IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE MIDDLE DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA
June 15, 2010
THOMAS CONCERT, PLAINTIFF,
LUZERNE COUNTY DEPARTMENT OF CHILDREN AND YOUTH, ET AL., DEFENDANTS
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Magistrate Judge Carlson
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER
This is a pro se civil rights complaint brought by Thomas Concert. Concert's complaint consists of 60 pages, supported by more than 900 pages of exhibits, and voices a dissatisfaction with child custody decisions that appear to have been made in the late 1980's, as well as an alleged decision by county officials to allow Concert's daughter, who had been removed from his custody decades earlier, to travel to Mexico sometime after September 11, 2001. (Docs. 1 and 3.) Concert's complaint indicates that he may have lost custody of these children following incarceration for some unspecified offense, but Concert does not further explain the basis for this action. Moreover, the allegations in the complaint, and accompanying exhibits all strongly suggest that these children may been under some form of state court supervision, and that any action by this Court may intrude into matters which are the subject of prior state litigation. Finally, the events set forth in the complaint begin in the 1980's and continue through 2001. Thus, this pleading invites the federal courts to intervene in a decades-old dispute.
Along with his complaint Mr. Concert has filed a motion for leave to proceed in forma pauperis. (Doc. 2.) The Court will GRANT the Plaintiff leave to proceed in forma pauperis, but will place the Plaintiff on notice that his complaint is subject to dismissal and will direct that Concert respond to the deficiencies identified by the Court in this complaint.
This Court has a statutory obligation to conduct a preliminary review of pro se complaints brought by plaintiffs given leave to proceed in forma pauperis in cases which seek redress against government officials. See 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B)(ii). Specifically, the Court must assess whether a pro se complaint fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, since Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides that a complaint should be dismissed for "failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted." Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6). In addition, when reviewing in forma pauperis complaints, 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B)(ii) specifically enjoins us to "dismiss the complaint at any time if the court determines that... the action... fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted." With respect to this benchmark standard for legal sufficiency of a complaint, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has recently aptly noted the evolving standards governing pleading practice in federal court, stating that:
Standards of pleading have been in the forefront of jurisprudence in recent years. Beginning with the Supreme Court's opinion in Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (12007) continuing with our opinion in Phillips [v. County of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 230 (3d Cir. 2008)]and culminating recently with the Supreme Court's decision in Ashcroft v. Iqbal --U.S.--, 129 S.Ct. 1937 (2009) pleading standards have seemingly shifted from simple notice pleading to a more heightened form of pleading, requiring a plaintiff to plead more than the possibility of relief to survive a motion to dismiss.
Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 209-10 (3d Cir. 2009).
In considering whether a complaint fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, the Court must accept as true all allegations in the complaint and all reasonable inferences that can be drawn therefrom are to be construed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. Jordan v. Fox Rothschild, O'Brien & Frankel, Inc., 20 F.3d 1250, 1261 (3d Cir. 1994). However, a court "need not credit a complaint's bald assertions or legal conclusions when deciding a motion to dismiss." Morse v. Lower Merion Sch. Dist., 132 F.3d 902, 906 (3d Cir. 1997). Additionally a court need not "assume that a... plaintiff can prove facts that the... plaintiff has not alleged." Associated Gen. Contractors of Cal. v. California State Council of Carpenters, 459 U.S. 519, 526 (1983). As the Supreme Court held in Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007), in order to state a valid cause of action a plaintiff must provide some factual grounds for relief which "requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of actions will not do." Id. at 555. "Factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level." Id. In keeping with the principles of Twombly, the Supreme Court recently underscored that a trial court must assess whether a complaint states facts upon which relief can be granted when ruling on a motion to dismiss. In Ashcroft v. Iqbal, __U.S. __, 129 S.Ct. 1937 (2009), the Supreme Court held that, when considering a motion to dismiss, a court should "begin by identifying pleadings that, because they are no more than conclusions, are not entitled to the assumption of truth." Id. at 1950. According to the Supreme Court, "[t]hreadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice." Id. at 1949. Rather, in conducting a review of the adequacy of complaint, the Supreme Court has advised trial courts that they must:
[B]egin by identifying pleadings that because they are no more than conclusions are not entitled to the assumption of truth. While legal conclusions can provide the framework of a complaint, they must be supported by factual allegations. When there are well-pleaded factual allegations, a court should assume their veracity and then determine whether they plausibly give rise to an entitlement to relief.
Id. at 1950.
Thus, following Twombly and Iqbal a well-pleaded complaint must contain more than mere legal labels and conclusions. Rather, a complaint must recite factual allegations sufficient to raise the plaintiff's claimed right to relief beyond the level of mere speculation. As the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has stated:
[A]fter Iqbal, when presented with a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, district courts should conduct a two-part analysis. First, the factual and legal elements of a claim should be separated. The District Court must accept all of the complaint's well-pleaded facts as true, but may disregard any legal conclusions. Second, a District Court must then determine whether the facts alleged in the complaint are sufficient to show that the plaintiff has a'plausible claim for relief.' In other words, a complaint must do more than allege the plaintiff's entitlement to relief. A complaint has to 'show' such an entitlement with its facts. Fowler, 578 F.3d at 210-11.
In our view, these heightened pleading standards apply to all aspects of the Court's threshold analysis of a complaint's legal sufficiency. Thus, we will apply this analysis both when assessing the adequacy of the factual assertions set forth in the complaint, and when examining whether a complaint names proper parties to the lawsuit.
Applying this standard, the Court places the Plaintiff on notice that the allegations in the pro se complaint may be subject to dismissal for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. The initial review of the Plaintiff's complaint has identified the following deficiencies in this pleading:
At the outset, this complaint may fail because of the "domestic relations" doctrine, which generally forbids federal court adjudication of state child custody matters. See Akenbrandt v. Richards, 504 U.S. 689, 703 (1992).
In addition, to the extent that there have been state court proceedings relating to the placement of these children this complaint may also fail because this Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction over the issues raised by the Plaintiff, which call upon this federal court in a civil rights case to review, re-examine and reject state court rulings in a state domestic relations case. This we cannot do. Indeed, the United States Supreme Court has spoken to this issue and has announced a rule, the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, which compels federal district courts to decline invitations to conduct what amounts to appellate review of state trial court decisions. As described by the Third Circuit:
That doctrine takes its name from the two Supreme Court cases that gave rise to the doctrine. Rooker v. Fidelity Trust Co., 263 U.S. 413, 44 S.Ct. 149, 68 L.Ed. 362 (1923); District of Columbia Court of Appeals v. Feldman, 460 U.S. 462, 103 S.Ct. 1303, 75 L.Ed.2d 206 (1983). The doctrine is derived from 28 U.S.C. § 1257 which states that "[f]inal judgments or decrees rendered by the highest court of a state in which a decision could be had, may be reviewed by the Supreme Court....". See also Desi's Pizza, Inc. v. City of Wilkes Barre, 321 F.3d 411, 419 (3d Cir.2003). "Since Congress has never conferred a similar power of review on the United States District Courts, the Supreme Court has inferred that Congress did not intend to empower District Courts to review state court decisions." Desi's Pizza, 321 F.3d at 419.
Gary v. Braddock Cemetery, 517 F.3d 195, 200 (3d. Cir 2008).
Because federal district courts are not empowered by law to sit as reviewing courts, reexamining state court decisions, "[t]he Rooker-Feldman doctrine deprives a federal district court of jurisdiction in some circumstances to review a state court adjudication." Turner v. Crawford Square Apartments III, LLP,, 449 F.3d 542, 547 (3d Cir. 2006). Cases construing this jurisdictional limit on the power of federal courts have quite appropriately:
[E]mphasized the narrow scope of the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, holding that it "is confined to cases of the kind from which the doctrine acquired its name: 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 Mobil Corp. v. Saudi Basic Industries Corp.], 544 U.S. at 284, 125 S.Ct. at 1521-22; see also Lance v. Dennis, 546 U.S. 459, ----, 126 S.Ct. 1198, 1201, 163 L.Ed.2d 1059 (2006)
Turner, 449 F.3d at 547.
However, even within these narrowly drawn confines, it has been consistently recognized that the Rooker-Feldman doctrine prevents federal judges from considering civil rights lawsuits which seek to re-examine state domestic relations court rulings that are presented "by state-court losers complaining of injuries caused by state-court judgments rendered before the district court proceedings commenced."
Kwasnik v. Leblon, 228 F. App'x 238, 242 (3d Cir. 2007). In such instances, the federal courts have typically deferred to the state court domestic relations decisions, and rebuffed efforts to use federal civil rights laws to review, or reverse, those state court rulings. See, e.g., Marran v. Marran, 376 F.3d 143 (3d. Cir. 2004); Kwasnik 228 F. App'x 238, 242; Smith v. Department of Human Services, 198 F. App'x 227 (3d Cir. 2006); Rose v. County of York, No. 05-5820, 2007 WL 136682 (E.D. Pa. Jan. 12, 2007).
In addition, this complaint may also run afoul of basic constitutional and statutory rules limiting lawsuits against state agencies and officials. First, as a matter of constitutional law, the Eleventh Amendment to the Constitution provides that "[t]he Judicial power of the United States shall not be construed to extend to any suit in law or equity, commenced or prosecuted against one of the... States....", U. S. Const. Amend XI. By its terms, the Eleventh Amendment strictly limits the power of federal courts to entertain cases brought by citizens against the state and state agencies. Moreover, a suit brought against an individual acting in his or her official capacity constitutes a suit against the state and therefore also is barred by the Eleventh Amendment. Will v. Michigan Dept. of State Police, 491 U.S. 58 (1989).
Pursuant to the Eleventh Amendment, states, state agencies and state officials who are sued in their official capacity are generally immune from lawsuits in federal courts brought against them by citizens. Seminole Tribe v. Florida, 517 U.S. 44, 54 (1996). The constitutional protections afforded to the states and the state court system under the Eleventh Amendment also expressly apply to the state agencies that are integral parts of Pennsylvania's unitary court system. These court agencies, which also enjoy immunity from lawsuit under the Eleventh Amendment, include the various county common pleas court domestic relations agencies which are defined by statute as arms of the state courts, and institutions of state government. See, e.g., Walters v. Washington County, No. 06-1355, 2009 WL 7936639 (W.D. Pa. March 23, 2009);Van Tassel v. Lawrence County Domestics Relations Section, No. 09-266, 2009 WL 3052411 (W.D. Pa. Sept. 22, 2009). Absent an express waiver of the immunity established by the Eleventh Amendment, all of these agencies, and their employees who are sued in their official capacities, are absolutely immune from lawsuits in federal court. Moreover as a matter of statutory interpretation, the plaintiff cannot bring a damages action against these state agencies or state officials in their official capacity since it is well-settled that a state, a state agency, or a state official acting in an official capacity is not a "person" within the meaning of 42 U.S.C. §1983. Will v. Michigan Dep't. of State Police, 491 U.S. 58, 71 (1989).
Furthermore, to the extent that the complaint seeks to hold state judicial agency employees like Domestics Relations agency staff personally liable for damages, it is well-settled that these officials are also individually cloaked with immunity from liability. The United States Supreme Court has long recognized that those officials performing judicial, quasi-judicial, and prosecutorial functions in our adversarial system must be entitled to some measure of protection from personal liability for acts taken in their official capacities. In order to provide this degree of protection from liability for judicial officials, the courts have held that judges, Mireless v. Waco, 502 U.S. 9, 13 (1991); prosecutors, Imbler v. Pachtman, 424 U.S. 409, 427 (1976); and those who perform adjudicative functions, Imbler, 424 U.S. at 423 n. 20 (grand jurors); Harper v. Jeffries, 808 F.2d 281, 284 (3d. Cir. 1986)(parole board adjudicators); are entitled to immunity from personal liability for actions they take in our adversarial system of justice. The scope of these protections extend beyond judges and prosecutors to those who take discretionary actions at the direction of the courts. As this court has observed:
Quasi-judicial officers, who act in accordance with their duties or at the direction of a judicial officer, also are immune from suit. See Gallas, 211 F.3d at 772-73 (court administrator entitled to immunity for release of information ordered by a judge); Lockhart v. Hoenstine, 411 F.2d 455, 460 (3d Cir.1969) (holding that prothonotary, acting under court direction, was immune from suit). The doctrine of absolute quasi-judicial immunity has been applied to court support personnel due to "the danger that disappointed litigants, blocked by the doctrine of absolute immunity from suing the judge directly, will vent their wrath on clerks, court reporters, and other judicial adjuncts." Kincaid v. Vail, 969 F.2d 594, 601 (7th Cir.1992). See also Johnson v. Kegans, 870 F.2d 992, 995 (5th Cir.1989) ("Prosecutors and other necessary participants in the judicial process enjoy quasi-judicial immunity as well.").Quasi-judicial absolute immunity is available to those individuals, such as Defendants Kline and Brewer, who perform functions closely associated with the judicial process. Marcedes v. Barrett, 453 F.2d 391 (3d Cir.1971) (holding that quasi-judicial immunity applied to clerk of courts, an administrative assistant to the president judge and a court reporter); Henig v. Odorioso, 385 F.2d 491, 494 (3d Cir.1967) (holding that judiciary employees executing judicial orders are immune from suit); Davis v. Philadelphia County, 195 F.Supp.2d 686 (E.D.Pa.2002) (holding that quasi-judicial immunity applies to court staff, such as clerks of judicial records and court reporters).
Stout v. Naus, 09-390, 2009 WL 1794989, at 3 (M.D. Pa. 2009)(McClure, J.).
These longstanding common law immunities for judicial, quasi-judicial, and prosecutorial officials may directly apply here and would also prevent the plaintiff from maintaining this civil action for damages against the individual defendant he has named in his complaint. This immunity embraces court personnel like Domestic Relations staff, who perform discretionary functions under the guidance and direction of the courts. Indeed, courts have specifically held that Domestics Relations agency staff are entitled to assert this immunity in civil rights actions. For example, in Slawek v. White, No. 91-1164, 1992 WL 68247, at 3 (E.D. Pa. 1992), the court conferred this immunity on domestic relations personnel, noting that such immunity was consistent with case law and stating:
In Hamill v. Wright, 870 F.2d 1032, 1037 (5th Cir.1989), a director of the domestic relations office was declared to be "entitled to full prosecutorial immunity from damages because his decision to bring contempt proceedings and his participation in those proceedings was pursuant to his quasi-judicial duties." (citing Imbler v. Pachtman, 424 U.S. 409, 96 S.Ct. 984 (1976)). Here, these Domestic Relations officials' conduct, under the facts relied upon by the Plaintiff, in continuing to prosecute the paternity claim was pursuant to Pennsylvania law and Judge Salas' directives, and as such are entitled to immunity.
Slawek, 1992 WL 68247, at 4. See, e.g., Buchanan v. Gay, 491 F. Supp.2d 483 (D. Del. 2007); White v. Green, No. 09-1219, 2009 WL 2412490 (E.D. Pa. 2009); Johnson v. Lancaster County Children and Youth, No. 92-7135, 1993 WL 245280 (E.D. Pa. 1993).
Thus, entirely aside from the jurisdictional flaws in this case, and the constitutional immunity conferred upon the state by the Eleventh Amendment, this action may fail against the individual defendant named in the complaint because that defendant is entitled to immunity from personal liability for their official actions in the judicial system.
Finally, when conducting a screening review of a pro se complaint under 28 U.S.C. § 1915, a court may consider whether the complaint is barred under the applicable statute of limitations. As the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit recently explained when it affirmed the dismissal of a pro se complaint on statute of limitations grounds:
Civil rights claims are subject to the statute of limitations for personal injury actions of the pertinent state. Thus, Pennsylvania's two year statutory period applies to [these] claims. SeeLake v. Arnold, 232 F.3d 360, 368 (3d Cir.2000). The limitations period begins when the plaintiff knows or had reason to know of the injury forming the basis for the federal civil rights action. Gera v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, 256 Fed.Appx. 563, 564-65 (3d Cir.2007). Although we have not addressed the issue in a precedential decision, other courts have held that although the statute of limitations is an affirmative defense, district court may sua sponte dismiss a complaint under § 1915(e) where the defense is obvious from the complaint and no development of the factual record is required. SeeFogle v. Pierson, 435 F.3d 1252, 1258 (10th Cir.2006); see also Eriline Co. S.A. v. Johnson, 440 F.3d 648, 656-57 (4th Cir.2006) (citation omitted)(finding that a district court's screening authority under § 1915(e) "differentiates in forma pauperis suits from ordinary civil suits and justifies an exception to the general rule that a statute of limitations defense should not be raised and considered sua sponte.").
Smith v. Delaware County Court 260 F. App'x. 454, 455 (3d Cir. 2008); see also Jackson v. Fernandez, No. 08-5694, 2009 WL 233559 (D.N.J. Jan. 26, 2009); Hurst v. City of Dover, No. 04-83, 2008 WL 2421468 (D. Del. June 16, 2008). Applying these standards, the Court places the Plaintiff on notice that the allegations in the pro se complaint may be subject to dismissal on statute of limitations grounds. Specifically, this complaint, which alleges misconduct by government actors beginning in the 1980's up through on or after September 11, 2001, was first filed on June 9, 2010, more than two years after the events complained of by Concert. Therefore, the complaint appears to be time-barred by the two year statute of limitations generally applicable to civil rights matters.
It is well-settled that claims which are "cognizable under Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents of Fed. Bureau of Narcotics, 403 U.S. 388, 91 S.Ct. 1999, 29 L.Ed.2d 619 (1971), [are] subject to Pennsylvania's two-year statute of limitations for personal injury actions. SeeKost v. Kozakiewicz, 1 F.3d 176, 189-90 (3d Cir.1993) (citing 42 Pa. Cons.Stat. Ann. § 5524); Napier v. Thirty or More Unidentified Fed. Agents, Employees or Officers, 855 F.2d 1080, 1087 n. 3 (3d Cir.1988)." Gordon v. Pugh, 235 F. App'x. 51, 53 (3d Cir. 2007); Wilson v. Garcia, 471 U.S. 261, 266-67 (1985). In Pennsylvania, the statute of limitations for a personal injury action is two years. 42 Pa.C.S. § 5524. A cause of action accrues when the plaintiff knows or has reason to know of the injury that constitutes the basis of the cause of action. Sameric Corp. of Delaware, Inc. v. City of Philadelphia, 142 F.3d 582, 599 (3d Cir. 1998); see also Nelson v. County of Allegheny, 60 F.3d 1010 (3d Cir. 1995). Because Concert knew of his claimed injury at the time it was inflicted--in the 1980's--the continuing wrong theory and discovery doctrines, which extend the limitations period in some cases, do not apply. See Barnes v. American Tobacco Co., 161 F.3d 127, 154 (3d Cir. 1998) ("We understand Fowkes[v. Pennsylvania R.R. Co., 264 F.2d 397 (3d Cir. 1959)] to mean that continuing conduct of defendant will not stop the ticking of the limitations clock begun when plaintiff obtained requisite information. On discovering an injury and its cause, a claimant must choose to sue or forego that remedy.") (quoting Kichline v. Consolidated Rail Corp., 800 F. 2d 356, 360 (3d Cir. 1986)). See also Lake v. Arnold, 232 F.3d 360, 266-68 (3d Cir. 2000). Thus, in this case a straightforward application of the two-year statute of limitations seems to compel dismissal of this action as untimely At present, without the inclusion of some further well-pleaded factual allegations, the complaint contains little more than "[t]hreadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, [which as a legal matter] do not suffice." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, supra 127 S.Ct. at 1979. We recognize, however, that in civil rights cases pro se plaintiffs often should be afforded an opportunity to amend a complaint before the complaint is dismissed in its entirety, See Fletcher-Hardee Corp. v. Pote Concrete Contractors, 482 F.3d 247, 253 (3d Cir. 2007), unless granting further leave to amend would be futile or result in undue delay. Alston v. Parker, 363 F.3d 229, 235 (3d Cir. 2004). Since this pro se complaint may not contain sufficient factual recitals to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, the Plaintiff is placed on notice that these allegations may be subject to dismissal under Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. The Court will, however, provide the Plaintiff with an opportunity to correct this potential deficiency in the pro se complaint, and avoid the possible sanction of dismissal of claims. Accordingly, IT IS ORDERED that:
1. The Plaintiff is GRANTED leave to proceed in forma pauperis, but the Plaintiff is advised to file an amended complaint or otherwise respond to the deficiencies noted in this Order on or before July 6, 2010. If the Plaintiff fails to file an amended complaint or respond to these noted deficiencies by July 6, 2010, the Court will assume that the Plaintiff cannot provide further well-pleaded facts in support of this complaint, and will make appropriate recommendations regarding whether the complaint should be dismissed, in part, for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted.
2. The Clerk is directed to mail a copy of this Order to the Plaintiff.
Martin C. Carlson United States Magistrate Judge
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