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Schenke v. Phelps

United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, Hammond Division

June 17, 2019

JAMES K. SCHENKE, Plaintiff,



         Acting on his own without an attorney, James K. Schenke filed this lawsuit against a group of defendants associated with the City of West Lafayette, Indiana, and a smaller group of defendants associated with the Purdue University Police. Both groups of defendants have filed a motion to dismiss Schenke's complaint. Schenke has not filed any opposition to either motion.

         Schenke's complaint tells a convoluted tale, and not in chronological order. Schenke begins with the events of November 11, 2016, when he says that he was “falsely arrested” by West Lafayette police officers “led by [defendant] patrolman Quentin Phelps.” [DE 1 at 2.] Schenke claims that without cause the officers were physically abusive, including by slamming Schenke's head into the top of a police car and by elbowing Schenke in the throat. The arrest was apparently on public intoxication charges, which were later dismissed. Also alleged is that Schenke “had been verbally and physically assaulted by drunken, belligerent college students who at one point in a brawl that started among themselves, nearly knocked Schenke down.” [DE 1 at 2.]

         The day also reportedly involved several trips for Schenke to St. Elizabeth's Hospital - earlier for a scheduled surgery that was cancelled because Schenke had an infection, then later for a health check as part of Schenke's arrest and detention. Schenke alleges that he had asked Phelps and other officers for help because he'd locked his keys in his car, but they refused that help and advised him to check into a motel. This presumably happened before the false arrest. Then there are allegations about Schenke's “supposed victim, Christina, ” and the officers' failure to speak with her, which Schenke insists would have cleared up any suggestion of wrong-doing on his part. [DE 1 at 3.]

         The complaint goes on to relate that Schenke's wife filed for divorce four days later on November 15, 2016, and, based on the public intoxication arrest, the court issued a no-contact order that rendered Schenke homeless. Schenke alleges that the public intoxication charge and protective order had further ramifications. These included defendant Red Elk, captain of the Purdue University Police Department, allegedly “pounc[ing] on” Schenke to advise him not only that he was terminated from employment with the university, but was also persona non grata on the campus. [DE 1 at 4.]

         Schenke alleges that, also based on the protective order, Tippecanoe County deputy sheriffs seized Schenke's lawfully-owned firearms. Schenke contends that the West Lafayette Police Department continues to illegally harass and falsely arrest him based on the protective order, even though it was later “gutted then vacated.” [Id. at 4.] The complaint contains some facts about an arrest by unnamed WLPD officers in a restaurant in January 2017, somehow relating to a birthday present Schenke had sent for his daughter to her grandmother's home. Unnamed WLPD officers are also alleged to have caused Schenke's church to sign a no trespass order against him. The complaint then appears to circle back to additional details about the events of November 11, 2016, followed by allegations about Schenke's history with WLPD Chief Jason Dombkowski and Mayor John Dennis. As for the nature of Schenke's legal claims, the complaint makes references to false arrest, harassment and violations of First and Second Amendment rights.

         To survive a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, “a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). “A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Id.

         The group calling themselves the West Lafayette Defendants are those Schenke has named as Patrol Officer Quentin Phelps, Mayor John Dennis, Police Chief Jason Dombkowski, Patrol Officer Adam Ferguson, and Lieutenant David Lord. They describe the complaint as containing “22 paragraphs of ‘claims and facts' which are a combination of legal conclusions and unclear and vague declarations that lack any coherent progression or relevance” along with “24 pages of attachments which are given no explanation.” [DE 10 at 1.] The “Purdue Defendants” are Matt Rosenbarger and Keene Red Elk, and their motion to dismiss adopts the West Lafayette Defendants' arguments that the complaint fails to comply with the pleading requirements of Rules 8 and 10 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. [DE 14 at 2.]

         Although a pro se plaintiff's filings are given the benefit of a generous interpretation, he is still required to follow the Rules of Civil Procedure. Abu-Shawish v. United States, 898 F.3d 726, 738 (7th Cir. 2018); Townsend v. Alexian Brothers Medical Center, 589 Fed.Appx. 338, 339 (7th Cir. 2015). Schenke's complaint fails to comply with a number of procedural rules. First, I note that the local rules of this court require all pleadings (such as complaints), motions and briefs to be double-spaced, and to “include a separate index identifying and briefly describing each exhibit if there are more than four exhibits.” N.D.Ind. L.R. 5-4(a)(5), (8). It's unclear how many separate exhibits Schenke's attachments are.

         Complaints are pleadings, and so are subject to the requirements of Fed.R.Civ.P. 10(b): “A party must state its claims or defenses in numbered paragraphs, each limited as far as practicable to a single set of circumstances, ” and “each claim founded on a separate transaction or occurrence…must be stated in a separate count…” Schenke's single-spaced paragraphs are lengthy and dense, and so fail to comply with Rule 10(b), as well as Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(d)(1), which requires that “[e]ach allegation must be simple, concise and direct..” These shortcomings of the complaint make it impossible for defendants to readily “admit or deny the allegations asserted against [them] by an opposing party” as they are required to do by Rule 8(b)(1)(B).

         Rule 8's General Rules of Pleading include that a complaint contain “a short and plain statement of the grounds for the court's jurisdiction, ” and “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Schenke's complaint contains no jurisdictional statement at all, and cannot be said to offer a short and plain statement of his various claims against particular defendants. The confusing narrative presentation of facts and claims deprives the defendants of “fair notice of what the…claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.” Bell Atlantic v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). I agree with the West Lafayette defendants that, to too large an extent, the complaint “improperly requires Defendants to guess and speculate what wrongful act plaintiff may be alleging and extrapolate from that what violation plaintiff may be claiming caused his damages and the legal basis he has for making that claim.” [DE 10 at 2.]

         While I construe Schenke's complaint liberally because he is acting without counsel, the complaint in its present form defies a construction that is intelligible and meets the standards of Rules 8 and 10 without organizing the plaintiff's legal theories and claims for him. Such a complaint must be dismissed under Rule 12(b)(6): “where the lack of organization and basic coherence renders a complaint too confusing to determine the facts that constitute the alleged wrongful conduct, dismissal is an appropriate remedy.” Stanard v. Nygren, 658 F.3d 792, 798 (7th Cir. 2011).

         The excessive and meandering detail of Schenke's fact pleading makes it “impossible for the district court to identify the specific allegations against each defendant and therefore impossible to determine whether there are potential claims against any of them.” Griffin v. Milwaukee Cty., 369 Fed.Appx. 741, 743 (7th Cir. 2010). Complaints are supposed to be “straightforward, so that judges and adverse parties need not try to fish a gold coin from a bucket of mud.” U.S. ex rel. Garst v. Lockheed-Martin Corp., 328 F.3d 374, 378 (7th Cir. 2003). See also Davis v. Anderson, 718 Fed.Appx. 420, 424 (7th Cir. 2017).

         The result of this analysis is that the complaint must be dismissed pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, but to allow Schenke an opportunity to remedy the defects of his pleading by filing an amended complaint. In the Seventh Circuit, “the usual standard in civil cases is to allow defective pleadings to be corrected, ...

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