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Wong v. Minnesota Department of Human Services

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

March 29, 2018

Eric Wong, Plaintiff,
v.
Minnesota Department of Human Services, Emily Johnson Piper, Hennepin County Human Services and Public Health Department, and Rex A. Holzemer, Defendants.

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

          STEVEN E. RAU, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         The above-captioned case comes before the undersigned on Defendants Hennepin County Human Services (“HCHS”) and Public Health Department and Rex A. Holzemer's (“County Defendants”) Motion to Dismiss Pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 37(b)(2)(A)(v) [Doc. No. 102] and Defendants Minnesota Department of Human Services (“DHS”) and Emily Johnson Piper's (“State Defendants”) Motion to Dismiss Pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 37(b)(2)(A)(v) [Doc. No. 109] (collectively “Motions to Dismiss”). This matter has been referred for the resolution of pretrial matters pursuant to 28 U.S.C § 636 and District of Minnesota Local Rule 72.1. See (Order of Reference) [Doc. No. 120]. For the reasons stated below, the Court recommends that the Motions to Dismiss be granted and this case be dismissed with prejudice.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff Eric Wong (“Wong”) brought suit against both County and State Defendants in December of 2013, alleging claims under: Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”); section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, 29 U.S.C. §§ 706, 794 (“RA”); the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution; 42 U.S.C. § 1983; and judicial review of state administrative decisions under Minnesota Statutes § 256.045, subdivision 7. See (Compl.) [Doc. No. 1 at 21-29]. Wong's Complaint was filed by his attorney at the time, Paul Hansmeier (“Hansmeier”). See (id. at 33).

         On September 29, 2014, the Honorable Judge Donovan W. Frank dismissed Wong's complaint with prejudice. (Mem. Op. & Order Dated September 26, 2014) [Doc. No. 33]. Wong appealed, and the Eight Circuit affirmed in part and vacated in part Judge Frank's decision and remanded for further consideration. (Op. of the United States Ct. of Appeals) [Doc. No. 38]. Consistent with the Eighth Circuit's opinion, Judge Frank issued a subsequent order on October 26, 2016, holding that Wong's claims for injunctive relief against defendants Johnson and Holzemer remained as did Wong's claims under the RA against all Defendants. (Mem. Op. & Order Dated Oct. 26, 2016, “Oct. 2016 Order”) [Doc. No. 48 at 16-19, 22]. Judge Frank also exercised supplemental jurisdiction over Wong's claim under Minnesota Statutes § 256.045, subdivision 7. (Id. at 20-21, 22). Judge Frank dismissed all other claims with prejudice, including claims under the ADA for monetary damages against all defendants and for injunctive relief against the DHS and HCHS. (Id. at 19, 22).

         In the intervening time between the Eight Circuit's decision and Judge Frank's October 2016 Order, Hansmeier was suspended, leaving Wong unrepresented in this matter. Order of Suspension Dated September 15, 2016, In Re Paul Robert Hansmeier, 16-mc-53 (JRT) [Doc. No. 1].

         Wong first alerted the Court that he was having trouble obtaining substitute counsel by letter. See (Letter Dated Jan. 4, 2017) [Doc. No. 66]. Wong asserted that he is wheelchair-bound and has difficulty leaving the house because of pain associated with being moved. (Id. ¶ 4). Wong also asserted that he was in the process of retaining a new attorney, but that he “intend[ed] to continue this case and will not drop it for any reason even if [he is] forced to continue the case pro se.” (Id. ¶¶ 2, 3). On this basis, the Court proceeded to conduct its pretrial activities, but was stymied by Wong's failure to participate. See, e.g., (Minute Entry Dated Feb. 8, 2017) [Doc. No. 69]; (Pretrial Scheduling Order) [Doc. No. 70]. For example, the Court rescheduled a pretrial conference because neither the County Defendants nor State Defendants could reach Wong in order to conduct meet and confer efforts prior to the pretrial conference. (Order Dated Dec. 29, 2016) [Doc. No. 65 at 1]. As part of the Order rescheduling the pretrial conference, the Court allowed Wong to attend telephonically. See (id. at 2). Notwithstanding the additional accommodations made by the Court, Wong did not appear at the rescheduled pretrial conference. See (Pretrial Scheduling Order at 1-2) (detailing the steps the Court undertook to enable Wong's participation and discussing his general failure to participate). Because of Wong's failure to participate in the litigation and on the basis of his assertion that he intended to continue pro se, the Court requested that “[i]f Mr. Wong would like the Court to consider whether appointment of counsel is warranted, Mr. Wong must do so by formal motion, including exhibits and sworn statements as needed, consistent with the Local Rules.” (Text Only Entry Dated Mar. 17, 2017) [Doc. No. 72].

         Four months later, the Court received a letter from Wong's mother-who is not an attorney-writing on behalf of her son. (Letter Dated July 12, 2017) [Doc. No. 75].[1] In her letter she asserted that “because of his medical condition, [Wong] cannot prepare and bring a formal motion asking for a court-appointed attorney.” (Id.). Next, County Defendants and State Defendants each filed respective motions to compel discovery. See (County Defs.' Mot. To Compel) [Doc. No. 76]; (State Defs.' Mot. to Compel Discovery) [Doc. No. 84]. As part of Defendants' motions, they attested that Wong failed to respond to their meet and confer efforts. See (LR 7.1(a) Meet & Confer Statement) [Doc. No. 80]; (State Defs.' Compliance With Obligations to Meet & Confer Under LR 7.1(a)) [Doc. No. 86].

         Soon thereafter-and despite the representation to the Court by Wong's mother-on August 21, 2017, Wong filed a Motion to Appoint Counsel. (Mot. to Appoint Counsel) [Doc. No. 92]. Finding that Wong failed to substantiate his claims that appointment of counsel was warranted, this Court denied his motion. (Order Dated Oct. 10, 2017, “Oct. 2017 Order”) [Doc. No. 99]. The Court also noticed a hearing on Defendants' motions to compel, allowing Wong to appear telephonically. See (Text Only Notice Dated Sept. 1, 2017) [Doc. No. 98].

         At the hearing on the motions to compel, Wong appeared by phone but provided no arguments related to the Defendants' respective Motions to Compel. Ruling from the bench, this Court instructed that Wong comply with Defendants discovery requests within thirty (30) days and that if Wong failed to do so, the Court would entertain motions for sanctions, including dismissal. See (Text Only Order Dated Oct. 18, 2017) [Doc. No. 101].

         Wong never provided discovery and the County Defendants and State Defendants filed their respective Motions to Dismiss. (Mots. to Dismiss). Both the County Defendants and State Defendants argue that Wong's willful disregard of the Court's discovery orders and the prejudice inherent in their inability to defend themselves without the information in Wong's possession justify dismissal under the circumstances. See generally (Mem. of Law in Supp. of Mot. to Dismiss Pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 37(b)(2)(A)(v), “County Defs.' Mem. in Supp.”) [Doc. No. 105]; (State Defs.' Mem. of Law in Supp. of Mot. to Dismiss Pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 37(b)(2)(A)(v), “State Defs.' Mem. in Supp.”) [Doc. No. 112].

         Wong never responded to Defendants' Motions to Dismiss, despite this Court giving Wong an extension to respond sua sponte. See (Text Only Order Dated Dec. 20, 2017) [Doc. No. 118] (allowing Wong to respond to both Motions to Dismiss on or before January 31, 2018). Instead, at the eleventh hour, Wong's mother filed a letter with the Court stating “Eric Wong currently is not well enough to respond.” (Letter Dated Jan. 31, 2018) [Doc. No. 119].

         II. DISCUSSION

         A. ...


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