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Lott v. Sheek

United States District Court, D. South Carolina

April 4, 2019

Gary Eugene Lott, Plaintiff,
v.
Christopher Lance Sheek, Esquire, Eugene C. Griffin, Circuit Court Judge, David M. Stumbo, 8th Circuit Solicitor Greenwood County, Elizabeth White, Asst. 8th Circuit Solicitor Greenwood County, City of Greenwood, Greenwood County South Carolina, Defendants.

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

          JACQUELYN D. AUSTIN, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Gary Eugene Lott (“Plaintiff”), proceeding pro se, brings this civil action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging Defendants violated his constitutional rights. Plaintiff filed this action in forma pauperis under 28 U.S.C. § 1915. Upon review of the Complaint, it appears that Plaintiff is currently a detainee at the Greenwood County Detention Center, where he is awaiting civil commitment proceedings pursuant to the South Carolina Sexually Violent Predator Act (“SVPA”), SC Code Ann. §§ 44-48-10 through 44-48-170. [Doc. 1 at 6.] Pursuant to the provisions of 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B), and Local Civil Rule 73.02(B)(2)(d), D.S.C., the undersigned Magistrate Judge is authorized to review the Complaint for relief and submit findings and recommendations to the District Court. For the reasons explained below, the Complaint is subject to summary dismissal.

         BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff makes the following allegations in his Complaint. [Doc. 1.] Defendants Stumbo, Sheek, Griffin, and White all violated Plaintiff's due process rights when they conducted a criminal trial on February 25, 2013, for crimes arising from Plaintiff's alleged improper contact with a minor that occurred on October 3, 2011. [Id. at 5.] Specifically, Indictment No. 2013-GS-24-0305 charged Plaintiff with first degree criminal sexual conduct, and Indictment No. 2013-GS-24-0101 charged Plaintiff with committing a lewd act upon a child. [Id.] Plaintiff contends the court did not have jurisdiction, but he does not explain the basis for this contention. [Id.] On February 28, 2013, a jury convicted Plaintiff as to the charge of lewd act on a minor but acquitted him of the charge of first degree criminal sexual conduct. [Id. at 6.] The Court takes judicial notice[1] that, on March 1, 2013, the Honorable Eugene C. Griffith, Jr., sentenced Plaintiff to a term of 15 years' imprisonment as to his conviction for committing a lewd act upon a child at case No. 2013-GS-24-00101.[2]

         Plaintiff contends that his direct appeal is still pending, but that the state courts are denying him due process. [Id.] Plaintiff contends that, while he filed motions in the state court on October 3, 2014, there appears to be a “conspiracy by [D]efendants to deny due process of law.” [Id.] The Court takes judicial notice that Plaintiff filed a direct appeal from his conviction at case No. 2013-GS-24-00101, but the South Carolina Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction on May 27, 2015. State v. Lott, No. 2015-UP-266, 2015 WL 3409053, at *1 (S.C. Ct. App. May 27, 2015). The Court could find no other record of any pending appeal, and Plaintiff has failed to provide any other information to support his contention that his direct appeal remains pending. The only action that appears to be pending against Plaintiff at this time is the action commenced against him pursuant to the SVPA in the Greenwood County Court of Common Pleas at case No. 2019-CP-24-00029.[3]

         According to Plaintiff, he was recently released from prison pursuant to the state's re-entry law, subject to ankle monitoring. [Id.] However, on March 2, 2019, the Saluda County Sheriff's Office arrested him and transported him to the Greenwood County Detention Center, pursuant to a probable cause order at No. 2019-CP-24-00029, which Plaintiff maintains violated his rights under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. [Id.] Plaintiff maintains that Judge Griffith should have disqualified himself because he knew or should have known that the lewd act offense is “null and void and currently on/in direct appeal where due process right(s) are violated constantly against [Plaintiff].” [Id.] Plaintiff maintains that Defendants have engaged in collusion and in “concert action(s)” to deprive Plaintiff of his constitutional rights, specifically by subjecting him to due process violations and cruel and unusual punishment. [Id.] According to Plaintiff, Defendant Stumbo has continued to bring numerous false charges of criminal sexual conduct against him, “all of which were dismissed, nolle prosequi between 2014 and 2019.” [Id.] For his relief, Plaintiff seeks declaratory and injunctive relief and actual and punitive damages in the amount of $40 million. [Id. at 5.]

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Plaintiff filed this action pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915, the in forma pauperis statute. This statute authorizes the district court to dismiss a case if it is satisfied that the action “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). Further, Plaintiff appears to be a prisoner under the definition in 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(c), and “seeks redress from a governmental entity or officer or employee of a governmental entity.” 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(a). Thus, even if Plaintiff had prepaid the full filing fee, this Court would still be charged with screening Plaintiff's lawsuit to identify cognizable claims or to dismiss the Complaint if (1) it is frivolous, malicious, or fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted or (2) seeks monetary relief from a defendant who is immune from such relief. 28 U.S.C. § 1915A.

         Because Plaintiff is a pro se litigant, his pleadings are accorded liberal construction and held to a less stringent standard than formal pleadings drafted by attorneys. See Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007) (per curiam). However, even under this less stringent standard, the pro se pleading remains subject to summary dismissal. The mandated liberal construction afforded to pro se pleadings means that if the Court can reasonably read the pleadings to state a valid claim on which Plaintiff could prevail, it should do so, but a district court may not rewrite a petition to include claims that were never presented, Barnett v. Hargett, 174 F.3d 1128, 1133 (10th Cir. 1999), or construct Plaintiff's legal arguments for him, Small v. Endicott, 998 F.2d 411, 417-18 (7th Cir. 1993), or “conjure up questions never squarely presented” to the Court, Beaudett v. City of Hampton, 775 F.2d 1274, 1278 (4th Cir. 1985). The requirement of liberal construction does not mean that the Court can ignore a clear failure in the pleading to allege facts which set forth a claim cognizable in a federal district court. See Weller v. Dep't of Soc. Servs., 901 F.2d 387, 391 (4th Cir. 1990).

         DISCUSSION

         The Complaint is filed pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, which “‘is not itself a source of substantive rights,' but merely provides ‘a method for vindicating federal rights elsewhere conferred.'” Albright v. Oliver, 510 U.S. 266, 271 (1994) (quoting Baker v. McCollan, 443 U.S. 137, 144 n.3 (1979)). A civil action under § 1983 “creates a private right of action to vindicate violations of ‘rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws' of the United States.” Rehberg v. Paulk, 566 U.S. 356, 361 (2012) (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 1983). To state a claim under § 1983, a plaintiff must allege two essential elements: (1) that a right secured by the Constitution or laws of the United States was violated, and (2) that the alleged violation was committed by a person acting under the color of state law. West v. Atkins, 487 U.S. 42, 48 (1988).

         Liberally construed, the Complaint appears to assert a claim for violations of Plaintiff's Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights to due process and Eighth Amendment rights to be free from cruel and unusual punishment, related to Plaintiff's prior conviction and sentence and his pending state court proceedings pursuant to the South Carolina SVPA. Nevertheless, the Complaint is subject to summary dismissal for the reasons below.

         Defendants are Entitled to Dismissal

         Plaintiff has named six Defendants in this action: the Honorable Eugene C. Griffith, Jr., [4] Circuit Court Judge (“Judge Griffith”); Eighth Circuit Solicitor David M. Stumbo (“Stumbo”); Assistant Eighth Circuit Solicitor Elizabeth White (“White”); Attorney Christopher Lance Sheek (“Sheek”); the City of Greenwood (“City of Greenwood”); and Greenwood County, South Carolina (“Greenwood County”). [Doc. 1 at 1.] All of the named Defendants are entitled to dismissal from this § 1983 action.

         Judge Griffith

         Judge Griffith has absolute judicial immunity from this civil action and should be dismissed from this case. It is well settled that judges have absolute immunity from a claim for damages arising out of their judicial actions, unless they acted in the complete absence of all jurisdiction. See Mireles v. Waco, 502 U.S. 9, 11-12 (1991); Stump v. Sparkman, 435 U.S. 349, 356-57 (1978); see also Chu v. Griffith, 771 F.2d 79, 81 (4th Cir. 1985) (explaining that, even if a challenged judicial act was unauthorized by law, the judge still has immunity from a suit seeking damages). Whether an act is judicial or non-judicial relates to the nature of the act, such as whether it is a function normally performed by a judge and whether the parties dealt with the judge in his judicial capacity. Mireles, 502 U.S. at 12. Immunity applies even when the judge's acts were in error, malicious, or in excess of his authority. Id. at 12-13. Immunity presents a threshold question. See Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818 (1982). Absolute immunity is “an immunity from suit rather than a mere defense to liability.” Mitchell v. Forsyth, 472 U.S. 511, 526 (1985) (emphasis in original). Here, Plaintiff makes various allegations against Judge Griffith concerning his conduct and rulings related to Plaintiff's state court criminal case and currently pending SVPA action, but these allegations all relate to judicial actions. Thus, because all of the alleged misconduct of Judge Griffith arose out of his judicial actions, judicial immunity squarely applies and should bar this lawsuit against him. Accordingly, Judge Griffith is entitled to summary dismissal from this § 1983 action.

         Defendants Stumbo and White

         Plaintiff makes various allegations against Defendants Stumbo and White, who are both identified as attorneys in the Eighth Circuit Solicitor's Office. These allegations are related to their prosecution of Plaintiff's state criminal case and proceedings under the South Carolina SVPA. [Doc. 1 at 5-6.] However, Defendants Stumbo and White are entitled to prosecutorial immunity as to Plaintiff's claims.[5] Prosecutors have absolute immunity for activities in or connected with judicial proceedings, such as criminal trials, bond hearings, bail hearings, grand jury proceedings, and pre-trial “motions” hearings. See Buckley v. Fitzsimmons,509 U.S. 259, 272-73 (1993); Dababnah v. Keller-Burnside,208 F.3d 467, 470-71 (4th Cir. 2000). Any actions taken by a solicitor in preparing a criminal charge and prosecuting the case against a criminal defendant are part of the judicial process; ...


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