Cross v. Phelps County, Missouri et al
OPINION MEMORANDUM AND ORDER - IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that plaintiff's motion to proceed in forma pauperis [ECF No. 2 ] is GRANTED. IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that this action is DISMISSED without prejudice. An Order of Dismissal will be filed separately. Signed by District Judge Henry Edward Autrey on 2/29/16. (KJS)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
EASTERN DISTRICT OF MISSOURI
PHELPS COUNTY, MISSOURI, et al.,
No. 4:16CV217 HEA
OPINION, MEMORANDUM AND ORDER
Plaintiff seeks leave to proceed in forma pauperis in this civil action under 42 U.S.C.
§ 1983. The motion is granted. Additionally, the Court will dismiss this action under 28 U.S.C.
Standard of Review
Under 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e), the Court is required to dismiss a complaint filed in forma
pauperis if it is frivolous, malicious, or fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.
To state a claim for relief under § 1983, a complaint must plead more than “legal conclusions”
and “[t]hreadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action [that are] supported by mere
conclusory statements.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009).
A plaintiff must
demonstrate a plausible claim for relief, which is more than a “mere possibility of misconduct.”
Id. at 679. “A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows
the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct
alleged.” Id. at 678. Determining whether a complaint states a plausible claim for relief [is] a
context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and
common sense. Id. at 679.
Plaintiff brings this action against two state court judges, two clerks of court, Phelps
County, and St. Francois County. Plaintiff’s husband, Farrell Cross (“Farrell”), was tried for and
convicted of first-degree murder. Missouri v. Cross, No. 12SF-CR00126 (St. Francois County).
Farrell could not afford to retain counsel, and the court appointed the public defender to
represent him. Missouri v. Cross, No. 10PH-CR01140-01 (Phelps County).1
Although the court appointed the public defender, it determined that Farrell could afford
to pay some of the costs of the defense. As a result, it ordered him to pay $500 per month into
the court’s registry. Cross, No. 10PH-CR01140-01. After the venue was transferred to St.
Francois County, the monthly payments continued. At the conclusion of the case, the court
entered judgment directing Farrell to pay $10,000 to the public defender under Section 600.090
of the Missouri Revised Statutes. Section 600.090 permits the public defender to attach a lien to
a defendant’s property to recoup the costs of the defense.
Plaintiff alleges that the presiding judges did not hold a hardship hearing before assessing
the fees. She says she became destitute as a result, because she and Farrell could not afford the
required payments. Plaintiff claims that defendants violated her constitutional rights by taking
marital property to pay for her husband’s defense. Plaintiff seeks declaratory, injunctive, and
Naming a government official in his or her official capacity is the equivalent of naming
the government entity that employs the official. Will v. Michigan Dep’t of State Police, 491 U.S.
58, 71 (1989). To state a claim against a municipality or a government official in his or her
The case was initiated in Phelps County, but venue was transferred to St. Francois County.
official capacity, plaintiff must allege that a policy or custom of the government entity is
responsible for the alleged constitutional violation. Monell v. Dep’t of Social Services, 436 U.S.
658, 690-91 (1978). The instant complaint does not contain any allegations that a policy or
custom of a government entity was responsible for the alleged violations of plaintiff’s
constitutional rights. As a result, the complaint fails to state a claim against St. Francois County,
Phelps County, or defendants in their official capacities.
Judges are immune from suit but for two instances. “First, a judge may be subject to suit
for non-judicial acts,” “such as deciding to prosecute and determining offense to be charged.”
Duty v. City of Springdale, Ark., 42 F.3d 460, 462 (8th Cir. 1994) (citation and quotation
omitted). “Second, judges are not immune from lawsuits based on actions taken in the complete
absence of all jurisdiction.”
Additionally, “[c]ourt clerks have absolute quasi-judicial
immunity from damages for civil rights violations when they perform tasks that are an integral
part of the judicial process unless the clerks acted in the clear absence of all jurisdiction.” Boyer
v. County of Washington, 971 F.2d 100, 101 (8th Cir.1992); see also Maness v. District of Logan
County–Northern Div., 495 F.3d 943 (8th Cir.2007) (clerks absolutely immune for acts that may
be seen as discretionary or for acts taken at the direction of a judge or according to court rule).
According to the alleged facts in this case, the judge and court clerk defendants may only
be liable if they acted in the absence of their jurisdiction. For this to be true, it must have been
unconstitutional for the judges to order Farrell to pay for the costs of his defense with marital
Missouri recognizes the doctrine of necessaries. See St. Francois Med Ctr. v. Watkins,
413 S.W.3d 354, 357 (Mo. Ct. App. 2013). “Historically, the doctrine required only a husband
to pay the necessary expenses of his wife, but the doctrine is now applied in a gender-neutral
fashion.” Id. Legal protection from suit has been held to be a necessity under Missouri law.
Hamilton v. Salisbury, 114 S.W. 563, 563 (Mo. Ct. App. 1908) (legal defense against defamation
“was as much a necessary as were food, raiment, and shelter.”). Under Missouri law, therefore,
the defendant judges acted within their jurisdiction when they ordered Farrell to pay for his
defense costs with marital property. This has not been found to violate the constitution in federal
court. E.g., United States v. Conn, 645 F.Supp. 44, 45 (E.D. Wis. 1986) (applying Wisconsin
law of necessaries to costs of defense under the Criminal Justice Act, 18 U.S.C. § 3006A). As a
result, the judge and court clerk defendants are immune from suit, and this action must be
IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that plaintiff's motion to proceed in forma pauperis [ECF
No. 2] is GRANTED.
IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that this action is DISMISSED without prejudice.
An Order of Dismissal will be filed separately.
Dated this 29th day of February, 2016
HENRY EDWARD AUTREY
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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