Tatro v. Citigroup. Inc

The court in this case discusses whether the plaintiff should be allowed to use “forma pauperis” and proceed with his several law suits filed against “UFS Debt Recovery Service” and “Oxford Collection Agency” along with other defendants mentioned in his third application
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Introduction

The matter was before the United States District Court District of Rhode Island. The decision was given in January 2012. The case of Tatro v Citigroup. Inc[1], offers an explanation for the cases which do not go by the applicability of “in forma pauperis’ even when a statute provides for it. The term “in forma pauperis” gives an impetus to the people for access to justice. In this case, the court has laid down several rules and followed the approach taken in different case laws to come to a conclusion. A case that has been pending in the court for years, with civil suits filed against 24 several defendants over the course of the case, has been properly dealt with and dismissed citing justifications. In this case comment, I shall be discussing the previous case laws that already exist on this issue and the approach that courts which is either in consonance or dissonance with them.

Facts in brief

In 2008, Plaintiff named Michael P. Tatro was sentenced to imprisonment for fifty-one months for committing ‘bank fraud’ and filing an illegitimate federal tax return. In 2009, the plaintiff filed an application in Rhode Island Superior Court against 14 defendants alleging violations of provisions of “the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA)”[2]. Later, he settled the matter with some of the defendants and dismissed the others. He then filed a second altered application against a few new defendants with the same allegations i.e. FCRA violations. He made settlement with some of these defendants while failed in perusing the case for obtaining the defaulted amount from the others. After being served with an ‘Order to Show Cause(OSC)” notice for not providing sufficient proof against other defendants, the plaintiff filed another application against a few new defendants and seeking leave for not including factual allegations and ‘service of process’ against ‘Oxford Collection Agency’ and “UFS Debt Recovery Service,. The plaintiff had no other objection in the matter of the Court dismissing the complaints against other defendants but ‘UFS Debt Recovery Service’ and ‘Oxford Collection Agency’

The “Prison Litigation Reforms Act (PLRA)”[3] that states that “a prisoner may be excused from pre payment of a civil case fee but for each individual civil case, it is still required to pay an initial partial filing fee and subsequent instalments until the filing fee is paid in full.”

This act also requires a screening process of Court to clear out “frivolous and meritless claims” and a “three strike rule” which basically restricts the ability of a prisoner to file any complaints if any of his/her previous cases had been dismissed as “frivolous, malicious or for failing to state a claim on three or more prior occasions”[4]

It was decided from the records that for previous complaints, the prisoners had not paid any filing fee and neither were his original claims and subsequent amendments been subjected to any screening process prescribed by the PLRA.

The Judge dismissed the applications after suggesting several conclusions.

The Issue in this Case

Whether the plaintiff should be allowed to use “forma pauperis” and proceed with his several law suits filed against “UFS Debt Recovery Service” and “Oxford Collection Agency” along with other defendants mentioned in his third application.[5]

Summary of the Judgement

The Court observed that it was the Plaintiff’s strategy to replenish and reload from time to time by bringing in and filing complaints against various defendants and then later entering into settlement agreements with them. It was observed that most of the complaints filed by the plaintiff were violations of the FCRA provisions, but, the defendants and the nature of the events were not usually similar. Thus, these separate claims should be proceeded with in separate law suits and not one single lawsuit. For coming to this conclusion the Court relied on the case of George v Smith[6] wherein it was observed that “unrelated claims against different defendants belong in different suits, not only to pervert the sort of Morass but also to ensure that the provisions of PLRA, that limits the number of civil suits that can be filed without the application fee to three, is adhered to”. Further, Rule 20(a)(2), Fed. R Civ. P[7] provided that “separate persons or entities may be joined in one complaint as defendants if there is a claim ‘asserted’ against them , jointly, severally or in the alternative with respect to or arising out of the same transaction, occurrence or series of transaction, an occurrence and any question of law or fact ‘common’ to all defendants will arise in the action.” By referring to this rule, the Court observed that the Plaintiff had tried to circumvent the requirements of fee filing and PLRA and violated the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure with the intention that if he filed several civil law suits against several defendants in one single lawsuit, his overall court fee would be reduced.

The Court then ordered for the case to be closed and recommended the following conclusions:

  1. For the plaintiff to dismiss the case against the defendants mentioned in the second applications within thirty days or the Court shall dismiss the case without prejudice.
  2. Regarding Oxford, the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure Rule 4(m)[8] required the Plaintiff to serve a notice to oxford within 120 days. The plaintiff had claimed that he did serve Oxford but did not submit any proof to support his claim. After six months of being informed that he had not effectively served Oxford, his appeal, to be given more time to serve Oxford, cannot be granted. Thus, his complaints filed against Oxford were dismissed.
  3. Regarding “UFS Debt Recovery Services”, it was noted that the Plaintiff, in the first application, did not mention any “factual allegation” against USF and later had tried to file fresh allegations for violations of FCRA in the third, amended  application. The Plaintiff action was regarded as “too little and too late to revive his unstated claims against the UFS”. Thus, it was recommended to dismiss his claims against USF.
  4. Keeping in mind the history of the Plaintiff’s actions in this case, it is better to dismiss his leave to file third amended claims, so as to fulfil the requirement of Justice and it was said “Justice requires denial of Plaintiff’s motion for leave to amend”.

Thus, his motion was denied.

Analysis

For deciding on the dismissal of the complaints against Oxford

The Court strictly went by the Federal rules of civil procedure- rule 4(m)[9] that stated “Time Limit for Service. If a defendant is not served within 120 days after the complaint is filed, the court—on motion or on its own after notice to the plaintiff—must dismiss the action without prejudice against that defendant or order that service be made within a specified time. But if the plaintiff shows good cause for the failure, the court must extend the time for service for an appropriate period”. Even though the plaintiff submitted that he had effectively served Oxford within the stipulated time period, he failed to prove his contention. Thus, the Court, following this rule, ordered for the dismissal of the complaint against Oxford.

For deciding on the dismissal of the complaints against USF

It was observed by the Court that the Plaintiff, in the first application, did not mention any “factual allegation” against USF and later had tried to file fresh allegations for violations of FCRA in the third, amended, application. Rule 8(a), Fed. R Civ. P states that “A pleading that states a claim for relief must contain: (1) a short and plain statement of the grounds for the court’s jurisdiction, unless the court already has jurisdiction and the claim needs no new jurisdictional support, (2) a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief  and(3) a demand for the relief sought, which may include relief in the alternative or different types of relief.”[10] It was seen that the above mentioned requirements were not fulfilled while considering the initial application. Further, in Rule12(b)(6) it is given that “But a party may assert the following defences to a claim for relief by motion: (6) failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted”[11]. Thus, while deciding on this issues, the Court strictly went by the Rules and dismissed the complaints.

Similarly in Polyns C. Bieregu v John Ashcroft[12], the Court had to determine “whether the petition by the plaintiff should be dismissed as frivolous or malicious, for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, or because it seeks monetary relief from a defendant who is immune from such relief”. The Judge dismissed the petition stating “Nothing in this case suggests that plaintiff may be able to state a valid claim by amending the Complaint at this time.”

However, the Court strayed from the observations in the case of Denton v. Hernandez[13] “that Where a complaint can be remedied by an amendment, a district court may not dismiss the complaint with prejudice, but must permit the amendment.” 

In Forma Pauperis

In Forma Pauperis may be defined as “a phrase that indicates the permission given by a Court to an indigent to initiate a legal action without having to pay for court fees or costs due to his/her lack of financial resources.”[14] The initial case on for consideration before the Rhode Island Superior Court by the Plaintiff’s Motion to Proceed in Forma Pauperis.

Under the PLRA, “a prisoner may be excused from pre-payment of a civil case fee but for each individual civil case, it is still required to pay an initial partial filing fee and subsequent instalments until the filing fee is paid in full.”[15]. The Plaintiff filed for the applicability of this in his petition and it was observed that the Plaintiff had not paid filing fee for any of the lawsuits that he had initiated. This breached the provisions of the PLRA which put a cap on the number of suits that can be initiated without any filing fee. The Court observed that it were the plaintiff’s attempts to circumvent such provisions.

The court observed that even if the leave is granted, the Plaintiff would not be able to prove his claims. In Neitzke v. Williams[16], it was observed that “a complaint is frivolous if it “lacks an arguable basis either in law or in fact.””. 

In a similar case Milhouse v. Carlson[17] it was held that “a pro se complaint may be dismissed for failure to state a claim only if it appears “`beyond doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of his claim which would entitle him to relief”

Even though the Plaintiff was allowed in the initial appeal to apply in forma pauperis in his claims, upon his subsequent applications, he needed the permission of the court for its applicability. in Morgan v. Haro[18], the court re iterated the PLRA stating “The PLRA, by contrast, provides that a prisoner who was permitted to proceed in forma pauperis in the district court and who wishes to continue to proceed in forma pauperis on appeal may not do so “automatically,” but must seek permission.” Thus, the court, by virtue of this section, denied to give permission for the applicability as it would have led to further violations of FLRA.

In George v Smith[19], it was observed that a single lawsuit, that has several claims against several defendants but for the same action or transaction, can be allowed. But the court cannot allow that several claims being made against several defendants for different actions or transactions. 

Conclusion

The Court, thus, dismissed the plaintiff’s petition asking for a leave to amend and to add a new claims against a defendant. The Court stated that justice requires this pending removed case to be dismissed as it was observed that the real intention of the plaintiff was to circumvent the laws and rules so as to bring several actions against several defendants in one single lawsuit. The plaintiff was denied from pursuing a claim against Oxford and this order was given in the light of the established rules. The Court strictly adhered to the Federal rules and decided to dismiss the appeal. Thus, this case serves an example to prevent people from circumventing the FLRA laws, that were made for their benefit and keeping their situation in mind, for their own frivolous motives.

Also read The Punjab National Bank (PNB) Scam


[1] Tatro v Citigroup. Inc C.A no. 09-631S

[2] Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), 15 U.S.C. § 1681

[3] The Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), 42 U.S.C. § 1997e

[4] The Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), 42 U.S.C. § 1997e

[5] Tatro v Citigroup. Inc C.A no. 09-631S

[6] George v Smith 507 F.3d 605, 607

[7] Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 1983

[8] Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 1983

[9] Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 1983

[10] Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 1983

[11] Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 1983

[12] Polyns C. Bieregu v John Ashcroft 259 F. Supp. 2d 342

[13] Denton v. Hernandez 504 U.S. 25

[14] In Forma Pauperis, West’s Encyclopaedia of American Law( 2nd Ed. 2008)

[15] The Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), 42 U.S.C. § 1997e

[16] Neitzke v. Williams 490 U.S. 319

[17] Milhouse v. Carlson 652 F.2d 371, 373 (3d Cir.1981).

[18] Morgan v. Haro 112 F.3d 788, 789

[19] George v Smith 507 F.3d 605, 607

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