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United States v. $34, More or Less, In U.S. Currency

United States District Court, S.D. Alabama, Southern Division

April 13, 2015

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff,
v.
$34, 796.49, more or less, in U.S. Currency, One Taurus.45 caliber handgun, Serial Number NQE77433, One Taurus.38 caliber revolver, Serial Number TE 3600WITH, and One Smith & Wesson.40 caliber pistol, Serial Number RAT4545, Defendants.

ORDER

WILLIAM H. STEELE, Chief District Judge.

This matter comes before the Court on the Government's Motion to Strike (doc. 22), claimants' Motion to Amend Claims and/or Answers (doc. 25), and claimant Jeffery Tubbs' Motion to Strike (doc. 30). All three Motions are ripe. Also pending is claimant Jeffery Tubbs Motion to Dismiss (doc. 14), as to which supplemental briefing has been completed.

I. Background.

On December 4, 2014, the Government filed a Verified Complaint for Forfeiture in Rem (doc. 1) against the following in rem defendants: $34, 796.49, more or less, in U.S. Currency (the "Currency"); One Taurus.45 caliber handgun, Serial Number NQE77433; One Taurus.38 caliber revolver, Serial Number TE 3600WITH; and One Smith & Wesson.40 caliber pistol, Serial Number RAT4545 (collectively, the "Firearms"). The Government alleges that the Currency is forfeitable under 21 U.S.C. § 881(a)(6), as proceeds of a violation of the Controlled Substances Act; and under 18 U.S.C. § 981(a)(1)(C), as proceeds of an offense involving theft, conversion or sale of public money or vouchers. The Government further alleges that the Firearms are forfeitable under 21 U.S.C. § 881(a)(11), as they were used to facilitate the sale or possession of controlled substances; and under 18 U.S.C. § 924(d)(1), as they were possessed by an unlawful user of controlled substances.

In the weeks after the Verified Complaint was filed, three claimants stepped forward, all represented by the same counsel of record. Claimant Jeffery Tubbs filed a "Claim to Property Seized" (doc. 10) on January 5, 2015, pursuant to which he claimed a 100% ownership interest in each of the defendant Currency and the defendant Taurus.45 caliber handgun. On the same date, claimant Norman Rean Tubbs filed a "Claim to Property Seized" (doc. 11), in which he claimed a 100% ownership interest in the defendant Taurus.38 caliber revolver. Contemporaneously with the others, claimant Joacandra L. Childs filed a "Claim to Property Seized" (doc. 12), in which she claimed a 100% ownership interest in the Smith & Wesson.40 caliber pistol. On January 16, 2015, Norman Tubbs and Joacandra Childs jointly filed an Answer (doc. 17) setting forth a "General Denial" of the Complaint, plus a recitation of seven purported "Affirmative Defenses." For his part, Jeffery Tubbs did not file an Answer, but instead submitted a Motion to Dismiss (doc. 14) the Verified Complaint as untimely with respect to the defendant Currency, pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 983(a)(3)(A). To date, neither an Answer nor a Motion to Dismiss has been filed with respect to Jeffery Tubbs' claim of interest in the Taurus.45 caliber handgun.

On February 9, 2015, the undersigned entered an Order finding that the Complaint was not filed within the 90-day period specified by § 983(a)(3) as to Jeffery Tubbs' claim of ownership of the Currency. ( See doc. 24, at 7.) The February 9 Order directed the Government and Jeffery Tubbs to submit supplemental briefs concerning the implications of such a finding, which they have now done. ( See docs. 29, 31.) During the supplemental briefing process, Jeffery Tubbs filed a Motion to Strike (doc. 30) the Government's brief and exhibits.

At the close of the initial round of briefing on Jeffery Tubbs' Motion to Dismiss, the Government filed a Motion to Strike (doc. 22) the Claims of all claimants, as well as the Answer of Norman Tubbs and Joacandra Childs, for noncompliance with Supplemental Rule G(5). Claimant Jeffery Tubbs has filed a Response (doc. 28) to the Motion to Strike, as well as an Amended Claim (doc. 26) for which he has not received leave of court. All three claimants also filed a Motion for Leave to Amend (doc. 25) their claims and/or answers.

II. Analysis.

A. The Government's Motion to Strike/Claimants' Motion to Amend.

The Supplemental Rules for Admiralty or Maritime Claims and Asset Forfeiture Actions (the "Supplemental Rules"), which apply to this action, provide that the Government "may move to strike a claim or answer: (A) for failing to comply with Rule G(5) or (6), or (B) because the claimant lacks standing." Supplemental Rule G(8)(c)(i). Those same rules provide that such a motion "must be decided before any motion by the claimant to dismiss the action." Supplemental Rule G(8)(c)(ii)(A). For that reason, the starting point for analyzing the multiple interlocking motions and overlapping issues presented by the parties is the Government's Motion to Strike filed pursuant to Supplemental Rule G(8).

The Government contends that all Claims submitted by Jeffery Tubbs, Norman Tubbs and Joacandra Childs (collectively, the "Claimants") must be stricken under Supplemental Rule G(8)(c) because they do not comport with Supplemental Rule G(5)(a)(i), which provides that a claim must "(A) identify the specific property claimed; [and] (B) identify the claimant and state the claimant's interest in the property." Id. By simply stating in conclusory terms in each Claim that the claimant has a 100% ownership interest in specific property, the Government argues, Claimants have not satisfied Supplemental Rule G(5)(a)(i)(B). Substantial authority supports the Government's position that a forfeiture claimant must expound on the nature of his or her interest in the subject property with some specificity, rather than summarily declaring, "It's mine, " as Claimants in this case have effectively done. See, e.g., United States v. $154, 853.00 in U.S. Currency, 744 F.3d 559, 562 (8th Cir. 2014) (to satisfy Supplemental Rule G(5)(a)(i)(B), "[t]he claimant's interest in the property must be stated with some level of specificity").[1]

In response to these authorities, Claimants do not plausibly maintain that their Claims satisfy the requisite level of specificity under Supplemental Rule G(5) as originally filed. Instead, they request leave to amend those claims via Motion to Amend (doc. 25) filed on February 16, 2015. By operation of Supplemental Rule G(1), the Motion to Amend is governed by Rule 15(a)(2), Fed.R.Civ.P., which provides that leave to amend pleadings is freely given when justice so requires. The Government has not filed an opposition to the Motion to Amend, nor does there appear to be any viable basis for opposing it. The Court has no information and no reason to believe that Claimants' proposed amendments would be futile, unfairly prejudicial, or offered for an improper purpose; therefore, the Motion to Amend is granted. The Amended Claim (doc. 26) filed by Jeffery Tubbs on February 17, 2015 is accepted as filed, and supersedes the previous iteration of his Claim. For whatever reason, claimants Norman Rean Tubbs and Joacandra L. Childs did not submit proposed Amended Claims contemporaneously with the Motion to Amend. To remedy that omission and avoid further delay, Norman Tubbs and Joacandra Childs are ordered to file Amended Claims that satisfy the specificity requirements of Supplemental Rule G(5)(a) on or before April 24, 2015. The Government's Motion to Strike is granted as to the Claims of Norman Tubbs and Joacandra Childs, provided, however, that those Claimants may preserve and pursue their claims herein by filing proper Amended Claims that comport with the aforementioned directives.

With regard to Jeffery Tubbs' Amended Claim (doc. 26), he has now replaced the conclusory allegations of ownership interest in his original Claim with substantial factual detail demonstrating the nature and basis of his purported interest in each of the Currency and the Taurus.45 caliber handgun. The Government has not suggested that this Amended Claim flunks the specificity requirements of Supplemental Rule G(5), nor has it advanced any other argument that, in the wake of his submission of the Amended Claim, Jeffery Tubbs lacks statutory standing. Accordingly, the Government's Motion to Strike is moot as to the Claim of Jeffery Tubbs because, during the pendency of said Motion, that claimant successfully filed an Amended Claim to eliminate the very pleading deficiencies to which the Government objected.

Finally, the Government's Motion to Strike takes claimants Norman Tubbs and Joacandra Childs to task for their Answer. By rule, a claimant in a forfeiture proceeding "must serve and file an answer to the complaint or a motion under Rule 12 within 21 days after filing the claim." Supplemental Rule G(5)(b). These two Claimants timely filed a joint Answer (doc. 17) on January 16, 2015, some 11 days after filing their Claims. Nonetheless, the Government objects that this Answer contains a conclusory "general denial" of the Complaint. This objection is meritorious. General denials of all allegations in a complaint are almost never appropriate under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, which apply to this pleading question by operation of Supplemental Rule G(1). See Mortensen v. Mortgage Electronic Registration Systems, Inc., 2010 WL 3339492, *2 n.7 (S.D. Ala. Aug. 23, 2010) ("General denials are almost always improper under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure."); Matter of Crawford, 2 B.R. 589, 592 (Bankr. N.D.Ill. 1980) ("A general denial is appropriate only where the pleader intends in good faith to controvert the preceding pleading."); Gulf Oil Corp. v. Bill's Farm Center, Inc., 52 F.R.D. 114, 118-19 (W.D. Mo. 1970) (declaring that "[g]eneral denials or the equivalent are no longer permitted under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.").[2] Under Rule 8(b)(2), Fed.R.Civ.P., denials set forth in an answer "must fairly respond to the substance of the allegation." Id. Moreover, a general denial such as that offered here is appropriate only when a party "intends in good faith to deny all the allegations of a pleading - including the jurisdictional grounds." Rule 8(b)(3). By contrast, "[a] party that does not intend to deny all the allegations must either specifically deny designated allegations or generally deny all except those specifically admitted." Id. Claimants ...


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