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Anaid El v. Whitehead

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

October 22, 2019

ANAID EL, Ex-Relatione DIANA DAWES/DAWES, DIANA, Plaintiff,
v.
WILLIAM WHITEHEAD, in his individual and official capacity, JAY MORAN, in his individual and official capacity, SARA GREENE, in her individual and official capacity, STUART ROSEN, in his individual and official capacity, MICHAEL BZDYRA, in his individual and official capacity, JOHN DOE, in his individual and official capacity, and JANE DOE, in her individual and official capacity, Defendants.

          RULING ON DEFENDANTS' MOTIONS TO DISMISS

          Charles S. Haight, Jr. Senior United States District Judge

         Plaintiff Anaid El brings this action against Judge Stuart Rosen, Connecticut Department of Motor Vehicles Commissioner Michael Byzdyra, Assistant State Attorney Sara Greene, Officer William Whitehead, and Mayor Jay Moran (collectively, the “Defendants”) to challenge a judgment of conviction for operating an unregistered and uninsured motor vehicle, as well as the subsequent administrative suspension of Plaintiff's driver's license for failure to pay fines associated with her conviction. Plaintiff requests that this Court intervene in the state action to reinstate her driver's license and vacate the fines levied against her. Plaintiff also demands money damages and costs. Finally, she seeks injunctive and declaratory relief finding that Connecticut's statutes mandating the registration and insurance of motor vehicles is unconstitutional, and prohibiting the imposition of penalties for failure to register or insure vehicles by individuals not engaged in commercial activities.

         On January 29, 2019, Defendants Judge Stuart Rosen, Connecticut Department of Motor Vehicles Commissioner Michael Byzdyra, and Assistant State Attorney Sara Greene (collectively, the “State Defendants”[1]) filed a motion to dismiss Plaintiff's Complaint pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(1), (5), and (6). They argue that: (1) Plaintiff's claims against Judge Rosen and Attorney Greene are barred by absolute immunity; (2) Plaintiff's claims against all State Defendants in their individual capacities are barred by qualified immunity; (3) all of Plaintiff's claims against the State Defendants in their official capacities are barred by the Eleventh Amendment; (4) Plaintiff's claims challenging her conviction for failure to register or insure her vehicle are foreclosed under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine; (5) Plaintiff has failed to state any claim against the State Defendants for which relief may be granted; and (6) the court lacks personal jurisdiction over any State Defendant because Plaintiff has not properly served them.

         On February 4, 2019, Defendants Officer Whitehead and Mayor Moran (collectively, the “Municipal Defendants”) filed their own motion to dismiss Plaintiff's Complaint pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(1), (5), and (6). Their arguments largely mirror those made by the State Defendants. Specifically, they contend that: (1) Plaintiff's claims are barred by Heck v. Humphrey and the Rooker-Feldman doctrine; (2) the court lacks personal jurisdiction over any City Defendant because Plaintiff has not properly served them; (3) Plaintiff has failed to state any claim against the State Defendants for which relief may be granted; and (4) Plaintiff's claims against all City Defendants in their individual capacities are barred by qualified immunity.[2]

         Because this Court does not have jurisdiction over Plaintiff's claims, the Defendants' motions to dismiss are GRANTED and the case is DISMISSED.

         I. Background

         The allegations set forth in the Complaint, taken as true for purposes of this ruling, are summarized as follows.

         On April 7, 2016, Officer Whitehead, an East Hartford police officer, observed Plaintiff pulling a motor vehicle into a private driveway. Doc. 1 (“Compl.”) at 2. Officer Whitehead spoke with the Plaintiff, who admitted that she did not have automobile insurance. Id. Consequently, Officer Whitehead issued Plaintiff a citation for operation of a motor vehicle without registration or insurance in violation of Connecticut General Statutes §§ 14-12c, 14-213b, and 38a-371. The citation informed Plaintiff that she was required to “attend a meeting on the 25th of April at Manchester company building or a ‘warrant' would be issued for [her] arrest.” Id. Plaintiff did not attend the “meeting”[3] at the specified location, and instead mailed a “rebuttal” to her citation. Id. She also filed a civil action in state court challenging her citation, which was dismissed for insufficient service of process. Id. Plaintiff subsequently brought a federal habeas corpus action in this Court challenging the citation, which was dismissed.[4] Id.

         In May 2018, a notice to appear in state court was mailed to Plaintiff at an “outdated mailing location.” Id. at 3. After Plaintiff failed to appear, the court issued Plaintiff a bail commissioner's letter. Id. Plaintiff then appeared at court on June 4, 2018, and a trial was held on November 16, 2018. Id. Judge Rosen presided over the trial, and Attorney Greene presented the state's case against Plaintiff. Id. Officer Whitehead appeared as a witness against Plaintiff. Id.

         At trial, Plaintiff questioned Officer Whitehead, but declined to present a defense or agree to be questioned because she believed that it was “not a fair and impartial hearing.” Id. Judge Rosen found Plaintiff guilty of operating a motor vehicle without registration or insurance, and imposed a fine of $290. Id. Plaintiff was provided notice of her right to appeal the judgment within 20 days, but did not do so. Id. at 3-4.

         On November 17, 2018, the DMV sent a notice to Plaintiff informing her that her driver's license would be suspended effective December 17, 2018, “as a result of a ‘conviction of operating without required insurance, '” and that restoration of her license would require payment of a $175 restoration fee. Id. at 4. The notice also advised Plaintiff that she could request an administrative hearing to contest the suspension. Id. Plaintiff sent a request directly to Commissioner Byzdyra seeking to contest the suspension. Id. Commissioner Byzdyra did not respond. Id.

         On December 12, 2018, Plaintiff filed the present Complaint. See Doc. 1. The next day, Plaintiff filed a motion for an “Emergency Stay/Protective Order, ” in which she requested “a stay” against the “proposed suspension” of her driver's license (the “TRO Motion”). Doc. 5 at 1. The Court denied that motion, finding that Plaintiff had failed to allege facts sufficient to demonstrate a likelihood of irreparable harm. Doc. 8. On December 17, 2018, Plaintiff filed a motion seeking reconsideration of the Court's denial of her TRO Motion. Doc. 13. The Court denied that motion as well. Doc. 20.

         II. Discussion

         Plaintiff principally alleges that the state cannot require her to register or insure her vehicle because the is not using the vehicle in a “commercial capacity.” Compl. at 6. Specifically, Plaintiff contends that the government cannot require private citizens not engaged in commercial activity to register or insure their vehicles because to do so would infringe on those individual's constitutional right to travel and the United States Motor Vehicle Safety Program. She further alleges that the state court proceedings before Judge Rosen and subsequent revocation of her driver's license violated her due process rights and her constitutional right.

         “[A] federal court generally may not rule on the merits of a case without first determining that it has jurisdiction over the category of claim in suit (subject-matter jurisdiction) and the parties (personal jurisdiction).” Sinochem Int'l Co. v. Malaysia Int'l Shipping Corp., 549 U.S. 422, 430-31, 127 S.Ct. 1184, 167 L.Ed.2d 15 (2007) (citing Steel Co. v. Citizens for Better Env't, 523 U.S. 83, 93-102, 118 S.Ct. 1003, 140 L.Ed.2d 210 (1998)). Although a court is free to “choose among threshold grounds” for dismissing an action provided that none involve “a judgment on the merits, ” id. at 431 (internal quotation marks omitted), “the proper course” is to dismiss an action for lack of jurisdiction if the “court can readily determine that it lacks jurisdiction over the cause or the defendant, ” id. at 436.

         Under the circumstances of this case, the Court will first address the Defendants' objections to personal jurisdiction, then turn to subject matter jurisdiction and absolute immunity. Consideration of these threshold jurisdictional issues alone is sufficient to decide Defendants' motions.

         A. Insufficient Service

         The Defendants have moved to dismiss this action for improper service under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(5). Specifically, they claim that Plaintiff failed to comply with the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and Connecticut state law by effectuating service on each Defendant at his or her workplace.

         In the absence of proper service, a district court lacks personal jurisdiction over those defendants not properly served. Licci ex rel. Licci v. Lebanese Canadian Bank, SAL, 673 F.3d 50, 59 (2d Cir. 2012); Omni Capital Int'l, Ltd. v. Rudolf Wolff & Co., Ltd., 484 U.S. 97, 104, (1987) (“Before a federal court may exercise personal jurisdiction over a defendant, the procedural requirement of service of summons must be satisfied.”). Once validity of service has been challenged, plaintiff bears the burden of proving service of process was adequate, Khan v. Khan, 360 Fed.Appx. 202, 203 (2d Cir. 2010), “through specific factual allegations and any supporting materials, ” Kwon v. Yun, No. 05-CV-1142, 2006 WL 416375, at *2 (S.D.N.Y. Feb. 21, 2006). Furthermore, a defendant's “actual notice” of a complaint does not cure otherwise defective service: the Complaint must have been properly served in accordance with state and federal law. See, e.g., Weston Funding, LLC v. Consorcio G Grupo Dina, S.A. de C. V., 451 F.Supp.2d 585, 589 (S.D.N.Y. 2006).

         In analyzing a motion under Rule 12(b)(5), the Court must look to the service requirements set forth in Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 4. Rule 4(e)(2) sets forth three specific ways in ...


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