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Culkin v. Kuhn

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

April 11, 2014

WAYNE CULKIN, Plaintiff,
v.
KAREN M. KUHN, ROSE M. KERN, JUDGE RALPH C. WARMAN, FAYETTE COUNTY COURT OF COMMON PLEAS, FAYETTE COUNTY PROTHONOTARY'S OFFICE Defendants.

MEMORANDUM OPINION ON DEFENDANTS' MOTIONS TO DISMISS ECF Nos. 30, 32, 35

LISA PUPO LENIHAN, Chief Magistrate Judge.

I. SUMMATION

The Defendants' Motions to Dismiss (ECF Nos. 30, 32 and 35) will be granted. Each of the Defendants - Fayette County Court of Common Pleas ("Court of Common Pleas"), Fayette County Prothonotary's Office ("Prothonotary's Office"), Judge Ralph C. Warman ("Judge Warman"), Fayette County District Court Administrator Karen M. Kuhn ("Kuhn"), and Fayette County Prothonotary Rose M. Kern ("Kern") - are immune from suit in accordance with the Eleventh Amendment to the United States Constitution, and/or are not "persons" subject to liability under § 1983, and/or hold judicial or quasi-judicial immunity in their official capacities, all as fully set forth in the Opinion below. Furthermore, given the undisputed facts of record, Plaintiff could maintain no plausible claim against Judge Warman, Kuhn or Kern in their individual capacities.

In that this Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction based upon the immunities, and/or given Plaintiff's factual inability to bring a plausible claim, leave to amend his Complaint for a third time would be futile. Accordingly, the Defendants' Motions to Dismiss will be granted.

II. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

On August 23, 2010, Plaintiff Wayne Culkin ("Culkin") filed a claim with the Prothonotary's Office for tortious interference with contract, fraud/negligence, and breach of contract. The claim named Corrections Cable Television, Friendship Cable of Texas, Inc., and the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections as Defendants (the "Cable Claim Defendants"). It was dismissed when Culkin failed to comply with the Local Rules for the Fayette County Court of Common Pleas. Specifically, he failed to provide a Certificate of Presentation and Motion to Court Administrator Kuhn as mandated by the Local Rules.[1]

On April 25, 2013, Culkin filed a Complaint in this Court (ECF No. 6), under Section 1983, alleging as grounds that Kuhn failed to schedule a hearing on his case; Kern failed to docket his petition; and Judge Warman failed to rule on his complaint. In consideration of his pro se status, and in light of the gross insufficiencies and inconsistencies in his Complaint as filed, the Court directed Plaintiff to either: a) amend his caption to substitute the Court of Common Pleas and Prothonotary's Office as Defendants; or b) add new or different allegations to the Complaint. See ECF No. 8 (Court Order). Plaintiff filed a Motion to Amend/Correct Complaint (ECF No. 10), which the Court granted and interpreted as a motion to amend part of the caption (ECF No. 11).

The Court of Common Pleas filed a Motion to Dismiss on August 5 (ECF No. 18), which was mooted when, on August 28, Culkin filed an Amended Complaint that added as additional Defendants Kern, Kuhn and Judge Warman (ECF No. 25). Culkin's claims are that these Defendants, through "gross negligence" in failing to schedule or rule on a hearing in his Fayette County case, denied his First Amendment right of "access to the courts" and his Fourteenth Amendment due process rights. He filed these claims pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983.

Judge Warman and Court Administrator Kuhn filed a Motion to Dismiss on September 11 (ECF No. 30). Prothonotary Kern and the Prothonotary's Office followed on September 12 (ECF No. 32), and the Court of Common Pleas followed on September 17 (ECF No. 35). Culkin responded to these Motions, with Affidavits and Objections/Rebuttals on September 18 (ECF No. 37), September 20 (ECF No. 39) and March 24, 2014 (ECF No. 46). This Court had referred his case to the Pro Se Prisoner Mediation Program on October 1, 2013, but the mediation ended without settlement on December 3, 2013 (ECF No. 43).

III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

Recently, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit aptly summarized the standard to be applied in deciding motions to dismiss filed pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6):

Under the "notice pleading" standard embodied in Rule 8 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, a plaintiff must come forward with "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief." As explicated in Ashcroft v. Iqbal , 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009), a claimant must state a "plausible" claim for relief, and "[a] claim has facial plausibility when the pleaded factual content allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Although "[f]actual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level, " Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly , 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007), a plaintiff "need only put forth allegations that raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence of the necessary element." Fowler, 578 F.3d at 213 (quotation marks and citations omitted); see also Covington v. Int'l Ass'n of Approved Basketball Officials , 710 F.3d 114, 117-18 (3d Cir.2013).

Thompson v. Real Estate Mortg. Network, ___ F.3d ___, 2014 WL 1317137, *2 (3d Cir. Apr. 3, 2014).

In addition to the Complaint itself, a court assessing a Motion to Dismiss may consider "matters incorporated by reference... items subject to judicial notice, matters of public record, orders, items appearing in the record of the case, and exhibits attached...." 5B Charles A. Wright & Arthur R. Miller, Federal Practice and Procedure § 1357 (3d ed. 2004); Buck v. Hampton Twp. Sch. Dist. , 452 F.3d 256, 260 (3d Cir. 2006).

Finally, pro se complaints, "however inartfully pleaded, " are held "to less stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers...." Haines v. Kerner , 404 U.S. 519, 520 (1972).

IV. ANALYSIS

A. Eleventh Amendment Immunity, "Person" Under Section 1983, and Judicial or Quasi-Judicial Immunity

1. Court of Common Pleas

The Court of Common Pleas is immune from Culkin's § 1983 claim under the Eleventh Amendment which states 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 United States by Citizens of another State...." U.S. Const. amend. XI. This prohibition extends to lawsuits by a state's own citizens and "applies regardless of the nature of the relief sought." In re State of New York , 256 U.S. 490, 497 (1921); Pennhurst State Sch. & Hosp. v. Haldeman , 465 U.S. 89, 100 (1984). An "arm of the State" is also immune. Mt. Healthy City Sch. Dist. Bd. of Educ. v. Doyle , 429 U.S. 274, 280 (1977); Pennhurst, 485 U.S. at 100 (holding that "a suit in which the State or one of its agencies or departments is named as the defendant is proscribed by the Eleventh Amendment") (emphasis added).

Although Congress may abrogate immunity and states may consent to lawsuits, neither of these potential limitations applies to Culkin's case. First, the U.S. Supreme Court has expressly held that "Congress, in passing § 1983, had no intention to disturb... Eleventh Amendment immunity...." Will v. Mich. Dep't of State Police , 491 U.S. 58, 66 (1989). Second, while Pennsylvania's Constitution acknowledges that "[s]uits may be brought against the Commonwealth... in such cases as the Legislature may by law direct, "[2] state statutory law states that "[n]othing... shall be construed to waive the immunity of the Commonwealth from suit in Federal courts guaranteed by the Eleventh Amendment...." 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 8521(b).

The Court of Common Pleas is immune as an arm of the Commonwealth. Under Callahan v. City of Philadelphia , 207 F.3d 668, 672 (3d Cir. 2000), "courts and agencies of the unified judicial system... are state rather than local agencies." More recently, in Benn v. First Judicial District , 426 F.3d 233, 241 (3d Cir. 2005), the Third Circuit expressly held that Pennsylvania's Courts are state entities entitled to Eleventh Amendment immunity. This immunity is applicable to Section 1983 claims. See Chilcott v. Erie Co. Domestic Relations , 283 Fed.Appx. 8, 10 (3d Cir. 2008).[3]

This Court further observes that the Court of Common Pleas is not a "person" under 42 U.S.C.A. § 1983, which definition excludes a "judicial district". See Callahan , 207 F.3d at 669, 673. As noted above, the Court of Common Pleas is part of a judicial district, and the "district courts repeatedly have held that all components of the judicial branch of the Pennsylvania government... are not persons for section 1983 purposes." Id. at 674.

Accordingly, Section 1983 cannot here give rise to a claim of liability by Plaintiff against the Court of Common Pleas, and such claims must be dismissed.

2. Judge Warman

Judge Warman is accorded both Eleventh Amendment immunity and judicial immunity in his official capacity, and he is not a "person" under § 1983 in that capacity.

First, when a state official is sued in his official capacity, the real party in interest is the government office of which he is an agent. Hafer v. Melo , 502 U.S. 21, 26 (1991). Accordingly, a lawsuit against Judge Warman in his official capacity is actually a lawsuit against the Court of Common Pleas barred by the Eleventh Amendment. See Conklin v. Anthou , 495 F.Appx. 257, 263 (3d Cir. 2012) (holding that the Eleventh Amendment barred claims against several judges because "claims against the defendants in their official capacities... are in essence claims against the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania...."). For these same reasons, Judge Warman is not, for purposes of liability under Section 1983, a "person" in his official capacity

Second, judges are immune from liability in civil actions, including Section 1983 actions, for their judicial acts. Bradley v. Fisher , 80 U.S. 335, 351 (1871); Dennis v. Sparks , 449 U.S. 24, 27 (1980). A judge is liable only for non-judicial acts or acts as to which he or she was completely without jurisdiction. Mireles v. Waco , 502 U.S. 9, 11-12 (1991). Courts of Common Pleas have original jurisdiction over nearly all actions and proceedings in Pennsylvania, 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 931(a), and Judge Warman had jurisdiction over Culkin's 2010 civil claim. Deciding whether to let a Complaint go forward in court is certainly "a function normally performed by a judge." Mireles , 502 U.S. at 12. Thus, no exception to Judge Warman's judicial immunity applies.

Any claim against Judge Warman in his official capacity must therefore also be dismissed.

3. Court Administrator Karen Kuhn

Similarly, Kuhn has the protection of Eleventh Amendment immunity and quasi-judicial immunity in her official capacity, and is not a "person" for § 1983 purposes in that capacity. More specifically, court administrators in Pennsylvania are "included within the State judicial personnel system, " 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 1905(a), and the courts have held that such administrators are entitled to Eleventh Amendment immunity. See, e.g., Conklin , 495 F.Appx. at 263; Ball v. Hartman , 2010 WL 146319, at *6-7 (M.D. Pa. Jan. 11, 2010); see also Zabriskie v. Ct. Admin. , 172 F.Appx. 906, 907-09 (11th Cir. 2006). Quasi-judicial immunity covers those who "perform functions closely associated with the judicial process, " Cleavinger v. Samaar , 474 U.S. 193, 200 (1985), and whose functions are "so integral or intertwined with the judicial process that these persons are considered an arm of the judicial officer who is immune." Bush v. Rauch , 38 F.3d 842, 847 (6th Cir. 1994) (extending quasi-judicial immunity to court administrator considered to be "acting as an arm of the court"). See Wright v. Omembo, No. Civ.A.99-4778, 2000 WL 1521567, at *1, *4 (E.D. Pa. 2000) (holding that Court of Common Pleas administrator has quasi-judicial immunity for actions such as scheduling status conferences). Kuhn's responsibility for scheduling, in accordance with the Rules governing proceedings in the Court of Common Pleas, hearings over which a judge will preside are clearly "integral or intertwined with the judicial process"; she therefore has quasi-judicial immunity and is not a "person" under § 1983. See Indep. Enters., Inc. v. Pittsburgh Water & Sewer Auth. , 103 F.3d 1165, 1174 (3d Cir. 1997).

Any claim against Kuhn in her official capacity must therefore be dismissed.

4. Kern and the Prothonotary's Office

Culkin also has no valid claim against the Prothonotary's Office because Pennsylvania statutory law provides that "there shall be one prothonotary for the court of common pleas" in every Pennsylvania county, 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 2731(a), and each prothonotary has "authority... as an officer of the court." 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 2737(5). The Prothonotary's Office (and thus the Prothonotary in her official capacity) is part of the Fayette County Court of Common Pleas ( i.e. , a part of the judicial system and therefore an "arm of the state") and is not a "person" under § 1983. See discussion, supra .

Moreover, as with the Court Administrator, quasi-judicial immunity protects Kern, as Prothonotary, from suit. In Lockhart v. Hoenstine , 411 F.2d 455, 460 (3d Cir. 1969), the Third Circuit spoke of the "recognized immunity enjoyed by judicial and quasijudicial officers, including prothonotaries...." It then held that a prothonotary was quasi-judicially immune for an action he took "at the direction of the court...." Id. at 460. Kern acted "at the direction of the court" when she docketed Culkin's pleadings according to the Court procedures of the Fayette County Local Rules codified by Court of Common Pleas judges. See Brief in Support of Motion to Dismiss by the Prothonotary at 7.[4]

Any claim against the Prothonotary's Office or the Prothonotary in her official capacity must therefore be dismissed.

B. Failure to State an Individual Capacity Claim

To the extent Plaintiff's bare-bones Amended Complaint intends to allege individual, as opposed to official, capacity liability against any Defendant, Culkin has not and cannot state a plausible claim upon which relief could be granted against Judge Warman, Kuhn or Kern in their individual capacities. It must be possible, under any set of facts which could be alleged under these circumstances, to reasonably conclude that these Defendants violated Culkin's Constitutional rights. In his Amended Complaint, Culkin claims lack of notice that Judge Warman has ruled on his 2010 civil complaint or that Kuhn had scheduled the complaint for a hearing (ECF No. 25, at p. 2). Culkin then insists that Judge Warman and Kuhn violated his First and Fourteenth Amendment rights by "gross negligence" and "grossly failing to act within the course and scope of their employment....'" (ECF No. 25, at pp. 2-3). As noted in Section II, supra, however, the evidence of record is clear that Culkin himself failed to adhere to the Local Rules of the Court of Common Pleas. There are simply no facts alleged in Culkin's Amended Complaint, or that could be alleged given the facts of evidence, which could enable a reasonable person to conclude that either Judge Warman or Kuhn violated Culkin's First or Fourteenth Amendment rights.

Plaintiff's Amended Complaint alleges even less as to Prothontary Kern. It describes her duties, but does not specifically attribute any rights violations to her. Moreover, there is evidence that Kern complied with her duties despite Plaintiff's contradictory complaints. Exhibit "A, " attached to the Complaint, is a copy of the Fayette County Court of Common Pleas docket showing that the necessary papers were docketed on August 23, 2010. See Brief in Support of Motion to Dismiss by Prothonotary at 7 (noting that "the docket attached to the Amended Complaint makes clear that the pleadings in question were docketed").

Any claim against Judge Warman, District Court Administrator Kuhn, and Prothonotary Kern in their individual capacities must therefore be dismissed.

V. FUTILITY OF FURTHER AMENDMENT

Finally, amendment of this Complaint for a third time would clearly be futile. As noted supra , Culkin has not alleged, nor under any plausible facts consistent with the evidence of record could he allege, "deprivation of a constitutional right...." Abulkhair v. Liberty Mut. Ins. Co. , 441 F.Appx. 927, 930 (3d Cir. 2011). In light of the legal defenses set forth above, including diverse grounds for immunity, Culkin cannot state a claim upon which relief can be granted. See Shane v. Fauver , 213 F.3d 113, 115 (3d Cir. 2000). There is therefore appropriate basis for dismissal of his in forma pauperis , pro se claim at this juncture. See also Brief in Support of Motion to Dismiss by Court of Common Pleas at 8 (noting that further amendment would be futile where Court lacks subject-matter jurisdiction and in light of other defenses) (citing Alston v. Parker , 363 F.3d 229, 235 (3d Cir. 2004); Miklavic v. U.S. Air, Inc. , 21 F.3d 551, 557-58 (3d Cir. 1994)).

VI. CONCLUSION

Accordingly, for the above reasons, Defendants' Motions to Dismiss (ECF Nos. 30, 32 and 35) will be granted.


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