Leifert v. Strach

CourtUnited States District Courts. 4th Circuit. Middle District of North Carolina
Citation404 F.Supp.3d 973
Docket Number1:17CV147
Parties M. Peter LEIFERT, North Carolina Green Party, and Green Party of the United States, Plaintiffs, v. Kim Westbrook STRACH, in her official capacity as Executive Director of the North Carolina State Board of Elections, Defendant.
Decision Date06 August 2019

Alan P. Woodruff, Southport, NC, S. Mark Henkle, Henkle Law, PLLC, Greensboro, NC, for Plaintiffs.

James Bernier, Jr., Paul M. Cox, N. C. Department of Justice, Raleigh, NC, for Defendant.


OSTEEN, JR., District Judge

This matter is now before the court on Defendant's motion to dismiss Plaintiffs' Fifth Amended Complaint for lack of jurisdiction and failure to state a claim, (Doc. 58), and Plaintiffs' Motion to Ascertain Status, (Doc. 62). For the reasons that follow, this court finds that Defendant's motion to dismiss should be granted, that all claims against Defendant should be dismissed, and that Plaintiffs' motion to ascertain will be denied as moot.


Plaintiff M. Peter Leifert ("Leifert") is an individual who is a registered voter in the state of North Carolina and "desires to identify his preference for, and affiliation with, a currently unrecognized party on his voter registration and to be a candidate for statewide office as a candidate of the [sic] that party." (Fifth Amended Complaint ("Am. Compl.") (Doc. 57) ¶ 3.)1 Plaintiff North Carolina Green Party is "the official state affiliate of the Green Party of the United States," a political organization that supports and endorses candidates for both nationwide and state offices including President of the United States. (Id. ¶¶ 4–5.) The complaint states that the Green Party of the United States "[h]ad candidates on the ballot [in] sufficient states in 2016 to qualify as a recognized party in North Carolina pursuant to N.C. Gen. Stat.... 163A-96(a)(3)."2 (Id. ¶ 5.)

All three Plaintiffs challenge various provisions of the North Carolina election laws, N.C. Gen. Stat. §§ 163A et seq. Plaintiffs argue, in summary, that (1) the ballot access requirements for unaffiliated and write-in candidates are unduly burdensome, (2) differential treatment of recognized and unrecognized political parties violates principles of equal protection and freedom of association, and (3) certain aspects of the election laws impose contradictory or unclear requirements upon both candidates and political parties. Defendant has moved to dismiss all counts, arguing that Plaintiffs lack standing to bring certain counts and that the other counts should be dismissed for failure to state a claim.

A. Procedural History

Plaintiffs filed their initial complaint in this matter on February 23, 2017. (See Doc. 1.) Plaintiffs have amended their complaint five times, mostly in response to intervening changes in the law. (See Docs. 23 and 45.) The current operative pleading is the Fifth Amended Complaint. (Am. Compl. (Doc. 57).) Defendant has moved to dismiss the Fifth Amended Complaint pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6), (Doc. 58), and filed a brief in support of her motion. (See Def.'s Mem. in Supp. of Mot. to Dismiss ("Def.'s Mem.") (Doc. 59).) Plaintiffs have responded in opposition to the motion to dismiss, (Pls.' Resp. to Def's Mot. to Dismiss ("Pls.' Resp. Br.") (Doc. 60)), and Defendant has replied, (Doc. 61). Plaintiffs filed a Motion to Ascertain Status on February 27, 2019. (Doc. 62.)

This court then issued a notice requesting supplemental briefing on Plaintiffs' standing to bring Counts II and III. (Doc. 64.) Plaintiffs filed a supplemental brief, (Pls.' Supp. Resp. to Mot. to Dismiss ("Pls.' Suppl. Resp.") (Doc. 65)), and Defendant replied, (Def.'s Reply to Pls.' Suppl. Resp. ("Def.'s Suppl. Reply") (Doc. 66)).

B. Standard of Review

"To survive a motion to dismiss, 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, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 173 L.Ed.2d 868 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 167 L.Ed.2d 929 (2007) ). In other words, the plaintiff must plead facts that "allow[ ] the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable" and must demonstrate "more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully." Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678, 129 S.Ct. 1937.

When ruling on a motion to dismiss, this court must accept the complaint's factual allegations as true. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678, 129 S.Ct. 1937. Further, "the complaint, including all reasonable inferences therefrom, [is] liberally construed in the plaintiff's favor." Estate of Williams-Moore v. All. One Receivables Mgmt., Inc., 335 F. Supp. 2d 636, 646 (M.D.N.C. 2004) (citation omitted). Despite this deferential standard, a court will not accept legal conclusions as true, and "[t]hreadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, [will] not suffice." Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678, 129 S.Ct. 1937.

A. Standing & Mootness — Legal Framework

The federal judicial power extends only to cases or controversies within the scope of Article III of the United States Constitution. See U.S. Const. art. III, § 2. To have standing, "[t]he plaintiff must have (1) suffered an injury in fact, (2) that is fairly traceable to the challenged conduct of the defendant, and (3) that is likely to be redressed by a favorable judicial decision." Spokeo, Inc. v. Robins, 578 U.S. ––––, ––––, 136 S. Ct. 1540, 1547, 194 L.Ed.2d 635 (2016). Stated differently, "[a] plaintiff must allege personal injury fairly traceable to the defendant's allegedly unlawful conduct and likely to be redressed by the requested relief." Allen v. Wright, 468 U.S. 737, 750, 104 S.Ct. 3315, 82 L.Ed.2d 556 (1984), abrogated on other grounds by Lexmark Int'l, Inc. v. Static Control Components, Inc., 572 U.S. 118, 134 S.Ct. 1377, 188 L.Ed.2d 392 (2014).

First, the plaintiff must have either suffered an injury or be in imminent fear of an injury. "A plaintiff who challenges a statute must demonstrate a realistic danger of sustaining a direct injury as a result of the statute's operation or enforcement."

Babbitt v. United Farm Workers Nat'l Union, 442 U.S. 289, 298, 99 S.Ct. 2301, 60 L.Ed.2d 895 (1979). That injury must be "(a) concrete and particularized, and (b) actual or imminent, not conjectural or hypothetical." Lujan v. Defs. of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555, 560, 112 S.Ct. 2130, 119 L.Ed.2d 351 (1992) (internal citations, quotation marks and footnote omitted). Plaintiffs generally may challenge alleged violations prospectively, provided that "the threatened injury is real, immediate, and direct." Davis v. Fed. Election Comm'n, 554 U.S. 724, 734, 128 S.Ct. 2759, 171 L.Ed.2d 737 (2008). "Past exposure to illegal conduct does not in itself show a present case or controversy regarding injunctive relief, however, if unaccompanied by any continuing, present adverse effects." O'Shea v. Littleton, 414 U.S. 488, 495–96, 94 S.Ct. 669, 38 L.Ed.2d 674 (1974).

Second, the injury must be "fairly traceable" to the defendant's conduct. This does not mean that the plaintiffs must prove to an absolute certainty that the defendant's actions caused or are likely to cause injury; rather the "plaintiffs need only show that there is a substantial likelihood that defendant's conduct caused plaintiffs' harm." Pub. Interest Research Grp. of N.J., Inc. v. Powell Duffryn Terminals Inc., 913 F.2d 64, 72 (3d Cir. 1990) (quoting Duke Power Co. v. Carolina Envtl. Study Grp., Inc., 438 U.S. 59, 75 n.20, 98 S.Ct. 2620, 57 L.Ed.2d 595 (1978) ) (internal quotation marks omitted). While this standard excludes any injury that is "the result of the independent action of some third party not before the court, ... [it] does not exclude injury produced by determinative or coercive effect upon the action of someone else." Bennett v. Spear, 520 U.S. 154, 167, 169, 117 S.Ct. 1154, 137 L.Ed.2d 281 (1997) (quoting Lujan, 504 U.S. at 560–61, 112 S.Ct. 2130 ).

Third and finally, the law requires that it be "likely, as opposed to merely speculative, that the injury will be redressed by a favorable decision" from the court. Friends of the Earth, Inc. v. Laidlaw Envtl. Servs. (TOC), Inc., 528 U.S. 167, 181, 120 S.Ct. 693, 145 L.Ed.2d 610 (2000). This requirement "examines the causal connection between the alleged injury and the judicial relief requested" and asks whether a judicial decision granting the requested relief will alleviate plaintiffs' alleged injury. See Allen, 468 U.S. at 753 n.19, 104 S.Ct. 3315 (explaining the distinction between the "fairly traceable" and "redressable" components of standing).

The traditional standing requirements apply to ballot-access and election-law challenges. See, e.g., Constitution Party of Pa. v. Aichele, 757 F.3d 347, 361–68 (3d Cir. 2014). However, a plaintiff generally has standing to challenge state election laws even when the plaintiff has not taken substantive steps to obtain ballot access under the contested statutory provisions. See, e.g., Libertarian Party of Tenn. v. Goins, 793 F. Supp. 2d 1064, 1077 (M.D. Tenn. 2010) (reviewing Supreme Court precedent on the issue). For example, in Storer v. Brown, the Supreme Court found that two individuals had standing to challenge California's signature requirement for independent candidates although the individuals provided no evidence that they had attempted to collect the requisite number of signatures. See 415 U.S. 724, 727–28, 738–40, 94 S.Ct. 1274, 39 L.Ed.2d 714 (1974). The plaintiffs in Storer, however, did profess a desire to run as independent candidates because their party had failed to obtain ballot access as a recognized party. See id. at 727–28, 94 S.Ct. 1274.

Mootness is closely related to standing. The Supreme Court has differentiated the two as follows: "[t]he requisite personal interest...

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  • Ohio v. Raimondo
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 6th Circuit. United States District Courts. 6th Circuit. Southern District of Ohio
    • March 24, 2021
    ...drawing congressional districts on April 1. In such circumstances, redressability (and standing) are lacking. See Leifert v. Strach , 404 F. Supp. 3d 973, 982 (M.D.N.C. 2019) (no redressability where "[i]t is not merely speculative, but rather impossible, for the requested relief to remedy ......
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    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 4th Circuit. Middle District of North Carolina
    • August 4, 2020
    ...and the RA.As previously noted, a plaintiff's injury must be "actual or imminent" in order to establish standing. Leifert v. Strach, 404 F. Supp. 3d 973, 985 (M.D.N.C. 2019) ; see Clapper, 568 U.S. at 401-02, 133 S.Ct. 1138 ("[R]espondents cannot manufacture standing ... based on hypothetic......
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    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 6th Circuit. United States District Courts. 6th Circuit. Southern District of Ohio
    • March 24, 2021
    ...drawing congressional districts on April 1. In such circumstances, redressability (and standing) are lacking. See Leifert v. Strach, 404 F. Supp. 3d 973, 982 (M.D.N.C. 2019) (no redressability where "[i]t is not merely speculative, but rather impossible, for the requested relief to remedy t......

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