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Pruitt v. Charter Communications

United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Northeastern Division

March 14, 2019

KIRK PRUITT, Plaintiff,



         Pro se plaintiff Kirk Pruitt filed this case on October 17, 2017 (doc. 1). Judge Madeline Hughes Haikala, to whom the case was then assigned, denied a previous round of motions to dismiss and ordered plaintiff to file an amended complaint that “compl[ied] with Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 8(a), 8(d), 10(b), and 11(b), ” “contain[ed] a separate count for each claim against one defendant and a factual basis for that claim only, ” and “include[d] all of Mr. Pruitt's claims in this action.” (doc. 23, at 2-3).

         Plaintiff filed a 105-page amended complaint on January 10, 2018, naming eleven defendants: (1) Charter Communications, Inc. d/b/a Spectrum Communications, Inc. (“Charter”), his former employer; (2) Thomas M. Rutledge, Charter's CEO; (3) Amanda Field, Charter's Regional Director and Vice President of Residential Direct Sales; (4) Craig O'Rourke, Charter's State Director and Manager of Sales Operations; (5) Stacia Freeway, Charter's Director of Human Resources; (6) R.C. Brown, Charter's Regional Director of Human Resources and Vice President of Sales and Marketing; (7) Matt Webb, Charter's State Director and Manager of Direct Sales; (8) Lumumba Pride, plaintiff's supervisor at Charter; (9) Brenda Baird, L.P.C., d/b/a/ Baird Counseling & EAP Services, plaintiff's former therapist; (10) Gagandeep S. Dhaliwal, M.D., plaintiff's former psychiatrist; and (11) Sedgwick Benefits Management Services, Inc. (“Sedgwick”), the company that apparently manages leave and disability requests for Charter employees. Defendants Charter, Rutledge, Field, O'Rourke, Freeway, Brown, Webb, and Pride are referred to collectively as “the Charter defendants.” Plaintiff asserts federal claims pursuant to the Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”), Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1981 & 1983, and the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. He also asserts state law claims for wrongful termination, negligence, disability discrimination, harassment, outrage, defamation, breach of fiduciary duty, and breach of contract. (doc. 25).

         The case currently is before the Court on Dhaliwal's motion to dismiss and/or motion to strike (doc. 30), Sedgwick's motion to dismiss for insufficiency of service of process (doc. 31), the Charter defendants' motion to dismiss (doc. 34), and plaintiff's two motions to appoint counsel (docs. 36 & 43). After a through review of the motions, briefs, and pleadings, the Court concludes that Sedgwick's motion should be granted in its entirety, and the motions filed by Dhaliwal and the Charter defendants should be granted in part and denied in part. Plaintiff's motions to appoint counsel also will be denied.


         Rule 12(b)(6) permits a party to move to dismiss a complaint for, among other reasons, “failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). When considering a motion to dismiss, the Court must “accept[] the allegations in the complaint as true and constru[e] them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff.” Mills v. Foremost Insurance Co., 511 F.3d 1300, 1303 (11th Cir. 2008) (quoting Castro v. Secretary of Homeland Security, 472 F.3d 1334, 1336 (11th Cir. 2006)). Moreover, “the court limits its consideration to the pleadings and exhibits attached thereto.” GSW, Inc. v. Long County, 999 F.2d 1508, 1510 (11th Cir. 1993).

         To survive a motion to dismiss, “a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter . . . to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). A claim is facially plausible when “the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Id. at 679. “When there are well- pleaded factual allegations, a court should assume their veracity and then determine whether they plausibly give rise to an entitlement to relief.” Id. “Bu t where the well-pleaded facts do not permit the court to infer more than the mere possibility of misconduct, the complaint has alleged - but it has not ‘show[n]' - ‘that the pleader is entitled to relief.'” Id. (quoting, in part, Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2)). Thus, the Supreme Court has “suggested that courts considering motions to dismiss adopt a ‘two-pronged approach' in applying these principles: 1) eliminate any allegations in the complaint that are merely legal conclusions; and 2) where there are well-pleaded factual allegations, ‘assume their veracity and then determine whether they plausibly give rise to an entitlement to relief.'” American Dental Association v. Cigna Corp., 605 F.3d 1283, 1290 (11th Cir. 2010) (citing Bell Atlantic v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 567 (2007)).

         “‘Pro se pleadings are held to a less stringent standard than pleadings drafted by attorneys' and are liberally construed.” Bingham v. Thomas, 654 F.3d 1171, 1175 (11th Cir. 2011) (quoting Tannenbaum v. United States, 148 F.3d 1262, 1263 (11th Cir. 1998)).


         To begin, this Court agrees with defendants that plaintiff's amended complaint fails to satisfy many of the pleading requirements specified by Judge Haikala and the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Plaintiff's 105 pages of rambling rhetoric cannot be described as “short, ” “plain, ” “simple, ” “concise, ” or “direct.” See Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a)(2) (providing that a complaint must contain “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief”); Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(d)(1) (“Each allegation must be simple, concise, and direct.”). His numbered paragraphs are not limited to a single set of circumstances, and he did not state each claim founded upon a separate transaction or occurrence in a separate count or defense. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 10(b) (“A party must state its claims or defenses in numbered paragraphs, each limited as far as practicable to a single set of circumstances. . . . If doing so would promote clarity, each claim founded on a separate transaction or occurrence . . . must be stated in a separate count . . . .”). He did not fully comply with Judge Haikala's directive to include “a separate count for each claim against one defendant and a factual basis for that claim only.” (doc. 23, at 2-3). The amended complaint also bears many characteristics of an impermissible “shotgun pleading, ” including containing “conclusory, vague, and immaterial facts not obviously connected to any particular cause of action, ” “not separating into a different count each cause of action or claim for relief, ” and “asserting multiple claims against multiple defendants without specifying which of the defendants are responsible for which acts or omissions, or which of the defendants the claim is brought against.” See Weiland v. Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office, 792 F.3d 1313, 1321-23 (11th Cir. 2015). Given plaintiff's pro se status, he will be allowed one final opportunity to cure those pleading deficiencies before any claims are dismissed. Even so, some portions of the amended complaint suffer from more substantive problems that could not be cured by another amendment. Those issues will be addressed so that the scope of any future pleadings can be narrowed.

         A. Dhaliwal's Motion to Dismiss

         Plaintiff alleges that Dr. Dhaliwal used him as a “guinea pig” to try out various psychiatric drugs because the doctor received a kickback payment from pharmaceutical companies (doc. 25, ¶ 73). Plaintiff informed Dr. Dhaliwal during their first appointment on March 14, 2017, that he had suffered a panic attack a week earlier. Dr. Dhaliwal asked plaintiff to fill out an anxiety questionnaire, and plaintiff informed the doctor that he was applying for disability benefits and would need some related forms completed. Dr. Dhaliwal told plaintiff he would complete those forms, but that plaintiff first needed to start taking medication. Plaintiff and Dr. Dhaliwal conferred to choose a medication from a “catalog of drugs” (doc. 25, ¶¶ 75-76). Plaintiff took his medication and also attended counseling appointments (doc. 25, ¶ 77). Two weeks later, plaintiff asked Dr. Dhaliwal to complete his disability forms, but Dr. Dhaliwal refused because the forms concerned cognitive functioning, and he did not perform cognitive functioning tests. Dr. Dhaliwal offered to refer plaintiff to another psychiatrist who would perform the required tests, but plaintiff could not afford to pay that doctor, so Dr. Dhaliwal offered, for free, to complete the portions of the form that did not relate to cognitive functioning and share his office notes (doc. 25, ¶ 78). Plaintiff became upset, and Dr. Dhaliwal responded, “‘YOU SEE, That Is Why I Do Not Take Patients LIKE YOU! I Try to Help and When It Is Not Enough . . .,' ‘I WILL NEVER TAKE ANOTHER PATIENT LIKE YOU AGAIN!'” (doc. 25, ¶ 80 (capitalization and punctuation in original)). Dr. Dhaliwal called plaintiff later that evening to apologize for his behavior (doc. 25, ¶ 82). Plaintiff asserts that he and Dr. Dhaliwal had a contract: he agreed to take prescription medications for which Dr. Dhaliwal received a financial kickback, and Dr. Dhaliwal agreed to treat plaintiff's condition and complete his disability paperwork. It is not entirely clear from the amended complaint, but plaintiff appears to allege that Dr. Dhaliwal breached that contract when he failed to complete plaintiff's paperwork, and that he was harmed when his claim for benefits was denied (doc. 25, ¶ 83).

         Plaintiff asserts that Dr. Dhaliwal's actions constituted FMLA interference, breach of contract, breach of oral contract, breach of implied contract, breach of duty of care, breach of good faith and fair dealing, breach of the Hippocratic Oath, disability discrimination, and negligence. It is not conceivable for plaintiff's factual allegations to give rise to a claim for relief under the FMLA or ADA. His remaining state law claims all fall under the umbrella of either negligence or breach of contract.[1]

         To the extent plaintiff alleges claims arising out of a breach of Dr. Dhaliwal's duty of care, those claims are governed by the Alabama Medical Liability Act (“AMLA”), Ala. Code § 6-5-480 et seq. & § 6-5-551 et seq. According to that statute:

In any action for injury, damages, or wrongful death, whether in contract or in tort, against a health care provider for breach of the standard of care, whether resulting from acts or omissions in providing health care, or the hiring, training, supervision, retention, or termination of care givers, the Alabama Medical Liability Act shall govern the parameters of discovery and all aspects of the action. The plaintiff shall include in the complaint filed in the action a detailed specification and factual description of each act and omission alleged by plaintiff to render the health care provider liable to plaintiff and shall include when feasible and ascertainable the date, time, and place of the act or acts. . . . Any complaint which fails to include such detailed specification and factual description of each act and omission shall be subject to dismissal for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted.

Ala. Code § 6-5-551 (emphasis supplied). The Alabama Supreme Court has held that the standard for pleading claims under the AMLA is similar to the heightened standard for pleading fraud claims with specificity. Mikkelsen v. Salama, 619 So.2d 1382, 1384 (Ala. 1993).

“[A]lthough every element of the cause of action need not be stated with particularity, the plaintiff must give the defendant health care provider fair notice of the allegedly negligent act and must identify the time and place it occurred and the resulting harm. If the complaint affords the defendant health care provider fair notice of these essential elements, the courts should strive to find that the complaint includes the necessary[ detail].”


         Here, plaintiff has failed to plausibly allege any act or omission on the part of Dr. Dhaliwal that constituted a breach of the relevant standard of care. This Court was unable to locate any applicable case law that recognized a claim for medical malpractice based upon a health care provider's failure or refusal to complete paperwork for a patient to obtain disability benefits. Indeed, any such a claim would be implausible, because it does not concern the provision of medical care.

         To the extent that plaintiff intended to rely upon a regular contract theory, outside the context of Dr. Dhaliwal's provision of medical care, that claim can proceed. Under Alabama law, “[t]he basic elements of a contract are an offer and an acceptance, consideration, and mutual assent to the essential terms of the agreement.” Stacey v. Peed, 142 So.3d 529, 531 (Ala. 2013) (citing Hargrove v. Tree of Life Christian Day Care Center, 699 So.2d 1242, 1247 (Ala.1997)). Plaintiff plausibly alleged each of those elements. He stated that Dr. Dhaliwal offered to provide him prescription medication in exchange for filling out disability forms, and he accepted that offer by taking the medication and establishing a treatment relationship with Dr. Dhaliwal. The consideration supporting the agreement was, for Dr. Dhaliwal, “Establishment of the Doctor/Patient Agreement Record and Commission Pay for Prescriptions, ” and, for plaintiff, receiving treatment for his anxiety disorder and having his disability paperwork completed. Plaintiff alleges that he and Dr. Dhaliwal mutually agreed to those terms, and that both parties were competent to enter into the agreement (doc. 25, ¶ 83). Additionally, even though plaintiff did not make this allegation explicit in his amended complaint, he has placed Dr. Dhaliwal on fair notice that he is claiming Dr. Dhaliwal breached the contract by failing to complete the paperwork, and that he suffered damages as a result because he did not receive his disability benefits. See Capmark Bank v. RGR, LLC, 81 So.3d 1258, 1267 (Ala. 2011) (“In order to recover on a breach-of-contract claim, a party must establish: (1) the existence of a valid contract binding the parties; (2) the plaintiff's performance under the contract; (3) the defendant's nonperformance; and (4) damages.”) (citing Reynolds Metals Co. v. Hill, 825 So.2d 100, 105 (Ala. 2002)).

         Finally, there is no problem with the Statute of Frauds, as Dr. Dhaliwal suggests. The Statute of Frauds requires a written contract for “‘any agreement which by its terms cannot be performed within one year.'” Alabama Agricultural & Mechanical University v. Jones, 895 So.2d 867, 871 (Ala. 2004) (quoting Abbott v. Hurst, 643 So.2d 589, 592 (Ala. 1994)) (emphasis in original). Here, there was no specified time frame for performance of the parties' alleged agreement, and Dr. Dhaliwal could have performed under the agreement in less than a year by completing plaintiff's disability paperwork. Indeed, plaintiff alleges that he presented the paperwork only two weeks after beginning his treatment relationship with Dr. Dhaliwal. Thus, even though plaintiff does not allege the existence of a written contract between him and Dr. Dhaliwal, the Statute of Frauds does not prevent his breach of contract claim.

         In summary, the only viable claim plaintiff has against Dr. Dhaliwal is a state law claim for breach of contract, unrelated to the doctor's provision of medical treatment. All other claims will be dismissed.

         B. Sedgwick's Motion to Dismiss

         Sedgwick asserts that plaintiff's claims against it[2] should be dismissed for insufficient service of process. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(5); Fed.R.Civ.P. 4(m). Plaintiff served his original complaint on Sedgwick at an address that was different from the address of Sedgwick's registered agent for accepting service (doc. 31-1, at 2-3; doc. 11, ¶ 2). After plaintiff filed his amended complaint, he did not make any further attempts to serve it on Sedgwick. He also has not made any further attempts at service despite being aware of the deficiencies alleged by Sedgwick since at least November 20, 2017 (see doc. 11). He even stated in response to Sedgwick's motion to dismiss the amended complaint that he would provide the Clerk of Court and U.S. Marshal with the address of Sedgwick's registered agent, thereby enabling service to be completed (doc. 32, ¶ 3), but there is no indication that he ever did so.

         Plaintiff asserts that he did not re-attempt service of process because he believed Judge Haikala had already deemed his previous attempts to be sufficient. Judge Haikala denied as moot Sedgwick's first request to require plaintiff's proper service after plaintiff filed an amended complaint (see docs. 11, 23, 32). That order was not, as plaintiff believes, a ruling on the merits of the motion to require proper service. It was an attempt to re-start the proceedings with the amended complaint as the relevant pleading. Proper service was still required, and plaintiff acknowledged as much by stating in his response to Sedgwick's motion to dismiss the amended complaint that he would work with the Clerk of Court and U.S. Marshal to effect service.

         Finally, plaintiff's pro se status does not excuse his failure to properly serve Sedgwick. In Cooley v. Ocwen Loan Servicing, LLC, 729 Fed.Appx. 677 (11th Cir. 2018), the Eleventh Circuit held that the district court did not abuse its discretion by dismissing a pro se plaintiff's claims for failure to serve. The plaintiff had notice of service deficiencies but made no further attempts to effect proper service, despite being allowed extra time. Id. As the Eleventh Circuit held:

The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure exist “to secure the just, speedy, and inexpensive determination of every action and proceeding.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 1. As the district court's ruling reflects, it would further none of these purposes to let this action continue against Bank of America where Cooley had ...

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