[o]se motions [we]re frivolous";
3) in Assa'ad v. John Umstead Hosp., No. 1:87CV465, Docket Entry 220 (M.D. N.C. Aug. 15, 1989) (unpublished), United States Magistrate Judge P. Trevor Sharp ordered expense-shifting and sanctions against Plaintiff during the discovery phase;
4) in Assa'ad-Faltas v. University of S.C. , 971 F.Supp. 985, 988-91 (D.S.C. 1997), the district court (per now-United States Circuit Judge Dennis W. Shedd) ruled that, "in th[o]se proceedings, as well as at least one other [then] before th[e] [c]ourt, [Plaintiff] ha[d] waged an aggressive (and abusive) attack, " that she failed to properly respond to court-directives designed to determine whether she should retain IFP status, and "that allowing [her] to proceed IFP... clearly does not promote the interests of justice but, instead, contributes to the problems in our legal system that are associated with IFP litigation";
5) in Assa'ad-Faltas v. University of S.C., Nos. 96-2159, 97-1243, 165 F.3d 910 (table), 1998 WL 792209, at *1 (4th Cir. Nov. 16, 1998) (unpublished), Plaintiff appealed the "dismissal of her civil action for abuse of the discovery process, " but the Fourth Circuit held that her "repeated failures to produce documents and comply with discovery orders, combined with her demeanor during her deposition, fully warranted the sanction of dismissal";
6) in Koon v. Fares , 666 S.E.2d 230, 233-34, 379 S.C. 150, 155-57 (2008), while affirming entry of summary judgment against Plaintiff and her mother in a landlord-tenant case, the South Carolina Supreme Court noted that the construction of the lease advocated by Plaintiff and her mother would have led to an "absurd result, " that Plaintiff and her mother sought "to take advantage of [their] [l]andlord's generosity" during the dispute, and that Plaintiff and her mother made "completely unfounded" allegations of bias against the circuit court judge who handled the case; and
7) in Assa'ad-Faltas v. Regional Postal Inspector, No. 3:12CV463, 2012 WL 3308107, at *1-2 (W.D. N.C. Aug. 13, 2012) (unpublished), the district court construed Plaintiff's complaint as "seek[ing] redress stemming from civil and criminal judgments obtained against her and negative experiences with state and local officials in the City of Columbia... [as well as] various injunctive and declarative relief against the State of South Carolina, including changes to its general laws, election laws, and its court system... [, and ruled that her] claims [we]re largely frivolous and/or malicious, and [she] fail[ed] to state a claim."
V. Section 1915(e)(2)(B) Analysis
Consistent with her prior litigation history,  Plaintiff's Complaint represents an abuse of the court system, in that it presents frivolous and malicious allegations, it fails to state a claim, and it targets Defendants with immunity, all of which circumstances require dismissal, see 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B).
A. Overarching Frivolous/Malicious Aspects of this Action
For purposes of Section 1915(e)(2)(B), an action's frivolity or maliciousness may arise from a number of circumstances. See, e.g., Nagy , 376 F.3d at 256-57; Cain , 982 F.Supp. at 1136. In this case, several matters pertaining to the Complaint as a whole render it frivolous and malicious.
i. Legal Frivolousness/Maliciousness
In the first instance, the Complaint's venue allegations qualify as legally frivolous. By statute:
A civil action may be brought in-
(1) a judicial district in which any defendant resides, if all defendants are residents of the State in which the district is located;
(2) a judicial district in which a substantial part of the events or omissions giving rise to the claim occurred, or a substantial part of property that is the subject of the action is situated; or
(3) if there is no district in which an action may otherwise be brought as provided in this section, any judicial district in which any defendant is subject to the court's personal jurisdiction with respect to such action.
28 U.S.C. § 1391(b); see also IHFC Props., LLC v. APA Mktg., Inc. , 850 F.Supp.2d 604, 615 (M.D. N.C. 2012) (Schroeder, J.) ("The burden is on the plaintiff to establish... venue in the judicial district where the action is brought."); Hickey v. St. Martin's Press, Inc. , 978 F.Supp. 230, 240 (D. Md. 1997) ("[I]n a case involving multiple defendants and multiple claims, the plaintiff bears the burden of showing that venue is appropriate as to each claim and as to each defendant.").
Plaintiff's Complaint alleges no facts establishing proper venue over all claims and all Defendants under Section 1391(b), but instead asserts, in relevant part, as follows:
1. Venue is proper herein as the lead defendants, upon information and belief, reside in this district and all other defendants who reside in, or have a principal place of business in, South Carolina also transact substantial business in North Carolina and with the federal government and thus may be sued here.
2. To the extent the state of South Carolina is sued for injunctive relief, venue is still proper in this Court as South Carolina transacts substantial business in North Carolina, including riparian reallocation. Please see, South Carolina v. North Carolina, before the U.S. Supreme Court (voluntarily dismissed).
(Docket Entry 2 at 5; see also id. at 1-2 (describing two of 100-plus Defendants as "North Carolina resident[s]" and two additional Defendants as "North Carolina substantial property owners").)
Plaintiff cannot rely on the allegation that two Defendants reside in this district to support venue for her Complaint here, because any particular defendant's residence in a district provides a basis for venue over other defendants only if all defendants in the case reside in the same state, see 28 U.S.C. § 1391(b)(1), and (as quoted above) the Complaint acknowledges that numerous individual Defendants reside in South Carolina. Reliance on any Defendant's "transacting" of "substantial business" in North Carolina similarly falls short, because, although such considerations might give this Court personal jurisdiction over any such Defendant, see generally Hanes Cos., Inc. v. Galvin Bros., Inc., No. 1:09CV918, 2013 WL 594013, at *4-6 (M.D. N.C. Feb. 15, 2013) (unpublished) (discussing personal jurisdiction standards), recommendation adopted, 2013 WL 941791 (M.D. N.C. Mar. 11, 2013) (unpublished), the existence of personal jurisdiction only equates to residency for venue purposes as to organizational defendants (not individual defendants), see 28 U.S.C. § 1391(c)(1) & (2).
Moreover, the Complaint makes clear that all alleged, material events and omissions occurred in South Carolina. (See Docket Entry 2 at 2-70.) As a result, venue lies in the District of South Carolina, but not in this district, under Section 1391(b)(2), see generally Bartko v. Wheeler, No. 1:13CV1006, 2014 WL 29441, at *8-11 (M.D. N.C. Jan. 3, 2014) (unpublished) (discussing Section 1391(b)(2)'s "substantial part of the events or omissions" test), aff'd, slip op. (M.D. N.C. Feb. 10, 2014), and the existence of venue in the District of South Carolina under Section 1391(b)(2) renders Section 1391(b)(3) inapplicable. Accordingly, no basis for venue over all claims and Defendants exists in this district and this action thus cannot proceed here, see 28 U.S.C. § 1406(a) ("The district court of a district in which is filed a case laying venue in the wrong division or district shall dismiss, or if it be in the interest of justice, transfer such case to any district or division in which it could have been brought." (emphasis added)).
The Complaint's legal frivolousness also comes from its failure to identify which claim(s) pertain(s) to which Defendants (see Docket Entry 2 at 2-70), in flagrant contravention of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a)(2)'s "short and plain statement of the claim" requirement, see Masters v. Johnson, Nos. 89-35323, 35325, 35330-33, 35352, 35356-57, 35363-64, 902 F.2d 1579 (table), 1990 WL 67204, at *1 (9th Cir. May 16, 1990) (unpublished); O'Neill v. El Paso Cnty. Sheriff's Dep't, No. 14CV2114BNB, 2014 WL 3820710, at *2 (D. Colo. Aug. 4, 2014) (unpublished); Tully v. Bank of Am., N.A., Civil No. 10-4734DWF/JSM, 2011 WL 1882665, at *6 (D. Minn. May 17, 2011) (unpublished). Plaintiff's failure in this regard may represent an effort to mask her Complaint's gross misjoinder of claims and Defendants (again, in violation of applicable rules).
Specifically, "[a] party... may join, as independent or alternative claims, as many claims as it has against an opposing party." Fed.R.Civ.P. 18(a) (emphasis added). "Thus multiple claims against a single party are fine...." George v. Smith , 507 F.3d 605, 607 (7th Cir. 2007). However, where, as here, a plaintiff seeks to join multiple claims against multiple defendants, "[p]ersons... may be joined in one action as defendants if: (A) any right to relief is asserted against them jointly, severally, or in the alternative with respect to or arising out of the same transaction, occurrence, or series of transactions or occurrences; and (B) any question of law or fact common to all defendants will arise in the action." Fed.R.Civ.P. 20(a)(2) (emphasis added).
As with the pleading in George, Plaintiff's Complaint does "not make any effort to show that the [100-plus] defendants [s]he named had participated in the same transaction or series of transactions or that a question of [law or] fact is common to all defendants, " George , 507 F.3d at 607 (internal quotation marks omitted). (See Docket Entry 2 at 2-70.) Nor can the Court construe the Complaint to satisfy such standards, particularly given that (as shown in Section III) Plaintiff effectively took three distinct lawsuits she previously filed in the District of South Carolina (involving, inter alia, arrests by different law enforcement officers from different law enforcement agencies more than a year apart) and attempted to cram them ...