Owens-El v. Chou

Decision Date21 May 2021
Docket NumberCivil Action No. ELH-21-675
PartiesJAMES JOSEPH OWENS-EL, Plaintiff v. MAGGIE CHOU, et al., Defendants
CourtU.S. District Court — District of Maryland

The self-represented plaintiff, James Joseph Owens-El, has filed a Motion for Leave to Proceed in Forma Pauperis (ECF 12; ECF 13)1 as well as a court-ordered Amended Complaint. ECF 6. The motion and the Amended Complaint are subject to review. Based on the financial information that plaintiff has provided, I will grant leave to proceed in forma pauperis. However, I shall dismiss the suit.

I. Background

The suit was initially docketed on March 17, 2021. See ECF 1; ECF 2. The suit is difficult to decipher. But, plaintiff appears to allege that defendants unlawfully conspired to evict him from his apartment and prevent the prosecution of Kevin Randall in Case 2B2389326 (Dt. Ct. Baltimore City).

By Memorandum and Order of March 31, 2021, I granted plaintiff twenty-eight days to file an Amended Complaint that provided facts to support his claims. ECF 4; ECF 5. In particular, plaintiff was ordered to substantiate his allegations that his rights were violated under the First andEighth Amendments to the Constitution, as well as the Ex Post Facto Clause and the Maryland Declaration of Rights. Plaintiff was directed to explain how each defendant acted unlawfully, and to indicate whether he was in fact evicted from his apartment.

Plaintiff filed an Amended Complaint on April 27, 2021, against numerous defendants. ECF 6.2 He also included several exhibits. The defendants include Maggie Chou, Manager of Hanover Square Apartments, where plaintiff lives;3 Renata Stokes, the Assistant Property Manager for Hanover Square Apartments; Letta Reid Tragnon, Assistant Manager of Hanover Square Apartments; Kevin Randall, who allegedly assaulted plaintiff; "Mr. Keith," a maintenance man; "Mr. Heinz," a maintenance man; Eric Costello, a member of the Baltimore City Council; Assistant State's Attorneys Paul O'Connor, Mack Abbadudo, and Judith Tomkin or Tomlin ("Tomkin"); an unidentified state judge; the State of Maryland; the United States; and two John Does. ECF 6 at 1-3; ECF 6-1 at 6.

In the Amended Complaint, plaintiff alleges that on December 14, 2018, he attended a meeting in the community room at Hanover Apartments in Baltimore. Eric Costello, a member of the Baltimore City Counsel, was present. At the meeting, plaintiff informed Costello that "Maggie Chou is leaving the citizens unsafe" by focusing security cameras on elevators, not apartment doors, which has resulted in apartment burglaries. ECF 6-1 at 6, 7. Randall then shouted "Mr.Owens, shut your mouth!" ECF 6-1 at 6. Plaintiff responded that he had a First Amendment right to freedom of speech, to which Randall replied that he was "taking that right from [plaintiff] today." ECF 6 at 7.

While plaintiff was shaking Costello's hand after speaking to him, Randall ran toward plaintiff, shouting "Owens! Didn't I tell you to shut your mouth," and he simultaneously smacked plaintiff on his left shoulder. Id. This caused plaintiff to throw his legs apart to avoid falling and he reinjured ligaments in his right knee. Plaintiff asserts the incident was captured on camera, but parts of the recording were altered and erased by Chou before it was provided to Assistant State's Attorneys O'Connor, Abadudo, and Tomkin. Id. Witness Harold Adams-El executed an affidavit, stating that Randall pushed and shoved plaintiff. ECF 6 at 8; ECF 6-4.

Plaintiff filed an application for a statement of charges against Randall in the District Court of Maryland for Baltimore City (Patapsco). ECF 6-7. Trial was initially scheduled for February 1, 2019, rescheduled for March 1, 2019, and rescheduled again for April 1, 2019. ECF 6-9, ECF 6-10. On March 27, 2019, however, plaintiff met with Assistant State's Attorneys O'Connor, Abadudo, and Tomkin. They informed him that, after reviewing the tape of the incident and conducting a three-month investigation, they had determined there was insufficient evidence to prosecute Randall on assault charges. ECF 6-1 at 10-11; ECF 6-15 at 2, 3.

Owens-El does not state in the Amended Complaint whether he was evicted from Hanover Square Apartments. However, his most recent address, 1 West Conway Street, corresponds to the address for Hanover Square Apartments. Thus, it appears that he remains a tenant. ECF 12.

Plaintiff seeks $15 million against defendants, jointly and severally, for "physical and psychological damages" in connection with psychological stress, emotional duress, and mental anguish. ECF 6 at 5.

II. Discussion
A. The Complaint

Rule 8 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure sets forth the "baseline standard to which all complaints must adhere." Plumhoff v. Cent. Mortg. Co., 286 F. Supp. 3d 699, 701 (D. Md. 2017). Under Rule 8(a), a complaint must "contain "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief[.]" Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a)(2). The rule also requires that "[e]ach allegation must be simple, concise, and direct." Fed. R. Civ. P 8(d)(1). The goal of Rule 8 is to "give the defendant fair notice of what the plaintiff's claim is and the grounds upon which it rests." Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 47-48 (1957); WRIGHT & MILLER, § 1202 (describing the objectives of Rule 8).

To be sure, a plaintiff need not include "detailed factual allegations" in order to satisfy Rule 8(a)(2). Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). Moreover, federal pleading rules "do not countenance dismissal of a complaint for imperfect statement of the legal theory supporting the claim asserted." Johnson v. City of Shelby, Miss., 574 U.S. 10, 10 (2014) (per curiam). But, mere "'naked assertions' of wrongdoing" are generally insufficient to state a claim for relief. Francis v. Giacomelli, 588 F.3d 186, 193 (4th Cir. 2009) (citation omitted).

In other words, the rule demands more than bald accusations or mere speculation. Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555; see Painter's Mill Grille, LLC v. Brown, 716 F.3d 342, 350 (4th Cir. 2013). If a complaint provides no more than "labels and conclusions" or "a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action," it is insufficient. Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555. "[A]n unadorned, the-defendant-unlawfully-harmed-me accusation" does not state a plausible claim for relief. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). Rather, to satisfy the minimal requirements of Rule 8(a)(2), the complaint must set forth "enough factual matter (taken as true) to suggest" acognizable cause of action, "even if . . . [the] actual proof of those facts is improbable and . . . recovery is very remote and unlikely." Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556 (internal quotation marks omitted).

Whether a complaint satisfies Rule 8 turns on "various factors, including the length and complexity of the complaint; whether the complaint was clear enough to enable the defendant to know how to defend himself; and whether the plaintiff was represented by counsel." Sewarz v. Long, 407 F. App'x 718, 719 (4th Cir. 2011) (internal citations omitted). A complaint does not run afoul of Rule 8 merely because it is bloated with redundant allegations. See id. (finding district court erred in dismissing 33-page complaint where the allegations were "intelligible and clearly delineated"); see also United States ex rel. Garst v. Lockheed-Martin Corp., 328 F.3d 374, 378 (7th Cir. 2003) ("Surplusage can and should be ignored."). Nor does the occasional lapse in clarity doom a complaint.

The court is mindful that plaintiff is a self-represented litigant. Therefore, his pleadings must be liberally construed and less stringent standards apply. See Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007); White v. White, 886 F. 2d 721, 722-723 (4th Cir. 1989). Nonetheless, liberal construction does not mean that this court can ignore a clear failure in the pleading to allege facts which set forth a cognizable claim. See Weller v. Dep't of Soc. Servs., 901 F.2d 387 (4th Cir. 1990); see also Beaudett v. City of Hampton, 775 F.2d 1274, 1278 (4th Cir. 1985) (stating a district court may not "conjure up questions never squarely presented.").

Plaintiff filed his Complaint in forma pauperis, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915(a)(1). This permits an indigent litigant to commence an action in this court without prepaying the filing fee. To guard against possible abuses of this privilege, however, the statute requires dismissal of any claim that is frivolous or malicious, or fails to state a claim on which relief may be granted. 28U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B)(i) and (ii). In evaluating such a complaint, the factual allegations are assumed to be true. Id. at 93 (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555-56).

Against this background, I will review plaintiff's claims.

B. United States

Plaintiff names the United States as a defendant. But, the Amended Complaint makes no specific allegations against the United States. Nor does plaintiff invoke the Federal Tort Claims Act ("FTCA) as a basis for his claims. Under the FTCA, the United States is liable for "injury or loss of property, or personal injury or death caused by the negligent or wrongful act or omission of any employee of the Government while acting under the scope of his office or employment." 28 U.S.C. § 1346(b) (1994).

Plaintiff has failed to State a claim against the United States. Therefore, the United States will be dismissed as a party to this lawsuit.

C. The State of Maryland

The Amended Complaint presents no specific allegations against the State of Maryland. Moreover, under the Eleventh Amendment, a state government, including its departments and agencies, is immune from suits in federal court brought by its citizens or the citizens of another state, unless it consents. See Pennhurst State Sch. & Hosp. v. Halderman, 465 U.S. 89, 100 (1984).

The State of Maryland has not waived its immunity under the Eleventh Amendment to suit in federal court. See Md. Code, State Gov't § 12-202(a); Pevia v. Hogan, ...

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