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Paul Eugene LAWSON, TDCJ No. 675063, Plaintiff, v. UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE, Defendant.
Before the Court is Defendant's Motion to Dismiss (ECF No. 37), filed April 15, 2019. Having consider the motion, response, reply, pleadings, record, and applicable law, the Court GRANTS the motion.
On May 7, 2018, pro se Plaintiff Paul Eugene Lawson (“Plaintiff”) filed a Complaint under the Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”), 5 U.S.C. § 552, seeking the production of certain documents. Compl., ECF No. 1. At the time he filed his Complaint, he was incarcerated at the James V. Allred Unit, a state correctional facility in Iowa Park, Texas, serving a seventy-five year sentence for a murder conviction. See App. Supp. Def.'s Mot. Dismiss 1-2, ECF No. 39; see also State v. Lawson, No. 93-CR-5983 (186th Dist. Ct., Bexar County, Tex.). In the Complaint, Plaintiff sought “ ‘all Bonding and Financial Information’ that has been collected by all individuals and agents of the federal agencies throughout the government.” Compl. ¶ 6. Plaintiff asserted that Defendant improperly withheld responsive documents and that, as a result, “the Owner of Trade Name PAUL LAWSON®” lost “thirty (30%) percent of accrued interest.” See id. at ¶ 15; see also id. at ¶¶ 12, 20. He further claimed that “[v]enue is proper in the Northern District of Texas, in the Wichita Falls Division, because defendant's and their agents may be found here.” Id. at ¶ 4; see also id. at p. 7 (citing 28 U.S.C. § 1391(b)(2) as “[v]enue selection reference”).
After Plaintiff filed his Complaint, he filed an application to proceed in forma pauperis, which the Court granted. See ECF Nos. 5, 6. The Court, in its order granting Plaintiff's application, instructed Plaintiff that “[n]o amendments or supplements to the complaint shall be filed without prior Court approval or order.” Order ¶ 5, ECF No. 6. Without obtaining leave from the Court, Plaintiff subsequently filed several documents, including, inter alia, a “complaint in intervention,” a “complaint in interpleader,” and two interlocutory appeal notices. The “complaint in interpleader” asserts that “[v]enue is proper ․, because one or more of the claimants reside in this district.” Interpleader Compl. ¶ 3, ECF No. 30.
II. LEGAL STANDARD – Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(3)
“There is a split of authority among federal courts and in the Fifth Circuit with regard to which party bears the burden of establishing venue on a Rule 12(b)(3) motion to dismiss for improper venue.” Victory Renewables, LLC v. Energy Trading Co., LLC, No. 3:18-cv-00456-L (BT), 2019 WL 2539209, at *3 (N.D. Tex. Feb. 8, 2019), report and recommendation adopted sub nom. Victory Renewables, LLC v. Energy Trading Co., LLC, No. 3:18-CV-456-L, 2019 WL 2540738 (N.D. Tex. Mar. 6, 2019). It appears, however, that once a defendant has moved to dismiss based on improper venue, the majority of courts place the burden of establishing venue on the plaintiff. See id. (citations omitted); Broadway Nat'l Bank v. Plano Encryption Techs., LLC, 173 F. Supp. 3d 469, 473 n.2 (W.D. Tex. 2016) (citing cases). Further, as at least one court has noted, “[t]his approach may be considered the better view because it is consistent with the plaintiff's threshold obligation to show that the case belongs in the particular district court in which suit has been instituted.” Broadway Nat'l Bank, 173 F. Supp. 3d at 473 n.2 (citing 14D Charles Alan Wright, et al., Federal Practice & Procedure § 3826 (4th ed. 2013)) (internal quotation marks omitted); see also Nuttall v. Juarez, 984 F. Supp. 2d 637, 642 (N.D. Tex. 2013) (same). Because this Court finds the majority approach is the better approach, Plaintiff has the burden to establish venue is proper in the Northern District of Texas.
If a court does not hold an evidentiary hearing, a plaintiff may carry his burden by presenting facts that, taken as true, would establish venue. Broadway Nat'l Bank, 173 F. Supp. 3d at 473. The court must accept as true all well-pleaded allegations in the complaint and resolve all conflicts in the plaintiff's favor. Nuttall, 984 F. Supp. 2d at 642 (citing Braspetro Oil Servs. Co. v. Modec (USA), Inc., 240 F. App'x 612, 615 (5th Cir. 2007)). Moreover, when deciding a Rule 12(b)(3) motion, “the court is permitted to look at evidence in the record beyond simply those facts alleged in the complaint and its proper attachments.” Ambraco, Inc. v. Bossclip B.V., 570 F.3d 233, 238 (5th Cir. 2009) (“[T]he court may find a plausible set of facts by considering any of the following: (1) the complaint alone; (2) the complaint supplemented by the undisputed facts evidenced in the record; or (3) the complaint supplemented by undisputed facts plus the court's resolution of disputed facts.”).
If a district court where suit is filed determines that venue is improper, it has discretion to either dismiss the suit, or “if it be in the interest of justice, transfer such case to any district or division in which it could have been brought.” 28 U.S.C. § 1406(a). A district court has “broad discretion in deciding whether to order a transfer.” Caldwell v. Palmetto State Sav. Bank of S.C., 811 F.2d 916, 919 (5th Cir. 1987). Generally, when dismissing for improper venue, a district court does so without prejudice to filing of the suit in an appropriate district. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 41(b); Lowery v. Estelle, 533 F.2d 265, 267 (5th Cir. 1976).
Defendant moves to dismiss the Complaint pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(3) for improper venue. Def.'s Br. Supp. Mot., ECF No. 38. In the alternative to dismissal, Defendant requests transfer to a proper venue. Id. In response, Plaintiff appears to concede that venue is improper in the Northern District of Texas and urges the Court to transfer venue to the Western District of Texas, where venue is proper, rather than dismiss this action. See Pl.'s Obj., ECF No. 41; Pl.'s Br. Supp. Obj., ECF No. 42. For the reasons that follow, the Court concludes that venue is improper in the Norther District of Texas and, in the exercise of its discretion, grants Defendant's motion to dismiss.
Venue for FOIA actions is governed by Title 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(4)(B), which reads in pertinent part as follows:
On complaint, the district court of the United States in the district in which the complainant resides, or has his principal place of business, or in which the agency records are situated, or in the District of Columbia, has jurisdiction to enjoin the agency from withholding agency records and to order the production of any agency records improperly withheld from the complainant.
5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(4)(B).
Plaintiff's only apparent connection with the Northern District of Texas is that he is incarcerated here. In the Fifth Circuit, a prisoner's place of incarceration is not his residence for purposes of venue. Ellingburg v. Connett, 457 F.2d 240, 241 (5th Cir. 1972).1 Before his incarceration, Plaintiff lived in the Western District of Texas, not the Northern District of Texas. App. Supp. Def.'s Mot. Dismiss 3-4 (certified indictment in State v. Lawson, No. 93-CR-5983 (186th Dist. Ct., Bexar County, Tex. Sept. 9, 1993) indicating that Plaintiff's address was 4230 Wild Oak, which is an address located in San Antonio, Texas). In his objections to Defendant's motion, Plaintiff appears to concede he is not a resident of the Northern District of Texas. Plaintiff contends however that he has no residency. See Pl.'s Br. Supp. Obj. 2, ECF No. 42 (“The plaintiff PAUL EUGENE LAWSON is NOT in any district within the UNITED STATES Corporation, a ‘resident’ or ‘franchisee citizen’ ”); id. (“The plaintiff is an Unenfranchised Individual, the name in which this suit is brought in is an Ens legis/Trust”). Plaintiff also does not appear to dispute that he does not have a principal place of business in the Northern District of Texas. Plaintiff also appears to concede that the records he seeks, if any exist, would be located in the Western District of Texas, not this district. See Pl.'s Obj. 1, ECF No. Doc. 41 (the suit “ought to be tranfered [sic] to the Western District of Texas, San Antonio Division where the responsive records are located for the plaintiffs FOIA complaint”); Pl.'s Br. Supp. Obj. 1-2, ECF No. 42 (“Plaintiff request [sic] that ․ in the interest of justice transfer suit to the Western District of Texas, San Antonio Division where the responsive records are found that the plaintiff seeks”).
Because Plaintiff is not a resident in the Northern District of Texas, does not have a principal place of business here, and the agency records are not located here, it was not proper for Plaintiff to file his suit in the Northern District of Texas. 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(4)(B).
Rather than transfer this matter to either the Western District of Texas or the District of Columbia, however, the Court concludes that dismissal is warranted. First, Defendant has provided the Court unrebutted evidence that it already conducted a search in its office within the U.S. Department of Justice that would most likely hold responsive records, and its search yielded no responsive material. See App. Supp. Def.'s Mot. Dismiss at 29, ECF No. 39. Further, Plaintiff's FOIA request did not pertain to any federal proceeding but instead to the state criminal proceeding that led to his incarceration for murder in 1994. Thus, a FOIA request to the U.S. Department of Justice appears futile. Finally, based on an examination of Plaintiff's multitude of filings—all made without leave of Court, notwithstanding its admonition in its Order granting his application to proceed in forma pauperis not to file any amendments or supplements to the Complaint without leave of Court—it appears Plaintiff is an adherent to a “sovereign citizen” ideology. As just two examples of many, Plaintiff purported to “intervene” as a third party in his own lawsuit, apparently under a theory that “Paul-Eugene:Lawson” is a separate person or entity from “PAUL EUGENE LAWSON.” See ECF No. 7. He also gave an alleged power of attorney from “PAUL EUGENE LAWSON®” to “Paul-Eugene:Lawson®, ․ the flesh and blood man, the living soul.” See ECF No. 10.
Under these circumstances, the Court concludes it is in the interest of justice to dismiss this matter rather than transfer the case to another district, where Plaintiff would likely continue his court filings as a “sovereign citizen.” Following dismissal, in the event Plaintiff wishes to pursue a FOIA claim, he may seek relief in the proper forum by filing a new law suit.
Based on the foregoing, the Court GRANTS Defendant's Motion to Dismiss (ECF No. 37). This civil action is DISMISSED WITHOUT PREJUDICE for improper venue. In accordance with Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 58(a), the Court will issue a final judgment separately.
SO ORDERED this 22nd day of March, 2021.
1. Recently, the court in Okeayainneh v. U.S. Dept of Just., No. 19-cv-01482, 2020 WL 122629, at *2 (W.D. La. Jan. 8, 2020) addressed a similar situation. In that case, the Plaintiff, a prisoner incarcerated in the State of Louisiana, filed suit seeking judicial review of the denial of his request for access to certain records under the FOIA. Addressing venue, the court, relying on Elingburg, supra, held that the plaintiff's place of incarceration was not his residence for purposes of venue. Id. at *2. The court noted that, while he was convicted in Minnesota, the record was void of any information that would suggest a Minnesota residence, other than his conviction there. Accordingly, the court held that the only clearly proper venue available was the District of Columbia. As such, the matter was transferred to the District Court for the District of Columbia for resolution. Id.
REED O'CONNOR, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
Response sent, thank you
Docket No: Civil Action No. 7:18-cv-00064-O
Decided: March 22, 2021
Court: United States District Court, N.D. Texas, Wichita Falls Division.
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