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Timpson v. Pondexter

United States District Court, D. South Carolina

November 15, 2017

Jocastarius Timpson, Plaintiff,
Christopher Pondexter; Joshua Silva; Karl Von Mutius, Defendants.


          Kaymani D. West, United States Magistrate Judge

         Jocastarius Timpson (“Plaintiff”), a state prisoner proceeding pro se, brought this civil action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. This matter is before the court on Defendants' Motion to Dismiss for Failure to State a Claim filed on July 12, 2017. ECF No. 29. The court entered a Roseboro Order[1] on July 17, 2017, advising Plaintiff of the importance of such motions and of the need for him to file an adequate response. ECF No. 30. Plaintiff responded to Defendants' motion on August 17, 2017, ECF No. 33, and Defendants filed a reply to Plaintiff's Response on August 25, 2017, ECF No. 34, making this motion ripe for consideration. This case was referred to the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge for all pretrial proceedings pursuant to the provisions of 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(A) and (B) and Local Rule 73.02(B)(2)(d) and (e) (D.S.C.). Because Defendants' Motion to Dismiss is dispositive, a Report and Recommendation is entered for the court's review.

         I. Factual and Procedural Background

         Plaintiff is currently incarcerated at Lieber Correctional Institution, part of the South Carolina Department of Corrections (“SCDC”) prison system. In the Complaint filed in this case, Plaintiff alleges that he was subjected to excessive force and medical indifference as the result of Defendants Pondexter's and Silva's introduction of gas munitions into his closed cell on March 16, 2014. ECF No. 1 at 6-7. He asserts that Defendant Von Mutius was the other Defendants' supervisor and did nothing to help Plaintiff get cleaned up after the gassing incident. Plaintiff alleges that his eyes were permanently damaged and that he was subjected to pain and suffering when he was not allowed to wash his face or flush his eyes for many hours. Id. at 7-9, 17. Plaintiff asserts that his federal constitutional rights under the Eighth Amendment were violated by Defendants' actions. Id. at 15, 16. Plaintiff seeks compensatory and punitive damages. Id. at 18. In his Complaint, Plaintiff acknowledges that he pursued a state-court case “dealing with the same facts involved in this action . . . .” in Dorchester County, South Carolina through its dismissal on January 25, 2017. Id. at 1.

         In their Motion to Dismiss, Defendants assert that this case is barred by the doctrine of res judicata based on the summary judgment that was entered in Plaintiff's state-court complaint in Dorchester County. See Timpson v. Dep't of Corr. S. C., No. 2015-CP-18-0716. They attach to their Motion the state-court complaint, a state-court order dismissing the same three corrections officers who are Defendants in this case from the case under the employee immunity provisions of the South Carolina Torts Claim Act (“SCTCA”), and the state-court order granting summary judgment for the remaining defendant SCDC. ECF Nos. 29-1, 29-2, 29-3.[2] Defendants argue that the summary judgment entered with prejudice in the state-court action precludes Plaintiff's attempted pursuit of an action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the three remaining Defendants in this case who were also parties to the state-court action. ECF No. 29 at 5-7. Defendants also assert that Plaintiff's federal claims are barred by the doctrine of collateral estoppel. Id. at 7-8. Plaintiff responds that res judicata does not bar this federal action because the three Defendants in this case were no longer parties in the state-action when the summary judgment was entered. ECF No. 33 at 9-10. Plaintiff also argues that res judicata does not apply to this case because the state-court complaint was based solely on state law under the SCTCA, whereas this case is based on different claims under § 1983. Id. at 12-13. Defendants reply that Plaintiff fails to understand that res judicata bars all claims that could have been brought in the original forum and that his § 1983 claims are the type of claims that could have been pursued in the state-court action. ECF No. 34 at 2.

         II. Standard of Review

         To survive a motion to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim for relief that is plausible on its face. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). In construing a motion to dismiss, the facts, though not the legal conclusions, alleged in a plaintiff's pro se complaint must be taken as true. Loe v. Armistead, 582 F.2d 1291, 1292 (4th Cir. 1978); Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662. A pro se complaint should survive a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim only when a plaintiff has set forth “enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570. “Factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level” and beyond the level that is merely conceivable. Id. at 555. A pro se complaint should be liberally construed. Gordon v. Leeke, 574 F.2d 1147, 1151 (4th Cir. 1978). However, a court is not required “to accept as true a legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation, ” Papasan v. Allain, 478 U.S. 265, 286 (1986), or a legal conclusion unsupported by factual allegations. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679. Dismissal is appropriate when a complaint contains a description of underlying facts that fails to state a viable claim. Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 106 (1976); Twombly, 550 U.S. at 558.

         III. Discussion

         Under South Carolina law, the defense of res judicata requires satisfaction of the following elements:

(1) The parties must be the same or their privies; (2) the subject matter must be the same; and (3) while generally the precise point must be ruled, yet where the parties are the same or are in privity the judgment is an absolute bar not only of what was decided but of what might have been decided.

Bagwell v. Hinton, 32 S.E.2d 147, 156 (S.C. 1944); see also First Nat'l Bank of Greenville v. U.S. Fid. & Guar. Co., 35 S.E.2d 47, 52 (S.C. 1945). More recently, the South Carolina Court of Appeals has stated the elements somewhat differently, stating that “[t]o establish the defense of res judicata three elements must be shown: (1) identity of the parties or their privies; (2) identity of the subject matter of the litigation; and (3) a final determination on the merits of the claim in the former proceeding.” H.G. Hall Constr. Co. v. J.E.P. Enters., 321 S.E.2d 267, 271 (S.C. Ct. App. 1984).[3] Under res judicata “[a] final judgment on the merits of an action precludes the parties or their privies from relitigating issues that were or could have been raised in that action.” Federated Dep't Stores, Inc. v. Moitie, 452 U.S. 394, 398 (1981) (emphasis added); Brown v. Felsen, 442 U.S. 127, 131 (1979); Meekins v. United Transp. Union, 946 F.2d 1054, 1057 (4th Cir. 1991). The term “privy”, when applied to a judgment or decree, means one so identified in interest with another that he represents the same legal right. One in privity is one whose legal interests were litigated in the former proceeding. Richburg v. Baughman, 351 S.E.2d 164, 166 (S.C. 1986). “[T]he concept of privity rests not on the relationship between the parties asserting it, but rather on each party's relationship to the subject matter of the litigation.” Claims are based on the same cause of action if they “arise[ ] out of the same transaction or series of transactions as the claim resolved by the prior judgment.” Laurel Sand & Gravel. Inc. v. Wilson, 519 F.3d 156, 162 (4th Cir. 2008) (internal citations and quotations omitted). “Res judicata . . . bars subsequent actions by the same parties when the claims arise out of the same transaction or occurrence that was the subject of a prior action between those parties.” Riedman Corp. v. Greenville Steel Structures, Inc., 419 S.E.2d 217, 218 (S.C. 1992). The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals has held that “[g]enerally, claims are part of the same cause of action when they arise out of the same transaction or series of transactions . . . or the same core of operative facts.” In re Varat Enters., Inc., 81 F.3d 1310, 1316 (4th Cir. 1996) (internal citations omitted). By precluding parties in a subsequent proceeding from raising claims that were or could have been raised in a prior proceeding, “[r]es judicata ... encourages reliance on judicial decisions, bars vexatious litigation, and frees the courts to resolve other disputes.” Pueschel v. United States, 369 F.3d 345, 354 (4th Cir. 2004) (quoting Brown, 442 U.S. at 131).

         1. Same parties or in privity

         Here, the state-court action and judgment relied on by Defendants for their res judicata defense satisfy all elements of the defense and, therefore, preclude this court from considering Plaintiff's § 1983 claims against Defendants Pondexter, Silva, and Von Mutius. First, the parties are the same in both the state court and in this court because the state-court complaint shows that, in addition to SCDC, Plaintiff sued Pondexter, Silva, and Von Mutius. In the state action caption, SCDC is the only defendant, but the “parties” section of the complaint itself lists Defendants Pondexter, Silva, and von Mutius and makes allegations and causes of action against each of them. While the individual defendants were dismissed before the conclusion of the state-court case pursuant to the South Carolina Tort Claims Act, SC Code §§15-78-70(a) and (b) by order dated January 11, 2016, their interests were clearly represented by SCDC throughout the remainder of the case. SCDC had to prove that they properly exercised their discretion in connection with the gassing incident in order for it to obtain the final summary judgment in the case. Also, the allegations about Defendants' actions on that day are identical in the state complaint and in the Complaint in this court. On summary judgment, the state court found that the individual defendants validly exercised their discretion during the same encounter with Plaintiff that, factually, formed the basis for both Plaintiff's state tort claims and his § 1983 claims in this case.

         Plaintiff's assertion that the first prong is not met because the three individual defendants (Defendants here) were dismissed from the state case before judgment is unavailing. Even after they were dismissed from the state case, Defendants were still in privity with the remaining defendant, SCDC, because it was representing their interests regarding the reasonableness of the actions that they took in connection with the subject matter of the state-court action: the same gassing incident involving Plaintiff at Lieber Correctional Institution on March 15, 2014 that is the subject of Plaintiff's Complaint in this case. Moreover, the remaining defendant in the state action was SCDC, the state agency with which all three Defendants were employed. Several courts have held that government employees are in privity with the agency for which they work. Defendants who are members of the same government agency are generally treated as being in privity for purposes of being able to assert a res judicata defense. See, e.g., Sunshine Anthracite Coal Co. v. Adkins,310 U.S. 381, 402-03 (1940) (“There is privity between officers of the same government so that a judgment in a suit between a party and a representative of [a governmental entity] is res judicata in relitigation of the same issue between that party and another officer of the government.”); Boone v. Kurtz,617 F.2d 435, 436 (5th Cir. 1980) (res judicata dismissal of second suit that added IRS commissioner as defendant affirmed because there was “privity between officers of the same government” so that judgment in favor of IRS agents in first suit barred re-litigation); Benbow v. Wall, No. 13-757S, 2014 WL 652354 (D.R.I. 2014) (dismissing prisoner's second suit based on res judicata despite addition of new correctional officer defendant who was employed by same agency as original defendants). Accordingly, the parties in the state-court action and in this ...

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