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Corbin v. Baggett

United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina

March 30, 2017

DAVID R. CORBIN, Plaintiff,
JUDGE TALMADGE BAGGETT, et al., Defendants.


          L. Patrick Auld United States Magistrate Judge

         This case comes before the Court on Plaintiff's Application to Proceed In Forma Pauperis (Docket Entry 1) in conjunction with his pro se Complaint (Docket Entry 2). For the reasons that follow, the Court will grant Plaintiff's instant Application for the limited purpose of recommending dismissal of this action under 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2) as frivolous, for failing to state a claim, and as barred by various immunity doctrines.


         “The federal in forma pauperis statute, first enacted in 1892 [and now codified at 28 U.S.C. § 1915], is intended to guarantee that no citizen shall be denied access to the courts solely because his poverty makes it impossible for him to pay or secure the costs.” Nasim v. Warden, Md. House of Corr., 64 F.3d 951, 953 (4th Cir. 1995) (en banc) (internal quotation marks omitted). “Dispensing with filing fees, however, [is] not without its problems. . . . In particular, litigants suing in forma pauperis d[o] not need to balance the prospects of successfully obtaining relief against the administrative costs of bringing suit.” Nagy v. FMC Butner, 376 F.3d 252, 255 (4th Cir. 2004). To address this concern, the in forma pauperis statute provides that “the [C]ourt shall dismiss the case at any time if the [C]ourt determines . . . the action . . . (i) is frivolous or malicious; (ii) fails to state a claim on which relief may be granted; or (iii) seeks monetary relief against a defendant who is immune from such relief.” 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2).

         As to the first of these grounds, “a complaint, containing as it does both factual allegations and legal conclusions, is frivolous where it lacks an arguable basis either in law or in fact.” Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319, 325 (1989). “The word ‘frivolous' is inherently elastic and not susceptible to categorical definition. . . . The term's capaciousness directs lower courts to conduct a flexible analysis, in light of the totality of the circumstances, of all factors bearing upon the frivolity of a claim.” Nagy, 376 F.3d at 256-57 (some internal quotation marks omitted). In determining frivolousness, the Court may “apply common sense.” Nasim, 64 F.3d at 954.

         As to the second ground, a plaintiff “fails to state a claim on which relief may be granted, ” 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B)(ii), when the complaint does not “contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (emphasis added) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). “Where a complaint pleads facts that are ‘merely consistent with' a defendant's liability, it ‘stops short of the line between possibility and plausibility of “entitlement to relief.”'” Id. (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 557). This standard “demands more than an unadorned, the-defendant-unlawfully-harmed-me accusation.” Id. In other words, “the tenet that a court must accept as true all of the allegations contained in a complaint is inapplicable to legal conclusions. Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice.” Id.[1]

         The third ground for dismissal under 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B) generally applies to situations in which doctrines established by the United States Constitution or at common-law immunize government entities and/or government personnel from liability for damages. See, e.g., Pennhurst State Sch. & Hosp. v. Halderman, 465 U.S. 89 (1984) (discussing eleventh-amendment immunity of states and state officials); Pierson v. Ray, 386 U.S. 547 (1967) (describing interrelationship between 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and common-law immunity doctrines); cf. Allen v. Burke, 690 F.2d 376, 379 (4th Cir. 1982) (noting that, even where “damages are theoretically available under [certain] statutes . . ., in some cases, immunity doctrines and special defenses, available only to public officials, preclude or severely limit the damage remedy” (internal quotation marks omitted)).


         Plaintiff initiated this action against five defendants: (1) “Judge Talmadge Baggett” (“Judge Baggett”), (2) “Billy West, District Attorney of Cumberland County” (“DA West”), (3) “Williford Law Firm, ” (4) “Ellen Hancock, Trial Court Administrator” (“TCA Hancock”), and (5) “Christa Baker, Trial Court Administrator” (“TCA Baker, ” and collectively with Judge Baggett, DA West, Williford Law Firm, and TCA Hancock, the “Defendants”). (Docket Entry 2 at 1.)

         Plaintiff seeks relief from each Defendant “in the form of formal acknowledgment of wrongdoing” and $25, 000, 000.00 in damages for allegedly violating his civil rights (and/or engaging in a conspiracy to violate his civil rights) under 18 U.S.C. §§ 242 and 245. (Id. at 2-3.)

         As an initial matter, neither of the statutes that Plaintiff alleges Defendants violated (i.e., 18 U.S.C. §§ 242 & 245) provides a private cause of action. See Robinson v. Overseas Military Sales Corp., 21 F.3d 502, 511 (2d Cir. 1994) (describing 18 U.S.C. § 242 as a “criminal statute[] that do[es] not provide [a] private cause[] of action”); Dugar v. Coughlin, 613 F.Supp. 849, 852 n.1 (S.D.N.Y. 1985) (concluding that, although 18 U.S.C. §§ 242 & 245 “relate to deprivation of civil rights, . . . there is no private right of action under [either] statute[]”). However, a private cause of action for deprivations of constitutionally protected rights arises under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, [2] and a private cause of action for conspiratorial conduct in furtherance of the deprivation of constitutionally protected rights generally arises under 42 U.S.C. § 1985.[3] In any event, Plaintiff's Complaint must provide sufficient factual matter regarding the deprivation of constitutionally protected rights. See Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 666 (observing that a plaintiff must “plead factual matter that, if taken as true, states a claim that [defendants] deprived him of his . . . constitutional rights”).

         Regarding the alleged violations of Plaintiff's civil rights, the Complaint alleges that Judge Baggett, TCA Hancock, and TCA Baker work as officials with the North Carolina judiciary, and that DA West serves as the District Attorney of Cumberland County, North Carolina. (See Docket Entry 2 at 2-3.) Judge Baggett, TCA Hancock, TCA Baker, and DA West (collectively, the “State Defendants”) therefore qualify as North Carolina state officials. (See id.)

         “[A] suit for damages against a state official in his official capacity is actually a suit against his office and, thus, the State.” Eller v. Kaufman, No. 2:11CV31, 2012 WL 3018295, at *8 (W.D. N.C. July 24, 2012) (citing Will v. Michigan Dep't of State Police, 491 U.S. 58, 71 (1989)). “[A]bsent waiver by the State or valid congressional override, the Eleventh Amendment bars a damages action against a State in federal court. This bar remains in effect when State officials are sued for damages in their official capacity.” Kentucky v. Graham, 473 U.S. 159, 169 (1985) (footnote and citation omitted).

         Sections 1983 and 1985 provide for suits against a “person, ” not a state. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983 & 1985. Thus, “Congress did not exercise its power to abrogate a state's Eleventh Amendment immunity when it enacted 42 U.S.C. §[§] 1983 [& 1985].” Coffin v. South Carolina Dep't of Soc. Servs., 562 F.Supp. 579, 585 (D.S.C. 1983) (ruling that, “just as neither [the state agency defendant] nor the Board as alter egos of the state is a ‘person' within the meaning of 42 U.S.C. § 1983, neither one is a ‘person' within the meaning of 42 U.S.C. §§ 1985 and 1986”).

         Given these points, to the extent the Complaint asserts official capacity claims against State Defendants, those claims fail as frivolous because a suit against State Defendants in their official capacity constitutes a suit against North Carolina, and the term “person” under Sections 1983 and 1985 does not encompass North Carolina. See Woodward v. Chautauqua Cty., No. 15-CV-246, 2016 WL 4491712, at *2 (W.D.N.Y. July 5, 2016) (concluding that “[n]either a state agency nor a state officer acting in his official capacity is subject to suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983[ and] § 1985” (citing Posr v. Court Officer Shield No. 207, 180 F.3d 409 (2d Cir. 1999))), recommendation adopted, 2016 WL 4475044, at *1 (W.D.N.Y. Aug. 25, 2016); see also Puckett v. Carter, 454 F.Supp.2d 448, 452 (M.D. N.C. 2006) (“The Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit has specifically held that the Eleventh Amendment bars claims brought in federal court against state district attorneys in their ‘official' capacity.” (citing Nivens v. Gilchrist, 444 F.3d 237, 249 (4th Cir. 2006)).

         I. Judge Baggett

         Turning to the Complaint's specific allegations against each Defendant, the Complaint first asserts that “[Judge] Baggett, in conspiracy to violate [Plaintiff's] civil rights and [with] intent to cause bodily harm used his influence on the bench to intimidate [Plaintiff] to drop [his] case and accused [Plaintiff] of being mental[ly] incompetent.” (Docket Entry 2 at 2.) The Complaint next alleges that Judge Baggett “has been influenced by the District Attorney's Office, The Fayetteville Police Department, and The Cumberland County Sheriff's Department, The North Carolina State Highway Patrol, The Federal Bureau of Investigations [sic] and various other agencies.” (Id.) The Complaint further states that “Judge Baggett did not allow [Plaintiff] to present [his] case and he stated[, ] ‘I am only going to go by what the state highway patrol has written'” and “that the officers would be justified in shooting [Plaintiff].” (Id.)[4]

         Notably, the Complaint does not contain any factual content reflecting that Judge Baggett engaged in a “conspiracy” to violate Plaintiff's rights, but instead contains only the conclusory assertion that various agencies “influenced” Judge Baggett without explaining how that influence harmed Plaintiff. The Complaint also fails to explain how Judge Baggett's accusations or statements violated Plaintiff's “civil rights.” Simply put, the Complaint's bare assertions do not provide enough factual matter to state a claim against Judge Baggett.

         Moreover, even if the Complaint had stated a plausible claim against Judge Baggett, judicial immunity would prevent liability. In that regard, the Complaint alleges that Judge Baggett serves as a North Carolina state-court judge and presided over Plaintiff's civil and/or criminal “case.” (Id. at 2.)[5] “Judges performing judicial acts within their jurisdiction are entitled to absolute immunity from civil liability claims, ” In re Mills, 287 F. App'x. 273, 279 (4th Cir. 2008) (emphasis added), “even if such acts were allegedly done either maliciously or corruptly, ” King v. Myers, 973 F.2d 354, 356 (4th Cir. 1992) (citing Pierson, 386 U.S. at 554). See also Mireles v. Waco, 502 U.S. 9, 11 (1991) (stating that “judicial immunity is an immunity from suit, not just from ultimate assessment of damages”). To determine whether an action constitutes a “judicial act” protected by judicial immunity, the Court must consider “whether the function is one normally performed by a judge, and whether the parties dealt with the judge in his or her judicial capacity.” King, 973 F.2d at 357. ...

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