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Riley v. Office of Alcohol & Tobacco Control of Louisiana Department of Revenue

United States District Court, E.D. Louisiana

January 11, 2019


         SECTION I

          ORDER & REASONS


         On July 25, 2018, pro se plaintiff Tracy Riley (“Riley”) filed the above-captioned matter against over 100 individuals and entities.[1] On September 12, 2018, she filed an amended complaint, adding numerous defendants to the case.[2] On July 26, 2018, the United States Magistrate Judge granted Riley's motion for leave to proceed in forma pauperis pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915.[3] Riley's amended complaint is unclear, but it arguably asserts claims pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983, 1985, and 1986, Article I §§ 2 and 3 of the Louisiana Constitution, and several additional state law claims.[4]Riley also seeks attorneys' fees pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988.[5]

         A court “shall dismiss” an in forma pauperis case “at any time” if the court determines that the action is frivolous or fails to state a claim on which relief may be granted. 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B). Consequently, a court may raise the defense of limitations sua sponte in a lawsuit filed in forma pauperis under 28 U.S.C. § 1915. Harris v. Hegmann, 198 F.3d 153, 156 (5th Cir. 1999) (citing Gartrell v. Gaylor, 981 F.2d 254, 256 (5th Cir. 1993)); see also Fasola v. Immigration & Naturalization Serv., No. 02-31161, 2003 WL 21016905, at *1 (5th Cir. Apr. 11, 2003). “[W]here it is clear from the face of a complaint filed in forma pauperis that the claims asserted are barred by the applicable statute of limitations, those claims are properly dismissed pursuant to § 1915(d).” Gartrell, 981 F.2d at 256.

         On December 27, 2018, the Court issued an order explaining that plaintiff Tracy Riley's federal law and state tort law claims appear to be barred by the applicable statutes of limitations.[6] Numerous defendants had raised the issue in their motions to dismiss.[7] Although Riley had responded to several of the motions, the Court gave her additional time to submit a memorandum of fact and law addressing whether her federal law and state tort law claims against the defendants are time-barred.[8] On January 10, 2019, she filed her memorandum.[9] After reviewing the complaint, Riley's memorandum, and the applicable law, the Court concludes that Riley's federal law and state tort law claims are time-barred.


         Riley asserts federal law claims under 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983, 1985, and 1986. “Section 1983 provides a private cause of action against those who, under color of law, deprive a citizen of the United States of ‘any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, '” Goodman v. Harris Cty., 571 F.3d 388, 394-95 (5th Cir. 2009) (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 1983), and a § 1985 claim alleges a conspiracy to deprive a person of equal protection of the laws. See 42 U.S.C. § 1985; see also Whitehurst v. Wright, 592 F.2d 834, 840 (5th Cir. 1979) (explaining that the “essence” of a claim under either § 1983 or § 1985 is the deprivation of a person's constitutional rights).[10] Section 1986 “imposes liability for neglect in preventing § 1985 violations.” Doucet v. Wadja, No. 92-4058, 1993 WL 92527, at *4 (E.D. La. Mar. 22, 1993) (Feldman, J.). Accordingly, a “§ 1986 [claim] requires the existence of a valid claim under § 1985.” Bradt v. Smith, 634 F.2d 796, 799 n.3 (5th Cir. Unit A Jan. 1981). Riley also asserts several Louisiana constitutional and tort law claims.

         “The statute of limitations for Section 1983 claims is ‘the forum state's personal-injury limitations period,' which in Louisiana is one year.” Smith v. Reg'l Transit Auth., 827 F.3d 412, 421 (5th Cir. 2016) (quoting Jacobsen v. Osborne, 133 F.3d 315, 319 (5th Cir. 1998)). “In applying the forum state's statute of limitations, the federal court should also give effect to any applicable tolling provisions.” Id. (quoting Gartrell v. Gaylor, 981 F.2d 254, 257 (5th Cir. 1993)). Courts apply the same standard for § 1985 claims. Helton, 832 F.2d at 334; Green v. Grampre, 388 Fed.Appx. 437, 438 (5th Cir. 2010). Section 1986 explicitly provides for a one-year statute of limitations. 42 U.S.C. § 1986 (“[N]o action under the provisions of this section shall be sustained which is not commenced within one year after the cause of action has accrued.”). Accordingly, the limitations period for Riley's federal law claims is one year.

         “Under federal law, a cause of action accrues when the plaintiff knows or has reason to know of the injury which is the basis of the action.” Gartrell, 981 F.2d at 257. “As a result, the limitations period begins ‘when the plaintiff is in possession of the ‘critical facts that he has been hurt and who has inflicted the injury.'” Smith, 827 F.3d at 421 (quoting Gartrell, 981 F.2d at 257); see also Helton v. Clements, 832 F.2d 332, 335 (“[A]ny cause of action against the defendants accrued as soon as plaintiff knew or should have known of the overt acts involved in the alleged conspiracy.”).

         To determine when Riley's federal law claims accrued, the critical inquiry is when Riley knew or had reason to know of the injuries forming the basis of her amended complaint. Knowledge in this context has two components: awareness of the injuries and the connection between the injuries and the defendants' actions. King-White v. Humble Indep. Sch. Dist., 803 F.3d 754, 762 (5th Cir. 2015). “‘[A]wareness' for accrual purposes does not mean actual knowledge; rather, all that must be shown is the existence of ‘circumstances [that] would lead a reasonable person to investigate further.'” Id. (quoting Piotrowski v. City of Houston, 237 F.3d 567, 576 (5th Cir. 2001)). Furthermore, Riley need not have known that a legal cause of action exists for her claims; she only needed to be aware of the facts that support such claims. Id.

         Generally speaking, Riley alleges that dozens of individuals, organizations, and government officials conspired to prevent her from successfully running her business, the Rouge House.[11] In her opposition, Riley explains that “evidence will show the conspiracies that ultimately lead to the Plaintiff's business, The Rouge House LLC['s] eviction from the business'[s] French Quarter location.”[12] She alleges that the eviction was the result of “the denial of the essential revenue generating Louisiana State Alcohol permit application, ” which “creat[ed] [Riley's] financial inability to pay for the property . . . [, ] [t]hereby achieving the Defendants' goal to shut [her] business down and cause [her] to leave the neighborhood and district.”[13]This is the core of Riley's amended complaint.

         More specifically, Riley alleges that, in June 2013, she entered into a lease agreement so that she could open the Rouge House.[14] Over the course of several months, starting in July 2013, Riley alleges that she was wrongly accused of violating local ordinances and the conditions of certain permits and that, as a result of the accusations, she was twice denied an alcohol permit.[15] She also alleges that, because of the false allegations made against her, Riley's landlords refused to allow her to operate under their alcohol permit.[16] Riley contends that her inability to obtain a permit, or to use her landlords' permit, “interfered with her business activities” in such a way that she was “unable to pay rent.”[17] According to Riley, “an alcohol permit is an important factor for a successful business operation” in her industry.[18]

         Riley's allegations of obstructionist conduct and unsubstantiated accusations extend into August 2013, during which time she alleges that organizations in the French Quarter launched a racially discriminatory campaign to prevent her from obtaining an alcohol permit and operating the Rouge House.[19] Many of the allegations target the Louisiana Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control (the “ATC”) and its handling of her permit applications.[20] According to Riley, the ATC made an effort to “catch” her purported wrongdoings-which she alleges were manufactured.[21]

         At a hearing held to afford Riley an opportunity to provide additional information in support of her applications, ATC agents and their associates allegedly yelled at Riley, directed accusations at her, and accused her of having a behavior disorder.[22] The amended complaint also alleges that the ATC conducted numerous inspections of the Rouge House, “for no cause, ” and issued Riley several unwarranted citations.[23] Riley's allegations span several years. Most of the facts comprising the allegations took place in mid to late-2013 and early 2014. However, the latest date in the amended complaint that relates to her federal law claims is January 14, 2014- the date on which Riley received notice of the ATC's denial of her application for an alcohol permit, and four years prior to Riley filing the present lawsuit.[24] In fact, Riley also alleges that she was ultimately evicted from the building in which she was operating the Rouge House in January 2014.[25]

         Riley has not argued that she only learned about the facts underlying her claims years after they happened, and nothing in the amended complaint suggests that it was not until after January 2014 that Riley become aware that her rights under federal law were allegedly being violated. Furthermore, nothing in the amended complaint indicates that Riley did not understand the connection between the harm she allegedly suffered and the defendants' alleged conduct. Riley either knew or should have known of the injuries that form the basis of her federal law claims by no later than January 2014, and her federal law claims are time-barred by more than three years.

         In her memorandum, Riley argues that “[t]he Defendants' actions and publications against [her] consecutively occurred during the years 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2018.”[26] According to Riley, “[a]n inquiry into whether an alleged series of incidents constitutes a ‘continuing violation' and thus exempts [her] claims from the normal time limitations” is a fact-specific inquiry.[27] The Court liberally construes Riley's argument to assert the continuing tort theory.

         The continuing tort doctrine acts as an exception to the one-year prescriptive period under Louisiana law. “For the purpose of determining when prescription starts to run, Louisiana distinguishes between injuries resulting from continuous operating causes and those that result from discontinuous operating causes.” Young v. United States, 727 F.3d 444, 448 (5th Cir. 2013).

When the operating cause of the injury is continuous, giving rise to successive damages, prescription begins to run from the day the damage was completed and the owner acquired, or should have acquired, knowledge of the damage. . . . When the operating cause of the injury is discontinuous, there is a multiplicity of causes of action and of corresponding prescriptive periods.

Hogg v. Chevron USA, Inc., No. 09-2632, p. 16 (La. 7/6/10); 45 So.3d 991, 1003 (citation omitted). When the face of the complaint establishes that a plaintiff's claims have prescribed, and she attempts to avail herself of the continuing tort theory, the plaintiff bears the burden of establishing its applicability. In re Med. Review Panel for Maria Moses, 00-2643, p. 6 (La. 5/21/01); 788 So.2d 1173, 1177.

         Riley offers several facts in support of this argument, none of which are availing. First, she notes that the defendants' “defamatory statements have been published and republished each year through 2017.”[28] Disputing one defendant's contention that the bulk of the alleged conduct underlying her claims occurred in 2013, she argues that “the harm [she] suffers is rooted in the Defendants' defaming characterization of Plaintiff and her business.”[29] However, although ...

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