GUTHULA v. JOHNSON et al
ORDER THAT UPON CONSIDERATION OF THE PARTIES' CROSS-MOTIONS FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT (ECF NOS. 16 AND 17), AND PLAINTIFF'S RESPONSE 18 , IT IS HEREBY ORDERED THAT SAID MOTIONS ARE DENIED AS MOOT. IT IS FURTHER ORDERED THAT THIS CASE IS DISMISS ED WITHOUT PREJUDICE FOR LACK OF SUBJECT-MATTER JURISDICTION FOR THE REASONS SET FORTH HEREIN. THE CLERK OF COURT IS DIRECTED TO CLOSE THIS CASE FOR STATISTICAL AND ALL PURPOSES. SIGNED BY HONORABLE C. DARNELL JONES, II ON 9/6/17. 9/8/17 ENTERED AND COPIES E-MAILED.(ti, )
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA
PHANI K. GUTHULA
Secretary of U.S. Department of
Homeland Security, et al.,
AND NOW, this 6th day of September, 2017, upon consideration of the parties’
cross-motions for summary judgment (ECF Nos. 16 and 17), and Plaintiff’s Response
(ECF No. 18), it is hereby ORDERED that said motions are DENIED as moot.
It is further ORDERED that this case is DISMISSED without prejudice for lack
of subject-matter jurisdiction for the reasons set forth herein. The Clerk of Court is
directed to CLOSE this case for statistical and all purposes.
Because Plaintiff does not satisfy the “case or controversy” requirement under
Article III, section 2, of the U.S. Constitution, this Court cannot adjudicate the merits of
this case and must dismiss it for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction.
Relevant Factual and Procedural Background
The following facts are not disputed by the parties. Phani Guthula, an Indian
national, holds an H-1B visa, which entitles him to reside and work in the United States
for six years so long as he is fully employed by a sponsoring employer. Guthula first
obtained H-1B status on October 1, 2013, at the request of his former employer. That H1B visa was valid until September 25, 2016.
Before his H-1B status expired, Guthula experienced a work-related accident and
decided to return to school. On February 18, 2015, he applied for a change of status from
H-1B to F-1, a visa for non-immigrant, full-time students at accredited, academic
institutions. He submitted that application on the proper Form I-539. Six months later,
while his Form I-539 was still pending, Guthula accepted a job offer and his new
employer applied on his behalf to extend, or revert to, his H-1B status. That application
is known as the Form I-129. The new employer filed the Form I-129 with expedited
Before adjudicating Guthula’s Form I-539 for a change to F-1 (student) status, the
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) approved his new employer’s Form
I-129 on October 7, 2015, extending his H-1B until September 9, 2018. On March 5,
2016, more than a year after submitting his Form I-539, USCIS denied that application
because he was no longer a student at that time.
Guthula is dissatisfied with the USCIS’s decision to deny his Form I-539, a denial
that deprived him of F-1 status while he was a student for about seven months from
March 2, 2015, to October 7, 2015. He claims that, as a result of that decision, the time
he can expect to remain in this country has been shortened by that seven-month period;
had he been granted F-1 status for those seven months, then that time period would not
count against the time he could stay on his H-1B visa.
To redress this alleged injury, Guthula brings this action for a declaratory
judgment reversing the USCIS’s decision and an order directing the Department of
Homeland Security (DHS) to state that he was on F-1 status during the seventh-month
period he was unemployed and attending an accredited institution. Guthula had also
sought an order directing DHS to state that he had not accrued unlawful status during that
seven-month period, but this concern is no longer an issue because USCIS has agreed
that he maintained lawful presence during that time.
Because this action raises a purely legal question pertaining to an administrative
agency’s decision, the parties appropriately filed cross-motions for summary judgment
without engaging in any discovery other than the production of the administrative record.
See Lun Kwai Tsui v. Attorney Gen. of U. S., 445 F. Supp. 832, 835 (D.D.C. 1978) (citing
Richards v. Immigration & Naturalization Serv., 554 F.2d 1173, 1177 (D.C. Cir. 1977),
and Doraiswamy v. Secretary of Labor, 555 F.2d 832 (D.C. Cir. 1976)).
This Court Lacks Subject-matter Jurisdiction to Adjudicate the Merits
As a threshold matter, a federal court must always satisfy itself of its own subject-
matter jurisdiction. Storino v. Borough of Point Pleasant Beach, 322 F.3d 293, 296 (3d
Cir. 2003) (“the first and fundamental question is that of jurisdiction . . . . This question
the court is bound to ask and answer for itself, even when not otherwise suggested”)
(citing Soc’y Hill Towers Owners’ Ass’n v. Rendell, 210 F.3d 168, 175 (3d Cir. 2000)
(quoting Steel Co. v. Citizens for a Better Env’t, 523 U.S. 83, 94 (1998)).
To invoke a federal court’s jurisdiction, a plaintiff must have standing under
Article III’s “case or controversy” requirement, which demands an “injury in fact,
causation, and redressability.” Shalom Pentecostal Church v. Acting Sec’y U.S. Dep’t of
Homeland Sec., 783 F.3d 156, 161 (3d Cir. 2015) (citing Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife,
504 U.S. 555, 559-60 (1992)). “The case or controversy requirement must be met
regardless of the type of relief sought, including declaratory relief.” Armstrong World
Indus., Inc. by Wolfson v. Adams, 961 F.2d 405, 410 (3d Cir. 1992) (citing Skelly Oil Co.
v. Phillips Petroleum Co., 339 U.S. 667, 671 (1950)).
Related to the concept of standing is the “ripeness doctrine,” which determines
the proper “timing” for bringing suit. Id. at 411 (citing Thomas v. Union Carbide Agric.
Prods. Co., 473 U.S. 568, 580 (1985)). “[T]he constitutional requirement for ripeness is
injury in fact.” New York Shipping Ass’n, Inc. v. Waterfront Comm’n of New York
Harbor, 460 F. App’x 187, 189 (3d Cir. 2012) (citing Duke Power Co. v. Carolina Envtl.
Study Grp., 438 U.S. 59, 81 (1978)). A “plaintiff need not suffer a completed harm” to
establish ripeness, but when “the plaintiff’s action is based on a contingency, it is
unlikely that the parties’ interests will be sufficiently adverse to give rise to a case or
controversy within the meaning of Article III.” Armstrong, 961 F.2d at 411-12.
Although Defendants do not directly challenge Article III standing or ripeness,
they have put those jurisdictional requirements in doubt by arguing that Plaintiff has not
yet suffered, and may never actually suffer, an injury. Defendants assert that Plaintiff has
not yet been harmed by the USCIS’s action because his nonimmigrant status could
change between now and the end of his current H-1B visa for a variety of reasons,
including the possibility that his new employer could apply on his behalf for permanent
residency status. If that application were granted, Plaintiff’s alleged injury would never
actually materialize because he would be able to remain in the country far longer than the
seven-month period at issue. Defendants suggest that, at the present moment, the only
“impetus for Guthula’s claim is his subjective fear that he may exhaust his H-1B time
before his employer files a petition.” Defs.’ Summ. J. Br. 2, ECF No. 17.
Guthula responds that he has already been injured by the USCIS’s unreasonable
delay in deciding and ultimately denying his Form I-539 (the application for F-1 status),
because it means that his ability to stay in this country on an H-1B has been shortened by
the approximately seven-month period during which he was eligible for F-1 status. Had
USCIS approved the application more quickly, or had USCIS retroactively granted him
F-1 status for those seven months, then Plaintiff could expect to remain in the country on
his H-1B visa for that additional seven-month period. Guthula argues that he “should not
be required to have an employer file an application for permanent residence,” nor “should
he be required to want” a permanent job offer, “to capture the seven (7) months of H1-B
(sic) that the law, when properly applied, affords him.” Pl.’s Reply 4, ECF No. 18.
Guthula has no response to the argument that his alleged injury has not yet fully
materialized or that his fear of being injured may never actually come to fruition.
Courts generally agree that a visa-holder can sue for injuries caused by the
“arbitrary” or “capricious” denial of an application for a change of nonimmigrant status.
See, e.g., Patel v. Minnix, 663 F.2d 1042, 1042 (11th Cir. 1981) (affirming district court’s
decision to enter summary judgment upholding INS’s decision to deny change of visa
status); Mahmood v. Morris, 477 F. Supp. 702, 704 (E.D. Pa. 1979) (finding INS had
properly denied plaintiff’s application to change from visitor to student visa status); Bitar
v. U.S. Dep’t of Justice, 582 F. Supp. 417, 420 (D. Colo. 1983) (same); see also Change
from one nonimmigrant category to another, 1 Immigr. Law and Defense § 3:136
(“Practically speaking, federal district court litigation is now the only avenue open for
review of [a denial of an application for change of nonimmigrant status].”) (footnotes
omitted). But none of the cases reviewed by this Court involve a situation like this one
where the applicant was denied one status but simultaneously granted another, thereby
eliminating the immediate harm caused by the denial. Nor do the parties cite any other
authority on point. Indeed, Plaintiff cites no case law whatsoever.
Neither has the Third Circuit addressed this precise situation. However, it has
repeatedly confirmed that “[a]llegations of ‘possible future injury’ are not sufficient to
satisfy Article III.” Reilly v. Ceridian Corp., 664 F.3d 38, 42 (3d Cir. 2011) (quoting
Whitmore v. Arkansas, 495 U.S. 149, 158 (1990)). “An injury-in-fact must be concrete in
both a qualitative and temporal sense. The complainant must allege an injury to himself
that is distinct and palpable, as distinguished from merely abstract, and the alleged harm
must be actual or imminent, not conjectural or hypothetical.” Id. (quoting Whitmore, 495
U.S. at 155) (quotation marks omitted) (emphasis added). The “imminence requirement
‘ensures that courts do not entertain suits based on speculative or hypothetical harms.’”
Id. (quoting Whitmore, 495 U.S. at 155). Thus, “[t]o protect against a feared future event,
the plaintiff must demonstrate that the probability of that future event occurring is real
and substantial, ‘of sufficient immediacy and reality to warrant the issuance of a
declaratory judgment.’” Armstrong, 961 F.2d at 412 (citing Salvation Army v.
Department of Community Affairs, 919 F.2d 183, 192 (3d Cir.1990) (quoting Steffel v.
Thompson, 415 U.S. 452, 460 (1974)).
In Reilly, the Third Circuit engaged in an extended discussion on the “injury in
fact” requirement, particularly in cases where the alleged injury was too speculative,
indefinite or uncertain to satisfy Article III. There, the plaintiffs sued a payroll
processing firm after its data system, containing plaintiffs’ personal identification
information, had been breached by an unauthorized hacker. 664 F.3d at 40. The
plaintiffs believed that the breach increased their risk for identity theft and other harms,
because the hacker might “commit future criminal acts by misusing the information,” or
by “making unauthorized transactions in [plaintiffs’] names.” Id. at 42 (alteration
supplied). The district court dismissed for lack of standing, and the court of appeals
affirmed, concluding that the plaintiffs’ “allegations of hypothetical, future injury” were
insufficient “[u]nless and until these conjectures come true.” Id. The court of appeals
relied on a series of Supreme Court decisions in which the Court dismissed the cases
because the plaintiffs had “not yet suffer[ed] any harm,” and their “alleged injury is not
‘certainly impending.’” Id. at 43. Put simply, if “one cannot describe how the [plaintiffs]
will be injured without beginning the explanation with the word ‘if,’” then the
“prospective damages, described by the [plaintiffs] as certain, are, in reality, conjectural.”
Id. (quoting Storino, 322 F.3d at 297-98).
The same is true in this case. Plaintiff’s alleged injury will only materialize if no
intervening circumstances, between now and the end of his H-1B status on September 9,
2018, affect his ability to stay in this country longer, or shorter, than currently expected.
Until his status expires and he is obligated to leave the country, or face the possibility of
removal, his alleged injury is too “conjectural” to satisfy Article III. Thus, this Court
lacks subject-matter jurisdiction at this time and must dismiss the case without prejudice.
BY THE COURT:
/s/ C. Darnell Jones, II
C. Darnell Jones, II
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