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Lewis v. State

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

November 20, 2014

CHRISTOPHER MAURICE LEWIS, Plaintiff,
v.
STATE OF TENNESSEE and MONTE D. WATKINS, Defendants.

MEMORANDUM

KEVIN H. SHARP, Chief District Judge.

The plaintiff, a pre-trial detainee currently housed in the Davidson County Sheriff's Office in Nashville, Tennessee, brings this pro se, in forma pauperis action against the State of Tennessee and Monte D. Watkins, a criminal court judge for the Davidson County Criminal Court Division V of the 20th Judicial District in Nashville, Tennessee. (Docket No. 1). The plaintiff seeks monetary damages for "pain and suffering." He also asks the court to dismiss pending state criminal charges against him and to fine defendant Watkins, the judge presiding over the plaintiff's state criminal case. ( Id. at p. 6).

The plaintiff's complaint is before the court for an initial review pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 1915(e)(2) and 1915A(a).

I. PLRA Screening Standard

Under 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B), the court must dismiss any portion of a civil complaint filed in forma pauperis that fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted, is frivolous, or seeks monetary relief from a defendant who is immune from such relief. Section 1915A similarly requires initial review of any "complaint in a civil action in which a prisoner seeks redress from a governmental entity or officer or employee of a governmental entity, " id. § 1915A(a), and summary dismissal of the complaint on the same grounds as those articulated in § 1915(e)(2)(B). Id. § 1915A(b).

The Sixth Circuit has confirmed that the dismissal standard articulated by the Supreme Court in Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662 (2009), and Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007), "governs dismissals for failure to state a claim under those statutes because the relevant statutory language tracks the language in Rule 12(b)(6)." Hill v. Lappin, 630 F.3d 468, 470-71 (6th Cir. 2010). Thus, to survive scrutiny on initial review, "a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'" Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570). "A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Id. (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556). "[A] district court must (1) view the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff and (2) take all well-pleaded factual allegations as true." Tackett v. M & G Polymers, USA, LLC, 561F.3d 478, 488 (6th Cir. 2009) (citing Gunasekera v. Irwin, 551 F.3d 461, 466 (6th Cir. 2009) (citations omitted)).

Although pro se pleadings are to be held to a less stringent standard than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers, Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, 520-21 (1972); Jourdan v. Jabe, 951 F.2d 108, 110 (6th Cir. 1991), the courts' "duty to be less stringent' with pro se complaints does not require us to conjure up [unpleaded] allegations." McDonald v. Hall, 610 F.2d 16, 19 (1st Cir. 1979) (citation omitted).

III. PLRA Screening

Plaintiff Lewis seeks relief pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. (Docket No. 1 at p. 2). To state a claim under § 1983, the plaintiff must allege and show: (1) that he was deprived of a right secured by the Constitution or laws of the United States; and (2) that the deprivation was caused by a person acting under color of state law. Parratt v. Taylor, 451 U.S. 527, 535 (1981)(overruled in part by Daniels v. Williams, 474 U.S. 327, 330 (1986)); Flagg Bros. v. Brooks, 436 U.S. 149, 155-56 (1978); Black v. Barberton Citizens Hosp., 134 F.3d 1265, 1267 (6th Cir. 1998). Both parts of this two-part test must be satisfied to support a claim under § 1983. See Christy v. Randlett, 932 F.2d 502, 504 (6th Cir. 1991).

First, the plaintiff names the State of Tennessee as a defendant. The Eleventh Amendment to the United States Constitution bars civil rights against a state and its agencies and departments in federal court. See Will v. Mich. Dep't of State Police, 491 U.S. 58, 66 (1989). Eleventh Amendment immunity "bars all suits, whether for injunctive, declaratory or monetary relief" against a state and its agencies. Thiokol Corp. v. Dep't of Treasury, 987 F.2d 376, 381 (6th Cir.1993). The plaintiff's claims against the State of Tennessee must therefore be dismissed.

As for the plaintiff's claims against Judge Monte D. Watkins, judges are absolutely immune from liability for damages under § 1983. Briscoe v. LaHue, 460 U.S. 325, 334 (1983); Pierson v. Ray, 386 U.S. 547, 554 (1967); Barrett v. Harrington, 130 F.3d 246, 254 (6th Cir. 1997). Because of his immunity, the plaintiff cannot recover damages from Judge Watkins for "pain and suffering."

Finally, although it is unclear what criminal charges are pending against the plaintiff, a decision favorable to the plaintiff in this case would require this court to interfere with what appears to be an ongoing state criminal prosecution. The plaintiff specifically asks the court to dismiss the state criminal case against him and to fine the judge who is presiding over that case. (Docket No. 1 at p. 6).

To the extent that the complaint asks the court to intervene in the pending state criminal proceedings against the plaintiff, the law is well-settled that a federal court should not interfere with pending state court criminal proceedings, absent the threat of "great and immediate" irreparable injury. Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37, 46 (1971). It is also clear that a federal court may sua sponte raise the issue of Younger abstention. Bellotti v. Baird, 428 U.S. 132, 143-44 n.10 (1976). Younger abstention applies where the federal plaintiff seeks injunctive or declaratory judgment relief. Carroll v. City of Mount Clemens, 139 F.3d 1072, 1074 (6th Cir. 1998).

In Younger, the Supreme Court held that, absent extraordinary circumstances, federal equity jurisdiction may not be used to enjoin pending state prosecutions. The Younger abstention doctrine is based on the principle that the states have a special interest in enforcing their own laws in their own courts. Id. at 44. The rule is "designed to permit state courts to try state cases free from interference by federal courts, particularly where the party to the federal case may fully litigate his claim before the state court." Zalman v. Armstrong, 802 F.2d 199, 205 (6th Cir.1986) (internal quotations omitted). Abstention in favor of state court proceedings is proper where there exists: (1) an ongoing state judicial proceeding; (2) an important state interest; and (3) an adequate opportunity in the state judicial proceedings to raise constitutional challenges. Middlesex County Ethics Committee v. Garden State Bar Ass'n, 457 U.S. 423, 432 (1982); Fieger v. Thomas, 74 F.3d 740, 744 (6th Cir. 1996).

The three factors that support Younger abstention are present in this case. First, a state criminal prosecution of the plaintiff appears to be underway. Second, there can be no doubt that state criminal proceedings implicate important state interests. See, e.g., Cooper v. Parrish, 203 F.3d 937, 954 (6th Cir. 2000). Third, there is no indication in the record before the court at this time that the state court would refuse to consider the plaintiff's constitutional claims; thus, presumably the state court proceedings provide an adequate forum in which the plaintiff can raise constitutional challenges to his arrests and the taking of his property. If the plaintiff raises his constitutional challenges in state court and the trial court denies or otherwise fails to consider his constitutional claims, he may exercise his right to an appeal under Tennessee law. The plaintiff also may oblige himself of state post-conviction proceedings in the event he is convicted of the charged offense(s).

There are exceptions to the Younger doctrine: (1) "the state proceeding is motivated by a desire to harass or is conducted in bad faith, " Huffman v. Pursue, Ltd., 420 U.S. 592, 611; (2) "the challenged statute is flagrantly and patently violative of express constitutional prohibitions, " Moore v. Sims, 442 U.S. 415, 424 (1979)(quoting Huffman, 420 U.S. at 611); or, (3) there is "an extraordinarily pressing need for immediate federal equitable relief." Kugler v. Helfant, 421 U.S. 117, 125 (1975). These exceptions have been interpreted narrowly. Zalman v. Armstrong, 802 F.2d 199, 205 (6th Cir. 1986). In order to overcome the bar of Younger abstention, a petitioner must do more than set forth mere allegations of bad faith or harassment. See Amanatullah v. Colorado Board of Medical Examiners, 187 F.3d 1160, 1165 (10th Cir. 1999) (citing Phelps v. Hamilton, 122 F.3d 885, 889 (10th Cir.1997)). The plaintiff has not established that any exception to the Younger doctrine is warranted in this case.

IV. Conclusion

Having conducted the review required by the PLRA, the court determines that the plaintiff's claims against the State of Tennessee and Judge Monte D. Watkins must be dismissed.

An appropriate order will enter.


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