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McHugh v. Carini

United States District Court, N.D. Oklahoma

June 13, 2017

BRENDAN M. MCHUGH, Plaintiff,
v.
JASON CARINI, individually and in his official capacity; and DAVID WALLIS, individually, Defendants.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          GREGORY K. FRIZZELL, JUDGE

         Before the court is defendants' Motion to Dismiss [Doc. No. 17]. For the reasons set forth below, the motion is granted.

         I. Procedural Background

         This dispute arises from the assessment and collection of taxes owed by plaintiff Brendan McHugh, and the seizure of McHugh's vehicle to satisfy his tax debt. On January 18');">18, 2017, McHugh filed suit, alleging claims for conversion, trespass, invasion of privacy, fraud, violations of 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and a permanent injunction. Defendants moved to dismiss the Complaint. Shortly thereafter, McHugh filed a First Amended Complaint as of right, mooting defendants' motion. The Amended Complaint contains the same causes of action as the original Complaint, except that it also seeks relief from defendant Carini in his official capacity as County Treasurer of Rogers County, Oklahoma. Defendants again move to dismiss, arguing, in part, that McHugh's claims are not cognizable under § 1983 under principles of federalism and comity.

         II. Legal Standard

         Under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6), the court must determine whether the plaintiff states a claim upon which relief can be granted. To that end, a complaint must contain “enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). “[A] plaintiff's obligation . . . requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.” Id. at 555 (quotation marks omitted). And while it will draw reasonable inferences in the plaintiff's favor, the court need not accept conclusory allegations as true. See Thomason v. First Pryority Bank, No. 09-CV-796-GKF-TLW, 2010 WL 2079699, at *1 (N.D. Okla. May 21, 2010). The plausibility requirement helps “weed out” claims that lack any reasonable prospect of success. See Robbins v. Okla., 519 F.3d 1242, 1248 (10th Cir. 2008).

         The parties address comity and federalism under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(1). [Doc. No. 17, pp. 15-17]; [Doc. No. 18');">18, pp. 12-15]. But “the comity doctrine is nonjurisdictional.” See Direct Marketing Ass'n v. Brohl, 135 S.Ct. 1124, 1134 (2015). Instead, that doctrine addresses itself to statutory and claim construction-that is, a plaintiff's ability to state tax-based claims for relief under § 1983. See Nat'l Private Truck Council, Inc. v. Okla. Tax Comm'n, 515 U.S. 582, 589 (1995) (explaining that under precedent, “the principle of noninterference with state taxation led us to construe §1983 narrowly”); see also Id. at 590 (explaining that comity precedent “relied upon a background principle in interpreting § 1983 to preclude damages actions in tax cases brought in federal court”); id. (“[W]e rely on the same principle in interpreting § 1983 to provide no basis for courts to award injunctive relief when an adequate legal remedy exists.”). To that end, the court analyzes McHugh's claims under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6), the proper vehicle for dismissing non-cognizable claims.

         III. Analysis

         Section 1983 provides a cause of action against any person who deprives another of federal rights or liberties under color of state law. 42 U.S. § 1983. Principles of comity and federalism, however, bar taxpayers from “asserting § 1983 actions against the validity of” state taxes in federal court. Fair Assessment in Real Estate Ass'n v. McNary, 454 U.S. 100, 116 (1981); accord Nat'l Private Truck Council, Inc. v. Okla. Tax Comm'n, 515 U.S. 582, 587 (1995). A contrary rule-subjecting state employees to widespread liability for tax collections- “would in every practical sense operate to suspend collection of [ ] state taxes.” See Fair, 454 U.S. at 115 (quotation marks and citation omitted). Consequently, Section 1983 does not encompass “damages claims where the taxpayer has a plain, adequate, and complete remedy in state court.” Heuser v. San Juan Cty. Bd. of Cty. Comm'rs, 162 F. App'x 807, 809 (10th Cir. 2006). That principle extends to declaratory and injunctive relief as well. See Nat'l Private Truck Council, Inc. v. Okla. Tax Comm'n, 515 U.S. 582, 590-92 (1995).

         A. Tax Collection Claim

         McHugh's claim undoubtedly arises from defendants' tax assessment, collection, and enforcement efforts. [Doc. No. 14, pp. 2-7, 10-11, ¶¶ 7-31, 48-55]. And his attempt to recast his allegations fall short. To start, McHugh admits his § 1983 claim stems from: (1) seizure of tax exempt property; (2) seizure of property during a “grace period”; and (3) seizure of property without a tax warrant or process. [Doc. No. 18');">18, p. 2]. And the description of his constitutional claims confirms that fact. [Doc. No. 14, p. 10, ¶ 49].[1]

         None of the cases McHugh cites are to the contrary. For one thing, most pre-date the comity and federalism principles announced in Fair Assessment in Real Estate Ass'n v. McNary, 454 U.S. 100 (1981), and its progeny. See, e.g., G.M. Leasing Corp. v. United States, 429 U.S. 338 (1977); Fulton Market Cold Storage Co. v. Cullerton, 582 F.2d 1071 (7th Cir. 1978)[2]; Bormann v. Tomlin, 461 F.Supp. 193 (S.D. Ill. 1978). For another, those cases involved warrantless seizures of taxable property. See, e.g., G.M. Leasing Corp., 429 U.S. at 359 (holding warrantless entry into claimant's office actionable); Dunn v. Marelli, 3 F. App'x 710, 715 (10th Cir. 2001) (holding claim for conspiracy to execute warrantless searches and seizures actionable); Tomlin, 461 F.Supp. at 194 (holding warrantless entry to collect delinquent taxes unconstitutional). Here, by contrast, a tax warrant issued. [Doc. No. 14-1] (Payment Affidavit) (referencing “Tax Warrant No. 18');">18” and noting that the “failure to make payments . . . will result in immediate re-issuance of a Tax Warrant”); [Doc. No. 17-1] (Tax Warrant).[3]

         To be sure, state officials must secure a judicial warrant before searching a taxpayer's premises for seizable assets. See G.M. Leasing Corp., 429 U.S. at 358 (“[W]e are unwilling to hold that the mere interest in the collection of taxes is sufficient to justify a statute declaring per se exempt from the warrant requirement every intrusion into privacy made in furtherance of any tax seizure.”); In re Carlson, 580 F.2d 1365, 1381 (10th Cir. 1978) (requiring “a neutral, disinterested judicial officer” to determine probable cause for tax levy search warrants); In re Stolz, 745 F.Supp. 643, 646 (D. Colo. 1990) (“[A] warrant is required before the government may search a taxpayer's premises for seizable assets[.]”). And any entry upon McHugh's property likely states an actionable § 1983 claim for unreasonable search and seizure if unsupported by a probable cause determination by a neutral magistrate. But that was not pled in the Amended Complaint. See JP Morgan Chase Bank, N.A. v. Wells Fargo Bank, N.A., No. 16-CV-686-GKF-FHM, 2017 WL 1758066, at * (N.D. Okla. May 4, 2017) (noting that factual allegations in a complaint “cabin[ ] the scope” of a claim).

         Defendants argue that seizure of McHugh's vehicle from his driveway does not raise a constitutional claim. But the law is not so clear. The Fourth Amendment prohibits government officials from trespassing on constitutionally protected property without a warrant. See United States v. Jones, 132 S.Ct. 949-51 (2012). And recent precedent has extended that protection beyond the walls of a house to “curtilage”-that is, “the area ‘immediately surrounding and associated with the home.'” See Florida v. Jardines, 133 S.Ct. 1409, 1414 (2013) (quoting Oliver v. United States, 466 U.S. 170, 18');">180 (1984)). Questions of law and fact exist as to: (1) the portion of McHugh's driveway on which his vehicle was parked; and (2) whether such portion of the driveway qualifies as curtilage. Compare United States v. McDowell, 713 F.3d 571, 574 (10th Cir. 2013) (explaining that Jardines “lends some support to [d]efendant's arugment that the area ...


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