Gilam v. Harris et al
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Judge Virginia Emerson Hopkins on 4/26/2012. (KAM, )
2012 Apr-26 AM 10:33
U.S. DISTRICT COURT
N.D. OF ALABAMA
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
JOHN WILLIAM GILAM,
JIMMY HARRIS, et al.,
) Case No.: 4:11-CV-1005-VEH
Introduction and Procedural History
The plaintiff in this case, John William Gilam (“Mr. Gilam”), is proceeding pro
se. Pending before the court is Defendant Sheriff Harris’s Motion To Dismiss (Doc.
11) (the “Sheriff’s Motion”) filed on February 7, 2012. Because of the plaintiff’s pro
se status, the court entered a special scheduling order (Doc. 13) on the Sheriff’s
Motion on April 3, 2012.
Within this scheduling order, the court cautioned Mr. Gilam about the
insufficiency of the allegations set forth in his initial complaint:
[The court] is concerned about the shotgun nature of the
complaint (Doc. 1) filed in this lawsuit. See, e.g., Davis v. Coca-Cola
Bottling Co. Consol., 516 F.3d 955, 979 (11th Cir. 2008) (“The
complaint is a model ‘shotgun’ pleading of the sort this court has been
roundly, repeatedly, and consistently condemning for years, long before
this lawsuit was filed.”) (footnote omitted); id. at 980-81 (“No
competent lawyer-whether skilled in Title VII litigation or not-could
compose an answer to these sweeping and multifaceted acts of
discrimination that would be in keeping with what the framers of the
Rules envisioned in fashioning Rule 8(b).”) (footnotes omitted); see also
Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a)(1)-(3) (detailing what “[a] pleading that states a
claim for relief must contain”).
The Eleventh Circuit has specifically instructed district courts not
to let an ambiguously worded and lumpily drafted complaint remain
pending even if unchallenged by a defendant: “In light of defense
counsel’s failure to request a repleader, ‘the court, acting sua sponte,
should have struck the plaintiff’s complaint, and the defendants’ answer,
and instructed plaintiff’s counsel to file a more definite statement.’”
Davis, 516 F.3d at 984 (citation omitted).
In addition to shotgun concerns, here, Mr. Gilam has not even
attempted to breakdown his complaint into separate counts or causes of
action asserted against each defendant. Instead, he has filed a document
that is in a procedurally non-compliant format. Cf. Albra v. Advan, Inc.,
490 F.3d 826, 829 (11th Cir. 2007) (“[A]lthough we are to give liberal
construction to the pleadings of pro se litigants, ‘we nevertheless have
required them to conform to procedural rules.’” (quoting Loren v.
Sasser, 309 F.3d 1296, 1304 (11th Cir. 2002))).
(Doc. 13 at 2-3).
The court then required Mr. Gilam to file a new complaint:
The court directs Mr. Gilam to Rule 8 of the Federal Rules of
Civil Procedure for guidance on what constitutes an acceptable pleading
in federal court. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a) (“A pleading that states a claim
for relief must contain: (1) a short and plain statement of the grounds
for the court’s jurisdiction, unless the court already has jurisdiction and
the claim needs no new jurisdictional support; (2) a short and plain
statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief; and
(3) a demand for the relief sought, which may include relief in the
alternative or different types of relief.”).
Accordingly, Mr. Gilam is HEREBY ORDERED to file a new
complaint no later than April 24, 2012: (1) that avoids all shotgun
allegations; (2) that specifically identifies which claims are being
pursued against each defendant in separately numbered counts; (3) that
indicates the relief he is seeking for each separate count; and (4) that
otherwise substantially complies with Rule 8 of the Federal Rules of
Civil Procedure. Further, the court expressly warns Mr. Gilam that
his failure to adequately address the court’s pleading concerns as
outlined herein may result in the dismissal of his complaint without
prejudice. Specifically, because the dismissal would be entered
“without prejudice” by the court, Mr. Gilam’s right, if any, to sue in
state or federal court would not be barred by such a dismissal.
(Doc. 13 at 3-4).
In an effort to comply with the court’s order, Mr. Gilam filed an amended
complaint on April 20, 2012. (Doc. 14). For the reasons explained below, the court
concludes that Mr. Gilam’s case is due to be dismissed without prejudice, and the
Sheriff’s Motion is due to be termed as moot.
Pro Se Pleadings
As an initial matter, “[p]ro se pleadings are held to a less stringent standard
than pleadings drafted by attorneys and will, therefore, be liberally construed.”
Tannenbaum v. United States, 148 F.3d 1262, 1263 (11th Cir. 1998) (citing
Fernandez v. United States, 941 F.2d 1488, 1491 (11th Cir. 1991)). Accordingly, Mr.
Gilam’s allegations are not appropriately subject to dismissal simply because they
lack procedural precision or completeness in the context of Rule 8 of the Federal
Rules of Civil Procedure.
Motions to Dismiss
A Rule 12(b)(6) motion attacks the legal sufficiency of the complaint. See Fed.
R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6). The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure require only that the
complaint provide “‘a short and plain statement of the claim’ that will give the
defendant fair notice of what the plaintiff’s claim is and the grounds upon which it
rests.” Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 47 (1957), abrogated by Bell Atlantic Corp.
v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 545 (2007); see also Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a).
While a plaintiff must provide the grounds of his entitlement to relief, Rule 8
does not mandate the inclusion of “detailed factual allegations” within a complaint.
Twombly, 550 U.S. at 545 (quoting Conley, 355 U.S. at 47). However at the same
time, “it demands more than an unadorned, the-defendant-unlawfully-harmed-me
accusation.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. 1937, 1949 (2009). “[O]nce a claim has
been stated adequately, it may be supported by showing any set of facts consistent
with the allegations in the complaint.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 563.
“[A] court considering a motion to dismiss can choose to begin by identifying
pleadings that, because they are no more than conclusions, are not entitled to the
assumption of truth.” Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. at 1950. “While legal conclusions can
provide the framework of a complaint, they must be supported by factual allegations.”
Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. at 1950. “When there are well-pleaded factual allegations, a court
should assume their veracity and then determine whether they plausibly give rise to
an entitlement to relief.” Id. (emphasis added). “Under Twombly’s construction of
Rule 8 . . . [a plaintiff’s] complaint [must] ‘nudge [any] claims’ . . . ‘across the line
from conceivable to plausible.’ Ibid.” Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. at 1950-51.
A claim is plausible on its face “when the plaintiff pleads factual content that
allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the
misconduct alleged.” Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. at 1949. “The plausibility standard is not akin
to a ‘probability requirement,’ but it asks for more than a sheer possibility that a
defendant has acted unlawfully.” Id. (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556).
Failure to Prosecute
Even in the absence of a pending motion, a district court has the inherent power
to dismiss an action on the basis of a plaintiff’s failure to prosecute or otherwise
comply with its orders. As the United States Supreme Court has clarified this longstanding principle:
The authority of a court to dismiss sua sponte for lack of prosecution
has generally been considered an ‘inherent power,’ governed not by rule
or statute but by the control necessarily vested in courts to manage their
own affairs so as to achieve the orderly and expeditious disposition of
cases. That it has long gone unquestioned is apparent not only from the
many state court decisions sustaining such dismissals, but even from
language in this Court’s opinion in Redfield v. Ystalyfera Iron Co., 110
U.S. 174, 176, 3 S. Ct. 570, 28 L. Ed. 109. It also has the sanction of
wide usage among the District Courts. It would require a much clearer
expression of purpose than Rule 41(b) provides for us to assume that it
was intended to abrogate so well-acknowledged a proposition.
Link v. Wabash R. Co., 370 U.S. 626, 630-31, 82 S. Ct. 1386, 1389, 8 L. Ed. 2d 734
(1962) (footnotes omitted).
Subject Matter Jurisdiction
Mr. Gilam’s federal complaint centers upon the handling of his criminal case,
which is pending in the Circuit Court of DeKalb County, Alabama. (Doc. 14 at 1; see
also Doc. 12-2 (“ALABAMA SJIS CC/DC CASE DETAIL” for Mr. Gilam)). More
specifically, Mr. Gilam contends in the first sentence of his amended pleading that
he “suffers illegal and unconstitutional conditions of treatment as a result of improper
use of legal procedure after being detained, and the unfolding of process thereafter.”
(Doc. 14 at 2).
Additionally, several of Mr. Gilam’s counts relate to his treatment as a
defendant in the state court criminal process. (See, e.g., Doc. 14 at 6 (“The
defendants improper procedure on the initial arrest was without legal force and
probable cause resulting in confinement in order to allow time for an attempt to
provide proper procedure on second arrest that underlies the initial one . . . .”)); id.
(“The Defendants denial of meaningful access to courts for a person confined within
the wheel of justice in DeKalb County . . . .”)). Before deciding whether Mr. Gilam
has asserted enough to state claims against Sheriff Harris under the pro se and
Twombly pleading standards, the court addresses the issue of federal subject matter
jurisdiction sua sponte.
Unlike state courts, federal tribunals are bodies of limited jurisdiction, meaning
that the grounds for the court’s jurisdiction must be present at the time the complaint
is filed and must be obvious on the face of the complaint. Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a); 28
U.S.C. § 1330, et seq. The law is clear that Mr. Gilam, the person seeking to invoke
federal jurisdiction in this case, has the burden to demonstrate that the court has
subject matter jurisdiction. McNutt v. General Motors Acceptance Corp., 298 U.S.
178, 182-83 (1936). Lack of subject matter jurisdiction cannot be waived or
expanded by judicial interpretation, and a jurisdictional deficiency can be raised at
any time by either the parties or the court. Sosna v. Iowa, 419 U.S. 393, 398 (1975);
Am. Fire & Cas. Co. v. Finn, 341 U.S. 6, 17-18 (1951).
Here, Mr. Gilam complains about the legal process and the inappropriate
handling of his state criminal case. However, because the state criminal prosecution
is yet to be completed, the court’s subject matter jurisdiction is called into question
by the ripeness doctrine.
As the Eleventh Circuit has explained the doctrine of ripeness:
We review the question of whether a case is ripe for adjudication
de novo. See Elend v. Basham, 471 F.3d 1199, 1204 (11th Cir. 2006).
In evaluating whether a claim is ripe, we look at both “the hardship that
a plaintiff might suffer without court redress and the fitness of the case
for judicial decision.” Id. at 1211. If a claim is not ripe, the district
court lacks jurisdiction to issue a ruling on the merits and therefore must
dismiss that claim without prejudice. See Georgia Advocacy Office, Inc.
v. Camp, 172 F.3d 1294, 1299 (11th Cir. 1999). Additionally, “the party
invoking the court’s jurisdiction bears the burden of proving, by a
preponderance of the evidence, facts supporting the existence of federal
jurisdiction.” McCormick v. Aderholt, 293 F.3d 1254, 1257 (11th Cir.
2002) (per curiam).
Serpentfoot v. Rome City Com’n, 322 Fed. App’x 801, 805 (11th Cir. 2009).
Mr. Gilam has not adequately shown how his federal lawsuit is fit for a judicial
decision in light of the incompleteness of his criminal case. In particular, to proceed
with evaluating Mr. Gilam’s constitutional claims, the court would have to speculate
as to the outcome of the state criminal proceedings against him and offer an
impermissible advisory opinion about the merits of his federal case. Cf. Heck v.
Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477, 486-87, 114 S. Ct. 2364, 129 L. Ed. 2d 383 (“We hold that,
in order to recover damages for allegedly unconstitutional conviction or
imprisonment, or for other harm caused by actions whose unlawfulness would render
a conviction or sentence invalid, a § 1983 plaintiff must prove that the conviction or
sentence has been reversed on direct appeal, expunged by executive order, declared
invalid by a state tribunal authorized to make such determination, or called into
question by a federal court’s issuance of a writ of habeas corpus, 28 U.S.C. § 2254.”)
Because of the still pending nature of the state criminal case against Mr. Gilam,
his request for a federal court to review it for constitutionally deficiencies is
premature. Additionally, any hardship that Mr. Gilam may suffer in withholding
review is outweighed by the unfitness of this case for a judicial decision at this
Mr. Gilam’s federal complaint also raises Younger abstention concerns. See
Green v. Jefferson Cnty. Comm’n, 563 F.3d 1243, 1250 (11th Cir. 2009) (“The
Supreme Court [in Younger], concluding that the state criminal proceeding offered
a sufficient forum for the plaintiff to raise his constitutional defense, abstained from
hearing the plaintiff's claim and stated the general rule that a federal district court
must refrain from enjoining pending criminal state court proceedings except under
certain special circumstances.”) (emphasis added). To entertain Mr. Gilam’s requests
for declaratory relief in the form of a judgment “that defendants’ acts, policies and
practices described herein violate plaintiff’s rights . . . .” as well as for a preliminary
and permanent injunction which “prohibits defendants, their successors, agents, and
employees and all persons acting in concert with them [to] be restrained from any acts
of retaliation or harassment against Plaintiff, or witness in this action” (Doc. 14 at 7)
implicate Younger abstention, and nothing in the record suggests that an exception
to the doctrine would apply. See 31 Foster Children v. Bush, 329 F.3d 1255, 1276
(11th Cir. 2003) (“In order to decide whether the federal proceeding would interfere
with the state proceeding, we look to the relief requested and the effect it would have
on the state proceedings. The relief sought need not directly interfere with an
ongoing proceeding or terminate an ongoing proceeding in order for Younger
abstention to be required.” (citations omitted)).
Therefore, this court should abstain from exercising subject matter jurisdiction
and avoid interfering with the inchoate state criminal proceedings against Mr. Gilam
on the basis of Younger. (Cf. Doc. 11 at 2 ¶ f (“Because there is an underlying and
ongoing state criminal action, this action is due to be dismissed because of the
doctrine of abstention.”)). Accordingly, Mr. Gilam’s lawsuit is due to be dismissed
without prejudice on jurisdictional grounds.
Failure To Prosecute
Alternatively, Mr. Gilam’s lawsuit is due to be dismissed without prejudice on
failure to prosecute grounds. Here, the court gave Mr. Gilam express prior warning
that a failure to replead his claims as required by the court could result in a dismissal
of his case without prejudice. Despite this warning, Mr. Gilam’s efforts to replead
his claims still include shotgun allegations and do not otherwise comply with this
court’s repleading requirements.
In particular, the factual allegations section lacks any reference to Sheriff
Harris’s underlying unconstitutional conduct. (Doc. 14 at 4-5). Moreover, the court
cannot tell who the “defendant” is or “defendants” are with respect to the separate
counts that Mr. Gilam has asserted. (Id. at 5-6). Further, Mr. Gilam also has not
segregated the type of relief that he seeks under each count, but instead collectively
includes “PRAYERS OF RELIEF” at the end of the amended pleading. (Doc. 14 at
These deficiencies make it impractical to address the merits of the pending
Motion filed by Sheriff Harris as the court is unable to decipher which counts, if any,
Mr. Gilam intends to assert against him. Further, the court cannot readily determine
the scope, much less assess the viability of Mr. Gilam’s claims with respect to any of
the other named defendants. Accordingly, a sua sponte dismissal of Mr. Gilam’s case
without prejudice is also appropriate due to his inadequate repleading . See Link, 370
U.S. at 630, 82 S. Ct. at 1388-89 (acknowledging power of courts “acting on their
own initiative, to clear their calendars of cases that have remained dormant because
of the inaction or dilatoriness of the parties seeking relief”); cf. Albra v. Advan, Inc.,
490 F.3d 826, 829 (11th Cir. 2007) (“[A]lthough we are to give liberal construction
to the pleadings of pro se litigants, ‘we nevertheless have required them to conform
to procedural rules.’” (quoting Loren v. Sasser, 309 F.3d 1296, 1304 (11th Cir.
Consistent with the above analysis, the court will enter a separate order
dismissing Mr. Gilam’s case without prejudice on jurisdictional and failure to
prosecute grounds and terming the Sheriff’s Motion as moot.
DONE and ORDERED this the 26th day of April, 2012.
VIRGINIA EMERSON HOPKINS
United States District Judge
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