WATKINS et al v. CITY OF PHILADELPHIA et al
ORDER-MEMORANDUM. ORDER THAT DEFENDANTS' UNOPPOSED MOTIONS TO DISMISS [ECF NO. 9,17, AND 18] ARE GRANTED. THE COMPLAINT IS DISMISSED IN ITS ENTIRETY AND WITH PREJUDICE FOR THE REASONS SET FORTH BELOW. THE CLERK OF COURT IS DIRECTED TO CLOSE THIS CASE FOR STATISTICAL AND ALL PURPOSES. SIGNED BY HONORABLE C. DARNELL JONES, II ON 8/8/17. 8/8/17 ENTERED & E-MAILED. COPY MAILED TO PRO SE PLAINTIFF. (fdc)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA
DONALD WATKINS, SR, et al.,
CITY OF PHILADELPHIA, et al., :
AND NOW, this 8th day of August 2017, upon consideration of Defendants’ Unopposed
Motions to Dismiss (ECF No. 9, 17, and 18), it is hereby ORDERED that said Motions are
GRANTED. The Complaint is dismissed in its entirety and with prejudice for the reasons set
forth below. The Clerk of Court is directed to close this case for statistical and all purposes.
Plaintiffs bring this pro se action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for alleged violations of
his due process and equal protection rights under the Fourteenth Amendment, as well as a
pendant state-law claim for fraudulent misrepresentation, against the City of Philadelphia, Chief
of Staff Bob Jackson of the Sheriff’s Office, Attorney Robert Williams of Milstead &
Associates, and the Honorable Linda Carpenter and Nina Wright-Padilla of the Court of
Common Pleas. Compl. ¶¶ 4-8, 77-87, ECF No. 4. Defendants filed three separate motions to
dismiss on various grounds, including failure to state a claim under Rule 12(b)(6). Plaintiffs
have not responded in opposition.
Standard of Review
Before granting an unopposed 12(b)(6) motion, a district court should satisfy itself that
the complaint does not, in fact, state a claim. Ray v. Reed, 240 F.App’x 455, 456 (3d Cir. 2007)
(citing to Stackhouse v. Mazurkiewicz, 95 l F.2d 29, 30 (3d Cir. 1991)). Under Rule 12(b)(6),
courts must “accept all factual allegations as true, construe the complaint in the light most
favorable to the plaintiff, and determine whether, under any reasonable reading of the complaint,
the plaintiff may be entitled to relief.” Phillips v. County of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 233 (3d
Cir. 2008) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). When, as here, the plaintiff is a pro
se litigant, courts “have a special obligation to construe his complaint liberally.” Zilich v. Lucht,
981 F.2d 694 (3d Cir. 1992) (citing to Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, 520 (1972)). Yet,
“[t]hreadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory
statements, do not suffice.” Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 210 (3d Cir. 2009)
(quoting Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009)).
This standard, which applies to all civil cases, “asks for more than a sheer possibility that
a defendant has acted unlawfully.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678. “[A]ll civil complaints must now set
out sufficient factual matter to show that the claim is facially plausible.” Fowler, 578 F.3d at
210 (internal quotation marks 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.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (citing Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550
U.S. 544, 556 (2007)).
Plaintiffs allege, in a conclusory manner, that Defendants acted in concert to allow the
unlawful and fraudulent sheriff’s sale of Plaintiffs’ property because of their “race and color as
Black African-Americans.” Id. at ¶¶ 4-8. When considered in isolation of Plaintiffs’
intermingled legal conclusions, the events alleged in the Complaint describe standard, albeit
antagonistic, mortgage foreclosure proceedings. After reviewing Plaintiffs’ pleadings and
Defendants’ arguments, this Court is satisfied that the Complaint does not state a claim under
section 1983 against any of the Defendants and may therefore be dismissed in its entirety.
To start, the Third Circuit addressed almost an identical fact pattern in Conklin v. Anthou,
495 F. App’x 257 (3d Cir. 2012) (per curiam), and affirmed the district court’s decision to
dismiss or enter summary judgment on similar federal and state claims. There, a pro se plaintiff
brought a section 1983 action against a bank, the lawyers that represented the bank, three statecourt judges, the Sheriff’s Office and the Sheriff’s deputy for allegedly engaging in a conspiracy
to deprive him of his property through unlawful and fraudulent foreclosure proceedings in
violation of his constitutional rights, including due process and equal protection. Id. at 260.
Although the court’s analysis was complicated by the plaintiff’s “byzantine history of state-court
filings,” the Third Circuit agreed that the district court lacked subject matter jurisdiction under
the Rooker-Feldman doctrine to the extent that the plaintiff’s claims were based on an adverse
state-court mortgage judgment that had allegedly been entered against him. Id. at 262.
Similarly, here, although the chronology in the pleadings is difficult to follow, the Complaint
does allege that a default foreclosure judgment was entered against Plaintiffs, followed by the
state court’s decision to reject their motion to vacate that judgment for insufficient service. See
Compl. ¶¶ 7-8, 29, 54-67. Plaintiffs also acknowledge that their claims are based, at least in part,
on the “fraudulent default judgment based on improper service.” Id. at ¶ 77, 85.
That is not the end of the inquiry, however, since the court does have subject matter
jurisdiction over claims “attacking the parties to the foreclosure proceedings or alleging that the
methods and evidence employed were the product of fraud or conspiracy, regardless of whether
[the plaintiff’s] success on those claims might call the veracity of the state-court judgments into
question.” Conklin, 495 F. App’x at 262 (footnote omitted). For that reason, this Court
reinstated Plaintiffs’ Complaint after initially dismissing it pursuant to Rooker-Feldman. See
ECF Nos. 4 and 6.
Notwithstanding that earlier decision, Plaintiffs’ claims do not survive Defendants’
12(b)(6) motions. As with the judicial defendants in Conklin, Judge Carpenter and Judge
Wright-Padilla are entitled to absolute immunity from suit and liability for any action undertaken
pursuant to their judicial functions, even if “the action [they] took was in error, was done
maliciously, or was in excess of [their] authority.” Azubuko v. Royal, 443 F.3d 302, 303 (3d Cir.
2006) (quoting Stump v. Sparkman, 435 U.S. 349, 356-57 (1978); see also Chilcott v. Erie Cty.
Domestic Relations, 283 F. App’x 8, 10 (3d Cir. 2008). None of the factual allegations suggest
that these two judges acted outside the scope of their judicial roles or the court’s jurisdiction.
And because they are being sued in their official capacity, they are also covered by the
Commonwealth’s Eleventh Amendment immunity. Conklin, 495 F. App’x at 263.
The City of Philadelphia, as an arm of the state, is also protected by the Commonwealth’s
Eleventh Amendment immunity. See id. In any event, the pleadings lack any factual allegations
to substantiate a claim that “the municipality itself, via an execution of policy or custom” caused
the constitutional wrong. Id. at 265. The Sheriff’s chief of staff, Jackson, who purportedly
carried out the foreclosure pursuant to a “facially valid” state-court judgment, is also entitled to
quasi-judicial immunity. See id. at 264 (quoting Roland v. Phillips, 19 F.3d 552, 556 (11th Cir.
1994)) (emphasis in original). All claims against these four defendants may thus be dismissed,
with prejudice, as a matter of law.
The federal claims against Williams, a private attorney, are also legally untenable as
pleaded because he is not a “state actor,” nor was he allegedly “acting under color of state law”
within the meaning of section 1983. See id. at 265; see also Zebrowski v. Wells Fargo Bank,
N.A., 657 F. Supp. 2d 511, 522 (D.N.J. 2009) (holding that, absent factual allegations supporting
a conspiracy between a private and state actor, a private party does not act “under color of state
law” for merely pursuing a foreclosure action); Gochenaur v. Juniata Valley Bank, No. 16-cv1508, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 143602, at *20 (M.D. Pa. Oct. 14, 2016) (“The mere fact that a
plaintiff alleges that a bank involves a sheriff in foreclosure proceedings brought under state law
does not cause the bank and its employees to become state actors who may be sued under section
1983.”). Nor does the fact that he was performing “traditional functions” as an attorney, or
officer of the court, automatically convert him into a state actor. Conklin, 495 F. App’x at 265
(quoting Angelico v. Lehigh Valley Hosp., Inc., 184 F.3d 268, 277 (3d Cir. 1999)); see Polk
County v. Dodson, 454 U.S. 312, 318 (1981) (“[A] lawyer representing a client is not, by virtue
of being an officer of the court, a state actor ‘under color of state law’ within the meaning of
Furthermore, Plaintiffs have not pleaded any facts, beyond conclusory statements, to
suggest any racial or discriminatory animus on the part of any defendant, or to transport their
allegations of conspiracy from the realm of possibility to plausibility. See Conklin, 495 F. App’x
at 265 (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570). Finally, as in Conklin, this Court declines to exercise
supplemental jurisdiction over the remaining state-law claim. See id.
In sum, the Complaint cannot survive a 12(b)(6) motion. And, even though Plaintiffs
could theoretically amend their pleadings to bolster their conspiracy and discrimination claims
against Williams or their municipal liability claim against the City, leave to amend would be
inequitable (and possibly futile) since Plaintiffs have not offered any indication, namely in
failing to respond in opposition to these motions, that they could allege sufficient facts to survive
another motion to dismiss. Alston v. Parker, 363 F.3d 229, 235 (3d Cir. 2004) (holding that
leave to amend is appropriate, at the district court’s discretion, “unless an amendment would be
inequitable or futile.”) (citing Grayson v. Mayview State Hosp., 293 F.3d 103, 108 (3d Cir.
2002)). The Complaint is therefore dismissed in its entirety with prejudice.
BY THE COURT:
/s/ C. Darnell Jones, II
C. Darnell Jones, II J.
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