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Johnson v. Fitzgerald

United States District Court, S.D. Georgia, Savannah Division

December 19, 2018



         Reginald Johnson, acting through his mother, Ella Johnson, has filed a Complaint seeking injunctive relief arising from the withdrawal (or threat of withdrawal) of financial support by the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities (the “Agency”). Doc. 1 at 2; doc. 10 at 3. The Court performed the preliminary screening required by 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2), recommending that Ella be provisionally designated as his guardian ad litem, dismissing the originally-named state agency and his claim for punitive damages, and directing the United States Marshall to serve his Complaint on Commissioner Fitzgerald, in her official capacity. See doc. 12.

         Johnson timely objected to the recommendation that his claims for damages be dismissed. Doc. 14. The recommendations were adopted, over those objections, by the District Judge. Doc. 16. Johnson then filed a notice of appeal.[1] Doc. 18. While the appeal was pending, the Commissioner answered, doc. 23, and Johnson filed a “motion” seeking an injunction directing the Commissioner to reinstate the disputed benefits. Doc. 27. He now seeks an “expedited” ruling on that motion, and objects to the Court's granting a leave of absence to defense counsel. Doc. 37. The Court entered a Scheduling Order. Doc. 38. Johnson filed a motion for a “pre-scheduling order hearing, ” to address her “Request to Expedite Injunction Order.” Doc. 40. This Order addresses that request, among other issues.

         A hearing on Johnson's request for an “expedited” disposition of his request for an injunction is not necessary. The Georgia Attorney General's Office, representing Fitzgerald, construed that request as a request for a preliminary injunction. Doc. 41. The Court agrees with that interpretation.[2] The Court further agrees with defendant's argument that Johnson's filings, to date, are inadequate to establish his entitlement to such extraordinary relief. See, e.g., McDonald's Corp. v. Robertson, 147 F.3d 1301, 1306 (11th Cir. 1998) (“In this Circuit, a preliminary injunction is an extraordinary and drastic remedy not to be granted unless the movant clearly established the ‘burden of persuasion' as to the four requisites.” (quotes and cites omitted)). On the contrary, the defendant's brief presents facially persuasive arguments that Johnson cannot bear that extraordinary burden. See doc. 41.

         For the reasons discussed more fully below, the Court questions whether Johnson could demonstrate his entitlement to injunctive relief. It is clear that, to date, he has not. A plaintiff seeking a preliminary injunction must establish (1) a substantial likelihood of success on the merits of his claim; (2) irreparable injury unless the injunction issues; (3) that the threatened injury to the moving party outweighs whatever damage the proposed injunction may cause the opposing party; and (4) that the sought injunction would not be adverse to the public interest. See Robertson, 147 F.3d at 1306. Johnson's injunction-related filings do not establish either his substantial likelihood of success or that he will suffer an irreparable injury if an injunction immediately reinstating the disputed benefits is not issued. See doc. 2; doc. 27; doc. 37; doc. 42. They do not even discuss the balance of harm or the public interest. See id.; but see doc. 42 at 3-4 (asking, rhetorically, “how does the quality of human life not outweigh any other earthly consideration?” and protesting that the assertion that “this is NOT a public issue is baffling, ” and speculating about the possibility that “others [may have been] denied [their] civil rights to due process because that individual did not know any better or did not have the means to fight back”). Although the Court construes Johnson's pleadings liberally, that liberality does not exempt him from the applicable procedural rules, and it most certainly does not expand his substantive rights. See Clark v. Bibb Cty. Bd. of Educ., 174 F.Supp.2d 1369 (M.D. Ga. 2001) (citing Wayne v. Jarvis, 197 F.3d 1098, 1104 (11th Cir. 1999), overruled on other grounds by Manders v. Lee, 338 F.3d 1304 (11th Cir. 2003)); Brown v. Crawford, 906 F.2d 667, 670 (11th Cir. 1990); Moon v. Newsome, 863 F.2d 835, 837 (11th Cir. 1999)) (“[T]he general rule of liberal construction does not require courts to exempt pro se litigants from complying with the requirements imposed by the relevant rules of procedure and substantive law.”). To the extent that Johnson seeks a preliminary injunction directing the Commissioner to immediately reinstate the disputed benefits, his motions should be DENIED. Doc. 2; doc. 27; doc. 37. His request for a hearing on the issue is, therefore, DENIED as moot. Doc. 40.

         The parties' filings raise several further issues that must be resolved. In its Report and Recommendation authorizing service of the Complaint, the Court provisionally approved Ella to serve as plaintiff's guardian ad litem in this matter. Doc. 12 at 6-7. The Court noted, however, that an apparent conflict of interest between plaintiff and Ella might require it to revisit that approval. Id. at 7. Commissioner Fitzgerald, in her answer and brief opposing a preliminary injunction, specifically disputes Ella's suitability as guardian ad litem. See doc. 23 at 4; doc. 41 at 6-7. In response to the Commissioner's Answer, Ella protests that she is suitable, based on her affection for her child and her concern that he might “be deprived just because he is incapable of making the request [that his benefits be restored].” Doc. 25 at 3. Her suitability to serve as Plaintiff's representative, however, does not turn on her affection for him or her devotion to his care.

         The propriety of Ella's representation of plaintiff depends, in the first instance, on whether she has been legally appointed as plaintiff's guardian. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 17(c)(1); see also Sam M. ex rel. Elliott v. Carcieri, 608 F.3d 77, 85 (1st Cir. 2010) (“[W]here a minor or incompetent is represented by a general guardian or a duly appointed representative, ” the Federal Rules' provisions for designating a guardian ad litem need not be applied). If he has another duly appointed representative, the Court would consider whether that individual were better situated to pursue his interests in this matter. Even if she were duly appointed, however, the Court has the power “‘to authorize someone other than a lawful representative to sue on behalf of an infant or incompetent person where that representative is unable, unwilling or refuses to act or has interests which conflict with those of the infant or incompetent.'” Id. (quoting Ad Hoc Comm. of Concerned Teachers v. Greenburgh No. 11 Union Free Sch. Dist., 873 F.2d 25, 29 (2d Cir 1989)). “The minor's best interests are of paramount importance” in making the determination. Id.

         The Court is particularly concerned by the Commissioner's contention that it has not “withdrawn” any benefits from plaintiff, it has merely insisted that he receive those services from a provider other than Ella's sister. See, e.g., doc. 23 at 8. Any disruption in the provision of services, she thus contends, is attributable to Ella's refusal to choose a non-familial caregiver and not to any action or lack of it by the Department. See doc. 33 at 8 (asserting “Plaintiff need not experience any lapse in service during the pendency of this litigation. Community-based services are fully available to Plaintiff under the applicable Medicaid waiver program, but Ms. Johnson has actively refused to select any of the community care providers offered by [the Department] for care of Plaintiff.”); see also doc. 12 at 6 (noting the Court's concern that Ella is not a suitable representative because “she might be less inclined to accept a resolution that does not protect her sister's income (and given that her sister lives with her, it seems possible that some portion of that income might go to Ella, albeit mediately).”). Although the Court appreciates Ella's contention that the services offered are not adequate substitutes for the services Reginald was receiving, see doc. 39 at 1, the fact that she considers no services preferable to some services, even if defective, emphasizes her potential conflict of interest.

         In addition to the question of Ella's suitability to act as plaintiff's representative, further questions have arisen concerning the viability of his claim. In a recent filing, Johnson contends that “due process is the core of this complaint.” Doc. 37 at 2. The cited cases, however, make clear that not every withdrawal or refusal of public benefits violates a recipient's due process rights. See K.W. ex rel. D.W. v. Armstrong, 789 F.3d 962, 972 (9th Cir. 2015). None of the cases that plaintiff has cited, and none that the Court is aware of, establish that a benefit recipient has a sufficient interest in a particular method of service-delivery to support a due process challenge. Although defendant's brief opposing the preliminary injunction touches tangentially on the nature of Johnson's claim, in arguing that he has not established the likelihood of success necessary, defendant has not moved to dismiss or challenged his standing. See doc. 41 at 9-12.

         The nature of Plaintiff's claim matters because it calls into question his standing, whether litigated through a guardian ad litem or otherwise, to prosecute this case. See, e.g., Gonzalez ex rel. Gonzalez v. Reno, 86 F.Supp.2d 1167, 1181 (S.D. Fla. 2000) (noting, despite terminological similarity, a “[p]laintiff's standing is a distinct inquiry from that of [his guardian's] capacity to act as Plaintiff's next friend [or guardian ad litem].”). Standing is a component of the Constitution's limitation of federal judicial power to “cases” and “controversies.” See Allen v. Wright, 468 U.S. 737, 750 (1984). As an aspect of this constitutional limitation, standing determines this Court's jurisdiction. It cannot be waived by any party and the Court has an obligation to raise the issue on its own motion, if necessary. See Bischoff v. Osceola Cty., Fla., 222 F.3d 874, 877-78 (11th Cir. 2000) (as the Supreme Court made clear in United States v. Hays, 515 U.S. 737[, 742] . . . (1995), “[t]he question of standing is not subject to waiver . . . . ‘The federal courts are under an independent obligation to examine their own jurisdiction, and standing is perhaps the most important of [the jurisdictional] doctrines.'”).

         To establish standing, “for purposes of . . . procedural due process[3] claims, plaintiffs must show that they had an identifiable personal stake in the property [or liberty] rights at issue.” Santiago-Ramos v. Autoridad de Energia Electrica de Puerto Rico, AEE, 834 F.3d 103, 106 (1st Cir. 2016) (footnote added); see also Doe v. Florida Bar, 630 F.3d 1336, 1342 (11th Cir. 2011) (plaintiff alleging due-process violation must allege “a deprivation of a constitutionally-protected liberty or property interest; state action; and constitutionally inadequate process.”); Royal Oak Entertainment, L.L.C. v. City of Royal Oak, 316 Fed.Appx. 482, 486 (6th Cir. 2009) (“This Court has consistently held that a plaintiff who brings a . . . procedural due process claim must identify a protected liberty or property interest.” (cite omitted)). Further, the assertion that a due-process violation has occurred is not a factual allegation the Court is required to credit. See Lord Abbett Mun. Income Fund v. Tyson, 671 F.3d 1203, 1207 (11th Cir. 2012) (citing Edwards v. Prime, Inc., 602 F.3d 1276, 1291 (11th Cir. 2010) (“We are not required to accept as true the [plaintiff's] legal conclusion that a Fourteenth Amendment violation occurred.”)).

         The Supreme Court has held that no constitutionally-protected liberty or property interest supported nursing home residents' suit seeking a hearing before their home's Medicaid funds were terminated. See O'Bannon v. Town Court Nursing Center, 447 U.S. 773, 784 (1980). O'Bannon rejected the both the argument that the residents had “a property right to remain in the home of their choice absent good cause for transfer, ” and that the emotional and physical consequences of their transfer were “tantamount to a deprivation of liberty.” Id. The Court noted that “since decertification [of a particular home] does not reduce or terminate a patient's financial assistance, but merely requires him to use it for care at a different facility, regulations granting recipients the right to a hearing prior to a reduction in financial benefits are irrelevant.” Id. at 786 (emphasis added). Although more qualified, it also found that an administrative determination, directed against a third party, does not implicate due process. The Court analogized the effect of the government's decision to withhold public funds from a particular provider to the revocation of a provider's license. Id. at 787. Similarly, whether the Department will continue to compensate Ella's sister for the care she provides to plaintiff arguably “does not turn the [refusal] into a governmental decision to impose [the] harm” that such cessation would cause. See Id. at 789.

         If, as defendant contends, O'Bannon stands for the proposition that “[t]here is no constitutional right to a hearing prior to [a determination that a particular benefit provider is not eligible under the applicable program], ” then Johnson lacks standing to pursue a due-process claim. Plaintiff's argument that O'Bannon is distinguishable because “it was NEVER established that the services received from one nursing facility could not be provided by another nursing facility, ” doc. 42 at 3, fails to address the Court's discussion of the resident's purported liberty interest. The Court expressly considered the harm residents faced because they “may have difficulty locating other homes they consider suitable or may suffer both emotional and physical harm as a result of the disruption associated with their move.” O'Bannon, 447 U.S. at 787 (emphasis added). Despite those harms, the Court concluded, “while they might have a claim against the [care provider, depending on the nature of the parties' contract and applicable state law, ] for damages, none would have any claim against the responsible governmental authorities for the deprivation of an interest in life, liberty, or property.” Id. (emphasis added). As discussed below, plaintiff's further briefing on this issue must identify a relevant due-process-protected interest, and, if necessary, explain how O'Bannon's conclusion that (1) a claimant's determination of the “suitability” of alternative providers and (2) the “physical and emotional harm” caused by the necessity of changing providers are not sufficient to confer standing does not resolve this question.[4]

         The legal status of Reginald's prospective injuries can, alternatively, cast doubt on the claim's substantive adequacy. Since he is proceeding in forma pauperis, the Court has an obligation to dismiss the case “at any time if [it] determines that . . . the action . . . fails to state a claim on which relief may be granted.” 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B)(ii); see also Fortson v. Georgia, 601 Fed.Appx. 772, 774 (11th Cir. 2015) (noting that “[a] judge's authority to dismiss sua sponte a complaint . . . is provided for, even mandated, by” § 1915(e)(2)(B)'s subsections); Shell v. Foulkes, 362 Fed.Appx. 23, 26 (11th Cir. 2010) (§ 1915 “serves an important gate-keeping function by requiring the district court to sua sponte dismiss an action that fails to state a claim on which relief may be granted.”).

         Although the Court authorized service of the Complaint, the Commissioner's subsequent filings and Ella's responses to them have cast considerable doubt on the viability of Reginald's claim. They have clarified that it is based on an alleged violation of his right to due process. As discussed above, such a claim requires, as an essential element, an allegation that the plaintiff has been deprived of a constitutionally protected liberty or property interest without due process. His subsequent pleadings appear to concede that the Department has not refused to provide benefits, nor has it reduced or proposed reduction of the benefits he receives. Rather, the parties dispute whether Reginald may direct those benefits to a particular provider, i.e. Ella's sister. His further contention that, in the particular factual context of this case, those services could not be replaced by otherwise comparable services from another provider, does not establish that his ...

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