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Turner v. Baldwin

United States District Court, M.D. Florida, Jacksonville Division

October 23, 2019

Robert Rockwell Turner, Jr., Plaintiff,
Tracy K. Baldwin & Lamar Jenkins, Defendants.


          Patricia D. Barksdale, United States Magistrate Judge.

         Robert Rockwell Turner, Jr., proceeding without a lawyer and in forma pauperis under 28 U.S.C. § 1915, sues Tracy Baldwin, a deputy clerk for the Suwannee County Clerk of Court, and Lamar Jenkins, the Suwannee County Property Appraiser. Doc. 7. At the Court's direction, Doc. 4, Mr. Turner filed an amended complaint. Docs. 7, 7-1.

         Ms. Baldwin and Mr. Jenkins move to dismiss the amended complaint under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction. Docs. 15, 16. Ms. Baldwin alternatively moves for a more definite statement under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(e). Doc. 16.

         In the amended complaint, Mr. Turner alleges the following facts. On February 13, 1995, he applied for an ad valorem homestead tax exemption for 5.45 acres of property, parcel number 32-03S-14E-0287800.3000.[1] Doc. 7 at 1; Doc. 7-1 at 1. The homestead exemption was “continuous and automatic.” Doc. 7 at 1-2. On November 18, 2014, Ms. Baldwin warned of a tax sale of the property without mentioning its homestead status. Doc. 7 at 2. In 2015, Mr. Jenkins removed the homestead tax exemption without a verifiable signed complaint. Doc. 7 at 2. Ms. Baldwin's and Mr. Jenkins's actions resulted in the property being sold for $3, 540.45, which was less than half its assessed value despite that Fla. Stat. § 197.502 requires a minimum bid of half the assessed value for homesteads, and resulted in Mr. Turner receiving no consideration from the sale.[2] Doc. 7 at 3.

         To the amended complaint, Mr. Turner attaches a letter from a lawyer with Three Rivers Legal Services, Inc., to Suwannee County dated November 29, 2016. Doc. 7-1. In the letter, the lawyer, referencing Florida's sunshine laws, requests documents relating to the property, “including documents associated with the assessment of the property prior to the tax sale, and removal of the homestead exemption status of the property prior to the tax sale.” Doc. 7-1 at 1. The lawyer adds,

The County's records seem to indicate that Mr. Turner's property was “assessed on the latest tax roll as homestead property.” Therefore, in accordance with F.S. 197.542(1), it would appear that the minimum-bid amount for the tax sale of the subject property should have been “increased to include an amount equal to one-half of the assessed value of the homestead property as required by s. 197.502.” I am trying to get clarification as to why it does not appear that F.S. 197.542 was followed for the tax sale of this property.
In my letter to Mr. Jenkins, I requested a copy of a letter allegedly sent to Mr. Turner in January of 2015 indicating that his “homestead exemption card” was returned by the post office and that the Property Appraiser never heard from him. I did not receive a copy of that letter. Since the County's policy is that “most exemptions are renewed automatically, ” I am also attempting to determine why a homestead card would even be sent to Mr. Turner absent some evidence that he moved out of his home. So, please include with this public records request my request to review the letter sent to Mr. Turner in January 2015. Also, please provide me with an opportunity to review any other documentation the County has showing that Mr. Turner's homestead exemption was removed when his property was placed on the “lands available for taxes, ” along with any justification for removing the homestead exemption when that happened.

Doc. 7-1 at 1-2.

         Citing 42 U.S.C. § 1983, Mr. Turner demands $38, 000 for the loss of his property and $38, 000 in punitive damages.[3] Doc. 7 at 3.

         To his motion to dismiss, Mr. Jenkins attaches a final order of dismissal in Turner v. Jenkins, No. 2017-CA-68, an earlier action Mr. Turner had brought against Mr. Jenkins in the Circuit Court, Third Judicial Circuit, Suwannee County, Florida. Doc. 15-1. In the order, the state court dismisses Mr. Turner's challenge of Mr. Jenkins's denial of a homestead tax exemption on the property[4] for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction, ruling that Mr. Turner filed the action outside the 60-day period under Fla. Stat. § 194.171(2) for challenging tax assessments and that Mr. Turner lacked standing because he no longer owned the property.[5] Doc. 15-1. The court found that, for the 2016 tax year, Mr. Jenkins had certified the tax roll for collection on October 4, 2016, making December 3, 2016, the last day Mr. Turner could challenge the assessment and making his complaint filed on April 10, 2017, and any complaint about earlier tax years outside the 60-day statutory period. Doc. 15-1 at 2-3. Mr. Turner appealed an order denying a motion for rehearing to Florida's First District Court of Appeal without success. See docket in Turner v. Jenkins, No. 1D18-509 (Fla. 1st DCA). Three months after his state-court appeal ended, Mr. Turner filed this action here. Doc. 1.

         In response to the motions to dismiss, Mr. Turner states this is not an “ad valorem tax case”; rather, this case “involves Mr. Lamar Jenkins Suwanee County Property Appraiser REMOVAL of my existing homestead exemption for the 2015 tax year without a verifiable signed complaint.” Doc. 18 at 1. He adds, “I am contesting the legality of the 2015 homestead exemption removal without a verifiable signed complaint” and “I am contesting the loss of my homestead property without a jury trial.” Doc. 18 at 2. He states he includes a copy of his “Homestead Exemption Receipt” for the 2015 tax year, Doc. 18 at 2, though he includes no receipt. He cites cases addressing procedural due process and government takings. Doc. 18 at 2-3 (citing Truax v. Corrigan, 257 U.S. 312 (1921), and Vanhorne's Lessee v. Dorrance, 2 U.S. 304 (C.C.D. Pa. 1795)).

         A court must construe a pleading drafted by a pro se litigant liberally and hold the pleading to a less stringent standard than one drafted by a lawyer. Tannenbaum v. United States, 148 F.3d 1262, 1263 (11th Cir. 1998). Liberal construction does not mean serving as de facto counsel. GJR Invs., Inc. v. County of Escambia, 132 F.3d 1359, 1369 (11th Cir. 1998), overruled on other grounds by Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662 (2009). Liberal construction means that a federal court sometimes must “look beyond the labels used in a pro se party's complaint and focus on the content and substance of the allegations” to determine if a cognizable remedy is available. Torres v. Miami-Dade County, 734 Fed.Appx. 688, 691 (11th Cir. 2018).

         Section 1983 provides a federal cause of action against any person who, acting under color of state law, deprives another of a federal right. Conn v. Gabbert, 526 U.S. 286, 290 (1999). “Section 1983 is not itself a source of substantive rights, but merely provides a method for vindicating federal rights elsewhere conferred.” Albright v. Oliver, 510 U.S. 266, 271 (1994) (internal quotation marks and quoted authority omitted). “The first step in any such claim is to identify the specific constitutional right allegedly infringed.” Id. “The validity of the claim must then be judged by reference to the specific constitutional standard which governs that right[.]” Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 394 (1989).

         Because Mr. Turner proceeds without a lawyer, the Court liberally construes his amended complaint as asserting a federal claim for damages under § 1983 for violations of the procedural due process component of the Fourteenth Amendment, which protects against the deprivation by state actors of a constitutionally protected interest in property without due process, ...

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