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Burns v. Smith

United States District Court, M.D. Tennessee, Nashville Division

February 12, 2019

DEBBIE BURNS a/k/a DEBBIE FAYE SMITH, Plaintiff,
v.
JIMMY L. SMITH, JR., RICHARD L. SMITH, and CORA DAVIS, Defendants.

          Judge Aleta A. Trauger

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

          ALISTAIR E. NEWBERN, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         To The Honorable Aleta A. Trauger, District Judge

         The Court's referral order in this action authorizes the Magistrate Judge to dispose or recommend disposition of any pretrial motions under 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(A) and (B) and to conduct further proceedings as necessary under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 72(b) and the Court's Local Rules. (Doc. No. 6.)

         This case appears to concern pro se Plaintiff Debbie Burns's attempts in various state courts to prove that she was the common law wife of decedent Jimmy L. Smith under South Carolina law (Doc. No. 1, PageID# 6-54). Some of the confusion in assessing the nature of Burns's claims arises from the fact that Burns filed this action using a template complaint designed for prisoners alleging civil rights violations under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. (Id. at PageID# 1-5.) Burns does not appear to be incarcerated, nor does she appear to allege deprivation of any specific constitutional or other federal right under color of state law. Rather, to the extent the Court can decipher the collection of documents that make up Burns's complaint, Burns appears to take issue with two state court judgments: a judgment from the Monroe County, Tennessee, Probate Court holding that Burns failed to establish that she was Smith's common law wife and heir under applicable South Carolina law (id. at PageID# 39-42), and a judgment from the Tennessee Court of Appeals affirming the Monroe County probate court's judgment as modified, notwithstanding a declaratory judgment from the Charleston County, South Carolina, Probate Court holding otherwise (id. at PageID# 15- 26; see also Id. at PageID# 35, 37-38).

         As explained herein, it appears that this Court lacks subject-matter jurisdiction over Burns's complaint. (Doc. No. 1.) The Magistrate Judge therefore RECOMMENDS that this action be DISMISSED WITHOUT PREJUDICE under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(h)(3) and that Defendant Cora Davis's motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim (Doc. No. 8) be FOUND MOOT.

         I. Factual and Procedural Background

         A. Burns's Complaint

         Burns's complaint consists of two very different types of documents: The first is a template form from the Eastern District of Tennessee designed to help state prisoners file complaints for violations of their federal civil rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, [1] which Burns partially completed and signed. (See Doc. No. 1, PageID# 1-5.) The second is a collection of copies of civil judgments and related briefing from state courts in Tennessee and South Carolina regarding the administration of decedent Jimmy L. Smith's estate. (See Id. at PageID# 6-54). Other than her use of the template complaint for prisoners, nothing in the record suggests that Burns is or has been incarcerated.

         Using this template, Burns lists herself as the plaintiff in this action and names three defendants: Cora Davis, who appears to be decedent Jimmy L. Smith's sister, and Jimmy L. Smith, Jr. and Richard L. Smith (the Smith Defendants), who appear to be the decedent's sons. (Id. at PageID# 1, 16.)[2] On lines provided to describe any other lawsuits in state or federal court dealing with the same facts, Burns lists herself as a prior petitioner/plaintiff and the Smith Defendants as prior respondents/defendants in a lawsuit filed in Charleston County, South Carolina, court in September 2015:

         (Image Omitted)

         (Id. at PageID# 1-2.)

         On the next page of the template, in a space provided to describe the result of any complaints to prison authorities, Burns writes: “ordered, adjudged and decreed to all spousal rights as an heir of the Estate of Jimmy Leon Smith[.]” (Id. at PageID# 3.) This appears to be a reference to the February 12, 2016, result of the South Carolina lawsuit, in which the Charleston County Probate Court “ORDERED, ADJUDGED AND DECREED that Petitioner Debbie Burns a/k/a Debbie Faye Smith was the common law spouse of the Decedent, Jimmy Leon Smith, and that ...


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