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Cannon v. Smithart

United States District Court, M.D. Alabama, Northern Division

August 31, 2018

BRYAN D. CANNON, 300397, Plaintiff,
v.
L. BERNARD SMITHHART and RASHAWN F. HARRIS, Defendants.

          RECOMMENDATION OF THE MAGISTRATE JUDGE

          GRAY M. BORDEN, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         I. INTRODUCTION

         This 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action is pending before the court on a complaint filed by Bryan D. Cannon, an inmate confined at the Bullock Correctional Facility on a conviction for murder imposed upon him by the Circuit Court of Mobile County, Alabama.[1] Cannon names as defendants L. Bernard Smithhart, a judge for the Circuit Court of Bullock County, Alabama, and RaShawn F. Harris, the Circuit Clerk of Bullock County.

         In the complaint, Cannon complains that the defendants denied him access to the court, deprived him of due process, and denied him equal protection in processing his state petition for writ of habeas corpus.[2] Specifically, in support of his due process and access to court claims, Cannon argues that the defendants delayed service of the state habeas petition on the named respondent, Warden Michael Strickland, due to Strickland's change of address from Bullock to Ventress when the court should have served Strickland by “leav[ing] said petition at the place of [Cannon's] imprisonment with the person who has charge currently of the petitioner. The court [instead] redirected the Sheriff to another state prison[-Ventress-]where Petitioner is not imprisoned[.]” Doc. 1 at 15. Cannon also alleges that Ms. Harris failed to provide him certified copies of “documents from the court of any lawful actions [as] mandated by the [state] rules of court relative to all orders” issued, and that she only provided him courtesy copies of documents showing he had been granted leave to proceed in forma pauperis and Warden Strickland had not been served at Bullock. Doc. 1 at 13. Cannon maintains that the alleged failure to serve him copies of these documents deprived him of due process and violated his right to “equal protection of the law based on race as . . . said actions has an adverse effect on predominately black litigants as the ADOC houses predominately black convicted prisoners.” Doc. 1 at 13.[3] Finally, Cannon asserts that the defendants conspired to violate his due process rights and engaged in ex parte communications prohibited by state and federal law. Cannon seeks monetary damages, injunctive relief in the form of bail during the pendency of his state habeas proceedings, and issuance of a declaratory judgement against the defendants. Doc. 1 at 18-19.

         Upon review of the complaint, the court concludes that this case is due to be dismissed prior to service of process in accordance with the provisions of 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B)(i), (ii) and (iii).[4]

         II. DISCUSSION

         A. Judge L. Bernard Smithhart and Circuit Clerk RaShawn F. Harris

         Cannon alleges that Judge Smithhart violated his constitutional rights and acted in violation of state law and the Alabama Canons of Judicial Ethics when he issued orders to effectuate service of the state habeas petition on Warden Michael Strickland, allowed ex parte communications with the Clerk of the Court, and delayed “properly screening the writ, processing the writ and . . . determining the constitutionality of the judgment [of conviction challenged in] the petition.” Doc. 1 at 14. Cannon also argues that Ms. Harris acted in violation of state law and his constitutional rights when she followed the orders issued by Judge Smithhart regarding the manner in which to serve Warden Strickland. Doc. 1 at 15. In addition, Cannon maintains Ms. Harris denied him copies of orders and documents relevant to his pending state habeas action in violation of his equal protection rights due to his race because these actions “predominately [impact] black litigants as the ADOC houses predominately black convicted prisoners.” Doc. 1 at 13. The claims of constitutional violations by Judge Smithhart and Ms. Harris entitle Cannon to no relief in this cause of action.

         1. Judicial Immunity

         “[J]udicial immunity is an immunity from suit, not just from ultimate assessment of damages.” Mireles v. Waco, 502 U.S. 9, 11 (1991) (internal citation omitted). “Judges are entitled to absolute immunity from suits for acts performed while they are acting in their judicial capacity unless they acted in complete absence of all jurisdiction.” Allen v. Florida, Fed.Appx. 841, 843 (11th Cir. 2012). “A judge will not be deprived of immunity because the action he took was in error, was done maliciously, or was in excess of his authority; rather, he will be subject to liability only when he has acted in the clear absence of all jurisdiction.” Stump v. Sparkman, 435 U.S. 349, 356-57 (1978) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted); Mireles, 502 U.S. at 11 (holding that “[j]udicial immunity is not overcome by allegations of bad faith or malice”); Allen, 458 Fed.Appx. at 843 (same). “[T]he relevant inquiry is the nature and function of the act, not the act itself.” Mireles, 502 U.S. at 12 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). “This immunity applies to proceedings [brought] under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.” Wahl v. McIver, 773 F.2d 1169, 1172 (5th Cir. 1981).

         All of the allegations made by Cannon against Judge Smithhart emanate from actions taken in his judicial capacity during state-court proceedings over which he had jurisdiction. Judge Smithhart is absolutely immune from civil liability for acts taken pursuant to his judicial authority. Hyland v. Kolhage, 267 Fed.Appx. 836, 840-41 (11th Cir. 2008) (holding that because judge's “actions were taken within his judicial capacity and he did not act in the absence of all jurisdiction [in altering minutes of sentencing hearing after completion of such hearing], he was entitled to absolute judicial immunity”); Stump, 435 U.S. at 356 (holding that where judge was not acting in the “clear absence of all jurisdiction” he is entitled to immunity even if Plaintiff alleges the action taken was erroneous, malicious or without authority). Consequently, Cannon's claims against Judge Smithhart are “based on an indisputably meritless legal theory” and are therefore subject to summary dismissal in accordance with the provisions of 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B)(i) and (iii).

         To the extent Cannon seeks relief from Ms. Harris regarding service of the habeas petition and provision of copies of documents in accordance with orders issued by Judge Smithhart or standing rules of the circuit court, these claims are also barred by judicial immunity. See Erazo v. Macon-Bibb Cnty. Juvenile Ct., et al., 2017 WL 1854687, *4 (M.D. Ga., May 8, 2017). It is inherent that “[c]ourt clerks enjoy a narrower ambit of immunity than judges.” Hyland, 267 Fed.Appx. at 842 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). However, “[n]onjudicial officials have absolute immunity for their duties that are integrally related to the judicial process.” Jenkins v. Clerk of Ct., U.S. Dist. Court, So. Dist. of Fla., 150 Fed.Appx. 988, 990 (11th Cir. 2005). Cannon's claims against Harris are based on her attempting service of the habeas petition as ordered by Judge Smithhart and her alleged refusal to provide him copies of orders, documents, correspondence and docket entries entered in his habeas case. “Each of these actions constitutes an integral part of the judicial process and [Harris'] actions are protected by judicial immunity.” Erazo, 2017 WL 1854687 at *4; see Essell v. Carter, 450 Fed.Appx. 691, 691 (9th Cir. 2011) (holding that clerk of court is immune from suit for failure to respond to letter and file motions); In re Castillo, 297 F.3d 940, 951 (9th Cir. 2002) (holding that clerk of court is immune from suit for failure to give notice of hearing). In light of the foregoing, the claims against RaShawn Harris are due to be summarily dismissed pursuant to the directives of 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B)(i) and (iii).

         Furthermore, as discussed below, even if Cannon's access to court, due process, equal protection, ex parte, and conspiracy claims are not barred by judicial immunity, these claims fail to provide a basis for relief.

         2. Access to ...


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