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Jordening v. Brown

United States District Court, N.D. Mississippi, Oxford Division

January 24, 2017

KEN K. BROWN, Deputy Director of Driver Services Bureau of the Mississippi Department of Public Safety DEFENDANT



         The pro se plaintiff Harold Jordening has filed a motion for default judgment in the above-entitled action, after the clerk's entry of default against defendant Ken K. Brown. Defendant has responded in opposition to the motion, and he has submitted his own motion to set aside the entry of default. After considering the parties' submissions, this court concludes that plaintiff's motion should be denied and that defendant's motion should be granted.

         Plaintiff filed this action against Brown, who is Deputy Director of the Driver Services Bureau of the Mississippi Department of Public Safety (MDPS). In his complaint, plaintiff alleges that he was wrongfully denied, in violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, a driver's license, based upon his medical history. In his complaint, plaintiff seeks monetary damages against Brown, but, as this court noted in an April 13, 2016 show cause order, it seems clear that plaintiff's allegations implicate the official actions of the MDPS in denying him a driver's license. Indeed, the complaint clearly alleges an organizational failure on the part of the MDPS to grant him a license, and it does not appear to allege any specific wrongdoing by Brown himself. In its prior order, the court noted that it “therefore interprets the complaint as one filed against the MDPS itself, with Brown merely being sued in an official, representative capacity.”

         This court's show cause order was entered in response to plaintiff's motion for default judgment. In that motion, plaintiff correctly noted that defendant had not filed an answer, or any other response, to the complaint, and that the clerk had accordingly issued an entry of default against him. In its show cause order, this court did not rule upon this motion, but it did express its sympathy with plaintiff, based on the evident hardships he has had to endure in living without a driver's license. Specifically, this court wrote that:

The complaint in this case alleges that plaintiff was deprived of a driver's license in violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Moreover, plaintiff alleges that, as a result of this failure, he has “no one [to] take him to church, doctor's appointments or any place he need[s] to go. He walks with a crutch due to disability where ever he wants to go, or hitch hike with anyone willing to assist him to get where he needs to go.” Needless to say, this court has considerable sympathy for plaintiff's plight, based upon these allegations. Moreover, the docket asserts that service of process was validly served upon Brown, and a clerk's entry of default was issued against him. At a minimum, it appears from the record that someone at the MDPS was served with process, but this court is unable to state whether this was legally effective process. While different service of process standards do not apply to pro se plaintiffs, it is appropriate for this court to at least consider plaintiff's status in determining the disposition of this case. So considered, it appears to this court that the MDPS should have provided some response to the complaint in this case.

[Slip op. at 3].

         While expressing its sympathy with plaintiff's predicament, this court also noted that it doubted its jurisdiction to enter even a default judgment for monetary damages against defendant, given the Eleventh Amendment immunity concerns which plainly exist in this context. Specifically, this court wrote that:

Based upon this reading of the complaint, this court has serious doubts regarding its jurisdiction to enter the default judgment for monetary damages sought by the plaintiff. It is well settled that “absent waiver by the State or valid congressional override, the Eleventh Amendment bars a damages action against a State in federal court, ” and “[t]his bar remains in effect when State officials are sued for damages in their official capacity.” Osborne v. Travis Cty., No. 15 50202, 2016 WL 104410, at *2 (5th Cir. Jan. 8, 2016), quoting Kentucky v. Graham, 473 U.S. 159, 169, 105 S.Ct. 3099, 87 L.Ed.2d 114 (1985). It is clear that the MDPS is an arm of the state for Eleventh Amendment purposes. Indeed, the Fifth Circuit has stated, in the context of an action against an MDPS official, that “when the action is in essence one for the recovery of money from the state, the state is the real, substantial party in interest and is entitled to invoke its sovereign immunity from suit even though individual officials are nominal defendants.” Henley v. Simpson, 527 F.App'x 303, 306 (5th Cir. 2013), quoting Ford Motor Co. v. Dep't of Treas. of State of Ind., 323 U.S. 459, 464, 65 S.Ct. 347 (1945). Henley is closely on point in this case, and it strongly suggests that this court lacks jurisdiction to award plaintiff monetary damages in this case. Moreover, Eleventh Amendment immunity is a jurisdictional issue, and it is appropriate for this court to raise it on its own motion, if necessary. See Perez v. Region 20 Educ. Serv. Ctr., 307 F.3d 318, 333 n. 8 (5th Cir. 2002) (“[W]e may consider this [sovereign immunity] issue sua sponte because it bears on this court's subject matter jurisdiction.”)

[Slip op. at 1-2].

         This court thus expressed (and reiterates here) its doubts that it has jurisdiction to enter a monetary judgment against defendant, but it also raised the possibility that it might have jurisdiction to enter an order directing him to issue plaintiff a driver's license. In so concluding, this court observed that:

This court notes, however, that plaintiff also seeks an order directing the “Mississippi Department of Public Safety to reinstate [his] driver's license immediately, ” and this is a claim for which this court does potentially have jurisdiction. Indeed, a plaintiff can sometimes avoid the jurisdictional bar posed by sovereign immunity by suing a state officer and challenging the actions of that officer as prohibited by federal law and therefore ultra vires. Ex Parte Young, 209 U.S. 123, 28 S.Ct. 441, 52 L.Ed. 714 (1908). So long as the plaintiff seeks prospective injunctive relief, a federal court may consider whether the state officer's actions are forbidden by federal law. Edelman v. Jordan, 415 U.S. 651, 94 S.Ct. 1347, 39 L.Ed.2d 662 (1974).

[Slip op. at 2-3]. This court thus raised the possibility that the limited Ex Parte Young exception to Eleventh Amendment immunity might permit it to grant the injunctive relief plaintiff seeks. This court cautioned, however, that even the applicability of this limited exception was questionable, since:

Ex Parte Young constitutes a rather narrow exception to its general lack of jurisdiction to enter judgments against the state. This fact requires this court to proceed cautiously in entering any default judgment ordering Brown to issue plaintiff a driver's license. Indeed, it is not even clear to this court that Brown is, in fact, the correct state official to ...

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