Pub. Interest Legal Found., Inc. v. Bellows

Docket NumberDocket no. 1:20-cv-00061-GZS
Decision Date04 March 2022
Citation588 F.Supp.3d 124
Parties PUBLIC INTEREST LEGAL FOUNDATION, INC., Plaintiff, v. Shenna BELLOWS, in her official capacity as Secretary of State for the State of Maine, Defendant.
CourtU.S. District Court — District of Maine

Kaylan L. Phillips, Pro Hac Vice, Noel H. Johnson, Pro Hac Vice, Public Interest Legal Foundation, Indianapolis, IN, Stephen C. Whiting, The Whiting Law Firm, Portland, ME, for Plaintiff.

Jonathan R. Bolton, Office of the Attorney General, Augusta, ME, for Defendant Shenna Bellows.


George Z. Singal, United States District Judge

Before the Court is Defendant Secretary Shenna BellowsMotion to Dismiss (ECF No. 58). Having considered the Motion and related filings (ECF Nos. 59 & 60), the Court GRANTS IN PART and DENIES IN PART the Motion.


The pending Motion invokes two separate bases for dismissal under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b) : lack of subject matter jurisdiction due to mootness and failure to state a claim. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(1) & (6).

Generally, a federal court is obligated to ensure the existence of subject matter jurisdiction before considering the merits of any complaint. See, e.g., United States v. University of Mass., Worcester, 812 F.3d 35, 44 (1st Cir. 2016). Plaintiffs generally bear the burden of demonstrating subject matter jurisdiction. See, e.g., Woo v. Spackman, 988 F.3d 47, 53 (1st Cir. 2021). Faced with a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(1), the Court applies the same "plausibility standard applicable under Rule 12(b)(6)" to the operative complaint. Hochendoner v. Genzyme Corp., 823 F.3d 724, 730 (1st Cir. 2016). However, the Court may also consider additional materials submitted by either side that allow it to resolve the jurisdictional challenge. See Valentin v. Hospital Bella Vista, 254 F.3d 358, 363 (1st Cir. 2001) (noting that "plaintiff's well-pleaded factual allegations ... [may be] augmented by an explanatory affidavit or other repository of uncontested facts").

Once the Court determines it has jurisdiction over the asserted claims, it may consider whether the operative complaint contains sufficient factual matter 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 evaluating whether a complaint states a plausible claim, [the Court] ‘perform[s] a two-step analysis.’ " Saldivar v. Racine, 818 F.3d 14, 18 (1st Cir. 2016) (quoting Cardigan Mountain Sch. v. New Hampshire Ins. Co., 787 F.3d 82, 84 (1st Cir. 2015) ). First, "the court must separate the complaint's factual allegations (which must be accepted as true) from its conclusory legal allegations (which need not be credited)." Morales-Cruz v. University of Puerto Rico, 676 F.3d 220, 224 (1st Cir. 2012) (citing Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678, 129 S.Ct. 1937 ).

Second, the Court "must determine whether the ‘factual content ... allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.’ " Id., 676 F.3d at 224 (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678, 129 S.Ct. 1937 ). "This standard is ‘not akin to a "probability requirement," but it asks for more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully.’ " Saldivar, 818 F.3d at 18 (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678, 129 S.Ct. 1937 ); see also Cebollero-Bertran v. Puerto Rico Aqueduct & Sewer Auth., 4 F.4th 63, 70 (1st Cir. 2021) (same). "Although evaluating the plausibility of a legal claim requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense, the court may not disregard properly pled factual allegations, even if it strikes a savvy judge that actual proof of those facts is improbable." Ocasio-Hernández v. Fortuño-Burset, 640 F.3d 1, 12 (1st Cir. 2011) (internal citations and quotation marks omitted). Rather, "[t]he relevant inquiry focuses on the reasonableness of the inference of liability" drawn from the facts. Id. at 13.

In assessing whether a complaint adequately states a claim, the Court considers the "facts and documents that are part of or incorporated into the complaint." United Auto., Aerospace, Agric. Implement Workers of Am. Int'l Union v. Fortuño, 633 F.3d 37, 39 (1st Cir. 2011) (internal quotation marks omitted). But, the Court may also "supplement those facts with facts ‘gleaned from documents incorporated by reference into the complaint, matters of public record, and facts susceptible to judicial notice.’ " González v. Vélez, 864 F.3d 45, 48 (1st Cir. 2017) (quoting Haley v. City of Boston, 657 F.3d 39, 46 (1st Cir. 2011) ).


Plaintiff Public Interest Legal Foundation ("PILF") is an Indiana non-profit organization that "seeks to promote the integrity of elections nationwide through research, education, remedial programs, and litigation." (Am. Compl. (ECF No. 55), PageID # 497.) On October 17, 2019, PILF wrote to the then-Secretary of State of Maine. (See Pl. Ex. A (ECF No. 55-1).) PILF's letter informed the Secretary that it sought an electronic copy of Maine's "statewide voter registration list" ("Voter File"),1 but acknowledged that it did not meet any of the state statutory criteria then in effect for access to the Voter File. (See id. ); see also 21-A M.R.S.A. § 196-A(1) (Supp. 2021) ("Access to data from the central voter registration system"), amended by P.L. 2021 ch. 310, §§ 1–2 (eff. Oct. 18, 2021). PILF claimed that Maine's denial of access to the Voter File violated the Public Disclosure Provision of the National Voter Registration Act ("NVRA"), 52 U.S.C. §§ 20501 – 20511. See 52 U.S.C. § 20507(i). After exchanging several subsequent communications with PILF seeking to accommodate the organization's needs, the Secretary ultimately concluded in February 2020 that she did not have authority to release the Voter File to PILF. (See Pl. Exs. B–G (ECF Nos. 55-2–55-7).) Shortly thereafter, on February 19, 2020, PILF filed suit against the Secretary seeking declaratory and injunctive relief under the NVRA.2 Last spring, the parties filed Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment (ECF Nos. 35 & 39).

However, while the Cross-Motions were under advisement, the Maine Legislature added a new exception, "Exception J," to the general confidentiality regime prohibiting disclosure of the Voter File. See P.L. 2021, ch. 310 § 2. Under Exception J, an "individual or organization that is evaluating Maine's compliance with its voter list maintenance obligations may ... purchase" the Voter File. 21-A M.R.S.A. § 196-A(1)(J). The amended statute also provides for "privacy protections" that limit use and dissemination of voters’ data. (Def. Mot. (ECF No. 58), PageID # 532.) Specifically, anyone obtaining the Voter File under Exception J is forbidden to

(1) Sell, transfer to another person or use the voter information or any part of the information for any purpose that is not directly related to evaluating the State's compliance with its voter list maintenance obligations; or
(2) Cause the voter information or any part of the voter information that identifies, or that could be used with other information to identify, a specific voter, including but not limited to a voter's name, residence address or street address, to be made accessible by the general public on the Internet or through other means.

21-A M.R.S.A. § 196-A(1)(J). To obtain the Voter File, an applicant organization must complete a standardized form. (See Pl. Response Ex. A (ECF No. 59-1).) The form reminds applicants seeking the Voter File under Exception J that the data is "[o]nly for use by an individual or organization to evaluate the State's compliance with NVRA list maintenance obligations." (Id., PageID # 576.) The form also requires applicants to certify the following: "I, the undersigned requestor of Information from Maine's Central Voter Registration (CVR) system, understand that the information I receive from the CVR is subject to the restrictions on use and redistribution of data, as provided in 21-A MRSA, section 196-A." (Id., PageID # 577.)

The Court directed PILF to seek leave to amend its Complaint after the statutory changes took effect in October 2021, and denied the Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment as moot. (See 08/31/21 Proc. Order & Rep. of Conf. (ECF No. 50).) PILF filed an Amended Complaint, which the Secretary timely moved to dismiss. The Amended Complaint alleges three separate violations of the NVRA: (1) denial of access to the Voter File (Count I); (2) impermissible restrictions on use of the Voter File data (Count II); and (3) impermissible fines stemming from those restrictions (Count III).

A. Count I

Defendant seeks dismissal of Count I on the ground that the intervening change in Maine law renders it moot under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1), or alternatively that Plaintiff has failed to state a plausible claim for relief under Rule 12(b)(6). The Court addresses Defendant's mootness argument first because it implicates the Court's subject matter jurisdiction. See Genesis Healthcare Corp. v. Symczyk, 569 U.S. 66, 71–72, 133 S.Ct. 1523, 185 L.Ed.2d 636 (2013) ; United States v. Millenium Labs., Inc., 923 F.3d 240, 248 (1st Cir. 2019).

Count I of the Amended Complaint alleges that Plaintiff has been denied access to information that must be publicly available under the NVRA's Public Disclosure Provision. The Public Disclosure Provision states as follows:

Each State shall maintain for at least 2 years and shall make available for public inspection and, where available, photocopying at a reasonable cost, all records concerning the implementation of programs and activities conducted for the purpose of ensuring the accuracy and currency of official lists of eligible voters, except to the extent that such records relate to a declination to register to vote or to the identity of a voter registration

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