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United States v. $209

United States District Court, N.D. California

April 28, 2015

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA Plaintiff,
v.
$209, 815 IN UNITED STATES CURRENCY, Defendant. JULIO FIGUEROA, Claimant.

ORDER DENYING MOTION TO STRIKE

SAMUEL CONTI, District Judge.

I. INTRODUCTION

Now before the Court is a fully-briefed[1] motion by Plaintiff United States of America's ("the Government") to strike claimant Julio Figueroa's verified claim, ECF No. 11 ("Claim") and answer, ECF No. 14 ("Answer"), in this civil forfeiture action involving $209, 815 in cash seized from Figueroa's luggage during a consensual encounter with Drug Enforcement Agency agents at San Francisco International Airport. ECF No. 97 ("Mot."); see also ECF No. 87 ("SJ Order") at 2-6 (summarizing the facts of Figueroa's encounter with the DEA and denying his motion to suppress). The Government argues the Court should strike Figueroa's claim and answer because he has repeatedly failed to provide sufficient responses to special interrogatories, a type of early discovery authorized by Supplemental Rule for Admiralty or Maritime Claims and Asset Forfeiture Actions ("Supplemental Rule") G(6). See also Supp. R. G(8)(c)(i)(A) (authorizing motions to strike for failure to comply with Supplemental Rule G(6)).

The Court has ordered Figueroa to supplement his answers to the Government's special interrogatories on three occasions. See SJ Order at 26-27, ECF Nos. 48 ("Mot. to Compel Order"), 96 ("1292(b) Order"). Despite these Court orders (and two additional supplementations by Figueroa), the Government continues to believe Figueroa's responses are insufficient and his claim and answer should be stricken. Figueroa disagrees, arguing that the Government's motion to strike is procedurally deficient and that his responses are sufficient.

For the reasons set forth below the motion is DENIED.

II. BACKGROUND

After seizing the $209, 815 at issue in this case from Figueroa's luggage, the Government filed a complaint alleging it is entitled to keep (or "forfeit" in civil forfeiture parlance) the currency as (the Government argues) it is proceeds derived from drug trafficking. See ECF No. 1; see also 18 U.S.C. § 981(a)(1)(B), (i) (providing for the forfeiture of "property... derived from, or traceable to... the manufacture, importation, sale, or distribution of a controlled substance...."). The Government's theory is essentially that Figueroa was a drug courier, ferrying money or drugs between various places around the country in exchange for a small cut of the proceeds.

Figueroa denies these allegations, contending that the $209, 815 is his life savings, derived approximately half and half between a cash inheritance from his grandmother and his employment as a freelance consultant and graphic designer. ECF No. 57-1 ("Figueroa Decl.") ¶¶ 2-4. As a result, seeking to oppose the forfeiture and have the $209, 815 returned, Figueroa filed two pleadings: (1) a verified claim, which must identify the property claimed and the claimant, state the claimant's interest in the property, and be served on the government, and (2) an answer which must be filed within 21 days of filing the claim. Supp. R. G(5)(a)(i), (b).

The Government responded to Figueroa's claim by propounding ten special interrogatories under Supplemental Rule G(6), to which Figueroa timely (but incompletely) responded. Supp. R. G(6)(b). Special interrogatories are intended to aid the Government in ferreting out unmeritorious or fraudulent claims. See United States v. $133, 420, 672 F.3d 629, 635 (9th Cir. 2012) (quoting Advisory Committee Note to Subd. 6 of Supp. R. G). The special interrogatories the Government sent Figueroa probe, among other things, how and from whom Figueroa acquired the $209, 815, the facts and records supporting his claim of lawful ownership of the money, and the identities and contact information of individuals with knowledge of Figueroa's interest in the money. ECF No. 22 ("First Kenney Decl.") Ex. A ("Special Interrogs."). Figueroa's responses were riddled with boilerplate (largely frivolous) objections and stated "little more than... [Figueroa's] assertion of ownership and possession of the currency [asserted] in his verified claim, " and as a result the Government filed a motion to compel further responses to nine of the ten special interrogatories. Mot. to Compel Order at 3; see also First Kenney Decl. Ex. B ("First Answers").

The Court granted the motion, notably rejecting Figueroa's two central contentions: (1) that the special interrogatories exceed the scope permitted by Supplemental Rule G(6), and (2) because Figueroa's responses and verified claim were sufficient to show his standing, and the purpose of special interrogatories is to probe matters "bearing on a claimant's standing, " Supplemental Rule G(6), it therefore follows that special interrogatories are no longer necessary as to Figueroa. Mot. to Compel Order at 4-5. As the Court found, both arguments are barred by the Ninth Circuit's decision in United States v. $133, 420, 672 F.3d 629 (9th Cir. 2012), which found substantially similar special interrogatories "well within the scope of the rule, " id. at 643 n.5, and concluded Figueroa's second argument was contrary to "the text of Rule G(6)(a) itself, " the advisory committee's notes, and the principles of statutory interpretation. Id. at 642-43. As a result, the Court granted the motion and ordered Figueroa to serve supplemental answers. Mot. to Compel Order at 7.

Shortly after Figueroa served his supplemental answers, the Government filed a motion to strike his claim, pointing out that while Figueroa's second set of answers provided some new responsive information, he still had not responded at all to five of the ten interrogatories and provided incomplete answers to four others. See ECF No. 60 ("Second Kinney Decl.") Ex. C ("Second Answers"). Rather than respond, Figueroa moved to strike the Government's motion to strike for allegedly failing to comply with the Local Rules. ECF No. 67. While that motion was being briefed, Figueroa submitted a notice and supplemental answers to special interrogatories. ECF No. 68. Subsequently, the Court denied Figueroa's motion to strike the Government's motion to strike, ironically for itself failing to comply with the Local Rules, and noting the Court's disapproval "of the increasing gamesmanship" between the parties. ECF No. 71, at 2. Recognizing Figueroa had supplemented his responses to interrogatories during the briefing of the Government's motion to strike (and a parallel motion for summary judgment), the Court set a briefing schedule for both motions. Id. at 3-4.

In a subsequent order denying the Government's motion to strike, the Court found that Figueroa's answers to three of the ten special interrogatories remained insufficient. Specifically, the Court found Figueroa's responses were insufficient as to interrogatories number 3 (which asks Figueroa to identify documents supporting his claim), 4 (which seeks a list of sources from which the currency was derived with dates, amounts, and the identity of individual sources), and 10 (which requests the identity of individuals Figueroa knows or believes to have information relevant to his claim and a summary of what information they might have). SJ Order at 24-25. Nevertheless, the Court found that Figueroa's responses "while inadequate in places, evince[d] candor and effort, " and as a result, declined to strike his claim for these deficiencies, and instead ordered supplemental answers to the three deficient interrogatories. Id. at 25-26. In so doing, the Court noted that "[i]f Figueroa's answers remain insufficient after supplementation, the Government may re-file its motion to strike." Id. at 26.

Rather than supplement his answers for a fourth time, Figueroa filed a motion asking the Court to stay his obligation to supplement his answers and certify an appeal to the Ninth Circuit under 28 U.S.C. 1292(b), thus allowing Figueroa to take an interlocutory appeal of the order compelling supplemental answers to special interrogatories. Figueroa argued that there were "substantial grounds for difference of opinion as to whether a civil forfeiture claimant must provide responses to further special interrogatories about a defendant property that was seized from him when the claimant has already established standing." 1292(b) Order at 1. In support of this argument, Figueroa pointed to a recent Eighth Circuit case, United States v. $154, 853, 744 F.3d 559 (8th Cir. 2014), that concluded if a claimant has standing to contest the forfeiture, "then special interrogatories [are] unnecessary to determine [the claimant's] standing as to that currency. Thus the district court abused its discretion in striking [the claimant's verified claim]... for failure to adequately respond to the special interrogatories when no special interrogatories were necessary to determine standing." 744 F.3d at 564. Concluding that this approach was irreconcilable with the Ninth Circuit's analysis of the scope and role of special interrogatories and Supplemental Rule G in United States v. $133, 420, 672 F.3d 629 (9th Cir. 2012), the Court refused to certify the issue for interlocutory appeal, and reiterated its order that Figueroa serve supplemental answers to special interrogatories, this time by February 13, 2015. 1292(b) Order at 4.

On that date, Figueroa provided supplemental answers to just two of the three remaining interrogatories. See ECF No. 98 ("Third Kenney Decl.") Ex. D ("Fourth Answers"). Five days after the deadline, Figueroa's counsel emailed counsel for the Government stating he "intend[ed] to amend those supplemental responses to include further information and response [sic] to special interrogatory 4 by Friday or Monday at the latest." Opp'n at Ex. 1. However, Figueroa's counsel apparently did not amend ...


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