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Woodward v. Alquzah

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

March 14, 2018

Daniel Woodard, Plaintiff,
v.
Rania Alquzah, Ranis Mart of Columbia d/b/a City Gas, Pagan Dhillion, C.K. Acquisitions, LLC d/b/a El Cheapo, Lawton Diamond, Winnsboro Petroleum d/b/a Pops Shell Station, Alhanik Murad, Alhanik, LLC d/b/a Obama Convenience Store, Sukhwinperpal Singh, Cheapway d/b/a El Cheapo, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          Margaret B. Seymour Senior United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff Daniel Woodard (hereinafter “Plaintiff”) brought the underlying action against numerous owners and operators of convenience stores, Defendants Rania Alquzah; Ranis Mart of Columbia d/b/a City Gas; Pagan Dhillion; C.K. Acquisitions, LLC d/b/a El Cheapo; Lawton Diamond; Winnsboro Petroleum d/b/a Pops Shell Station; Alhanik Murad; Alhanik, LLC d/b/a Obama Convenience Store; Sukhwinperpal Singh; and Cheapway d/b/a El Cheapo (hereinafter collectively “Defendants”), alleging that he was denied the use of restroom facilities located on Defendants' premises because of his race as an African American. Plaintiff asserts causes of action for intentional discrimination in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1981 (First Cause of Action); and for a violation of 42 U.S.C. § 2000(a), which prohibits discrimination or segregation in places of public accommodation (Second Cause of Action). This matter is now before the court on Defendants' various motions to dismiss, ECF Nos. 5, 27, 31, 32, and Plaintiff's motion to amend/correct the complaint, ECF No. 39.

         I. RELEVANT FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         On June 7, 2017, Plaintiff, who is a disabled African American citizen, filed the present lawsuit in Richland County Court of Common Pleas, South Carolina. Case No. 2017-CP-03536. Plaintiff alleges that during the month of November 2016, Plaintiff was a customer at Defendants' convenience stores on several occasions to purchase gas. Compl. ¶ 16. During those visits, Plaintiff requested and was denied the use of restroom facilities by Defendants or their employees. Compl. ¶ 17. As a result, Plaintiff conducted a private investigation that disclosed “Defendants allowed white customers to use the restroom facilities when requested on one or more occasions.” Compl. ¶ 18. Plaintiff asserts that the denial was “intentional and purposeful discrimination against the Plaintiff which occurred solely because of Plaintiff's race as an African American.” Compl. ¶ 24. Moreover, Plaintiff asserts that he was denied equal access to public accommodations. Compl. ¶ ¶ 27-28.

         On July 7, 2017, Defendants Lawton Diamond (hereinafter “Diamond”) and Winnsboro Petroleum Company (hereinafter “Winnsboro Petroleum”) removed this action to this court pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331 on the basis of federal question jurisdiction.[1] ECF No. 1. Contemporaneously with the notice of removal, Defendants Diamond and Winnsboro Petroleum filed a motion to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction, insufficient process, insufficient service of process, and failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. ECF No. 5. In their motion, Defendants Diamond and Winnsboro Petroleum assert that they were improperly served with Plaintiff's summons and complaint. Id. at 4. Defendant Diamond claims service was attempted by leaving a copy of the summons and complaint with a store employee who is not authorized to accept service on his behalf. Id. Defendant Diamond further claims he “does not even work at the store where service was attempted.” Id. n. 5. Defendant Winnsboro Petroleum asserts that Plaintiff effectuated service upon a store manager named Deshonne Hall, who is not an authorized registered agent to accept service on behalf of Winnsboro Petroleum. Id. at 4. Therefore, Defendants Diamond and Winnsboro Petroleum contend that this court does not have personal jurisdiction over this case. Id. at 5.

         On July 21, 2017, Plaintiff filed a response to Defendants' Diamond and Winnsboro Petroleum motion to dismiss. ECF No. 9. Plaintiff argues that these “Defendants have not alleged any prejudice from the delay of service.” Id. at 2. Plaintiff further argues that “because the time to serve the Defendants has not expired . . . the court should deny the Defendant's motion to dismiss and allow any alleged defect to be cured before the 90 to 120 days expiration.” Id. at 3. In reply, Defendants Diamond and Winnsboro Petroleum allege an agreement was reached with Plaintiff's counsel. ECF No. 11 at 1. According to the agreement, Plaintiff would file an amended complaint dismissing Defendant Diamond and Defendant Winnsboro would accept service of the amended complaint without conceding that service was improper. ECF No. 11 at 1. However, Defendants Diamond and Winnsboro Petroleum allege this agreement was not confirmed by Plaintiff's counsel until July 5, 2017, and thus, these Defendants filed a motion to dismiss to address the issue. Id. at 2. If Plaintiff serves an amended complaint and complies with the agreement, Defendants Diamond and Winnsboro Petroleum allege the present motion to dismiss will be rendered moot. Id. at 3.

         On August 28, 2017, Defendants Alquzah, Ranis Mart, Murad, Alhanik LLC, Singh, and Cheapway filed virtually identical motions to dismiss for insufficient service of process pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(5).[2] ECF No. 27, 31, 32. These Defendants assert that service was defective, as they were improperly served with Plaintiff's summons and complaint. ECF No. 27 at 1-2, ECF No. 31 at 2, ECF No. 32 at 2. They indicate that Plaintiff did not effectuate service upon the registered agent as listed in the South Carolina Secretary of State records and instead left a copy of the summons and complaint with an employee of the store not authorized to accept service on their behalf. ECF No. 27 at 3, ECF No. 31 at 3, ECF No. 32 at 5-6.

         On September 11, 2017, Plaintiff filed a response in opposition to Defendants Murad and Alhanik, LLC's motion to dismiss.[3] ECF No. 35. Plaintiff argues that these Defendants failed to allege any prejudice from the delay of service. Id. at 2. Plaintiff also contends that Murad and Alhanik, LLC had actual notice of the lawsuit and such notice can remedy any issues resulting from Plaintiff's service of process. Id. at 2. Plaintiff further claims that less than 90 days has transpired since the filing of the lawsuit and therefore Plaintiff can still correct any deficiencies. Id. at 3. Defendants Murad and Alhanik, LLC filed a response on September 15, 2017, alleging that they “cannot assert prejudice arising from improper service in this matter at this point in time.” ECF No. 36 at 1. Defendants Murad and Alhanik, LLC contend they “have conferenced with Plaintiff's counsel on this matter, and believe that in the interests of this case and judicial economy the motions to dismiss in this matter should be withdrawn.” Id. at 2. However, Defendants Murad and Alhanik argue to date Plaintiff has not filed or serve an amended complaint. Id. at 2.

         On October 14, 2017, Plaintiff filed a motion to amend/correct the complaint and attached a proposed amended complaint. ECF No. 39. Plaintiff states that an agreement between one or more opposing counsels was reached, wherein Plaintiff agreed to dismiss Defendants[4] in their individual capacities and proceed against Defendants only as “corporate entities or individuals ‘doing business as' a specific named business.”[5] Id. at 1. Plaintiff also added a new cause of action for disability discrimination pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 12101, et seq. Id. at 2. Plaintiff argues that this new cause of action stems from “the same set of fact or circumstances as the two causes of actions already alleged.” Id.

         On October 25, 2017, Defendants Diamond and Winnsboro Petroleum filed a response in opposition to Plaintiff's motion to amend/correct the complaint. ECF No. 40. Defendants Diamond and Winnsboro Petroleum allege the following: “(1) the proposed amended complaint incorrectly states that Defendant Diamond owns Winnsboro Petroleum, despite the inaccuracy which has been brought to the attention of the plaintiff multiple times; (2) the proposed amended complaint does not reflect the agreement reached among counsel as the plaintiff adds a new cause of action; (3) the parties have engaged in no discovery and, thus, no facts have come to light which would justify the plaintiff asserting a new cause of action sounding in disability discrimination pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 12101.” Id. at 1-2. Defendants Diamond and Winnsboro Petroleum allege “this new theory is inconsistent with the claims in the Plaintiff's original complaint.” Id. at 4. These Defendants oppose Plaintiffs' proposed amended complaint and request that the court deny the motion. Id.

         On October 30, 2017, Defendants Alquzah, Ranis Mart, Murad, Alhanik LLC, Singh, and Cheapway filed responses in opposition to Plaintiff's motion to amend.[6] ECF Nos. 41, 42, 43. These Defendants oppose Plaintiff's proposed amended complaint as it adds a new cause of action. Id. at 1. They contend “there is no evidence of any discrimination based on disability” and argue that “if a factual basis for disability discrimination had existed at the time, Plaintiff would have or should have so pled.”[7] Id. at 2-3. These Defendants respectfully request that the court deny Plaintiff's amendment as “it is frivolous, futile, and/or in bad faith.” Id.

         II. LEGAL STANDARDS

         Fed. R. Civ. P. 15(a)(1) allows for a pleading to be amended once as a matter of course within twenty-one days after service of the pleading, or, if the pleading requires a response, within twenty-one days after service of a responsive pleading. “In all other cases, a party may amend its pleading only with the opposing party's written consent or the court's leave. The court should freely give leave when justice so requires.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 15(a)(2). “[A] district court has discretion to deny a motion to amend a complaint, so long as it does not outright refuse ‘to grant the leave without any justifying reason.'” Equal Rights Ctr. v. Niles Bolton Assoc., 602 F.3d 597, 603 (4th Cir. 2010). “This directive gives effect to the federal policy in favor of resolving cases on their merits instead of disposing of them on technicalities.” Matrix Capital Mgmt. Fund, LP v. BearingPoint, Inc., 576 F.3d 172, 193 (4th Cir. 2009).

         A district court may deny a motion to amend when the amendment would be prejudicial to the opposing party, the moving party has acted in bad faith, or the amendment would be futile. SeeLaber v. Harvey, 438 F.3d 404, 427 (4th Cir. 2006) (citing Johnson v. Oroweat Foods Co., 785 F.2d 503, 509 (4th Cir. 1986)). First, “whether an amendment is prejudicial will often be determined by the nature of the amendment and its timing.” Laber, 438 F.3d at 427. “A common example of a prejudicial amendment is one that “raises a new legal theory that would require the gathering and analysis of facts not already considered by the [defendant and] is offered shortly before or during trial.” Id. Second, “delay alone is an insufficient reason to deny the plaintiff's motion to amend.” Id. ...


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