Copeland v. Trotta et al
ORDER granting 2 Motion for Leave to Proceed in forma pauperis. SO ORDERED that (1) plaintiffs application to proceed in forma pauperis is granted; (2) plaintiffs claims against the Honorable Joanna Seybert, ADA Brosco, ADA Heffernan, and A USA Ca fferone are dismissed with prejudice; and (3) plaintiffs claims against Detective Trotta and the unnamed FBI agents are dismissed without prejudice and with leave to amend in the event that plaintiffs conviction is overturned or otherwise invalidated . The Clerk of the Court shall serve notice of entry of this order upon all parties in accordance with Rule 5(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and mail a copy of this order to plaintiffs address of record. The Court certifies pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915(a)(3) that any appeal from this Order would not be taken in good faith and therefore in forma pauperis status is denied for the purpose of any appeal. CM to pro se plaintiff. Ordered by Judge Sandra J. Feuerstein on 9/28/2012. (Florio, Lisa)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
EASTERN DISTRICT OF NEW YORK
-againstROBERT TROTTA, Shield# 113813362, individually
and in his official capacity, Suffolk County Police
Department, PATRICIA BROSCO, individually and in her
official capacity, Suffolk County District Attorneys Office,
ANDREW HEFFERNAN, individually and in his official
capacity, CHRISTOPHER C. CAFFERONE, individually
and in his official capacity, United States Attorneys Office,
HONORABLE JOANNA SEYBERT, individually and in her
official capacity, JOHN DOE, individually and in his official
capacity, Federal Bureau oflnvestigation, JANE DOE,
individually and in her official capacity, Federal Bureau of
IN CLERK'S OFFICE
U S DISTRICT COURT E D N Y
SEP 2 8 2012
LONG ISLAND OFFICE
On August 10,2012, incarcerated prose plaintiff Maurice Copeland ("plaintiff') filed a
complaint pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 ("Section 1983"). [Docket Entry No.1] ("Compl.").
Accompanying the complaint is an application to proceed in forma pauperis. Upon review of
plaintiffs declaration in support of his application, the Court finds that plaintiffs financial
position qualifies him to commence this action without prepayment of the Court's filing fee. See
28 U.S.C. § 1915(a)(l). Accordingly, plaintiffs application to proceed in forma pauperis is
granted. However, for the reasons discussed herein, the complaint is sua sponte dismissed
pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 1915(e)(2) (B)(ii)-(iii), 1915A(b) (1)-(2).
Plaintiffs allegations arise from his prosecution on both state and federal drug charges.
Plaintiffs action alleges that various individuals associated with his criminal prosecutions,
including the state and federal prosecuting attorneys, his defense attorney in the federal case, the
presiding federal judge, and other named and unnamed law enforcement officers, conspired to
deprive plaintiff of his constitutional rights.
Plaintiff was arrested by Suffolk County police officers on May 25,2010 and charged
with possession of a controlled substance in the third degree. Compl. at 2. After being arraigned
and indicted, plaintiff was released on bond from the Suffolk County jail on July 17, 2010. !d.
Plaintiff filed a suppression motion in the state proceedings in November 2010. !d. Plaintiff
alleges that shortly thereafter Suffolk County Police Detective Robert Trotta ("Detective Trotta")
"filed a felony complaint in federal court to have [the] state court prosecution removed to federal
court .... " !d. Plaintiff claims that he was arrested again on December 8, 20 I 0 on the federal
Plaintiff alleges that Detective Trotta and the prosecuting attorneys in the state action,
Patricia Brosco ("ADA Brosco") and Andrew Heffernan ("ADA Heffernan"), "conspired with
others to violate [plaintiffs] rights and to have [him] unlawfully imprisoned into federal
custody." !d. Plaintiffs complaint states as follows:
'Plaintiff pleaded guilty to possession with intent to distribute fifty (50) grams or more of
cocaine base in violation of21 U.S.C. §§ 84l(a)(l), (b)(l)(A)(iii) on June 6, 2011. Judgment
was entered on August 13, 2012 and plaintiff was sentenced to 120 months of imprisonment and
five (5) years of supervised release upon his discharge. Judgment, United States v. Copeland, No.
11-CR-00014 (E.D.N.Y. Aug. 13, 2012).
[Detective] Trotta and the District Attorneys on my case in state
court did not want me to have that suppression hearing because
they felt I would win and the case would be disposed of. So,
[Detective] Trotta and the District Attorneys came up with the
scheme to have my case unlawfully removed to federal court so I
could not have my suppression hearing in state court.
Id. at 3.
Plaintiff also alleges that certain unidentified Federal Bureau oflnvestigation ("FBI")
agents conspired with Detective Trotta "to have [plaintiff] unlawfully imprisoned into federal
custody ... [and] placed ... under arrest without probable cause or an arrest warrant for the same
charge [he] was already arrested for on May 24,2010 by the S.C.P.D." Id.
Plaintiff makes a similar allegation against Assistant United States Attorney Christopher
C. Cafferone ("AUSA Cafferone"), stating that AUSA Cafferone "conspired with others to
violate [plaintiffs] constitutional rights and to unlawfully keep [plaintiff] incarcerated in federal
custody by intentionally prosecuting [plaintiffs] case [when AUSA Cafferone] knew he had no
jurisdiction to prosecute in federal court because [plaintiffs] state court prosecution and
jurisdiction was not exhausted." Id.
Plaintiff also asserts that his court-appointed defense attorney in the federal criminal case,
Tracey Gaffey ("Gaffey"), participated in the conspiracy "to violate [plaintiffs] constitutional
rights and to unlawfully keep [him] incarcerated in federal custody. Id. at 4.
Finally, plaintiff names as a defendant the Honorable Joanna Seybert, United States
District Judge, who presided over plaintiffs federal criminal prosecution. Plaintiff complains
that Judge Seybert "denied [his] motion on April27, 2012 for lack of subject matter jurisdiction
without reading [the] motion." Id. Plaintiff further claims that Judge Seybert "conspired with
others to violate [plaintiffs] constitutional rights and to keep [him] unlawfully incarcerated in
federal custody" because Judge Seybert "knows there is no statute, case law or anything in the
constitution that allows a federal court to take over a state court jurisdiction." Id.
Plaintiff seeks to recover "compensatory damages for severe pain and suffering in the
amount of $150 Million dollars and punitive damages in the amount of $150 Million dollars and
also attorney and court fees." I d. at 5.
In Forma Pauperis Application
Upon review of plaintiffs declaration in support of his application to proceed in forma
pauperis, the Court finds that plaintiffs financial status qualifies him to commence this action
without prepayment of the filing fees. See 28 U.S.C. § 1915(a)(l). Therefore, plaintiff's request
to proceed in forma pauperis is granted.
The Prison Litigation Reform Act
The Prison Litigation Reform Act requires a district court to dismiss an in forma pauperis
complaint if the action is frivolous or malicious; fails to state a claim on which relief may be
granted; or seeks monetary relief against a defendant who is immune from such relief. 28 U.S.C.
§§ 1915(e)(2)(B)(i-iii), 1915A(a)-(b); Abbas v. Dixon, 480 F.3d 636,639 (2d Cir. 2007). The
Court is required to dismiss the action as soon as it makes such a determination. 28 U.S.C. §
It is axiomatic that the Court is required to read a pro se plaintiffs complaint liberally,
see Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007), and to construe it '"to raise the strongest
arguments"' suggested. Chavis v. Chappius, 618 F.3d 162, 170 (2d Cir. 2010) (quoting Harris v.
City ofN.Y., 607 FJd 18,24 (2d Cir. 2010)). Moreover, the Court must assume the truth of"all
well-pleaded, nonconclusory factual allegations" in the complaint. Kiobel v. Royal Dutch
Petroleum Co., 621 FJd Ill, 124 (2d Cir. 2010).
A complaint must plead sufficient facts "to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its
face." Bell At!. Com. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). "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." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678
(2009). While "detailed factual allegations" are not required, "[a] pleading that offers 'labels and
conclusions' or 'a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do."' Id.
(quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555).
Section 1983 Standard
Section 1983 provides as follows:
Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or
usage, of any State ... subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the
United States ... to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities
secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured ....
To state a cognizable Section 1983 claim, a plaintiff must allege that the challenged conduct was
"committed by a person acting under color of state law" and that the conduct "deprived [the
plaintiff] of rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution or laws of the United
States." Cornejo v. Bell, 592 F.3d 121, 127 (2d Cir. 2010) (internal quotation marks omitted).
Section 1983 does not create any independent substantive rights but rather is a vehicle to "redress
... the deprivation of [federal] rights established elsewhere." Thomas v. Roach, 165 F.3d 137,
142 (2d Cir. 1999).
Claims Against Judge Seybert
Plaintiff's Section 1983 claims against Judge Seybert are barred by the doctrine of
judicial immunity. It is well-established that a judge is absolutely immune from liability for
damages for any act performed within his or her jurisdiction and "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." Stump v. Sparkman, 435 U.S. 349,356-57 (1978) (internal quotation marks
omitted). In determining whether a judge has immunity with respect to a particular act, two
factors must be considered: (I) whether the act is a function normally performed by a judge; and
(2) whether the parties dealt with the judge in his or her official capacity. Stump, 435 U.S. at
Here, plaintiffs allegations relate solely to Judge Seybert's involvement in plaintiffs
federal criminal prosecution: plaintiff complains that Judge Seybert denied his motion that
sought to dismiss the federal criminal case for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.
such a decision of course falls squarely within the judicial function. Accordingly, Judge Seybert
enjoys absolute judicial immunity from suit with respect to the acts complained of by plaintiff,
and the action against her is dismissed with prejudice.
Claims Against ADA Brosco, ADA Heffernan and AUSA Cafferone
The Court notes as an initial matter that plaintiff asserts his claims against the defendant
federal officers and employees pursuant to Section 1983. Such claims are not cognizable
because the federal defendants do not act under color of state law. The Court therefore construes
plaintiffs claims against the federal defendants as having been asserted pursuant to Bivens v. Six
Unknown Federal Narcotics Agents, 403 U.S. 388 (1971). As plaintiffs claims fail as a matter
of law regardless, the issue is irrelevant and will not be noted in regard to each federal defendant.
Plaintiffs claims against the prosecutor defendants are barred by the doctrine of
prosecutorial immunity. Prosecutors are absolutely immune from civil liability for any acts they
perform that are "intimately associated with the judicial phase of the criminal process." Yin Jing
Gan v. Citv ofN.Y., 996 F.2d 522, 530 (2d Cir. 1993) (internal quotation marks omitted).
Although a prosecutor's immunity does not encompass acts that are investigative or
administrative in nature, a prosecutor is entitled to immunity for any act performed that can be
characterized as "litigation-related." Barbera v. Smith, 836 F.2d 96,99-100 (2d Cir. 1989). It is
"well established that a state prosecuting attorney who acted within the scope of his duties in
initiating and pursuing a criminal prosecution is immune from a civil suit for damages under
§ 1983." Shmueli v. City ofN.Y., 424 F.3d 231,236 (2d Cir. 2005) (internal quotation marks
and citations omitted). "Once the court determines that the challenged prosecution was not
clearly beyond the prosecutor's jurisdiction, the prosecutor is shielded from liability for damages
for commencing and pursuing the prosecution, regardless of any allegations that his actions were
undertaken with an improper state of mind or improper motive." Id.
Plaintiffs primary allegation is that the defendants conspired to "remove" the ongoing
state criminal case against him to federal court. As a threshold matter, plaintiffs premise is
flawed because the state criminal case was not removed; rather, plaintiff was indicted on new
federal charges. Indictment, United States v. Copeland, No. 11-CR-00014 (E.D.N.Y. Jan. 6,
2011 ). However, insofar as plaintiff seeks to impose liability on the prosecutors for their roles in
commencing the federal criminal case, such claims are clearly barred because the commencement
of a criminal prosecution is precisely the type of conduct shielded by absolute prosecutorial
immunity. Plaintiff does not allege that any of the defendants engaged in conduct that falls
outside the scope of their prosecutorial duties and, therefore, plaintiff's claims against ADA
Brosco, ADA Heffernan and AUSA Cafferone are dismissed with prejudice.
Claims Against Gaffey
Plaintiff's Section 1983 claims against his court-appointed criminal defense attorney in
the federal prosecution must be dismissed because court-appointed counsel are not agents of
either the federal or state governments and thus cannot be sued under Section 1983 or Bivens.
See. e.g., Olmeda v. Babbits, No. 07 Civ. 2140,2008 WL 282122, at *7 (S.D.N.Y. Jan. 25, 2008)
(holding that federal defender cannot be sued under Section 1983 or Bivens "because appointed
attorneys, no matter how they are paid, are their clients' agents and not the government's");
Caroselli v. Curci, 371 F. App'x 199 (2d Cir. 2010) (affirming dismissal of Section 1983 claims
against the New York State Legal Aid Society and one if its attorneys because "neither is a state
actor amenable to suit under§ 1983"). Even affording the prose complaint a liberal construction
as this Court is required to do, plaintiff's allegations of a conspiracy between Gaffey and the state
actors is "wholly conclusory and insufficient to state a plausible conspiracy claim." Caroselli,
371 F. App'x at 201. Accordingly, plaintiff's claims against Gaffey are dismissed with
Claims Against Detective Trotta and the Unnamed FBI Agents
Plaintiff fails to allege a cognizable claim against the state and federal law enforcement
officers who arrested him. Plaintiff claims that Detective Trotta and the unidentified FBI agents
lacked probable cause to arrest him on December 8, 2010 "because the offense [he] was arrested
for is the same offense [he] already was arrested for on May 25, 2010" by state officers. Compl.
at 2. Plaintiff's claims must be dismissed because they imply the invalidity of plaintiff's
conviction upon his guilty plea to possession with intent to distribute cocaine base. Claims under
Section 1983 or Bivens "for allegedly unconstitutional conviction or imprisonment, or for other
harm caused by actions whose unlawfulness would render a conviction or sentence invalid"
cannot be asserted unless the conviction has been reversed, expunged, declared invalid by a state
tribunal, or called into question by a federal court's issurance of a writ of habeas corpus. Heck v.
Humphrey. 512 U.S. 477,486-87 (1994); Pitcher v. Ramos, No. 12 CV 3335, 2012 WL
3598207, at *2 (E.D.N.Y. Aug. 17, 2012) (applying Heck to a Bivens action). Plaintiff fails to
demonstrate that his conviction has been overturned or otherwise invalidated and, therefore,
plaintiffs Section 1983 claims against Detective Trotta and the unnamed FBI agents are
dismissed without prejudice. 3
For the reasons set forth above: (I) plaintiffs application to proceed in forma pauperis is
granted; (2) plaintiffs claims against the Honorable Joanna Seybert, ADA Brosco, ADA
Heffernan, and AUSA Cafferone are dismissed with prejudice; and (3) plaintiffs claims against
Detective Trotta and the unnamed FBI agents are dismissed without prejudice and with leave to
amend in the event that plaintiffs conviction is overturned or otherwise invalidated.
The Clerk of Court shall, pursuant to Rule 77(d)(l) of the Federal Rules of Civil
Procedure, serve notice of entry of this order upon all parties in accordance with Rule 5(b) of the
Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and mail a copy of this order to plaintiffs address of record
pursuant to Rule 5(b )(2)(C).
The dismissal is without prejudice because plaintiff may be able to state a plausible
claim for relief in the event that his conviction is reversed or otherwise invalidated. See Amaker
v. Weiner, 179 F.3d 48, 52 (2d Cir. 1999).
The Court certifies pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915(a)(3) that any appeal from this Order
would not be taken in good faith and therefore in forma pauperis status is denied for the purpose
of any appeal. See Coppedge v. United States, 369 U.S. 438,444-45 (1962).
s/ Sandra J. Feuerstein
Sandra J. Feuerstein
United States District Judge
September 28, 2012
Central Islip, New York
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