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Madden v. Chattanooga City Wide Service Dep't

March 21, 2007

RONALD L. MADDEN, PLAINTIFF,
v.
CHATTANOOGA CITY WIDE SERVICE DEPARTMENT, AND THE FOLLOWING PERSONS IN THEIR INDIVIDUAL AND OFFICIAL CAPACITIES, STEVE LEACH, WAYNE WILKERSON, LEE NORRIS, JOE SHAW, JAMES H. TEMPELTON, BILL NEIGHBORS, TONY L. BOYD, LU ANN HAWK, DARRELL HARPER, JEROME WIGGINS, GEORGE E. CLAIBORNE, JR., ALBERT LLOYD, AND ANTHONY MITCHELL, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Chief Judge Curtis L. Collier

MEMORANDUM

Before the Court is Defendant Darrell Harper's ("Harper") motion to dismiss (Court File No. 10) and memorandum in support (Court File No. 11). Plaintiff Ronald Madden ("Plaintiff") filed a "Motion Objection to Darrell Harper Motion to Dismiss" (Court File No. 34) and a "Motion to Amend Plaintiff's Motion in Objection to Harper's Motion to Dismiss" (Court File No. 38). For the following reasons the Court will GRANT Harper's motion to dismiss and will DISMISS all Plaintiff's claims against him.

I. RELEVANT FACTS

In his Complaint, Plaintiff asserts claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and 42 U.S.C. §§ 1981 and 1983 against Defendants the Chattanooga City Wide Service Department, and the following in their individual and official capacities, Steve Leach, Donald Lee Norris, Joe Shaw, James H. Templeton, Bill Neighbors, Tony L. Boyd, Wayne Wilkerson, Jerome Wiggins, George Claiborne, Jr., Albert Lloyd, Anthony Mitchell, Lu Ann Hawk, and Darrell Harper, alleging racial harassment on the job and employment discrimination on the basis of race (Court File No. 3).*fn1 All of the Defendants are employees of the Chattanooga City Wide Service Department with the exception of Lu Ann Hawk*fn2 and Darrell Harper.*fn3

Plaintiff is a former employee of Chattanooga City Wide Service Department ("City") (Court File No. 3). Plaintiff filed a number of internal complaints while employed by the City. Id. Plaintiff also filed a formal complaint with the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") on February 10, 2006 (Court File Nos. 3,11). Plaintiff alleges Defendants improperly prohibited him from reasonable access to grievance proceedings by "improperly striking out motions, abusing their power of office and authority to address and rectify grievance, improperly employing Mr. Darrell Harper's support" (Court File No. 3). This is the only allegation in Plaintiff's Complaint against Harper, other than alleging Harper is and was at all times relevant to this action, a hearing officer for the Employment Security Division of the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development.*fn4 Id. Harper alleges, without much elaboration, that he was the hearing officer who heard and decided an unemployment benefits action initiated by Plaintiff while he was employed by the City (Court File No. 11). Plaintiff was terminated from his employment on March 27, 2006 (Court File No. 3). He filed the instant action on October 4, 2006. Id.

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

When reviewing a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6), the Court must construe the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, Bloch v. Ribar, 156 F.3d 673, 677 (6th Cir. 1998); State of Ohio ex rel. Fisher v. Louis Trauth Dairy, Inc., 856 F. Supp. 1229, 1232 (S.D. Ohio 1994), accept all the complaint's factual allegations as true, Bloch, 156 F.3d at 677; Broyde v. Gotham Tower, Inc., 13 F.3d 994, 996 (6th Cir. 1994), and determine whether "it appears beyond doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of his claim which would entitle him to relief." Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 45-6, (1957); see also Ziegler v. IBP Hog Mkt., Inc., 249 F.3d 509, 511-12 (6th Cir. 2001); Coffey v. Chattanooga-Hamilton County Hosp. Auth., 932 F. Supp. 1023, 1024 (E.D. Tenn. 1996). The Court may not grant a motion to dismiss based upon a disbelief of a complaint's factual allegations. Miller v. Currie, 50 F.3d 373, 377 (6th Cir. 1995) (noting that courts should neither weigh evidence nor evaluate the credibility of witnesses); Lawler v. Marshall, 898 F.2d 1196, 1199 (6th Cir. 1990). Rather, the Court must liberally construe the complaint in favor of the party opposing the motion and may dismiss the case only where no set of facts could be proved consistent with the allegations which would entitle the plaintiff to a recovery. Hishon v. King & Spalding, 467 U.S. 69, 73 (1984); Miller, 50 F.3d at 377.

In deciding a motion to dismiss, the question is "not whether [the] plaintiff will ultimately prevail but whether the claimant is entitled to offer evidence to support the claims." Swierkiewicz v. Sorema N.A., 534 U.S. 506, 511 (2002)(citations and quotation marks omitted). However, bare assertions of legal conclusions are insufficient. Scheid v. Fanny Farmer Candy Shops, Inc., 859 F.2d 434, 436 (6th Cir. 1988). The "complaint must contain either direct or inferential allegations respecting all the material elements to sustain a recovery under some viable legal theory." Id. (emphasis in original). Conclusive allegations will not suffice as a valid cause of action for violations of constitutional and/or civil rights. Smith v. Rose, 760 F.2d 102, 106 (6th Cir.1985).

While applying this standard, the Court must be mindful of the fact that a pro se complaint must be held to "less stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers." Montgomery v. Huntington Bank, 346 F.3d 693, 698 (6th Cir. 2003); Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, 520 (1972). However, the Court "need not accept as true legal conclusions or unwarranted factual inferences." Morgan v. Church's Fried Chicken, 829 F.2d 10, 12 (6th Cir. 1987).

III. DISCUSSION

Harper moves the Court to dismiss him from this case pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6) due to Plaintiff's failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. As grounds, Harper alleges he is entitled to absolute judicial immunity concerning the allegations in Plaintiff's complaint since they solely concern his actions as a hearing officer for the Employment Security Division of the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development (Court File Nos. 10,11). In response, Plaintiff argues Harper is not entitled to judicial immunity as he acted in "concert and participation" with other Defendants "in a collaborate sham" to deny Plaintiff his rights to a fair hearing and appeal of the same (Court File No. 34).*fn5 However, Plaintiff's complaint alleges Harper is, and was at all times relevant, a hearing officer (Court File No. 3). As an administrative hearing officer, Harper may be entitled to quasi-judicial immunity; however, he is not entitled to judicial immunity, as he alleges, since it is only extended to actual judges.*fn6 See Mireless v. Waco, 502 U.S. 9 (1991) (per curiam) (finding judges are entitled to absolute judicial immunity from suits for money damages for all actions taken in the judge's judicial capacity, unless these actions are taken in a complete absence of jurisdiction) (emphasis added).

Absolute immunity has been extended to non-judicial officers who perform "quasi-judicial duties when (1) the functions of the official in question are comparable to those of a judge; (2) the nature of the controversy is intense enough that future harassment or intimidation by litigants is a realistic prospect; and (3) adequate safeguards exist to justify dispensing with private damage suite to control unconstitutional conduct." Yee v. Michigan Supreme Court, No. 06-CV-15142-DT, 2007 WL 118931, *4 (E.D. Mich. Jan. 10, 2007) (citing Butz v. Economou, 438 U.S. 478, 512 (1978); Busch v. Rauch, 38 F.3d 842 (6th Cir.1994)); see also Watts v. Burkhart, 978 F.2d 269 (6th Cir. 1992) (extending absolute quasi-judicial immunity to state medical licensing board examiners); Balas v. Leishman-Donaldson, No. 91-4073, 1992 WL 217735, *5 (6th Cir. Sept. 9, 1992)(extending quasi-judicial immunity to probation officers while performing duties to ensure a probationer was complying with the terms of probation); Timson v. Wright, 532 F.2d 552 (6th Cir .1976) (holding quasi-judicial immunity shields chief probation officer from liability). "Thus, a hearing officer who performs tasks that are an integral part of the judicial process is entitled to absolute 'quasi-judicial' immunity from suits for damages." Yee, 2007 WL 118931 at *4 (citing Johnson v. Turner, 125 F.3d 324, 333 (6th Cir.1997); Foster v. Walsh, 864 F.2d 416, 417-18 (6th Cir.1988)).

The paramount case for this proposition is Butz v. Economou, 438 U.S. 478 (1978). In Butz, the Supreme Court decided that absolute immunity could be extended to non-judges engaged in quasi-judicial proceedings. Butz v. Economou, 438 U.S. 478, 508, 512-13 (1978) (finding "adjudication within a federal administrative agency shares enough of the characteristics of the judicial process that those who participate in such adjudication should also be [absolutely] immune from suits for damages"). Under Butz, "the determination of whether an official is to be afforded absolute 'quasi-judicial' immunity for his official acts is accomplished through a functional analysis, i.e., a comparison of the functions the official performs with typical judicial functions." Wright v. McClain, 626 F.Supp.1073, 1074 (W.D. Tenn. 1986). In Butz, the Court specifically discussed hearing officers and found their role was "functionally comparable" to that of a judge; therefore they are entitled to absolute quasi-judicial immunity from damages liability for their judicial acts. Butz, 438 U.S. at 513. The Court went on to note that it would be wrong to distinguish between state officials and federal officials in deciding on immunity from liability for damages under § 1983. Id. at 496-500.

Consequently, the central issue before the Court is whether Harper's actions can be considered judicial in nature. Plaintiff's claims relate to Harper's actions and decisions while he was engaged as a hearing officer with the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development presiding over an action which Plaintiff brought for unemployment benefits. Presiding over an unemployment benefits hearing is clearly judicial in nature as judges routinely preside over hearings. Additionally, Plaintiff's complaint affirmatively discloses that Harper was a state administrative hearing officer; therefore, he essentially "pleaded too much" and his complaint is subject to dismissal upon the Defendant's motion. See Morrow v. Bassman, 515 F.Supp. ...


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