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Teems v. Wingfield

United States District Court, M.D. Georgia, Macon Division

January 17, 2018

HUGH V WINGFIELD, III et al., Defendants.


          Charles H. Weigle United States Magistrate Judge

         This case is currently before the United States Magistrate Judge for preliminary screening as required by the Prison Litigation Reform Act (“PLRA”), 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(a). Plaintiff Jimmy Ray Teems, an inmate confined at Riverbend Correctional Facility, filed the above-captioned proceeding seeking relief under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and requesting to proceed without prepayment of the Court's filing fees.

          As discussed below, it is RECOMMENDED that Plaintiff's claims concerning his state habeas proceeding against Defendants Wingfield, Phillips Sims, Prior, Smith, Erickson, Haldi, and Lyon be DISMISSED as barred by the Rooker-Feldman Doctrine and for lack of jurisdiction. It is further RECOMMENDED that these claims be dismissed in the alternative for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. Defendants Wingfield, Sims, Prior, and Smith enjoy absolute immunity from suit. The statute of limitations has run on Plaintiff's claims against Erickson, Lyon, and Haldi.

         It is RECOMMENDED that Plaintiff's claim against Defendant Tucker and Head related to Plaintiff's Georgia Open Records request be DISIMSSED WITHOUT PREJUDICE for failure to state a claim. It is also RECOMMENDED that Plaintiff's First Amendment access to court claim against Defendants Tucker and Head be dismissed without prejudice for failure to state a claim. Plaintiff may proceed with his First Amendment access to courts claim against Defendant Phillips and Longino, as outlined below.

         I. Motion to Proceed In Forma Pauperis

         Although Plaintiff is allowed to proceed in forma pauperis in this action, Plaintiff is still obligated to pay the full balance of the filing fee, in installments, as set forth in § 1915(b) and explained below. It is thus requested that the CLERK forward a copy of this ORDER to the business manager of the facility in which Plaintiff is incarcerated so that withdrawals from his account may commence as payment towards the filing fee.

         A. Directions to Plaintiff's Custodian

         It is hereby ORDERED the warden of the institution wherein Plaintiff is incarcerated, or the Sheriff of any county wherein he is held in custody, and any successor custodians, each month cause to be remitted to the Clerk of this court twenty percent (20%) of the preceding month's income credited to Plaintiff's account at said institution until the $350.00 filing fee has been paid in full. In accordance with provisions of the Prison Litigation Reform Act, Plaintiff's custodian is hereby authorized to forward payments from the prisoner's account to the Clerk of Court each month until the filing fee is paid in full, provided the amount in the account exceeds $10.00. It is further ORDERED that collection of monthly payments from Plaintiff's trust fund account shall continue until the entire $350.00 ($337.33 remains to be collected) has been collected, notwithstanding the dismissal of Plaintiff's lawsuit or the granting of judgment against him prior to the collection of the full filing fee.

         B. Plaintiff's Obligations Upon Release

         Pursuant to provisions of the Prison Litigation Reform Act, in the event Plaintiff is hereafter released from the custody of the State of Georgia or any county thereof, he shall remain obligated to pay any balance due on the filing fee in this proceeding until said amount has been paid in full; Plaintiff shall continue to remit monthly payments as required by the Prison Litigation Reform Act. Collection from Plaintiff of any balance due on the filing fee by any means permitted by law is hereby authorized in the event Plaintiff is released from custody and fails to remit payments. Plaintiff's complaint is subject to dismissal if he has the ability to make monthly payments and fails to do so.

         II. Preliminary Review of Plaintiff's Complaint

         A. Standard for Preliminary Review

         Under the PLRA, the district courts are obligated to conduct a preliminary screening of every complaint filed by a prisoner who seeks redress from a government entity, official, or employee. See 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(a). Screening is also required, under 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e), when the plaintiff is proceeding IFP. Both statutes apply in this case, and the standard of review is the same. When conducting a preliminary review, the district court must accept all factual allegations in the complaint as true and make all inferences in the plaintiff's favor. See Brown v. Johnson, 387 F.3d 1344, 1347 (11th Cir. 2004). Pro se pleadings are also “held to a less stringent standard than pleadings drafted by attorneys, ” and a pro se compliant is thus “liberally construed.” Tannenbaum v. United States, 148 F.3d 1262, 1263 (11th Cir. 1998) (per curiam). The district court, however, cannot allow a plaintiff to litigate frivolous, conclusory, or speculative claims. As part of the preliminary screening, the court shall dismiss a complaint, or any part thereof, prior to service, if it is apparent that the plaintiff's claims are frivolous or if his allegations fail to state a claim upon which relief may be granted - i.e., that the plaintiff is not entitled to relief based on the facts alleged. See § 1915A(b); § 1915(e).

         To state a viable claim, the complaint must include “enough factual matter” not only to “give the defendant fair notice of what the . . . claim is and the grounds upon which it rests, ” but also to create “a reasonable expectation” that discovery will reveal evidence to prove the claim(s). Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555-56 (2007). The claims cannot be speculative or based solely on beliefs or suspicions; each must be supported by allegations of relevant and discoverable fact. Id. Thus, neither legal conclusions nor a recitation of legally relevant terms, standing alone, is sufficient to survive preliminary review. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 663 (2009) (“labels and conclusions” or “a formulaic recitation of the elements” of a cause of action is not enough). Claims without an arguable basis in law or fact will be dismissed as frivolous. See Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319, 325 (1989); Bilal v. Driver, 251 F.3d 1346, 1349 (11th Cir. 2001) (claims frivolous if “clearly baseless” or “legal theories are indisputably meritless”).

         B. Plaintiff's Claims

         The present action arises out of an application for writ of habeas corpus Plaintiff filed in the Superior Court of Baldwin County in September 2013. According to Plaintiff, the judges presiding over that action conspired with the Assistant Attorneys General assigned to represent the state of Georgia, his appellate attorney, his trial attorney, and other individuals to deny his state habeas corpus application. Compl. 4-8, ECF No. 1. Plaintiff alleges that, motivated by a discriminatory intent, the defendants deliberately impeded his right to meaningful access to the courts, with the specific intent to cause to cause him actual injury. Id. at 5. On August 28, 2013, Plaintiff filed a motion in the Superior Court of Baldwin County seeking to continue the evidentiary hearing for his state habeas action which was scheduled for October 2, 2013. Id. at 13. According to Plaintiff, at the October 2, 2013, hearing the presiding judge orally granted the respondent's motion to continue, stating that “Respondent has not yet received the documents he requested from Forsyth County.” Id. at 13.

         The evidentiary hearing was rescheduled for December 18, 2013, and Plaintiff again filed a motion to continue. Id. at 14. When the state court failed to rule on Plaintiff's motion, he was transported to Baldwin County, but the hearing was again rescheduled without Plaintiff being afforded an opportunity to appear in court. Id. When Plaintiff returned to River bend Correctional Facility, he spoke to Martin Canty, an inmate also seeking habeas relief in the Superior Court of Baldwin County and also represented by Defendant Erickson on appeal. According to Plaintiff, Mr. Canty's evidentiary hearing was also continued.[1] The next day, Plaintiff received a copy of a motion for continuance filed the day before the evidentiary hearing. Plaintiff never received a copy of any order continuing the December 18th evidentiary hearing, despite attempting to secure one from Defendant Phillips. Id. at 15. He did receive a docket sheet in January, however, which showed that an order of continuance was filed. Meanwhile, Plaintiff received four blank subpoenas he had requested months prior. Id. at 16.

         On March 10, 2014, Plaintiff received from Respondent a “Notice of Deposition on Written Questions; Written Questions to Mary Erickson, ” Plaintiff's appellate attorney. Id. Plaintiff complains that the same document instructed Defendant Lyon, the court reporter who transcribed the deposition, “not to ‘furnish copies of the deposition transcript to anyone else.'” Id. During the following month, Plaintiff filed a petition for protective order and an objection to the deposition, “seeking to bar the deposing of Defendant Erickson.” Id. at 17. When Respondent proceeded with the deposition on April 2, 2014, and the court failed to rule on Plaintiff's motion, Plaintiff mailed Defendants Erickson and Haldi subpoenas in an attempt to “secur[e] their testimony at the impending July 9, 2014, evidentiary hearing.” Id. at 19. The subpoenas were allegedly “quashed.” Id. at 22. Then, the deposition of Mary Erikson was admitted into evidence over Plaintiff's objections.

         Plaintiff then filed a “notice of removal” on October 2, 2015, which Plaintiff contends divested the state court of jurisdiction over his petition. Id. at 22. Nevertheless, Plaintiff complains that Defendant Yoon submitted a proposed final order to the presiding judge in his state habeas action, which the judge signed and “filed” on December 4, 2015. Id. at 23. Plaintiff further complains that the final order was withheld by Defendant Phillips, which prevented Plaintiff from filing a timely application for certificate of probable cause to appeal with the Supreme Court of Georgia. Defendant Tucker, the mailroom supervisor at Riverbend Correctional facility, then failed to respond to a Georgia Open Records submitted by Plaintiff. Id. at 25.

         Plaintiff alleges that the actions described above were done intentionally for the purpose of denying Plaintiff due process in light of his pro se status. Id. at 15-20. He further complains that he was denied the appointment of counsel in his state habeas action. He thus seeks to raise Due Process and Equal Protection claims based “invidious discrimination and/or class-based animus” and seeks to have the order denying his state habeas action vacated and reheard in a different venue. Plaintiff seeks declaratory and injunctive relief as well as compensatory and punitive damages. He seeks a “judgment vacating and setting aside the December 4, 2015, final order” denying habeas relief and a rehearing of his constitutional claims in a different venue. Id. at ¶ 28-29. He further requests one thousand dollars or 750 dollars a day from every Defendants “for each day their action and/or inaction has contributed to the continued deprivation of plaintiff's constitutional right to meaningful access to the court and to a full, fair, and impartial review of his habeas corpus claims.” Id. at 29. According to Plaintiff, as a result of the unconstitutional denial of his state habeas action, “plaintiff sustained actual and permanent injury to his ability to obtain his freedom through collateral habeas corpus remedies” and suffers from continued “unlawful confinement.” Id. at 27.

         i. Barred by Rooker-Feldman

          “The Rooker-Feldman doctrine places limits on the subject matter jurisdiction of federal district courts and courts of appeal over certain matters related to previous state court litigation.” Goodman ex rel. Goodman v. Sipos, 259 F.3d 1327, 1332 (11th Cir. 2001); Rooker v. Fidelity Trust Co., 263 U.S. 413, 415-16 (1923); District of Columbia Court of Appeals v. Feldman, 460 U.S. 462, 476-82 (1983). “The basis for the Rooker/Feldman doctrine is that, other than in the context of habeas claims, federal district courts are courts of original jurisdiction, and by statute they are precluded from serving as appellate courts to review state court judgments, as that appellate function is reserved to the Supreme Court under 28 U.S.C. § 1257.” Dornheim v. Sholes, 430 F.3d 919, 923 (8th Cir. 2005) (citing Exxon Mobil Corp. v. Saudi Basic Indus., 544 U.S. 280 (2005)). “The Rooker-Feldman doctrine makes clear that federal district courts cannot review state court final judgments.” Casale v. Tillman, 558 F.3d 1258, 1260 (11th Cir. 2009) (per curiam).

         Rooker-Feldman applies to “cases brought by state-court losers complaining of injuries caused by state-court judgments rendered before the district court proceedings commenced and inviting district court review and rejection of those judgments.” Exxon, 544 U.S. at 284. “Under the doctrine, a federal court may not review a claim that is ‘inextricably intertwined' with a state court judgment.” In re Hernandez, 2017 WL 2963457, at *2 (11th Cir. 2017) (per curiam) (citing Casale, 558 F.3d at 1260); see also Alvarez v. Att'y Gen. for Fla., 679 F.3d 1257, 1262-63 (11th Cir. 2012). “A claim is inextricably intertwined if it would effectively nullify the state court judgment, . . . or it succeeds only to the extent that the state court wrongly decided the issues.” Waisom v. JP Morgan Chase Bank NA, 2017 WL 3446755, at *3 (11th Cir. 2017) (ellipsis in original) (quoting Casale, 558 F.3d at 1260).

         In this case, Plaintiff alleges Judges Wingfield and Prior-who presided over his state court habeas action-wrongfully denied Plaintiff's habeas action, refused to rule on Plaintiff's motions, failed to afford Plaintiff proper notice, and made incorrect evidentiary rulings. Plaintiff alleges that these actions were motivated by class based animus and were done in conspiracy with the assistant attorney generals assigned to represent the state and other individuals involved in Plaintiff habeas proceedings. Based on these allegations, Plaintiff requests that the habeas action be nullified and Plaintiff be afforded another opportunity to pursue his claims, this time in a different venue. Plaintiff thus directly challenges the validity of the state court judgment, requests review of that judgment, and seeks an order nullifying that judgment. This is the exact situation in which Rooker-Feldman applies, and Plaintiff's claims are barred to the extent that he seeks review of the state judgment itself.

         Plaintiff's claims for compensatory, punitive, and other forms of relief arising out of defects in his habeas proceedings are also barred by the Rooker-Feldman doctrine as his claims are “inextricably intertwined with the [state court's] decision, in judicial proceedings, to deny [Plaintiff's] petition.” See Feldman, 460 U.S. at 486. Plaintiff alleges that the judges, prosecutors, and others directly conspired to deny him habeas relief and brings conspiracy claims under Section 1983, 1985, and 1986. In order to grant Plaintiff relief, this Court would have to conclude that Plaintiff's rights were violated because the state court's procedural and substantive rulings were incorrect. Plaintiff's presentation of his claim as a conspiracy does not change this analysis, and is merely a variation on his direct attack to the state court's judgement. See e.g. Cooper v. Ramos, 704 F.3d 772, 782 (9th Cir. 2012) (“The alleged conspiracy is a fig leaf for taking aim at the state court's own alleged errors.”).

         In order to state a claim of conspiracy, Plaintiff must state a claim for the denial of an underlying constitutional right. In this case, the underlying right at issue is the denial of Plaintiff's state court habeas action for failure to afford Plaintiff a “full, fair, and impartial review of his habeas corpus claims.” Plaintiff's claim could succeed only to the extent that the state court got it wrong by denying Plaintiff's motions and requests while granting those of the respondents in that action.[2] Thus, plaintiff's claims could “succeed[d] only to the extent that the state court wrongly decided the issues.” Casale, 558 F.3d at 1260; see also e.g. Valentine v. BAC Home Loans Servicing, L.P., 635 Fed.Appx. 753 (11th Cir. 2015) (affirming dismissal of ...

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