Wright v. Ziriax

CourtUnited States District Courts. 10th Circuit. Western District of Oklahoma
Citation499 F.Supp.3d 1080
Docket NumberCase No. CIV-20-00287-JD
Parties Stephen Christopher WRIGHT, Plaintiff, v. Paul ZIRIAX, Defendant.
Decision Date02 November 2020

499 F.Supp.3d 1080

Stephen Christopher WRIGHT, Plaintiff,
Paul ZIRIAX, Defendant.

Case No. CIV-20-00287-JD

United States District Court, W.D. Oklahoma.

Signed November 2, 2020

499 F.Supp.3d 1083

Stephen Christopher Wright, Warr Acres, OK, pro se.

Desiree D. Singer, Attorney General's Ofc-NE 21STREET, Oklahoma City, OK, for Defendant.



Before the Court is the Motion to Dismiss filed by Defendant Paul Ziriax ("Motion") [Doc. No. 33]. The Motion seeks to dismiss the Amended Complaint filed by Plaintiff Stephen Christopher Wright ("Mr. Wright"). [See Doc. No. 25]. For the reasons stated below, the Court grants the Motion and dismisses this action without prejudice.

I. Background

The Constitution provides that "[t]he Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof ...." U.S. Const. art. I, § 4, cl. 1. To run for U.S. Representative in the State of Oklahoma, "[a] person may become a candidate for office and have his name appear on a ballot only after he files a declaration of candidacy," meeting the requirements of the associated statutes. 26 Okla. Stat. § 5-101. "A

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declaration of candidacy must be accompanied by: (1) [a] petition supporting a candidate's filing signed by not fewer than two percent (2%) of the number of registered voters in the district, county or state, as appropriate for the office sought; or (2)[(c)] [a] cashier's check or certified check ... for candidates for United States Congress, One Thousand Dollars ($1,000.00) ...." Id. § 5-112(A). The state's compelling interest to regulate ballot access is necessary because it allows states to "avoid[ ] confusion, deception, and even frustration of the democratic process at the general election." Jenness v. Fortson , 403 U.S. 431, 442, 91 S.Ct. 1970, 29 L.Ed.2d 554 (1971).1

Mr. Wright alleges that he attempted to file to be on the 2020 ballot for Oklahoma's 3rd Congressional District. [Doc. No. 25 at 1, 6]. There is no dispute that Mr. Wright did not satisfy either of the requirements of Section 5-112 : paying a filing fee or presenting a petition supporting his candidacy signed by not fewer than 2% of the number of registered voters in the district. The Amended Complaint does not allege that Mr. Wright attempted to collect any signatures.

Liberally construing the claims,2 Mr. Wright alleges that he is indigent and therefore the filing fee is a burden, and the coronavirus COVID-19 coupled with his disabled veteran status creates a burden for him to gather the required number of signatures that are required by Oklahoma law. Mr. Wright alleges that he has lost income "as a direct result of Defendant's actions that include the Defendant depriving" him of running for office for a U.S. Representative because he claims to be unable to gather the signatures needed, leaving him with only the option of paying "fees per the Oklahoma statutes." [Id. at 1–2]. Mr. Wright claims that "[r]equiring fees from paupers to run for office is a discriminative barrier." [Id. ¶ 13(c)].

Mr. Wright appears to argue that because the federal court system has afforded him in forma pauperis status3 and has also served the Amended Complaint for

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him, this is "precedent" for "aiding people of this [pauper] group in protecting rights ...." [Id. ¶ 13(d)–(e)]. He is seeking to be placed on the 2020 ballot for Oklahoma's 3rd Congressional District, seeking an injunction against the Oklahoma State Election Board to accept candidates without requiring fees or signatures, and seeking $348,000 in damages (i.e., two years' salary of a U.S. Representative at $174,000 per year). [Id. at 1, 5–6]. According to the Amended Complaint, Defendant Paul Ziriax ("Mr. Ziriax") is a member of the Oklahoma State Election Board who allegedly prevented Mr. Wright from submitting his declaration of candidacy for Mr. Wright's failure to obtain the necessary signatures or pay the required fee. [Id. at 3–4].

Mr. Wright has made an as-applied challenge. He does not contend that 26 Okla. Stat. § 5-112 is unconstitutional on its face, he contends that it is unconstitutional as it is applied to him, a "pauper" during the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic. [Id. at 3 (alleging individualized discrimination and "individually discriminative barriers")].

In the Motion, Mr. Ziriax contends that the Court lacks jurisdiction under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) because Mr. Ziriax is entitled to Eleventh Amendment Immunity. Mr. Ziriax argues that a " ‘suit against a state official in his or her official capacity is not a suit against the official but rather is a suit against the official's office. As such, it is no different from a suit against the State itself.’ " Motion at 3 (quoting Will v. Michigan Dep't of State Police , 491 U.S. 58, 71, 109 S.Ct. 2304, 105 L.Ed.2d 45 (1989) ). As a result, the Motion seeks dismissal of any claims against Mr. Ziriax in his official capacity that seek money damages. Id. at 4.

The Motion also seeks dismissal of all claims under Rule 12(b)(6) because:

• Financial need alone is not a suspect classification for the purposes of the Fourteenth Amendment, citing Harris v. McRae , 448 U.S. 297, 323 [100 S.Ct. 2671, 65 L.Ed.2d 784] (1980).

• The requirements of 26 Okla. Stat. § 5-112 are not unconstitutional under the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution because the statute does not unconstitutionally treat Mr. Wright differently, he is treated "just as any other candidate" who elects to collect signatures in lieu of paying a filing fee.

• Even if Mr. Wright is in a recognized class for purposes of 26 Okla. Stat. § 5-112, the statute does not create an unconstitutional undue burden on Mr. Wright.

• Mr. Ziriax is entitled to qualified immunity because Mr. Wright cannot establish that Mr. Ziriax's action was "a violation of clearly established law."

See generally Motion at 3–13.

Mr. Wright filed a response to the Motion ("Response") [Doc. No. 38].4 In the Response, Mr. Wright argues that Mr. Ziriax is not entitled to immunity because he was not acting in his official capacity because the "duties of the Defendant begin

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when a declaration of candidacy is received," and "there is no state or federal law which allow the declaration of candidacy to be rejected before being received." Response ¶ 2(k)–(l). He also argues that he has a recognized disability under 42 U.S.C. § 12102 resulting in him not having "enough time" to gather the signatures under Oklahoma's ballot requirements. Id. ¶ 9.

Upon review of the Motion, on September 18, 2020, the Court invited optional supplemental briefing on whether any of the claims in this matter are moot based on the timing of Mr. Wright's Amended Complaint. [Doc. No. 35]. Mr. Ziriax filed a response [Doc. No. 37], arguing that Mr. Wright's request for injunctive relief is moot because the statutory deadline for filing the declaration of candidacy has long passed and because any Court order at this point would be unenforceable due to the timing of absentee ballots being mailed. Mr. Wright also responded. [Doc. No. 39]. While his response focuses on the merits of the Motion, he asserts that his deprivation of rights occurred "during the allowed time for submitting declaration of candidacy." Id. at 1.

II. Discussion

A. Mootness

Before the Court can address the constitutional questions, it must ensure that there is still a live controversy. Federal courts will not accept jurisdiction over a controversy that is moot. Before accepting jurisdiction, a federal court must be assured that it is not being called upon "to decide questions that cannot affect the rights of litigants in the case before [it]." North Carolina v. Rice , 404 U.S. 244, 246, 92 S.Ct. 402, 30 L.Ed.2d 413 (1971) (explaining resolution of mootness "is essential if federal courts are to function within their constitutional sphere of authority"). "Mootness is a jurisdictional question because the Court is not empowered to decide moot questions or abstract propositions ...." Id. (quotation and citation omitted).

"The mootness doctrine provides that although there may be an actual and justiciable controversy at the time the litigation is commenced, once that controversy ceases to exist, the federal court must dismiss the action for want of jurisdiction." Jordan v. Sosa , 654 F.3d 1012, 1023 (10th Cir. 2011). Because the mootness doctrine "relates to both the constitutional case or controversy requirement of Article III ... as well as the prudential considerations underlying justiciability ... courts recognize two kinds of mootness: constitutional mootness and prudential mootness." Id. The constitutional mootness doctrine requires that "the suit must present a real and substantial controversy with respect to which relief may be fashioned," and "the controversy must remain alive at the trial and appellate stages of the litigation." Id. at 1024 (quotations omitted). Under the prudential-mootness doctrine, "[e]ven if a...

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