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Burke v. Vermont Department of Corrections

United States District Court, District of Vermont

April 29, 2015

JAMES T. BURKE, Plaintiff,


Geoffrey W. Crawford, Judge

Plaintiff James T. Burke filed this action pro se against defendant Vermont Department of Corrections alleging that he was unlawfully charged fees for making photocopies of litigation documents as an indigent inmate. The Vermont Department of Corrections moves to dismiss Burke's complaint (Doc. 5) on res judicata grounds. The court dismisses Burke's complaint for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.

I. Background

Burke is in the custody of the Vermont Department of Corrections ("DOC"), and is currently confined at Lee Adjustment Center ("LAC") in Beattyville, Kentucky. (Doc. 5 at 2; Doc. 7 at 1.) LAC is owned and operated by Corrections Corporation of America ("CCA"). (Doc. 7 at 1.)

An excerpt of a CCA Corporate and Facility Policy attached as an exhibit to Burke's complaint states that indigent inmates may receive three "photocopies of each legal document to be filed with the court at no charge . . . ." (Doc. 5-5.) Burke was granted indigent status as of June 22, 2012. (Doc. 5-4.) Burke alleges that the cost of photocopies he made was charged to his inmate account in violation of DOC and LAC policy and unspecified laws. LAC placed the photocopy charges on Burke's inmate account which, according to the transaction records attached to Burke's complaint, was overdrawn by $346.42 as of November 24, 2014. Burke originally requested a damages award of $500 to pay off the charges or, alternatively, that the court order the charges removed and award him $100 in damages. (Doc. 5 at 3.) He amended the relief requested to $5, 000. (Doc. 14.)

On June 30, 2014, Burke filed a small claims complaint against the DOC in Vermont Superior Court, alleging that "CCA/LAC" had deducted funds from his inmate account as a result of being unlawfully charged for photocopies he made after having been granted indigent status. (Doc. 5-1 at 2.) After a bench trial at which Burke appeared pro se by telephone, the court issued a judgment for the DOC on November 25, 2014. (Id.) On December 8, 2014, Burke filed a notice of appeal of the small claims court decision. (Doc. 7-1 at 2.) The appeal is currently pending. (Doc. 7 at 2.) Burke filed the complaint in this action on December 31, 2014. (Doc. 5.) The DOC moved to dismiss Burke's complaint on February 27, 2015. (Doc. 7.) Any response from Burke to the DOC's motion was due on April 2, 2015; as of the date of this Order, he has not filed one.

II. Jurisdiction

Burke's complaint did not provide sufficient information from which the court could determine whether it had subject matter jurisdiction, so it issued an order requesting that Burke supplement his complaint with a statement of jurisdiction. (Doc. 11.) Burke filed a supplemental statement of jurisdiction on April 27, 2015. (Doc. 14.) Burke contends that jurisdiction is found under 42 U.S.C. [§ 1983] and 28 U.S.C. § 1332. (Id. at 2.) Burke also raises the relief requested to $5, 000. (Id.) The court determines that it does not have jurisdiction over this action.

There is no diversity jurisdiction because the matter in controversy is only $5, 000 and because the Vermont Department of Corrections functions as an "arm" of the State of Vermont. Komlosi v. N.Y. State Office of Mental Retardation &Dev. Disabilities, 64 F.3d 810, 815 (2d Cir. 1995); see 28 U.S.C. § 1332; Kapp v. Naughton, Civ. No. 90-591E, 1990 WL 181179, at *1 n.2 (W.D.N.Y.Nov. 21, 1990) ("It is well-settled that diversity jurisdiction is unavailable in actions brought against states." (citing State Highway Comm'n of Wyo. v. Utah Constr. Co., 278 U.S. 194, 199-200(1929)).

Nor does federal question jurisdiction apply to Burke's claim. Burke argues that the court has jurisdiction under "42 U.S.C."; presumably, Burke intends to cite 42 U.S.C. § 1983. To the extent Burke alleges that the DOC violated a federally protected right, the claim could be construed as one arising under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, over which the court has jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331. However, Burke has not identified any constitutional or federally-protected right the DOC has allegedly violated. His inmate grievance papers, attached as an exhibit to his complaint, argue only that "[t]he[re] is no statu[t]e or correct Vermont authority that gives CCA/LAC the lawful right to deduct copy charges from [his] account." (Doc. 5-2 at 1.) Burke's supplemental statement of jurisdiction also fails to identify a federally-protected right which would sustain an action under § 1983.

The DOC moves to dismiss the complaint not on jurisdictional grounds, but because the doctrine of res judicata bars consideration of Burke's claim in this court. Even if the court were to construe the complaint to allege a valid § 1983 claim-setting aside the issue of whether he seeks to enforce a constitutional provision or federal law-Burke's claim would still fail because it would be barred by res judicata.[1]

III. Motion to Dismiss Standard

A complaint must contain "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief." Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). A complaint need not contain "detailed factual allegations, " Bell Ail. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007), but to survive a motion to dismiss it must contain "sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (internal quotation omitted). "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." Id. If a plaintiff has failed to "nudge[ ] [his] claims across the line from conceivable to plausible, " Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570, they must be dismissed.

The court must read a pro se complaint liberally, Shomo v. City of New York, 579 F.3d 176, 183 (2d Cir. 2009), and must interpret any supporting papers "to raise the strongest arguments that they suggest." Soto v.Walker, 44 F.3d 169, 173 (2d Cir. 1995) (internal quotation omitted). Although "[p]ro se complaints are to be construed particularly liberally on a motion to dismiss, " Mitchell v.Keane, 91A F.Supp. 332, 338 (S.D.N.Y. 1997), aff'd, 175 F.3d 1008 (2d Cir. 1999), they must ...

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