MCNEAL v. HOERNER et al
OPINION FILED. Signed by Chief Judge Jerome B. Simandle on 4/17/17. (js)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE DISTRICT OF NEW JERSEY
HONORABLE JEROME B. SIMANDLE
No. 16-4247 (JBS-KMW)
MEGHAN HOERNER; PATRICIA M.
WILD; ODED WEINSTOCK,
William McNeal, Plaintiff Pro Se
3 West Industrial Blvd.
Bridgeton, NJ 08302
SIMANDLE, Chief Judge:
Before the Court is Plaintiff William McNeal’s
(“Plaintiff”), submission of a civil rights complaint pursuant
to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Complaint, Docket Entry 1. At this time,
the Court must review the complaint, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§
1915(e)(2) and 1915A to determine whether it should be dismissed
as frivolous or malicious, for failure to state a claim upon
which relief may be granted, or because it seeks monetary relief
from a defendant who is immune from such relief. For the reasons
set forth below, the Court concludes that the complaint will be
dismissed on grounds of judicial immunity and for failure to
state a claim.
Plaintiff brings this civil rights action against
prosecutor Meghan Hoerner, Judge Patricia Wild, and public
defender Oded Weinstock. The following factual allegations are
taken from the complaint and are accepted for purposes of this
screening only. The Court has made no findings as to the truth
of Plaintiff’s allegations.
Plaintiff’s statement of claims reads in its entirety:
I was sentence[d] outside of sentence guidelines which
cause my constitutional civil rights to be violated
under amendments of constitutional of Civil Rights Act.
There was misconduct wrongdoing not for the truth but
for there [sic] own reason of deliberately, wrongness
reckless, disregard for the truth.
Complaint ¶ 6. He alleges Judge Wild “allowed [him] to received
[sic] a sentence of 10y, over all due to crime and degree.” Id.
¶ 4(c). He further claims “Judge and Prosecutor and [his] Public
Defender should have sentenced [him] to a term of 5y. Serious
Civil Rights violation.” Id.
Plaintiff seeks relief in the form of $180,000,000 in
damages. Id. ¶ 7. He requests the appointment of pro bono
III. STANDARD OF REVIEW
A. Standards for a Sua Sponte Dismissal
Per the Prison Litigation Reform Act, Pub. L. No. 104-134,
§§ 801-810, 110 Stat. 1321-66 to 1321-77 (April 26, 1996)
(“PLRA”), district courts must review complaints in those civil
actions in which a prisoner is proceeding in forma pauperis, see
28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B), seeks redress against a governmental
employee or entity, see 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(b), or brings a claim
with respect to prison conditions, see 42 U.S.C. § 1997e. The
PLRA directs district courts to sua sponte dismiss any claim
that is frivolous, is 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. This action is subject
to sua sponte screening for dismissal under 28 U.S.C. §§
1915(e)(2)(b) and 1915A because Plaintiff is a prisoner
proceeding in forma pauperis and is seeking relief from
According to the Supreme Court’s decision in Ashcroft v.
Iqbal, “a pleading that offers ‘labels or conclusions’ or ‘a
formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will
not do.’” 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atlantic Corp.
v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007)). To survive sua sponte
screening for failure to state a claim,1 the complaint must
“The legal standard for dismissing a complaint for failure to
state a claim pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B)(ii) is the
same as that for dismissing a complaint pursuant to Federal Rule
of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6).” Schreane v. Seana, 506 F. App’x
allege “sufficient factual matter” to show that the claim is
facially plausible. Fowler v. UPMS Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 210
(3d Cir. 2009) (citation omitted). “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.” Fair Wind
Sailing, Inc. v. Dempster, 764 F.3d 303, 308 n.3 (3d Cir. 2014)
(quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678).
In determining the sufficiency of a pro se complaint, the
Court must be mindful to construe it liberally in favor of the
plaintiff. See Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 93–94 (2007)
(following Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 106 (1976)); see also
United States v. Day, 969 F.2d 39, 42 (3d Cir. 1992). Although
pro se pleadings are liberally construed, plaintiffs “still must
allege sufficient facts in their complaints to support a claim.”
Mala v. Crown Bay Marina, Inc., 704 F.3d 239, 245 (3d Cir. 2013)
(citation omitted) (emphasis added).
B. Section 1983 Actions
120, 122 (3d Cir. 2012) (citing Allah v. Seiverling, 229 F.3d
220, 223 (3d Cir. 2000)); Mitchell v. Beard, 492 F. App’x 230,
232 (3d Cir. 2012) (discussing 28 U.S.C. § 1997e(c)(1));
Courteau v. United States, 287 F. App’x. 159, 162 (3d Cir. 2008)
(discussing 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(b)).
A plaintiff may have a cause of action under 42 U.S.C. §
1983 for certain violations of his constitutional rights.
Section 1983 provides in relevant part:
Every person who, under color of any statute,
ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State
or Territory ... subjects, or causes to be subjected,
any citizen of the United States or other person
within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of
any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the
Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party
injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other
proper proceeding for redress ....
§ 1983. Thus, to state a claim for relief under § 1983, a
plaintiff must allege, first, the violation of a right secured
by the Constitution or laws of the United States and, second,
that the alleged deprivation was committed or caused by a person
acting under color of state law. See West v. Atkins, 487 U.S.
42, 48 (1988); Malleus v. George, 641 F.3d 560, 563 (3d Cir.
2011); Piecknick v. Pennsylvania, 36 F.3d 1250, 1255-56 (3d Cir.
Plaintiff seeks relief from defendants on the grounds that
he received an excessive sentence. He alleges he received a tenyear sentence when he should have received a five-year sentence.
A. Judicial Immunity
“It is a well-settled principle of law that judges are
generally ‘immune from a suit for money damages.’” Figueroa v.
Blackburn, 208 F.3d 435, 440 (3d Cir. 2000) (quoting Mireles v.
Waco, 502 U.S. 9, 11 (1991)). “A judge will not be deprived of
immunity because the action [she] took was in error, was done
maliciously, or was in excess of [her] authority.” Stump v.
Sparkman, 435 U.S. 349, 356 (1978). See also Gallas v. Supreme
Court of Pa., 211 F.3d 760, 769 (3d Cir. 2000) (“[I]mmunity will
not be lost merely because the judge's action is ‘unfair’ or
controversial.”). As a judge of the New Jersey Superior Court,
Judge Wild “is absolutely immune from liability for [her]
judicial acts even if [her] exercise of authority is flawed by
the commission of grave procedural errors.” Id. at 359.
“[Judicial] immunity is overcome in only two sets of
circumstances.” Mireles, 502 U.S. at 11. “First, a judge is not
immune from liability for nonjudicial acts, i.e., actions not
taken in the judge's judicial capacity.” Id. In determining
whether an act qualifies as a “judicial act,” courts look to
“the nature of the act itself, i.e., whether it is a function
normally performed by a judge, and to the expectation of the
parties, i.e., whether they dealt with the judge in [her]
judicial capacity.” Stump, 435 U.S. at 362. “Second, a judge is
not immune for actions, though judicial in nature, taken in the
complete absence of all jurisdiction.” Mireles, 502 U.S. at 12.
Neither of these exceptions apply here. Sentencing is one of the
most quintessential judicial acts, therefore Judge Wild is
entitled to complete judicial immunity for all sentencing
decisions. The claims against Judge Wild must be dismissed with
B. Failure to State a Claim
The claims against the prosecutor and public defender2 must
also be dismissed as Plaintiff has failed to sufficiently allege
that they had personal involvement in imposing the allegedly
excessive sentence. See Connelly v. Lane Const. Corp., 809 F.3d
780, 786 (3d Cir. 2016) (noting plaintiff must plead “more than
a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully”).
Moreover, the complaint appears to be barred by Heck v.
Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994).
In Heck, the Supreme Court held that before a § 1983
plaintiff may “recover damages for allegedly unconstitutional
conviction or imprisonment, or for other harm caused by actions
whose unlawfulness would render a conviction or sentence
invalid,” he must first “prove 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
The Court also notes that Mr. Weinstock, Plaintiff’s public
defender, is not a “state actor” within the meaning of § 1983.
“[A] public defender does not act under color of state law when
performing a lawyer's traditional functions as counsel to a
defendant in a criminal proceeding.” Polk Ctny. v. Dodson, 454
U.S. 312, 325 (1981). Thus, the claims against Mr. Weinstock are
also being dismissed on the grounds that Plaintiff has not met
the “under color of state law” element of § 1983.
issuance of a writ of habeas corpus[.]” Id. at 486-87; see also
Bronowicz v. Allegheny Cty., 804 F.3d 338, 346 (3d Cir. 2015)
(“‘[A] prior criminal case must have been disposed of in a way
that indicates the innocence of the accused in order to satisfy
the favorable termination element.’” (alteration in original)
(quoting Kossler v. Crisanti, 564 F.3d 181, 187 (3d Cir.
Plaintiff claims his sentence violates his constitutional
rights. Success in this proceeding would therefore necessarily
imply the sentence’s invalidity. Therefore, Plaintiff may not
proceed with his claim for monetary damages unless and until the
sentence is vacated on appeal or in a habeas proceeding or by
some other means. The complaint is therefore dismissed without
prejudice until such time that Plaintiff is able to meet this
requirement. Only if his sentence is set aside through postconviction relief in the Superior Court may Plaintiff seek ti
refile this case against the Defendant prosecutor.3 As the
complaint is being dismissed, his request for pro bono counsel
is denied. See Tabron v. Grace, 6 F.3d 147, 155 (3d Cir. 1993)
(requiring claim to have “some merit in fact and law” before
appointing pro bono counsel).
Any such claim against Judge Wild would remain barred by
judicial immunity, and any such claim against the public
defender would remain barred under § 1983 because the public
defender is not a “state actor,” as explained above.
For the reasons stated above, Plaintiff’s complaint is
dismissed on grounds of judicial immunity as to Judge Wild, and
for failure to state a claim, 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B)(ii), as
to public defender Odel Weinstock (with prejudice), and as to
prosecutor Meghan Hoerner (without prejudice).
prosecutor Hoerner is also entitled to prosecutorial immunity is
not decided at this time.
April 17, 2017
s/ Jerome B. Simandle
JEROME B. SIMANDLE
Chief U.S. District Judge
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