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Williams v. Howell

United States District Court, S.D. Alabama, Southern Division

June 20, 2019

PAIGE HOWELL, et al., Defendants.



         Plaintiff Keith Lamar Williams filed a pro se complaint seeking relief under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (Doc. 1), a motion to proceed without the prepayment of fees (Doc. 2), and a motion for appointment of counsel (Doc. 3). This action has been referred to the undersigned Magistrate Judge for appropriate action pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B) and S.D. Ala. GenLR 72(a)(2)(R). After careful review, it is recommended that pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B)(ii), this action be dismissed with prejudice for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted.

         I. STANDARDS OF REVIEW UNDER 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B).

         Because Williams is seeking to proceed in forma pauperis, the Court is reviewing his complaint (Doc. 1) under 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B).[1] Under § 1915(e)(2)(B)(i), a claim may be dismissed as “frivolous where it lacks an arguable basis either in law or fact.” Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319, 325 (1989). A claim is frivolous as a matter of law where, inter alia, the defendants are immune from suit, or when the claim seeks to enforce a right that clearly does not exist. Id. at 327. Section 1915(e)(2)(B)(ii) “directs the district court to dismiss the complaint of any plaintiff proceeding in forma pauperis if the court determines that the complaint “fails to state a claim on which relief may be granted[.]” Brown v. Johnson, 387 F.3d 1344, 1347 (11th Cir. 2004) (quoting 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B)(ii)). A complaint may be dismissed for failure to state a claim when, assuming the truth of the factual allegations of the plaintiff's complaint, there is a dispositive legal issue which precludes relief. Neitzke, 490 U.S. at 326. Moreover, a complaint must contain specific factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim for relief that is plausible on its face and to suggest the required elements of the claim. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009); Watts v. Florida Int'l Univ., 495 F.3d 1289, 1296 (11th Cir. 2007). Under § 1915(e)(2)(B)(iii), a claim may be dismissed when it “seeks monetary relief against a defendant who is immune from such relief.” 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B)(iii).

         When considering a pro se litigant's allegations, a court gives them a liberal construction, holding them to a more lenient standard than those drafted by an attorney. Tannenbaum v. United States, 148 F.3d 1262, 1263 (11th Cir. 1998). However, even in the case of pro se litigants, the court does not have “license to . . . rewrite an otherwise deficient pleading in order to sustain an action.” GJR Invs., Inc. v. Cnty. of Escambia, Fla., 132 F.3d 1359, 1369 (11th Cir. 1998) (citations omitted), overruled on other grounds by Randall v. Scott, 610 F.3d 701, 709 (11th Cir. 2010). Moreover, a court treats a plaintiff's factual allegations as true, but a court is not required to accept conclusory assertions or formulaic recitations of a cause of action's elements. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 681. Further, a pro se litigant “is subject to the relevant law and rules of court, including the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.” Moon v. Newsome, 863 F.2d 835, 837 (11th Cir. 1989), cert. denied, 493 U.S. 863 (1989).

         II. DISCUSSION.

         A. Plaintiff's Complaint.

         As an initial matter, the Court recognizes that, although Williams filed his complaint on an outdated Court form for § 1983 prisoner actions, Williams was not a prisoner at the time he filed this action. Williams asserts claims against Defendants Paige Howard, Scott Walden, Stephen Billy and Bradley E. Byrne arising out of state criminal charges that were filed against him in 2011 and were then nolle prossed in September 2012. In his complaint, Williams alleges that on July 22, 2011, Defendant Paige Howell falsely and maliciously alleged that Williams sold a controlled substance to an informant and was in possession of controlled substances and drug paraphernalia, in order to obtain an arrest warrant for Williams. (Doc. 1 at 4-5). Williams contends that as a result of these allegations, he was arrested in July 2011 “on criminal charges that was not supported by probable cause.” (Id. at 5). As best the Court can discern, Williams appears to assert that Defendant Stephen Billy, the Escambia County, Alabama District Attorney, presented the false information provided by Howell to the grand jury in order to obtain an indictment, despite allegedly knowing the information was false. (See id. at 5-6). Williams also names as a Defendant Escambia County Circuit Judge Bradley E. Byrne and alleges that Judge Byrne “sign[ed] off” on the false information presented to the grand jury.[2] (Id.).

         Williams makes a number of § 1983 claims, with varying degrees of specificity. He asserts violations of the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution. (Id. at 5). To obtain relief under § 1983, Williams must show that he was deprived of a federal right by a person acting under color of state law. Patrick v. Floyd Medical Ctr., 201 F.3d 1313, 1315 (11th Cir. 2000). This requires “both an alleged constitutional deprivation ‘caused by the exercise of some right or privilege created by the State or by a rule of conduct imposed by the State or by a person for whom the State is responsible,' and that ‘the party charged with the deprivation must be a person who may fairly be said to be a state actor.'” Id. (quoting Am. Mfrs. Mut. Ins. Co. v. Sullivan, 526 U.S. 40, 50 (1999)) (emphasis in original).

         B. Judge Byrne is Entitled to Absolute 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) (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, 458 Fed.Appx. 841, 843 (11th Cir. 2012) (quoting Mireles, 502 U.S. at 12). “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); see Mireles, 502 U.S. at 11 (holding that “judicial 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 13 (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 (11th Cir. 1985).

         In this case, Williams makes no allegation that Judge Byrne acted in the “clear absence of all jurisdiction.” See Allen, 458 Fed.Appx. at 843. Thus, the Court must determine whether Judge Bryne's actions were taken in his judicial capacity, that is, actions of the type normally performed by judges. See Stump, 435 U.S. at 360-62. As noted supra, Williams contends that Judge Byrne “sign[ed] off” on the false information presented to the grand jury. (Doc. 1 at 6). Williams provides no details to suggest that the challenged actions were not of the type normally performed by judges, i.e., conducting criminal proceedings and presiding over a criminal trial. Rather, as noted supra, Williams takes issue with the manner in which Judge Byrne handled his criminal proceedings. “Disagreement with the action taken by the judge, however, does not justify depriving that judge of his immunity.” Stump, 435 U.S. at 363. Because Williams' allegations against Judge Byrne clearly arise from actions allegedly taken by him in his judicial capacity during Williams' criminal court proceedings, over which Judge Byrne clearly had jurisdiction, Judge Byrne is absolutely immune from civil liability for acts taken pursuant to his judicial authority. See 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 judicial immunity”); Stump, 435 U.S. at 356-57 (holding that where judge was not acting in the “clear absence of all jurisdiction, ” he was entitled to immunity even if Plaintiff alleged that the action taken was erroneous, malicious, or without authority). Consequently, Williams' claims against Judge Byrne 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). See Neitzke, 490 U.S. at 327.

         C. The Prosecutor is Entitled to Immunity.

         Williams' claims against Stephen Billy, the Escambia County prosecutor, should also be dismissed, because Billy's role as a prosecutor entitles him to immunity. “A prosecutor is immune from liability under § 1983 for his actions ‘in initiating a prosecution and in presenting the State's case,' and for actions that are ‘intimately associated with the judicial phase of the criminal process.'” Mikko v. City of Atlanta, Ga., 857 F.3d 1136, 1142 (11th Cir. 2017) (quoting Imbler v. Pachtman, 424 U.S. 409, 430-31 (1976)). This absolute immunity shields prosecutors from liability for “actions taken . . . in their role as advocates[.]” Rehberg v. Paulk, 566 U.S. 356, 363 (2012). “The prosecutorial function includes the initiation and ...

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