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Smith v. Aiken County Government

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

April 4, 2018

Samuel Leroy Smith, Plaintiff,
Aiken County Government, County Administrator Clay Killian, County Council, Nationwide Mutual Insurance Company, Defendants.


          Kevin F. McDonald United States Magistrate Judge.

         The plaintiff, proceeding pro se, brings this civil action asserting a claim alleging gross negligence. The plaintiff is a non-prisoner, and he files this action in forma pauperis under 28 U.S.C. § 1915. Pursuant to the provisions of 28 U.S.C. §636(b), and Local Civil Rule 73.02(B)(2)(e) (D.S.C.), the undersigned is authorized to review the complaint for relief and submit findings and recommendations to the District Court. The complaint is subject to summary dismissal.


         The plaintiff alleges that he suffered injuries while loading household waste into a compactor at the landfill (doc. 1 at 3). He states that the incident occurred when he slipped and fell due to water and oil that had pooled up near the compactor, which he attributes to poor grounds keeping (id.). With his complaint he files a print-out of his auto policy declarations from Nationwide Insurance, along with correspondence showing that his insurance claim was denied. (doc. 1-1, pp. 1-4). He also provides copies of medical records, along with a statement that he is suing for $20, 000, 000.00 (doc. 1-1 through 3).


         The plaintiff filed this action pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915, the in forma pauperis statute. This statute authorizes the District Court to dismiss a case if it is satisfied that the action “fails to state a claim on which relief may be granted, ” is “frivolous or malicious, ” or “seeks monetary relief against a defendant who is immune from such relief.” 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B). As a pro se litigant, the plaintiff's pleadings are accorded liberal construction and held to a less stringent standard than formal pleadings drafted by attorneys. See Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007) (per curiam). However, even under this less stringent standard, the pro se pleading remains subject to summary dismissal. The mandated liberal construction afforded to pro se pleadings means that if the court can reasonably read the pleadings to state a valid claim on which the plaintiff could prevail, it should do so, but a district court may not rewrite a petition to include claims that were never presented, Barnett v. Hargett, 174 F.3d 1128, 1133 (10th Cir. 1999), or construct a plaintiff's legal arguments for him, Small v. Endicott, 998 F.2d 411, 417-18 (7th Cir. 1993), or “conjure up questions never squarely presented” to the court, Beaudett v. City of Hampton, 775 F.2d 1274, 1278 (4th Cir. 1985). 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).



         Federal courts are of limited jurisdiction, “constrained to exercise only the authority conferred by Article III of the Constitution and affirmatively granted by federal statute.” In re Bulldog Trucking, Inc., 147 F.3d 347, 352 (4th Cir. 1998); see also Nat'l Fed. of Indep. Bus. v. Sebelius, 132 S.Ct. 2566, 2576 (2012) (explaining that the federal government possesses only limited powers). Because federal courts have limited subject matter jurisdiction, there is no presumption that the Court has jurisdiction. Pinkley, Inc. v. City of Frederick, MD., 191 F.3d 394, 399 (4th Cir. 1999). “[T]he facts providing the court jurisdiction must be affirmatively alleged in the complaint.” Pinkley, Inc., 191 F.3d at 399. To this end, Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a)(1) requires that the complaint provide “a short and plain statement of the grounds for the court's jurisdiction[.]” If, however, the complaint does not contain “an affirmative pleading of a jurisdictional basis[, ] a federal court may find that it has jurisdiction if the facts supporting jurisdiction have been clearly pleaded.” Pinkley, Inc., 191 F.3d at 399.

         If a plaintiff's complaint raises a federal question, then this Court may have subject matter jurisdiction over the action pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331. A federal question relates to an action “arising under the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States.” In re Blackwater Sec. Consulting, LLC, 460 F.3d 576, 584 (4th Cir. 2006) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted); see also Holloway v. Pagan River Dockside Seafood, Inc., 669 F.3d 448, 453 (4th Cir. 2012) (“[S]ubject matter jurisdiction relates to a federal court's power to hear a case . . . and that power is generally conferred by the basic statutory grants of subject matter jurisdiction.”). Here, liberally construing the complaint, this court does not glean any allegation of a violation of federal law. Therefore, the court does not have jurisdiction over this action pursuant to a question of federal law.

         A plaintiff may file a state law claim (like the gross negligence claim here) in a federal court under the diversity statute, 28 U.S.C. § 1332, if that statute's requirements are satisfied. See Cent. W.Va. Energy Co. v. Mountain State Carbon, LLC, 636 F.3d 101, 103 (4th Cir. 2011). With the exception of certain class actions, the diversity statute requires complete diversity of parties and an amount in controversy in excess of $75, 000. See id.; 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a). Complete diversity of parties in a case means that the citizenship of every plaintiff must be different from the citizenship of every defendant. Cent. W.Va. Energy Co., 636 F.3d at 103. Here, the plaintiff alleges that he is a resident of South Carolina (doc. 1 at 1), and that the defendants Aiken County Government, County Administrator Clay Killian, and County Council are also residents of South Carolina (id.), while Nationwide Mutual Insurance Company is a resident of Iowa. Because the plaintiff and some of the defendants are South Carolina residents, complete diversity is lacking, and this court does not have jurisdiction to hear the plaintiff's state law claim of gross negligence. Moreover, to the extent the plaintiff attempts to make a contract claim against Nationwide, the same rationale precludes jurisdiction in this court.


         Accordingly, it is recommended that the District Court dismiss this action without prejudice and without issuance and service of process. See Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319, 324-25 (1989); Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519 (1972). The plaintiff's attention is directed to the important notice on the next page.

         Notice of Right to File Objections to Report ...

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