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Fluharty v. Peoples Bank, NA

United States District Court, S.D. West Virginia, Huntington Division

April 24, 2018

THOMAS H. FLUHARTY, Trustee of the Bankruptcy Estates of Dennis Ray Johnson, II No. 316-BK-30227; DJWV2, LLC No. 316-BK-30062; Southern Marine Services, LLC No. 316-BK-30063; Southern Marine Terminal, LLC No. 317-BK-30064; Redbud Dock, LLC No. 316-BK-30398; Green Coal, LLC No. 316-BK-30399; Appalachian Mining & Reclamation, LLC No. 316-BK-30400 Producer's Land, LLC 316-BK-30401; Producer's Coal, Inc. 316-BK-30402; Joint Venture Development, LLC No. 316-BK-30403, Plaintiffs,
v.
PEOPLES BANK, NA, PEOPLES INSURANCE AGENCY, LLC, GREAT AMERICAN INSURANCE COMPANY OF NEW YORK, and ZACHARY B. BURKONS, Defendants.

          ORDER GRANTING DEFENDANT BURKONS'S MOTION TO DISMISS

          ROBERT C. CHAMBERS UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Pending before the Court, in addition to a variety of other motions, is Defendant Zachary B. Burkons's (“Receiver Burkons”) Motion to Dismiss (ECF No. 16). In that motion, Receiver Burkons argues that Plaintiff's claims against him should be dismissed. Plaintiff, acting as trustee for a group of business debtors (“Coal Group”), alleges claims against Receiver Burkons under three causes of action: (1) violation of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (“RICO”); (2) common law fraud; and (3) physical assault. Compl., ECF No. 1, at ⁋⁋ 122-85. Receiver Burkons contends that three sufficient and independent lines of legal reasoning require this Court to dismiss the claims against him. Receiver Burkons's three arguments are as follows: (1) dismissal is appropriate because he is a court-appointed receiver, and this Court lacks jurisdiction to hear a collateral attack on the actions taken as a receiver; (2) dismissal is appropriate because he is entitled to immunity for the actions taken within his capacity as a court-appointed receiver; and (3) dismissal is appropriate because Plaintiff's Complaint fails to state a claim against Receiver Burkons. Burkons Mot. to Dismiss, ECF No. 16, at 1-2. Because the Court agrees with Receiver Burkons's first argument, the Court GRANTS his Motion to Dismiss (ECF No. 16). Further, because this Court lacks jurisdiction to hear the claims against Receiver Burkons, the Court will not address his remaining theories for dismissal.

         As way of background, Receiver Burkons became embroiled in the circumstances underlying this action through a court order. The Coal Group defaulted on loans held by Peoples Bank, N.A. (“Peoples Bank”). Compl., at ⁋⁋ 62-67. Peoples Bank initiated a lawsuit against the Coal Group, among other entities, in the Circuit Court of Cabell County, West Virginia, requesting judgment on the money due under the loans. Id. at ⁋ 79. Peoples Bank also asked the Circuit Court to appoint a receiver to handle the matters of the Coal Group. Id. Granting the request of Peoples Bank, the Circuit Court initially appointed Mr. David G. Zatezalo as the receiver. Id. at ⁋⁋ 92-95. However, shortly after his appointment, Mr. Zatezalo requested that the state court relieve him of his receivership appointment. Id. at ⁋ 97. The Circuit Court then appointed Receiver Burkons as the replacement receiver in the matter, “in order to continue operation within the receivership. . . . ” Ex. C to Burkons Mot. to Dismiss, ECF No. 16-3, at 3.[1]

         Plaintiff predominately premises his claims against Receiver Burkons upon two instances. The first, Plaintiff claims that Receiver Burkons traveled to Kentucky where he allegedly “physically assaulted [Dennis Ray] Johnson[, II], causing severe physical and emotional injuries.” Compl., at ⁋ 104. Plaintiff claims Receiver Burkons assaulted Johnson in an effort to “repossess” equipment that supposedly served as collateral for the defaulted loans held by Peoples Bank. As such, Plaintiff asserts that Receiver Burkons committed this alleged physical assault “ostensibly under color of ‘receivership.'” Id.

         Second, Plaintiff focuses upon Receiver Burkons's filing of Involuntary Chapter 11 Bankruptcy Petitions against some of the Coal Group entities. Id. at ⁋ 105. Plaintiff contends that these petitions were filed fraudulently. Id. at ⁋ 176. In support of that contention, Plaintiff asserts that Receiver Burkons never actually had authority to act as a receiver because he failed to post the appropriate bond, a requirement under West Virginia law. See e.g. Id. at ⁋ 103, 134-37.

         In light of Plaintiff's allegations, the Court cannot adjudicate Plaintiff's claims. The actions alleged by Plaintiff were taken in furtherance of the receiver duties imposed upon Receiver Burkons by the Cabell County circuit judge. Therefore, this Court is deprived of subject matter jurisdiction to hear the claims against Receiver Burkons.

         A Rule 12(b)(1) motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction can follow two tracks.[2] Under the first track, a party asserts a “factual attack, ” claiming that the jurisdictional allegations made in the complaint are inaccurate. See Kerns v. United States, 585 F.3d 187, 192 (4th Cir. 2009) (describing this type of jurisdictional challenge). Under the second track, referred to as a “facial attack, ” a party asserts that the jurisdictional facts contained within the complaint, taken as true, fail to support a court's subject matter jurisdiction over the action. Id.; see Thigpen v. United States, 800 F.2d 393, 401 n.15 (4th Cir. 1986) (referring to an attack that claims that “the allegations of the complaint are facially insufficient to sustain the court's jurisdiction”). When considering a “facial attack, ” a court affords the plaintiff “the same procedural protection as he[or she] would receive under a Rule 12(b)(6) consideration.” Kerns, 585 F.3d at 192 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). Receiver Burkons has asserted a facial attack, thus the Court will proceed under the Rule 12(b)(6) procedural framework.

         To overcome a motion to dismiss under Federal Rule 12(b)(6), a complaint must state a plausible claim. Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 546 (2007). This standard requires a plaintiff to set forth the “grounds” for an “entitle[ment] to relief” that is more than mere “labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.” Id. at 555 (internal quotations and citations omitted). A complaint must contain “sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (internal quotations and citation omitted). Facial plausibility exists when a claim contains “factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Id. (citation omitted).

         Further, the Court accepts the factual allegations in the complaint as true. Those allegations, however, “must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level . . . . ” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555 (citations omitted). If the allegations in the complaint, assuming their truth, do “not raise a claim of entitlement to relief, this basic deficiency should . . . be exposed at the point of minimum expenditure of time and money by the parties and the court.” Id. at 558 (internal quotations and citations omitted). “Although for the purposes of a motion to dismiss we must take all of the factual allegations in the complaint as true, we are not bound to accept as true a legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (internal quotations and citation omitted).

         Receiver Burkons's primary argument for dismissal rests upon the Supreme Court's 1881 decision in Barton v. Barbour, 104 U.S. 126 (1881). In that case, the Court announced the aptly titled “Barton doctrine.” Under the doctrine, if a plaintiff wishes to sue a court-appointed receiver for the actions taken while serving in that capacity, the plaintiff must acquire leave from the court that appointed the receiver. McDaniel, 668 F.3d at 156-57 (explaining the doctrine). If the plaintiff fails to obtain leave from the appointing-court, then the secondary court in which the plaintiff has brought the relevant claims lacks subject matter jurisdiction over those claims. See id.

         Critical to the determination of the Barton doctrine's applicability, the Court must determine whether the acts at the heart of Plaintiff's claims against Receiver Burkons were taken within his official capacity. Id. In doing so, the Fourth Circuit instructs courts to consider “the nature of the function that the [receiver] was performing during commission of the actions for which liability is sought.” Id. at 157 (citing Heavrin v. Schilling (In re Triple S Rests., Inc.), 519 F.3d 575, 578 (6th Cir. 2008)). Further, courts presume that acts were taken as part of the court-appointed duties “unless Plaintiff initially alleges at the outset facts demonstrating otherwise.” Id. (internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting Lowenbraun v. Canary (In re Lowenbraun), 453 F.3d 314, 322 (6th Cir. 2006)).

         Although aged in its origin, the Barton doctrine has continued vitality due to the important interests it protects.[3] Courts have a strong interest in protecting from unjustified personal liability, those court-appointed individuals who have agreed to serve as an arm of the appointing-court. See Id. (internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting Lebovits v. Scheffel (In re Lehal Realty Assocs.), 101 F.3d 272, 276 (2d. Cir. 1996)). Without such a shielding principle, the task of receivership would “become a more irksome duty, ” making it more difficult to tap competent individuals to serve in the role. Id. (internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting In re Linton, 136 F.3d 544, 545 (7th Cir. 1998)).

         The Court finds that the Barton doctrine applies to Plaintiff's claims against Receiver Burkons, and thus the Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction to hear them. On the face of Plaintiff's Complaint, Plaintiff alleges that Receiver Burkons acted “under the color of ‘receivership, '” and that Receiver Burkons claimed that he was authorized to act due to his receivership appointment. Compl., ¶¶ 104-05. Upon these allegations by Plaintiff, combined with the general presumption that actions by a receiver are done in the official capacity, the Court must conclude that Receiver Burkons acted within the context of his court-appointed duties.

         Pushing back upon the applicability of the Barton doctrine, Plaintiff argues that Receiver Burkons never fulfilled the statutory requirements necessary to serve as a court-appointed receiver. Plaintiff claims that no acts of Receiver Burkons can qualify as acts taken “in his official capacity” because Receiver Burkons was never bestowed with official duties due to his failure to meet the statutory preconditions of service. Pl.'s, ECF No. 19, at 2-4. Plaintiff correctly notes the statutory requirements for becoming a court-appointed receiver under West Virginia law. Id. at 3 (quoting W.Va. Code § 53-6-1). However, if Plaintiff had concerns over Receiver Burkons's satisfaction of the statutory duties, he should have addressed those issues with the state court that appointed Receiver Burkons. See Ledbetter v. Farmers Bank & Tr. Co., 142 F.2d 147, 151 (4th Cir. 1944) (commenting upon a plaintiff's failure to object before the appointing-court to either the appointment of the receiver, or the bond amount). Further, Plaintiff's contention potentially implicates the sufficiency and correctness of the state court judge's order appointing ...


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