IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE MIDDLE DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA
October 19, 2012
ROBERT J. CONWAY, DEFENDANT
The opinion of the court was delivered by: (Judge Munley)
On October 9, 2012, Plaintiff Ilya Boguslavsky (hereinafter
"plaintiff") filed the instant pro se civil rights complaint against
the Honorable Robert J. Conway (hereinafter "defendant"), a judge of
the Court of Common Pleas for Wayne County, Pennsylvania.*fn1
(Doc. 1, Compl. (hereinafter "Compl.")). Plaintiff seeks
relief in the form of a declaratory judgment that defendant violated
his constitutional rights by dismissing a state court civil action he
filed in 2006. For the reasons stated below, the court finds that
plaintiff's claims are absolutely devoid of merit and plainly
unsubstantial. Accordingly, the court will order the dismissal of this
action pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1).
This civil rights complaint arises from plaintiff's dissatisfaction with the outcome of his 2006 Wayne County Court of Common Pleas lawsuit against the Lake Watawga Property Owners Association (hereinafter "LWPOA").*fn3
(Compl. ¶¶ 9-10). Plaintiff's state court action sought a declaratory judgment and monetary relief.*fn4 (Id. ¶ 9). In July 2006, LWPOA filed preliminary objections to the complaint pursuant to Pennsylvania Rule of Civil Procedure 1017. (Id. ¶ 12). Plaintiff subsequently filed preliminary objections to LWPOA's preliminary objections. (Id. ¶ 16). Defendant, who was "[a]cting in his judicial capacity, . . . dismissed Plaintiff's civil action based on factual allegations contained in the pleading of his opposing party, without affording Plaintiff an opportunity to respond to these factual allegations."*fn5 (Id. ¶ 8).
Plaintiff moved for reconsideration of defendant's order dismissing the case on the basis that defendant had no authority to dismiss the case without first granting plaintiff an opportunity to "plead over." (Id. ¶ 21). Defendant "ignored" plaintiff's motion for reconsideration. (Id. ¶ 22). Plaintiff maintains that defendant erred in overruling his objections and granting LWPOA's objections without giving him an opportunity to "plead over." (Id. ¶¶ 17-18). Plaintiff specifically alleges that defendant "deprived Plaintiff of his basic procedural right to file a responsive pleading and disobeyed the rules of procedure. 'If the preliminary objections are overruled, the objecting party shall have the right to plead over within twenty days after the notice of the order . . . .' PA. R. C. P. 1028(d)." (Id. ¶ 18).
Plaintiff raised this same issue in a timely appeal to the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court. (Id. ¶ 23). In March 2010, the Commonwealth Court affirmed defendant's order dimsissing LWPOA.*fn6 (Id. ¶ 24; Doc. 1-3, Mem. dated Mar. 3, 2010). Plaintiff raised the issue of defendant's denial of his ability to "plead over" before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. (Compl. ¶ 25). On January 6, 2011, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court denied plaintiff's Petition for Allowance of Appeal. (Id. ¶ 26; Doc. 1-4, Order dated Jan. 6, 2011).
Plaintiff maintains in the instant action that defendant's order denying his objections, granting the LWPOA's objections and dismissing the case denied him of property without due process of law. (Compl. ¶¶ 29-31). Plaintiff's claim rests on his contention that defendant violated his procedural due process rights by not following the rules of civil procedure and state law. (Id. ¶ 32). Plaintiff seeks relief in the form of a declaratory judgment that defendant "violated Plaintiff's constitutional due process rights and has dismissed the civil action brought by Plaintiff without affording him [sic] full and fair opportunity to litigate." (Id. ¶ 37).
The court will sua sponte dismiss plaintiff's complaint. A federal court may sua sponte dismiss a complaint for lack of subject matter jurisdiction pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) when the complaint's allegations "are so attenuated and unsubstantial as to be absolutely devoid of merit, wholly insubstantial, obviously frivolous, plainly insubstantial, or no longer open to discussion." Hagans v. Lavine, 415 U.S. 528, 536-37 (1974) (internal citations and quotation marks omitted); Degrazia v. F.B.I., 316 F. App'x 172, 173 (3d Cir. 2009) (holding that the district court properly dismissed claims sua sponte under Rule 12(b)(1) when those claims met the Hagans standard).
Defendant is a Pennsylvania Court of Common Pleas judge and, as such,
claims against him for his judicial acts are barred by judicial
immunity. See Azubuko v. Royal, 443 F.3d 302, 303 (3d Cir. 2006) ("A
judicial officer in the performance of his duties has absolute
immunity from suit and will not be liable for his judicial acts."
(citing Mireles v. Waco, 502 U.S. 9, 12 (1991))). "'Few doctrines were
more solidly established at common law than the immunity of judges
from liability for damages for acts within their judicial
jurisdiction.'" Cleavinger v. Saxner, 474 U.S. 193, 199 (1985)
(quoting Pierson v. Ray, 386 U.S. 547, 553-54 (1967), overruled in
part on other
grounds by Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800 (1982)). "Judicial
immunity provides complete immunity from suit, not merely from an
ultimate assessment of damages." Smith v. Stark, 777 F. Supp. 2d 795,
801 (D. Del. 2011) (citing Mireles, 502 U.S. at 11 (1991)). "A judge
will not be deprived of immunity because the action he took was in
error, was done maliciously, or was in excess of his authority;
rather, he will be subject to liability only when he has acted in the
'clear absence of all jurisdiction.'" Stump v. Sparkman, 435 U.S. 349,
356-57 (1978) (citation omitted). Indeed the doctrine of judicial
immunity applies even to allegations of malice or judicial corruption.
See Pierson, 386 U.S. at 554.
Public policy supports the broad grant of judicial immunity found in federal precedent. The Supreme Court has recognized that although "unfairness and injustice to a litigant may result on occasion, 'it is a general principle of the highest importance to the proper administration of justice that judicial officer, in exercising the authority vested in him, shall be free to act upon his own convictions, without apprehension of personal consequences to himself.'" Mireles, 502 U.S. at 10 (quoting Bradley v. Fisher, 13 Wall. 335, 347 (1872)). As the Supreme Court explained, "[i]f judges were personally liable for erroneous decisions, the resulting avalanche of suits, most of them frivolous and vexatious, would provide powerful incentive for judges to avoid rendering decisions likely to provoke such suits." Forester v. White, 484 U.S. 219, 226 (1988).
Plaintiff, however, does not seek monetary damages from defendant; plaintiff seeks declaratory relief. The doctrine of judicial immunity does not prohibit all actions against judicial officers for declaratory relief. In 1996, Congress amended 42 U.S.C. § 1983 to provide that, "in any action brought against a judicial officer for an act or omission taken in such officer's judicial capacity, injunctive relief shall not be granted unless a declaratory decree was violated or declaratory relief was unavailable."*fn7 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (abrogating in part Pulliam v. Allen, 466 U.S. 522, 541-42 (1984) (holding that judicial immunity is not a bar to prospective injunctive relief against a judge acting in his or her judicial capacity)); see also Azubuko, 443 F.3d at 303-04 (citing 42 U.S.C. § 1983).
The 1996 amendment to Section 1983, however, does not alter case law
regarding the availability of declaratory relief against judicial
officers. Corliss v. O'Brien, 200 F. App'x 80, 84 (3d Cir. 2006)
(citing Brandon E. ex rel. Listenbee v. Reynolds, 201 F.3d 194, 197-98
(2000)). Congress has provided that, in certain situations, district
courts "may declare the rights and other legal relations of any
interested party seeking such declaration . . . ." 28 U.S.C. § 2201.
Declaratory judgment is an inappropriate remedy, however, if it is
used solely to adjudicate past conduct. See Corliss, 200 F. App'x at
84 (citing Gruntal & Co., Inc. v. Steinberg, 837 F. Supp. 85, 89 (D.N.J.
1993)). As such, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals has denied the
request for declaratory relief where the litigant "is not seeking
declaratory relief in the true legal sense." Id.
In Corliss, a pro se prisoner-plaintiff filed suit against several state court judges, in which he sought a declaration that the defendants violated his constitutional rights and Pennsylvania law. Id. at 83, 84 n.4. The Third Circuit held that the plaintiff's attempt to have a federal court "declare" that another judge violated his rights is not legally cognizable. Id. at 84. Other district courts sitting in the Third Judicial Circuit have similarly held that declaratory relief against a judge is unavailable when the plaintiff fails to ask for declaratory relief in the legal sense. See Vonderheide v. Berks Cnty., No. 12-23, 2012 WL 676979 (E.D. Pa. Mar. 1, 2012) ("[a]lthough declaratory relief against judicial officers may be available, from what this Court can discern, it does not appear Plaintiffs have pled legally cognizable claims for declaratory relief against the Judicial Defendants."); Rush v. Wiseman, No. 09-4385, 2010 WL 1705299, at *11 (E.D. Pa. Apr. 27, 2010) (finding that declaratory relief is unavailable when the plaintiff sought a declaration that a federal judge, while acting in her official capacity, conspired to violate the plaintiff's rights).
In the instant case, plaintiff seeks a declaration that defendant, a Pennsylvania Court of Common Pleas judge acting in his official capacity as a neutral arbiter, violated his due process rights by ruling against him in a civil lawsuit. Like the plaintiffs in Corliss, Rush and Vonderheide, plaintiff does not ask for a declaratory judgment in the legal sense. Plaintiff's claim for relief is wholly unsupported by the law, which consistently forbids collateral actions for declaratory relief when the constitutionality of a judicial officer's prior rulings are at issue. The allegations and claim for declaratory relief in plaintiff's complaint are, at best, specious. An examination of the complaint reveals that plaintiff's claims are absolutely devoid of merit and plainly unsubstantial. Accordingly, the court will sua sponte dismiss plaintiff's claims against defendant pursuant to Federal Rule of Procedure 12(b)(1) because the court lacks subject matter jurisdiction in light of the utter futility of proceeding with a case in which all issues are no longer open to discussion.*fn8
Moreover, the court notes that public policy favors sua sponte dismissal of the case. Although plaintiff seeks relief in the form of declaratory judgment and not money damages, the policy justifications for judicial immunity are nonetheless present because plaintiff's allegations center on defendant's official judicial conduct. The doctrine of judicial immunity would be undermined if a plaintiff were allowed to pursue a declaratory judgment action against a judge simply because that plaintiff believes the judge's prior rulings do not comport with the plaintiff's conception of the constitution. See Waris v. Frick, No. 06-5189, 2007 WL 954108, at *9 (E.D. Pa. Mar. 28, 2007) (dismissing claims for declaratory relief against judicial defendants and noting that "the purposes of judicial immunity and the limitations on injunctive relief in 42 U.S.C. § 1983 would be ill-served if judges routinely were forced to defend against declaratory judgment actions like this one.").
Additionally, the court would erode the doctrine of res judicata if plaintiffs were permitted to pursue actions for declaratory judgments against judges for their past judicial rulings. Such actions could easily devolve into a relitigation of the issues presented in the prior proceeding, in which the judicial officer is substituted for the adverse party from the prior proceeding. The threat of relitigating settled issues is readily apparent from the instant case, in which plaintiff raises "unanswered questions" and contends that neither the trial court nor the Commonwealth Court nor the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania adequately addressed them. (See Compl. ¶¶ 27, 36). Civil courts function to resolve disputes, and parties to a dispute and society at large benefit from the finality the court system offers. Our system of civil justice would quickly be transformed into a sisyphean nightmare if plaintiff's case and others like it were permitted to proceed. Rejecting plaintiff's complaint pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) serves to preserve the doctrinal underpinnings on which our system of civil justice rests. Conclusion
For the reasons stated above, the court will sua sponte dismiss plaintiff's complaint pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1). An appropriate order follows.
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE MIDDLE DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA ILYA
BOGUSLAVSKY, Plaintiff v. ROBERT J. CONWAY, Defendant
ORDER AND NOW, to wit, this 19th day of October 2012, Plaintiff Ilya Boguslavsky's complaint (Doc. 1) is hereby DISMISSED pursuant to Rule 12(b)(1) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. The Clerk of Court is directed to CLOSE this case.
BY THE COURT:
JUDGE JAMES M. MUNLEY United States District Court