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Smith v. Vines

United States District Court, W.D. Tennessee, Western Division

May 28, 2015

WARREN P. SMITH, Plaintiff,
v.
INVESTIGATOR B. VINES, et al., Defendants.

ORDER DENYING MOTION FOR DEFAULT (ECF No. 11) ORDER DENYING MOTIONS FOR APPOINTMENT OF COUNSEL (ECF Nos. 17 & 19) ORDER DISMISSING CASE CERTIFYING APPEAL NOT TAKEN IN GOOD FAITH AND DENYING LEAVE TO PROCEED IN FORMA PAUPERIS ON APPEAL

JAMES D. TODD, District Judge.

On August 5, 2014, Plaintiff Warren P. Smith, booking number 13136262, a pretrial detainee at the Shelby County Criminal Justice Complex in Memphis, Tennessee, filed a pro se complaint pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, accompanied by a motion seeking leave to proceed in forma pauperis. (ECF Nos. 1 & 2.) In an order issued on August 6, 2014, the Court granted leave to proceed in forma pauperis and assessed the civil filing fee pursuant to the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1996 ("PLRA"), 28 U.S.C. §§ 1915(a)-(b). (ECF No. 6.) The Clerk shall record the defendants as the Investigator B. Vines, Sergeant J.A. Jones, and Shelby County District Attorney General Amy P. Weirich.[1]

On August 15, 2014, Plaintiff filed a supplemental complaint seeking to name his public defender K. Leslie Mozingo as an additional defendant. (ECF No. 5.) The Clerk is directed to add K. Leslie Mozingo to the docket as a defendant.

On February 9, 2015, Plaintiff filed a motion for a default judgment. (ECF No. 11.) The United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit has issued an administrative order which states:

Even if a non-prisoner pays the filing fee and/or is represented by counsel, the complaint must be screened under § 1915(e)(2). The language of § 1915(e)(2) does not differentiate between cases filed by prisoners and cases filed by non-prisoners. The screening must occur even before process is served or the individual has had an opportunity to amend the complaint. The moment the complaint is filed, it is subject to review under § 1915(e)(2). If the complaint falls within the requirements of § 1915(e)(2) when filed, it must be dismissed.

In Re Prison Litigation Reform Act, 105 F.3d 1131, 1134 (6th Cir. 1997) (articulating how district courts should apply the PLRA). Screening of pro se complaints must occur before process issues. No process issued in this case. Plaintiff's motion for a default (ECF No. 11) is DENIED.

On April 27 and May 1, 2015, Plaintiff filed motions for appointment of counsel. (ECF Nos. 17 & 19.) Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. 1915(d), the "court may request an attorney to represent any such person unable to employ counsel." However, "[t]here is no constitutional or... statutory right to counsel in federal civil cases." Farmer v. Haas, 990 F.2d 319, 323 (7th Cir. 1993), and "1915(d) does not authorize the federal courts to make coercive appointments of counsel" to represent indigent civil litigants, Mallard v. United States Dist. Court, 490 U.S. 296, 310 (1989). Generally, a court will only appoint counsel in exceptional circumstances. Willett v. Wells, 469 F.Supp. 748, 751 (E.D. Tenn. 1977). Although "no comprehensive definition of exceptional circumstances is practical, " Branch v. Cole, 686 F.2d 264, 266 (5th Cir. 1982), courts resolve this issue through a fact-specific inquiry. Wilborn v. Escalderon, 789 F.2d 1328, 1331 (9th Cir. 1986). Examining the pleadings and documents in the file, the Court analyzes the merits of the claims, the complexity of the case, the pro se litigant's prior efforts to retain counsel, and his ability to present the claims. Henry v. City of Detroit Manpower Dep't, 763 F.2d 757, 760 (6th Cir. 1985); Wiggins v. Sargent, 753 F.2d 663, 668 (8th Cir. 1985).

As a general rule, counsel should be appointed in civil cases only if a litigant has made "a threshold showing of some likelihood of merit." Cooper v. A. Sargenti Co., 877 F.2d 170, 174 (2d Cir. 1989). Plaintiff has not satisfied that standard. Plaintiff's complaint is to be dismissed. The motions for appointment of counsel (ECF Nos. 17 & 19) are DENIED.

Plaintiff sues the defendants for false imprisonment on a charge of rape. Plaintiff seeks money damages. By way of background, a Shelby County grand jury issued Indictment Number 14-01583 on April 3, 2014, charging Smith with aggravated rape. See http://jssi.shelbycountytn.gov/. The case is set for trial on August 3, 2015.

The Court is required to screen prisoner complaints and to dismiss any complaint, or any portion thereof, if the complaint-

(1) is frivolous, malicious, or fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted; or
(2) seeks monetary relief from a defendant who is immune from such relief.

28 U.S.C. § 1915A(b); see also 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B)(i)-(iii).

In assessing whether the complaint in this case states a claim on which relief may be granted, the Court applies the standards under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), as stated in Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 677-79 (2009), and in Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555-57 (2007). Hill v. Lappin, 630 F.3d 468, 470-71 (6th Cir. 2010). "Accepting all well-pleaded allegations in the complaint as true, the Court consider[s] the factual allegations in [the] complaint to determine if they plausibly suggest an entitlement to relief.'" Williams v. Curtin, 631 F.3d 380, 383 (6th Cir. 2011) (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 681) (alteration in original). "[P]leadings that... are no more than conclusions are not entitled to the assumption of truth. While legal conclusions can provide the framework of a complaint, they must be supported by factual allegations." Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679; see also Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555 n.3 ("Rule 8(a)(2) still requires a showing, ' rather than a blanket assertion, of entitlement to relief. Without some factual allegation in the complaint, it is hard to see how a claimant could satisfy the requirement of providing not only fair notice' of the nature of the claim, but also grounds' on which the claim rests.").

"A complaint can be frivolous either factually or legally. Any complaint that is legally frivolous would ipso facto fail to state a claim upon which relief can be granted." Hill, 630 F.3d at 470 (citing Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319, 325, 328-29 (1989)).

Whether a complaint is factually frivolous under §§ 1915A(b)(1) and 1915(e)(2)(B)(i) is a separate issue from whether it fails to state a claim for relief. Statutes allowing a complaint to be dismissed as frivolous give "judges not only the authority to dismiss a claim based on an indisputably meritless legal theory, but also the unusual power to pierce the veil of the complaint's factual allegations and dismiss those claims whose factual contentions are clearly baseless." Neitzke, 490 U.S. at 327, 109 S.Ct. 1827 (interpreting 28 U.S.C. § 1915). Unlike a dismissal for failure to state a claim, where a judge must accept all factual allegations as true, Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. at 1949-50, a judge does not have to accept "fantastic or delusional" factual allegations as true in prisoner complaints that are reviewed for frivolousness. Neitzke, 490 U.S. at 327-28, 109 S.Ct. 1827.

Id. at 471.

" Pro se complaints are to be held to less stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers, ' and should therefore be liberally construed." Williams, 631 F.3d at 383 (quoting Martin v. Overton, 391 F.3d 710, 712 (6th Cir. 2004)). Pro se litigants and prisoners are not exempt from the requirements of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Wells v. Brown, 891 F.2d 591, 594 (6th Cir. 1989); see also Brown v. Matauszak, 415 F.Appx. 608, 612, 613 (6th Cir. 2011) (affirming dismissal of pro se complaint for failure to comply with "unique pleading requirements" and stating "a court cannot create a claim which [a plaintiff] has not spelled out in his pleading'") (quoting Clark v. Nat'l Travelers Life Ins. Co., 518 F.2d 1167, 1169 (6th Cir. 1975)) (alteration in original); Payne v. Secretary of Treas., 73 F.Appx. 836, 837 (6th Cir. 2003) (affirming sua sponte dismissal of complaint pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2) and stating, "[n]either this court nor the district court is required to create Payne's claim for her"); cf. Pliler v. Ford, 542 U.S. 225, 231 (2004) ("District judges have no obligation to act as counsel or paralegal to pro se litigants."); Young Bok Song v. Gipson, 423 F.Appx. 506, 510 (6th Cir. 2011) ("[W]e decline to affirmatively require courts to ferret out the strongest cause of action on behalf of pro se litigants. Not only would that duty be overly burdensome, it would transform the courts from neutral arbiters of disputes into advocates for a particular party. While courts are properly charged with protecting the rights of all who come before it, that responsibility does not encompass advising litigants as to what legal theories they should pursue.").

To state a claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, a plaintiff must allege two elements: (1) a deprivation of rights secured by the "Constitution and laws" of the United States (2) committed by a defendant acting under color of state law. Adickes v. S.H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144, 150 (1970).

Plaintiff has no claim against his public defender. Courts have uniformly held that attorneys are not state actors who can be sued under § 1983. See Polk County v. Dodson, 454 U.S. 312, 325 (1981) ("[A] public defender does not act under color of state law when performing a lawyer's traditional functions as counsel to a defendant in a criminal proceeding."); Deas v. Potts, 547 F.2d 800 (4th Cir. 1976) ("A private attorney who is retained to represent a criminal defendant is not acting under color of state law, and therefore is not amendable to suit under § 1983."); Mulligan v. Schlachter, 389 F.2d 231, 233 (6th Cir. 1968) (private attorney who is appointed by the court does not act under color of state law); Haley v. Walker, 751 F.2d 284, 285 (8th Cir. 1984) (per curiam) (attorney appointed by federal court is not a federal officer who can be sued under Bivens ).

Plaintiff has no claim against any defendant for false imprisonment. When a prisoner seeks to challenge the validity or duration of his confinement, his sole remedy is a petition for a writ of habeas corpus. Preiser v. Rodriguez, 411 U.S. 475, 500 (1973); see also Muhammad v. Close, 540 U.S. 749, 750 (2004) (per curiam) ("Challenges to the validity of any confinement or to particulars affecting its duration are the province of habeas corpus."). Plaintiff cannot challenge the validity of his confinement under § 1983, and this Court cannot order his release even if his claims were meritorious.

Any claim for money damages arising from the allegedly unlawful imprisonment and pending prosecution of Plaintiff is premature. As the Supreme Court has explained:

We hold that, in order to recover damages for allegedly unconstitutional conviction or imprisonment, or for other harm caused by actions whose unlawfulness would render a conviction or sentence invalid, a § 1983 plaintiff must prove that the conviction or sentence has been reversed on direct appeal, expunged by executive order, declared invalid by a state tribunal authorized to make such determination, or called into question by a federal court's issuance of a writ of habeas corpus, 28 U.S.C. § 2254. A claim for damages bearing that relationship to a conviction or sentence that has not been so invalidated is not cognizable under § 1983. Thus, when a state prisoner seeks damages in a § 1983 suit, the district court must consider whether a judgment in favor of the plaintiff would necessarily imply the invalidity of his conviction or sentence; if it would, the complaint must be dismissed unless the plaintiff can demonstrate that the conviction or sentence has already been invalidated. But if the district court determines that the plaintiff's action, even if successful, will not demonstrate the invalidity of any outstanding criminal judgment against the plaintiff, the action should be allowed to proceed, in the absence of some other bar to the suit.

Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477, 486-87 (1994) (footnotes omitted). Thus, a prisoner has no cause of action under § 1983 if the claims in that action hinge on factual proof that would call into question the validity of an order directing his confinement unless and until any prosecution is ended in his favor, an existing conviction is set aside, or the confinement is declared illegal. Id. at 481-82; Schilling v. White, 58 F.3d 1081, 1086 (6th Cir. 1995). None of these events has occurred.

Plaintiff cannot sue Defendant Weirich for money damages. Prosecutors are absolutely immune from suit for actions taken in initiating and pursuing criminal prosecutions because that conduct is "intimately associated with the judicial phase of the criminal process." Imbler v. Pachtman, 424 U.S. 409, 430-31 (1976). "A prosecutor's decision to initiate a prosecution, including the decision to file a criminal complaint or seek an arrest warrant, is protected by absolute immunity." Howell v. Sanders, 668 F.3d 344, 351 (6th Cir. 2012). Plaintiff's claim for money damages against Defendant Weirich is barred by absolute prosecutorial immunity, id. at 427-28; Burns v. Reed, 500 U.S. 478, 490-492 (1991); Grant v. Hollenbach, 870 F.2d 1135, 1137 (6th Cir. 1989); Jones v. Shankland, 800 F.2d 77, 80 (6th Cir. 1986), and, therefore, she cannot be sued for malicious prosecution, O'Neal v. O'Neal, 23 F.Appx. 368, 370 (6th Cir. 2001); see also Spurlock v. Thompson, 330 F.3d 791, 797 (6th Cir. 2004) (noting that "prosecutors are absolutely immune from many malicious prosecution claims"); Roybal v. State of Tenn. Dist. Attorney's Office, 84 F.Appx. 589 (6th Cir. 2003).

The Sixth Circuit has held that a district court may allow a prisoner to amend his complaint to avoid a sua sponte dismissal under the PLRA. LaFountain v. Harry, 716 F.3d 944, 951 (6th Cir. 2013); see also Brown v. Rhode Island, 511 F.Appx. 4, 5 (1st Cir. Feb. 22, 2013) (per curiam) ("Ordinarily, before dismissal for failure to state a claim is ordered, some form of notice and an opportunity to cure the deficiencies in the complaint must be afforded."). Leave to amend is not required when a deficiency cannot be cured. Brown, 511 F.Appx. at 5; Gonzalez-Gonzalez v. United States, 257 F.3d 31, 37 (1st Cir. 2001) ("This does not mean, of course, that every sua sponte dismissal entered without prior notice to the plaintiff automatically must be reversed. If it is crystal clear that the plaintiff cannot prevail and that amending the complaint would be futile, then a sua sponte dismissal may stand."); Grayson v. Mayview State Hosp., 293 F.3d 103, 114 (3d Cir. 2002) (" in forma pauperis plaintiffs who file complaints subject to dismissal under Rule 12(b)(6) should receive leave to amend unless amendment would be inequitable or futile"); Curley v. Perry, 246 F.3d 1278, 1284 (10th Cir. 2001) ("We agree with the majority view that sua sponte dismissal of a meritless complaint that cannot be salvaged by amendment comports with due process and does not infringe the right of access to the courts."). The deficiencies in Plaintiff's § 1983 claim cannot be cured by amendment for the reasons previously stated.

Therefore, the Court DISMISSES Plaintiff's complaint for failure to state a claim on which relief may be granted, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 1915(e)(2)(B)(ii) and 1915A(b)(1), and because it seeks money damages from parties who are immune from such relief, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 1915(e)(2)(B)(iii) and 1915A(b)(2). Judgment shall be entered for Defendants.

The Court must also consider whether Plaintiff should be allowed to appeal this decision in forma pauperis, should he seek to do so. When an appellant seeks to proceed in forma pauperis on appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit requires that all district courts in the circuit determine whether the appeal would be frivolous. Twenty-eight U.S.C. § 1915(a)(3) provides that "[a]n appeal may not be taken in forma pauperis if the trial court certifies in writing that it is not taken in good faith."

The good faith standard is an objective one. Coppedge v. United States, 369 U.S. 438, 445 (1962). The test under 28 U.S.C. § 1915(a) for whether an appeal is taken in good faith is whether the litigant seeks appellate review of any issue that is not frivolous. Id. It would be inconsistent for a district court to determine that a complaint should be dismissed prior to service on the defendants, but has sufficient merit to support an appeal in forma pauperis. See Williams v. Kullman, 722 F.2d 1048, 1050 n.1 (2d Cir. 1983). The same considerations that lead the Court to dismiss this case for failure to state a claim also compel the conclusion that an appeal would not be taken in good faith. It is therefore CERTIFIED, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915(a)(3), that any appeal in this matter by Plaintiff would not be taken in good faith and Plaintiff may not proceed on appeal in forma pauperis. Leave to proceed on appeal in forma pauperis is, therefore, DENIED.

If Plaintiff appeals the dismissal of this case, the Court is required to assess the $505 appellate filing fee. In McGore v. Wrigglesworth, 114 F.3d 601, 610-11 (6th Cir. 1997), partially overruled on other grounds by LaFountain v. Harry, 716 F.3d at 951, the Sixth Circuit set out specific procedures for implementing the PLRA, 28 U.S.C. §§ 1915(a)-(b). Therefore, Plaintiff is instructed that, if he wishes to take advantage of the installment procedures for paying the appellate filing fee, he must comply with the procedures outlined in McGore and 28 U.S.C. § 1915(b).

For analysis under 28 U.S.C. § 1915(g) of future filings, if any, by Plaintiff, this is the first dismissal of one of his cases as frivolous or for failure to state a claim. This "strike" shall take effect when judgment is entered. Coleman v. Tollefson, 733 F.3d 175, 177-78 (6th Cir. 2013), cert. granted, 82 U.S.L.W. 3675 (U.S. Oct. 2, 2014) (Nos. 13-1333, 13A985).

IT IS SO ORDERED.


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