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Phillips v. Redkey Town Board

United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, Fort Wayne Division

August 15, 2017

JAMES L. PHILLIPS, Plaintiff,
v.
REDKEY TOWN BOARD, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          William C. Lee, Judge

         This matter is before the Court on the motion to dismiss filed by Defendant Redkey Town Board on June 12, 2017 (ECF 5). In response to the motion, Plaintiff James L. Phillips sent a letter to the Court requesting a hearing (ECF 8, docketed on June 15, 2017), filed a document requesting a Clerk's entry of default against Redkey (ECF 9, docketed on June 15, 2017), and filed a “supplement” to his Complaint (ECF 10, docketed on June 28, 2017). Redkey did not file a reply brief (which was due July 10) and so this matter is ripe for resolution. For the reasons explained below, the Court rules as follows:

         1) The motion to dismiss (ECF 5) is GRANTED and this case is DISMISSED WITHOUT PREJUDICE;

         2) Plaintiff James Phillips will be afforded an opportunity to file an Amended Complaint so he can provide more factual detail to explain and support his claim. Phillips is directed to file any Amended Complaint on or before September 15, 2017. If Phillips fails to file an Amended Complaint or chooses not to do so, this case will be dismissed without further notice or hearing;

         3) Defendant Town of Redkey is INSTRUCTED NOT TO FILE AN ANSWER OR OTHER RESPONSIVE PLEADING TO ANY PROPOSED AMENDED COMPLAINT UNTIL DIRECTED BY THE COURT TO DO SO;

         4) The Clerk of the Court is instructed to bring any Amended Complaint Phillips files to the Court's attention when it is received and docketed; and

         5) The Court interprets Phillips' request for a hearing (ECF 8) and request for default judgment (ECF 9) as motions and both are DENIED AS MOOT.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Phillips is proceeding pro se. A trial court must liberally construe a pro se plaintiff's pleadings. Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007); see also Hart v. Amazon.com, Inc., 191 F.Supp.3d 809, 816 (N.D. Ill. 2016), aff'd, 845 F.3d 802 (7th Cir. 2017) (“Because Plaintiff is proceeding pro se, the Court construes his complaint ‘liberally' and holds it to a ‘less stringent standard than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers.'”) (quoting Perez v. Fenoglio, 792 F.3d 768, 776 (7th Cir. 2015)).

         Redkey's motion to dismiss is brought pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(1). A Rule 12(b)(1) motion challenges jurisdiction in federal court, and the plaintiff bears the burden of establishing the elements necessary for jurisdiction. Scanlan v. Eisenberg, 669 F.3d 838, 841-42 (7th Cir. 2012). When ruling on a 12(b)(1) motion, a court may look beyond the complaint's allegations and consider any evidence that has been submitted on the issue of jurisdiction. Ezekiel v. Michel, 66 F.3d 894, 897 (7th Cir. 1995). In this case, Redkey argues that Phillips' Complaint should be dismissed pursuant to Rule 12(b)(1) because it fails to establish either diversity jurisdiction or federal question jurisdiction.

         Phillips' Complaint states, in its entirety, as follows: “The Redkey Town Board took my land across Railroad St. They are tearing up my apple trees and stealing my land on other side of street.” Id., p. 2. It doesn't take much in the way of interpretation or inference to grasp that Phillips is accusing the Town of Redkey of illegally seizing his private property, or part of it at least, and he is seeking some sort of remedy for that alleged conduct. Such a claim can be brought pursuant to the “takings” clause of the Fifth Amendment, or perhaps as a procedural due process claim, which in turn would invoke this Court's federal question jurisdiction. But Phillips' two-sentence Complaint doesn't mention the Fifth Amendment or due process (or any other federal law or right) and subject matter jurisdiction cannot simply be assumed, which means the Defendant's motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(1) is well taken.

         But if the Court's inference is reasonable and Phillips is bringing this lawsuit on a theory that Redkey violated his rights under federal law by seizing part of his land-whether in violation his Fifth Amendment rights, his procedural due process rights, or some other right-thereby bestowing federal question jurisdiction on this Court, then the sufficiency of that claim would be challenged under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6) rather than Rule 12(b)(1). Redkey does not invoke Rule 12(b)(6) in its motion to dismiss, even as an alternative argument, instead relying solely on Rule 12(b)(1) as the basis for the motion. Redkey is correct about one thing: the threshold issue at this point (or at any point in the life of a case) is whether this Court has jurisdiction to hear the Plaintiff's claim. Redkey says no, and so the case should be dismissed (with prejudice). But even though Redkey chose not to present an argument under Rule 12(b)(6), the Court can review Phillips' Complaint under that subsection sua sponte, which affords an opportunity to examine more closely any claim he is attempting to assert and then to determine whether it is one over which this Court has jurisdiction. If not, dismissal under Rule 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim would also be warranted. A sua sponte “dismissal pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) is permitted, ‘provided that a sufficient basis for the court's action is evident from the plaintiff's pleading.'” Ruiz v. Kinsella, 770 F.Supp.2d 936, 945 (N.D.Ill. 2011) (quoting Ledford v. Sullivan, 105 F.3d 354, 356 (7th Cir.1997)); see also, Hoskins v. Poelstra, 320 F.3d 761, 763 (7th Cir. 2003)[1](“District judges have ample authority to dismiss frivolous or transparently defective suits spontaneously, and thus save everyone time and legal expense. This is so even when the plaintiff has paid all fees for filing and service[.]”) (citing Rowe v. Shake, 196 F.3d 778, 783 (7th Cir.1999)).

         While a Rule 12(b)(1) motion raises a direct challenge to a district court's subject matter jurisdiction, a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, in contrast, “tests whether the complaint states a claim on which relief may be granted.” Richards v. Mitcheff, 696 F.3d 635, 637 (7th Cir. 2012). The complaint must contain factual allegations that plausibly suggest a right to relief. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 677-78 (2009). When analyzing a motion under either Rule 12(b)(1) or Rule 12(b)(6), the court accepts all well-pleaded factual allegations as true and construes all reasonable inferences in favor of the plaintiff. Scanlan, 669 F.3d at 841. And while pro se plaintiffs are afforded a wider canvas on which to present their claims, the ...


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