Newton v. City of Wilmington et al
MEMORANDUM OPINION Signed by Judge Sue L. Robinson on 7/20/2016.(aah)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE DISTRICT OF DELAWARE
CITY OF WILMINGTON, et al.,
) Civ. No. 16-267-SLR
Sye Christopher-Rashaud Newton, James T. Vaughn Correctional Center, Smyrna,
Pro se plaintiff.
Dated: July JO, 2016
Plaintiff Sye Christopher-Rashaud Newton ("plaintiff'), an inmate at the James T.
Vaughn Correctional Center, Smyrna, Delaware, proceeds prose and has been
granted in forma pauperis status. He filed this complaint pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983
claiming violations of his constitutional rights. 1 (D.I. 2)
II. STANDARD OF REVIEW
A federal court may properly dismiss an action sua sponte under the screening
provisions of 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(8) and§ 1915A(b) if "the action is frivolous or
malicious, fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, or seeks monetary
relief from a defendant who is immune from such relief." Ball v. Famiglio, 726 F.3d 448,
452 (3d Cir. 2013); see also 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 pro se plaintiff. Phillips v. County of
Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 229 (3d Cir. 2008); Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 93
(2007). Because plaintiff proceeds pro se, his pleading is liberally construed and his
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
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).
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)(B)(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).
The legal standard for dismissing a complaint for failure to state a claim pursuant
to§ 1915(e)(2)(B)(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 plaintiff leave to amend his
complaint unless amendment would be inequitable or futile. See Grayson v. Mayview
State Hosp., 293 F.3d 103, 114 (3d Cir. 2002).
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). A plaintiff must plead facts sufficient to show that a claim has substantive
plausibility. See Johnson v. City of Shelby, _U.S._, 135 S.Ct. 346, 347 (2014). A
complaint may not dismissed, however, for imperfect statements of the legal theory
supporting the claim asserted. See id. at 346.
Under the pleading regime established by Twombly and Iqbal, a court reviewing
the sufficiency of a complaint must take three steps: (1) take note of the elements the
plaintiff must plead to state a claim; (2) identify allegations that, because they are no
more than conclusions, are not entitled to the assumption of truth; and (3) when there
are well-pleaded factual allegations, the court should assume their veracity and then
determine whether they plausibly give rise to an entitlement to relief. Connelly v. Lane
Const. Corp., 809 F.3d 780, 787 (3d Cir. 2016) (internal citations and quotations
omitted). 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 sense." Id.
Ill. ALLEGATIONS IN THE COMPLAINT
The complaint names a number of private attorneys, public defenders, judges,
Attorney General of the State of Delaware Matt Denn ("Denn"), deputy attorneys
general, unnamed Clerk's Office personnel, and the City of Wilmington ("City of
Wilmington") and contains allegations related to two criminal cases wherein plaintiff
entered into plea agreements. Plaintiff alleges that he was coerced into entering both
plea agreements through the use of threats, fraudulent information, and misadvice, all
accomplished through conspiratorial actions among defendants. Plaintiff pied guilty to
assault in the second degree in October 2006, and pied guilty to robbery on February
27, 2007, following which he was immediately sentenced in both the assault and
robbery cases. See Newton v. State, 2015 WL 4389878, at *1 (Del. 2015). Plaintiff
complains about the representation he received from his defense counsel, actions
taken by deputy attorneys general in prosecuting his cases, orders entered by judges,
and orders filed under wrong case numbers and sent by Clerk's Office personnel to
wrong parties. Plaintiff alleges these acts violated his civil rights because he is black
In January 2014, plaintiff filed a Rule 61 motion for postconviction relief. While
not clear, it appears that defendant Delaware Superior Court Judge Jane M. Brady
("Judge Brady") denied the motion or was somehow involved with the motion given that
plaintiff alleges that Judge Brady and defendant Delaware Superior Court Judge Diane
Clarke Streett ("Judge Streett") entered, or were a direct cause of the entry of, a noncompliance order on June 3, 2014. Plaintiff explains that the Rule 61 motion was
referred to Judge Brady on August 11, 2014 and that she held onto it until September 5,
2014, when it was referred to Judge Streett. Plaintiff also complains that Judge Brady
ordered counsel to represent plaintiff, that defendant Office of Conflicts Counsel
("OCC") arranged an attorney, but the attorney "hindered more than helped." Plaintiff
alleges that he did not need counsel and Judge Brady knew this.
Plaintiff also complains that, due to clerical errors in November 2014, docketing
clerks sent orders to the wrong parties. He alleges that after he complained, a docket
entry on November 8, 2014 suddenly appeared. Plaintiffs Rule 61 motion was
dismissed on January 26, 2015. Plaintiff sought relief under Rule 60, and he also filed
a notice of appeal. The Rule 60 motion was dismissed. On July 15, 2015, the
Delaware Supreme Court affirmed the Delaware Superior Court's judgment that denied
plaintiff's motion for postconviction relief under Rule 61. See Newton v. State, 2015 WL
4389878 (Del. 2015). Plaintiff alleges that the Delaware Courts lacked jurisdiction to
enforce an invalid contract (i.e., plea agreement), and failed to prevent further
violations. He also alleges that the Delaware Supreme Court deprived him of his right
to equal protection. Plaintiff seeks punitive damages and declaratory and injunctive
relief including an investigation of the Delaware criminal justice system.
A. Statute of Limitations
All claims prior to November 9, 2013 are barred by the applicable two-year
statute of limitations. 2 For purposes of the statute of limitations, § 1983 claims are
characterized as personal injury actions. Wilson v. Garcia, 471 U.S. 261, 275 (1983).
In Delaware,§ 1983 claims are subject to a two-year limitations period. See 10 Del. C.
§ 8119; Johnson v. Cullen, 925 F. Supp. 244, 248 (D. Del. 1996). Section 1983 claims
accrue "when the plaintiff knew or should have known of the injury upon which [his]
action is based." Sameric Corp. v. City of Philadelphia, 142 F.3d 582, 599 (3d Cir.
1998). Claims not filed within the two-year statute of limitations period are time-barred
and must be dismissed. See Smith v. State, 2001 WL 845654, at *2 (D. Del. July 24,
The complaint was signed on November 9, 2015, but not docketed until April 15,
2016. Because plaintiff is incarcerated, the court gives plaintiff the benefit and
considers the complaint filed as of the date it was signed and the earliest date it could
have been delivered to prison officials for mailing. See Houston v. Lack, 487 U.S. 266
(1988) (complained deemed filed as of the date it was delivered to prison officials for
mailing to the court).
The statute of limitations is an affirmative defense that generally must be raised
by the defendant, and it is waived if not properly raised. See Benak ex rel. Alliance
Premier Growth Fund v. Alliance Capital Mgmt. L.P., 435 F.3d 396, 400 n.14 (3d Cir.
2006); Fassett v. Delta Kappa Epsilon, 807 F.2d 1150, 1167 (3d Cir. 1986). "[W]here
the statute of limitations defense is obvious from the face of the complaint and no
development of the factual record is required to determine whether dismissal is
appropriate, sua sponte dismissal under 28 U.S.C. § 1915 is permissible." Davis v.
Gauby, 408 F. App'x 524, 526 (3d Cir. 2010) (unpublished) (quoting Fogle v. Pierson,
435 F.3d 1252, 1258 (10th Cir. 2006)).
Plaintiff references acts taken by various defendants during the prosecution of
two criminal cases from August 8, 2005 through July 15, 2015. The instant complaint
was not filed until November 9, 2015. Hence, it is evident from the face of the
complaint that claims accruing prior to November 9, 2013 are time-barred and they will
be dismissed as legally frivolous pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B)(i) and
§ 1915A(b)(1 ). 3
The claims against defendants attorney Andrew Witherell ("Witherell"),
Delaware deputy attorney generals lpek Kurul ("Kurul") and Brian Robertson
("Robertson"), attorney Raymond Radulski ("Radulski") include, but are not limited to:
(1) waiver of plaintiff's arraignment without his knowledge or consent; (2) waiver or
failure to request a preliminary hearing without plaintiff's knowledge or consent;
(3) failure of defense counsel to inform plaintiff that his co-defendant had admitted guilt;
(4) defense counsel advised plaintiff at an unscheduled and unannounced court
scheduling hearing that plaintiff's mere presence at the scene of the crime was enough
to convict plaintiff, that his co-defendant was upstairs and ready to testify against him,
that the State had moved the trial date, and that it was plaintiffs final opportunity to take
the plea; (5) plaintiff admitted guilt due to defense counsel's misstatement and
misinterpretation of the law; (6) plaintiff was subjected to racial discrimination by the
prosecution; (7) the prosecution deprived plaintiff of justice; (8) defendants conspired to
deprive plaintiff of his right to equal protection based upon his race; (9) prosecution
B. Habeas Corpus
To the extent that plaintiff attempts to challenge his conviction and/or sentence,
his sole federal remedy for challenging the fact or duration of his confinement is by way
of habeas corpus. Preiser v. Rodriguez, 411 U.S. 475 (1973); see also Torrence v.
Thompson, 435 F. App'x 56 (3d Cir. 2011) (unpublished). In addition, a plaintiff cannot
recover under § 1983 for alleged wrongful incarceration unless he proves that the
conviction or sentence has been reversed on direct appeal, expunged by executive
order, declared invalid by a state tribunal authorized to make such determination, or
called into question by a federal court's issuance of a writ of habeas corpus. See Heck
v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477, 487 (1994).
In Heck, the Supreme Court held that where success in a § 1983 action would
implicitly call into question the validity of conviction or duration of sentence, the plaintiff
must first achieve favorable termination of his available state or federal habeas
remedies to challenge the underlying conviction or sentence. Considering Heck and
summarizing the interplay between habeas and § 1983 claims, the Supreme Court
explained that,"a state prisoner's § 1983 action is barred (absent prior invalidation) - no
matter the relief sought (damages or equitable relief), no matter the target of the
prisoner's suit (state conduct leading to conviction or internal prison proceedings) - if
success in that action would necessarily demonstrate the invalidity of the confinement
requested that sentencing be postponed; (10) prosecution targeted and extracted
harsher plea deals for black defendants; (11) defense counsel did not discuss any
evidence favorable to plaintiff, offered plaintiff a "last minute" plea, informed plaintiff that
he had no available defenses, failed to advise plaintiff that there was a taped videostatement that would exonerate plaintiff, and coerced plaintiff into pleading guilty. (See
0.1. 2, pl.'s decl.)
or its duration." Wilkinson v. Dotson, 544 U.S. 74, 81-82 (2005). Here, plaintiff has not
alleged or proven that his convictions or sentences have been reversed or invalidated
as provided by Heck. To the extent plaintiff seeks damages for his current
incarceration, his claim rests on an "inarguable legal conclusion" and is, therefore,
frivolous. Neitzke, 490 U.S. at 326.
C. Judicial Immunity
The complaint contains allegations against a number of judicial officers for acts
taken by them during the pendency of plaintiff's criminal cases. "A judicial officer in the
performance of his duties has absolute immunity from suit and will not be liable for his
judicial acts." See 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 took was in error, was
done maliciously, or was in excess of his authority; rather, he will be subject to liability
only when he has acted 'in the clear absence of all jurisdiction."'. Id. (citations omitted).
Here, plaintiff failed to set forth any facts that would show that any of the judges acted
in the absence of jurisdiction. Defendant judges are immune from suit and the claims
will be dismissed as frivolous and based upon their immunity pursuant to 28 U.S.C.
§ 1915(e)(2)(B)(i) and (iii) and§ 1915A(b)(1) and (2). 4
The judges include Judge Streett, Judge Brady, Delaware Supreme Court Chief
Justice Leo Strine ("Chief Justice Strine"), and Delaware Supreme Court Justices
Randy Holland ("Justice Holland") and Karen Valihura ("Justice Valihura").
D. Prosecutorial Immunity
Plaintiff complains of acts taken by deputy attorneys general during the
prosecution of his criminal cases. Prosecutors should not be encumbered by the threat
of civil liability while performing judicial or quasi-judicial functions. See Odd v. Malone,
538 F.3d 202, 208 (3d Cir. 2008). Prosecutors acting within the scope of their duties in
initiating and pursuing a criminal prosecution are immune to suit under§ 1983. Imbler
v. Pachtman, 424 U.S. 409, 410 (1976).
The acts of which plaintiff complains fit squarely within the realm of official
prosecutorial duties. See id. at 430 (activities intimately associated with the judicial
phase of the criminal process, casting the prosecutor as an advocate rather than an
administrative or investigative officer, trigger absolute immunity). Defendants attorneys
general enjoy immunity from § 1983 liability for those acts. Therefore, the court will
dismiss the claims as frivolous and based upon defendants' prosecutorial immunity
pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B)(i) and (iii) and§ 1915A(b)(1) and (2). 5
E. Defense Counsel
The complaint names private attorneys, an assistant public defender, and the
Delaware Public Defender as defendants. None of these individuals are state actors as
is required to state a claim under§ 1983. See Polk Cnty. v. Dodson, 454 U.S. 312, 325
(1981) (holding that public defenders do not act under color of state law); Steward v.
Meeker, 459 F.2d 669 (3d Cir. 1972) (privately-retained counsel does not act under
The named prosecutors are Kurul and Robertson.
color of state law when representing client); Thomas v. Howard, 455 F.2d 228 (3d Cir.
1972) (court-appointed attorney does not act under color of state law).
There are no allegations in the complaint that give rise to a plausible inference
that any of the attorneys who represented plaintiff in his criminal cases acted under
color of state law or conspired with state actors to deny plaintiff his constitutional rights.
Accordingly, plaintiff cannot recover under § 1983. See Great Western Mining &
Mineral Co. v. Fox Rothschild LLP, 615 F.3d 159, 175-76 (3d Cir. 2010) (holding that
"[t]o prevail on a § 1983 claim, a plaintiff must allege that the defendant acted under
color of state law, in other words, that there was state action."); see also Reichley v.
Pennsylvania Dep't of Agric., 427 F.3d 236, 245 (3d Cir. 2005). The claims will be
dismissed as frivolous pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B)(i) and § 1915(A)(b)(1 ). 6
The complaint names the OCC as a defendant. To state a viable § 1983 claim,
a plaintiff must allege facts showing a deprivation of a constitutional right, privilege or
immunity by a person acting under color of state law. See Daniels v. Williams, 474 U.S.
327, 330 (1986). The claim against the OCC is barred by Will v. Michigan Dep't of
State Police, 491 U.S. 58, 69 (1989), which holds that neither states nor state officials
sued in their official capacities for money damages are "persons" within the meaning of
§ 1983. See Evancho v. Fisher, 423 F.3d 347, 350 (3d Cir. 2005). Accordingly, the
Witherell and Radulski represent plaintiff in his two criminal matters, Delaware
public defender Brandon J. O'Neill ("O'Neill") supervised the assistant public defenders,
and private attorney Theopolis Gregory ("Gregory") was appointed to represent plaintiff
in the Rule 61 motion proceeding.
claims against the OCC will be dismissed as frivolous pursuant to 28 U.S.C.
§ 1915(e)(2)(B)(i) and § 1915(A)(b)(1 ).
G. Clerk's Office Personnel
The complaint names Jane/John Does, New Castle County Clerk's Office
personnel as defendants. Plaintiff complains of administrative functions performed by
Clerk's Office personnel. "The United States Supreme Court has long recognized that
officials performing judicial and quasi-judicial functions in our adversarial system must
be entitled to some measure of protection from personal liability for acts taken in their
official capacities." Walker v. Elliott, 2010 WL 4916714 n.3 (M.D. Pa. 2010). The
doctrine of absolute quasi-judicial immunity has been applied to court support
personnel due to "the danger that disappointed litigants, blocked by the doctrine of
absolute immunity from suing the judge directly, will vent their wrath on clerks, court
reporters, and other judicial adjuncts." Kincaid v. Vail, 969 F.2d 594, 601 (7th Cir.
1992). See also Marcedes v. Barrett, 453 F.2d 391 (3d Cir. 1971) (holding that
quasi-judicial immunity applied to clerk of courts, an administrative assistant to the
president judge and a court reporter); Henig v. Odorioso, 385 F.2d 491, 494 (3d Cir.
1967) (holding that judiciary employees executing judicial orders are immune from suit);
Davis v. Philadelphia Cnty., 195 F.Supp.2d 686 (E.D. Pa. 2002) (holding that
quasi-judicial immunity applies to court staff, such as clerks of judicial records and court
Common law immunities for quasi-judicial officials applies and prevents plaintiff
from maintaining his claims against Doe personnel. Therefore, the claims against Doe
personnel will be dismissed as frivolous and based upon their immunity from suit
pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B)(i) and (iii) and§ 1915(A)(b)(1) and (2).
Plaintiff alleges that he entered into plea agreements as a result of conspiratorial
actions between plaintiff's attorneys and deputy attorneys general and that Superior
Court judges conspired amongst themselves and court clerks. Plaintiff also alleges that
Delaware Supreme Court justices furthered the aims of the conspiracy through their
rulings in violation of plaintiff's constitutional rights.
Most of plaintiff's conspiracy claims are time-barred. Those that are not are
frivolous, speak to actions for which defendants are immune from suit, are conclusory,
and fail to meet the pleading requirements of Iqbal and Twombly. Therefore, the
conspiracy claims will be dismissed as frivolous pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B)(i)
I. Respondeat Superior
Plaintiff alleges that Denn, who became the Attorney General of the State of
Delaware on January 13, 2015, is responsible for the training, supervision, and
discipline of his subordinates. These scant allegations fail to rise to the level of
In addition, it appears that Denn is named as a defendant based upon his
supervisory position. It is well established that claims based solely on the theory of
respondeat superior or supervisor liability are facially deficient. See Iqbal, 556 U.S. at
676-77 (2009); see also Solan v. Ranck, 326 F. App'x 97, 100-01 (3d Cir. 2009)
(unpublished) (holding that "[a] defendant in a civil rights action must have personal
involvement in the alleged wrongs; liability cannot be predicated solely on the operation
of respondeat superior").
The claims against Denn fail as they rests impermissibly on a theory of
supervisory liability. Accordingly, the court will dismiss the claims as frivolous pursuant
to 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B)(i) and§ 1915(A)(b)(1).
J. Municipal Liability
The City of Wilmington is named as a defendant. A municipality may only be
held liable under § 1983 when the "execution of a government's policy or custom ...
inflicts the injury." Andrews v. City of Philadelphia, 895 F.2d 1469, 1480 (3d Cir. 1990).
While a government policy is established by a "decisionmaker possessing final
authority," a custom arises from a "course of conduct ... so permanent and well settled
as to virtually constitute law." Andrews, 895 F.2d at 1480 (citing Monell v. Department
of Social Services of the City of New York, 436 U.S. 658 (1978)). Accordingly, a
plaintiff seeking to recover from a municipality must: (1) identify an allegedly
unconstitutional policy or custom; (2) demonstrate that the municipality, through its
deliberate and culpable conduct, was the "moving force" behind the injury alleged; and
(3) demonstrate a direct causal link between the municipal action and the alleged
deprivation of federal rights. Board of the Cnty. Comm'rs v. Brown, 520 U.S. 397, 404
Plaintiff has not pied that the City of Wilmington was the "moving force" behind
any alleged constitutional violation. Absent any allegation that a custom or policy
established by the City of Wilmington directly caused harm to plaintiff, his § 1983 claim
cannot stand. Therefore, the court will dismiss the claim against the City of Wilmington
as frivolous pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B)(i) and§ 1915A(b)(1).
For the above reasons, the court will dismiss the action as frivolous and based
upon defendants' immunity pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B)(i) and (iii) and
§ 1915(A)(b)(1) and (2). The court finds amendment futile.
A separate order shall issue.
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