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Cogdell v. Cogdell

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

February 5, 2018

KELVIN COGDELL, Plaintiff,
v.
TORREY COGDELL, Defendant.

          RULING AND ORDER

          STEFAN R. UNDERHILL, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Kelvin Cogdell, a prisoner incarcerated at Massachusetts Correctional Institution - Shirley, filed suit against his brother, Torrey Cogdell (“Torrey”), for converting Social Security disability insurance checks intended for Cogdell. After examining Cogdell's complaint, I conclude that the allegations do not suffice to establish federal subject matter jurisdiction. Therefore, I dismiss the case sua sponte.

         I. Standard of Review

         “A case is properly dismissed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction . . . when the district court lacks the statutory or constitutional power to adjudicate it.” Makarova v. United States, 201 F.3d 110, 113 (2d Cir. 2000). A party who seeks to invoke a court's jurisdiction bears the burden of establishing that it exists by alleging facts to demonstrate that the legal basis for the dispute allows it to be adjudicated in federal court. Thompson v. Cnty. of Franklin, 15 F.3d 245, 249 (2d Cir. 1994) (citing Warth v. Seldin, 422 U.S. 490, 518 (1975)). Although I “accept as true all material allegations of the complaint, and . . . construe the complaint in favor of the complaining party, ” I may consider materials outside the record for the purpose of determining whether subject matter jurisdiction exists. Id. (quoting Warth, 522 U.S. at 501).

         II. Background

         On May 11, 2017, Kelvin Cogdell mailed a complaint addressed to “The Trial Court of Conne[c]ticut, New Haven Superior Court” to the United States District Courthouse in New Haven.[1] See Compl., Doc. No. 1, at 11. In the complaint, Kelvin Cogdell asserts that “through unofficial means” he discovered that his “biological birth brother, ” Torrey Cogdell, “receiv[ed] specific government issued disability checks and . . . use[d] [ ] Kelvin Cogdell's personal physically executed sig[nature] to . . . cash, deposit, or otherwise utilize the funds deriving from those checks.” See Id. at 2. Cogdell states that he “had [no] knowledge that th[e] fraud was being perp[e]trated” and “does not know for how long th[e] fraudulent activity was ongoing.” Id. He asserts that Torrey's actions placed “the personal freedom and integrity of the plaintiff . . . in jeopardy” and “[a]ffect[ed] his personal credit.” Id. at 3. He also claims that Torrey's actions “damaged the character and person of the plaintiff” and “in all likel[i]hood subjected the plaintiff to criminal fraud investigation” or “criminal prosecution.” Id. at 4. Cogdell estimates his “damages claim [at] $20, 000.00, ” but “request[s] to a[m]end and[/]or modify that amount based on yet to be discovered financial information.” Id.

         III. Discussion

         Federal courts are courts of “limited subject-matter jurisdiction, ” In Touch Concepts v. Cellco P'ship, 788 F.3d 98, 101 (2d Cir. 2015), which means that they may only adjudicate cases for which Congress and the Constitution grant “power to hear and determine the subject-matter in controversy.” Doscher v. Sea Port Grp. Secs., 832 F.3d 372, 383 n.15 (2d Cir. 2016) (quoting Rhode Island v. Massachusetts, 37 U.S. (12 Pet.) 657, 714 (1838)). By statute, Congress has authorized district courts to exercise jurisdiction over-among other things-(a) “civil actions arising under the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States, ” 28 U.S.C. § 1331, commonly called “federal question jurisdiction, ” and (b) “civil actions where the matter in controversy exceeds the sum or value of $75, 000, . . . and is between . . . citizens of different States, ” 28 U.S.C. § 1332, commonly called “diversity jurisdiction.” Because “[s]ubject-matter jurisdiction can never be waived or forfeited, ” when federal jurisdiction over a case is in doubt, “courts are obligated to consider sua sponte issues that the parties have disclaimed or have not presented.” Gonzalez v. Thaler, 565 U.S. 134, 141 (2012). I conclude that both federal question and diversity jurisdiction are lacking in this case.

         Cogdell's complaint does not identify a specific common law or statutory basis for his claims, but I construe it as attempting to state causes of action for Social Security fraud (which would invoke federal question jurisdiction) and identity theft or conversion (which would invoke diversity jurisdiction). See Triestman v. Fed. Bureau of Prisons, 470 F.3d 471, 474 (2d Cir. 2006) (per curiam) (“[T]he submissions of a pro se litigant must be construed liberally and interpreted to raise the strongest arguments that they suggest.”) (emphasis and internal quotation marks omitted). Neither purported cause of action suffices to establish federal jurisdiction.

         A. Social Security fraud

         The gravamen of Cogdell's complaint is that his brother Torrey used Cogdell's Social Security number to fraudulently obtain Social Security disability checks intended for Cogdell. A federal statute, 42 U.S.C. § 408, criminalizes such conduct. The statute prohibits:

(2) mak[ing] or causes to be made any false statement or representation of a material fact in any application for any payment or for a disability determination . . .; or . . .
(6) willfully, knowingly, and with intent to deceive the Commissioner of Social Security as to his true identity . . . furnish[ing] or caus[ing] to be furnished false information to the Commissioner of Social Security with respect to any information required by the Commissioner of Social Security in connection with the establishment and maintenance of [Social Security] records . . .; or
(7) . . . for the purpose of obtaining . . . any payment or any other benefit to which he . . . is not entitled, . . . (B) with intent to deceive, falsely represent[ing] a number to be the social security account number assigned by the Commissioner of Social Security to him . . ., when in fact such number is not the social security ...

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