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Brown v. Schedler

United States District Court, E.D. Louisiana

May 3, 2018

HOWARD ANTHONY BROWN, ET AL., PlaintiffS
v.
TOM SCHEDLER, ET AL., Defendants

         SECTION: “E” (4)

          ORDER AND REASONS

          SUSIE MORGAN UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Before the Court are two motions to dismiss.[1] Defendant Tom Schedler, in his official capacity as Secretary of State of Louisiana, and Defendant Jeff Landry, in his official capacity as Attorney General of Louisiana, move to dismiss the claims of Plaintiffs Howard Anthony Brown and Belden Batiste under Rules 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.[2] Because the motions advance the same arguments, the Court will consider them collectively. The motions are opposed.[3]

         For the reasons that follow, Defendants' motions to dismiss are GRANTED.

         BACKGROUND

         On September 26, 2017, Plaintiffs Howard Anthony Brown and Belden Batiste filed a Complaint against Defendants Tom Schedler, the Secretary of State of Louisiana, and Jeff Landry, the Attorney General of Louisiana.[4] Each Plaintiff alleges he filed a notice of candidacy for New Orleans local office for the October 14, 2017 election.[5] Mr. Brown sought the office of Parish Assessor; Mr. Batiste applied for the City Council seat for District D.[6] Plaintiffs allege that challenges were made to their candidacies on the grounds the Plaintiffs falsely certified their personal tax history. Louisiana Revised Statutes § 18:463(A)(2)(a)(iv) requires:

(2)(a) The notice of candidacy also shall include a certificate, signed by the candidate, certifying all of the following:
. . . (iv) Except for a candidate for United States senator or representative in Congress, that for each of the previous five tax years, he has filed his federal and state income tax returns, has filed for an extension of time for filing either my federal or state income tax return or both, or was not required to file either a federal or state return or both.

         Plaintiffs contested the challenges to their candidacies in Louisiana state court. As to Mr. Brown, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal rendered a decision on July 28, 2017 reversing a district court ruling which would have allowed his candidacy to go forward.[7]Mr. Brown's subsequent writ application to the Louisiana Supreme Court was denied.[8] As to Mr. Batiste, Judge Kern Reese of the Civil District Court for Orleans Parish entered a judgment disqualifying him from the ballot.[9] Mr. Batiste did not appeal this decision.[10]

         Plaintiffs assert the disqualification of their candidacies violated the Voting Rights Act of 1965, [11] Article I, section 10 of the Louisiana Constitution, [12] and Louisiana Revised Statutes § 47:1508.[13] Plaintiffs also contend the state law provisions under which they were disqualified are “bias[ed], ambiguous, discriminatory, and possess a double standard in [their] application.” According to the Complaint and the Amended Complaint, Plaintiffs seek the following relief: (1) a declaratory judgment that Defendants' policies violate Plaintiffs' right to political participation under the Voting Rights Act; (2) an injunction against Defendants to return Plaintiffs' names to the ballot for the October 14, 2017 election (3) a permanent injunction against all Defendants from using “any of the Jim Crow Laws against candidates running for public office”; and (4) compensatory damages in the amount of ten million dollars.[14]

         Defendants Tom Schedler and Jeff Landry now move to dismiss Plaintiffs' claims pursuant to Rules 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.[15]Defendants first argue Plaintiffs' claims should be dismissed for lack of jurisdiction pursuant to Rule 12(b)(1). Defendants argue that Plaintiffs' claims, to the extent they seek to overturn a final state court judgment, are barred by the Rooker-Feldman doctrine. Defendants further argue that Plaintiffs' requested relief is moot, and that Plaintiffs' claims under state law are barred by the Eleventh Amendment to the United States Constitution. Second, Defendants argue Plaintiffs' claims should be dismissed for failure to state a claim pursuant to 12(b)(6). Defendants argue Plaintiffs have failed to state a cause of action under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, and that compensatory damages are not available under the Voting Rights Act.[16]

         LEGAL STANDARDS

         “Federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction; without jurisdiction conferred by statute, they lack the power to adjudicate claims.”[17] A motion to dismiss under Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) challenges a federal court's subject-matter jurisdiction.[18]Under Rule 12(b)(1), “[a] case is properly dismissed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction when the court lacks the statutory or constitutional power to adjudicate the case.”[19] “Lack of subject-matter jurisdiction may be found in the complaint alone, the complaint supplemented by the undisputed facts as evidenced in the record, or the complaint supplemented by the undisputed facts plus the court's resolution of the disputed facts.”[20]“When, as here, grounds for dismissal may exist under both Rule 12(b)(1) and Rule 12(b)(6), the Court should, if necessary, dismiss only under the former without reaching the question of failure to state a claim.”[21]

         Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), a district court may dismiss a complaint, or any part of it, for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted if the plaintiff has not set forth factual allegations in support of his claim that would entitle him to relief.[22] “To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'”[23]“A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.”[24] The court, however, does not accept as true legal conclusions or mere conclusory statements, and “conclusory allegations or legal conclusions masquerading as factual conclusions will not suffice to prevent a motion to dismiss.”[25] “[T]hreadbare recitals of elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements” or “naked assertion[s] devoid of further factual enhancement” are not sufficient.[26]

         In summary, “[f]actual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level.”[27] “[W]here the well-pleaded facts do not permit the court to infer more than the mere possibility of misconduct, the complaint has alleged-but it has not show[n]'-that the pleader is entitled to relief.”[28] “Dismissal is appropriate when the complaint ‘on its face show[s] a bar to relief.'”[29]

         LAW AND ANALYSIS I. Rule 12(b)(1) Motions

         Defendants Schedler and Landry move to dismiss Plaintiffs' claims for injunctive relief pursuant to Rule 12(b)(1) on the grounds that (1) Plaintiffs' claims are barred by the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, (2) Plaintiff's claims are mooted because Plaintiffs' requested remedy is moot, and (3) Plaintiffs' state law claims are barred by sovereign immunity.

         A. Rooker-Feldman

         Under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, a federal court is deprived of jurisdiction in “cases brought by state-court losers complaining of injuries caused by state-court judgments rendered before the district court proceedings commenced and inviting district court review and rejection of those judgments.”[30] “A plaintiff cannot circumvent this jurisdiction by asserting claims not raised in the state court proceedings or claims framed as original claims for relief, ” if such claims are “‘inextricably intertwined' with a state court judgment.”[31] Likewise, “litigants may not obtain review of state court actions by filing complaints about those actions in lower federal courts cast in the form of civil rights suits.”[32] Indeed, the only federal recourse for constitutional questions arising in state court may be found by applying for a writ of certiorari to the United States Supreme Court.[33]

         Plaintiffs ask this Court to overturn the judgments of the Louisiana state courts disqualifying each as a candidate in the October 14, 2017 New Orleans local elections.[34]Plaintiffs complain of injuries caused by state-court judgments, and seek as a remedy “an immediate injunction against Defendants to return Plaintiff[s'] names back on the ballot.”[35] Fifth Circuit is precedent is clear, however, this Court “do[es] not have the power to modify or reverse state court judgments.”[36]

         Further, this Court is without jurisdiction to consider Plaintiffs' Voting Rights Act claim, because Rooker-Feldman also bars claims that are “inextricably intertwined with the state court judgment.”[37] In such a case, the court is “in essence being called upon to review the state-court decision, and the originality of the district court's jurisdiction precludes such a review.”[38] In Liedtke v. State Bar of Texas, the Fifth Circuit held the district court lacked jurisdiction over a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claim arising from a disbarment by the Texas State Bar, as the plaintiff's “request for declaratory and injunctive relief, stripped to its essentials, [was] an attack on the judgment of the state district court.”[39] As a result, plaintiff's sole recourse was with the state appellate courts, and thereafter, with the United States Supreme Court.[40] In this case, Defendant Schedler argues, “the complaint itself shows the interrelation . . . of the damage[s] claim to the state court judgments.”[41] The Court agrees. Plaintiffs' claims for relief, even though framed as a violation of federal law, nevertheless invite this Court to review the state court judgment. Accordingly, Plaintiffs' federal claims are “inextricably intertwined” with the state court judgment, and this Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction over Plaintiffs' claims for injunctive relief.

         B. Mootness

         The Court also lacks jurisdiction to consider Plaintiffs' request for injunctive relief because the claim is moot.[42] “Generally, a request for an injunction is moot “upon the happening of the event sought to be enjoined.”[43] The Fifth Circuit has held in several election-law cases that when the relevant election has passed, claims seeking injunctive relief to return a candidate's name to a ballot, or to prevent the election, are moot.[44] In this case, Plaintiffs seek “an immediate injunction against Defendants to return Plaintiff[s'] names back on the ballot for the October 14, 2017, Local Government Election.”[45] This election has passed. As a result, “claims solely supporting that remedy are moot.”[46]

         Plaintiffs assert in their opposition to Defendant Schedler's motion to dismiss that their requested relief “is not to replace the names for that day in time, ” but “for the names to be replaced for that date as it was supposed to be before the names were removed without cause. In other words, a special Election.”[47]

         Even accepting Plaintiffs' amendment of their claim, “a court will only invalidate an election in exceptional circumstances, usually when there has been egregious defiance of the Voting Rights Act.”[48] Plaintiffs have not made a claim of such “egregious or invidious discrimination” that would make judicial invalidation of the 2017 election appropriate.[49] Accordingly, Plaintiffs' claims for injunctive relief are moot.

         C. Sovereign Immunity

         The Eleventh Amendment prohibits an action by a private individual in federal court against a sovereign state and its agencies and officials unless specifically abrogated by Congress pursuant to its legal authority under Section V of the Fourteenth Amendment or by consent of the state.[50] Although the language of the Eleventh Amendment does not specifically address suits against a state by its own citizens, the Supreme Court has consistently held that “an unconsenting State is immune from suits brought in federal court by her own citizens as well as citizens of other states.[51] Furthermore, the Eleventh Amendment “extends to actions against state agencies or entities that are classified as ‘arms of the state.'”[52] The State of Louisiana has not waived its sovereign immunity under the Eleventh Amendment such that it has consented to be sued in federal court. In fact, Louisiana explicitly maintains its sovereign immunity by statute.[53] As a result, Louisiana agencies or entities acting in their official capacities are immune from suit by Louisiana citizens in federal court.[54]

         In opposition to Defendants' motions, Plaintiffs argue their claim falls into the Ex Parte Young exception to Eleventh Amendment immunity.[55] Pursuant to Ex Parte Young, plaintiffs may raise claims against state officials in their official capacity in order to enjoin enforcement of an unconstitutional state statute.[56] For Ex Parte Young to apply, the “suit must be brought against individual persons in their official capacities as agents of the state and the relief sought must be declaratory or injunctive in nature and prospective in effect.”[57] Further, after the Supreme Court's ruling in Pennhurst State School & Hosp. v. Halderman, plaintiffs may not sue state officials in federal court for violations of state law.[58]

         Plaintiffs seek to enjoin the enforcement of “any of the Jim Crow Laws against candidates running for public office, ”[59] alleging several violations of Louisiana state law. Specifically, Plaintiffs contend Defendants violated Article I, Section 10 of the Louisiana Constitution, which declares “Every citizen of the state, upon reaching eighteen years of age, shall have the right to register and vote, ” and declares that felons are disqualified from holding public office.[60] Plaintiffs also suggest the Defendants violated Louisiana Rev. Stat. § 47:1508, which governs the confidentiality of tax records.[61]

         To the extent Plaintiffs assert an Ex Parte Young claim based on violations of state law, those claims are barred by the Eleventh Amendment.[62] Defendants' 12(b)(1) motions to dismiss are therefore granted.

         II. Rule 12(b)(6) Motions

         A. Voting Rights Act

         Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act prevents certain “covered” jurisdictions from implementing any change to voting practices or procedures unless and until the jurisdiction demonstrates to federal authorities that the change “neither has the purpose nor will have the effect of denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race or color.”[63] This is termed “preclearance.”[64] “Generally, actions by private individuals seeking declaratory and injunctive relief against violations of § 5 must be referred to a three-judge court for the determination of whether the political subdivision has adopted a change covered by § 5 without first obtaining preclearance.”[65] However, if a plaintiff's claims are “wholly insubstantial” or “completely without merit, ” a single judge may dismiss the claims without convening a three-judge court.[66]

         Plaintiffs seek a declaratory judgment that Defendants' “policies and practice”- which the Court interprets to mean the enforcement of La. R.S. 18:463(A)(2), the law under which Plaintiffs' local government candidacies were terminated-violate their rights under the Voting Rights Act.[67] Although the Amended Complaint is unclear on this point, Plaintiffs seem to assert that Louisiana failed to obtain federal preclearance for La. R.S. 18:463(A)(2).[68] Plaintiffs further argue that, even if Louisiana obtained preclearance for La. R.S. 18:463(A)(2), “the law as it was drafted was done in willful defiance of the 1965 Voting Rights Act with an intent to discriminate against certain individuals.”[69]According to Plaintiffs, the state statute “imposes a double standard” by requiring candidates to reveal “confidential and private information” regarding their income in order to run for public office. Plaintiffs assert that, because they had no income to report, the termination of their candidacies based on the failure to disclose their financial information was unlawful.[70]

         Defendants move to dismiss any claims under the Voting Rights Act on the grounds that Plaintiffs have failed to state a cause of action upon which relief can be granted.[71]Defendants argue that the Supreme Court's decision in Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder[72] blocks Plaintiffs' claim under § 5. In that case, the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional § 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act, which established the coverage formula according to which § 5 is enforced.[73] As other courts have noted, Shelby County effectively “immobilized” § 5's preclearance requirement, because, without § 4, there is no way to determine what jurisdictions are covered by § 5.[74]

         Defendants make two arguments. First, Defendants assert La R.S. 18:463(A)(2) was administratively precleared in 2010, the same year it was enacted into law.[75] Second, Defendants argue that Shelby County should be applied retroactively, barring § 5 litigation for state statutes passed prior to the Court's decision. The Court addresses each argument in turn.

         B. Preclearance

         To the extent Plaintiffs challenge whether La. R.S. 18:463(A)(2) met the preclearance requirement, Defendant Landry attached to his motion correspondence demonstrating that preclearance was properly obtained. According to an August 4, 2010 letter from Erin C. Day, Assistant Attorney General of the State of Louisiana, to T. Christian Herren, Chief of the Voting Rights Section of the U.S. Department of Justice, the Louisiana Department of Justice properly submitted the relevant legislation to federal authorities for evaluation.[76] In his subsequent letter in response, Mr. Herren stated the Attorney General “[did] not interpose any objection” to the proposed legislation.[77]

         Accordingly, any argument that Louisiana failed to obtain preclearance for La. R.S. 18:463(A)(2) is without merit.

         C. Retroactivity

         Even if Louisiana failed to obtain preclearance for La. R.S. 18:463(A)(2), however, Defendants argue the rule announced in Shelby County applies retroactively, barring Plaintiffs' claims under § 5 even though the Louisiana statute was enacted into law three years prior to Shelby County.[78]

         Although the Shelby County Court was silent on the question of the decision's retroactive effect, several courts have held that Shelby County applies retroactively, barring § 5 challenges to laws passed when pre-Shelby preclearance requirements were in place.[79] For example, in Thompson v. Attorney General of Mississippi, the Southern District of Mississippi considered a petition for injunctive relief by Rickey Thompson, who sought to have his name returned to the ballot in a judicial election in Lee County, Mississippi.[80] Thompson had been the first African-American elected Justice Court Judge in Lee County, but had been removed from office pursuant to state law § 9-19-7, which made him permanently ineligible to serve as Judge in Mississippi.[81] Thompson asserted the state law violated § 5 of the Voting Rights Act because it had not been precleared by the Department of Justice.[82] The court found that Shelby County barred Thompson's claim, even though the Mississippi state law was passed long before § 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act was ruled unconstitutional, concluding, “the result of Shelby County is that ยง 5 cannot be ...


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