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Hoffman v. Charter Communications

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

May 23, 2018

Heather C. Hoffman, Plaintiff,
v.
Charter Communications, Defendant.

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

          MARY GORDON BAKER, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Heather Hoffman has filed this civil action under the South Carolina Unfair Trade Practices Act (“SCUPTA”), challenging her cable bills from Charter Communications. Plaintiff is a nonprisoner litigant proceeding pro se and in forma pauperis (“IFP”). Pursuant to the provisions of 28 U.S.C. §636(b)(1), and Local Rule 73.02(B)(2), the Magistrate Judge is authorized to review the complaint and to submit findings and recommendations to the District Judge. After careful review, the Magistrate Judge recommends that the Complaint be dismissed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, without issuance and service of process, for the following reasons:

         I. The Complaint's Allegations

         On April 26, 2018, Plaintiff filed the present Complaint in this federal court, asserting that the Defendant allegedly violated several regulations of the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”), and therefore, committed an unfair trade practice under state law. (DE# 1, Complaint). She indicates in her Complaint that she is proceeding under “federal question” jurisdiction. (Id. at 3, ¶ II, “Basis for Jurisdiction”).[1] She alleges that she purchased cable television and internet service from “Time Warner Cable/Spectrum/Charter Communications” beginning May 2014 to the present. (Id. at 7, ¶ 1). Plaintiff sent a letter to the Clerk of Court to clarify that she is only suing Charter Communications as a defendant. (DE# 15, Letter received 05/10/2018, captioned “Clarification of Defendant(s)”). In her Complaint, Plaintiff alleges that Charter Communications “has engaged in deceptive, unlawful and fraudulent billing practices and concealment of said unlawful billing practices through omission and/or silence in violation of FCC federal regulations including 47 C.F.R. § 76.1619(a)(b) and 47 C.F.R. § 76.1603(B)(C).” (Id. at 8, ¶ 9).

         In her Complaint, Plaintiff states that she “brings this action pursuant to the South Carolina Unfair Trade Practices Act …. to remedy prior and ongoing unfair, deceptive, fraudulent and unlawful billing practices.” (DE# 1, citing S.C. Code § 39-5-20(a)). Plaintiff sets forth a lengthy account of her various billing disputes with this cable carrier. (Id. at 8, ¶ 11, indicating she “filed a verbal complaint with a customer service representative”). She questions several billing increases (in the amount of $5.00 and $10.00) over the past few years and contends that such increases were “non-compliant” with FCC regulations. (Id. at 8, ¶¶ 11-12). She points to the following language of 47 C.F.R. § 76.1603 (b)(c): “Customers will be notified of any changes in rates, programming services or channel positions as soon as possible in writing. Notice must be given to subscribers a minimum of 30 days in advance of such changes.” (Id. at 9, ¶ 12). Plaintiff alleges that she did not receive a thirty (30) day notification from the Defendant. (Id. at 9).

         Plaintiff asserts that she was on a standard rate, not a promotional rate. (Id. at 9, ¶¶ 13-15). According to Plaintiff, the regulations specify that “bills must be clear, concise and understandable.” (Id. at 9, ¶ 16). She claims that Charter Communications “deliberately lied” about the reason for her rate increase. (Id.). She also alleges that Charter Communications did not give her an explanation for the rate increase. (Id. at 10, ¶¶ 18-19). Plaintiff then presents a long list of her contacts (i.e., emails, calls, letters, and numerous “rebuttal letters”) with the cable carrier (and the FCC) about her cable bills, and any responses she received. (Id. at 10-17, ¶¶ 20-64). According to Plaintiff, this shows a “pattern and practice of unlawful, deceptive and unfair acts and business practices by Charter Communications … in continuing violation of S.C. Code Ann. § 39-5-20(a).” (Id. at 17, ¶ 69).

         In her Complaint, Plaintiff alleges that Charter Communications violated certain FCC regulations and asserts that this constitutes a violation of South Carolina state law (SCUPTA). (DE#1 at 17, ¶¶ 70, 72-74).[2] Plaintiff complains (verbatim) that: “in remaining silent, management and/or supervisory staff and/or corporate has refused to respond noncompliant (sic) to 47 C.F.R. § 76.1919(b) and/or take corrective action thereby acting in continuing violation of S.C. Code Ann. § 39-5-20(a).” (Id., ¶ 74).

         For relief, Plaintiff demands an injunction and/or a “cease and desist order” enjoining Charter Communications from engaging in practices that violate SCUPTA and FCC regulations. (DE#1 at 18, ¶ 76). She points to the treble damages provision of SCUPTA. (Id., ¶ 77). She says her damages are $322.67, and therefore she wants treble damages in the amount of $968.01. (Id., ¶ 78).

         II. Liberal Construction

         Pro se pleadings are liberally construed and are held to a less stringent standard than formal pleadings drafted by attorneys. Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007) (per curiam). However, “[t]he ‘special judicial solicitude' with which a district court should view ... pro se complaints does not transform the court into an advocate. United States v. Wilson, 699 F.3d 789, 797 (4th Cir. 2012), cert. denied, 133 S.Ct. 2401 (2013). Only those questions which are squarely presented to a court may properly be addressed. Weller v. Dept. of Soc. Servs. for City of Baltimore, 901 F.2d 387, 391 (4th Cir. 1990). Giving “liberal construction” does not mean that the Court can ignore a pro se plaintiff's clear failure to allege facts that set forth a cognizable claim. “Principles requiring generous construction of pro se complaints ... [do] not require ... courts to conjure up questions never squarely presented to them.” Beaudett v. City of Hampton, 775 F.2d 1274, 1278 (4th Cir. 1985) cert. denied, 475 U.S. 1088 (1986).

         III. Discussion

         Plaintiff's Complaint asserts a cause of action under South Carolina state law (“SCUPTA”). SCUPTA provides that“[u]nfair methods of competition and unfair or deceptive acts or practices in the conduct of any trade or commerce are hereby declared unlawful.” S.C. Code § 39-5-20(a). Plaintiff alleges a cause of action under SCUPTA based on the Defendant's alleged violation of federal regulations with respect to Plaintiff's personal cable bill. Plaintiff invokes FCC regulations as one element of her state-law unfair trade practices claim under state law. Plaintiff's Complaint seeks to proceed in federal court under “federal question jurisdiction.”

         A. Federal Question Jurisdiction

         Federal courts are courts 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). A federal court may sua sponte determine if a valid basis for its jurisdiction exists, and must “dismiss the action if no such ground appears.” Id. at 352. Rule 12(h)(3) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides that “[i]f the court determines at any time that it lacks subject-matter jurisdiction, the court must dismiss the action.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(h)(3). A federal court possesses the inherent authority to ensure that federal jurisdiction exists for a case before it. See Carter v. Ervin, No. 0:14-cv-00865-TLW-PJG, 2014 WL 2468351, *3 (D.S.C. June 2, 2014), appeal dism'd, 585 Fed.Appx. 98 (4th Cir. 2014); Davis v. Wilson, No. ...


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