ERAZO v. MACON BIBB COUNTY JUVENILE COURT
ORDER Dismissing Plaintiff's Complaint without prejudice. The CLERK is directed to forward a copy of this ORDER to the business manager of the facility in which Plaintiff is incarcerated. Ordered by US DISTRICT JUDGE C ASHLEY ROYAL on 5/8/2017. (lap)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE MIDDLE DISTRICT OF GEORGIA
JUVENILE COURT et. al.,
This case is currently before the Court for preliminary screening as required by the
Prison Litigation Reform Act (“PLRA”), 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(a). Plaintiff Harens Erazo,
an inmate confined at Blackwater River Correctional Facility in Milton, Florida, filed the
above-captioned proceeding seeking relief under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Plaintiff was granted
in forma pauperis status on March 2, 2016, and has now paid the initial partial filing fee.
As discussed below, however, upon preliminary review, Plaintiff’s complaint is dismissed
for failure to state a claim.
Motion to Proceed In Form Pauperis
Although Plaintiff is allowed to proceed in forma pauperis in this action, Plaintiff is
still obligated to pay the full balance of the filing fee, in installments, as set for in § 1915(b)
and explained below. It is thus requested that the CLERK forward a copy of this
ORDER to the business manager of the facility in which Plaintiff is incarcerated so that
withdrawals from his account may commence as payment towards the filing fee.
A. Directions to Plaintiff’s Custodian
It is hereby ORDERED the warden of the institution wherein Plaintiff is
incarcerated, or the Sheriff of any county wherein he is held in custody, and any successor
custodians, each month cause to be remitted to the Clerk of this court twenty percent (20%)
of the preceding month’s income credited to Plaintiff’s account at said institution until the
$350.00 filing fee has been paid in full. In accordance with provisions of the Prison
Litigation Reform Act, Plaintiff’s custodian is hereby authorized to forward payments
from the prisoner’s account to the Clerk of Court each month until the filing fee is paid in
full, provided the amount in the account exceeds $10.00. It is further ORDERED that
collection of monthly payments from Plaintiff’s trust fund account shall continue until the
entire $350.00 has been collected, notwithstanding the dismissal of Plaintiff’s lawsuit or
the granting of judgment against him prior to the collection of the full filing fee.
A. Plaintiff’s Obligations Upon Release
Pursuant to provisions of the Prison Litigation Reform Act, in the event Plaintiff is
hereafter released from the custody of the State of Georgia or any county thereof, he shall
remain obligated to pay any balance due on the filing fee in this proceeding until said
amount has been paid in full; Plaintiff shall continue to remit monthly payments as
required by the Prison Litigation Reform Act. Collection from Plaintiff of any balance due
on the filing fee by any means permitted by law is hereby authorized in the event Plaintiff
is released from custody and fails to remit payments. Plaintiff’s complaint is subject to
dismissal if he has the ability to make monthly payments and fails to do so.
Preliminary Review of Plaintiff’s Complaint
A. Standard for Preliminary Review
Under the PLRA, the district courts are obligated to conduct a preliminary screening
of every complaint filed by a prisoner who seeks redress from a government entity, official,
or employee. See 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(a). Screening is also required, under 28 U.S.C. §
1915(e), when the plaintiff is proceeding IFP. Both statutes apply in this case, and the
standard of review is the same. When conducting a preliminary review, the district court
must accept all factual allegations in the complaint as true and make all inferences in the
plaintiff’s favor. See Brown v. Johnson, 387 F.3d 1344, 1347 (11th Cir. 2004). Pro se
pleadings are also “held to a less stringent standard than pleadings drafted by attorneys,”
and a pro se compliant is thus “liberally construed.” Tannenbaum v. United States, 148
F.3d 1262, 1263 (11th Cir. 1998) (per curiam). The district court, however, cannot allow
a plaintiff to litigate frivolous, conclusory, or speculative claims.
As part of the
preliminary screening, the court shall dismiss a complaint, or any part thereof, prior to
service, if it is apparent that the plaintiff’s claims are frivolous or if his allegations fail to
state a claim upon which relief may be granted – i.e., that the plaintiff is not entitled to
relief based on the facts alleged. See § 1915A(b); § 1915(e).
B. Plaintiff’s Claim
This action arises out of the termination of Plaintiff’s parental rights in a Juvenile
Court of Macon-Bibb County case initiated by petition of the legal custodian of Plaintiff’s
daughter on July 10, 2013. Plaintiff, incarcerated in Milton, Florida, received the petition
and summons from the Juvenile Court of Macon-Bibb County on August 14, 2015. The
summons stated that the hearing on the petition to terminate Plaintiff’s parental rights was
to be held on August 19, 2015. ECF No. 1-4 at 9. On August 17, Plaintiff filed a motion
for continuance, and the hearing was continued until September 30, 2015. ECF No. 1 at 6.
On September 30, 2015, Plaintiff received a call from “Judge Matthews with the Juvenile
Court of Bibb County,” and Plaintiff alleges he was “informed” that his parental rights
were being terminated following a hearing. Id. at 6. Plaintiff complains that he has not
yet received a written order terminating his parental rights, and was unaware that “he
would be participating in a telephonic hearing.” Id.
Following the hearing, Plaintiff sent a series of letters to the Juvenile Court of
Macon-Bibb County and filed a motion for rehearing. In the letters, Plaintiff requested
information and assistance with filing an appeal, but he states he never received a response
from the court. Id. Plaintiff filed the instant complaint asserting that the procedures
employed by the Juvenile Court of Macon-Bibb County in terminating his parental rights
denied him “due process of law and effectively denied him meaningful access to the
Plaintiff originally named the Juvenile Court of Macon-Bibb County as the only
defendant to this suit. Plaintiff was therefore ordered to recast his complaint to name a
proper Defendant. Plaintiff supplemented his complaint to name Judge Thomas J
Matthews and Diana Watkins as defendants, both in their personal and official capacities.
ECF No. 12-1 at 3. Plaintiff contends that Judge Matthews violated Plaintiff’s rights by
not affording him a full and fair opportunity to be heard, violated the Judge’s duty to be a
“neutral arbiter,” and deprived Plaintiff of a “substantial constitutional and personal right”
without due process of law. Id. Plaintiff asserts he was not appointed counsel, not
allowed to advocate on his own behalf during the termination proceedings, and was not
aware that the termination proceedings would take place over the telephone.
Plaintiff further asserts that Diana Watkins, the Macon-Bibb Juvenile Court Clerk
of Court denied Plaintiff access to the courts by failing to notify him of the termination
proceedings and by failing to respond to his motions and letters. Id. at 3. Plaintiff also
submitted what purports to be receipt of delivery for a public records request Plaintiff sent
to the Juvenile Court of Macon-Bibb County in an attempt to obtain the order terminating
his parental rights. Upon preliminary review, Plaintiff’s claims must be dismissed for
failure to state a claim.
Plaintiff’s Claims are Barred by the Rooker-Feldman Doctrine
Plaintiff’s claims are barred by the Rooker-Feldman doctrine.
Rooker-Feldman doctrine places limits on the subject matter jurisdiction of federal district
courts and courts of appeal over certain matters related to previous state court litigation.”
Goodman ex rel. Goodman v. Sipos, 259 F.3d 1327, 1332 (11th Cir. 2001) (citations
omitted). Federal review of state court judgments “is entrusted solely the Supreme Court”
and district courts may not “decide federal issues that are raised in state proceedings and
‘inextricably intertwined’ with the state court’s judgment.” Wood v. Orange County, 715
F.2d 1543, 1546 (11th Cir. 1983) (citing District of Columbia Court of Appeals v.
Feldman, 460 U.S. 462 (1983)).
The Eleventh Circuit succinctly summarized the doctrine as follows:
The Rooker–Feldman doctrine provides that federal courts, other than the
United States Supreme Court, have no authority to review the final
judgments of state courts. The doctrine extends not only to constitutional
claims presented or adjudicated by a state court, but also to claims that are
“inextricably intertwined” with a state court judgment. A federal claim is
inextricably intertwined with a state court judgment if the federal claim
succeeds only to the extent that the state court wrongly decided the issues
Goodman, 259 F.3d at 1332 (quoting Siegel v. Lepore, 234 F.3d 1163, 1172 (11th Cir.
The Rooker-Feldman doctrine precludes “a party losing in state court . . . from
seeking what in substance would be appellate review of [a] state judgment in a United
States district court, based on the losing party’s claim that the state judgment itself violates
the loser’s federal rights.” McKeel v. Colorado, 74 F. App’x 11, 14 (10th Cir. 2003)
(citations omitted). The Eleventh Circuit has applied the Rooker-Feldman doctrine to
federal actions related to parental rights where the claimant’s federal claim sought to
nullify the state court judgment or was in essence a challenge to the state court judgment.
See e.g. Liedel v. Juvenile Court of Madison County, Ala., 891 F.2d 1542 (11th Cir. 1990);
Staley v. Ledbetter, 837 F.2d 1016 (11th Cir. 1988). Further, the doctrine has been
applied where, as here, a plaintiff seeks reversal of the termination proceedings based on
due process violations resulting from a failure to appoint counsel. Lindsay v. Adoption by
Shepherd Care, Inc., 551 F. App’x 528 (11th Cir. 2014) (due process challenge to
termination proceeding based on failure to appoint counsel barred by Rooker-Feldman
doctrine); Barnes v. Domitrovich, 184 F. App’x 164 (3d Cir. 2006) (prisoner challenging
termination proceedings on basis that he was not allowed to be present and not appointed
counsel barred by Rooker-Feldman).
In this case, Plaintiff seeks, among other things, to have his parental rights restored,
a second chance to litigate the termination proceedings, and nullification of any adoption
proceedings that were made possible by the termination of his parental rights. ECF No.
12-1 at 6. Plaintiff, therefore, essentially seeks to negate the state court judgment and in
substance requests appellate review of the state court judgment. Accordingly, plaintiff’s
complaint is barred.
Plaintiff’s Claims Are Barred by Judicial Immunity
Plaintiff cannot proceed in this action against either named defendant even if his claims
are not barred by the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, as both named defendants are entitled to
judicial immunity. Plaintiff named Judge Matthews, of the Juvenile Court of Macon-Bibb
County as a defendant, but it is well established that “[j]udges are entitled to absolute
immunity from suits for acts performed while they are acting in their judicial capacity
unless they acted in ‘complete absence of all jurisdiction.’” Allen v. Fla., 458 F. App’x 841,
843 (11th Cir. 2012) (citing Mireles v. Waco, 502 U.S. 9 (1991)). “Immunity applies even
when the judge’s acts are in error, malicious, or in excess of his or her jurisdiction.” Id.
(citing Bolin v. Story, 225 F.3d 1234, 1239 (11th Cir. 2000)). “This immunity applies to
proceedings under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.” Wahl v. McIver, 773 F.2d 1169, 1172 (11th Cir.
1985) (citing Pierson v. Ray, 386 U.S. 547 (1967)). Plaintiff’s allegations against Judge
Matthews are based on his adjudication of the petition for termination of Plaintiff’s
parental rights. Judge Matthews acted within his judicial capacity and jurisdiction in
presiding over those proceedings, and he is entitled to absolute judicial immunity.
Plaintiff’s claim against Clerk of Court Watkins is also barred by judicial immunity.
“Court clerks enjoy ‘a narrower ambit of immunity than judges’” Hyland v. Kolhage, 267
F. App’x 836, 842 (11th Cir. 2008) (quoting Tarter v. Hury, 646 F.2d 1010, 1013 (5th Cir.
1981)). However, “[n]onjudicial officials have absolute immunity for their duties that are
integrally related to the judicial process.” Jenkins v. Clerk of Court, U.S. Dist. Court, So.
Dist. Of Fla., 150 F. App’x 988, 990 (11th Cir. 2005). Plaintiff’s claim against Watkins
are based on her alleged failure to issue a notice to Plaintiff of the termination hearing,
respond to his letters, and provide Plaintiff with information related to appellate procedures
in Georgia. Each of these actions constitutes an integral part of the judicial process and
Watkins’ actions are protected by judicial immunity. See e.g. Essell v. Carter, 450 F.
App’x 691, 691 (9th Cir. 2011) (clerk of court immune to suit alleging failure to respond to
letter and file motions); In re Castillo, 297 F.3d 940, 951 (9th Cir. 2002) (clerk of court
immune to suit alleging failure to give notice of hearing).
Even if Plaintiff’s action against Clerk Watkins is not barred by judicial immunity,
Plaintiff has failed to state an access to courts claim. In order to be found liable under
Section 1983, the person being sued must have been personally involved in the alleged
unconstitutional conduct or otherwise be causally connected to the violation. Plaintiff has
alleged no facts suggesting that Clerk Watkins is responsible for any act of which he
complains. Additionally, to state an access to courts claim, an inmate must allege actions
that “impeded the inmates’ pursuit of a nonfrivolous, post-conviction claim or civil rights
action.” Wilson v. Blankenship, 163 F.3d 1284, 1291 (11th Cir. 1998) (citing Bass v.
Singletary, 143 F.3d 1142, 1144 (11th Cir. 1998)). Plaintiff enjoys a constitutional right
to meaningful access to the courts, but to seek relief he “must show an actual injury by
showing that the denial actually impeded a non-frivolous claim.” Logue v. Chatham
County Detention Center, 152 F. App’x 781, 784 (11th Cir. 2005) (citing Blankenship, 163
F.3d at 1290). Plaintiff’s allegation that he was not provided with the information he
requested does not demonstrate that his access to the courts was impeded even if the failure
resulted from the actions of Defendant Watkins.
Freedom of Information Act
Plaintiff finally complains that his rights were violated by the Juvenile Court of
Macon-Bibb County’s failure to respond to his Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”)
request seeking a copy of the order terminating Plaintiff’s parental rights. The “FOIA is a
broad disclosure statute which evidences a strong public policy in favor of public access to
information in the possession of federal agencies.” Lopez v. United States, 656 F. App’x
957, 967 (11th Cir. 2016). FOIA, however, is inapplicable to state agencies. Blankenship
v. Claus, 149 F. App’x 897, 898 (11th Cir. 2005) (FOIA exempts state agencies from its
coverage). Plaintiff has therefore failed to state a claim.
Pursuant to the above, Plaintiff’s complaint is DISMISSED without prejudice for
failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted.
SO ORDERED, this 8th day of May, 2017.
S/ C. Ashley Royal
C. ASHLEY ROYAL, SENIOR JUDGE
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
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