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Guess v. Richland County Treasurer

United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Columbia Division

February 28, 2018

Thurmond R. Guess, Sr., Plaintiff,
Richland County Treasurer; David Adams, as Treasurer, Defendants.



         The plaintiff, Thurmond R. Guess, Sr., proceeding pro se, brings this action against the defendant. The Complaint has been filed pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915. This matter is before the court pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b) and Local Civil Rule 73.02(B)(2) (D.S.C.). Having reviewed the Complaint in accordance with applicable law, the court concludes the matter should be summarily dismissed without prejudice and issuance and service of process.

         I. Factual and Procedural Background

         Plaintiff indicates that on December 3, 2012 and December 9, 2013 he won bids for real property at two Richland County tax sales. (Compl., ECF No. 1 at 1.) Plaintiff alleges the defendants told him he would receive deeds to the property if the original property owners did not redeem the properties, and though the original owners never redeemed the properties, the defendants cancelled the sales. (Id.) He also alleges that the defendants have retained the money he used to bid on the properties. (Id. at 2.) He expressly raises a claim pursuant to the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1691, and asserts violations of the Fifth Amendment's Just Compensation Clause and Fourteenth Amendment's Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses. (Id. at 2-3.) He seeks an undefined form of injunctive relief, declaratory relief, and damages. (Id. at 3.)

         Plaintiff previously filed suit against Defendant Adams in this court in 2015 over the 2012 tax sale. See Guess v. Adams, C/A No. 3:15-cv-657-CMC-PJG. In that case, Plaintiff alleged that he was the highest bidder at a county tax sale on December 3, 2012, but that defendant Richland County Treasurer David Adams[1] cancelled or voided the sale. Plaintiff alleged the defendant's actions were discriminatory due to Plaintiff's race, and he sought damages and injunctive relief pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and The Equal Opportunity Credit Act. The court granted summary judgment in the defendants' favor, finding Plaintiff forecasted no admissible evidence from which a reasonable factfinder could infer intentional discrimination by the defendants based on Plaintiff's race, that Plaintiff was treated differently from other similarly situated bidders, or that the defendants' proffered reason for voiding the tax sale was pretextual.

         II. Discussion

         A. Standard of Review

         Under established local procedure in this judicial district, a careful review has been made of the pro se Complaint. The Complaint has been filed pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915, which permits an indigent litigant to commence an action in federal court without prepaying the administrative costs of proceeding with the lawsuit. This statute allows a district court to dismiss the case upon a finding that the action “is frivolous or malicious, ” “fails to state a claim on which relief may be granted, ” or “seeks monetary relief against a defendant who is immune from such relief.” 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B).

         In order to state a claim upon which relief can be granted, the plaintiff must do more than make mere conclusory statements. See Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009); Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). Rather, the complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim that is plausible on its face. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678; Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570. The reviewing court need only accept as true the complaint's factual allegations, not its legal conclusions. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678; Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555.

         This court is required to liberally construe pro se complaints, which are held to a less stringent standard than those drafted by attorneys. Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007); King v. Rubenstein, 825 F.3d 206, 214 (4th Cir. 2016). Nonetheless, the requirement of liberal construction does not mean that the court can ignore a clear failure in the pleading to allege facts which set forth a claim cognizable in a federal district court. See Weller v. Dep't of Soc. Servs., 901 F.2d 387 (4th Cir. 1990); see also Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 684 (outlining pleading requirements under Rule 8 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure for “all civil actions”).

         B. Analysis

         The court finds the Complaint should be summarily dismissed because Plaintiff's claims are barred by res judicata, and more precisely, by the doctrine of claim preclusion.[2] “Under the doctrine of claim preclusion, a final judgment forecloses ‘successive litigation of the very same claim, whether or not relitigation of the claim raises the same issues as the earlier suit.' ” Taylor v. Sturgell, 553 U.S. 880, 892 (2008) (quoting New Hampshire v. Maine, 532 U.S. 742, 748 (2001)). The following three elements must be met for claim preclusion to apply: (1) the prior judgment was final and on the merits, and rendered by a court of competent jurisdiction in accordance with the requirements of due process; (2) the parties are identical, or in privity, in the two actions; and (3) the claims in the second matter are based upon the same cause of action involved in the earlier proceeding. Pittson Co. v. United States, 199 F.3d 694, 704 (4th Cir. 1999) (citing Hartnett v. Billman, 800 F.2d 1308, 1313 (4th Cir. 1986)). “[R]es judicata will bar a newly articulated claim[] if it is based on the same underlying transaction and could have been brought in the earlier action.” Clodfelter, 720 F.3d at 210 (quoting Laurel Sand & Gravel, Inc. v. Wilson, 519 F.3d 156, 162 (4th Cir. 2008)) (quotation marks omitted; alterations in original).

         Here, Plaintiff's claims associated with the 2012 and 2013 tax sales are barred by claim preclusion. As to the three elements of claim preclusion identified above, the 2015 judgment was final and on the merits because summary judgment was granted in the defendants' favor on Plaintiff's § 1983 claim; the parties in this case were both present in the 2015 action; and the factual bases for Plaintiff's legal claims in both cases are Richland County tax sales. See Clodfelter, 720 F.3d at 210. Also, any new legal claims raised by Plaintiff in this matter that are based on the Richland County tax sales are barred because Plaintiff could have raised them in the 2015 action. See Laurel Sand & Gravel, 519 F.3d at 162.

         Moreover, to the extent Plaintiff's new claims arising out of the 2013 tax sale could be considered a separate transaction that does not implicate claim preclusion of Plaintiff's claims, the court finds those claims fail to state a claim upon which relief can be granted and should be dismissed pursuant to § 1915. Plaintiff's allegation that the defendant cancelled the tax sale is conclusory and insufficient on its own to plausibly show Plaintiff was deprived of due process or equal protection of the law under the Fourteenth Amendment. See Mathews v. Eldridge, 424 U.S. 319, 333 (1976) (providing the Due Process Clause requires some form of hearing before an individual is deprived of a property interest) (citing Wolff v. McDonnell, 418 U.S. 539, 557-58 (1974)); Morrison v. Garraghty, 239 F.3d 648, 654 (4th Cir. 2001) (“To succeed on an equal ...

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