Van Croft v. Louis

Docket NumberCivil Action 21-cv-03084-PX
Decision Date10 July 2023
PartiesERIKA L. VAN CROFT, Plaintiff, v. CONAN NOEL LOUIS, et al., Defendants.
CourtU.S. District Court — District of Maryland
MEMORANDUM OPINION

Paula Xinis United States District Judge

In this diversity action, Plaintiff Erika Van Croft has sued her former paramour, Conan Noel Louis; Louis' wife, Gail Louis; and Mi Rancho Restaurant of Maryland (Mi Rancho) for injuries sustained when Mr. Louis assaulted Van Croft while on restaurant property. ECF No. 1. Van Croft proceeds pro se and has twice supplemented her Complaint. ECF Nos. 1, 26, & 41. The Court therefore construes all three pleadings as the operative Complaint. Ervin v. Corizon Health, No. CV ELH-21-2386, 2021 WL 5760728, at *1 (D. Md. Dec. 3, 2021), aff'd No 217757, 2022 WL 1135099 (4th Cir. Apr. 18, 2022) (considering multiple complaints together).

Mr Louis has answered the allegations against him and counterclaims against Van Croft for negligence. See generally ECF No. 13. Mrs. Louis moves to dismiss the claims as to her. ECF No. 47. Mi Rancho, too, moves to dismiss all allegations against it, and separately moves to “expunge” a lis pendens that Van Croft had filed in Montgomery County Circuit Court against Mi Rancho's real property. ECF Nos. 49 & 55. The Court finds no hearing necessary. See D. Md. Loc. R. 105.6. For the reasons that follow, the Court GRANTS Mrs. Louis' motion to dismiss, GRANTS Mi Rancho's motion as to the intentional torts, DENIES Mi Rancho's motion on the negligence claim, and orders the lis pendens terminated.

I. Background[1]

Van Croft had been romantically involved with Mr. Louis, and they broke up while having dinner at Mi Rancho. ECF No. 1 at 8-9 ¶¶ 2, 4. Louis reacted badly, chasing after Van Croft and punching her in the kidney. Id. at 8-9 ¶ 4. Van Croft collapsed to the ground while Louis continued to punch her, yelling “You don't know who the fuck I am bitch.” Id. Eventually, Van Croft rose to her feet and tried to get away, but Louis attacked her again. Id. This time, Louis pinned her to the ground and then proceeded to punch her. Id. Throughout, Mi Rancho employees watched but did nothing to summon law enforcement or otherwise intervene, despite Van Croft's repeated pleas for help. Id. The restaurant also erased camera surveillance footage of the assault. ECF No. 1 at 10-11 ¶¶ 10-11. Van Croft had been badly injured, although the Complaint offers few specifics. Id. at 10 ¶ 10.

Immediately after the assault, Van Croft called Gail Louis to tell her what happened. Id. at 9 ¶ 5; ECF No. 26 ¶ 2. Mrs. Louis knew about the affair between her husband and Van Croft, and she had also witnessed Louis “repeatedly threaten” Van Croft on other occasions. ECF No. 26 ¶¶ 2-3. Upon learning about the assault, Mrs. Louis did not alert the authorities; instead, she hid “or otherwise dissipated the assets in an effort to prevent [Van Croft] from receiving any payment from a potential judgement in this action[.] ECF No. 26 ¶¶ 4-5; ECF No. 41 ¶ 2.

Van Croft originally filed suit in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania against Mr. Louis, Mrs. Louis, and Mi Rancho. See generally ECF No. 1. On December 2, 2021, the action was transferred to this Court and assigned to the Honorable Paul W. Grimm. ECF No. 5.[2] On June 6, 2022, Mr. Louis answered the Complaint and filed a single counterclaim against Van Croft for negligence. ECF No. 13.

Van Croft filed two supplements to the Complaint, which collectively added new factual averments and common law and statutory claims against Mrs. Louis. ECF Nos. 26 & 41. Mrs. Louis and Mi Rancho now move to dismiss all claims against them pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. ECF Nos. 47 & 49.

Van Croft also filed a “Lis Pendens Notice” in the Circuit Court for Montgomery County, attempting to attach real property owned by Mi Rancho based on any potential future liability arising from this action. See ECF No. 55-2. Mi Rancho now asks this Court to “expunge” the lis pendens. ECF No. 55.

The Court turns first to the motions to dismiss.

II. Motions to Dismiss
A. Standard of Review

A motion to dismiss brought pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure tests the sufficiency of the complaint. See Presley v. City of Charlottesville, 464 F.3d 480, 483 (4th Cir. 2006) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). The Court accepts “the well-pled allegations of the complaint as true,” and construes all facts and reasonable inferences most favorably to the plaintiff. See Ibarra, 120 F.3d at 474. A complaint's factual allegations “must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level on the assumption that all the allegations in the complaint are true (even if doubtful in fact).” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007) (internal citations omitted). “Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555). The Court must be able to deduce “more than the mere possibility of misconduct”; the facts of the complaint, accepted as true, must demonstrate that the plaintiff is entitled to relief. See Ruffin v. Lockheed Martin Corp., 126 F.Supp.3d 521, 526 (D. Md. 2015) (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679). Generally, pro se plaintiffs are held to a “less stringent” standard than lawyers, and a court should construe their claims liberally. Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007) (quoting Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 106 (1976)). But “even a pro se complaint must be dismissed if it does not allege a ‘plausible claim for relief.' Forquer v. Schlee, No. RDB-12-969, 2012 WL 6087491, at *3 (D. Md. Dec. 4, 2012) (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679).

B. Mrs. Louis' Motion to Dismiss

The Complaint alleges that Mrs. Louis negligently failed to contact law enforcement after she learned that her husband had assaulted Van Croft. ECF No. 26 ¶ 4. For this negligence claim to survive challenge, the complaint facts must make plausible that Mrs. Louis owed a duty of care to Van Croft, that she breached the duty of care, and that the breach caused damages. Jacques v. First Nat. Bank of Md., 307 Md. 527, 531 (1986). However, Maryland does not recognize a general affirmative duty to “control the conduct of a third person”; an individual defendant need not take any action to help the plaintiff, absent the existence of a “special relation” between the two. Lamb v. Hopkins, 303 Md. 236, 242 (1985) (quoting Restatement (Second) of Torts § 315 (1965)); see also Tolbert-Boyd v. MGM Nat'l Harbor, LLC, No. DKC 19-3020, 2020 WL 4748540, at *3 (D. Md. Aug. 17, 2020).

On the question of “duty,” the Complaint avers that Mrs. Louis had a “duty to notify the police of the assault” and “to preserve the assets of the marriage.” ECF No. 26 ¶¶ 4-5. But not as to her husband's mistress. Nothing, in fact or law, makes plausible that Mrs. Louis' role as the “financial leader of [her] home and marriage” imposes any duties related to Van Croft. See generally ECF Nos. 26 & 41. Accordingly, because even a most charitable reading of the Complaint makes no such duty plausible, the negligence claim against Mrs. Louis fails.

A second liability theory presses that Mrs. Louis' “willful and wanton conduct” caused Van Croft injury. ECF No. 26 ¶ 3. At best, this averment amounts to a tort sounding in reckless disregard of a known or obvious risk to the plaintiff. Van Croft attempts to hold Mrs. Louis accountable for “highly unreasonable conduct, involving an extreme departure from ordinary care, in a situation where a high degree of danger is apparent.” Medina v. Meilhammer, 62 Md.App. 239, 249-50 (1985) (quoting Prosser and Keeton, Law of Torts, § 834 at 212-14 (3rd ed. 1984)). In support, the Complaint avers that Mrs. Louis witnessed Mr. Louis repeatedly threaten Van Croft. ECF No. 26 ¶ 3. But even so, nothing makes plausible that Mrs. Louis ever had a legal duty to intervene. Thus, the claim fails for the same reasons as the negligence allegation.

The Complaint also asserts that Mrs. Louis violated the Uniform Voidable Transactions Act (“UVTA”) by hiding assets in contemplation of a judgment against her or her husband for the assault. ECF No. 41 ¶¶ 8-12. The UVTA is a model code that aims to “limit[] a debtor from fraudulently transferring or encumbering property to the detriment of creditors.” Maurice J. Herzing, Uniform Voidable Transactions Act, 50 A.L.R. 7th Art. 5 (2020). Maryland has not adopted the UVTA, and so no claim invoking the model code is legally available. However, because Van Croft proceeds pro se, the Court will construe the claim as one brought under the closest analogue in Maryland, the Maryland Uniform Fraudulent Conveyance Act, Md. Code Ann., Com. L. §§ 15-201 et seq. (“MUFCA”).

Like the UVTA, the MUFCA prohibits fraudulent conveyances of assets to avoid liability. Meese v. Meese, 212 Md.App. 359, 369 (2013). To make a MUFCA claim plausible, a plaintiff must aver the existence of a creditor-debtor relationship between the parties, and that the debtor fraudulently transferred assets to avoid the debt. Md. Code Ann., Com. L. § 15-206; Dixon v. Bennett, 72 Md.App. 620, 623 n.2 (1987); see also Santander Bank, NA v. Gaver, No. RDB-17-00374, 2019 WL 1077386, at *4 (D. Md. Mar. 7, 2019) (quoting Nat'l Mortg. Warehouse, LLC v. Trikeriotis, 201 F.Supp.2d 499, 502 (D. Md. 2002)). Additionally, the fraudulent conveyance must be pleaded with particularity. See Residential Warranty Corp. v. Bancroft Homes Greenspring Valley, Inc., 126 Md.App. 294, 314 (1999) (citing Neeb v. Atlantic Mill & Lumber Realty Co., 176 Md. 297, 306 (1939)); see also North Avenue...

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