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Burks v. Wilson

United States District Court, E.D. Virginia, Richmond Division

December 19, 2014

STEPHEN BURKS, Plaintiff,
v.
ERIC WILSON, et al., Defendants.

MEMORANDUM OPINION (Granting Defendant's Motion to Dismiss)

HENRY E. HUDSON, District Judge.

Stephen Burks ("Burks"), a federal inmate confined in the Federal Correctional Complex in Petersburg, Virginia ("FCC Petersburg"), filed suit[1] in the Circuit Court of Prince George County, Virginia ("Circuit Court") against Defendants[2] for breach of contract. Defendant Wilson[3] removed that case to this Court. The matter is before the Court on Defendant Wilson's (1) Motion to Dismiss or, in the Alternative, for (2) Summary Judgment ("Motion to Dismiss, " ECF No. 2; "Motion for Summary Judgment, " ECF No. 3); (3) Burks's Motion for Remand (ECF No. 10); and (4) Burks's Motion to Amend (ECF No. 13).

I. Procedural History

On June 17, 2014, Burks, a federal inmate proceeding pro se, filed suit against Defendants in the Circuit Court. The Complaint alleges that Defendants breached contracts "implied in fact, implied in law, [and] expressed based on the relationship of the parties, in the first instance and as a third party beneficiary herein."[4] (Compl. at 1.)

On July 28, 2014, Defendant Wilson removed his state court action to this Court ("Notice of Removal, " ECF No. 1). Shortly thereafter, on July 31, 2014, Defendant Wilson filed a Motion to Dismiss (ECF No. 2) and Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 3). Burks filed a brief opposing the Defendant's Motion to Dismiss (ECF No. 6), and a "Responsive Brief to Defendant's Brief Dated 8/20/14" ("Opposition to Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment, " ECF No. 9).

On September 16, 2014, Burks sought to have the case remanded to the Circuit Court of Prince George County by filing a "Notice for Remand to State Court" (ECF No. 10), which the Court construes as a Motion to Remand.[5] Defendant Wilson filed a brief in opposition (ECF No. 11), and Burks filed an "Opposition to Defendant's Filing Dated 9/18/14" (ECF No. 12).

On September 26, 2014, Burks filed a Motion to Amend (ECF No. 13). Defendant Wilson filed a brief opposing the Motion to Amend (ECF No. 14), and Burks filed a reply (ECF No. 15).

II. Summary of Allegations

Burks alleges that a variety of conditions at the FCC Petersburg are unsuitable. The unsuitable conditions of the facility, Burks avers, include violations of fire and plumbing codes, "over capacity of the facilities and buildings, " and officers "smoking out of designated areas, " in violation of their contract with the Federal Bureau of Prisons ("BOP"). (Compl. at 6-7.) Burks contends that these conditions breach three types of contract.

First, Burks asserts that 18 U.S.C. § 4002[6] and § 4042[7] constitute a contract between the BOP and the United States, that he is a third party beneficiary to these "contracts, " and his conditions of confinement constitute a breach of these contracts. (Compl. 4.) Second, Burks essentially claims that prison conditions constitute a breach of his plea agreement with the Government. ( Id. at 5.) Lastly, Burks charges that the Defendants breached "contracts between BOP-Low and the State of Virginia, BOP-Low and Prince George County, BOP-Low and City of Hopewell..., contracts between the Plaintiff and Virginia, the Plaintiff and Hopewell, the contracts between Prince George County, etc...." ( Id. at 6.) To the extent, however dubious, these alleged contracts actually exist, Burks nonetheless fails to describe the content of these contracts, include any contractual terms, or describe how Defendants breached them.[8] Burks seeks ad damnum in the form of $10, 000, 000 in real damages per defendant and $50, 000, 000 in punitive damages. ( Id. at 11.)

III. Lack of Jurisdiction

"Federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction." Kokkonen v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. of Am., 511 U.S. 375, 377, 116 S.Ct. 1673, 1675 (1994). They possess only such power as is authorized by the Constitution or conferred by statute. Id Absent a finding of subject matter jurisdiction, this Court has no adjudicative authority to proceed further. Steel Co. v. Citizens for a Better Env't, 523 U.S. 83, 94, 118 S.Ct. 1003, 1012, 140 L.Ed.2d 210 (1998). As explained below, because the Circuit Court lacked jurisdiction over Burks's claims, so too does this Court.

A. Sovereign Immunity and Waiver

"Absent a waiver, sovereign immunity shields the Federal Government and its agencies from suit. Sovereign immunity is jurisdictional in nature. Indeed, the terms of [the United States'] consent to be sued in any court define that court's jurisdiction to entertain the suit." FDIC v. Meyer, 510 U.S. 471, 475 (1994) (alteration in original) (internal citations and quotation marks omitted) (citing United States v. Mitchell, 463 U.S. 206, 212 (1983); United States v. Sherwood, 312 U.S. 584, 586 (1941)).

The statutes Burks cites in his Complaint, namely 18 U.S.C. §§ 4002[9] and 4042, [10] do not create a private right of action against the United States for breach of contract. See, e.g., Touche Ross & Co. v. Redington, 442 U.S. 560, 569 (1979) (refusing to find a statute created an implied private remedy when it failed to prohibit certain conduct or create federal rights in favor of private parties). The statute most applicable to Burks's breach of contract claims is the "Big Tucker Act, " 28 U.S.C. § 1491. Smeltzer v. United States, 131 F.3d 136, 136 (4th Cir. 1997). This Act grants the Court of Federal Claims exclusive jurisdiction over breach of contract claims against the United States where the amount in controversy exceeds $10, 000. Id. The Act does not, however, grant state courts jurisdiction over these claims.[11] See Bullock v. Napolitano, 666 F.3d 281, 285 (4th Cir. 2012) (explaining that in suits against the United States, state courts lack subject matter jurisdiction unless the waiver of sovereign immunity expressly grants jurisdiction to state courts).

B. Derivative Jurisdiction

Defendant Wilson removed this action from state court pursuant 28 U.S.C. § 1442(a)(1), [12] which permits the Government to remove a civil case that is filed against officers or agencies of the United States in state court. 28 U.S.C. § 1442(a)(1). The doctrine of derivative jurisdiction applies when the Government removes a case under § 1442. Palmer, 498 F.3d at 246. When derivative jurisdiction applies, the federal court only acquires the jurisdiction possessed by the state court prior to removal. Id. Where, as here, the state court lacks subject matter jurisdiction, the federal court does not acquire it upon removal, "even though in a like suit originally brought in federal court, the court would have had jurisdiction." Smith v. Cromer, 159 F.3d 875, 879 (4th Cir. 1998) (citing Boron Oil Co. v. Downie, 873 F.2d 67, 70 (4th Cir. 1998)).[13]

C. Analysis

Although styled as a state law breach of contract claim, Burks may only bring his action against the United States pursuant to the "Big Tucker Act." 28 U.S.C. § 1491. The Circuit Court does not have subject matter jurisdiction over claims brought pursuant to that Act. Bullock, 666 F.3d at 285 (observing that "state courts do not have presumptive jurisdiction to decide suits against the United States"). Pursuant to the doctrine of derivative jurisdiction, this Court's jurisdiction over a removed case is the same as that of the state court from which the case originated. Palmer, 498 F.3d at 244.[14] Because the Circuit Court lacked jurisdiction over Burks's case, this Court accordingly lacks subject matter jurisdiction, and must dismiss the case. See, e.g., Patton v. F.B.I., No. 2:14-13347, 2014 WL 3496112, at *3 (S.D. W.Va. July 11, 2014).

Pursuant to the Prison Litigation Reform Act ("PLRA"), this Court must dismiss any action filed by a prisoner if the Court determines the action (1) "is frivolous" or (2) "fails to state a claim on which relief may be granted." 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(b)(1). A complaint "is frivolous where it lacks an arguable basis either in law or in fact." Neitzke, 490 U.S. at 325. "[A] matter of law is frivolous where [none] of the legal points [are] arguable on their merits.'" Id. at 325 (quoting Anders v. California, 386 U.S. 738, 744 (1967)). Accordingly, because this Court lacks jurisdiction, and cannot legally adjudicate Burks's contract claims, dismissal is appropriate under § 1915A(b)(1).

IV. Outstanding Motions

A. Defendant's Motion to Dismiss for Lack of Subject Matter Jurisdiction

Defendant Wilson failed to raise the issue of derivative jurisdiction in his Motion to Dismiss. Instead, he argues that Burks's initial pleading fell under the exclusive jurisdiction of the Court of Federal Claims, as he demanded $60, 000, 000 in damages from the United States for breach of contract. (Mem. Supp. Mot. Dismiss, ECF No. 4, at 3.) Accordingly, Defendant's removal of the case to this Court was improper. Nevertheless, because the Court in fact lacks subject matter jurisdiction, [15] the Defendant's Motion to Dismiss (ECF No. 2) will be granted.

B. Remaining Motions

Because the Court lacks jurisdiction over the matter, Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 3) will be denied. Burks's Motion for Remand (ECF No. 10) and Burks's Motion to Amend[16] (ECF No. 13) will be denied as moot.

V. Conclusion

For the reasons set forth, Defendant Wilson's Motion to Dismiss (ECF No. 2) will be granted. Defendant Wilson's Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 3), Burks's Motion for Remand (ECF No. 10), and Burks's Motion to Amend (ECF No. 13) will be denied. The action will be dismissed for lack of jurisdiction.

An appropriate Final Order will follow.


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