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Wilson v. City of Orangeburg

United States District Court, D. South Carolina

August 7, 2019

Beverley D. Wilson, Plaintiff,
City of Orangeburg, Michael Butler, Liz Keitt-Zimmerman, John Yow, Orangeburg Department of Public Works, Dean Felkel, Russell Strosnider, Mike Adams, Stillinger Body Shop, Inc., Mack Stillinger, Jr., and City of Orangeburg County Council, Defendants.


          Shiva V. Hodges United States Magistrate Judge

         Beverley D. Wilson (“Plaintiff”), proceeding pro se, brings this action against City of Orangeburg (“City”); Michael Butler, mayor of Orangeburg (“Mayor”); Liz Keitt-Zimmerman, mayor pro tempore of Orangeburg (“Mayor Pro Tempore”); John Yow, individually and as city administrator of Orangeburg (“City Administrator”); Orangeburg Department of Public Works (“Public Works Department”); Dean Felkel, as director of the Department of Public Works (“Public Works Director”); Russell Strosnider, individually and as assistant director of the Department of Public Works (“Public Works Assistant Director”); Mike Adams, individually and as chief of the Orangeburg Department of Public Safety (“Public Safety Chief”); Stillinger Body Shop, Inc. (“Body Shop”); Mack Stillinger, Jr., president of Body Shop (“Body Shop President”); and City of Orangeburg County Council (“County Council”) (collectively “Defendants”). Plaintiff alleges civil rights violations and state tort causes of action. Pursuant to the provisions of 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B) and Local Civ. Rule 73.02(B)(2)(e) (D.S.C.), the undersigned is authorized to review such complaints for relief and submit findings and recommendations to the district judge.

         I. Factual Background

         Plaintiff alleges Public Works Assistant Director wrongfully authorized Body Shop to tow her 2004 PT Cruiser from her back yard on July 19, 2016. [ECF No. 1 at 4]. She asserts neither Body Shop nor Public Works Assistant Director will authorize the return of her car, despite her repeated requests. Id. at 6-8. Plaintiff admits Public Works Assistant Director sent her a letter approximately four months prior informing her a city ordinance precluded her from keeping the inoperable and unlicensed car on her property and warning her of potential consequences for failing to take corrective action. Id. at 8-9. These consequences included a ticket, a fine, a summons to appear before a magistrate judge, or the City “do[ing] what is necessary to correct the property.” Id. at 9. She states she petitioned Public Works Department for a financial hardship waiver, but Public Works Department denied her petition. Id. at 9-10. Plaintiff contends the car was not inoperable, but admits it was uninsured and unlicensed. Id. at 10-11.

         Plaintiff describers herself as “of mixed ancestry” and states her immediate neighbors are Caucasian. Id. at 14-15. Plaintiff describes City's history of racial and socio-economic discrimination and asserts other City residents have not had their inoperable or unlicensed cars towed despite not having a waiver. Id. at 15-16.

         Plaintiff asserts violations of her constitutional rights to due process and equal protection, violations of the South Carolina Unfair Trade Practices Act, and causes of action for breach of fiduciary duty, abuse of power, intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress, and replevin. Id. at 17-27. Plaintiff seeks monetary damages and the return of her car, with appropriate restorative repair. Id. at 27-28.

         II. Discussion

         A. Standard of Review

         Plaintiff filed his complaint 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. To protect against possible abuses of this privilege, the statute allows a district court to dismiss a case upon a finding that the action fails to state a claim on which relief may be granted or is frivolous or malicious. 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B)(i), (ii). A finding of frivolity can be made where the complaint lacks an arguable basis either in law or in fact. Denton v. Hernandez, 504 U.S. 25, 31 (1992). A claim based on a meritless legal theory may be dismissed sua sponte under 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B). See Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319, 327 (1989).

         Pro se complaints are held to a less stringent standard than those drafted by attorneys. Gordon v. Leeke, 574 F.2d 1147, 1151 (4th Cir. 1978). A federal court is charged with liberally construing a complaint filed by a pro se litigant to allow the development of a potentially meritorious case. Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007). In evaluating a pro se complaint, the plaintiff's allegations are assumed to be true. Fine v. City of N.Y., 529 F.2d 70, 74 (2d Cir. 1975). 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. Nevertheless, the requirement of liberal construction does not mean that the court can ignore a clear failure in the pleading to allege facts that set forth a claim currently cognizable in a federal district court. Weller v. Dep't of Soc. Servs., 901 F.2d 387, 390-91 (4th Cir. 1990).

         B. Analysis

         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). Accordingly, a federal court is required, sua sponte, to determine if a valid basis for its jurisdiction exists “and to dismiss the action if no such ground appears.” Id. at 352; see also Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(h)(3) (“If the court determines at any time that it lacks subject-matter jurisdiction, the court must dismiss the action.”). Although the absence of subject matter jurisdiction may be raised at any time during the case, determining jurisdiction at the outset of the litigation is the most efficient procedure. Lovern v. Edwards, 190 F.3d 648, 654 (4th Cir. 1999).

         There is no presumption that a federal court has jurisdiction over a case, Pinkley, Inc. v. City of Frederick, MD., 191 F.3d 394, 399 (4th Cir. 1999), and a plaintiff must allege facts essential to show jurisdiction in his pleadings. McNutt v. General Motors Acceptance Corp., 298 U.S. 178, 189-90 (1936); see also Dracos v. Hellenic Lines, Ltd., 762 F.2d 348, 350 (4th Cir. 1985) (“[P]laintiffs must affirmatively plead the jurisdiction of the federal court.”). To this end, Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(1) requires the complaint provide “a short and plain statement of the grounds for the court's jurisdiction[.]” When a complaint fails to include “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, 191 F.3d at 399 (citations omitted). However, if the court, viewing the allegations in the light most favorable to a plaintiff, finds insufficient allegations in the pleadings, the court will lack subject matter jurisdiction. Id.

         The two most commonly recognized and utilized bases for federal court jurisdiction are (1) diversity of citizenship pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1332, and (2) federal question pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331. The allegations contained in the instant complaint do ...

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