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Blankenship v. City of Crossville

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

October 17, 2017

JAMES R. BLANKENSHIP, Plaintiff,
v.
CITY OF CROSSVILLE, TENNESSEE, a Municipal Corporation; JESSE KERLEY and IVY GARDNER Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          WAVERLY D. CRENSHAW, JR. CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Pending before the Court is the fully briefed “Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings on Behalf of Ivy Gardner” (Doc. No. 21). By way of that Motion, Gardner, who is a Municipal Court Judge in Crossville, Tennessee, seeks judgment on James R. Blankenship's 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claims on the grounds of absolute immunity. She also seeks dismissal of Blankenship's 42 U.S.C. § 1985(3) claim because it fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. Finally, she argues that portions of Blankenship's request for injunctive and declaratory relief fail. For the reasons that follow, Gardner's Motion will be granted in part and denied in part.

         I. Standards of Review

         Motions for Judgment on the Pleadings are governed by Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and are analyzed the same as Motions to Dismiss for failure to state a claim under Rule 12(b)(6). Jackson v. Prof'l Radiology Inc., 864 F.3d 463, 466 (6th Cir. 2017). In ruling on such motions, “a district court must construe the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, accept all of the complaint's factual allegations as true, and determine whether the plaintiff undoubtedly can prove no set of facts in support of his claim that would entitle him to relief.'” Engler v. Arnold, 862 F.3d 571, 574-75 (6th Cir. 2017) (quoting Kottmyer v. Maas, 436 F.3d 684, 689 (6th Cir. 2006)). To survive either a 12(b)(6) or 12(c) motion, the ‘complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Id. at 575 (quoting Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009)). “Mere labels and conclusions are not enough; the allegations must contain ‘factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.'” Id.

         II. Section 1983 Claim and Absolute Immunity

         The Complaint contains sufficient allegations to support his Section 1983 claim against Gardner, notwithstanding the “well-entrenched principle in our system of jurisprudence that judges are generally absolutely immune from civil suits for money damages.” Bright v. Gallia Cty., 753 F.3d 639, 648 (6th Cir. 2014) (citation omitted). “[T]his immunity ... is not for the protection or benefit of a malicious or corrupt judge, but for the benefit of the public, whose interest it is that the judges should be at liberty to exercise their functions with independence and without fear of consequences.” Id. (quoting Pierson v. Ray, 386 U.S. 547, 554 (1967)). Because of the strong policy considerations underlying the doctrine, judicial “immunity is overcome in only two sets of circumstances. First, a judge is not immune from liability for nonjudicial actions, i.e., actions not taken in the judge's judicial capacity. . . . Second, a judge is not immune for actions, though judicial in nature, taken in the complete absence of all jurisdiction.” Mireles v. Waco, 502 U.S. 9, 11-12 (1991).

         Here, accepting the Complaint's allegations as true, Gardner may be liable under the theory that she took non-judicial actions for personal reasons that deprived Blankenship of his constitutional rights. Specifically, the Complaint alleges that, after the Crossville City Council repeatedly ignored Blankenship's complaints about mistreatment by the Crossville police, he distributed flyers under the “nom de plume ‘Sam.'” (Doc. No. 1 Complaint, Exh. A). The flyers offered a $500 reward for photographs of elected or appointed Crossville officials “doing wrong, ” with the list of “wrongs” ranging from wearing no seat belt, to corruption. (Id.). This distribution resulted in Blankenship being cited for violation of a city ordinance that makes it illegal to circulate unsigned literature.

         Blankenship asserts that the police cited him for the ordinance violation at the behest of Councilman Jesse Kerley who harbored a grudge because Blankenship sought to speak out at council meetings about his alleged mistreatment by Crossville officers. (Id. ¶ 23). Blankenship further alleges that, while the Ordinance violation was awaiting hearing in the Municipal Court, Gardner, prompted by Kerley, sought and received an ex parte restraining order against him from a General Sessions Judge. At the time the restraining order was issued, Blankenship claims, he “did not know and to his knowledge had never seen or met” Judge Gardner. (Id. ¶ 31). The upshot of Blankenship's claims against Gardner is that she and Kerley conspired to retaliate against him for the exercise of his rights to free speech and free press under the First Amendment, and that they sought to intimidate him from further exercising those rights.

         In her Motion, Gardner argues Blankenship has the time-line wrong. Contrary to his allegations, the hearing on the ordinance violation occurred on May 10, 2016, weeks before Gardner appeared in the General Sessions Court on June 16, 2016. In support of this time-line, she attached to her Motion records from the Municipal Court Clerk, including (1) a “Criminal Counter Claim” filed by Blankenship on May 14, 2016 that sought compensatory and punitive damages in the amount of $666, 666, 666.66; (2) an appeal bond executed by Blankenship, and an affidavit of indigency both dated May 10, 2016; (3) a Request for Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law dated May 11, 2016; and (4) an undated Motion to Stay Judgment Pending Appeal. (Doc. No. 24). Further, Gardner submitted with her reply several other documents from the Municipal Court, including (1) an appeal bond dated May 17, 2016; (2) a subpoena filed July 1, 2016 directing a Crossville Police officer to appear before the Circuit Court on August 29, 2015; and (3) a June 27, 2016 Motion to Stay Judgment Appeal. (Doc. No. 30).

         As suggested at the outset, in ruling on a motion for judgment on the pleadings, a court's “decision rests primarily upon the allegations of the complaint.” Barany-Snyder v. Weiner, 539 F.3d 327, 332 (6th Cir. 2008). However, “‘matters of public record, orders, items appearing in the record of the case, and exhibits attached to the complaint[ ] also may be taken into account.'” Id. (citation omitted). Indeed, “[a] court is not bound to accept either (1) unwarranted inferences, including allegedly inferable ‘facts' or conclusions which contradict documentary evidence appended to, or referenced within, the plaintiff's complaint; or (2) alleged legal conclusions.” Mulbarger v. Royal All. Assocs., Inc., 10 F. App'x 333, 335 (6th Cir. 2001); see Williams v. CitiMortgage, Inc., 498 F. App'x 532, 536 (6th Cir. 2012) (observing that “if a factual assertion in the pleadings is inconsistent with a document attached for support, the Court is to accept the facts as stated in the attached document”).

         The documents that Gardner has filed seem to show that the hearing on the alleged Ordinance violation occurred sometime around May 10, 2016, just as she claims. Absent any context, however, those documents are not definitive, as none of the documents establishes when Blankenship actually appeared before Gardner for a hearing. Moreover, while the Complaint is not verified, Blankenship attached an affidavit thereto in which he avers that the allegations in the Complaint are “based upon his personal knowledge, ” and “upon the good faith belief that they are truthful and have a factual basis.” (Doc. No. 1-1 Aff. ¶¶ 3, 4). The Court need not (and cannot) resolve the apparent discrepancy in the hearing date on this record. No matter: even if Gardner is correct and the hearing occurred before she sought a restraining order, it does not follow, perforce, that she is entitled to judicial immunity.

         In support of her Motion, Gardner relies upon several Sixth Circuit decisions standing for the proposition that judicial immunity extends to actions taken to protect the integrity of the judicial office the judge holds. By way of examples, judicial immunity was found to attach in Barnes v. Winchell, 105 F.3d 1111 (6th Cir. 1997), where a judge (1) told the prosecutor to up the charges against defendants from criminal trespass to menace by stalking; (2) notarized the criminal complaints and/or assisted in their preparation; and (3) maliciously refused to dismiss the complaints after the prosecutor determined they were frivolous; in Barrett v. Harrington, 130 F.3d 246 (6th Cir. 1997), where the judge wrote letters that resulted in the investigation of a disgruntled litigant who had appeared before her; and in Brookings v. Clunk, 389 F.3d 614 (6th Cir. 2004), where a probate judge brought criminal charges against a litigant who lied about his gender status in applications for marriage licenses. While such cases generally support Gardner's position, they should not be applied too broadly, particularly where, as here, the facts are wholly underdeveloped.

         In Barnes, the Sixth Circuit recognized that, even though the judicial immunity “doctrine has protected a sweeping range of judicial actions, ” when “an action taken by a judge is not an adjudication between the parties, it is less likely that the action will be deemed judicial.” Barnes, 105 F.3d at 1116. In other words, “despite its breadth, the doctrine of absolute judicial immunity does not protect a judge performing the purely prosecutorial functions involved in initiating criminal prosecutions. This is especially true where the judge initiates criminal prosecutions based on the judge's private interests, completely separate from cases brought to court independently by the parties.” Id. at 1118. Here, at least according to the Complaint, the action Gardner took was for her own personal reasons and/or in conjunction with some sort of vendetta Kerley had against Blankenship.

         Barrett is more on point factually because it involved “acts performed outside of the courtroom, [which] are not, ipso facto, non-judicial acts.” 130 F.3d at 260. Just as it had in Barnes, however, the Sixth Circuit in Barrett made clear that judicial immunity is employed “quite sparing[ly]” and should not be extended “‘further than its justification would warrant.”' Id. at 254 (quoting Burns v. Reed, 500 U.S. 478, 486 (1991)). Nevertheless, immunity was warranted in that case because the judge's instigation of a criminal investigation was specifically taken to protect the integrity of the judicial system. In fact, in complaining to federal and state prosecutors, the judge sent letters on her official stationary stating that the plaintiff was “attempting to obstruct justice byharassing me and my family, ” with “the purpose of the ...


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