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Edenstrom v. United States Coast Guard

United States District Court, W.D. Washington, Tacoma

May 16, 2018

THEODORE B EDENSTROM, Plaintiff,
v.
UNITED STATES COAST GUARD, Defendant.

          ORDER

          Ronald B. Leighton United States District Judge

         THIS MATTER is before the Court on the Defendant Coast Guard's Motion to Dismiss [Dkt. #17] and on Plaintiff Edenstrom's Motion for a Speedy Determination of This Case [Dkt. # 21]. This case involves the revocation of Edenstrom's Merchant Mariner Certificate (MMC). During his 2104 MMC renewal process, Edenstrom answered "no" to a series of questions about medical conditions, including (apparently[1]) drug use. For reasons that are not clear[2], the Coast Guard subpoenaed a medical clinic and ascertained that Edenstrom's answers were not correct; he was being treated for several conditions on the list. It then commenced an administrative proceeding against him to "suspend and revoke" (S&R) his license for misrepresenting his medical status, and for refusing a drug test.

         The ALJ upheld the S&R of Edenstrom's MMC. Before he did, however, Edenstrom filed this lawsuit, the purpose of which is apparently to challenge the Coast Guard's authority to subpoena his medical records when there has not been a "marine casualty." He apparently also appealed the ALJ's decision.

         Edenstrom's Motion is difficult to follow, but the gist of it is that the Coast Guard abused its subpoena power[3] in obtaining his medical records in the first place: The coast guard has no problem accepting that they have authority granted to them to issue subpoenas. There is no need to explain this grant of power as it is well used, with great excitement, confidence and in the most expedient way imaginable. The question at this time, is whether that grant of power is absolute, or if 46 USC 7705(b) places any restrictions on that subpoena authority, what those restrictions are and whether or not the coast guard has to act in regard to those restrictions with prudence.

         This case has only a question of law and not of fact, and that is whether or not The United States Coast Guard has the authority to disreguard the jurisdictional limits laid out in 46 USC 7705(b). If this Court decides not to answer the question of law, which will force the parties into litigation, then plaintiff reserves his right to respond to the Coast Guard's Motion to Dismiss.

         [Dkt. #21]

         The Coast Guard correctly treats Edenstrom's Motion as one for Summary Judgment on his claim for a declaratory judgment on his claim that the subpoena was illegal. It argues, persuasively, that its subpoena power is not limited to marine casualty situations (see 46 U.S.C. § 7705(b)) and that Edenstrom has not met his summary judgment burden of demonstrating that he is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

         The Coast Guard is correct that Edenstrom's "motion for speedy determination" is effectively a motion for summary judgment on his declaratory judgment claim, and that Edenstrom has not established that he is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. He is legally incorrect about the scope of the Coast Guard's subpoena power under 46 U.S.C. § 7705(b). His Motion [Dkt. # 21] is therefore DENIED.

         The Coast Guard's Motion seeks dismissal of Edenstrom's complaint. It argues that Edenstrom has failed to exhaust his administrative remedies, depriving this court of subject matter jurisdiction over his declaratory judgment claim. It also argues that Edenstrom's claims are not viable under the familiar Iqbal standard because he does not plausibly allege facts supporting any claim; he instead couches legal conclusions as fact.

         Dismissal under Rule 12(b)(6) may be based on either the lack of a cognizable legal theory or the absence of sufficient facts alleged under a cognizable legal theory. Balistreri v. Pacifica Police Dep 't, 901 F.2d 696, 699 (9th Cir. 1990). A plaintiffs complaint must allege facts to state a claim for relief that is plausible on its face. See Aschcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 1949 (2009). A claim has "facial plausibility" when the party seeking relief "pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Id. Although the Court must accept as true the Complaint's well-pled facts, conclusory allegations of law and unwarranted inferences will not defeat a Rule 12(c) motion. Vazquez v. L. A. County, 487 F.3d 1246, 1249 (9th Cir. 2007); Sprewell v. Golden State Warriors, 266 F.3d 979, 988 (9th Cir. 2001). "[A] plaintiffs obligation to provide the 'grounds' of his 'entitle[ment] to relief requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do. Factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level." Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007) (citations and footnotes omitted). This requires a plaintiff to plead "more than an unadorned, the-defendant-unlawfully-harmed-me-accusation." Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. at 1949 (citing Twombly). A pro se Plaintiffs complaint is to be construed liberally, but like any other complaint it must nevertheless contain factual assertions sufficient to support a facially plausible claim for relief. Id.

         On a 12(b)(6) motion, "a district court should grant leave to amend even if no request to amend the pleading was made, unless it determines that the pleading could not possibly be cured by the allegation of other facts." Cook, Perkiss & Liehe v. N. Cal. Collection Serv., 911 F.2d 242, 247 (9th Cir. 1990). However, where the facts are not in dispute, and the sole issue is whether there is liability as a matter of substantive law, the court may deny leave to amend. Albrecht v. Lund, 845 F.2d 193, 195-96 (9th Cir. 1988).

         Thus, if the flaw in Edenstrom's complaint is that he did not plead enough facts to state a plausible claim, the corrective is to permit him to amend that complaint, not to dismiss it.

         The Coast Guard's more persuasive argument is that because Edenstrom has not exhausted his administrative appeals in the wake of the ALJ's S&R decision regarding his MMC [Dkt. # 18-1] this Court does not have jurisdiction over his claim:

If Plaintiff decides to seek further review within the statutorily authorized time period, the appeal must be made first to the Commandant of the Coast Guard, then to the National Transportation Safety Board ("NTSB") and then to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals or the District of Columbia Circuit. See generally, 3 C.F.R. §20.1001, 49 U.S.C. §§ 1133 and 1153. Because Plaintiffs appeals process is incomplete, the ...

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