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Brooks v. Williamsburg County Sheriff's Office

United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Charleston Division

April 11, 2016

Altony Brooks, Plaintiff,
Williamsburg County Sheriff's Office; Michael Johnson, Sheriff; Brenda Lambert, detective; Justin Whack, detective; Berkeley County Sheriff's Office; Wayne DeWitt, Sheriff; Lonnie Allen Mizzelle, detective; Danny Mizzelle, detective; John Doe, officer; Williamsburg Solicitor's Office; Kimberly Barr, Solicitor; Williamsburg County Clerk of Court; Sharon W. Staggers, Clerk; and M. Morris, Clerk, in their individual and official capacities, Defendants.


          PATRICK MICHAEL DUFFY, District Judge.

         On February 11, 2016, this Court issued an Order that adopted Magistrate Judge Bristow Marchant's Report and Recommendation ("R & R") and dismissed Plaintiff's complaint without prejudice and without service of process. After the Court entered judgment, the Court received objections to the R & R from Plaintiff (ECF No. 35). Plaintiff also filed two motions to vacate the Court's February 11 order (ECF Nos. 36 & 37).[1]

         Plaintiff's objections were due February 8. Because Plaintiff is incarcerated, the Court waited an additional three days to act on the R & R in order to allow any timely objections to make their way from the prison's mailroom to the Clerk's office. See Houston v. Lack, 487 U.S. 266, 276 (1988). Seeing none by February 11, the Court reviewed the R & R, adopted it, and entered judgment that day.

         Plaintiff's objections are dated February 4, but the Court did not receive them until February 29. In his motion to vacate, Plaintiff has provided documents from prison officials showing that he originally brought the objections to the prison's mailroom on February 4 and that they were mailed the following day. However, after the filing deadline passed, the objections were returned to Plaintiff for insufficient postage. The original postage form, completed on February 5, indicates that a prison employee may have miscalculated the amount of postage needed to mail the objections. Because it appears that the objections arrived late through no fault of Plaintiff, the Court finds they were timely filed on February 4. To properly consider those objections on their merits, the Court grants Plaintiff's consolidated motion to vacate and vacates its February 11 Order. See Galbreath v. Cartledge, No. 1:14-cv-110-RMG, 2015 WL 1143181, at *1 (D.S.C. Mar. 13, 2015) (withdrawing prior order which summarily adopted R & R, in order to review objections that were filed late due to insufficient postage).


         This case stems from Plaintiff's September 2008 arrest on seven criminal charges filed against him in Williamsburg County, South Carolina. Plaintiff alleges that Williamsburg County Sheriff's Office employees beat him and sprayed him with chemicals when they arrested him. At the time of Plaintiff's arrest, he was out on bond for unrelated charges that were pending in neighboring Berkeley County. As a result of his Williamsburg County arrest, his bond was revoked. In January 2009, Plaintiff was convicted of those unrelated Berkeley County charges. The state court sentenced him to prison, where he remains.

         The Williamsburg County charges never went to trial. Prosecutor Kimberly Barr made Plaintiff two plea offers, but he refused them and maintained his innocence. After he rejected the second offer in January 2010, he heard nothing else about the charges. State-court records that Plaintiff has appended to his complaint as exhibits indicate that the State dismissed the charges because it had insufficient evidence to secure convictions and because the purported victims of some of the crimes were refusing to assist in the prosecution. Those exhibits show that five of the charges were dismissed on December 8, 2010. As for the other two charges, Plaintiff's exhibits are missing dismissal dates. However, the South Carolina Judicial Department's Webbased public index shows they, too, were dismissed that day.

         Nearly two years later, in September 2012, Plaintiff sent the Williamsburg County Clerk of Court's office a written request for copies of records relating to his charges. Receiving no response, he sent another request in December 2012, this time threatening to accuse the office of fraud and conspiracy if it did not act promptly. On March 8, 2013, the Clerk's office sent him some of the above-mentioned records that indicate his charges had been dismissed in December 2010. He received more of those documents later that month. Plaintiff alleges that Barr conspired with Clerk of Court Sharon Staggers and with a Ms. Morris, one of Staggers' employees, to fabricate the dismissal records after he began requesting copies of documents.


         Plaintiff filed this action on March 1, 2015. In his complaint, [2] he makes a variety of claims against officials working in Berkeley and Williamsburg counties and against the offices for which they work. Plaintiff's claims all relate to his 2008 arrest and detention or to his ultimately abandoned prosecution. Plaintiff asserts causes of action such as false arrest, false imprisonment, abuse of process, malicious prosecution, negligence, defamation, civil conspiracy, and excessive force. He asserts those theories both as state-law claims and as federal claims under 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983 and 1985.

         The Magistrate Judge reviewed Plaintiff's pro se complaint pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915A and Local Civil Rule 73.02(B)(2) (D.S.C.). He then issued his R & R, in which he recommended that the Court dismiss all of Plaintiff's federal claims and decline to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over Plaintiff's state claims. As discussed above, Plaintiff has filed objections that this Court finds timely.


         The Magistrate Judge makes only a recommendation to this Court. The R & R has no presumptive weight, and the responsibility for making a final determination remains with the Court. Mathews v. Weber, 423 U.S. 261, 270-71 (1976). Parties may make written objections to the R & R within fourteen days after being served with a copy of it. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1). This Court must conduct a de novo review of any portion of the R & R to which a specific objection is made, and it may accept, reject, or modify the Magistrate Judge's findings and recommendations in whole or in part. Id. Additionally, the Court may receive more evidence or recommit the matter to the Magistrate Judge with instructions. Id. A party's failure to object is taken as the party's agreement with the Magistrate Judge's conclusions. See Thomas v. Arn, 474 U.S. 140 (1985). Absent a timely, specific objection-or as to those portions of the R & R to which no specific objection is made-this Court "must only satisfy itself that there is no clear error on the face of the record in order to accept the recommendation.'" Diamond v. Colonial Life & Accident Ins. Co., 416 F.3d 310, 315 (4th Cir. 2005) (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 72 advisory committee's note).

          Pro se filings are held to a less stringent standard than those drafted by attorneys, Gordon v. Leeke, 574 F.2d 1147, 1151 (4th Cir. 1978), and federal district courts must construe such pleadings liberally to allow the development of potentially meritorious claims, see Hughes v. Rowe, 449 U.S. 5, 9 (1980) (per curiam). The liberal construction requirement, however, does not mean courts can ignore a clear failure to allege facts that set forth claims cognizable in federal district court. See Weller v. Dep't of Soc. Servs., 901 F.2d 387, 391 (4th Cir. 1990).


         Before addressing Plaintiff's objections, the Court reviews the conclusions in the R & R to which Plaintiff has not objected. First, the Magistrate Judge found that Barr has prosecutorial immunity for all of Plaintiff's claims against her. Second, the Magistrate Judge found that the four institutional defendants are not proper defendants to Plaintiff's federal claims. Finally, the Magistrate Judge found that Defendants Johnson, Lambert, Whack, DeWitt, Lonnie Mizzelle, Danny Mizzelle, and Doe are immune from suit under the Eleventh Amendment. Upon review, the Court finds that the Magistrate Judge's findings and analysis on those issues are correct, and therefore it adopts those portions of the R & R.

         In large part, Plaintiff's objections merely rehash his complaint's assertions or flatly disagree with the Magistrate Judge's conclusions. The Court declines to address those arguments, as they are not proper objections. See, e.g.,Anderson v. Dobson, 627 F.Supp.2d 619, 623 (W.D. N.C. 2007) ("An objection' that does nothing more than state a disagreement with a magistrate's suggested resolution, or simply summarizes what has been presented before, is not an objection' as that term is used in this context." (citation ...

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