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Singer v. Heckler

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

June 6, 2017

JAMES M. SINGER, Plaintiff,
DAVID HECKLER, Chairman of the Pennsylvania Child Protection Task Force,, Defendants.


          Joy Flowers Conti Chief United States District Judge

         I. Introduction

         This civil rights lawsuit was commenced on May 10, 2016 by James M. Singer (“plaintiff”), an individual who formerly practiced as a licensed psychologist. On February 14, 2017, this court granted plaintiff's renewed motion for leave to proceed in forma pauperis pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915. (ECF No. 23.) This court is obligated under that same statute to dismiss any case in which the complaint asserts claims that are frivolous or malicious, fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted, or seeks monetary relief against a defendant who is immune from such relief. 28 U.S.C. §1915(e)(2)(B). While recognizing that courts have a special obligation to construe a pro se litigant's pleadings liberally, see Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007); Higgs v. Atty. Gen. of the U.S., 655 F.3d 333, 339 (3d Cir. 2011), as amended (Sept. 19, 2011), this court nevertheless concludes that plaintiff's complaint is subject to dismissal, with prejudice, on all the grounds identified in §1915(e)(2)(B).

         II. Factual and Procedural Background

         In April 1989, the Pennsylvania Bureau of Profession and Occupational Affairs (the “Bureau”), State Board of Psychology (the “Board”) instituted formal disciplinary proceedings against plaintiff which culminated in an indefinite suspension of his license. See generally Singer v. Bd. of Prof'l and Occupational Affairs, State Bd. of Psychology, 633 A.2d 246 (Pa. Commw. Ct. 1993). Plaintiff has consistently maintained that these proceedings were initiated in retaliation for reports he made about suspected child abuse. To that end, he has filed at least eight prior lawsuits in which he seeks redress for perceived injustices stemming from the Board's prosecution and the resulting suspension of his license. See Singer v. Lewis, No. 1:91-CV- 00859 (M.D. Pa. filed July 2, 1991) (“Singer I”); Singer v. Mitchell, No. 3:94- CV-01761 (M.D. Pa. filed Oct. 27, 1994) (“Singer II”); Singer v. Mitchell, No. 4:03-CV-01085 (M.D. Pa. filed July 2, 2003) (“Singer III”); Singer v. Dunnewold, No. 3:06-CV-01412 (M.D. Pa. filed July 19, 2006) (“Singer IV”); Singer v. Bowman, No. 1:08-CV-01999 (M.D. Pa. filed Nov. 4, 2008) (“Singer V”); Singer v. Bureau of Prof'l & Occupational Affairs, No. 3:12-CV-00527 (M.D. Pa. filed Mar. 23, 2012) (“Singer VI”); Singer v. Bureau of Prof'l and Occupational Affairs, No. 3:CV-13-3059 (M.D. Pa. filed Dec. 19, 2013) (“Singer VII”); Singer v. Heckler, No. CV 14-1598, 2015 WL 8992438 (W.D. Pa. Dec. 16, 2015) (“Singer VIII”), reconsideration denied, No. CV 14-1598, 2016 WL 397468 (W.D. Pa. Feb. 2, 2016). The court in Singer VII observed that, in each of his lawsuits:

[plaintiff] has alleged constitutional violations related to the suspension of his license to practice psychology in 1992, including the investigation and prosecution of that administrative action before the Board, his unsuccessful attempt to obtain an unconditional reinstatement of his license, and his unsuccessful attempt to initiate an official investigation into and criminal charges against an ever-growing list of alleged co-conspirators intent on retaliating against him for reporting suspected child abuse twenty-five years ago.

Singer VII, 2014 WL 2048159 at *8.

         In this, his ninth civil action, plaintiff has sued nine defendants:

(i) David Heckler (“Heckler”), Chairman of the Pennsylvania Child Protection Task Force,
(ii) the Bureau,
(iii) the Board,
(iv) the Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General (“OAG”),
(v) Peter Marks, Esq. (“Marks”), Executive Deputy Chief Counsel for the Pennsylvania Department of State (“Department of State”),
(vi) Ruth Dunnewold, Esq. (“Dunnewold”), Senior Deputy General Counsel for the Department of State,
(vii) Judith Schulder, Esq. (“Schulder”), counsel for the Board,
(viii) David Tyler (“Tyler”), Director of Governmental Affairs, Legislative Liaison, and Chief Operating Officer for the OAG, and formerly the Executive Director of the Pennsylvania State House Judiciary Committee, and
(ix) Sandra Stoner, Esq. (“Stoner”), Deputy Attorney General for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

         In his complaint, plaintiff alleges “recent continuing violations related [to] ongoing misconduct by all officials in their individual and professional capacities under color of law, ” including “violations to retaliate against Plaintiff, or obstruct justice, based solely on Singer's mandated report of suspected child abuse and his subsequent refusal to admit any wrongdoing in the matter.” (Compl. ¶1, ECF No. 2.) Plaintiff claims that “[t]hese violations of official oppression, alteration and/or fabrication of written evidence, [o]bstructing [a]dministration of [l]aw or other [g]overmental [f]unctions, and perjury by the government” have violated his civil rights. (Id. ¶2.) His complaint purports to assert five causes of action consisting of claims against Tyler (Count I), Marks (Count II), Stoner (Count III), Schulder (Count IV)[1], and Dunnewold (Count V). None of the five counts are specifically directed against Heckler, the Bureau, the Board, or the OAG.

         III. Standard of Review

         Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §1915(e)(2)(B) and §1915A(a), district courts are statutorily required to review the complaint of a plaintiff proceeding in forma pauperis prior to service of process.[2] In doing so, the court must evaluate whether the complaint is (i) frivolous or malicious, (ii) fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, or (iii) seeks monetary relief from a defendant immune from such relief. 28 U.S.C. §1915(e)(2)(B). If “at any time” the court determines that the action meets any of those criteria, the court “shall dismiss the case. . . .” Id.

         A complaint is frivolous where it lacks an arguable basis either in law or in fact. Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319, 325 (1989); Adams v. U.S. States Treasury Sec'y, No. 16-1888, 2016 WL 4056038, at *1 (3d Cir. July 29, 2016). “Repetitious litigation of virtually identical causes of action may be dismissed under § 1915 as frivolous or malicious.” Banks v. Cty. of Allegheny, 568 F.Supp.2d 579, 589 (W.D. Pa. 2008) (citing McWilliams v. Colorado, 121 F.3d 573, 574 (10th Cir.1997)).

         The legal standard for dismissing a complaint for failure to state a claim pursuant to §1915(e)(2)(B)(ii) and § 1915A(b)(1) is identical to the legal standard used when ruling on Rule 12(b)(6) motions. Small v. Herrera, 52 F.Supp.3d 684, 686-87 (D. Del. 2014) (citing Tourscher v. McCullough, 184 F.3d 236, 240 (3d Cir. 1999) (applying Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6) standard to dismissal for failure to state a claim under § 1915(e)(2)(B))). A motion to dismiss filed pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) tests the legal sufficiency of the complaint. Kost v. Kozakiewicz, 1 F.3d 176, 183 (3d Cir. 1993). In deciding a motion to dismiss, the court accepts as true all well-pled factual allegations in the complaint and views them in a light most favorable to the plaintiff. U.S. Express Lines Ltd. v. Higgins, 281 F.3d 383, 388 (3d Cir. 2002). While a complaint does not need detailed factual allegations to survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, a complaint must provide more than labels and conclusions. Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). A “formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555. “Factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level” and “sufficient to state a claim for relief that is plausible on its face.” Id. at 555-56. “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.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556).

         In this case, plaintiff is proceeding without the benefit of legal counsel. Pro se plaintiffs are held to a less stringent standard than individuals who are represented by counsel. Fed. Express Corp. v. Holowecki, 552 U.S. 389, 402 (2008) (“[P]ro se litigants are held to a lesser pleading standard than other parties.”). Nevertheless, for Rule 12(b)(6) purposes, “a pro se complaint must still ‘contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Salley v. Sec'y Pa. Dep't of Corr., 565 F. App'x 77, 81 (3d Cir. 2014) (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678); see Thakar v. Tan, 372 F. App'x 325, 328 (3d Cir. 2010) (“[A] litigant is not absolved from complying with Twombly and the federal pleading requirements merely because s/he proceeds pro se.”).

         IV. Discussion

         The complaint in this case is difficult to interpret, as it is replete with disjointed averments, conclusory allegations, and factual non sequiturs. Vague references are made throughout the complaint to past events lacking factual context or to documents that are neither appended to, nor adequately described in, the pleading.

         Nevertheless, as a general matter, it appears that plaintiff is asserting claims under 42 U.S.C. §1983 to redress violations of his federal civil rights. Plaintiff also makes a passing reference to alleged violations of 42 U.S.C. §1981 and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. 2000e et seq. (see Compl. ¶2).[3] Underpinning his claims are generalized allegations of retaliation, “official oppression, ” alteration or fabrication of evidence, perjury, obstruction of justice, harassment, and similar wrongdoing in connection with the Board's license suspension proceedings and thereafter, when plaintiff sought redress against his alleged retaliators. (See generally Compl. at 1-2, ¶¶1-2, 4.) In essence, plaintiff faults defendants for suppressing, misrepresenting, or otherwise failing to act upon evidence of unlawful or criminal misconduct, as allegedly “confirmed” in an August 6, 1997 memorandum compiled by Pennsylvania State Police Lieutenant Ivan H. Hoover (“Lt. Hoover”).[4] Having construed the complaint liberally and in the light most favorable to plaintiff, the court finds that plaintiff's claims are frivolous or otherwise non-actionable for the following reasons.

         A. Plaintiff's Claims Under 42 U.S.C. §1981 and Title VII

         To begin, any claims that plaintiff may be asserting under Title VII or 42 U.S.C. §1981 are untenable in the context of this case. Section 1981 precludes discrimination because of race in the making and enforcement of contracts, an issue not implicated here. See Douglas v. Nesbit, No. 1:16-cv-01836, 2017 WL 1021680, at *4 (M.D. Pa. Mar. 16, 2017) (citing Rivers v. Roadway Exp., Inc., 511 U.S. ...

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