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Taylor v. Sedgwick County Board of Commissioners

United States District Court, D. Kansas

September 30, 2019

ROBBY TAYLOR, Plaintiff,
v.
SEDGWICK COUNTY BOARD OF COMMISSIONERS, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          DANIEL D. CRABTREE, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiff brings this lawsuit against three sets of defendants: (1) Chief District Judge James Fleetwood (in his official and individual capacities), District Judge Jeff Dewey (in his official capacity), District Judge Seth Rundle (in his official and individual capacities), Court Trustee Carl Wheeler, (in his official capacity), and District Court Clerk Bernie Lumbreras (in her official capacity) (“the Sedgwick County, Kansas defendants”); (2) the Board of County Commissioners of Sedgwick County (“the Sedgwick County BOCC”) and Sedgwick County Sheriff Jeff Easter (in his official capacity); and (3) plaintiff’s ex-wife, Melinda Slater.[1]

         The Sedgwick County, Kansas defendants filed a Motion to Dismiss under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6). Doc. 14. Defendants Sedgwick County BOCC and Sheriff Easter filed a Motion to Dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), or alternatively a Motion for More Definite Statement under Rule 12(e). Doc. 19. Defendant Slater also filed a Motion to Dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), or alternatively a Motion for More Definite Statement under Rule 12(e). Plaintiff has filed a Response. Doc. 33. All defendants have filed Replies. Docs. 35, 36, 37. For reasons explained below, the court grants defendants’ motions.

         I. Facts

         The following facts come from plaintiff’s Complaint and the court views them in the light most favorable to him. S.E.C. v. Shields, 744 F.3d 633, 640 (10th Cir. 2014) (“We accept as true all well-pleaded factual allegations in the complaint and view them in the light most favorable to the [plaintiff].” (citation and internal quotations marks omitted)).

         This lawsuit arises from plaintiff and defendant Slater’s Sedgwick County, Kansas child support case. Doc. 1 at 6. Plaintiff’s factual allegations are hard to follow. But, generally, plaintiff claims that Sedgwick County judges and “government partners” have “obstruct[ed] recusal and appeal in an interstate child support case for the purpose of preventing [p]laintiff and his attorney’s further racketeering complaints to federal agents.”[2] Id. at 2. Plaintiff and his attorney are now “faced with threats of physical force by state actor Judge Seth Rundle based upon prima facie insufficient contempt pleadings and proceedings.” Id. Plaintiff claims that “continuing acts of retaliatory obstruction against [p]laintiff and his attorney that have occurred during an active federal investigation plausibly show that Sedgwick County is incapable of preventing its property, personnel, services[, ] and revenue from being used to further [an] illegal enterprise even in a court system.” Id.

         Plaintiff is an “African-American and Native-American” male. Id. He and Ms. Slater were married from 1997 to 2013. Id. at 6 (Compl. ¶ 10). They have three children together. Id. Judge Rundle has presided over their child support proceedings in Sedgwick County No. 13DM4220. Id. (Compl. ¶ 16). In July 2017, Ms. Slater filed to increase plaintiff’s child support obligation. Id. (Compl. ¶ 13). During discovery, plaintiff learned that Ms. Slater had been reporting her income inaccurately since child support began in 2013. Id. (Compl. ¶ 17). Plaintiff filed a “Notice of Intent to Request Sanctions” for this conduct, but the Sedgwick County court struck plaintiff’s notice without notice to plaintiff. Id. at 6–7 (Compl. ¶¶ 18, 19).

         At the child support proceeding, Judge Rundle asked Ms. Slater’s attorney whether she was arguing plaintiff’s attorney had contacted a represented party. Id. at 7 (Compl. ¶ 20). Ms. Slater’s attorney said no. Id. But after the proceeding, Judge Rundle ordered plaintiff’s attorney to self-report “insinuated ex parte communications” to the Kansas Disciplinary Administrator. Id. (Compl. ¶ 21). Also, Judge Rundle “approved an unspecified assessment of fees against [plaintiff] and/or his attorney without specific findings of bad faith nor waste or delay.” Id. (Compl. ¶ 22).

         In March 2018, plaintiff filed a request to disqualify Judge Rundle after a “formal ethics investigation resulting from Rundle’s Order.” Id. (Compl. ¶ 24). Judge Rundle then denied voluntary disqualification from the case. Id. (Compl. ¶ 26). Plaintiff’s attorney filed an affidavit asserting Judge Rundle’s judicial bias. Id. at 8 (Compl. ¶¶ 27, 28). The affidavit stated, in part, that plaintiff’s attorney had made “formal inquiry into racketeering” in Sedgwick County courts, and that 64 days later, her three-year-old relative/client was murdered after “his mother was granted a clearly fraudulent protection from stalking order.”[3] Id. (Compl. ¶ 28). Chief Judge Fleetwood held a hearing on plaintiff’s attorney’s recusal affidavit, “but his understanding of his statutory, administrative duties as to recusal could not be legally corroborated.” Id. at 9 (Compl. ¶ 30). Judge Fleetwood denied plaintiff’s request for reassignment. Id. (Compl. ¶ 32).

         Judge Rundle then ordered child support income withholding (including a 3.5 percent Sedgwick County Trustee fee) against plaintiff. Id. at 10 (Compl. ¶ 35). And plaintiff lost every post-trial motion. Id. Plaintiff appealed, and Ms. Slater “filed a facially-invalid Motion for Contempt” to enforce a $4, 400.00 attorney’s fees award against plaintiff. Id. at 11 (Compl. ¶ 41). Judge Rundle set a hearing on the matter for October 1, 2018.[4] Id. (Compl. ¶ 43).

         Then, on October 1, plaintiff’s attorney had a docket conflict with plaintiff’s hearing in front of Judge Rundle and another matter in front of Judge Dewey. Id. (Compl. ¶¶ 44–45). Plaintiff’s attorney told opposing counsel and court personnel where she would be so that they could find her for plaintiff’s case, if needed. Id. at 12 (Compl. ¶ 45). But nobody requested that plaintiff’s attorney appear in either Judge Dewey or Judge Rundle’s courtroom that day. Id. (Compl. ¶ 46). Plaintiff’s attorney then received an “order for her disqualification and insinuation of citation for indirect contempt for failing to appear at 2:15 PM that day on Mrs. Slater’s facially-invalid contempt motion.” Id. (Compl. ¶ 47). Ms. Slater then tried to disqualify plaintiff’s attorney from appellate representation, but the court denied her motion. Id. (Compl. ¶ 50).

         On October 12, 2018, plaintiff’s attorney contacted an HHS Office of the Inspector General Special Agent and “relayed complaints of racketeering involving an enterprise with courts in Sedgwick, Johnson[, ] and Wyandotte [C]ounties in Kansas.” Id. (Compl. ¶ 51). The same day, Judge Rundle “obstructed [p]laintiff’s attorney’s right to file Notice of Appeal of his decisions to disqualify the attorney, find her in contempt and to further pursue the judge’s disqualification and venue transfer.” Id. (Compl. ¶ 52). On October 29, 2018, plaintiff’s attorney learned that Judge Fleetwood had reported to the Sheriff’s Office that plaintiff’s attorney had threatened him. Id. (Compl. ¶ 53). Plaintiff’s attorney complained about Judge Fleetwood’s conduct to Sedgwick County Attorney Eric Yost the same day. Id. at 13 (Compl. ¶ 54).

         Plaintiff alleges the following against all defendants: a general claim under 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983 and 1988 (Count I); a § 1983 First Amendment claim (Count II); a § 1983 Equal Protection claim (Count III); and a Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act (“RICO”) claim under 18 U.S.C. § 1962 (Count IV). Plaintiff also brings an “abuse of process” claim against Ms. Slater (Count V).[5]

         And plaintiff asks the court for the following relief: (1) disqualification of Sedgwick County Judges Fleetwood, Dewey, and Rundle from plaintiff’s child support case; (2) transfer of venue from Sedgwick County to Cowley County; (3) a “stay” of Judge Rundle’s orders, including his order disqualifying plaintiff’s attorney; (4) an injunction preventing further filings in the child support case; (5) “[f]ederal reorganization, appointment of trustee and removal of officers” in the Sedgwick County Trustee’s Office; (6) plaintiff’s costs and treble attorney’s fees; and (7) “[s]uch other relief as this [c]ourt may deem just and proper, including but not limited to prospective and/or retroactive injunctive relief for any injustice for which relief in the law is inadequate, declaratory relief, compensatory damages, punitive damages, pain and suffering, statutory damages (including treble damages and/or fines), reimbursement of funds paid or lost, class action certification, attorneys fees and/or costs.” Doc. 1 at 29.

         II. Legal Standards

         A. Rule 12(b)(1) standard

         “Federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction and, as such, must have a statutory basis to exercise jurisdiction.” Montoya v. Chao, 296 F.3d 952, 955 (10th Cir. 2002) (citation omitted). Federal district courts have original jurisdiction of all civil actions arising under the constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States or where there is diversity of citizenship. 28 U.S.C. § 1331; 28 U.S.C. § 1332. “A court lacking jurisdiction cannot render judgment but must dismiss the cause at any stage of the proceedings in which it becomes apparent that jurisdiction is lacking.” Basso v. Utah Power & Light Co., 495 F.2d 906, 909 (10th Cir. 1974) (citation omitted). Since federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction, there is a presumption against jurisdiction, and the party invoking jurisdiction bears the burden to prove it exists. Kokkonen v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. of Am., 511 U.S. 375, 377 (1994).

         Generally, a motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(1) takes one of two forms: a facial attack or a factual attack. Holt v. United States, 46 F.3d 1000, 1002 (10th Cir. 1995). “First, a facial attack on the complaint’s allegations as to subject matter jurisdiction questions the sufficiency of the complaint. In reviewing a facial attack on the complaint, a district court must accept the allegations in the complaint as true.” Id. (citing Ohio Nat’l Life Ins. Co. v. United States, 922 F.2d 320, 325 (6th Cir. 1990)) (internal citations omitted).

         “Second, a party may go beyond allegations contained in the complaint and challenge the facts upon which subject matter jurisdiction depends.” Id. at 1003 (citations omitted). “When reviewing a factual attack on subject matter jurisdiction, a district court may not presume the truthfulness of the complaint’s factual allegations.” Id. (citations omitted).

         B. Rule 12(b)(6) standard

         On a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, the court accepts all facts pleaded by the non-moving party as true and draws any reasonable inferences in favor of the non-moving party. Brokers’ Choice of Am. v. NBC Universal, Inc., 757 F.3d 1125, 1136 (10th Cir. 2014). “To survive a motion to dismiss [under Rule 12(b)(6)], a complaint must 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) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). “A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Id. (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556).

         Although this Rule “does not require ‘detailed factual allegations, ’” it demands more than “[a] pleading that offers ‘labels and conclusions’ or ‘a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action’” which, as the Supreme Court has explained, simply “will not do.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555). This is so because the court need not “accept as true a legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 557 (quoting Papasan v. Allain, 478 U.S. 265, 286 (1986) (internal quotation omitted)).

         The court also will grant a motion to dismiss if an issue of law is dispositive. Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319, 326 (1989). And “if as a matter of law ‘it is clear that no relief could be granted under any set of facts that could be proved consistent with the allegations, ’ a claim must be dismissed, without regard to whether it is based on an outlandish legal theory or on a close but ultimately unavailing one.” Id. at 327 (quoting Hishon v. King & Spalding, 467 U.S. 69, 73 (1984)).

         III. Discussion

         All defendants ask the court to dismiss plaintiff’s Complaint. They provide several reasons supporting their dismissal request. The court addresses each reason, in turn, below.

         A. Plaintiff’s Requests for Declaratory Relief

         The Sedgwick County, Kansas defendants argue that plaintiff’s requests for “declaratory relief” fail as a matter of law.[6] Plaintiff labels some of his requests for relief as seeking “declaratory” relief. See, e.g., Doc. 1 at 3 (“Declaratory relief is authorized by 28 U.S.C. §§ 2201 and 2202.”); id. at 17 (requesting “declaratory relief” against Judge Fleetwood “to reassign [p]laintiff’s case”); id. at 21 (requesting “declaratory relief” against Judge Rundle “to voluntarily disqualify himself from [p]laintiff’s case, vacate his orders of October 2, 2018 and thereafter and to provide proof of his training as to liability for coercive use of pleadings and orders, employee responsibilities to as to liability for coercive use of pleadings and orders, employee responsibilities to report the appearance of such conduct and the parameters of qualified, quasi-judicial and absolute immunity”).

         But all of plaintiff’s demands are requests for injunctive relief. A declaratory judgment “declare[s] the rights and other legal relations of any interested party seeking such declaration . . . .” 28 U.S.C. § 2201. See also United States v. Fisher-Otis Co., Inc., 496 F.2d 1146, 1151 (10th Cir. 1974) (citation omitted) (“The purpose of the Declaratory Judgment Act is to settle actual controversies before they ripen into violations of law or a breach of duty.”). Here, none of plaintiff’s requests for relief seek a declaration of rights. Instead, each request for “declaratory relief” asks the court to order defendants to initiate some kind of action-for the most part, actions in plaintiff’s underlying child support proceedings.

         Even if plaintiff truly was seeking declaratory relief, state officials are immune from suit in their official capacities for retrospective declaratory relief because the Eleventh Amendment bars such claims. Meiners v. Univ. of Kan., 359 F.3d 1222, 1232 (10th Cir. 2004).

         Also, “the Supreme Court has held [the Declaratory Judgment Act] confers upon courts the power, but not the duty, to hear claims for declaratory judgment.” Mid-Continent Cas. Co. v. Vill. at Deer Creek Homeowners Ass’n, Inc., 685 F.3d 977, 980 (10th Cir. 2012) (first citing Wilton v. Seven Falls Co., 515 U.S. 277, 286–87 (1995); then citing Pub. Affairs Assoc., Inc. v. Rickover, 369 U.S. 111, 112 (1962)). When determining whether a court should exercise jurisdiction over a declaratory judgment action, the court should consider the following factors:

[1] whether a declaratory action would settle the controversy; [2] whether it would serve a useful purpose in clarifying the legal relations at issue; [3] whether the declaratory remedy is being used merely for the purpose of procedural fencing or to provide an arena for a race to res judicata; [4] whether use of a declaratory action would increase friction between our federal and state courts and improperly encroach upon state jurisdiction; and [5] whether there is an alternative remedy which is better or more effective.

Id. at 980–81 (quoting State Farm Fire & Cas. Co. v. Mhoon, 31 F.3d 979, 983 (10th Cir. 1994)).

         Here, the “declaratory” relief that plaintiff seeks asks this court to order defendants to perform various actions-including actions in plaintiff’s child support proceedings. Even if plaintiff was seeking declaratory relief-and not injunctive relief-the Mhoon factors strongly favor the court exercising its discretion to decline to hear plaintiff’s claims under the Declaratory Judgment Act. An order of declaratory relief here: (1) will not settle plaintiff’s underlying child support proceedings, (2) would not serve a useful purpose in clarifying the legal relations at issue, (3) would promote procedural fencing because plaintiff seeks the relief as a way to avoid the jurisdiction of the Sedgwick County District Court, and (4) would increase friction between federal and state courts. Also, plaintiff has (5) an alternative remedy in state court because he can raise his arguments in that forum and also appeal any adverse Sedgwick County District Court orders to the Kansas appellate courts. For these reasons-and to the extent plaintiff raises any plausible claims for declaratory relief-the court declines to exercise jurisdiction over them.

         B. Young ...


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