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Marshall v. American Broadcasting Companies, Inc.

United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina

June 26, 2017

BARBARA SUMMEY MARSHALL; MAYA VALRISSA LOUISE MARSHALL; and CLIFTON ROBERTO MARSHALL III, Plaintiffs,
v.
AMERICAN BROADCASTING COMPANIES, INC.; FAMILY ENDEAVORS; HEATHER BLACK; NAT ROBERTSON, Mayor of the City of Fayetteville; EARL BUTLER, Sheriff of Cumberland County; LARISA WHITT; TRAVIS PEARSON; BARBARA SPIGNER; CRYSTAL SPIGNER WILLIAMS; ALLEN ROGERS; BILLY R. KING; LAREENA J. PHILLIPS, Assistant Attorney General of North Carolina; FAYETTEVILLE OBSERVER; JENNIFER T. HARROD, Special Deputy Attorney General of North Carolina; BLUE RIDGE LOG CABINS INC.; HONORABLE ROBERT A. MCDONALD, Veterans Affairs Department; ENDEMOL SHINE NORTH AMERICA; and DOES 1-50 Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          Thomas D. Schroeder United States District Judge.

         Plaintiffs, appearing pro se, claim that a broad range of Defendants harmed them in their operation of a shelter for homeless female veterans and their children after the shelter became the subject of a television “make-over” show. Before the court are a host of motions. Plaintiffs have submitted a “motion and petition for joining complaint and amended to pleadings” (Doc. 43); a “Motion and Petition for Amended Complaint Request to Serve Defendants Added Since Original Complaint” (Doc. 68); two motions for “joinder” (Docs. 46, 47); a “Motion for Order of Protection” (Doc. 98); a “Motion for Order of Protection and Request for Hearing” (Doc. 101); and four motions for oral argument/hearings (Docs. 71, 91, 92, and 98). Three women (designated “Friends and Supporters”) have also filed motions to submit amicus briefs on Plaintiffs' behalf (although no proposed brief has been submitted). (Docs. 93, 94, and 95.)

         The following Defendants have submitted motions to dismiss the amended complaint (Doc. 41): Nat Robertson (Doc. 48); Earl Butler (Doc. 51); Heather Black (Doc. 53); Jennifer T. Harrod and Lareena J. Phillips (Doc. 56); Billy R. King and Allen W. Rogers (Doc. 59); Family Endeavors, Travis Pearson, and Larisa Whitt (Doc. 62); and the American Broadcasting Company (“ABC”) (Doc. 73). Collectively, these Defendants cite multiple fatal flaws in Plaintiffs' lawsuit. ABC's motion to dismiss asserts, among other grounds, that this court lacks subject matter jurisdiction over Plaintiffs' claims. The other Defendants assert multiple grounds for dismissal, including insufficiency of process and service of process, improper venue, and failure to state a claim. Plaintiffs have not directly responded to Defendants' motions but have filed “motions to dismiss” the Defendants' motions to dismiss (Doc. 85; Doc. 87), which the court will treat as responses to those motions.

         For the reasons that follow, the court is compelled to conclude that Plaintiffs' federal claims cannot proceed and, declining to exercise jurisdiction over any purported State claims, the court will dismiss the action without prejudice.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Viewed in the light most favorable to Plaintiffs, the operative facts are as follows:

         Plaintiffs claim that in 2005, apparently in or around Fayetteville, North Carolina, they opened their home to “homeless women veterans and their children” and that, in 2011, Defendant ABC approached them to consider their home for its “Extreme Makeover show” through which ABC would renovate the structure and feature it on television. (Doc. 41 at 2.) After the renovation was complete, however, the local community “excessively criticized, scrutinized, and villainized” them, as it “was unprepared and unaccepting of a house of that magnitude being dedicated to the honor of women veterans.” (Id. at 3.) Plaintiffs claim that the local print media attacked them, their organization, and their clients, and that they endured “violent hatred, hostility, death threats, racial discrimination, disability discrimination, jail time, ” and other harms. (Id. at 3-4.) The amended complaint mentions “emotional distress, ” physical and financial harms, and various types of discrimination, and requests damages, attorneys' fees, exemplary relief, and equitable relief. (Id. at 10.) The amended complaint's allegations of wrongdoing are highly generalized and conclusory but appear to arise out of Plaintiff Barbara Marshall's removal, legally and physically, from her involvement with the shelter following legal action.

         Defendant ABC argues primarily that the court lacks subject matter jurisdiction over Plaintiffs' federal claims. The other Defendants, as well, argue that Plaintiffs' allegations are so lacking in substance as to deprive the court of federal question jurisdiction and, in the alternative, fail to contain sufficient factual matter to make them plausible. Even though Defendants contend they have meritorious defenses based on other grounds, such as improper venue and failure of both process and proper service of process, they urge the court to nevertheless dismiss the case on the merits “[g]iven the numerous barriers to Plaintiffs maintaining a successful case.” (See Doc. 57 at 5.)

         II. ANALYSIS

         “The plaintiff has the burden of proving that subject matter jurisdiction exists.” Evans v. B.F. Perkins Co., a Div. of Standex Int'l Corp., 166 F.3d 642, 647 (4th Cir. 1999) (citing Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac R. Co. v. United States, 945 F.2d 765, 768 (4th Cir. 1991)). “When a defendant challenges subject matter jurisdiction pursuant to Rule 12(b)(1), ‘the district court is to regard the pleadings as mere evidence on the issue, and may consider evidence outside the pleadings without converting the proceeding to one for summary judgment.'” Id. (citing Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac R. Co., 945 F.2d at 768). “The district court should grant the Rule 12(b)(1) motion to dismiss ‘only if the material jurisdictional facts are not in dispute and the moving party is entitled to prevail as a matter of law.'” Id. (citing Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac R. Co., 945 F.2d at 768).

         “When reviewing a pro se complaint, federal courts should examine carefully the plaintiff's factual allegations, no matter how inartfully pleaded, to determine whether they could provide a basis for relief. In addition, in order to determine whether the claim of a pro se plaintiff can withstand a motion to dismiss, it is appropriate to look beyond the face of the complaint to allegations made in any additional materials filed by the plaintiff.” Armstrong v. Rolm A. Siemans Co., 129 F.3d 1258 (4th Cir. 1997) (citations omitted). However, the liberal construction of a pro se plaintiff's pleading does not require the court to ignore clear defects in pleading, Bustos v. Chamberlain, No. 3:09- 1760-HMH-JRM, 2009 WL 2782238, at *2 (D.S.C. Aug. 27, 2009), or to “conjure up questions never squarely presented in the complaint, ” Brice v. Jenkins, 489 F.Supp.2d 538, 541 (E.D. Va. 2007) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). Nor does it require that the court become an advocate for the unrepresented party. Weller v. Dep't of Soc. Servs., 901 F.2d 387, 391 (4th Cir. 1990).

         Plaintiffs claim that this court's jurisdiction over their claims rests on the existence of a federal question, see 28 U.S.C. § 1331, invoking Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. (“Title VII”), the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq. (“ADA”), the Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988, 42 U.S.C. § 3601 et seq. (“FHAA”), and, for the first time in a response brief (Doc. 78 at 9), the Notification and Federal Employee Antidiscrimination and Retaliation Act, 5 U.S.C. § 2301 et seq. (the “No-FEAR Act”) (Doc. 41 at 4). Plaintiffs also invoke “the Diversity of Citizenship” to support venue in this court. (Id.)

         As to federal question jurisdiction, the court does not lack authority to act simply because a claim lacks merit or is doubtful. But “[a] claim is too ‘insubstantial and frivolous' to support federal question jurisdiction when it is ‘obviously without merit.'” Herero People's Reparations Corp. v. Deutsche Bank, A.G., 370 F.3d 1192, 1194-95 (D.C. Cir. 2004) (quoting Hagans v. Lavine, 415 U.S. 528, 538 (1974)). The four federal statutes Plaintiffs invoke are largely irrelevant to the harms they allege and clearly provide them no relief.[1] The court will address each in turn.

         Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects employees from certain types of discrimination in employment and prohibits an employer from “discharg[ing] any individual, or otherwise . . . discriminat[ing] against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment” based on a protected characteristic. Coleman v. Md. Ct. of Appeals, 626 F.3d 187, 190 (4th Cir. 2010) (citing 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a)), aff'd sub nom. Coleman v. Ct. of Appeals of Md., 566 U.S. 30 (2012). Plaintiffs do not allege that any Defendant employed them (see generally Doc. 41 at 5-10), so Title VII does not apply to their claims. Furthermore, Plaintiffs do not allege that they have sought relief from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission - a prerequisite to filing a Title VII lawsuit in federal court, and “federal ...


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