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Coulter v. Bissoon

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

July 5, 2017

JEAN COULTER, Plaintiff,
v.
HONORABLE CATHY BISSOON, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM

         The above-captioned case, filed December 19, 2016, has been assigned to the undersigned. (D.I. 3-1). The case was stayed on January 9, 2017, so that the "vexatious litigant" procedure established by an order of Judge Bissoon in Coulter v. Ramsden, Civ. Act. No. 12-1050, D.I. 33 (W.D. Pa. Dec. 18, 2012), and Coulter v. Mahood, Civ. Act. No. 12-1241, D.I. 20 (W.D. Pa. Dec. 18, 2012), could be followed. In relevant part, the order prohibits Plaintiff "from filing any additional civil actions related to or arising from the state court proceedings involving her criminal conviction for assaulting her minor child, and/or the subsequent termination of her parental rights." (Id. at p.6). The order was affirmed by the Third Circuit on August 1, 2013. (Case No. 13-1077).

         On February 8, 2017, 1 directed Plaintiff to show cause why this case should not be dismissed. (D.I. 4). On February 28, 2017, Plaintiff filed a Response to the order to show cause (D.I. 5) and an amended complaint.[1] (D.I. 6). In the Response, Plaintiff alleges that I have "join[ed] into the Civil and Criminal Conspiracies of [my] 'brethren.'" In the amended complaint, Plaintiff added me as a defendant.[2]

         The general background was previously summarized by the Court of Appeals:

Coulter pleaded nolo contendere to one count of aggravated assault on May 11, 2007 in the Butler County Court of Common Pleas.... The victim of the assault was Coulter's minor daughter. Coulter was sentenced by Judge William Shaffer to a term of imprisonment of 15-30 months. As a special condition of her probation, Coulter was precluded by Judge Shaffer from having any contact with her daughter. Coulter's parental rights were terminated on January 11, 2011 following a hearing in Orphans Court presided over by Judge Thomas Doerr .... Coulter was released from prison on January 25, 2010, after serving her maximum sentence, and began serving her term of probation.. .. [H]er probation [was set to] expire[] on or about January 25, 2013.

Coulter v. Studeny, 522 F.App'x 147, 148 n.l (3d Cir. 2013).

         In the order to show cause, I wrote, "This case appears to fall within the ambit of the prior order, as it appears to be completely based on allegations about how Plaintiffs previous litigation was handled." Plaintiff responds that the case is not within the scope of the prior order, because the instant case "is in no way 'related to' any State Court Case, either past or present." (D.I. 5 at p.3). Plaintiff cites "the Western District's own paper-work" as defining what is a related civil case. (Id.). She says the instant case is not related because it involves different parties, different time frames, and different locations.

         In reviewing the eight cases that led to the vexatious litigant order, I note that they were filed between September 19, 2011, and October 10, 2012. The Defendants in those cases were judges, law firms, lawyers, bar associations, prosecutors, probation and parole officers, and youth services workers. Judge Bissoon summarized these cases as "appear[ing] connected with state court proceedings involving Plaintiffs criminal conviction for assaulting her minor child, and/or the subsequent termination of her parental rights." Coulter v. Ramsden, Civil Action No. 12-1050, D.I. 33, at 4 (W.D. Pa. Dec. 18, 2012). I note that attorney Marie Milie Jones was counsel for some defendants in at least four of the eight cases. (W.D. Pa. Nos. 12-60, 12-338, 12-1050, 12-1241).

         Defendants in this case are three district judges, six Third Circuit judges, attorney Jones, and an unknown Clerk's Office employee. Notwithstanding the eleven Defendants, the allegations center on attorney Jones and Judge Bissoon. The amended complaint makes a number of factual allegations: (1) Judge Bissoon's vexatious litigant order is forbidden because it means that Plaintiffs cases are not randomly assigned (D.I. 6 at pp. 5-7)[3]; (2) Judge Bissoon's order was complied with by some individual in the Clerk's Office (id. at pp. 7-8); (3) at some time before December 2012, in an unnamed case, attorney Jones filed a "Sealed Adoption Record from the State Courts, without providing notification to the Federal Court's Clerk that the document must remain sealed by State Law" (id. at p. 8); (4) all of the judicial officers violated the Canons of the Judicial Code of Conduct 3.B. (5)[4] by not reporting Judge Bissoon's and attorney Jones' misconduct (id. at pp. 10, 11-12, 14-17); and (5) Judge Bissoon released some information from the "Sealed Adoption Record" in her December 18, 2012 order (id. at pp. 10-11).

         Pretty clearly, Plaintiff is the prototype of a vexatious litigant, and this lawsuit fits the pattern. Most of the Defendants are the federal judges who ruled against her in her earlier vexatious litigation, who are now sued on the theory that what they learned while judging her cases created disclosure obligations on them. She made a complaint to Judge McKee, he denied it, and she sues him. The Third Circuit affirmed the "vexatious litigant order, " and Plaintiff now attacks the order on a different ground. The Sealed Adoption Order is not only clearly "related to" the earlier proceedings, the claim that it was improperly placed in the record has been repeatedly alleged.

         Plaintiffs complaint is "related to" the earlier state court proceedings, as it challenges the actions of the participants in the federal litigation about the earlier state court proceedings. In particular, in regard to attorney Jones, the allegations against her are that she publicly filed a document, which should have been filed under seal. Although Plaintiff does not identify which document exactly this is supposed to be, it appears to be a memorandum opinion terminating Plaintiffs parental rights. It was at the heart of the state proceedings. Its use in the federal proceedings challenging the handling of the state proceedings is "related to" the state court proceedings. Thus, the allegations against attorney Jones and the unnamed Clerk's Office employee, per the vexatious litigant order, will be struck from the record. In my opinion, since all of the complaints against the judges are complaints that directly flow from the litigation about the earlier state court proceedings, I believe that they are properly struck also.

         Every Court has the inherent authority to manage the cases on its docket "with economy of time and effort for itself, for counsel, and for litigants. How this can best be done calls for the exercise of judgment, which must weigh competing interests and maintain an even balance." Landis v. N. Am. Co., 299 U.S. 248, 254-55 (1936). "[D]istrict courts have the inherent authority to manage their dockets and courtrooms with a view toward the efficient and expedient resolution of cases". Dietz v. Bouldin, 579 U.S.___, 136 S.Ct. 1885, 1892 (2016). Finally, the Court has broad discretion in deciding whether to dismiss an action with prejudice pursuant to its inherent authority to manage its docket. See Lee v. Krieg, 227 F.App'x 146, 148 (3d Cir. 2007) ("We reiterate that the court has broad discretion in deciding whether to dismiss an action with prejudice under Rule 41(b) or pursuant to its inherent authority to manage its docket."); see Sharkey v. Verizon New Jersey, Inc., 2014 WL 7336768, at *1 (D.N.J. Dec. 22, 2014) (due to the Court's inherent authority to manage its docket, the Court sua sponte dismisses Count Two of Plaintiffs Complaint).

         Because Plaintiff proceeds pro se, her pleading is liberally construed and her complaint, "however inartfully pleaded, must be held to less stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers." Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007) (citations omitted). Under Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a), a complaint must contain: "(1) a short and plain statement of the grounds for the court's jurisdiction ... (2) a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief; and (3) a demand for the relief sought, which may include relief in the alternative or different types of relief.". Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a). A well-pleaded complaint must contain more than mere labels and conclusions. See Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662 (2009); Bell Ail. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007). In addition, a plaintiff must plead facts sufficient to show that a claim has substantive plausibility. See Johnson v. City of Shelby, U.S., 135 S.Ct. 346, 347 (2014).

         When reviewing the sufficiency of a complaint, a court should follow a three-step process: (1) consider the elements necessary to state a claim; (2) identify allegations that are merely conclusions and therefore are not well-pleaded factual allegations; and (3) accept any well-pleaded factual allegations as true and determine whether they plausibly state a claim. See Connelly v. Lane Constr. Corp., 809 F.3d 780, 787 (3d Cir. 2016); Williams v. BASF Catalysts LLC, 765 F.3d 306, 315 (3d Cir. 2014). Deciding whether a claim is plausible will be a "context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 679 (2009).

         Assuming for the sake of argument that the amended complaint were not struck, it would still fail. It is frivolous and, indeed, malicious. Nine of the ten named defendants are judges, and the acts complained of are judicial acts. Since "[a] judicial officer in the performance of his duties has absolute immunity from suit and will not be liable for his judicial acts, " Azubuko v. Royal, 443 F.3d 302, 303 (3d Cir. 2006), the judicial Defendants are immune from suit and are not properly named as Defendants. Plaintiff argues that she is suing over administrative decisions, not judicial rulings, and that judges' administrative decisions are not judicial acts. The law is not so fine. Issuing opinions, assigning cases, reviewing (and denying) misconduct complaints, see 28 U.S.C. ยง 352, and reporting (or not reporting) lawyers and/or ...


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