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Semler v. Williams

United States District Court, Eighth Circuit

August 2, 2013

Raymond L. Semler, Plaintiff,
v.
Beth Williams, Commissioner of Crow Wing County Social Services, Dale Parks, Crow Wing County Social Services Financial Assistance Supervisor III, Judy Miller, Crow Wing County Social Services Financial Worker, Bonnie Peterson, Crow Wing County Social Services Financial Worker, Sheri Gunderson, Crow Wing County Social Services Supervisor, Lucinda Jesson, Commissioner of Minnesota Dept. of Human Services, in their individual and official capacities. Defendants.

Raymond L. Semler, pro se

Corrie A. Oberg, Assistant Attorney General, on behalf of Defendant Lucinda Jesson.

Jessica A. Ommen and James R. Andreen, Esqs., on behalf of Defendants Beth Williams, Dale Parks, Judy Miller, Bonnie Peterson, and Sheri Gunderson.

REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

LEO I. BRISBOIS, Magistrate Judge.

This matter is before the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge on Defendant Jesson's motion to dismiss [Doc. No. 7] and Defendants Williams', Parks', Miller's, Peterson's, and Gunderson's ("the County Defendants") motion to dismiss. [Doc. No. 13]. The case has been referred to this Court for a Report and Recommendation pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636 and Local Rule 72.1. For the reasons discussed below, the Court recommends that Defendant Jesson's motion to dismiss be granted [Doc. No. 7]; and Defendants Williams', Parks', Miller's, Peterson's, and Gunderson's motion to dismiss be granted [Doc. No. 13].

I. BACKGROUND

A. The Complaint

This case arises out of the denial of Semler's May 2010 and subsequent applications to Crow Wing County Social Services ("the county agency") for general and medical assistance ("GA" and "MA"), based on Semler's refusal to supply a copy of his 2009 federal tax return. The May 2010 county agency decision was affirmed by the Minnesota Court of Appeals in September 2011. County agency denials of Semler's subsequent applications for GA/MA assistance were affirmed by the Crow Wing County District Court based on the Minnesota Court of Appeals decision.

Plaintiff Raymond Semler ("Semler") is civilly committed in the Minnesota Sex Offender Program ("MSOP"). (Compl. § 1, ¶ 1.) Semler received a recertification application from Crow Wing County Social Services in May 2010 to qualify for general/medical assistance. (Compl. § IV, ¶ 1.) Semler returned the application with his patient account statement from MSOP. ( Id. ) Semler also received his 2009 federal tax return in May 2010. ( Id. ) Crow Wing County Social Services asked Semler for a copy of his 2009 federal tax return but he did not provide it. ( Id. , ¶ 2.) Defendant Bonnie Peterson terminated Semler from receiving general/medical assistance based on inconsistencies between his tax refund and his earned income in 2009. ( Id. , ¶ 1.) Semler was not actually receiving general/medical assistance at the time of termination; he last received general assistance in 2006. ( Id. )

Prior to filing his civil rights complaint in this Court on November 1, 2012, Semler appealed the county agency decision to terminate his general and medical assistance. (Compl. § IV, ¶ 2; Affidavit of Jessica Ommen ("Ommen Aff.") [Doc. No. 15-1] ¶ 3, Ex. C.) Semler appealed the decision through the administrative appeal process, then to Crow Wing County District Court, the Minnesota Court of Appeals, and the Minnesota Supreme Court. ( Id. ) The Minnesota Court of Appeals affirmed the County's decision on September 19, 2011, and the Minnesota Supreme Court denied review on November 15, 2011. (Ommen Aff., ¶ 3, Exs. A, B.)

The Minnesota Court of Appeals found the county agency did not violate Minn. Stat. § 256.028 because it did not count Semler's tax refund as income or an asset. Semler v. Crow Wing County Social Services et al , No. A11-642, 2011 WL 4346347 at *2 (Minn.Ct.App. Sept. 19, 2011)). The county agency only wanted to see his tax return to verify eligibility for benefits because it believed his refund amount was inconsistent with his reported income. ( Id. )

The Minnesota Court of Appeals also rejected Semler's argument that he had "an ongoing property interest and legitimate claim of entitlement to general-assistance benefits." ( Id. at *3) The Minnesota Court of Appeals held that, pursuant to Minn. R. 9500.1206, sub. 28d; 9500.1215, subp. 4C, Semler did not have a property interest in general assistance benefits because he refused to cooperate with further investigation to verify his eligibility after the county received information that was inconsistent with information on his application. ( Id. )

Finally, the Minnesota Court of Appeals denied Semler's claim that the county violated The Rehabilitation Act, 29 U.S.C. § 794(a)(504) (2006) by terminating his general assistance benefits due to his mental illness. ( Id. ) The court rejected this claim for a number of reasons, including Semler's failure to identify a disability that prevented him from providing a copy or release of his 2009 tax return to the county. ( Id. )

While Semler's appeal before the Minnesota Court of Appeals was pending, he reapplied for general/medical assistance in June 2011; his application was granted, and he received benefits for the months of June, July, August and September 2011. (Compl. § IV, ¶ 3.) Defendant Judy Miller found that Semler was eligible for benefits. ( Id. ) Later, Semler was notified that he would not receive his payment in October 2011, due to the Minnesota Court of Appeals decision regarding his earlier termination of benefits. ( Id. ) Semler appealed this decision. ( Id. )

A hearing was held on Semler's appeal by telephone conference on October 25, 2011. (Compl. § IV, ¶ 4.) Defendants Dale Parks and Judy Miller were involved in the hearing before Human Services Judge Patrick Kontz. ( Id. ) The county agency agreed that Semler's 2009 income was irrelevant to his eligibility for benefits in 2011, but found it was necessary for Semler to provide his 2009 tax return to indicate his sources of income; for example, to see if he had an income producing asset. ( Id. ) Semler's appeals were denied at all levels of the agency administrative procedures and by the Crow Wing County District Court. ( Id. , ¶¶ 4, 15.)

On October 3, 2011, Semler received a letter from Defendant Parks notifying him that his case was opened in error, and Semler would not be eligible for benefits before submitting his 2009 tax return. ( Id. , ¶ 5.) Semler continued to apply for and was denied general/medical assistance, and Defendant Parks appeared at the hearings on appeal. ( Id. , ¶ 6.) In a March 26, 2012 hearing on one of Semler's appeals, Defendant Parks contended that the county still needed Semler's 2009 tax information to determine if he had an asset that was producing income in 2011-2012. ( Id. )

Semler alleges he is the only person within the MSOP facility who has been forced to supply his 2009 federal income tax return to Defendants to qualify for general/medical assistance, not only for 2010 but for subsequent years. ( Id. , ¶ 8.) Semler contends he is entitled to preliminary injunctive relief because Defendants have effectively permanently terminated his benefits. ( Id. , ¶ 9.) Semler alleges Defendant Parks stated he would deny any and all applications Semler filed. ( Id. , ¶ 12.) Semler contends this violates his right to procedural due process. ( Id. ) Semler received another denial of his benefits application from a Human Services Judge on June 5, 2012, based on previous denials and the September 19, 2011 Minnesota Court of Appeals decision. ( Id. , ¶ 14.)[1] Although the Crow Wing County District Court is not a defendant in this action, Semler asserts it and the county agency [also not a party] violated his right to procedural due process and equal protection by barring him from ever receiving general assistance while he is civilly committed. ( Id. , ¶ 15.)

Semler alleges Defendant Jesson is responsible for administering general and medical assistance according to law and agency rules, and she knew or should have known of the alleged violations but failed or refused to stop the violations. ( Id. , ¶ 16.) Semler alleges Defendant Beth Williams is the Commissioner of Crow Wing County Social Services, and as such, she knew or should have known of the alleged violations and failed or refused to stop the violations. ( Id. , ¶ 17.)

Semler also alleges continued violation of Minn. Stat. § 256.028, which provides that federal or state tax rebates are not counted as income or as an asset for purposes of any of the public assistance programs under this chapter or any other chapter. ( Id. ) Semler alleges Defendants violated and continue to violate 28 U.S.C. § 6103, which generally provides that tax returns and return information shall be confidential, except as authorized under that title. ( Id. ) Semler alleges Defendants violated Minn. Rule 9500.1223, which excludes federal income tax refunds as income for general assistance. ( Id. , ¶ 19.) Semler alleges the defendants and the Crow Wing County District Court, by virtue of its recent order, deprived him of his right to appeal future denials of his general/medical assistance claims. ( Id. ) Semler requests all appropriate injunctive relief and money damages. (Compl., § 5.)

B. Motions to Dismiss

Defendant Jesson moves to dismiss for the following reasons: 1) Eleventh Amendment immunity; 2) no personal involvement; 3) failure to state a due process claim under the Fourteenth Amendment; 4) failure to state an equal protection claim under the Fourteenth Amendment; and 5) qualified immunity. (Def. Lucinda Jesson's Mem. of Law in Supp. of her Mot. to Dismiss [Doc. No. 9]).

The County Defendants move to dismiss for the following reasons: 1) failure to state a Fourteenth Amendment due process violation; 2) res judicata, collateral estoppel or the Rooker Feldman doctrine; 3) failure to state a Fourteenth Amendment equal protection claim; 4) failure to state official capacity claims; and 5) qualified immunity. (County Defs' Mem. of Law in Supp. of their Mot. to Dismiss Pl's Compl. ("County Defs' Mem.") [Doc. No. 14.])

II. DISCUSSION

The County Defendants argue the Court should dismiss Semler's due process claims under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, res judicata or collateral estoppel because the Minnesota Court of Appeals "affirmed Defendants' judgment under the very same contentions Semler makes here." (County Defs' Mem. at 6, n. 1). Unlike the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, the doctrines of res judicata and collateral estoppel are affirmative defenses that are not jurisdictional. See Exxon Mobil Corp. v. Saudi Basic Indus. Corp. , 544 U.S. 280, 293 (2005) ("[p]reclusion, of course, is not a jurisdictional matter.") Rooker-Feldman does not "stop a district court from exercising subject-matter jurisdiction simply because a party attempts to litigate in federal court a matter previously litigated in state court, " because "[i]f a federal plaintiff present[s] some independent claim, albeit one that denies a legal conclusion that a state court has reached in a case to which he was a party..., then there is jurisdiction and state law determines whether the ...


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