West v. Hooks et al
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER GRANTING IN PART and DENYING IN PART 29 MOTION for Summary Judgment. To the extent that claims are made against the defendant in his official capacity, all claims against the defendant in his official capacity are DISMISSED WITH PREJUDICE. Otherwise, the Motion is DENIED. The Rule 26 Report of Parties' Planning Meeting is due no later than August 21, 2015. Signed by Judge Virginia Emerson Hopkins on 7/21/2015. (JLC)
2015 Jul-21 PM 01:42
U.S. DISTRICT COURT
N.D. OF ALABAMA
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
JOSEPH STEPHEN WEST,
TED HOOKS, et al,
) Case No.: 1:13-CV-2232-VEH
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
This civil action was filed on December 11, 2013, by the pro se plaintiff,
Joseph Stephen West, against the defendant, Ted Hooks, the former clerk of court of
the Circuit Court of Calhoun County, Alabama. (Docs. 1, 9). The Amended
Complaint is brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and alleges that the defendant
violated [the plaintiff’s] constitutional right to seek redress against his
previous attorneys, Mr. Jake Matthews, Jr. and Mr. William Broome, by
erroneously booking a civil action against Mr. Matthews as a criminal
action, by losing the substantial hardship form attached to the complaint,
and by losing the whole complaint against Mr. Broome.
(Doc. 9 at 4).
The case comes before the court on the defendant’s motion for summary
judgment. (Doc. 29).1 For the reasons stated herein, the motion will be GRANTED
in part and DENIED in part.
Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56, summary judgment is proper if there
is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the moving party is entitled to
judgment as a matter of law. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a); see also Celotex Corp. v. Catrett,
477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986) (“[S]ummary judgment is proper if the pleadings,
depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the
affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that
the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.”) (internal quotation
marks and citation omitted). The party requesting summary judgment always bears
the initial responsibility of informing the court of the basis for its motion and
identifying those portions of the pleadings or filings that it believes demonstrate the
absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323. Once the
On February 10, 2015, the case came before the court on the motion to dismiss filed by
the defendant. (Doc. 18). The court treated the motion as a motion for summary judgment, and,
in its order denying the motion, noted that the exact legal basis for the defendant’s motion was
unclear, and arguments appeared in the defendant’s reply brief which were not argued in its
initial brief. (Doc. 26 at 5-8). Also in that order, the court was clear that “[s]hould the movant
wish to re-file the motion, he should be sure to comply with this court’s requirements in its
Uniform Initial Order, and to include in his initial brief any arguments he wishes the court to
consider.” (Doc. 26 at 8). The defendant has now re-filed his motion, this time calling it, on the
front end, a motion for summary judgment.
moving party has met its burden, Rule 56(e) requires the non-moving party to go
beyond the pleadings in answering the movant. Id. at 324. By its own affidavits – or
by the depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file – it must
designate specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial. Id.
The underlying substantive law identifies which facts are material and which
are irrelevant. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). All
reasonable doubts about the facts and all justifiable inferences are resolved in favor
of the non-movant. Chapman, 229 F.3d at 1023. Only disputes over facts that might
affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law will properly preclude the
entry of summary judgment. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. A dispute is genuine “if the
evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving
party.” Id. If the evidence presented by the non-movant to rebut the moving party’s
evidence is merely colorable, or is not significantly probative, summary judgment
may still be granted. Id. at 249.
How the movant may satisfy its initial evidentiary burden depends on whether
that party bears the burden of proof on the given legal issues at trial. Fitzpatrick v.
City of Atlanta, 2 F.3d 1112, 1115 (11th Cir. 1993). If the movant bears the burden
of proof on the given issue or issues at trial, then it can only meet its burden on
summary judgment by presenting affirmative evidence showing the absence of a
genuine issue of material fact – that is, facts that would entitle it to a directed verdict
if not controverted at trial. Id. (citation omitted). Once the moving party makes such
an affirmative showing, the burden shifts to the non-moving party to produce
“significant, probative evidence demonstrating the existence of a triable issue of fact.”
Id. (citation omitted) (emphasis added).
For issues on which the movant does not bear the burden of proof at trial, it can
satisfy its initial burden on summary judgment in either of two ways. Id. at 1115-16.
First, the movant may simply show that there is an absence of evidence to support the
non-movant’s case on the particular issue at hand. Id. at 1116. In such an instance, the
non-movant must rebut by either (1) showing that the record in fact contains
supporting evidence sufficient to withstand a directed verdict motion, or (2)
proffering evidence sufficient to withstand a directed verdict motion at trial based on
the alleged evidentiary deficiency. Id. at 1116-17. When responding, the non-movant
may no longer rest on mere allegations; instead, it must set forth evidence of specific
facts. Lewis v. Casey, 518 U.S. 343, 358 (1996). The second method a movant in this
position may use to discharge its burden is to provide affirmative evidence
demonstrating that the non-moving party will be unable to prove its case at trial.
Fitzpatrick, 2 F.3d at 1116. When this occurs, the non-movant must rebut by offering
evidence sufficient to withstand a directed verdict at trial on the material fact sought
to be negated. Id.
In his affidavit, the plaintiff states:
On or about November 8, 2012[,] I mailed two (2) formal
complaints to my mother, Betty West, at West Insurance Agency,
Oxford, Alabama with instructions to copy the documents and send each
in its own separate envelope via certified mail to each of the defendants
and to the Circuit Court Clerk at the Calhoun County Courthouse.
Each complaint included the actual complaint which was
notarized by Sgt. Cheryl Watson at Elmore Correction Center in Elmore,
Alabama. Each complaint also had attached to it a substantial hardship
form which was provided by the law library at Elmore Correction Center
and completed by the law clerk at that time, Mr. Rasbian Ward.
(Doc. 37 at 3-4).
Betty West, the plaintiff’s mother, stated the following in her affidavit:
On November 17, 2012[,] I received several documents, which I was
expecting and recognized as suits, from my son Steve who was at
Elmore Correction Center. These suits were titled "Formal Complaint"
and were against Mr. Jake Matthews and Mr. Bill Broome. I copied the
suits and other documents and placed copies of them in envelopes, one
addressed to Mr. Broome and one addressed to Mr. Matthews. The
originals were placed in individual envelopes and each was addressed
separately to the Circuit Court Clerk, Calhoun County Courthouse, 25
West 11th Street, Anniston, AL 36201. Brittany West, who handles our
mail, then took the envelopes to the Oxford Post Office where she
mailed them "Certified Mail[.]" A few days later I received the signed
return receipts from Ted Hooks, the Clerk of the Circuit Court and
placed them in the file Steve had asked me to keep.
(Doc. 37 at 5-6). In her affidavit, Brittany West stated:
On November 17,2012[,] I took four (4) envelopes to the United
States Post Office in Oxford, Alabama. Each envelope contained several
sheets of paper.
When I arrived at the post office[,] I completed return receipt
certified mail forms and attached one to each envelope. Two (2) of the
envelopes were addressed to the Circuit Court Clerk in the Calhoun
County Courthouse. One (1) envelope was addressed to Jake Matthews,
Jr., Merrill, Merrill, Matthews & Allen, [P.O.] Box 36, Anniston, AL
36202. One (1) envelope was addressed to William H. Broome, Attorney
at Law, [P.O.] Box 1952, Anniston, AL 36202. I then took all four (4)
envelopes to the post office service window where I paid the fee for
certified mail, leaving the envelopes with the postmaster.
On November 20, 2012[,] I received the return receipts from the
Circuit Clerk. Both receipts were received by Ted Hooks and showed
delivery dates of 11/19/12. The return receipt for Jake Matthews, Jr[.]
was signed by Ron Allen with a delivery date of 11/28/12. The return
receipt for William H. Broome was signed by Patti Duke and did not
include a delivery date.
(Doc. 37 at 7-8). The return receipts themselves are also included in the record. (Doc.
37 at 9-12).
In the defendant’s affidavit, he states
Although I did not personally receive the complaint [in the Matthews
case] and file it in his criminal cases, I reviewed his complaint and
discovered that he placed his criminal case numbers in the style of the
complaint. The clerk that received the complaint and filed it in his
criminal cases did so correctly in accordance to the court policy. All
filings received that are styled with criminal case numbers are filed in
their respective criminal court cases.
(Doc. 31-1 at 2). The defendant admits in his affidavit that “[t]here was no case filed
by Mr. West against Mr. Broome while I was the Calhoun County Court Clerk.”
(Doc. 31-1 at 2). However, he states:
Mr. West has provided copies of two domestic return receipts
stamped as received on November 19,2012[,] as proof of his claims. The
return receipts were not signed by me personally; they were stamped
using a signature stamp by whoever was processing the mail that day.
While I was responsible for managing the Calhoun County Circuit
Court, I did not handle the actual filing of court documents mailed to the
court. Those duties were delegated to someone else.
I did not personally participate in the receiving or filing of
plaintiffs alleged civil lawsuits.
I did not direct anyone to violate Mr. West's rights.
(Doc. 31-1 at 2-3).
According to the Amended Complaint, the judge to whom the case was
assigned, “after holding [it] on her desk for several days[,] ruled that the plaintiff
cannot sue his attorney in criminal court and dismissed the complaint.” (Doc. 9 at 2,
8). According to the complaint, thereafter, the plaintiff eventually filed both his
claims in the proper court, but they were dismissed as time barred. (Doc. 9 at 3).
The defendant is sued individually and in his official capacity as the former
clerk of court of the Calhoun County Circuit Court.2 It is unclear how, as the former
The defendant’s motion fails to address the two capacities in which he is sued.
clerk, an official capacity suit could be maintained against this defendant. Regardless,
the suit against the defendant in his official capacity is due to be dismissed as
“‘[u]nder the Eleventh Amendment, state officials sued for damages in their official
capacity are immune from suit in federal court.’” Micklas v. Phillips, 522 F. App'x
616, 618 (11th Cir. 2013) (quoting Jackson v. Georgia Dep't of Transp., 16 F.3d
1573, 1575 (11th Cir.1994)); see also, Cloy v. Boutwell, No. CIV.A. 12-00718-KD-N,
2015 WL 225388, at *8 (S.D. Ala. Jan. 16, 2015) (“Alabama law indicates that circuit
court clerks' offices are considered state agencies.”).
As to the individual capacity claims, in his two page argument,3 the defendant
moves for summary judgment only on the basis that he did not personally participate
in the handling of the plaintiff’s lawsuits, and argues that the plaintiff “cannot prove
that Mr. Hooks participated in any way in the receiving, filing[,] or handling of [the[
plaintiff’s complaint.” (Doc. 30 at 3-4). The Eleventh Circuit has noted that
“[i]t is well established in this circuit that supervisory officials are not
liable under § 1983 for the unconstitutional acts of their subordinates on
the basis of respondeat superior or vicarious liability.” Hartley v.
Parnell, 193 F.3d 1263, 1269 (11th Cir.1999) (quotation marks
omitted). Absent personal participation, a § 1983 plaintiff must allege
“a causal connection between actions of the supervising official and the
alleged constitutional deprivation,” such as a history of widespread
In the aforementioned motion to dismiss (doc. 18), the defendant’s entire argument was
just over one page, and cited no rules, cases, or other basis for the motion except the conclusory
statement that “[t]his lawsuit is obviously frivolous.” (Doc. 18 at 2).
abuse that put the supervisor on notice of constitutional violations or a
custom or policy of the supervisor that results in the constitutional
Watson v. Lockette, 379 F. App'x 822, 826 (11th Cir. 2010). The plaintiff has
provided no evidence of direct involvement in the handling of his actions by the
defendant, and provides no evidence of any other causal connection. The defendant
has provided his affidavit, wherein he states that he personally took no action
regarding any of the plaintiff’s filings, and directed no one to violate the plaintiff’s
rights. (Doc. 31-1 at 2-3).4
The court is cognizant that not every allegation of supervisor liability entitles
the plaintiff to discovery. The classic and best example of this can be found in
Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 681, 129 S. Ct. 1937, 1951, 173 L. Ed. 2d 868 (2009)
(rejecting, in the context of a motion to dismiss, conclusory allegations of supervisor
liability made without factual basis). And, to be sure, in this case, the complaint is not
a model pleading. It did not allege that the defendant personally participated in any
of the conduct alleged in the complaint. (See doc. 9 at 1 (“[h]e was legally responsible
for all operations of the clerk’s office”); doc. 9 at 2 (“the clerk’s office booked the
suit”); doc. 9 at 2 (“the clerk’s office has completely misplaced the suit against Mr.
However, as explained infra, in that affidavit, the defendant apparently admitted certain
facts relevant to the plaintiff’s claims.
Broome”); doc. 9 at 2 (“the clerk’s office has completely misplaced the substantial
hardship form which was submitted with the civil complaint”)).
Regardless, the defendant’s affidavit, the only evidence offered by him in
support of the motion, provides support, at least in part, for denial of the motion. In
the affidavit, he states that he learned all the information he provides therein “by
personally reviewing the plaintiff’s criminal and civil cases that were pending.”
(Doc. 31-1 at 2). He does not state when he reviewed these materials. He also states
that he saw that the plaintiff’s complaint against Matthews contained the criminal
case numbers and knew that “court policy” required it to be filed in the criminal case.
He does not state when he saw that complaint. Drawing all inferences and reviewing
all evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, which this court
must in reviewing a motion for summary judgment, Moton v. Cowart, 631 F.3d 1337,
1341 (11th Cir. 2011), this evidence is sufficient to establish that Hooks: 1)
personally reviewed the complaint filed by the plaintiff at the time of its filing and
knew that it contained the case numbers of plaintiff’s criminal case; (2) knew that
court policy would cause the filing clerk to place plaintiff’s complaint in the
plaintiff’s criminal case file; (3) did nothing to cause the filing clerk to open a civil
case for the plaintiff even though Hooks had the power to do so; and (4) was the
person who set the policy that caused plaintiff’s civil complaint to be filed in his
criminal case file.
Further, in keeping with the notion that pro se pleadings are to be liberally
construed,5 and mindful of the fact the instant motion does not move to dismiss for
failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, the motion will be denied
to as to the individual claims against the defendant.
Based on the foregoing, the motion for summary judgment is GRANTED, to
the extent that claims are made against the defendant in his official capacity. All
claims against the defendant in his official capacity are DISMISSED with prejudice.
Otherwise, the motion is DENIED.
The Rule 26 report of parties' planning meeting is due no later than
August 21, 2015.
DONE and ORDERED this 21st day of July, 2015.
VIRGINIA EMERSON HOPKINS
United States District Judge
“‘Pro se pleadings are held to a less stringent standard than pleadings drafted by
attorneys and will, therefore, be liberally construed.’” Windham v. City of Fairhope, Ala., 20 F.
Supp. 3d 1323, 1334 n. 14 (S.D. Ala. 2014), appeal dismissed (July 10, 2014) (Steele, J.), aff'd
sub nom. Windham v. City of Fairhope, 597 F. App'x 1068 (11th Cir. 2015) (quoting
“Tannenbaum v. United States, 148 F.3d 1262, 1263 (11th Cir.1998)).
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