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Jasper Earl Sanders v. Erie County Courthouse

IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE WESTERN DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA


May 31, 2012

JASPER EARL SANDERS, PLAINTIFF ,
v.
ERIE COUNTY COURTHOUSE, ET AL.,
DEFENDANTS.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Magistrate Judge Baxter

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER*fn1

M.J. Susan Paradise Baxter

Procedural History

This action will be dismissed as legally frivolous in accordance with 28 U.S.C. §1915(e) and the motion for leave to proceed in forma pauperis [ECF No. 1] will be dismissed as moot.

On May 29, 2012, Plaintiff filed the instant action. At the time of the filing of the complaint, Plaintiff filed a motion for leave to proceed in forma pauperis, along with his institutional account statement from the Erie County Prison and an affidavit from the Deputy Warden indicating the authenticity of Plaintiff's account statement.

In his pro se complaint, Plaintiff names the following Defendants: Erie County Courthouse; Judge Shad Connelly; David Ungerman, Esquire, Public Defender; Elizabeth Hirz, Esquire, Chief Deputy District Attorney; and Nathaniel Strasser, Esquire, Assistant District Attorney. Plaintiff alleges that Defendants violated his constitutional rights by keeping him in the Erie County Prison for 229 days for a maximum sentence of 90 days on a parole violation. Plaintiff seeks monetary relief in the amount of one and one-half million dollars.

Standards of Review

1)The Prison Litigation Reform Act

On April 23, 1996, the Prison Litigation Reform Act (hereinafter, "Act"), Pub.L.No. 104-134, was enacted to amend 28 U.S.C. §1915, which establishes the criteria for allowing an action to proceed without payment of costs. Section 1915(e) as amended, states in relevant part: "The court shall dismiss the case at any time if the court determines that -- ...(B) the action or appeal --

(i) is frivolous or malicious; (ii) fails to state a claim on which relief may be granted..." A claim is frivolous if it: 1) is based upon an indisputably meritless legal theory and/or, 2) contains factual contentions that are clearly baseless. Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319, 327 (1989). A plaintiff has failed to allege a section 1983 claim if the court is satisfied "that no relief could be granted under any set of facts that could be proved consistent with the allegation." Hishon v. King & Spaulding, 467 U.S. 69, 73 (1984). This Court has discretion to dismiss frivolous or malicious in forma pauperis complaints under 28 U.S.C. § 1915(d). Wilson v. Rackmill, 878 F.2d 772, 774 (3d Cir. 1989). The U.S. Supreme Court has instructed that section 1915 provides the Court with the authority "... to dismiss a claim based on an indisputably meritless theory, but also the unusual power to pierce the veil of the complaint's factual allegations and dismiss those claims whose factual contentions are clearly baseless." Neitzke, 490 U.S. at 327. In fact, the statute not only empowers the court to screen out frivolous cases before the complaint is served, it actually encourages it. Roman v. Jeffes, 904 F.2d 192, 195-96 (3d Cir. 1990).

2)Pro Se Litigants

Pro se pleadings, "however inartfully pleaded," must be held to "less stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers." Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, 520-521 (1972). If the court can reasonably read pleadings to state a valid claim on which the litigant could prevail, it should do so despite failure to cite proper legal authority, confusion of legal theories, poor syntax and sentence construction, or litigant's unfamiliarity with pleading requirements. Boag v. MacDougall, 454 U.S. 364 (1982); United States ex rel. Montgomery v. Bierley, 141 F.2d 552, 555 (3d Cir. 1969)(petition prepared by a prisoner may be inartfully drawn and should be read "with a measure of tolerance"); Smith v. U.S. District Court, 956 F.2d 295 (D.C.Cir. 1992); Freeman v. Department of Corrections, 949 F.2d 360 (10th Cir. 1991). Under our liberal pleading rules, during the initial stages of litigation, a district court should construe all allegations in a complaint in favor of the complainant. Gibbs v. Roman, 116 F.3d 83 (3d Cir. 1997). See, e.g., Nami v. Fauver, 82 F.3d 63, 65 (3d Cir. 1996)(discussing Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6) standard); Markowitz v. Northeast Land Company, 906 F.2d 100, 103 (3d Cir. 1990)(same). Because Plaintiff is a pro se litigant, this Court will consider facts and make inferences where it is appropriate.

Analysis

Even liberally construing the factual allegations of the complaint, this action will be dismissed as frivolous.

1)Judicial Immunity - Erie County Courthouse*fn2 and Judge Shad Connelly

The actions of the Erie County Court, as well as Judge Shad Connelly, are insulated from liability by judicial immunity. Judicial immunity is an "immunity from suit, not just from an ultimate assessment of damages." Mireles v. Waco, 502 U.S. 9, 11 (1991). Judicial officers, such as Judge Connelly, are immune from damage suits arising out of their official duties. Stump v. Sparkman, 435 U.S. 349 (1978); Piskanin v. Hammer, 2005 WL 613644 (E.D.Pa., 2005) (applying judicial immunity to "district justice").*fn3 "A judge will not be deprived of immunity because the action he took was in error, was done maliciously, or was in excess of authority...." Sparkman 435 U.S. at 356. See also Benn v. First Judicial District, 426 F.3d 233 (3d Cir. 2005) (applying Eleventh Amendment immunity to courts). See also Seigert v. Gilley, 500 U.S. 226, 231 (1991) ("One of the purposes of immunity, absolute or qualified, is to spare a defendant not only unwarranted liability, but unwarranted demands customarily imposed upon those defending a long drawn out lawsuit."); In Re Montgomery County, 215 F.3d 367, 373 (3d Cir. 2000) ("Absolute immunity creates not only protection from liability, but also a right not to stand trial.").

"A judge will not be deprived of immunity because the action he took was in error, was done maliciously, or was in excess of authority...." Sparkman, 435 U.S. at 356. However, judicial immunity may be overcome when: (i) the challenged actions were not taken in the judge's judicial capacity; or (ii) the challenged actions, "though judicial in nature, were taken in the complete absence of all jurisdiction." Mireles, 502 U.S. at 11-12.

In this case, Plaintiff does not allege that the challenged actions of the Erie County Court or Judge Connelly were taken outside of the judicial capacity and were done without authority.

2)Prosecutorial Immunity-- Assistant District Attorneys Hirz and Strasser

A prosecuting attorney acting in a quasi-judicial role is relieved from liability for acts "intimately associated with the judicial phase of the criminal process," to include "initiating a prosecution and . . . presenting the State's case." Yarris v. County of Delaware, 465 F.3d 129, 135 (3d Cir. 2006) quoting Imbler v. Pachtman, 424 U.S. 409 (1976). Even the "deliberate withholding of exculpatory information is included within the legitimate exercise of prosecutorial discretion." Yarris, 465 F.3d at 137, quoting Imbler, 424 U.S. at 431-32 n. 34. See also Smith v. Holtz, 210 F.3d 186, 199 n. 18 (3d Cir. 2000)(finding that a prosecutor's decision not to disclose exculpatory evidence to defendant's counsel was protected under absolute prosecutorial immunity). Accordingly, Defendants Strasser and Hirz cannot be liable as they are protected by prosecutorial immunity.

Additionally, Defendant Hirz cannot be liable under the theory of respondeat superior for the actions taken by the prosecuting district attorney (here, presumably Defendant Strasser) even if that attorney was under Defendant Hirz's supervision. It is well-settled law that respondeat superior is not an "appropriate theory" for asserting supervisory liability in a § 1983 civil rights action. See Monell v. New York City Dept. of Social Servs., 436 U.S. 658, 691 (1978). In order for an individual defendant to be found liable in a civil rights action, the individual "must have personal involvement in the alleged wrongdoing; liability cannot be predicated solely on the operation of respondeat superior." Evancho v. Fisher, 423 F.3d 347 (3d Cir. 2005). Plaintiff would need to allege that Defendant Hirz "[gave] personal direction or [had] actual knowledge [of] and acquiescence" in the alleged constitutional violation. Rode v. Dellarciprete, 845 F.2d 1195, 1207 (3d Cir. 1988). Plaintiff has not alleged any facts demonstrating that Defendant Hirz supervised the assigned district attorney or that Defendant Hirz had any personal involvement in the case. Therefore, Defendant Hirz cannot be liable based upon a theory of respondeat superior.

3)State Actor Requirement -- Ungerman*fn4

As an initial matter, in order to bring suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, a plaintiff must allege that a person acting under color of state law deprived him of his constitutional rights. Private attorneys, including public defenders, acting on behalf of their clients are not state actors, and therefore, cannot be held liable under § 1983. See Polk County v. Dodson, 454 U.S. 312, 325 (1991) (public defender not a state actor "when performing a lawyer's traditional functions as counsel to a defendant in a criminal proceeding"); Jordan v. Fox, Rothschild, O'Brien & Frankel, 787 F.Supp. 471, 475 (E.D. Pa. 1992) (attorneys are not state actors by virtue of status as officers of the court).

Plaintiff's allegations do not support a § 1983 claim against David Ungerman, Esquire. *fn5

While Plaintiff's allegations regarding his false imprisonment are serious, the individuals named as Defendants to this action are insulated from civil rights liability on such a claim. Consequently, this case will be dismissed as frivolous.

An appropriate Order follows.

IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE WESTERN DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA

JASPER EARL SANDERS, Plaintiff , v. ERIE COUNTY COURTHOUSE, et al., Defendants.

Civil Action No. 12-125 Erie

Magistrate Judge Baxter

ORDER

AND NOW, this 31st day of May, 2012;

IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that this action be dismissed as legally frivolous in accordance with 28 U.S.C. §1915(e) and the motion for leave to proceed in forma pauperis [ECF No. 1] will be dismissed as moot. The Clerk of Court is directed to close this case.

SUSAN PARADISE BAXTER United States Magistrate Judge


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