Lee v. Modlin

Decision Date27 December 2022
Docket NumberCiv. DLB-21-1609
PartiesSTEPHEN E. LEE, Plaintiff, v. TRACY MODLIN, et al., Defendants.
CourtU.S. District Court — District of Maryland

Deborah L. Boardman, United States District Judge

Veteran Stephen E. Lee, proceeding pro se, sued Tracy Modlin, Brandon Pippens, Craig Cooke, John Clow, Morris Ricks, Anthony Gibson, and Darnell Davis, federal employees connected to the Department of Veterans Affairs (“VA”) and/or the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development - Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (“HUD-VASH”) program (collectively, the “U.S. defendants); the United States of America (“U.S.”); and Rasheed Savage. ECF 1. Lee alleges he received a housing voucher through the HUD-VASH program but was misled by a case worker about the possibility of representation at an important hearing on his entitlement to the voucher. Following the hearing, Lee's voucher was revoked, and Lee eventually became homeless. At the conclusion of a nearly two-year investigation by a VA patient advocate into whether Lee in fact had been misled by a VA case worker, Lee made a statement to the investigator that the investigator perceived as a threat, and Lee was arrested and charged with assault. After his acquittal, he filed this lawsuit.

The Court previously granted the defendants' motion to dismiss several of Lee's claims but denied the motion without prejudice as to his claims for malicious prosecution wrongful arrest, false imprisonment, and discrimination relating to his discharge from a transitional housing program. See ECF 35 & 36. In response to that ruling, on June 10, the U.S. moved to substitute itself for the U.S. defendants, ECF 39, and to dismiss Lee's remaining claims, ECF 40. On June 14, the Court mailed to Lee a notice informing him of the motion to dismiss and warning him that the failure to oppose it adequately could result in the dismissal of his claims. ECF 41. On July 19, Lee filed an opposition to the motion to dismiss. ECF 44. He also moved for an extension of time to file his opposition and for reconsideration of the Court's previous decision to deny him appointed counsel, ECF 42, and moved to amend his complaint to add two additional federal employees, Jonathan Eckman and Lisa Coles, as defendants, ECF 43. On September 1 the U.S. filed an amended motion to substitute, an opposition to Lee's motion for leave to amend, and a reply in support of the motion to dismiss. ECF 47, 48 & 49. On December 19, Lee filed a reply regarding his motion to amend, ECF 51, and a motion repeating the requests he made in ECF 42, ECF 50. No hearing is necessary. See Loc. R. 105.6. For the following reasons, the motion to substitute is granted; the motion to dismiss is granted; Lee's motions are denied; and the amended motion to substitute is denied as moot. With Lee's federal claims dismissed, the Court declines to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over any remaining state law claims against Savage.

I. Background

The Court previously summarized Lee's allegations. See ECF 35, at 2-6. The Court repeats only those allegations that are relevant to Lee's remaining claims. Lee is a veteran. In January 2018, he was discharged from the HUD-VASH program following a hearing before the Housing Authority of Baltimore City (“HABC”), the public housing authority responsible for administering the program in Lee's area. As a result of his discharge, Lee lost access to HUD-VASH housing vouchers that subsidized his rent, and he became homeless.

Before the HABC hearing, Lee contacted Pippens, a VA social worker, and Pippens instructed Lee that he did not have to inform HABC immediately of certain facts that would make him ineligible for program assistance. Pippens later told Lee he would attend the HABC hearing to speak about that instruction. Pippens' supervisor, Modlin, refused to allow Pippens to attend the hearing or provide any documentation requested by HABC. In April 2018, Lee contacted Ricks, a VA patient advocate, about Pippens and about Lee's discharge from the HUD-VASH program. During the ensuing investigation, Pippens confirmed to Ricks that he had promised to attend the hearing and had instructed Lee that he was not required to notify HABC immediately of the adverse facts. In September 2019, Ricks made a request with the VA on Lee's behalf, seeking reinstatement of Lee's housing voucher and reimbursement for the months of increased rent payments. Clow, the VA employee who reviewed the request, responded that HABC had discharged Lee for valid reasons.

On October 18, 2019, Lee met with Ricks, presumably to review the results of Ricks' investigation and the request for reinstatement. Lee became upset and angry, and he made a threatening statement. Ricks called the VA police. Lee talked himself down from his anger. The police arrived and interviewed Lee before letting him go with a warning.

From February to November 2019, Lee stayed at the overnight guest services facility at the Helping Up Mission (“HUM”), an overnight shelter for homeless men, at least four nights a week. On August 12, 2019, Lee entered the HUM's VA housing program and received a VA contract bed-a bed reserved for veterans through the HUM's partnership with the Health Care for Homeless Veterans Program (“HCHV”). To be eligible for a VA contract bed, a veteran must meet certain statutory requirements and eligibility criteria. See ECF 40-4 (Veterans Health Administration Handbook 1162.09); 38 U.S.C. § 2031(a); 38 C.F.R. § 63.3. On October 21, 2019, HUM staff informed Lee that he had surpassed the 60-day limit for contract bed eligibility pursuant to the agreement between HCHV and HUM and failed to meet other eligibility requirements. Lee was discharged from the VA housing program later that day. Lee alleges Ricks and other VA employees contacted HUM employees to have Lee wrongfully evicted from the contract bed.

After his removal from HUM, Lee learned that there was a warrant for his arrest for assault related to the events on October 18. On November 4, Lee was arrested. Following his arrest, he lost all his personal property, including clothing, jewelry, and identification. Lee was acquitted on March 9, 2020. On March 10, he returned to HUM and was denied housing. This lawsuit followed.

II. Standard of Review

Under Rule 12(b)(6), a party may seek dismissal for failure “to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.” Robertson v. Anderson Mill Elementary Sch., 989 F.3d 282, 290 (4th Cir. 2021) (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6)). To survive the challenge, the opposing party must have pleaded facts demonstrating it has a plausible right to relief from the Court. Lokhova v. Halper, 995 F.3d 134, 141 (4th Cir. 2021) (citing Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009)). A plausible claim is more than merely conceivable or speculative. See Holloway v. Maryland, 32 F.4th 293, 299 (4th Cir. 2022). The allegations must show there is “more than a sheer possibility that the defendant has acted unlawfully.” Int'l Refugee Assistance Project v. Trump, 961 F.3d 635, 648 (4th Cir. 2020) (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678)). But the claim does not need to be probable, and the pleader need not show “that alternative explanations are less likely” than their theory. Jesus Christ is the Answer Ministries, Inc. v. Baltimore Cnty., 915 F.3d 256, 263 (4th Cir. 2019) (quoting Houck v. Substitute Tr. Servs., Inc., 791 F.3d 473, 484 (4th Cir. 2015)).

When ruling on a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, the Court must accept the pleaded allegations as true and draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the pleader. Williams v. Kincaid, 45 F.4th 759, 765 (4th Cir. 2022). But the Court does not accept “legal conclusions couched as facts or unwarranted inferences, unreasonable conclusions, or arguments.” United States ex rel. Taylor v. Boyko, 39 F.4th 177, 189 (4th Cir. 2022) (quoting United States ex rel. Nathan v. Takeda Pharms. N. Am., Inc., 707 F.3d 451, 455 (4th Cir. 2013)). Merely reciting a claim's elements “and supporting them by conclusory statements does not meet the required standard.” Sheppard v. Visitors of Va. State Univ., 993 F.3d 230, 234 (4th Cir. 2021) (quoting ACA Fin. Guar. Corp. v. City of Buena Vista, 917 F.3d 206, 212 (4th Cir. 2019)). The Court “does not resolve contests surrounding facts, the merits of a claim, or the applicability of defenses.” Ray v. Roane, 948 F.3d 222, 226 (4th Cir. 2020) (quoting Tobey v. Jones, 706 F.3d 379, 387 (4th Cir. 2013)).

[P]ro se filings are ‘h[e]ld to less stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers.' Folkes v. Nelsen, 34 F.4th 258, 272 (4th Cir. 2022) (quoting Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, 520 (1972)). Accordingly, the Court must construe pro se pleadings liberally. Bing v. Brivo Sys., LLC, 959 F.3d 605, 618 (4th Cir. 2020), cert. denied, 141 S.Ct. 1376 (2021). But “liberal construction does not require [the Court] to attempt to ‘discern the unexpressed intent of the plaintiff[;]' the Court need only “determine the actual meaning of the words used in the complaint.” Williams v. Ozmint, 716 F.3d 801, 805 (4th Cir. 2013) (quoting Laber v. Harvey, 438 F.3d 404, 413 n.3 (4th Cir. 2006) (en banc)). Thus, a pro se complaint “still ‘must contain enough facts to state a claim for relief that is plausible on its face.' Thomas v. The Salvation Army S. Territory, 841 F.3d 632, at 637 (4th Cir. 2016) (quoting King v. Rubenstein, 825 F.3d 206, 212, 214 (4th Cir. 2016) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007))).

“A motion to dismiss based on lack of subject matter jurisdiction pursuant to Rule 12(b)(1) raises the question of whether the Court has the competence or authority to hear the case.” Davis v. Thompson, 367 F.Supp.2d 792, 799 (D Md. 2005). “Federal courts are courts of limited...

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