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Pratt v. Allbritton

United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Eastern Division

May 10, 2017

Constance Pratt, Plaintiff,
Retha Allbritton, et. al, Defendants.


          Robert T. Numbers, II United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff Constance Pratt has brought a number of motions before the court. She has filed number of motions to amend her Amended Complaint. D.E. 35, 36, 37. Pratt has also filed a Motion for an Extension of Time in which to conduct the Rule 26(f) conference (D.E. 38), a Motion for the Issuance of Subpoenas (D.E. 41), and a Motion to Approve her Amendment (D.E. 42).

         By way of background, Pratt's Amended Complaint alleged that the Defendants, employees of Pitt County Department of Social Services and Child Protective Services (“DSS” or “CPS”) violated her rights under the Fourth, Sixth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution in the course of investigating allegations of child neglect and related state-court proceedings. It asserts that the Defendants illegally removed her children from her custody, made false allegations against her, failed to properly investigate the claims against her, and released information without her consent.[1]

         For the reasons set forth below, the undersigned will grant the motion to add Linda Mizelle as a party to this action (D.E. 36) and deny the motion to add Charles Williamson, Pratt's previous court-appointed attorney in the county action; North Carolina District Judge Patricia Gwynett Hillburn; and DSS staff attorney Timothy Heinle. (D.E. 35, 37). Additionally, the court finds that the motion for issuance of subpoenas is moot (D.E. 41). Finally, it will grant the motion to approve the amendments to the Amended Complaint with respect to Mizelle but deny it with respect to Heinle (D.E. 42).

         D.E. 35 Motion to Amend/Request to Add Party

         As noted above, Pratt seeks to add Williamson and Judge Hillburn to the present action. Williamson represented Pratt as her court-appointed attorney in family court matter and Judge Hillburn presided over the custody proceedings.

         In the Fourth Circuit, the law is well settled “that leave to amend a pleading should be denied only when the amendment would be prejudicial to the opposing party, there has been bad faith on the part of the moving party, or the amendment would be futile.” Edwards v. City of Goldsboro, 178 F.3d 231, 242 (4th Cir. 1999). See also Herron v. Virginia Com. Univ., 366 F.Supp.2d 355 (E.D. Va.) (denying leave to amend where the party sought to be added is immune from suit), aff'd, 116 F. App'x. 467 (4th Cir. 2004); Perkins v. United States, 848 F.Supp. 1236, 1241 (S.D. W.Va. 1994) (amendment of pleading should be denied if it cannot withstand a motion to dismiss). The decision to deny or grant leave to amend a pleading is within a district court's discretion; however a court may not exercise its discretion in a way that undermines Rule 15. See Pittston Co. v. United States, 199 F.3d 694, 705 (4th Cir. 1999).

         An attorney, whether retained, court-appointed, or a public defender, does not act under color of state law, which is a jurisdictional prerequisite for any civil action brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. See Vermont v. Brillon, 556 U.S. 81, 91 (2009) (noting that a publicly assigned or privately retained counsel for a criminal defendant is not ordinarily considered a state actor); Polk Cnty. v. Dodson, 454 U.S. 312, 319-22 & nn.8-13 (1981) (public defender); Hall v. Quillen, 631 F.2d 1154, 1155-56 & nn.2-3 (4th Cir. 1980) (court-appointed attorney); Deas v. Potts, 547 F.2d 800 (4th Cir. 1976) (private attorney). Private conduct, too, falls outside of the scope of a § 1983 action, as courts have found “merely private conduct, no matter how discriminatory or wrongful” is not actionable under § 1983. Am. Mfrs. Mut. Ins. Co. v. Sullivan, 526 U.S. 40, 50 (1999)

         The Constitutional violations Pratt alleges fall squarely within the “traditional functions” of counsel. She alleges that Williamson failed to properly defend the claims against her, pressured her into “accepting” some of the charges, and withheld documents. Thus, Williamson, alleged to be Pratt's attorney during the custody proceedings, did not act under color of state law, and as such Pratt fails to allege a plausible claim against him.

         With respect to Judge Hillburn, it is well settled that judges have absolute immunity from a claim for damages arising out of their judicial actions unless they acted in the complete absence of all jurisdiction. See Mireles v. Waco, 502 U.S. 9 (1991); Stump v. Sparkman, 435 U.S. 349, 351-364 (1978); see also Chu v. Griffith, 771 F.2d 79, 81 (4th Cir. 1985) (explaining that if a challenged judicial act was unauthorized by law, the judge still has immunity from a suit seeking damages); e.g., Baccus v. Wickensimer, C/A No. 9:13-1977-DCN-BM, 2013 WL 6019469, at *2- 3 (D.S.C. Nov. 13, 2013) (explaining that judicial immunity is from claims for damages and injunctive relief). Whether an act is judicial or nonjudicial relates to the nature of the act, such as whether it is a function normally performed by a judge and whether the parties dealt with the judge in his judicial capacity. Mireles, 502 U.S. at 12.

         Immunity applies even when the judge's acts were in error, malicious, or in excess of his authority. Id. at 12-13. Immunity presents a threshold question. See Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 475 U.S. 800, 818 (1982). Absolute immunity is “an immunity from suit rather than a mere defense to liability.” Mitchell v. Forsyth, 472 U.S. 511, 526 (1985).

         Here, Pratt alleges that Judge Hillburn presided over her family court proceedings and awarded custody of Pratt's children to their grandfather. She contends that the State failed to prove neglect on her part, “illegally kidnapped” her children, and denied her a trial on this matter. However, the alleged conduct relates to Judge Hillburn's judicial acts. Because the actions arose out of judicial proceedings, judicial immunity applies and bars this lawsuit against her.

         Given the issues of futility and immunity this motion to amend presents, it is denied.

         D.E. 36 Motion to ...

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