United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Charleston Division
ORDER AND OPINION
Richard Mark Gergel United States District Court Judge.
matter is before the Court on the Report and Recommendation
of the Magistrate Judge, recommending that the Court
summarily dismiss the complaint without prejudice and without
service of process. For the reasons set forth below, the
Court adopts in part and declines to adopt in part the Report
and Recommendation, and summarily dismisses the complaint
with prejudice and without service of process.
was indicted for murder and other charges in the Colleton
County Court of General Sessions in 2003. He pleaded guilty
to manslaughter and he was sentenced to 25 years
imprisonment. On November 4, 2016, Plaintiff submitted a
"proposed order, answer, [and] objections to conditional
order of dismissal" to the Colleton County Court of
General Sessions regarding his second post-conviction relief
("PCR") application. According to Plaintiff,
Defendant Hutto, law clerk for the Honorable Perry M.
Buckner, informed him that "it is not clear what this
[proposed] Order would demand of the Court and Attorney
General" and that "Judge Buckner cannot sign this
order in its current form." Instead of submitting an
amended proposed order, Plaintiff filed this federal lawsuit
against Judge Buckner's law clerk. Plaintiff seeks $305,
000 in damages and declaratory and injunctive relief.
Report and Recommendation
Magistrate Judge makes only a recommendation to this Court.
The recommendation has no presumptive weight, and the
responsibility for making a final determination remains with
this Court. Mathews v. Weber, 423 U.S. 261, 270-71
(1976). This Court is charged with making a de novo
determination of those portions of the Report and
Recommendation to which specific objection is made.
Additionally, the Court may "accept, reject, or modify,
in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations made by
the magistrate judge." 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1). This
Court may also "receive further evidence or recommit the
matter to the magistrate judge with instructions."
Id. Where the plaintiff fails to file any specific
objections, "a district court need not conduct a de novo
review, but instead must only satisfy itself that there is no
clear error on the face of the record in order to accept the
recommendation, " see Diamond v. Colonial Life &
Accident Ins. Co., 416 F.3d 310, 315 (4th Cir. 2005)
(internal quotation omitted), and this Court is not required
to give any explanation for adopting the recommendation of
the Magistrate Judge, Camby v. Davis, 718 F.2d 198
(4th Cir. 1983).
Prisoner Litigation Reform Act
action been filed in forma pauperis under 28 U.S.C.
§ 1915, which permits an indigent litigant to commence
an action in federal court without payment of costs. The
statute allows a district court to dismiss summarily an
action that "fails to state a claim on which relief may
be granted, " "is frivolous or malicious, " or
"seeks monetary relief against a defendant who is immune
from such relief." 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B).
"With the Prisoner Litigation Reform Act
("PLRA"), Congress sought to reduce the number of
frivolous lawsuits flooding the federal courts."
Blakelyv. Wards, 738 F.3d 607, 609 (4th Cir. 2013).
"Congress did so in part by enacting 28 U.S.C. §
1915(g), a "three-strikes" statute providing that
if a prisoner has already had three cases dismissed as
frivolous, malicious, or for failure to state a claim for
which relief may be granted, the prisoner generally may not
proceed in forma pauperis but rather must pay
up-front all filing fees for his subsequent suits."
Court fully agrees with the determination of the Magistrate
Judge that this action should be dismissed summarily and
without service of process. Judicial law clerks have absolute
quasi-judicial immunity from suits for money damages arising
from their official acts. Jackson v. Houck, 181
F.App'x 372, 373 (4th Cir. 2006) ("Likewise, law
clerks ... are also entitled to absolute judicial immunity
when assisting the judge in carrying out the former's
judicial functions." (internal quotation marks
omitted)). Judge Buckner's law clerk indisputably was
assisting Judge Buckner's judicial function when
responding to Plaintiffs proposed order.
and quasi-judicial absolute immunity does not extend to
actions for declaratory or injunctive relief. See Pulliam
v. Allen, 466 U.S. 522, 540-42 (1984). But the Federal
Courts Improvement Act of 1996, Pub. L. No 104-317, 110 Stat.
3847 (1996), amended § 1983 to bar injunctive relief
against a judicial officer "for an act or omission taken
in such officer's judicial capacity . .. unless a
declaratory decree was violated or declaratory relief was
unavailable." 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Plaintiff does not
allege that a declaratory decree was violated, nor does he
contend that declaratory relief was unavailable in state
court, and therefore Plaintiffs request for injunctive relief
is subject to dismissal. Further, the Rooker-Feldman
doctrine bars Plaintiffs requested declaratory relief.
Plaintiff seeks declaratory relief stating that the state
courts erred in considering Plaintiffs PCR applications;
specifically, that an evidentiary hearing should have been
held on his claim that he was mentally incompetent when he
pleaded guilty to manslaughter. (See Dkt. No. 1
¶¶ 9-22.) But federal courts (other than the
Supreme Court) may not review state court decisions. Dell
Webb Communities, Inc. v. Carlson, 817 F.3d 867, 872
(4th Cir. 2016).
Court however declines to adopt the Report and Recommendation
insofar as it recommends dismissal without prejudice.
Dismissal on judicial or quasi-judicial absolute immunity
grounds is properly with prejudice. See Ostrzenski v.
Seigel, 111 F.3d 245, 253 (4th Cir. 1999). State-court
defendants may not seek declaratory relief in § 1983
actions as a means to appeal decisions in state-court PCR
proceedings. The injunctive relief sought is unavailable the
same reason; moreover, it is barred by statute. Plaintiff
cannot cure these deficiencies through amendment of the
complaint; dismissal with prejudice therefore is appropriate.
See Alvarez-Soto v. B. Frank Joy, LLC, ___ F.Supp.3d
___, 2017 WL 2731300, at * 11 (D. Md. June 23, 2017)
("[P]laintiffs must be given 'every opportunity to
cure a formal defect in his pleading' unless it
'appears to a certainty that the plaintiff cannot state a
claim.'" (quoting Ostrzenski, 177 F.3d at
the Court finds this action is frivolous and summarily
dismisses it with prejudice for that reason as well. Under
the in forma pauperis statute, a complaint is
frivolous "where it lacks an arguable basis either in
law or fact." Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U.S.
319, 325 (1989). Plaintiffs complaint-seeking over $300, 000
from a state-court law clerk because he told Plaintiff the
judge would not sign his proposed order and seeking equitable
relief directing state-court PCR proceedings to conform to
Plaintiffs desires-manifestly lacks any arguable basis in law
or fact. A defendant unhappy with a judicial action in
state-court proceedings regarding his criminal convictions
cannot sue the judge or his staff in federal court. Any
attempt to do so ...