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Wonsch v. Garner

United States District Court, W.D. Oklahoma

November 22, 2017

ROBERT V. WONSCH, Plaintiff,
DEPUTY GARNER, et al., Defendants.



         Plaintiff, Robert V. Wonsch, a pretrial detainee appearing pro se and in forma pauperis, brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging violations of his federal constitutional rights. The matter has been referred by United States District Judge Stephen P. Friot for initial proceedings consistent with 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B) and (C). For the reasons set forth below, it is recommended that the Amended Complaint [Doc. No. 54] be dismissed.[1]

         I. Background / Plaintiff's Claims for Relief

         Plaintiff's claims arise out of his pretrial detention at the Cleveland County Detention Center (CCDC).[2] He brings sixteen different claims for relief challenging various aspects of his confinement. As relief, Plaintiff seeks compensatory and punitive damages. He also seeks various forms of injunctive relief.

         Plaintiff names twenty-eight defendants and brings claims against them in their individual and/or official capacities. As discussed below, many of these defendants are immune from suit and Plaintiff's claims against them should be dismissed on that basis. Other defendants are not suable entities for purposes of § 1983. In addition, Plaintiff fails to state any plausible claims for § 1983 relief. And, pursuant to Younger, [3] the Court should abstain from the exercise of jurisdiction over any claims that pertain to Plaintiff's ongoing state criminal proceedings. Because Plaintiff's federal claims are subject to dismissal, the Court should decline to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over any state law claims.

         II. Screening of Complaint - Governing Standard

         Where, as here, a prisoner proceeds in forma pauperis, the court must dismiss the case if, at any time, the court determines the action is “frivolous or malicious” or “fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted.” 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B)(i)-(ii). A claim is frivolous under § 1915 if it “lacks an arguable basis either in law or fact.” Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319, 325 (1989).

         The court's review of a complaint under § 1915(e)(2)(B) mirrors that required by Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). The court must accept the plaintiff's allegations as true and construe them, and any reasonable inferences to be drawn from them, in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. See Kay v. Bemis, 500 F.3d 1214, 1217 (10th Cir. 2007). The court “review[s] the complaint for plausibility; that is, to determine whether the complaint includes enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Young v. Davis, 554 F.3d 1254, 1256 (10th Cir. 2009) (quotation omitted). “Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009).

         A pro se plaintiff's complaint must be broadly construed under this standard. See Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007); Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, 520 (1972). The generous construction to be given the pro se litigant's allegations “does not relieve the plaintiff of the burden of alleging sufficient facts on which a recognized legal claim could be based.” Hall v. Bellmon, 935 F.2d 1106, 1110 (10th Cir. 1991). The court “will not supply additional factual allegations to round out a plaintiff's complaint or construct a legal theory on a plaintiff's behalf.” Whitney v. New Mexico, 113 F.3d 1170, 1173-74 (10th Cir. 1997).

         In addition to these standards, the Tenth Circuit has made clear that “context matters” when determining the plausibility of the allegations of a complaint. Robbins v. Oklahoma, 519 F.3d 1242, 1248 (10th Cir. 2008). The requirements of Rule 8(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure are particularly important in the context of a § 1983 action involving multiple claims against multiple defendants. Id. at 1249. Thus, the complaint should “make clear exactly who is alleged to have done what to whom, to provide each individual with fair notice as to the basis of the claims against him or her.” Id. at 1250 (emphasis in original); see also Nasious v. Two Unknown B.I.C.E. Agents, 492 F.3d 1158, 1163 (10th Cir. 2007) (to comply with Rule 8, the allegations of the plaintiff's complaint should inform each defendant “what [he or she] did to [the plaintiff]; when the defendant did it; how the defendant's action harmed [the plaintiff]; and, what specific legal right the plaintiff believes the defendant violated”).

         III. Analysis

         A. Defendants Immune from Suit 1. Eleventh Amendment Immunity Bars Plaintiff's Claims Against the State of Oklahoma, OIDS and the OSBI

         Plaintiff brings § 1983 claims against the State of Oklahoma, the Oklahoma Indigent Defense System (OIDS), and the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation (OSBI). See Am.Compl. Ex. 1, at 2, 11-14, 17. Under Oklahoma law, the OSBI and OIDS are state agencies and therefore qualify as “arms of the state.” Rivard v. Bullard, No. CIV-14-762-M, 2014 WL 6641682, at *6, n.9 (W.D. Okla. Nov. 21, 2014) (“OIDS is a state agency funded ‘almost entirely' through annual appropriations by the Oklahoma Legislature.”); Okla. Stat. tit. 74, § 150.1 (establishing OSBI as a state agency).

         The Eleventh Amendment is a jurisdictional bar that precludes unconsented suits in federal court against a state and arms of the state. Peterson v. Martinez, 707 F.3d 1197, 1205 (10th Cir. 2013); see also Steadfast Ins. Co. v. Agric. Ins. Co., 507 F.3d 1250, 1256 (10th Cir. 2007) (state agencies entitled to Eleventh Amendment immunity). Eleventh Amendment immunity applies to both monetary and injunctive relief. See Higganbotham v. Oklahoma ex rel. Okla. Transp. Comm'n, 328 F.3d 638, 644 (10th Cir. 2003) (application to injunctive relief); Korgich v. Regents of N.M. Sch. of Mines, 582 F.2d 549, 551 (10th Cir. 1978) (application in case seeking monetary damages). While a state may waive the defense of sovereign immunity, the State of Oklahoma has not waived its sovereign immunity defense against § 1983 actions brought in federal district court cases. See Ramirez v. Okla. Dep't of Mental Health, 41 F.3d 584, 589 (10th Cir. 1994). Therefore, Plaintiff's § 1983 claims against the State of Oklahoma, OIDS, and the OSBI should be dismissed without prejudice on grounds of Eleventh Amendment immunity.

         2. Judicial Immunity Bars Plaintiff's Claims Against Defendant Schumacher

         Plaintiff brings claims against Tracy Schumacher, a former state district judge in Cleveland County, Oklahoma. Plaintiff claims Defendant Schumacher denied his “Open Records Request, ” see Am. Compl. Ex. 1, at 9, and has denied requests he has made for his “defense file and all discovery & evidence against him, ” see id. at 13. Because Plaintiff's claims against Defendant Schumacher arise out of acts taken by her in her judicial capacity, absolute judicial immunity bars those claims. See Whitesel v. Sengenberger, 222 F.3d 861, 867 (10th Cir. 2000) (a judge is entitled to absolute judicial immunity for actions taken within his or her judicial capacity); Hunt v. Bennett, 17 F.3d 1263, 1266 (10th Cir. 1994) (accord). Accordingly, Plaintiff's claims against Defendant Schumacher should be dismissed with prejudice.

         3. Prosecutorial Immunity Bars Plaintiff's Claims Against Defendants Mashburn and Puckett

         Plaintiff brings claims against Greg Mashburn and Lori Puckett, prosecutors employed by the Cleveland County District Attorney's Office. Plaintiff asserts that Mashburn and Puckett received, read, and used his medical records in his pending state-court criminal case in violation of the Fourth Amendment. Am. Compl. Ex. 1, at 17. Because Plaintiff sues these Defendants for actions taken in the course of his ongoing state criminal proceedings, Defendants are entitled to prosecutorial immunity. See Nielander v. Bd. of Cty. Comm'rs., 582 F.3d 1155, 1164 (10th Cir.2009) (“Prosecutors are entitled to absolute immunity for their decisions to prosecute, their investigatory or evidence-gathering actions, their evaluation of evidence, their determination of whether probable cause exists, and their determination of what information to show the court.”)(citing Imbler v. Pachtman, 424 U.S. 409, 430-31 (1976)); see also Buckley v. Fitzsimmons, 509 U.S. 259, 273 (1993) (“[A]cts . . . which occur in the court of [the prosecutor's] role as an advocate for the State . . . are entitled to the protections of absolute immunity.”). Therefore, Plaintiff's claims against Defendants Mashburn and Puckett should be dismissed with prejudice.

         B. Defendant James Radford is not a State Actor for Purposes of Section 1983

         Plaintiff also sues his court-appointed public defender, James Radford. He claims Defendant Radford refuses to provide him with the “discovery evidence” the State has against him and refuses to subpoena evidence that Plaintiff has “demanded” since the beginning of his representation. See Am. Compl. Ex. 1, at 13. “[P]ublic defender[s] do[ ] not act under color of state law when performing a lawyer's traditional functions as counsel to a defendant in a criminal proceeding.” Harris v. Champion, 51 F.3d 901, 909 (10th Cir. 1995) (quoting Polk Cty. v. Dodson, 454 U.S. 312, 325 (1981)); see also Dunn v. Harper Cty, 520 F. App'x 723, 725-26 (10th Cir.2013) (“[I]t is well established that neither private attorneys nor public defenders act under color of state law for purposes of § 1983 when performing traditional functions as counsel to a criminal defendant.”). Thus, the claims against Defendant Radford should be dismissed with prejudice for failure to state a claim upon which § 1983 relief may be granted.

         C. Defendants Cleveland County Sheriff's Office, CCDC, Cleveland County Courthouse and, Cleveland County Clerk's Office are Not Suable Entities Under Section 1983

         Plaintiff has also asserted § 1983 claims against the Cleveland County Sheriff's Office, the CCDC, the Cleveland County Courthouse, and the Cleveland County Court Clerk's Office. See Am. Compl. Ex. 1, at 1-7, 10-14. These entities are not suable entities under § 1983. See e.g. Reid v. Hamby, No. 95-7142, 1997 WL 537909 at *6 (10th Cir. Sept. 2, 1997) (unpublished) (Oklahoma sheriff's department is not a proper entity for purposes of a § 1983 suit); Aston v. Cunningham, No. 99-4156, 2000 WL 796086 at *4 n.3 (10th Cir. June 21, 2000) (unpublished) (affirming dismissal of county jail as defendant in prisoner's § 1983 action on basis that “a detention facility is not a person or legally created entity capable of being sued”); Reed v. Ottawa Cty. Sheriff's Dep't, No. 10-CV-305-GKF-TLW, 2010 WL 5209260, at *1 (N.D. Okla. Dec. 16, 2010) (“The Ottawa County Court Clerk's Office . . . [is] also dismissed with prejudice because [it has] no independent legal identity.”); Blackwell v. Tulsa Dist. Courthouse, No. 13-CV-0757-CVE-FHM, 2013 WL 6191019, at *2 (N.D. Okla. Nov. 26, 2013) (noting “it is unlikely that [a] plaintiff could state a claim for alleged violations of constitutional rights against” a county courthouse).Therefore, Plaintiff's § 1983 claims against the Cleveland County Sheriff's Office, the CCDC, the Cleveland County Courthouse, and the Cleveland County Clerk's Office should be dismissed with prejudice.

         D. Claims Subject to Dismissal for Failure to State a Claim Upon Which Section 1983 Relief May be Granted

         Section 1983 “is not itself a source of substantive rights, but a method for vindicating federal rights elsewhere conferred by those parts of the United States Constitution and federal statutes that it describes.” Baker v. McCollan, 443 U.S. 137, 144 n.3 (1979). Thus, “[a]n important caveat to any § 1983 claim is that ‘the plaintiff must . . . prove a violation of [an] underlying constitutional right.'” Bird v. West Valley City, 832 F.3d 1188, 1208 (10th Cir. 2016) (quoting Daniels v. Williams, 474 U.S. 327, 330 (1986)).

         In addition, “[i]ndividual liability under § 1983 must be based on personal involvement in the alleged constitutional violation.” Gallagher v. Shelton, 587 F.3d 1063, 1069) (internal quotations marks and citation omitted). Indeed, “[p]ersonal participation is an essential allegation in a § 1983 claim.” Bennett v. Passic, 545 F.2d 1260, 1262-63 (10th Cir.1976). To the extent Plaintiff seeks to impose § 1983 liability on Cleveland County (whether through official capacity claims or by naming the Cleveland County Board of Commissioners), Plaintiff must identify a policy or custom that caused constitutional injury to him. See Dodds v. Richardson, 614 F.3d 1185, 1202 (10th Cir. 2010); see also Schneider v. City of Grand Junction Police Dep't, 717 F.3d 760, 770 (10th Cir. 2013) (“A challenged practice may be deemed an official policy or custom for § 1983 municipal-liability purposes if it is a formally promulgated policy, a well-settled custom or practice, a final decision by a municipal policymaker, or deliberately indifferent training or supervision.”).

         As discussed below, Plaintiff's claims against the remaining Defendants should be dismissed. Plaintiff fails to allege facts sufficient to state any plausible claim for § 1983 relief and/or has failed to allege facts identifying an individual defendant responsible for the alleged violations of his constitutional rights. Robbins, 519 F.3d at 1248. Nor has Plaintiff identified any policy or custom of the County sufficient to state a plausible claim for imposition of § 1983 liability.

         1. Claim One - Denial of Access to Grievance Procedures

         In Claim One, Plaintiff alleges that he was “never given a ‘verbal' explanation nor was [he] able to ask questions about the grievance procedure(s)” at CCDC. See Am. Compl. Ex. 1, at 1. He also claims he has been denied the right to appeal his grievances. Id. He seeks monetary damages and ...

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