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Wei v. Hoffmann

United States District Court, N.D. New York

June 27, 2018

LIQIANG WEI, Plaintiff,
ROALD HOFFMANN, et al., Defendants.





         Pro se plaintiff Liqiang Wei has commenced this action against three individuals identified as professors employed at different universities, a website, a journal publication, and a foundation alleging that the individuals stole his scientific research and that the journal published an article written based on that research. Accompanying plaintiff's complaint is a motion to proceed in the action in forma pauperis ("IFP"). Both the complaint and IFP application have been forwarded to me for review. For the reasons set forth below, plaintiff's IFP motion is granted, but I recommend that his complaint be dismissed with leave to replead.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff filed his complaint in this action and requested to proceed without prepayment of the filing fees on or about June 1, 2018. Dkt. Nos. 1, 2. Named as defendants are the following: (1) Roald Hoffmann, a professor at Cornell University; (2) International Journal of Quantum Chemistry; (3) National Science Foundation; (4) arXiv,; (5) Dong-Kyun Seo, a professor at Arizona State University; and (6) Garegin Papoian, a professor at the University of Maryland. Dkt. No. 1-1 at 2-3.

         Plaintiff's complaint is drafted in narrative form and is generally not a model of clarity. See generally Dkt. No. 1-1. Liberally construed, he alleges that the individual defendants, and in particular defendant Hoffmann, misappropriated his research concerning general mechanical perturbation theory and that defendants Hoffmann, Seo, and Papoian authored an article using plaintiff's research, which was ultimately published in International Journal of Quantum Chemistry. Id. at 2. It appears plaintiff alleges that he wrote defendant Hoffmann a letter in September 1998, applying for a post-doctoral fellowship with defendant Hoffmann at Cornell University, and in that letter, plaintiff explained his scientific theory that was ultimately stolen by the defendants. Id. Plaintiff seeks injunctive and monetary relief. Id. at 9, 41.


         A. Plaintiff's IFP Application

         When a civil action is commenced in a federal district court, the statutory filing fee, currently set at $400, must ordinarily be paid. 28 U.S.C. § 1914(a). A court is authorized, however, to permit a litigant to proceed IFP if it determines that he is unable to pay the required filing fee. 28 U.S.C. § 1915(a)(1).[1] In this instance, because I conclude that plaintiff meets the requirements for IFP status, his application for leave to proceed without prepayment of fees is granted.[2]

         B. Plaintiff's Complaint

         1. Legal Standard

         Because I have found that plaintiff meets the financial criteria for commencing this case IFP, I must next consider the sufficiency of the claims set forth in his complaint in light of 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e). Section 1915(e) directs that, when a plaintiff seeks to proceed IFP, "the court shall dismiss the case at any time if the court determines that . . . the action . . . (i) is frivolous or malicious; (ii) fails to state a claim on which relief may be granted; or (iii) seeks monetary relief against a defendant who is immune from such relief." 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B).

         In deciding whether a complaint states a colorable claim, a court must extend a certain measure of deference in favor of pro se litigants, Nance v. Kelly, 912 F.2d 605, 606 (2d Cir. 1990) (per curiam), and extreme caution should be exercised in ordering sua sponte dismissal of a pro se complaint before the adverse party has been served and the parties have had an opportunity to address the sufficiency of plaintiff's allegations, Anderson v. Coughlin, 700 F.2d 37, 41 (2d Cir. 1983). The court, however, also has an overarching obligation to determine that a claim is not legally frivolous before permitting a pro se plaintiff's complaint to proceed. See, e.g., Fitzgerald v. First East Seventh St. Tenants Corp., 221 F.3d 362, 363 (2d Cir. 2000) (holding that a district court may sua sponte dismiss a frivolous complaint, notwithstanding the fact that the plaintiff paid the statutory filing fee). "Legal frivolity . . . occurs where 'the claim is based on an indisputably meritless legal theory [such as] when either the claim lacks an arguable basis in law, or a dispositive defense clearly exists on the face of the complaint.'" Aguilar v. United States, Nos. 99-MC-0304, 99-MC-0408, 1999 WL 1067841, at *2 (D. Conn. Nov. 8, 1999) (quoting Livingston v. Adirondack Beverage Co., 141 F.3d 434, 437 (2d Cir. 1998)); see also Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319, 325 (1989) ("[D]ismissal is ...

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