Owen-Williams v. Higgs, Civil Action No. DKC 18-0439

CourtUnited States District Courts. 4th Circuit. United States District Court (Maryland)
Writing for the CourtDEBORAH K. CHASANOW United States District Judge
Decision Date05 February 2019
Docket NumberCivil Action No. DKC 18-0439


Civil Action No. DKC 18-0439


February 5, 2019


Two motions are presently pending and ready for resolution in this civil rights action. Plaintiff Adol T. Owen-Williams, II ("Plaintiff") filed a motion for judgment, default judgment and/or declaratory judgment in this civil rights action on May 4, 2018. (ECF No. 8). Defendants Michael L. Higgs, Jr., Katja Bullock, Mark Uncapher, Richard Hansin, Joseph Gillin and the Montgomery County Republican Central Committee ("Defendants") filed a motion to dismiss on May 11, 2018.1 (ECF No. 11). The issues have been briefed, and the court now rules, no hearing being deemed necessary. Local Rule 105.6. Because Plaintiff's First Amendment claim is barred under the res judicata doctrine and in any event fails to demonstrate necessary state action, that claim will be

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dismissed for failure to state a claim. There is no independent basis for federal jurisdiction over Plaintiff's supplemental state law claims and the court declines to consider them. Accordingly, all of Plaintiff's claims will be dismissed.

I. Background

Plaintiff filed a complaint on February 12, 2018, alleging that some of the Defendants violated his First Amendment Rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. (ECF No. 1, at 26-28). Plaintiff also asserts eight state law claims, including false arrest, false imprisonment, malicious prosecution, abuse of process, assault, defamation, breach of contract, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. (Id., at 17-33).

Plaintiff's claims stem from his long-standing involvement in the Montgomery County Republican Central Committee (the "MCRCC"). (ECF No. 1, at 2). Plaintiff states that the MCRCC named Plaintiff as the MCRCC's nominee to sit on the Board of Elections, but his nomination did not come to fruition because it was not approved by then Governor Martin O'Malley. (Id., at 5). He claims that, in lieu of a seat on the Board of Elections, the MCRCC offered Plaintiff the position of MCRCC Liaison to the Board of Elections. Plaintiff alleges that when he accepted this alternative assignment, the MCRCC promised to elevate him as nominee to the Board of Elections if a Republican later assumed the Governorship

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in Maryland. Plaintiff accepted the role of liaison and attended Board of Election meetings for four years in that capacity.

Defendant Michael Higgs ("Higgs") allegedly joined the MCRCC in Fall, 2012 and, by the end of his first year on the MCRCC, negotiated an agreement with then chairman Mark Uncapher wherein Higgs would succeed Uncapher as chairman. (Id., at 5-6). The remainder of Plaintiff's complaint explains how Higgs and other members of the MCRCC mistreated Plaintiff, attempted to limit Plaintiff's participation in the MCRCC, and barred Plaintiff from entering the MCRCC headquarters. (Id., at 6-17).

Plaintiff filed a motion for judgment, default judgment and/or declaratory judgment on May 4, 2018, seeking default judgment in the amount of $10,300,000 "pursuant to Rule 8 [§§] 1254 & 1255." (ECF No. 8, at 2-3). Defendants filed a motion to dismiss the case with prejudice, enjoin new case filings, and requested attorneys' fees and costs on May 11, 2018. (ECF No. 11). Defendants request dismissal under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) based on lack of subject matter jurisdiction. Defendants also seek dismissal under Rule 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted because Plaintiff's § 1983 claim is precluded under the doctrine of res judicata and Defendants do not qualify as state actors. (ECF No. 12, at 2-5). Finally, because Plaintiff has filed two nearly identical cases

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against Defendants, they also request an injunction barring Plaintiff from filing future cases against them. (Id., at 11-12).

II. Analysis

A. Motion to Dismiss

A motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction is governed by Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1). Generally, "questions of subject matter jurisdiction must be decided 'first, because they concern the court's very power to hear the case.'" Owens-Illinois, Inc. v. Meade, 186 F.3d 435, 442 n.4 (4th Cir. 1999) (quoting 2 James Wm. Moore, et al., Moore's Federal Practice § 12.30[1] (3rd ed. 1998)). The Plaintiff always bears the burden of proving that subject matter jurisdiction properly exists in federal court. See Evans v. B.F. Perkins Co., a Div. of Standex Int'l Corp., 166 F.3d 642, 647 (4th Cir. 1999). According to 28 U.S.C. § 1331, "[t]he district courts shall have original jurisdiction of all civil actions arising under the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States." Courts must "look no farther than the plaintiff's complaint in determining whether a lawsuit raises issues of federal law capable of creating federal-question jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1331." Custer v. Sweeney, 89 F.3d 1156, 1165 (4th Cir. 1996). Plaintiff's complaint asserts one federal cause of action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that Defendants violated his First Amendment rights.

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Because Plaintiff's § 1983 claim arises under federal law, it satisfies the requirements of subject-matter jurisdiction.

The sufficiency of Plaintiff's complaint must also be assessed under Rule 12(b)(6). Presley v. City of Charlottesville, 464 F.3d 480, 483 (4th Cir. 2006). A plaintiff's complaint need only satisfy the standard of Rule 8(a), which requires a "short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief." Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). "Rule 8(a)(2) still requires a 'showing,' rather than a blanket assertion, of entitlement to relief." Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 n.3 (2007). That showing must consist of more than "a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action" or "naked assertion[s] devoid of further factual enhancement." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (internal citations omitted).

At this stage, all well-pleaded allegations in a complaint must be considered as true, Albright v. Oliver, 510 U.S. 266, 268 (1994), and all factual allegations must be construed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, see Harrison v. Westinghouse Savannah River Co., 176 F.3d 776, 783 (4th Cir. 1999) (citing Mylan Labs., Inc. v. Matkari, 7 F.3d 1130, 1134 (4th Cir. 1993)). In evaluating the complaint, unsupported legal allegations need not be accepted. Revene v. Charles Cty. Comm'rs, 882 F.2d 870, 873

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(4th Cir. 1989). Legal conclusions couched as factual allegations are insufficient, Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678, as are conclusory factual allegations devoid of any reference to actual events, United Black Firefighters v. Hirst, 604 F.2d 844, 847 (4th Cir. 1979).

Ordinarily, an affirmative defense, such as res judicata, which must be raised and established by the defense, is an inappropriate consideration on a motion to dismiss. Goodman v. Praxair, Inc., 494 F.3d 458, 46 (4th Cir. 2007). On the other hand, "[i]n the limited circumstances where the allegations of the complaint give rise to an affirmative defense, the defense may be raised under Rule 12(b)(6), but only if it clearly appears on the face of the complaint." Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac R. Co. v. Forst, 4 F.3d 244, 250 (4th Cir. 1983) (citation omitted). Moreover:

[Although] an affirmative defense such as res judicata may be raised under Rule 12(b)(6) "only if it clearly appears on the face of the complaint," Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac R.R. Co. v. Forst, 4 F.3d 244, 250 (4th Cir. 1993), when entertaining a motion to dismiss on the ground of res judicata, a court may take judicial notice of facts from a prior judicial proceeding when the res judicata defense raises no disputed issue of fact, see Day v. Moscow, 955 F.2d 807, 811 (2d Cir. 1992); Scott v. Kuhlmann, 746 F.2d 1377, 1378 (9th Cir. 1984); Briggs v. Newberry County Sch. Dist., 838 F.Supp. 232, 234 (D.S.C. 1992), aff'd, 989 F.2d 491 (4th Cir. 1993) (unpublished).

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Andrews v. Daw, 201 F.3d 521, 524 (4th Cir. 2000), cert. denied, 534 U.S. 840 (2001). "Under res judicata, a final judgment on the merits of an action precludes the parties or their privies from relitigating issues that were or could have been raised in that action." Allen v. McCurry, 449 U.S. 90, 94 (1980). For a prior judgment to bar an action on the basis of res judicata, the prior judgment must be final, on the merits, and rendered by a court of competent jurisdiction in accordance with due process; the parties in the two actions must be either identical or in privity; and the claim in the second action must be based upon the same cause of action involved in the earlier proceeding. See Grausz v. Englander, 321 F.3d 467, 472 (4th Cir. 2003).

Plaintiff brought a similar case in 2015 that, when viewed in combination with Plaintiff's complaint here, fulfills all three requirements of res judicata. First, dismissal of Plaintiff's 2015 claim with prejudice under Rule 12(b)(6) constituted a final judgment on the merits. See Owen-Williams v. Higgs, No. CIV.A. RWT-15-1811, 2015 WL 4578421, at *2 (D.Md. July 27, 2015). That case was brought by Plaintiff against Michael Higgs, Katja Bullock, Rakeshkumar Patel, Mark Uncapher, and the MCRCC. A dismissal for failure to state a claim is an adjudication on the merits. McLean v. United States, 566 F.3d 391, 396 (4th Cir. 2009).

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Second, the Defendants named in the First Amendment claim here are identical to those named in Plaintiff's prior suit, namely Michael Higgs, Rakeshkumar Patel, Katja Bullock, and Mark Uncapher. To the extent that he intended to include "other members of the MCRCC," those parties would be in privity with the earlier named parties.

Privity is a term without any "generally prevailing definition * * * which can be automatically applied to all cases involving the doctrine of res judicata," Heaton v. Southern Ry. Co., 119 F.Supp. 658,

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