Dahl et al v. Johnston et al
MEMORANDUM. Signed by Judge Sue L. Robinson on 09/15/14. (etg, )
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE DISTRICT OF DELAWARE
WILLIAM SEAN DAHL,
CHRISTOPHER BRIAN SANDS,
and KENNETH E. WOOD, JR.,
MARY MILLER JOHNSTON, et al.,
) Civ. No. 14-705-SLR
1. Introduction. Plaintiffs 1 William Sean Dahl ("Dahl"), Christopher Brian Sands
("Sands"), and Kenneth E. Wood, Jr. ("Wood") ("plaintiffs"), former or current inmates at
the Howard R. Young Correctional Institution ("HRYCI"), Wilmington, Delaware,
proceed prose and have been granted in forma pauperis status. 2 They filed this
complaint pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claiming violations of their constitutional rights. 3
(D.I. 5, 7)
2. Standard of Review. This court must dismiss, at the earliest practicable
time, certain in forma pauperis and prisoner actions that are frivolous, malicious, fail to
state a claim, or seek monetary relief from a defendant who is immune from such relief.
Plaintiffs Damon 0. Smith, Carlton Lewis Cale, and Robert Asbury have been
dismissed from the case. (D.I. 30, 37, 38)
Dahl was housed at the HRYCI when the complaint was filed, but has since
been transferred to the Philadelphia Federal Detention Center. (D.I. 34)
When bringing a § 1983 claim, a plaintiff must allege that some person has
deprived him of a federal right, and that the person who caused the deprivation acted
under color of state law. West v. Atkins, 487 U.S. 42, 48 (1988).
See 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2) (in forma pauperis actions); 28 U.S.C. § 1915A (actions in
which prisoner seeks redress from a governmental defendant); 42 U.S.C. § 1997e
(prisoner actions brought with respect to prison conditions). The court must accept all
factual allegations in a complaint as true and take them in the light most favorable to a
prose plaintiff. Phillips v. County of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 229 (3d Cir. 2008);
Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 93 (2007). Because plaintiffs proceed prose, their
pleading is liberally construed and their complaint, "however inartfully pleaded, must be
held to less stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers." Erickson v.
Pardus, 551 U.S. at 94 (citations omitted).
3. An action is frivolous if it "lacks an arguable basis either in law or in fact."
Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319, 325 (1989). Under 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(8)(i) and
§ 1915A(b)(1), a court may dismiss a complaint as frivolous if it is "based on an
indisputably meritless legal theory" or a "clearly baseless" or "fantastic or delusional"
factual scenario. Neitzke, 490 at 327-28; Wilson v. Rackmill, 878 F.2d 772, 774 (3d Cir.
1989); see, e.g., Deutsch v. United States, 67 F.3d 1080, 1091-92 (3d Cir. 1995)
(holding frivolous a suit alleging that prison officials took an inmate's pen and refused to
give it back).
4. The legal standard for dismissing a complaint for failure to state a claim
pursuant to§ 1915(e)(2)(8)(ii) and§ 1915A(b)(1) is identical to the legal standard used
when ruling on Rule 12(b)(6) motions. Tourscher v. McCullough, 184 F.3d 236, 240 (3d
Cir. 1999) (applying Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6) standard to dismissal for failure to state a
claim under§ 1915(e)(2)(8)). However, before dismissing a complaint or claims for
failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted pursuant to the screening
provisions of 28 U.S.C. §§ 1915 and 1915A, the court must grant plaintiffs leave to
amend their complaint unless amendment would be inequitable or futile. See Grayson
v. Mayview State Hosp., 293 F.3d 103, 114 (3d Cir. 2002).
5. A well-pleaded complaint must contain more than mere labels and
conclusions. See Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662 (2009); Bell At/. Corp. v. Twombly,
550 U.S. 544 (2007). The assumption of truth is inapplicable to legal conclusions or to
"[t]hreadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action supported by mere
conclusory statements." Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678. When determining whether dismissal
is appropriate, the court must take three steps: "(1) identify the elements of the claim,
(2) review the complaint to strike conclusory allegations, and then (3) look at the
well-pleaded components of the complaint and evaluat[e] whether all of the elements
identified in part one of the inquiry are sufficiently alleged." Malleus v. George, 641
F.3d 560, 563 (3d Cir. 2011). Elements are sufficiently alleged when the facts in the
complaint "show" that the plaintiff is entitled to relief. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679 (quoting
Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a)(2)). Deciding whether a claim is plausible will be a "context-specific
task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common
6. Discussion. Plaintiffs, all of whom are convicted sex offenders, allege that
defendants have discriminated against them because they are not allowed to
participate in Delaware's Violation of Probation Mental Health Court ("Mental Health
Court"). See http://courts.delaware.gov/superior/mental_health2.stm (Sept. 9, 2014).
In order to be eligible for Mental Health Court, a probationer must not be a sex offender,
have any interstate cases running concurrently, or have any pending charges. Id.
7. In 2011, Dahl filed a motion for modification of sentence and asked to be
placed in the Mental Health Court upon the start of his probation. (D.I. 10, 1110)
Defendant Superior Court Judge Mary Miller Johnston ("Judge Johnson") denied the
request and advised Dahl that sex offenders are prohibited from accessing the Mental
Health Court. Dahl violated his probation in 2013 and alleges that, had he been
allowed to participate in the Mental Health Court, he would have received the structure
and guidance needed to succeed on probation. (Id. at 1135)
8. Sands appeared before defendant Superior Court Judge Andrea Rocinelli
("Judge Rocinelli") on February 27, 2014 for a violation of probation hearing. The
complaint alleges that Judge Rocinelli was aware of Sand's mental health condition, but
refused to acknowledge Sands' mental health condition as a contributing factor in his
conduct despite overwhelming mitigating circumstances. (Id. at 11 31) Wood appeared
before defendant Superior Court Judge T. Henley Graves ("Judge Graves") in 2008 and
was sentenced to rape Third Degree. (Id. at 11 32) Woods has been diagnosed with
mental health disorders. (Id. at 33)
9. Also named as defendants are Superior Court Judge Jan R. Jurden ("Judge
Jurden"), Attorney General of the State of Delaware Joseph R. Biden, Ill ("Biden"), and
the State of Delaware. The claims against Judge Jurden concern sentences she
imposed in the criminal cases of Smith and Cale. (Id. at 111122, 26) Plaintiffs seek
injunctive relief in the form of access to the Mental Health Court, protection from any
retribution or prison transfers for filing the complaint, and compensatory damages.
10. Judicial Immunity. Plaintiffs allege that Judges Johnston, Jurden,
Rocinelli, and Graves violated their constitutional rights and discriminated against
plaintiffs when they determined that plaintiffs were not eligible to participate in Mental
Health Court. "A judicial officer in the performance of his [or her] duties has absolute
immunity from suit and will not be liable for his [or her] judicial acts." Capogrosso v.
The Supreme Court of New Jersey, 588 F.3d 180, 184 (3d Cir. 2009) (quoting Azubuko
v. Royal, 443 F.3d 302, 303 (3d Cir. 2006)). "A judge will not be deprived of immunity
because the action he [or she] took was in error, was done maliciously, or was in
excess of his [or her] authority; rather, he [or she] will be subject to liability only when
he [or she] has acted 'in the clear absence of all jurisdiction."'. Id. (citations omitted).
Here the complaint contains no allegations that any of the Superior Court Judges acted
outside the scope of their judicial capacity, or in the absence of their jurisdiction.
11. In addition, the injunctive relief requested is not available. The Federal
Courts Improvement Act of 1996 amended 42 U.S.C. § 1983 to provide that "in any
action brought against a judicial officer for an act or omission taken in such officer's
judicial capacity, injunctive relief shall not be granted unless a declaratory decree was
violated or declaratory relief was unavailable." 42 U.S.C. § 1983; see also Azubuko v.
Royal, 443 F.3d 302, 303-04 (3d Cir. 2006). The complaint relies on judicial acts as the
basis for the claims of discrimination. The actions taken by each of the named Judges,
were actions taken squarely within the judges' official capacity. See e.g., Rose v. York
Cnty, _F. App'x_, 2014 WL 3057989, at *3 (3d Cir. 2014); see also, Stump v.
Sparkman, 435 U.S. 349, 356 (1978) (explaining that judicial immunity extends to
alleged actions taken in a judicial capacity, even if any action taken "was in error, was
done maliciously, or was in excess of authority"). Inasmuch as plaintiffs did not
allege that a declaratory decree was violated or that declaratory relief was unavailable,
their claims for injunctive relief are barred. See Azubuko, 443 F.3d at 304. Therefore,
the court will dismiss the claims against the foregoing Judges as they are legally
frivolous and the Judges are immune from suit pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B)(i)
and (iii) and§ 1915A(b)(1) and (2).
12. Personal Involvement. The complaint names Biden as a defendant, it
appears, based upon the position he holds with the State of Delaware. There are no
allegations directed towards Biden. With regard to Judge Jurden, in addition to judicial
immunity, the claims against her are raised by plaintiffs who have been dismissed from
13. Personal involvement is an essential element of a civil rights action. Sutton
v. Rasheed, 323 F.3d 236, 249-250 (3d Cir. 2003). Individual liability can only be
imposed if the state actor played an "affirmative part" in the conduct complained of.
Chinchello v. Fenton, 805 F.2d 126, 133 (3d Cir. 1986). "Personal involvement can be
shown through allegations of personal direction or of actual knowledge and
acquiescence" in the challenged practice. Argueta v. United States Immigration and
Customs Enforcement, 643 F.3d 60, 72 (3d Cir. 2011) (quoting Rode v. Dellarciprete,
845 F.2d 1195, 1207 (3d Cir. 1988). As discussed, the complaint does not contain any
allegations directed towards Biden and the plaintiffs who raise claims against Judge
Jurden have been dismissed from the case. Therefore, Biden and Judge Jurden will be
dismissed as defendants pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B)(i) and§ 1915A(b)(1).
14. Eleventh Amendment Immunity. Finally, plaintiffs' claims against the State
of Delaware are barred by the State's Eleventh Amendment immunity. See MCI
Telecom. Corp. v. Bel/At/. of Pa., 271F.3d491, 503 (3d Cir. 2001). The Eleventh
Amendment of the United States Constitution protects an unconsenting state or state
agency from a suit brought in federal court by one of its own citizens, regardless of the
relief sought. See Pennhurst State Sch. & Hosp. v. Halderman, 465 U.S. 89 (1984);
Edelman v. Jordan, 415 U.S. 651 (1974). The State has not waived its immunity from
suit in federal court, and although Congress can abrogate a state's sovereign immunity,
it did not do so through the enactment of 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Brooks-McCollum v.
Delaware, 213 F. App'x 92, 94 (3d Cir. 2007) (unpublished) (citations omitted). The
claims will be dismissed on the basis of State of Delaware's Eleventh Amendment
immunity pursuant to 28 U.S.C.§ 1915(e)(2)(B)(iii) and § 1915A(b)(2).
15. Conclusion. For the above reasons, Dahl's motion for permission to
correspond with other plaintiffs (D.I. 35) will be denied as moot. In addition, the
complaint will be dismissed as frivolous and on the basis of immunity pursuant to 28
U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B)(i) and (iii) and § 1915A(b)(1) and (2). The court finds
amendment futile. A separate order shall issue.
Date: September ~. 2014
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