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Nelson v. Palmer

United States District Court, S.D. Georgia, Augusta Division

May 2, 2019

JUDGE KATHY S. PALMER; HAYWARD ALTMAN, District Attorney; and LUCY JACKSON-BELL, Attorney, Defendants.



         Plaintiff, incarcerated at Telfair State Prison in Helena, Georgia, is proceeding pro se in this civil rights case concerning events related to his criminal proceedings in Jefferson County, Georgia. Counsel on behalf of Defendants Palmer and Altman, and on behalf of Defendant Jackson-Bell, have each filed a pre-answer motion to dismiss. (Doc. nos. 11, 16 (hereinafter, motions together as “Defendants' motions”).) Plaintiff opposes the motions, (doc. nos. 25, 26, 38), and Defendants filed replies in support of their respective motions, (doc. nos. 33, 34). For the reasons set forth below, the Court REPORTS and RECOMMENDS Defendants' motions be GRANTED, any potential state law claims be dismissed without prejudice, this civil action be DISMISSED, and an appropriate judgment of dismissal be ENTERED.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff originally filed his complaint in the Northern District of Georgia and paid the $400.00 filing fee. (See doc. no. 1.) United States Magistrate Judge Alan Baverman transferred the case to this District because the events about which Plaintiff complains are related to criminal proceedings brought against him in Jefferson County, Georgia, within the Augusta Division of the Southern District. (Doc. no. 2.) Plaintiff previously filed two unsuccessful federal habeas corpus challenges concerning these same criminal proceedings. See Nelson v. Brown, CV 118-166 (S.D. Ga. Oct. 2, 2018); Nelson v. Frazier, CV 108-033 (S.D. Ga. Mar. 6, 2008). Defendants executed waivers of service, and timely filed the motions to dismiss now before the Court. Plaintiff's criminal case commenced when twenty “selected, chosen, and sworn” grand jurors sitting in Jefferson County, Georgia, convened on May 29, 2001, and among other business, charged Plaintiff with two counts of burglary and one count of terroristic threats in an indictment signed by foreperson Ollie Carter and filed in the Clerk of Superior Court on June 1, 2001. Georgia v. Nelson, 01-CR-00059; doc. nos. 17-1, 17-2; doc. no. 25, pp. 19-20.[1]

         A Jefferson County jury convicted Plaintiff of (1) burglary with intent to commit theft, (2) burglary with intent to commit terroristic threats, and (3) terroristic threats. Nelson v. State, 625 S.E.2d 465, 467 (Ga.Ct.App. 2005). The first and second burglary counts merged for sentencing purposes, and Plaintiff was sentenced to consecutive terms of imprisonment for twenty years and five years, without the possibility of parole. Id. at 472-73; doc. no. 17-4. Defendants Palmer and Altman presided over Plaintiff's criminal trial as the Judge and Assistant District Attorney, respectively. (See doc. no. 1, p. 3.) Defendant Jackson-Bell served as Plaintiff's trial counsel. (Id.) Plaintiff does not state in the complaint whether he is suing Defendants in their individual or official capacity, or both. (Id.) He does state, however, in his opposition papers he is suing Defendants Palmer and Altman in their individual and official capacities. (Doc. no. 26, p. 1.)

         Nor does Plaintiff identify in his complaint what federal or state law or constitutional provision any Defendant allegedly violated. (Doc. no. 1, pp. 3-4.) Rather, Plaintiff generally alleges all three Defendants conspired to obtain false convictions for burglary and terroristic threats pursuant to a fraudulently obtained indictment returned by an “illegally qualified Grand Jury.” (Id.) All three Defendants knew the indictment was not proper, yet they all “allowed” the indictment to be filed and his case to be prosecuted based on the fraudulent charges. (Id.) In his opposition papers, Plaintiff states all three Defendants violated his Fifth Amendment rights, and Defendant Jackson-Bell committed fraud under Georgia statutes and provided ineffective assistance of counsel by allowing him to be prosecuted “under a false indictment.” (Doc. no. 25, p. 1; doc. no. 26; doc. no. 38, p. 2.)

         Fifth Amendment Due Process claim should be dismissed because they are not federal actors. As explained below, Defendants' motions should be granted.

         A. Legal Standard for Rule 12(b)(6) Motion

         In considering a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), the Court tests the legal sufficiency of the complaint, not whether the plaintiff will ultimately prevail on the merits. Adinolfe v. United Techs. Corp., 768 F.3d 1161, 1168 (11th Cir. 2014). The Court must accept as true all facts alleged in the complaint and draw all reasonable inferences in Plaintiff's favor. Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 93-94 (2007) (per curiam); Am. Dental Ass'n v. Cigna Corp., 605 F.3d 1283, 1288 (11th Cir. 2010). To avoid dismissal for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted, the allegations in the amended complaint must “state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). “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.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). That is, “[f]actual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555.

         The Court must also consider Rule 12(b)(6) in conjunction with Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8. Id. While Rule 8(a) does not require detailed factual allegations, “it demands more than an unadorned, the-defendant-unlawfully-harmed-me accusation.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678. A complaint is insufficient if it “offers ‘labels and conclusions' or ‘a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action, '” or if it “tenders ‘naked assertions' devoid of ‘further factual enhancement.'” Id. (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555, 557). The Court is “not bound to accept as true a legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555 (citation omitted). In short, the complaint must provide a “‘plain statement' possess[ing] enough heft to ‘sho[w] that the pleader is entitled to relief.'” Id. at 557 (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2)).

         Finally, the Court affords a liberal construction to a pro se litigant's pleadings, holding them to a more lenient standard than those drafted by an attorney. Erickson, 551 U.S. at 94. However, this liberal construction does not mean that the Court has a duty to re-write the complaint. Snow v. DirecTV, Inc., 450 F.3d 1314, 1320 (11th Cir. 2006).

         B. Plaintiff's Claims Are Barred by Heck v. Humphrey

         Plaintiff's complaint is barred under Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477, 486-87 (1994). In Heck, the Supreme Court held, when an inmate's allegations rest on the invalidity of his imprisonment, his § 1983 claim does not accrue until that invalidity is proven. Id. The Supreme Court further explained, if “a judgment in favor of the plaintiff would necessarily imply the invalidity of his conviction or sentence, ” then that § 1983 claim must be dismissed unless the plaintiff can show his conviction has already been invalidated. Id. at 487. In short, a claim for monetary damages or injunctive or declaratory relief that challenges Plaintiff's conviction is not cognizable under § 1983. Wilkinson v. Dotson, 544 U.S. 74, 81-82 (2005) (concluding “cases, taken together, indicate that a state prisoner's § 1983 action is barred (absent prior invalidation) - no matter the relief sought (damages or equitable relief), no matter the target of the prisoner's suit (state conduct leading to conviction . . .) - if success in that action would necessarily demonstrate the invalidity of confinement or its duration”); Heck, 512 U.S. at 483; Abella v. Rubino, 63 F.3d 1063, 1066 (11th Cir. 1995) (per curiam) (“Thus, declaratory or injunctive relief claims which are in the nature of habeas corpus claims - i.e., claims which challenge the validity of the claimant's conviction or sentence and seek release -are simply not cognizable under § 1983.”); see also Nelson v. Campbell, 541 U.S. 637, 643 (2004) (explaining claims challenging fact of conviction or duration of sentence “fall within the ‘core' of habeas corpus, ” while claims challenging the conditions of confinement may be brought in a civil rights action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983).

         Plaintiff claims: (1) the indictment charging him was invalid because there is no record of any minutes or proceedings of a grand jury summoned or sworn in the Superior Court of Jefferson County in May, 2001; and (2) Defendants Palmer and Altman joined in a conspiracy with Defendant Jackson-Bell to accept the jury's guilty verdict when they knew the charging indictment was invalid. (See doc. no. 1, pp. 3-4.) Were these claims resolved in Plaintiff's favor in this Court, the outcome would inevitably undermine Plaintiff's state convictions. Zeigler v. Woodford, No. 5:17-CV-00480, 2018 WL 2248754, at *3 (M.D. Ga. Apr. 27, 2018) ...

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