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Smith v. Friel

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

July 10, 2019

WESTON SMITH, Plaintiff
v.
JOHN FRIEL, et al., Defendants

          MEMORANDUM

          MALACHY E. MANNION UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Pending before the court is the report and recommendation, (Doc. 4), of Judge Martin C. Carlson recommending that this civil rights action filed pro se by plaintiff Weston Smith, (Doc. 1), an inmate awaiting his criminal trial at the Cumberland County Prison, (“CCP”), be dismissed. After conditionally granting plaintiff leave to proceed in forma pauperis, Judge Carlson screened the complaint pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §1915(e)[1]. The screening performed by Judge Carlson was also under 28 U.S.C. §1915A.[2]

         On June 11, 2018, plaintiff filed objections to the report and recommendation. (Doc. 10). Plaintiff also filed two motions to proceed in forma pauperis. (Docs. 7 & 11). After having reviewed the record, the court will ADOPT the report and recommendation. Plaintiff's objections will be OVERRULED. Plaintiff's motions to proceed in forma pauperis will be GRANTED. The complaint will be DISMISSED.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         When objections are timely filed to the report and recommendation of a magistrate judge, the district court must review de novo those portions of the report to which objections are made. 28 U.S.C. §636(b)(1); Brown v. Astrue, 649 F.3d 193, 195 (3d Cir. 2011). Although the standard is de novo, the extent of review is committed to the sound discretion of the district judge, and the court may rely on the recommendations of the magistrate judge to the extent it deems proper. Rieder v. Apfel, 115 F.Supp.2d 496, 499 (M.D.Pa. 2000) (citing United States v. Raddatz, 447 U.S. 667, 676 (1980)).

         With respect to the portions of a report and recommendation to which no objections are made, the court should, as a matter of good practice, “satisfy itself that there is no clear error on the face of the record in order to accept the recommendation.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 72(b), advisory committee notes; see also Univac Dental Co. v. Dentsply Intern., Inc., 702 F.Supp.2d 465, 469 (M.D.Pa. 2010) (citing Henderson v. Carlson, 812 F.2d 874, 878 (3d Cir. 1987) (explaining judges should give some review to every report and recommendation)). Nevertheless, whether timely objections are made or not, the district court may accept, not accept, or modify, in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations made by the magistrate judge. 28 U.S.C. §636(b)(1); Local Rule 72.31.

         III. DISCUSSION

         Plaintiff names 12 defendants in his complaint, including the Cumberland County Commissioners. Plaintiff asserts that he is being illegally confined in the CCP for 30 months, and that his rights under the U.S. Constitution are being violated regarding the filing of the state criminal charges against him as well as his arrest and his prosecution. The criminal charges filed against plaintiff are still pending in Cumberland County Court.[3]Specifically, plaintiff alleges that a vast conspiracy exists involving the County Commissioners, the police, the County prosecutors, his defense counsel, and a magisterial district judge to deny him his constitutional rights regarding his pending criminal case. As the report states, “[plaintiff] seeks far-reaching injunctive and declaratory relief, including a court order directing a federal criminal investigation [by the Department of Justice] of the county criminal justice system, as well as millions of dollars in compensatory and punitive damages.”[4]

         Judge Carlson details six reasons in his report why plaintiff's complaint fails to state a cognizable claim and should be dismissed. Plaintiff challenges Judge Carlson's determinations in his objections. The court has reviewed both the report and the objections and finds that Judge Carlson correctly determined that plaintiff's complaint should be dismissed as to all claims.

         First, Judge Carlson finds that under the Younger abstention doctrine, this court should not intervene in plaintiff's pending state criminal case. In his objections, plaintiff contends that the County Court is biased and not competent to conduct his criminal trial since “[it] is engaged in a conspiracy to deprive criminal defendants of their constitutional rights for political and professional prestige and advancement and the enrichment of the county and its high officials ... .” Plaintiff also contends that he is not seeking to enjoin his County Court criminal trial and that the Younger abstention doctrine does not apply to damages claims or claims regarding alleged conspiracies with judges.

         As Judge Carlson thoroughly explains in his report, the Supreme Court has recognized “a strong policy against federal intervention in state judicial processes in the absence of great and immediate irreparable harm to a federal plaintiff.” Moore v. Sims, 442 U.S. 415, 423 (1979)(discussing the abstention doctrine articulated by the Supreme Court in Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37 (1971), and determining that it applies to civil, as well as criminal, proceedings). Application of the Younger doctrine to §1983 civil rights actions in which the plaintiff is challenging the pending state court criminal charges filed against him and is alleging that the initiation and prosecution in the ongoing underlying state court action “violated and continues to violate his constitutional rights” is appropriate. See Smithson v. Rizzo, 2015 WL 1636143, *4; Jaffery v. Atlantic County Prosecutor's Office, 695 Fed.Appx. 38 (3d Cir. 2017); Sprint Commc'ns, Inc. v. Jacobs, 571 U.S. 69, 134 S.Ct. 584, 588 (2013) (“When there is a parallel, pending state criminal proceeding, federal courts must refrain from enjoining the state prosecution.”); Miles v. Zech, 2018 WL 3207381 (M.D.Pa. June 29, 2018). Judge Carlson correctly finds that the criteria for Younger abstention are met in this case.

         Additionally, plaintiff has not demonstrated that he is unable to raise his federal claims against the Cumberland County justice system in his state court criminal proceeding and, if convicted, in the state appellate courts. “[O]rdinarily a pending state prosecution provides the accused a fair and sufficient opportunity for vindication of federal constitutional rights.” Jaffery, 695 Fed.Appx. at 41 (quoting Kugler v. Helfant, 421 U.S. 117, 124 (1975)). Here, as in the Jaffery case, “[plaintiff] has not shown the state court is ‘incapable of fairly and fully adjudicating the federal issues,' as most of the charges against [plaintiff] have not been tried, nor has [plaintiff] exhausted his state rights of appeal.” Id. (internal citation omitted). See also Kugler, 421 U.S. at 124 (The Supreme Court stated that “[t]he policy of equitable restraint expressed in Younger v. Harris, in short, is founded on the premise that ordinarily a pending state prosecution provides the accused a fair and sufficient opportunity for vindication of federal constitutional rights.”). Nor has plaintiff shown that “state law raises procedural barriers to the presentation of [his] federal challenges.” Gonzalez v. Waterfront Comm'n of N.Y. Harbor, 755 F.3d 176, 184 (3d Cir. 2014).

         Plaintiff states that the Younger abstention doctrine does not apply to damages claims. No. doubt that courts have found that the application of the Younger abstention doctrine is not appropriate in federal cases seeking only to obtain money damages for alleged violations of rights under §1983. See Jones v. County of Westchester, 678 Fed.Appx. 48, 50 (2d Cir. 2017). However, this is not a suit for money damages alone. As indicated, plaintiff is seeking injunctive and declaratory relief as well as money damages. In fact, Judge Carlson only recommends that the court should abstain under Younger from addressing plaintiff's requests for injunctive relief and that it should dismiss these requests. Also, “where a state court can address a plaintiff's causes of action, a federal court should abstain [under the Younger abstention doctrine] and dismiss the case even if the plaintiff requests monetary damages in addition to injunctive relief from the state court proceeding.” Gerhardt v. Mares, 179 F.Supp.3d 1006, 1047 (D.N.M. 2016).

         Further, as Judge Carlson explains in his report, plaintiff's claim for money damages are precluded based on grounds other than the Younger abstention doctrine, including Heck ...


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