United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Northeastern Division
MADELINE HUGHES HAIKALA, District Judge.
On March 30, 2015, the Court entered a memorandum opinion and order that dismissed with prejudice Mr. O'Neal's conspiracy claims (Counts I and IV) against defendants Madison County Circuit Court Judge James P. Smith and attorneys Mark Hess and Robert Wood, Jr. (Doc. 65). The Court also dismissed without prejudice Mr. O'Neal's constitutional due process and Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) claims (Counts II and III) against Judge Smith. (Doc. 65). Consistent with the Court's March 30, 2015 memorandum opinion, Mr. O'Neal filed a motion for reinstatement of Counts II and III and for a ruling on the merits on Judge Smith's motion to dismiss these claims. (Doc. 66). The Court granted that motion on April 28, 2015. (Doc. 71). The Court traced the factual and procedural background of this action in its March 30, 2015 opinion. ( See Doc. 65, pp. 4-15). The Court will not repeat the discussion here. For purposes of this opinion, the Court incorporates the relevant facts as necessary to explain why Mr. O'Neal's third amended complaint fails to state a § 1983 due process claim or an ADA claim against Judge Smith.
I. RULE 12(b)(6) STANDARD
Pursuant to Rule 8(a)(2), a complaint must contain, "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief." Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). "Generally, to survive a [Rule 12(b)(6)] motion to dismiss and meet the requirement of Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2), a complaint need not contain detailed factual allegations, ' but rather only enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'" Maledy v. City of Enterprise, 2012 WL 1028176, *1 (M.D. Ala. March 2012) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555, 570 (2007)). "Specific facts are not necessary; the statement needs only give the defendant fair notice of what the... claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.'" Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 93 (2007) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555).
"Thus, the pleading standard set forth in Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8 evaluates the plausibility of the facts alleged, and the notice stemming from a complaint's allegations." Keene v. Prine, 477 Fed.Appx. 575, 583 (11th Cir. 2012). "Where those two requirements are met... the form of the complaint is not significant if it alleges facts upon which relief can be granted, even if it fails to categorize correctly the legal theory giving rise to the claim." Id.
This is particularly true with respect to pro se complaints. Courts must liberally construe pro se documents. Erickson, 551 U.S. at 94. "[A] pro se complaint, however inartfully pleaded, must be held to less stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers.'" Id. (quoting Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 106 (1976)); see also Tannenbaum v. United States, 148 F.3d 1262 (11th Cir. 1998) ("Pro se pleadings are held to a less stringent standard than pleadings drafted by attorneys and will, therefore, be liberally construed."). Cf. Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(e) ("Pleadings must be construed so as to do justice.").
When evaluating a motion to dismiss, the Court accepts the allegations contained in the plaintiff's complaint as true and construes them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. See Brophy v. Jinagbo Pharms. Inc., 781 F.3d 1296, 1301 (11th Cir. 2015).
In counts two and three of his third amended complaint, Mr. O'Neal alleges that Judge Smith denied him access to state court in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment and the ADA because Judge Smith would not allow Mr. O'Neal to appear by telephone at a hearing on Mr. O'Neal's state court post-judgment motions. (Doc. 25, pp. 14, 18). According to Mr. O'Neal, Judge Smith's November 26, 2013 order denying Mr. O'Neal's request to appear by telephone at the motion hearing compromised Mr. O'Neal's right to prosecute his lawsuit. (Doc. 25, p. 16, ¶ 50; Doc. 25, p. 19, ¶ 59). Mr. O'Neal asserts that Judge Smith denied the request to participate via telephone "to conceal motives for dismissing [the state] lawsuit." (Doc. 25, p. 17, ¶ 51; see also Doc. 25, p. 19, ¶ 60). Mr. O'Neal also contends that Judge Smith denied Mr. O'Neal's post-judgment motions because Mr. O'Neal did not physically appear at the December 12, 2013 hearing. (Doc. 25, p. 17, ¶ 53).
"Access to the courts is clearly a constitutional right, grounded in the First Amendment, the Article IV Privileges and Immunities Clause, the Fifth Amendment, and/or the Fourteenth Amendment." Chappell v. Rich, 340 F.3d 1279, 1282 (11th Cir. 2003) (citing Christopher v. Harbury, 536 U.S. 403, 415 n. 12 (2002)). Mr. O'Neal's constitutional argument regarding Judge Smith's denial of his motion to appear at the post-judgment motion hearing by telephone implicates the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. "At its core, due process reflects a fundamental value in our American constitutional system." Boddie v. Connecticut, 401 U.S. 371, 374 (1970). The concept of due process is central to "a regularized, orderly process of dispute settlement." Id. at 375. It enables us "to maintain an ordered society that is also just." Id.
Due process requires "at a minimum, that absent a countervailing state interest of overriding significance, persons forced to settle their claims of right and duty through the judicial process must be given a meaningful opportunity to be heard." Boddie, 401 U.S. at 377. "Due process does not, of course, require that the defendant in every civil case actually have a hearing on the merits." Id. at 378.
What the Constitution does require is an opportunity * * * granted at a meaningful time and in a meaningful manner, ' Armstrong v. Manzo, 380 U.S. 545, 552, 85 S.Ct. 1187, 1191, 14 L.Ed.2d 62 (1965) (emphasis added), for (a) hearing appropriate to the nature of the case, ' Mullane v. Central Hanover Bank & Trust Co., supra, 339 U.S. at 313, 70 S.Ct. at 657. The formality and procedural requisites for the hearing can vary, depending upon the importance of the interests involved and the nature of the subsequent proceedings.
Id. "[T]he right to a meaningful opportunity to be heard within the limits of practicality, must be protected against denial by particular laws that operate to jeopardize it for particular individuals." Boddie, 401 U.S. at 379-80; see also Goldberg v. Kelly, 397 U.S. 254, 267 (1970) (same).
On November 25, 2013, Mr. O'Neal filed two motions. The first motion asked Judge Smith to set aside the final order dismissing Mr. O'Neal's state court lawsuit. (Document 142 in Case 47-CV-2013-000074.00). The second motion requested an "opportunity to make a telephone appearance to argue... the Motion to Set Aside the 11/14/2013 Final Order, if necessary. Otherwise, Plaintiff fully relies upon pleadings submitted before the Court." (Doc. 143, p. 2 in Case 47-CV-2013-000074.00). On November 26, 2013, Judge Smith set Mr. O'Neal's motion to vacate or modify for a hearing on December 11, 2013 and denied Mr. O'Neal's request to attend the hearing by phone. (Document 144 and Document 146 in Case 47-CV-2013-000074.00). On December 2, 2013, Mr. O'Neal filed a motion to recuse Judge Smith. (Document 148 in Case 47-CV-2013-000074.00). On December 6, 2013, Judge Smith set Mr. O'Neal's motion to recuse for a hearing on December 11, 2013. (Document 153 in Case 47-CV-2013-000074.00). On December ...