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Atwater v. Boone

United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina

July 17, 2019

FREDERICK L. ATWATER, Plaintiff,
v.
HALEY SEAN BOONE, [1] Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND RECOMMENDATION OF UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

          Joe L. Webster United States Magistrate Judge.

         This matter is before the Court on Defendant Haley Sean Boone's motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, lack of personal jurisdiction, insufficient service of process, and failure to state a claim. (Docket Entry 9.) Also before the Court is Plaintiff Frederick Atwater's motion for leave to file an Amended Complaint (Docket Entry 12) and Defendant's motion to dismiss the Amended Complaint (Docket Entry 13). The motions have been fully briefed and the matter is ripe for disposition. For the reasons that follow, it is recommended that Defendant's first motion to dismiss be denied as moot, Plaintiff's motion for leave to amend the Complaint be granted, and Defendant's motion to dismiss the Amended Complaint be granted.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff filed this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging a violation of his constitutional right to due process resulting from Defendant's refusal to have biological evidence tested pursuant to the North Carolina post-conviction DNA testing statute. (Compl. ¶ 16, Docket Entry 2.) In the early 1990s, Plaintiff was charged and pled guilty to one count of first-degree rape and first-degree sexual offense. (Id. ¶ 8.) Plaintiff alleges that biological and physical evidence was collected submitted to the state crime laboratory for DNA analysis and testing. (Id. ¶ 7.)

         More than 10 years after Plaintiff entered the Alford plea, North Carolina enacted the post-conviction DNA testing statute permitting prisoners to file motions for post-conviction DNA testing. (Id. ¶ 9.) In September and November of 2015, Plaintiff sought testing of the evidence collected during the original investigation of the sexual assault. (Id. ¶ 10.) Plaintiff's request to the state trial court was denied, finding that he knew DNA testing had not been performed prior to entering a plea, and further finding that his plea was knowing and voluntary. (Id. ¶ 11; see also State Court Order, Docket Entry 16-1.) Plaintiff now brings the present action, seeking an order requiring that Defendant release the biological and physical evidence in his custody for testing to obtain reversal of Plaintiff's conviction.

         After Defendant filed his first motion to dismiss, Plaintiff filed a motion for leave to amend his Complaint. (Docket Entry 12.) In the Amended Complaint, Plaintiff corrects the name and actions of Defendant. Plaintiff's proposed Amended Complaint closely resembles that of this original Complaint. He further clarifies that prior to entering the Alford plea, DNA testing was available but was not performed, which kept his counsel from investigating the results. (Am. Compl. ¶ 14, Docket Entry 12-1.) As a result, Plaintiff pled guilty to a crime that he did not commit. (Id.) Plaintiff further alleges that he “does not challenge the prosecutor's conducts or the [court of appeals'] decision, ” but rather “challenges North Carolina postconviction DNA statute ‘as construed' by the North Carolina courts.” (Id. ¶ 23.) The Amended Complaint also asks for this Court to order DNA testing of alleged physical evidence and to order Defendant “to conduct [a] hearing related to post-conviction requests for DNA testing, pursuant to North Carolina Statutes.” (Id. ¶ B.1, B.2.)

         In his motion to dismiss the Amended Complaint, Defendant asserts the same grounds for dismissal as previously stated in his first motion. (Docket Entry 13.)

         II. DISCUSSION

         A. Motion to Amend Complaint

         As previously stated, Plaintiff filed a motion for leave to amend his Complaint after Defendant filed his first motion to dismiss. In pertinent part, Rule 15 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides that a party may amend its pleading once as a matter of course within 21 days after service of a Rule 12(b) motion. Fed.R.Civ.P. 15(a)(1)(B). Otherwise, “a party may amend its pleading only with the opposing party's written consent or the court's leave” and “[t]he court should freely give leave when justice so requires.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 15(a)(2). Granting a motion to amend a complaint is within the discretion of the Court, “but outright refusal to grant the leave without any justifying reason appearing for the denial is not an exercise of discretion.” Foman v. Davis, 371 U.S. 178, 182 (1962). The Fourth Circuit has stated that “[a] district court may deny a motion to amend when the amendment would be prejudicial to the opposing party, the moving party has acted in bad faith, or the amendment would be futile.” Equal Rights Ctr. v. Niles Bolton Assoc., 602 F.3d 597, 603 (4th Cir. 2010). An amended complaint is futile if it cannot withstand a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6); thus, the Court may deny the motion. Perkins v. United States, 55 F.3d 910, 917 (4th Cir. 1995) (addition of negligence claim futile because case would not survive motion to dismiss). Here, Plaintiff filed his motion to amend eleven days after Defendant filed his first motion to dismiss. Therefore, the Court concludes that Plaintiff's motion to amend should be granted. Below the Court will determine if Plaintiff's Amended Complaint withstands Defendant's motion to dismiss the Amended Complaint.

         B. Subject Matter Jurisdiction

         Defendant first argues that this Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction to adjudicate Plaintiff's claim. (Docket Entry 14 at 3-4.) Subject matter jurisdiction is both a Constitutional and statutory requirement which restricts federal judicial power to a limited set of cases and controversies. Thus, “no action of the parties can confer subject matter jurisdiction upon a federal court.” Ins. Corp. of Ireland v. Compagnie des Bauxites de Guinee, 456 U.S. 694, 702 (1982). When a defendant challenges subject matter jurisdiction, “the district court is to regard the pleadings' allegations as mere evidence on the issue, and may consider evidence outside the pleadings without converting the proceeding to one for summary judgment.” Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac R.R. Co. v. United States, 945 F.2d 765, 768 (4th Cir. 1991). The district court should grant the Rule 12(b)(1) motion to dismiss “only if the material jurisdictional facts are not in dispute and the moving party is entitled to prevail as a matter of law.” Id.; see also Evans v. B.F. Perkins, Co., 166 F.3d 642, 647 (4th Cir. 1999).

         Defendant contends that this Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction to entertain this claim pursuant to the Rooker-Feldman doctrine. (Docket Entry 16 at 3-4.) “Under the Rooker- Feldman doctrine, lower federal courts generally do not have jurisdiction to review state-court decisions; rather, jurisdiction to review such decisions lies exclusively with superior state courts and, ultimately, the United States Supreme Court.” Plyler v. Moore, 129 F.3d 728, 731 (4th Cir. 1997); see also Brown & Root, Inc. v. Breckenridge, 211 F.3d 194, 198 (4th Cir. 2000) (“[A] party losing in state court is barred from seeking what in substance would be appellate review of the state judgment in a United States district court, based on the losing party's claim that the state judgment itself violates the loser's federal rights.”) (internal quotations omitted). The Rooker-Feldman doctrine prevents a federal court from determining that a state court judgment was erroneously entered or taking action that would render a state court judgment ineffectual. Jordahl v. Democratic Party of Va., 122 F.3d 192, 202 (4th Cir. 1997) (citing Ernst v. Child & Youth Servs., 108 F.3d 486, 491 (3d Cir. 1997)). It is a narrowly tailored doctrine, such that the relief in federal court must seek to “‘reverse or modify' the state court decree” for the doctrine to apply. Adkins v. Rumsfeld, 464 F.3d 456, 464 (4th Cir. 2006) (quoting Exxon Mobil Corp. v. Saudi Basic Indus. Corp., 544 U.S. 280, 284 (2005)).

         However, “litigation . . . encounters no Rooker-Feldman shoal [ ] [i]f a federal plaintiff “present[s][an] independent claim[.]” Skinner v. Switzer, 562 U.S. 521, 532 (2011) (internal quotations and citation omitted). Such independent claim “is not an impediment to the exercise of federal jurisdiction that the same or a related question was ...


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