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Ansell v. United States

September 4, 2007

SUSAN J. ANSELL, PLAINTIFF,
v.
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Terrence F. McVerry United States District Court Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Before the Court for consideration is DEFENDANT'S MOTION TO DISMISS (Document No. 26). The United States has filed a brief in support. Plaintiff Susan Ansell has filed a response (Document No. 28). The motion is ripe for decision.

Standard of Review

When considering a motion to dismiss, the court accepts as true all well-pleaded allegations of fact. See Albright v. Oliver, 510 U.S. 266, 267 (1994). Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a)(2) provides that a complaint need only offer "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief" enough to "give the defendant fair notice of what the plaintiff's claim is and the grounds upon which it rests." See Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). This is a minimum notice pleading standard "which relies on liberal discovery rules and summary judgment motions to ... dispose of unmeritorious claims." Swierkiewicz v. Sorema N.A., 534 U.S. 506, 513-14 (2002). Claims lacking merit may be dealt with through summary judgment pursuant to Rule 56. Id. If a defendant feels that a pleading fails to provide sufficient notice, he or she may move for a more definite statement pursuant to Rule 12(e) before fashioning a response. Id.

However, in Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 127 S.Ct. 1955 (2007), the United States Supreme Court recently issued a decision which may represent a sweeping change in the pleading standard applicable to complaints filed in federal court. At a minimum, as all nine justices agreed, the oft-quoted standard that a complaint may not be dismissed "unless it appears beyond doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of his claim which would entitle him to relief" has been retired and "is best forgotten." Id. at 1968. The Supreme Court explained that a complaint must allege enough "facts" to show that a claim is "plausible" and not merely conceivable. Indeed, the Twombly Court made a distinction between facts that are merely "consistent" with wrongful conduct and facts that would be "suggestive" enough to render the alleged conduct plausible. The Supreme Court also emphasized the need for district courts to prevent unjustified litigation expenses resulting from claims that are "just shy of a plausible entitlement." Id. at 1967, 1975.

Factual and Procedural History

Plaintiff Susan Ansell resides with her husband Larry on a farm in Scottdale, Pennsylvania. Plaintiff alleges that the Ansells first borrowed operating money from the Farm Service Agency (FSA) of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) in 1984, to refinance an existing Farm Credit loan and to refinance a farm ownership loan. Michael Jankovic, a loan officer for the FSA, allegedly lied in 1986 by telling the Ansells that no Spring Operating Loans existed. In addition, Jankovic refinanced the Ansells' loans multiple times, the latest in 1994, improperly compounding their debt. Jankovic also allegedly misapplied payments, took excessively long to approve loans, and improperly denied a loan. As a result, in order to plant crops, the Ansells were forced to borrow money at 18-22% interest rather than the 5% rate available through the FSA. Eventually, facing foreclosure, the Ansells were forced to apply for and enter into the Debt for Nature program. They are able to stay on their farm property but are not allowed to use it for farm purposes for 50 years.

On May 17, 2005, Plaintiff filed a hand-written pro se complaint in this Court against "Michael Jankovic Farm Service Agency." She seeks monetary damages and asks that the contract for the Debt for Nature program be accelerated to expire this year, such that the Ansells may farm their land. Because Michael Jankovic was acting within his official government capacity, the United States was substituted as the defendant. The Court interpreted the complaint as asserting a tort claim because Attachment #1 to the Complaint is a letter from Kenneth Cohen which denied an administrative claim filed by Plaintiff with the FSA under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA). The United States filed a motion to dismiss the complaint. On March 8, 2007, the Court granted the motion on the ground that a tort claim was untimely. However, the Court granted Plaintiff an opportunity to file an amended complaint.

On March 30, 2007, the Court received an undated letter from Plaintiff via certified mail (the "March 30, 2007 Letter").*fn1 The March 30, 2007 Letter is "organized chronologically to show continuous pro se commitment to resolve our farm loan complaint from 1994 until the tort claim was filed in 2003." Plaintiff asserts that she followed every available avenue in the FSA chain of command and contends that she can establish "[Breach] of Contract in loan servicing." The March 30, 2007 Letter explains that the government exceeded the applicable 15-day and 60-day time limits for making decisions on numerous occasions "from 1984 through 1994"; that Plaintiff received an apology for the poor service from Lou Anne Kling, Acting Deputy Administrator for Farm Credit Programs, on May 8, 1995; and that Amos Morrow and James Bullard verified that Jankovic committed errors in their separate investigations. The March 30, 2007 Letter states that Ansell lost count of how many lawyers she asked to help her, and that "none would commit to a battle with the government." Attached is a letter from the Ansells to an attorney dated October 20, 1996, stating that they "have decided to pursue our dilemma as suggested by the FSA office in Harrisburg by filing a lawsuit." The March 30 Letter further asserts: "James Root in Washington, D.C. and Charlie Marshall in Harrisburg told me to file a tort claim" but explains that they did not file a tort [claim] until all other avenues were exhausted. Ms. Ansell justifies the eight-year gap from 1995 to 2003 due to the files being lost in the Kittanning office, shuffled in Civil Rights, delayed for years in FOIA and sent to the wrong office in Washington, D.C. She asserts that her complaint was continuous, but the branches could not decide who should handle it and it fell into a "black hole."

The documents attached by Ms. Ansell to this March 30, 2007 Letter have also been scrutinized by the Court. Notably, the affidavit of Cheryl Cook, formerly State Director Farmers Home Administration, describes how Mike Jankovic's incompetence and untruthfulness has harmed the Ansells. On April 30, 1997, Jim Root of FSA prepared a memo of his conversation with Ms. Ansell, in which he recommended three options: (1) a tort claim; (2) a lawsuit; or (3) bankruptcy, and noted that these options were all unacceptable to the Ansells. A letter on Department of Agriculture letterhead, stamped January 27, 1998, explains that "the case has been closed from a civil rights standpoint and is being considered as a program complaint." On November 8, 2000, a USDA official prepared a memo stating that Ansell was eligible for a hearing before an ALJ and that her case is "considered active until the ALJ issues a decision." On February 6, 2002, Ansell sent an email in which she requested a "waiver" for her long-standing FSA complaint.

On May 9, 2007, Ms. Ansell submitted another letter (the "May 9, 2007 Letter") addressed to the Court, along with several attached exhibits. Although the form of the document is not a proper pleading, the Court has designated this letter from a pro se plaintiff as an "Amended Complaint." (Document No. 23). The May 9, 2007 Letter explains that Plaintiff seeks to assert a claim for breach of contract and refers back to the contentions made in the March 30, 2007 Letter. The May 9, 2007 Letter asserts that any government action that impacts the special relationship of a family farm violates the duty of good faith and commits a breach of contract. Attached are multiple samples of year-end loan statements, taken from the investigation file in 1998. Plaintiff alleges that loan payments were not properly applied and that rescheduling covered up the government's lending errors. As relevant to the timeframe, the May 9, 2007 Letter states:

This pattern of unfair dealing changed abruptly when we filed a complaint in 1994 and Cheryl Cook initiated a federal investigation which uncovered the loan damages done to all the farmers with FSA loans in Westmoreland County.

Afterwards, our loan portfolio was moved to Kittanning and then Somerset County where Rich Lehman properly applied loan payments.

The May 9, 2007 Letter explains that the government has abused the Ansells' trust and fraudulently abused its authority. In addition to a breach of contract claim, the May 9, 2007 Letter states that "other contract related cases may apply." In particular, Plaintiff states that a Bivens Claim may apply because Cheryl Cook, an official who "tried to do something about it" was transferred. The May 9, 2007 Letter asserts that the statute of limitations did not expire because the complaint was continuously dragging on, records were withheld, discovery was blocked, a "statute of limitations waiver" was obtained, the government lost their claim, and it took two years for an official to determine that it was not a tort. Attached are numerous documents which bear Ms. Ansell's notations. There is a Civil Rights Action Team Follow-up Referral Form from March 1997, noting that the Ansells "raise some very serious allegations" that should be investigated. A memorandum from Jeremy Wu, Deputy Director for Programs, Office of Civil Rights, dated June 28, 1998, states that an investigation will be conducted. On July 29, 1999, Rosalind Gray, Director of USDA's Office of Civil Rights, sent a letter to the Ansells notifying them that their "pre-July 1, 1997 complaint ...


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