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Teitel v. Capell Howard, P.C.

United States District Court, M.D. Alabama

January 23, 2018

EDWARD TEITEL, M.D., J.D., Plaintiff,
v.
CAPELL HOWARD, P.C., et al. Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          KARON OWEN BOWDRE, CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Attorney Edward Teitel, a pro se plaintiff, sued Defendants Capell & Howard, P.C.; C. Clay Torbert; Cynthia Holland-Torbert; Barbara Wells; and former U.S. District Judge Mark Fuller, alleging they fraudulently conspired against him to “effect a wrongful award” in an ERISA case filed against Teitel in September 2001. This matter comes before the court on Defendants Torbert and Capell & Howard's motion to dismiss (doc. 5), and Defendants Wells, Holland-Torbert, and Judge Fuller's motion to dismiss (doc. 11). Because this suit names former District Judge Fuller and members of the court staff, all judges in the Middle District of Alabama were recused and the case was assigned to this court. For the reasons discussed in this Memorandum Opinion, the court will GRANT both motions.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On September 17, 2001, one of Teitel's former employees filed suit against him in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama. The claims included failure to provide certain information about plans established pursuant to the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, failure to provide certain benefits from ERISA plans, and bad faith. See Cromer-Tyler v. Teitel, No. 1:01-cv-1077-MEF, 2006 WL 2355415 (M.D. Ala. Aug. 14, 2006). United States District Judge Mark Fuller presided over the case. The case was assigned to U.S. Magistrate Judge Susan Walker on September 17, 2001, and reassigned to Judge Fuller on March 25, 2003. C. Clay Torbert, a named defendant here, was of counsel at Capell & Howard and represented the plaintiff in the ERISA case against Teitel.

         On October 15, 2001, Teitel filed a motion to dismiss the ERISA case for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted, but the motion remained on the court's docket for approximately 16 months without any activity. On February 28, 2003, Magistrate Judge Walker issued an order giving the employee two weeks to respond to Teitel's motion to dismiss. The order allowed Teitel to reply to any response on or before March 26, 2003. (Doc. 6, Case 1:01-cv-01077-MEF). Teitel retained counsel on March 7, 2003; the case was reassigned to Judge Fuller on March 25, 2003; and Teitel's attorney filed his reply on April 23, 2003.[1] The employee then filed a motion to strike Teitel's reply because it was untimely and made new arguments for dismissal not found in the motion to dismiss. Judge Fuller granted the motion, sruck Teitel's reply, and then denied Teitel's motion to dismiss.

         Teitel's case proceeded to the summary judgment phase, where Judge Fuller remanded the case to the administrator of the “Edward R. Teitel, M.D., P.C. Money Purchase Pension Plan” to allow the employee to exhaust her remedies under the plan by appealing the denial of her claim. (Doc. 61 at 11, Case 1:01-cv-01077-MEF). Judge Fuller also permitted the employee to reopen the case and challenge the administrator's determination should she find it necessary to do so.

         On remand to the plan administrator, Teitel “granted” the employee's request for benefits. (Doc. 1 at 5). Then the employee reopened the case before Judge Fuller to pursue statutory penalties and attorney's fees. Teitel's suit culminated in a bench trial before Judge Fuller, in which he awarded the employee over $240, 000 in statutory penalties, attorney's fees, and costs.[2]

         After the district court entered judgment against Teitel, he apparently avoided payment of the judgment until July 2009. In his complaint, Teitel states Torbert and Capell & Howard “continued to pursue the judgment in Texas, ” where they “retained local counsel . . . and directed an effort to perfect and enforce the judgment, ” eventually resulting “in enough pressure on [Teitel] that he ultimately agreed to pay the judgments.” (Doc. 1 at 6). Teitel completed the payment schedule, “which had been required by the fraudulently obtained settlement, ” in 2013. (Doc. 1 at 6).

         Sometime around October 2014, Teitel became curious when he saw a news article about Judge Fuller's arrest for domestic violence in August 2014. Teitel conducted an internet investigation and found information “that implicated Defendants in a serious conflict of interest which was present during the pendency of the ERISA case” before Judge Fuller. (Doc. 1 at 7). He discovered reports implicating Judge Fuller in a number of “'unfair' results, resulting from conflicts of interest.” (Id.) Based on the media criticism, Teitel alleges Judge Fuller's conduct left him “vulnerable to undue influence by anyone who knew of his shenanigans.” (Id.). Yet aside from “inferences in the media that Fuller might be susceptible to extortion or coercion to keep ‘the open secrets' secret at the office” (id.), Teitel provides no facts or information regarding how these internet search results or Judge Fuller's alleged vulnerability relate to this case.

         Teitel also discovered that Defendant Barbara Wells had joined Torbert's firm, Capell & Howard, in 1996 and became a shareholder in 2001-the same year the ERISA case was filed against Teitel. Teitel states that given her practice focus, it is likely that she had “actual knowledge of the case, ” “may have worked on it at the office, been consulted at the office, done research relative to the case, or, at least, knew of the case from firm meetings.” (Doc. 1 at 8). Then Wells became Judge Fuller's career law clerk in December 2002, just three months before the magistrate judge allowed the employee in the ERISA suit to file a late response to Teitel's motion to dismiss.

         Teitel also discovered that Defendant Cynthia Holland-Torbert is Defendant Torbert's wife. She was a staff attorney at the Middle District of Alabama while her husband was representing the plaintiff in Teitel's ERISA case. Teitel does not provide any facts showing that Wells or Holland-Torbert actually worked on or otherwise influenced his ERISA case during their time at the Middle District. Rather, Torbert simply states that, “on information and belief, Defendant Torbert used these connections to obtain an unfairly one-sided victory in favor of his client, avoiding claims of malpractice and brining financial reward to all Defendants.” (Doc. 1 at 10-11).

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         A Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss attacks the legal sufficiency of the complaint. The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure require the complaint to provide “a short and plain statement of the claim” demonstrating that the plaintiff is entitled to relief. Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(1). A plaintiff must provide the grounds of her entitlement, but Rule 8 rarely requires detailed factual allegations. Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007) (quoting Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 47 (1957)). Rule 8 does, however, demand “more than an unadorned, the-defendant-unlawfully-harmed-me accusation.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). Pleadings that contain nothing more than a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action do not meet Rule 8 standards. Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555, 557.

         The Supreme Court explained that “[t]o survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (quoting and explaining its decision in Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570). To be plausible on its face, the claim must contain enough facts that “allow[ ] the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678. Although “[t]he plausibility standard is not akin to a ‘probability requirement, '” the complaint must demonstrate “more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully.” Id. “Where a complaint pleads facts that are merely consistent with a defendant's liability, it ‘stops short of the line between possibility and plausibility of entitlement to relief.'” Id. (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 557).

         The Supreme Court has identified “two working principles” for the district court to use in applying the facial plausibility standard. The first principle is that, in evaluating motions to dismiss, the court must assume the veracity of well-pleaded factual allegations; however, the court does not have to accept as true legal conclusions even when “couched as [] factual allegation[s]” or “threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678. The second principle is that “only a complaint that states a plausible claim for relief survives a motion to dismiss.” Id. at 679.

         So, under prong one, the court determines the factual allegations that are well-pleaded and assumes their veracity, and then proceeds, under prong two, to determine the claim's plausibility given the well-pleaded facts. That task is “context-specific” and, to survive the motion, the allegations must permit the court based on its “judicial experience and common sense. . . to infer more than the mere possibility of misconduct.” Id. If the court determines that well-pleaded facts, accepted as true, do not state a claim that is plausible, the claim must be dismissed. Id.

         III. DISCUSSION

         A. Claims Against the ...


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