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United States ex rel. Ellis v. City of Minneapolis

United States District Court, Eighth Circuit

September 25, 2013

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, ex rel. ANDREW ELLIS, HARRIET ELLIS, and MICHAEL W. BLODGETT, Plaintiff-Relators,
v.
CITY OF MINNEAPOLIS, a municipal corporation; CITY OF ST. PAUL, a municipal corporation; METROPOLITAN COUNCIL, as an entity requesting and receiving HUD, CDBG, HOME and other federal funds; and JOHN AND JANE DOES, individually, jointly, and severally, Defendants.

Paul F. Shoemaker and John R. Shoemaker, SHOEMAKER & SHOEMAKER PLLC, for relators Andrew Ellis and Harriet Ellis.

May C. Yang, LAW OFFICE OF MAY C. YANG, for relator Michael W. Blodgett.

Sara J. Lathrop and Tracey N. Fussy, MINNEAPOLIS CITY ATTORNEY'S OFFICE, for defendant City of Minneapolis.

Judith A. Hanson and Portia M. Hampton-Flowers, ST. PAUL CITY ATTORNEY, for defendant City of St. Paul.

Mary G. Dobbins, LANDRUM DOBBINS LLC, for defendant Metropolitan Council.

ORDER

PATRICK J. SCHILTZ, District Judge.

In February 2011, relators Andrew Ellis, Harriet Ellis, and Michael W. Blodgett jointly filed this qui tam action under the False Claims Act ("FCA"), 31 U.S.C. §§ 3729-3733, against defendants City of Minneapolis, City of St. Paul, and the Metropolitan Council. In their original complaint, relators alleged (among many other things) that, although defendants have certified to the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development that they are acting to further fair housing, defendants have in fact taken actions that have reduced the availability of low-income housing in Minneapolis and St. Paul. See Compl. ¶ 2 [ECF No. 1]. Relators also pleaded that the three of them were "original sources" of this information. Id. The Court later found that the relators' complaint was "interminably long and largely incomprehensible" [ECF No. 136 at 1], and the Court held that, "unless relators file an amended complaint that complies with the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, the Local Rules of the District of Minnesota, and this order no later than January 31, 2013, " this action would be "dismissed with prejudice on account of relators' failure to comply with Fed.R.Civ.P. 8." [ECF No. 125 at 6].

After the Court entered its order, the Ellises and Blodgett apparently had a falling out. Thus, instead of filing one amended complaint in compliance with the Court's order, the Ellises and Blodgett retained separate counsel and filed dueling amended complaints. See ECF Nos. 127 and 129. The Ellises' amended complaint (purportedly brought on behalf of the Ellises and Blodgett) continued to allege - consistent with the original complaint - that the Ellises and Blodgett were each an "original source" of the information underlying this action. ECF No. 127 ¶¶ 7, 9, 11. But Blodgett's amended complaint (purportedly brought on behalf of only Blodgett) alleged that only Blodgett - and not the Ellises - was the "original source" of that information. ECF No. 129 ¶ 4. Blodgett made this allegation despite the fact that, in the original verified complaint, he swore under penalty of perjury that the Ellises were "original sources" of the information. Compl. ¶ 2; see also id. at 39.

Because the parties did not have the permission of the Court to split this one action into two separate actions, the Court struck the amended complaints. ECF No. 136. The Court also gave relators another opportunity to file either a single amended complaint or a motion to sever. Id. Relators were warned, however, that the Court was "highly unlikely to permit them to pursue two separate lawsuits, particularly in light of the fact that the FCA authorizes only one lawsuit to be brought based on the facts underlying the pending action.'" Id. at 2 (quoting 31 U.S.C. § 3730(b)(5)).

Despite that warning, Blodgett nevertheless elected to file a motion to sever. ECF No. 137. In an order dated July 12, 2013, Magistrate Judge Tony N. Leung denied Blodgett's motion to sever on two grounds. First, Judge Leung noted that Blodgett had once again failed to comply with the local rules - this time, Local Rule 7.1(a), which requires the contemporaneous filing of a meet-and-confer statement. See ECF No. 157 at 6-7. Second, Judge Leung noted (as the Court had previously warned) that the FCA permits only one suit based on the facts underlying the pending action, and that granting Blodgett's motion would create an impermissible second lawsuit. Id. at 7-8.

This matter is now before the Court on Blodgett's objection to Judge Leung's order. A magistrate judge's ruling on nondispositive pretrial matters may be reversed only if it is "clearly erroneous or contrary to law." 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(A); Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(a). Having reviewed Judge Leung's order and the parties' submissions, the Court finds that the order is neither clearly erroneous nor contrary to law. Judge Leung's order is therefore affirmed. That being said, although the Court affirms Judge Leung's order denying Blodgett's motion to sever - that is, denying Blodgett's motion to split this one lawsuit into two - the Court will nevertheless "sever" Blodgett from this case by dismissing him without prejudice. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 21 ("On motion or on its own, the court may at any time, on just terms, add or drop a party.").

The FCA bars "related action[s] based on the facts underlying the pending action." 31 U.S.C. § 3730(b)(5). Mindful of this, the Court has repeatedly attempted to get relators to reconcile their differences and file a joint amended complaint. See ECF Nos. 125, 136, 157. Blodgett, however, insists that he cannot continue litigating this lawsuit alongside the Ellises without running afoul of his obligation under Rule 11(b) to plead only allegations that he believes have an evidentiary basis. See Obj. at 14 [ECF No. 163]. As noted, Blodgett insists that he cannot now allege that the Ellises are also "original sources" of the relevant information, even though that is precisely what he alleged in the original complaint.

Blodgett has put this Court in an impossible position. On the one hand, the FCA clearly bars Blodgett and the Ellises from pursuing two actions simultaneously. On the other hand, the Court cannot force Blodgett to make allegations that he now insists are untrue. It thus appears that this case cannot proceed with both Blodgett and the Ellises as relators.

The Court will therefore dismiss Blodgett as a party. Under the FCA, only one lawsuit may proceed, and the first-filed lawsuit has precedence over any subsequently filed lawsuits. This is the first-filed action, and the Ellises are willing to continue to pursue this action - that is, an action alleging that the Ellises and Blodgett were all "original sources" of the information. Blodgett is not willing to pursue this action, despite the fact that he brought it. Instead, Blodgett now wants to bring a different action - an action alleging that only Blodgett, and not the ...


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