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Johnson v. Perdue

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

July 6, 2017

Lott Johnson Plaintiff- Appellant
v.
Sonny Perdue, [1] Secretary, Department of Agriculture; Mark Petty; Linda Newkirk; James Culpepper, III; Hendra Woodfork; Chana Thompson; John and Jane Does Defendants - Appellees

          Submitted: January 11, 2017

         Appeal from United States District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas - Little Rock

          Before SMITH, Chief Judge, KELLY, Circuit Judge, and SIPPEL, District Judge. [2]

          KELLY, CIRCUIT JUDGE.

         Lott Johnson is an African American farmer who operates and manages 79 acres of farmland in Lonoke County, Arkansas. He brings claims against the Secretary of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and five USDA employees, alleging racial discrimination, retaliation, and conspiracy regarding his loan applications, servicing requests, and the application of administrative offsets to collect on a defaulted loan. The district court dismissed the complaint with prejudice, and this appeal followed. We affirm in part, reverse in part, and remand for further proceedings.

         I. Background

         This is the third time Johnson has brought claims alleging the USDA discriminated and retaliated against him with regard to his loans. In 2010, Johnson filed a complaint with the USDA's Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights (the Office). In a Final Agency Decision under 7 C.F.R. § 15d and the Equal Credit Opportunity Act (ECOA), 15 U.S.C. § 1691 et seq., the Office found that Johnson proved the USDA racially discriminated against him when it withdrew his Farm Service Agency (FSA) loan application, delayed processing his FSA loan application and servicing requests, and denied him primary loan servicing. It also found the USDA retaliated against him based on a prior discrimination complaint he filed with the Office when it improperly accelerated his outstanding debt and withdrew his loan application. The Final Agency Decision denied several other retaliation claims based on Johnson's prior discrimination complaint, all of his retaliation claims based on his status as a Pigford claimant, [3] and one additional race discrimination claim. The Office awarded Johnson $13, 440 in economic damages; $35, 000 for stress, humiliation, and depression; and $9, 780 in debt relief on his FSA loans.

          In 2012, Johnson filed a complaint in federal court and ultimately named the Secretary and five USDA employees as defendants (hereinafter, Johnson I). Like his complaint with the Office, his amended federal complaint was based on alleged discrimination and retaliation in loan applications, loan servicing requests, and application of administrative offsets. The district court dismissed the claims against the Secretary based on res judicata due to the Office's Final Agency Decision; and dismissed the claims against the individual defendants for failure to effect timely service, preclusion by the Office's comprehensive remedial scheme, and failure to state a claim. The court entered final judgment, dismissing the case without prejudice, in September 2014. Johnson initially appealed the judgment, but later voluntarily dismissed the appeal, choosing to refile his claims instead.

         On March 23, 2015, Johnson refiled his amended federal complaint with minor changes concerning the dates of the alleged wrongful actions and adding conspiracy allegations (hereinafter, Johnson II). The complaint was filed against the Secretary of the USDA and the same five USDA employees-Mark Petty, Linda Newkirk, James Culpepper, III, Hendra Woodfork, and Chana Thompson-all in their official and individual capacities. It stated claims for violations of the ECOA; violations of due process, equal protection, and retaliation under Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents of Federal Bureau of Narcotics, 403 U.S. 388 (1971); and conspiracy pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1985(3). The defendants moved to dismiss and the district court granted the motions, concluding the the ECOA claims were barred by res judicata based on the Office's Final Agency Decision; the ECOA claims were barred by collateral estoppel due to Johnson I's resolution of the res judicata issue; the Bivens claims were precluded by the Office's comprehensive remedial scheme; the Bivens claims against defendants in their official capacity were barred by sovereign immunity; the claims against the Secretary in his individual capacity were insufficiently pleaded; and the conspiracy claim was insufficiently pleaded. The district court dismissed the complaint with prejudice and this appeal followed.

         As to the Secretary, Johnson appeals only the dismissal of his ECOA claim. As to the individual defendants, Johnson appeals the dismissal of his ECOA claims, his Bivens claims against them in their individual capacities, and his conspiracy claim.

         II. Discussion

         We review the district court's grant of a motion to dismiss de novo. See Laase v. Cty. of Isanti, 638 F.3d 853, 856 (8th Cir. 2011). Johnson argues the district court improperly transformed defendants' motions to dismiss into motions for summary judgment by considering a document outside the pleadings, namely the Office's Final Agency Decision. The district court properly considered the Final Agency Decision because it is embraced by the allegations in the complaint, is a matter of public record, and its authenticity has not been questioned. See Ashanti v. City of Golden Valley, 666 F.3d 1148, 1151 (8th Cir. 2012) ("[D]ocuments necessarily embraced by the complaint are not matters outside the pleading" and "include documents whose contents are alleged in a complaint and whose authenticity no party questions" (internal quotations omitted)); see, e.g., Johnson v. Vilsack (Curtis Johnson), 833 F.3d 948, 951 n.4 (8th Cir. 2016) (approving of the district court's consideration of the Office's Final Agency Decision on a motion to dismiss).

         A. ECOA Claims

         1.Preclu ...


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