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Harrison v. Crick

United States District Court, E.D. Kentucky, Northern Division

January 6, 2020

JAMES HARRISON, Plaintiff,
v.
LISA CRICK, et al., Defendants.

          OPINION & ORDER

          HENRY R. WILHOLT, JR., UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This matter is before the Court to review inmate James Harrison's amended complaint.[1] [D. E. Nos. 20, 21].[2] Because Harrison has substantially disregarded the Court's prior guidance regarding the deficiencies in his original complaint [see D. E. No. 16], the Court will dismiss it for failure to comply with an Order of the Court and for the reasons set forth below.

         BACKGROUND

         Harrison filed his original complaint, spanning 60 pages and naming 132 defendants, in the United States District Court for the Western District of Kentucky. Harrison v. Crick, No. 5:19-CV-75-TBR (W.D. Ky. 2019). [D. E. No. 1] The Western District later severed all of the claims asserted against defendants residing in this district on grounds of improper joinder and improper venue and transferred them to this Court. [D. E. Nos. 12, 17][3]

         This Court then entered an Order advising Harrison of numerous deficiencies with his complaint, including: (1) the misjoinder of claims against 95 defendants working at four different institutions for events occurring at different places and times; (2) the failure to comply with Federal Rule 8's requirement that claims be set forth in a manner that is "short and plain"; (3) the assertion of claims barred by the statute of limitations; (4) the failure to plead conspiracy with particularity; and (5) the effect of Harrison's prior assertion of these claims in a dozen prior state cases, including under principles of preclusion or abstention.[4] The Court therefore ordered Harrison to file a new, amended complaint fixing these problems. In doing so, it specifically ordered him to "use a separate numbered paragraph for each named defendant, and in that paragraph set forth clearly and succinctly the factual and legal basis for the claim against him or her." Finally, the Court cautioned Harrison that his complaint would be dismissed without prejudice if he failed to comply. [D. E. No. 16] Having thoroughly reviewed Harrison's amended complaint, it must be dismissed for several reasons.

         FAILURE TO ADEQUATELY PLEAD CLAIMS

         Harrison did not heed the Court's directions in his "amended/supplemental complaint." Harrison's amended complaint spans 23 pages and names 52 defendants[5], asserting claims from events occurring at several different prisons over the course of five years. [D. E. No. 20 at 3-6] It also sweeps with a broad brush, describing the nature of his claims only in conclusory terms and omitting any explanation of the factual basis for those claims save for a handful of instances. [D. E. No. 20 at 7-23]

         As the Court previously noted, Rule 8 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure requires a plaintiff to set forth his claim against each defendant in a manner that is sufficiently clear and concise in order to permit the defendant to understand what he or she allegedly did that gave rise to the plaintiffs claim, as well as the nature of the right the plaintiff contends was violated. Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007) ("a plaintiffs obligation to provide the 'grounds' of his 'entitle[ment] to relief requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of a cause of action's elements will not do."). That threshold is low, especially for a pro se plaintiff, Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, 520 (1972), but it isn't nonexistent. Laster v. Pramstaller, No. 08-CV-10898, 2008 WL 1901250, at *2 (E.D. Mich. April 25, 2008) ("Neither the Court nor Defendants are obligated to search through the Complaint and its voluminous exhibits in order to glean a clear and succinct statement of each claim for relief. It is Plaintiffs' responsibility to edit and organize their claims and supporting allegations into a manageable format.").

         In his original complaint, Harrison asserted all of his claims against all of the defendants without any such specification. [D. E. No. 1-1 at 41-56] The amended complaint identifies the defendants in separate paragraphs, but with only a few exceptions, it fails to supply the facts giving rise to the claims against them, a requirement clearly delineated in the Court's prior Order.[6] Harrison's disregard of the Court's prior Order is by itself sufficient ground to dismiss the complaint without prejudice. Schafer v. City of Defiance Police Dept., 529 F.3d 731, 736 (6th Cir. 2008) ("Rule 41(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure confers on district courts the authority to dismiss an action for failure of a plaintiff to prosecute the claim or to comply with the Rules or any order of the court.").

         Even without prior direction from the Court, any court is empowered to dismiss without prejudice an excessively wordy or confusing complaint because such complaints "make[] it difficult for the defendant to file a responsive pleading and make[] it difficult for the trial court to conduct orderly litigation." Vicom, Inc. v. Harbridge Merchant Servs., Inc., 20 F.3d 771, 775-76 (7th Cir. 1994) (holding that 199-page, 385-paragraph complaint "violated the letter and spirit of Rule 8(a)"); see also I.M. Hofmann v. Fermilab NAL/URA, 205 F.Supp.2d 900, 902 (N.D. Ill. 2002) (dismissing plaintiffs rambling 113-page complaint for violating Rule 8(a)). In most instances Harrison asserts only a legal claim accompanied by only an incomplete or incomprehensible factual reference.[7] But a court is not obligated to accept a legal claim masquerading as a factual allegation. Papasan v. Allain, 478 U.S. 265, 286 (1986). Because "the less stringent standard for pro se plaintiffs does not compel the courts to conjure up unpleaded facts to support conclusory allegations," Kamppi v. Ghee, 208 F.3d 213 (table), 2000 WL 303018, at *1 (6th Cir. May 14, 2000), such claim-based pleading fails to satisfy Rule 8(a). Grinter v. Knight, 532 F.3d 567, 577 (6th Cir. 2008) ("More than bare assertions of legal conclusions is ordinarily required to satisfy federal notice pleading requirements."). Applying these principles paragraph-by-paragraph to Harrison's complaint, the Court finds that the plaintiffs allegations against nearly all of the defendants are insufficient under Rule 8 and warrant dismissal without prejudice.[8]

         IMPROPER JOINDER AND CONSPIRACY

         Second, the Court previously noted that Harrison's claims against over fifty defendants are not properly joined in one action because they do not arise out of the same transaction or occurrence or series thereof. Instead, Harrison's pleading complains of different events involving different defendants at separate places and times. Such claims are not properly joined. Wheeler v. Wexford Health Sources, Inc., 689 F.3d 680, 683 (7th Cir. 2012) ("a plaintiff may put in one complaint every claim of any kind against a single defendant, per Rule 18(a), but a complaint may present claim # 1 against Defendant A, and claim # 2 against Defendant B, only if both claims arise 'out of the same transaction, occurrence, or series of transactions or occurrences.' Rule 20(a)(1)(A)."). The fact that Harrison is a prisoner is not a sound reason to disregard or weaken this requirement. George v. Smith, 507 F.3d 605, 607 (7th Cir. 2007) ("A buckshot complaint that would be rejected if filed by a free person - say, a suit complaining that A defrauded the plaintiff, B defamed him, C punched him, D failed to pay a debt, and E infringed his copyright, all in different transactions - should be rejected if filed by a prisoner.").

         Harrison attempts to tie all of his disparate claims together by asserting that all of the defendants acted as part of a conspiracy by more than fifty defendants at four different locations to deprive him of his rights. [D. E. No. 20 at 3] But Harrison offers no factual support at all for this allegation, instead liberally sprinkling his complaint with unexplained assertions that various defendants acted "in concert" or as part of an undefined "campaign" to violate his rights. A civil conspiracy claim under § 1983 requires more: it requires "an agreement between two or more persons to injure another by unlawful action." Memphis, Tennessee Area Local, Am. Postal Workers Union, AFL-CIO v. City of Memphis, 361 F.3d 898, 905 (6th Cir. 2004). At the pleading stage, the complaint must plead enough facts to support a reasonable inference "that there was a single plan, that the alleged coconspirator shared in the general conspiratorial objective, and that an overt act was committed in furtherance of the conspiracy that caused injury to the complainant." Boxill v. O'Grady, 935 F.3d 510, 519 (6th Cir. 2019). Harrison pleads no facts at all to support his claim that each defendant was actively engaged in a conspiracy against him, and thus fails to adequately state any claim of conspiracy against the defendants. Twombly, 550 U.S. at 566 (recognizing that allegations of conspiracy must be supported by allegations of fact that support a "plausible suggestion of conspiracy"); Robertson v. Lucas, 753 F.3d 606, 622 (6th Cir. 2014) (indicating that '"[i]t is well-settled that conspiracy claims must be pled with some degree of specificity and that vague and conclusory allegations unsupported by material facts will not be sufficient to state such a claim under § 1983."') (quoting Gutierrez v. Lynch, 826 F.2d 1534, 1538 (6th Cir. 1987)). The Court therefore finds that Plaintiffs conspiracy claim does not survive initial review, and that his various claims are not properly joined in one complaint.

         Of course, improper joinder is a basis to drop improperly-joined defendants or sever claims against them, not dismiss the case. Cf. Roberts v. Doe, 2017 WL 3224655, at *2 (6th Cir. Feb. 28, 2017). Here, however, severing defendants and claims into one or more new civil cases would not only be administratively burdensome, but it would essentially doom the severed claims. Harrison is now subject to § 1915(g)'s three-strikes bar in light of the Western District's recent dismissal of his complaint in that Court, see [D. E. No. 16 at 5-6 and note 3, supra], and he is almost certainly unable to be able to pay the entire filing fee up front for each new case. The Court therefore proceeds to further review of Harrison's claims.

         STATUTE ...


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