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Clifton v. Patrick

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

October 5, 2017

TERRY LEE CLIFTON, Plaintiff,
v.
BETTYE PATRICK, et al., Defendants.

          ORDER GRANTING MOTIONS TO DISMISS OF DEFENDANTS CHARLES TRAUGHBER, JAMES BEARD, AND JEFF BARNETT

          S. THOMAS ANDERSON CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Terry Lee Clifton has filed a complaint for damages pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging that his due process rights were violated during his 2011 parole revocation proceedings. He has filed suit against now retired Tennessee Board of Parole (“TBOP”) Chairman Charles Traughber, TBOP District Director Jeff Barnett, TBOP Deputy District Director James Beard, and TBOP Officers Bettye Patrick and Charlotte Richey.[1] Plaintiff has also sued John Does 1- 10, employees of TBOP or the Tennessee Department of Correction. All defendants are sued in their individual capacities. (Compl. p. 1, ECF No. 1.)

         Defendant Traughber has filed a motion to dismiss the complaint against him.[2] (ECF No. 27.) Plaintiff has filed a response to the motion. (ECF No. 33.) Defendants Beard and Barnett have also filed a motion to dismiss (ECF No. 29), and Plaintiff has filed a response to that motion. (ECF No. 34.) Defendants have filed a joint reply to Plaintiff's responses. (ECF No. 39.) For the reasons set forth below, Defendants' motions are GRANTED.

         A motion to dismiss pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) tests the legal sufficiency of the complaint. RMI Titanium Co. v. Westinghouse Elec. Corp., 78 F.3d 1125, 1134 (6th Cir. 1996). A complaint need not contain “detailed factual allegations, ” but it must contain more than “labels and conclusions” or “a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action....” Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). A complaint does not “suffice if it tenders ‘naked assertions' devoid of ‘further factual enhancement.'” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 557). “To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Id. (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). The plausibility standard “does not impose a probability requirement at the pleading stage; it simply calls for enough facts to raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence of illegal [conduct].” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556.

         In his complaint, Plaintiff alleges that Defendant Beard, acting upon a complaint made against Plaintiff by an assistant public defender and at the request of Defendant Parole Officers Richey and Patrick, authorized a parole violation warrant which resulted in his defective parole revocation hearing. Plaintiff also alleges that, at the direction of the parole hearing officer who presided over his revocation proceedings, Plaintiff sent written discovery and witness subpoena requests to Defendants Traughber and Barnett in their roles with the TBOP. Plaintiff further alleges that Defendants failed to respond to his requests. Upon conclusion of the hearing, the Board of Parole revoked Plaintiff's parole on April 8, 2011. The Board denied Plaintiff's administrative appeal on July 6, 2011.[3]

         Immunity

         Defendants Traughber and Barnett contend that they are entitled to absolute quasi-judicial immunity from suit because, in denying Plaintiff's requests, they acted in the role of a judicial officer engaged in a judicial function. Defendant Beard contends that authorizing an arrest warrant was also a judicial function. Plaintiff has responded that Defendants were performing an administrative or investigative functions and, therefore, are not immune from suit.

         Absolute judicial immunity protects judges from claims based on “judicial act[s] taken within [the] court's jurisdiction.” Cleavinger v. Saxner, 474 U.S. 193, 199 (1985).[4] Absolute immunity also extends “to certain others who perform functions closely associated with the judicial process, ” which is generally referred to as quasi-judicial immunity. Id. at 200. Quasi-judicial “immunity extends to state parole officers performing functions that are judicial in nature.” Jenkins v. Michigan Department of Corrections, 2015 WL 5244420 at *3 (E.D. Mich., Sept. 8, 2015). “[A] parole board is entitled to absolute immunity for activities related to ‘the execution of parole revocation procedures.'” Wright v. McClain, 626 F.Supp. 1073, 1073 (W.D. Tenn. 1986) (citation omitted).

         To determine whether quasi-judicial immunity applies, the Court does not focus on the individual's “rank or title or ‘location within the Government.'” Cleavinger, 474 U.S. At 199. (quoting Butz v. Economou, 438 U.S. 478, 511 (1978)). Instead, the Court considers whether factors “characteristic of the judicial process” are present, including:

(a) the need to assure that the individual can perform his functions without harassment or intimidation; (b) the presence of safeguards that reduce the need for private damages actions as a means of controlling unconstitutional conduct; (c) insulation from political influence; (d) the importance of precedent; (e) the adversary nature of the process; and (f) the correctability of error on appeal.

Id. at 202 (citing Butz, 438 U.S. at 512). “The Court's case law ‘suggest[s] an intelligible distinction between judicial acts and the administrative, legislative, or executive functions that judges may on occasion be assigned by law to perform.'” Flying Dog Brewry, LLLP v. Michigan Liquor Control Com'n, 597 F. App'x 342, 347 (6th Cir. March 5, 2015) (quoting Forrester v. White, 484 U.S. 219, 227 (1988)). Accordingly, the issue before the Court is whether Defendants' acts in question can be considered judicial in nature such that Defendants are entitled to absolute immunity.

         Here, as in Cleavinger, harassment and retaliation for wrongful decisions are “more than a theoretical possibility, ” the prospect of damages suits might dissuade officials from serving on a parole board, the parole revocation process is adversarial in nature, and errors may be corrected on appeal. 474 U.S. at 197, 203. In Cleavinger, the Court declined to extend absolute immunity to the disciplinary committee members of a prison because of the lack of independence of the committee. The members of the committee were passing judgment on their fellow co-workers, which was subject to review by their superior, the warden. Thus, there existed an “obvious pressure” to favor the prison and their coworkers instead of the inmate. Id. at 204. The TBOP is insulated from such “obvious pressure.”

         Moreover, the factor of “importance of precedent” weighs heavily in Defendants' favor. Despite Plaintiff's argument that Defendants' failure to act on his discovery and subpoena requests was administrative in nature, as noted in Berry v. Seeley, 2010 WL 5184883 at *4 (E.D. Tenn. Dec. 15, 2010), “discovery issues . . . [are] at the core of a judge's judicial functions.” Additionally, the Butz Court described one of the powers of a trial judge as issuing subpoenas. 438 U.S. at 513. See also Fed. R. Civ. P. 45 (outlining the federal courts' subpoena power); Quatkemeyer v. Kentucky Bd. of Med. Licensure, 506 F. App'x 342, 346 (6th Cir. 2012) (explaining that the “members of the Kentucky Board of Medical Licensure exercise the requisite adjudicatory functioning for quasi-judicial immunity, ” in part, because they have “authority to issue subpoenas”). Plaintiff has cited no authority for his argument that Defendants' failure to respond to written discovery requests and issue witness subpoenas was administrative or investigative in nature.[5] Defendants' actions involved “basic and integral parts of the judicial function, ” Bush v. Rauch, 38 F.3d 842, 847 (6th Cir. 1994); therefore, Defendants Traughber and Barnett are entitled to absolute quasi-judicial immunity.

         Because issuing an arrest warrant is also a judicial function, Defendant Beard has absolute quasi-judicial immunity from suit. See Foster v. Walsh, 864 F.2d 416, 417 (6th Cir. 1988) (finding that the issuance of an arrest warrant is a “truly judicial act”); Wilson v. Blankenship, 2016 WL 4290766 at *4 (E.D. Tenn. Aug. 15, 2016) (stating that the issuance of an arrest warrant is “a judicial function that is integral to and intertwined with the judicial process”). C.f. Scotto v. Almenas, 143 F.3d 105 (2d Cir. 1998) (holding that the parole division supervisor who signed an arrest warrant based on the parole officer's recommendation was protected by absolute prosecutorial immunity); Walrath v. United States, 35 F.3d 277 (7th ...


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