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Valdez v. United States

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

February 1, 2019

SONYA VALDEZ, Plaintiff,
v.
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          ROBERT C. BRACK SENIOR U.S. DISTRICT JUDGE

         This matter is before the Court on Defendant United States's Motion to Dismiss (Doc. 5) and Plaintiff Sonya Valdez's Motion for Leave to File Amended Complaint and Memorandum in Support (Docs. 12; 13). Plaintiff alleges that her postal carrier failed to deliver packages and letters to her address, resulting in economic harm to her and her family. The United States counters that the Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction because claims against United States Postal Service employees related to the loss, miscarriage, or negligent transmission of mail are exempt from the Federal Tort Claims Act and are thus barred by sovereign immunity. After considering the submissions of the parties and relevant law, the Court will grant Plaintiff's Motion for Leave to File Amended Complaint and grant Defendant's Motion to Dismiss Plaintiff's Amended Complaint for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.

         I. Factual Background and Procedural History

         On May 29, 2018, Plaintiff filed suit against Patricia Chacon, her mail carrier, in Santa Fe County Magistrate Court in Santa Fe, New Mexico. (Doc. 1-1 at 2-4.) The original complaint alleged that Ms. Chacon “started picking and choosing what packages to deliver and what packages to send back, ” and that Plaintiff lost money after packages were returned to the sender as undelivered. (Id. at 2.) She alleged that Ms. Chacon “has been tampering with our mail” and “refused to deliver mail to my address.” (Id. at 3.) Plaintiff also stated that she filed two complaints with the United States Postal Service (USPS), but the USPS failed to investigate the claims. (Id.)

         The United States removed the action pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1442(a) because it had been brought “against a federal employee acting under the color of office . . . [and] appears to be controlled by the Federal Tort Claims Act, 28 U.S.C. §§ 2671 et seq.” (Doc. 1 at 2.) Thus, it “is an action over which the United States District Court has exclusive jurisdiction.” (Id.) Following certification by the United States Attorney that Ms. Chacon was acting within the scope of her federal employment at the time of the events alleged in the Complaint, the United States was substituted as the proper party defendant pursuant to the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA), 28 U.S.C. § 2679(d)(1). (See Docs. 4 at 1-2; 4-1 at 1.)

         On August 2, 2018, the United States (Defendant) moved to dismiss Plaintiff's Complaint for lack of subject matter jurisdiction under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1). (Doc. 5 at 1.) Defendant argues that the Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction over the Complaint for two reasons: (1) Plaintiff's claims fall under the “postal matter” exception to the FTCA and are thus barred by the doctrine of sovereign immunity (see Id. at 1-3); and (2) even if Plaintiff's claims did fall properly under the FTCA, she failed to exhaust her administrative remedies before bringing suit as required by the FTCA (see Id. at 3-4). Plaintiff did not respond to the Motion to Dismiss.

         On September 17, 2018, Plaintiff filed an Amended Complaint. (Doc. 10.) The Amended Complaint reemphasizes the allegations that Ms. Chacon “knowingly [and] willingly failed to deliver packages to Plaintiff's address which caused financial loss.” (Id. at 2.) It also includes copies of two online complaints (labelled Exhibits 1 and 2) that Plaintiff submitted to the USPS Office of Inspector General Hotline, which include more specific details describing Ms. Chacon's alleged misconduct. (See Id. at 4-7). Exhibit 1 alleges that Ms. Chacon refused to deliver mail addressed to anyone in the household other than Plaintiff, and as a result Plaintiff lost $180 because Ms. Chacon twice returned a package containing auto parts to the sender because they were addressed to Plaintiff's husband, and the auto parts were nonrefundable. (See Id. at 4-5.) Plaintiff also alleges that she and her husband confronted Ms. Chacon about her failure to deliver their mail and following that interaction, Ms. Chacon retaliated against them by only delivering mail that was addressed to Plaintiff's mother. (See Id. at 5.) The Amended Complaint elaborates on Plaintiff's claim that she reported the incidents to the USPS. (Id. at 2 (“USPS was contacted by myself over a dozen times in hopes to resolve matters. I was ignored . . . .”).) Exhibit 2 is a copy of a subsequent email to USPS requesting a response to her initial complaint. (Id. at 7.)

         Approximately one month after filing the Amended Complaint, Plaintiff filed a belated Motion for Leave to File an Amended Complaint (Doc. 12) and Memorandum in Support (Doc. 13), stating that she “did not fully understand the legal implications of [her] pro se responsibility in filing an Amended Complaint.” (Doc. 12 at 1.) Defendant does not oppose Plaintiff's motion to refile the Amended Complaint as the operative complaint. (Doc. 14 at 1.) A party seeking leave to amend its pleading outside the time allowed for amendments as a matter of course may do so “only with the opposing party's written consent or the court's leave.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 15(a)(2). Rule 15(a)(2) provides that “[t]he court should freely give leave when justice so requires[, ]” to allow “the maximum opportunity for each claim to be decided on its merits rather than on procedural niceties.” Hardin v. Manitowoc-Forsythe Corp., 691 F.2d 449, 456 (10th Cir. 1982) (citation omitted). As Defendant has provided its written consent and the Amended Complaint more thoroughly lays out Plaintiff's claims for the Court to consider in assessing the jurisdictional question presented in Defendant's Motion to Dismiss, the Court will grant Plaintiff's Motion for Leave to File Amended Complaint (Doc. 12). Plaintiff's Amended Complaint (Doc. 10) is thus the operative complaint in this matter.

         II. Legal Standard

         “[P]ro se . . . pleadings are to be construed liberally and held to a less stringent standard than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers.” Garrett v. Selby Connor Maddux & Janer, 425 F.3d 836, 840 (10th Cir. 2005) (quoting Hall v. Bellmon, 935 F.2d 1106, 1110 (10th Cir. 1991)). The Court may not, however, “serv[e] as the litigant's attorney in constructing arguments and searching the record.” Id. (internal citation omitted).

         Motions to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) “generally take one of two forms: (1) a facial attack on the sufficiency of the complaint's allegations as to subject matter jurisdiction; or (2) a challenge to the actual facts upon which subject matter jurisdiction is based.” Ruiz v. McDonnell, 299 F.3d 1173, 1180 (10th Cir. 2002) (citing Holt v. United States, 46 F.3d 1000, 1002-03 (10th Cir. 1995)). “In reviewing a facial attack, the district court must accept the allegations in the complaint as true.” Stuart v. Colo. Interstate Gas Co., 271 F.3d 1221, 1225 (10th Cir. 2001).

         III. Discussion

         A. Plaintiff's claims fall under the “postal matter” exception to the FTCA.

         The legal doctrine of sovereign immunity dictates that “the United States may not be sued without its consent and that the existence of consent is a prerequisite for jurisdiction.” United States v. Mitchell, 463 U.S. 206, 212 (1983). Federal courts do not have subject matter jurisdiction over claims that are barred by sovereign immunity. Garling v. U.S. Envtl. Prot. Agency, 849 F.3d 1289, 1294 (10th Cir. 2017). Thus, “[j]urisdiction over any suit against the Government requires a clear statement from the United States waiving sovereign ...


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