Singer v. Price et al
MEMORANDUM OPINION OF THE COURT. Signed by District Judge Waverly D. Crenshaw, Jr on 1/31/2017. (xc:Pro se party by regular and certified mail.)(DOCKET TEXT SUMMARY ONLY-ATTORNEYS MUST OPEN THE PDF AND READ THE ORDER.)(eh)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
MIDDLE DISTRICT OF TENNESSEE
AARON PRICE, et al.,
Case No. 3:16-cv-02621
Plaintiff, an inmate of the Rutherford County Adult Detention Center in Murfreesboro,
Tennessee, brings this pro se, in forma pauperis action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against fourteen
named Defendants as well as John and Jane Does, alleging violations of his federal civil rights.
(Doc. No. 1).
The complaint is before the Court for an initial review pursuant to the Prison Litigation
Reform Act (“PLRA”), 28 U.S.C. §§ 1915(e)(2) and 1915A.
PLRA Screening Standard
Under 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B), the court must dismiss any portion of a civil complaint
filed in forma pauperis that fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted, is frivolous, or
seeks monetary relief from a defendant who is immune from such relief. Section 1915A similarly
requires initial review of any “complaint in a civil action in which a prisoner seeks redress from a
governmental entity or officer or employee of a governmental entity,” id. § 1915A(a), and summary
dismissal of the complaint on the same grounds as those articulated in § 1915(e)(2)(B). Id. §
The Sixth Circuit has confirmed that the dismissal standard articulated by the Supreme Court
in Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662 (2009), and Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007),
“governs dismissals for failure to state a claim under those statutes because the relevant statutory
language tracks the language in Rule 12(b)(6).” Hill v. Lappin, 630 F.3d 468, 470–71 (6th Cir.
2010). Thus, to survive scrutiny on initial review, “a complaint must contain sufficient factual
matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.’” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at
678 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570). “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. (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556). “[A] district court must (1) view
the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff and (2) take all well-pleaded factual
allegations as true.” Tackett v. M & G Polymers, USA, LLC, 561F.3d 478, 488 (6th Cir. 2009)
(citing Gunasekera v. Irwin, 551 F.3d 461, 466 (6th Cir. 2009) (citations omitted)).
Although pro se pleadings are to be held to a less stringent standard than formal pleadings
drafted by lawyers, Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, 520–21 (1972); Jourdan v. Jabe, 951 F.2d 108,
110 (6th Cir. 1991), the courts’ “duty to be ‘less stringent’ with pro se complaints does not require
us to conjure up [unpleaded] allegations.” McDonald v. Hall, 610 F.2d 16, 19 (1st Cir. 1979)
Section 1983 Standard
Plaintiff brings his federal claims pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983.
Title 42 U.S.C. § 1983
creates a cause of action against any person who, acting under color of state law, abridges “rights,
privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws . . . .” To state a claim under § 1983,
a plaintiff must allege and show two elements: (1) that he was deprived of a right secured by the
Constitution or laws of the United States; and (2) that the deprivation was caused by a person acting
under color of state law. Tahfs v. Proctor, 316 F.3d 584, 590 (6th Cir. 2003); 42 U.S.C. § 1983.
The pro se complaint consists of 163 handwritten pages and 44 pages of attachments. The
Court will recount only the general allegations pertinent to the Court’s required PLRA screening.
The complaint alleges that, on October 27, 2015, Defendant Murfreesboro Police Department
Officers Price, Gibbs, and Gorham conducted an unlawful traffic stop of Plaintiff during which Price
used excessive force against Plaintiff, “strangulating [sic] Singer by applying a carotid-artery or bare
arm hold against Singers [sic] throat impeding normal breathing and circulation of air and blood
flow.” (Doc. No. 1 at pp. 40-41). According to the complaint, Price believed that Plaintiff had
swallowed a marijuana joint as Price approached Plaintiff’s car during the traffic stop. When
Plaintiff told Price that he could not breath, Price allegedly told Plaintiff to “spit it out” and
maintained pressure to Plaintiff’s throat. (Id.)
Price continued the application of force until
Plaintiff became unconscious and hit his head on the door frame and floor board of his vehicle,
sustaining injuries for which he was taken the hospital by Price. (Id. at p. 42). When Plaintiff
regained consciousness, he spit out medical gauze and plastic from an earlier dental procedure. (Id.)
According to the complaint, on the way to the hospital and at the hospital, Officer Gibbs threatened
the Plaintiff in an attempt to coerce a confession from him, such as telling the Plaintiff that his
stomach would be pumped if he did not confess. (Id. at pp. 44-46).
Next, the complaint alleges that Plaintiff was not provided with effective representation by
his public defender Ray White during his preliminary hearing. The complaint further alleges that
various state procedures and safeguards were not followed during his preliminary hearing, including
that Plaintiff’s indictment was improperly altered or falsified by a number of Defendants. The
complaint also alleges that Plaintiff was not provided with effective representation by his second
public defender, Billie Zimmerman, during Plaintiff’s suppression hearing.
Additionally, the complaint alleges that Circuit Court Judge David M. Braggs and General
Sessions Judge Rhonda Campbell acted outside of their jurisdiction and abused their discretion
throughout the Plaintiff’s state proceedings to date. The complaint alleges that Defendants Aneta
Flaggs, both judges, the state prosecutors, the public defenders, and other Murfreesboro police
officers were engaged in a civil conspiracy to wrongly incarcerate the Plaintiff. The complaint
finally alleges that the Rutherford County Adult Detention Center library is constitutionally
inadequate, depriving the Plaintiff of access to the courts.
False arrest and false imprisonment claims
False arrest claims can be brought pursuant to federal or state law. Voyticky v. Village of
Timberlake, Ohio, 412 F.3d 669, 677 (6th Cir. 2005).
“A false arrest claim under federal law
requires a plaintiff to prove that the arresting officer lacked probable cause to arrest the plaintiff.”
Id. When a plaintiff is arrested pursuant to a warrant, the plaintiff must show “that in order to
procure the warrant, [the officer] knowingly and deliberately, or with reckless disregard for the truth,
made false statements or omissions that created a falsehood and such statements or omissions were
material, or necessary, to the finding of probable cause.” Sykes v. Anderson, 625 F.3d 294, 305 (6th
Cir. 2010) (citations omitted)).
Claims of false arrest and false imprisonment under federal law are typically analyzed in
identical fashion. See Wallace v. Kato, 549 U.S. 384, 388, 127 S. Ct. 1091, 166 L.Ed.2d 973
(2016)(“False arrest and false imprisonment overlap; the former is a species of the latter.”); Gumble
v. Waterford Township, 171 Fed. App’x 502, 507 (6th Cir. 2006)(false arrest and false imprisonment
claims are functionally the same and the court applies the same analysis to both claims). A facially
valid warrant is not always sufficient to merit dismissal of a false arrest/false imprisonment claim
brought pursuant to § 1983 when evidence exists that a defendant intentionally misled or
intentionally omitted information at a probable cause hearing for an arrest or search warrant if the
misleading or omitted information is critical to the finding of probable cause. See Mays v. City of
Deyton, 134 F.3d 809, 816 (6th Cir. 1998); United States v. Atkin, 107 F.3d 1213, 1217 (6th Cir.
Here, the complaint alleges that, at or near the time of the Plaintiff’s traffic stop, Plaintiff
spoke with officers Price, Gibbs, and Gorham and explained his version of the events, and the
officers thereafter knowingly arrested Plaintiff without probable cause. Further, Plaintiff alleges
these officers subsequently provided false information in court regarding the incident. The Court
therefore finds, for purposes of the initial review, that Plaintiff has stated colorable claims under §
1983 against Defendants Price, Gibbs, and Gorham in their individual capacities.
cautions that these are preliminary findings only. The Plaintiff’s allegations may also state federal
due process claims with regard to these Defendants, but the Court will leave these potential claims
for the Magistrate Judge to sort out after the Defendants respond to the complaint.
Excessive force claims
The complaint alleges that Defendant Price used excessive force when arresting the Plaintiff
on October 27, 2015, resulting in injuries to Plaintiff that required treatment at a hospital. (Doc. No.
1 at pp. 40-42). The complaint further alleges that, after the Plaintiff’s arrest, on the way to the
hospital and at the hospital, Defendant Gibbs threatened to order the doctors to pump the Plaintiff’s
stomach in an attempt to coerce a confession from him. (Id. at pp. 43-44).
It appears that the Plaintiff was a pre-trial detainee, not a convicted prisoner, at the time of
the alleged use of excessive force. The legal status of an alleged victim of excessive force is
significant because the conduct of the offending officer must be analyzed under the standard
appropriate to the applicable constitutional provision. See Coley v. Lucas County, Ohio, ___ F.3d
___, ___, 2015 WL 4978463, at *4 (6th Cir. 2015). The Supreme Court has recently clarified that
when assessing pretrial detainees’ excessive force claims we must inquire into whether the plaintiff
shows “that the force purposefully or knowingly used against him was objectively unreasonable.”
Kingsley v. Hendrickson, ___ U.S. ___, 135 S. Ct. 2466, 2473 (2015)). The inquiry is highly factdependent, and must take into account the “perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene,
including what the officer knew at the time, not with the 20/20 vision of hindsight.” Id. It should
also account for “the ‘legitimate interests that stem from [the government’s] need to manage the
facility in which the individual is detained,’” id., and defer when appropriate to “‘policies and
practices that in th[e] judgment’ of jail officials ‘are needed to preserve internal order and discipline
and to maintain institutional security.’” Id. (quoting Bell v. Wolfish, 441 U.S. 520, 540 (1979)).
The Court further instructs:
Considerations such as the following may bear on the reasonableness
or unreasonableness of the force used: the relationship between the
need for the use of force and the amount of force used; the extent of
the plaintiff's injury; any effort made by the officer to temper or to
limit the amount of force; the severity of the security problem at
issue; the threat reasonably perceived by the officer; and whether the
plaintiff was actively resisting.
Id. This list is not exclusive. Kingsley also reaffirms that pretrial detainees cannot be subjected to
“the use of excessive force that amounts to punishment,” id. (quoting Graham, 490 U.S. at 395 n.
10, 109 S. Ct. 1865) precisely because they “cannot be punished at all,” id. at 2475.
In light of this Fourteenth Amendment standard and the allegations of the complaint, the
Court finds that the complaint states a colorable excessive force claim against Defendant Price in
his individual capacity under § 1983. Although it is unclear whether the Plaintiff will ultimately
prevail on this claim, the allegations of the complaint survive the required PLRA’s screening and
warrant further factual development.
However, the allegations pertaining to threats made by
Defendant Gibbs do not rise to the level of excessive force, and the Plaintiff’s excessive force claim
against Defendant Gibbs will be dismissed.
Denial of access to the courts
The law is well settled that a prisoner has a First Amendment right of access to the courts.
Bounds v. Smith, 430 U.S. 817, 821-823 (1977). The right of access to the courts requires prison
officials to ensure that inmates have access to the courts that is “adequate, effective and
meaningful.” Id. at 822. To ensure the meaningful exercise of this right, prison officials are under
an affirmative obligation to provide inmates with access to an adequate law library, Walker v.
Mintzes, 771 F.2d 920, 931 (6th Cir. 1985), or some alternative form of legal assistance, Procunier
v. Martinez, 416 U.S. 396, 419 (1974)(overruled on other grounds by Thornburgh v. Abbott, 490
U.S. 401 (1989)). Meaningful access varies with the circumstances, and prison officials are
accorded discretion in determining how that right is to be administered. Bounds, 430 U.S. at 830-31.
However, it is not enough for plaintiff simply to claim that he was denied access to the courts, or
that he did not have access to an adequate law library or to some alternate form of legal assistance.
To state a claim on which relief may be granted, plaintiff must show that a defendant’s conduct in
some way prejudiced the filing or prosecution of a legal matter. Walker, 771 F.2d at 932; Kensu v.
Haigh, 87 F.3d 172, 175 (6th Cir. 1996).
In this case, the Plaintiff alleges that Defendant Robert Arnold, Rutherford County Sheriff,
and the Murfreesboro Jail staff do not provide inmates with “a fully equipped legal library.” (Doc.
No. 1 at p. 160). The Plaintiff acknowledges that he has access to the legal research resource Lexis
as well as the ability to request other legal materials, although the Plaintiff believes that he has to
wait too long to receive those materials after making his request. (Id.)
The Plaintiff has not alleged that he has been prejudiced in filing this instant lawsuit or has
suffered any litigation related detriment to either this case or another case. Indeed, the Plaintiff has
submitted a lengthy complaint with many pages of attachments. Thus, because the Plaintiff has not
shown that he sustained an actual injury in his efforts to litigate, he fails to state a claim for denial
of his right of access to the courts. The Plaintiff’s denial of access to courts claims as to all
Defendants therefore will be dismissed.
Malicious prosecution claims
The complaint alleges federal malicious prosecution claims against Defendants Jennings
Jones and Shawn Puckett, both Rutherford County prosecutors. “The Sixth Circuit ‘recognize[s]
a separate constitutionally cognizable claim of malicious prosecution under the Fourth Amendment,’
which ‘encompasses wrongful investigation, prosecution, conviction, and incarceration.’” Sykes v.
Anderson, 625 F.3d 294, 308 (6th Cir. 2010) (quoting Barnes v. Wright, 449 F.3d 709, 715–16 (6th
Cir. 2006)). “The ‘tort of malicious prosecution’ is ‘entirely distinct’ from that of false arrest, as the
malicious-prosecution tort ‘remedies detention accompanied not by absence of legal process, but
by wrongful institution of legal process.’” Id. (quoting Wallace, 549 U.S. at 390). To succeed on
such a claim, the plaintiff must show that (1) a criminal prosecution was initiated against the
plaintiff, and the defendant made, influenced, or participated in the decision to prosecute; (2) there
was a lack of probable cause for the criminal prosecution; (3) the plaintiff suffered a deprivation of
liberty; and (4) the criminal proceeding has been resolved in the plaintiff's favor. Id.; see also Heck
v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477, 486–87, 114 S. Ct. 2364, 129 L.Ed.2d 383 (1994) (holding that, to
recover damages under § 1983 for an allegedly unconstitutional conviction, “or for other harm
caused by actions whose unlawfulness would render a conviction or sentence invalid,” the plaintiff
must prove that the conviction or sentence has been reversed, expunged, declared invalid, or called
into question by a federal court's issuance of a writ of habeas corpus).
The Plaintiff cannot sue Defendants Jones and Puckett for money damages arising from the
institution of criminal proceedings against him. Prosecutors are absolutely immune from suit for
actions taken in initiating and pursuing criminal prosecutions because that conduct is “intimately
associated with the judicial phase of the criminal process.” Imbler v. Pachtman, 424 U.S. 409,
430–31, 96 S. Ct. 984, 47 L.Ed.2d 128 (1976). “A prosecutor's decision to initiate a prosecution,
including the decision to file a criminal complaint or seek an arrest warrant, is protected by absolute
immunity.” Howell v. Sanders, 668 F.3d 344, 351 (6th Cir. 2012). Therefore, the Plaintiff's claims
for money damages against Defendants Jones and Puckett for these activities are barred by absolute
prosecutorial immunity. Id. at 427–28; Burns v. Reed, 500 U.S. 478, 490–492, 111 S. Ct. 1934, 114
L.Ed.2d 547 (1991); Grant v. Hollenbach, 870 F.2d 1135, 1137 (6th Cir. 1989); Jones v. Shankland,
800 F.2d 77, 80 (6th Cir. 1986).
Furthermore, the complaint does not allege that Plaintiff’s
conviction or sentence has been reversed, expunged, declared invalid, or called into question by a
federal court's issuance of a writ of habeas corpus. Thus, Plaintiff’s malicious prosecution claims
against Defendants Puckett and Jones will be dismissed.
E. Claims against court-appointed public defenders
With regard to Plaintiff’s claims against his court-appointed lawyers (Ray White and Billie
Zimmerman), courts have uniformly held that an attorney, whether appointed or retained and
whether in state or federal court, is not acting under color of law for purposes of § 1983. Mills v.
Davis, 2014 WL 2893215, at *4 (E.D. Tenn. June 24, 2014)(citations omitted). Thus, even if White
and Zimmerman were appointed by the State, they acted as the State’s adversaries and were not
acting on the State’s behalf. Thus, with regard to the representation of the Plaintiff, neither attorney
was transformed into a state official acting under color of state law for purposes of § 1983, and
Plaintiff’s § 1983 claims against White and Zimmerman must be dismissed.
Civil conspiracy claims
According to the complaint, the Plaintiff’s arrest as detailed above was part of a larger, more
far-reaching conspiracy between a number of Defendants, including Aneta Flaggs, Billie
Zimmerman, Ray White, officers of the Murfreesboro Police Department, judges, and prosecutors
“to keep Singer held in captivity . . . .” (Doc. No. 1 at p. 37). The Sixth Circuit has defined a civil
conspiracy under 42 U.S.C § 1983 as follows:
A civil conspiracy is an agreement between two or more persons to
injure another by unlawful action. Express agreement among all the
conspirators is not necessary to find the existence of a civil
conspiracy. Each conspirator need not know all of the details of the
illegal plan or all of the participants involved. All that must be
shown is that there is a single plan, that the alleged co-conspirator
shared in the general conspiratorial objective, and that an overt act
was committed in furtherance of the conspiracy that caused injury to
Hooks v. Hooks, 771 F.2d 935, 943-44 (6th Cir. 1985). Conspiracy claims must be pled with a
degree of specificity. Hamilton v. City of Romulus, 409 Fed. Appx. 826, 835-36 (6th Cir. 2010).
Vague and conclusory allegations unsupported by material facts are insufficient, although
circumstantial evidence of an agreement among all conspirators may provide adequate proof. Id.
Having reviewed the complaint and supporting material, the Court finds that the Plaintiff’s
allegations of a civil conspiracy between the Defendants do not survive the PLRA’s screening. 28
U.S.C. § 1915A. As to the existence of a conspiracy to incarcerate the Plaintiff, the complaint’s
allegations are rambling and conclusory. For example, the complaint alleges: “Defendants have
entered into their common scheme or plan which amount to ‘conspiracy’ to deprive Singer of his
life, liberty and property in violation of Criminal Code Section 20, 18 U.S.C.A. Section 52
penalizing willful deprivation under color of any law, statute, ordinance, regulation or custom of any
right, privileges or immunities secured or protected by the Constitution and laws of the United
States.” (Doc. No. 1 at p. 139). The complaint also alleges that the Plaintiff’s rights were violated
“when all Defendants from a number of different agencies continue to conspire to defraud Plaintiff
and the United States of and concerning its governmental functions to be honestly, faithfully, and
dutifully represented in the courts of the United States in such matters ‘free from corruption,
improper influence, dishonesty or fraud.’” (Id. at p. 36).
Moreover, actions such as police officers testifying before a grand jury, which the Plaintiff
advances as evidence of the existence of a civil conspiracy to incarcerate him, are actions for which
officers enjoy absolute immunity from § 1983 liability. See Rehberg v. Paulk, 132 S. Ct. 1497, 1506
(2012)(holding that “this rule may not be circumvented by claiming that a grand jury witness
conspired to present false testimony or by using evidence of the witness’ testimony to support any
other § 1983 claim concerning the initiation or maintenance of a prosecution.”). Thus, the Plaintiff’s
civil conspiracy claims as to all Defendants will be dismissed. The Court will, however, dismiss
these claims without prejudice in the event that the Plaintiff is able to more specifically articulate
his allegations as to each Defendant purportedly involved in a civil conspiracy to harm the Plaintiff.
In the complaint, the plaintiff asks the court to review his state criminal case “and intervene,
restraining the states [sic] prosecution of Singer . . . .” (Doc. No. 1 at p. 25). To the extent that the
complaint asks the court to intervene in pending state criminal proceedings and investigations
against the Plaintiff, the law is well-settled that a federal court should not interfere with pending
state court criminal proceedings, absent the threat of “great and immediate” irreparable injury.
Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37, 46 (1971). Younger abstention applies where the federal plaintiff
seeks injunctive or declaratory judgment relief. Carroll v. City of Mount Clemens, 139 F.3d 1072,
1074 (6th Cir. 1998).
In Younger, the Supreme Court held that, absent extraordinary circumstances, federal equity
jurisdiction may not be used to enjoin pending state prosecutions. The Younger abstention doctrine
is based on the principle that the states have a special interest in enforcing their own laws in their
own courts. Id. at 44. The rule is “designed to permit state courts to try state cases free from
interference by federal courts, particularly where the party to the federal case may fully litigate his
claim before the state court.” Zalman v. Armstrong, 802 F.2d 199, 205 (6th Cir.1986) (internal
quotations omitted). Abstention in favor of state court proceedings is proper where there exists: (1)
an ongoing state judicial proceeding; (2) an important state interest; and (3) an adequate opportunity
in the state judicial proceedings to raise constitutional challenges. Middlesex County Ethics
Committee v. Garden State Bar Ass'n, 457 U.S. 423, 432 (1982); Fieger v. Thomas, 74 F.3d 740,
744 (6th Cir. 1996).
The three factors that support Younger abstention are present in this case. First, one or more
state criminal prosecutions of the Plaintiff appear to be underway. (Doc. No. 1 at p. 5). Second,
there can be no doubt that state criminal proceedings implicate important state interests. See, e.g.,
Cooper v. Parrish, 203 F.3d 937, 954 (6th Cir. 2000). Third, while the complaint expresses the
Plaintiff’s dissatisfaction with the state court and his suspicions that state judges and other state
actors are violating the law somehow, the complaint does not allege that the state court has refused
or would refuse to consider the Plaintiff’s constitutional claims; thus, presumably the state court
proceedings provide an adequate forum in which the Plaintiff can raise any constitutional challenges.
If the Plaintiff raises his constitutional challenges in state court and the trial court denies or
otherwise fails to consider his constitutional claims, the Plaintiff may exercise his right to an appeal
under Tennessee law. The Plaintiff also may oblige himself of state post-conviction proceedings
in the event he is convicted of the charged offense(s).
There are exceptions to the Younger doctrine: (1) “the state proceeding is motivated by a
desire to harass or is conducted in bad faith,” Huffman v. Pursue, Ltd., 420 U.S. 592, 611; (2) “the
challenged statute is flagrantly and patently violative of express constitutional prohibitions,” Moore
v. Sims, 442 U.S. 415, 424 (1979)(quoting Huffman, 420 U.S. at 611); or, (3) there is “an
extraordinarily pressing need for immediate federal equitable relief.” Kugler v. Helfant, 421 U.S.
117, 125 (1975). These exceptions have been interpreted narrowly. Zalman v. Armstrong, 802 F.2d
199, 205 (6th Cir. 1986). In order to overcome the bar of Younger abstention, a plaintiff must do
more than set forth mere allegations of bad faith or harassment. See Amanatullah v. Colorado Board
of Medical Examiners, 187 F.3d 1160, 1165 (10th Cir.1 999) (citing Phelps v. Hamilton, 122 F.3d
885, 889 (10th Cir.1997)).
The burden on a Plaintiff is high, and the allegations of the instant
complaint do not suggest that any exception to the Younger doctrine is warranted in this case at this
Claims against judges
Because the Plaintiff failed to identify in what capacity he has sued Judges Campbell and
Braggs, both judges are presumptively sued in their official capacities. See Wells v. Brown, 891
F.2d 591, 592-93 (6th Cir. 1989). Claims against the judges in their official capacities are claims
against the entity which they represent and are not claims against the individual judges themselves.
Judge Braggs, as a Circuit Court Judge, is an employee of the State of Tennessee. However,
the State of Tennessee is not a “person” subject to suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The Eleventh
Amendment to the United States Constitution bars § 1983 claims against a state or any arm of a state
government. Will v. Mich. Dep't of State Police, 491 U.S. 58, 64, 109 S. Ct. 2304, 105 L.Ed.2d 45
(1989). Because the state of Tennessee is immune from suit under § 1983, the Plaintiff’s claims
against Judge Braggs in his official capacity will be dismissed with prejudice.
Under Tennessee law, Judge Campbell, in her capacity as a General Sessions Court Judge,
is an employee of Rutherford County. Tucker v. Tennessee, 2005 WL 1922561, at **1-2 (W.D.
Tenn. 2005) (thorough discussion of Tennessee law explaining general session judges are county
and not state employees). The court’s discussion of municipality liability with regard to official
capacity claims against Rutherford County continues in Section I below.
Although it appears Plaintiff only sued the named judges in their official capacities, even
presuming for the sake of discussion Plaintiff is attempting to sue the judges in their individual
capacities, the judges are entitled to judicial immunity. Under the doctrine of judicial immunity, a
judge has absolute immunity from suit both from money damages and injunctive relief for his or her
judicial acts. Bradley v. Fisher, 13 Wall. 335, 80 U.S. 335, 20 L.Ed. 646 (1871) (judicial officials
are exempt from civil action for judicial acts); see also Butz v. Economou, 438 U.S. 478, 98 S. Ct.
2894, 57 L.Ed.2d 895 (1978), Kipen v. Lawson, 57 Fed. Appx. 691 (6th Cir. 2003). Judicial
immunity is an immunity from suit, not just immunity from the assessment of money damages.
Mireles, 502 U.S. at 11. Because a plaintiff's allegations of bad faith, malice, or corruption against
a judge cannot overcome absolute judicial immunity from suit, a judge is entitled to have a suit
accusing him or her of acting in bad faith, maliciously, or corruptly dismissed on the basis of judicial
immunity. Mireles, 502 U.S. at 11.
Judicial immunity from suit can be overcome in two situations, neither of which is applicable
here. A judge is not immune from liability for non-judicial actions, i.e., actions not taken in the
judge's judicial capacity, or for actions, though judicial in nature, which are taken in the complete
absence of all jurisdiction. Mireles, 502 U.S. at 11-12; Stump v. Sparkman, 435 U.S. 349, 98 S. Ct.
1099, 55 L.Ed.2d 331 (1978). Although the Plaintiff claims otherwise, it does not appear that either
judge acted in “clear absence of all jurisdiction.” Id. at 357 (internal punctuation and citation
omitted). Neither of these exceptions to judicial immunity is applicable because the alleged acts of
both judges in Plaintiff's criminal case were judicial acts taken in the course of judicial capacity and
were not committed in the complete absence of all jurisdiction. Therefore, both judges in their
individual capacities are absolutely immune from this civil suit.
Claims against Sheriff Robert Arnold and Aneta Flaggs and against Rutherford
The complaint alleges that Defendant Rutherford County Sheriff Arnold failed to properly
train his subordinate officers “to investigate the commission of any suspected commission of an
offense.” (Doc. No. 1 at p. 65). The complaint makes a number of allegations against Defendant
Aneta Flaggs, who appears to be or to have been an internal affairs officer employed by Rutherford
County. For example, the complaint alleges that she “has a duty and responsibility to discipline the
above forementioned officers as she attempts to conceal the facts of the dash cam video of the traffic
stop[,] the submitted false police report of Aaron Price, along with the altered criminal statute . . .
on the face of the indictment . . . .” (Doc. No. 1 at p. 130). He alleges that she, like Defendant
Arnold, “has acted and continues to act against policy and continues to show negligent disregard to
procedures as a government official to investigate the suspected commission of offenses . . . .” (Id.
at p. 70). He further alleges that her actions on a number of occasions violated the Plaintiff’s due
process rights. (Id. at p. 90).
The complaint alleges that both Arnold and Flaggs acted pursuant to “official policies,
customs and practices of the Murfreesboro Police Department and the City of Murfreesboro . . . .”
(Id. at p. 97). The complaint identifies these policies and customs as: “seizing and searching
citizens and their property without believing the plaintiff has violated any law in their presence”;
“concealing citizens[‘] complaint forms of citizen with equal priveleges [sic] who submit criminal
complaints of public officials performing their official duties in public”; “retaliating, humiliating,
harassment, discrimination, or other adverse consequences against individuals who exercise their
First and Fourteenth Amendment rights to submit criminal complaints of actual criminal statute
violations of public officials performing their official duties in public.” (Id. at p. 106).
A suit against Arnold, Flaggs, or Judge Campbell in his or her official capacity is a suit
against Rutherford County, Tennessee. However, while Rutherford County is a suable entity, it is
responsible under § 1983 only for its “own illegal acts. [It is] not vicariously liable under § 1983
for [its] employees' actions.” Connick v. Thompson, 563 U.S. 51, 131 S. Ct. 1350, 1359, 179
L.Ed.2d 417 (2011) (internal citations and quotation marks omitted). A municipality may be liable
under § 1983 “only if the challenged conduct occurs pursuant to a municipality's ‘official policy,’
such that the municipality's promulgation or adoption of the policy can be said to have ‘cause[d]’
one of its employees to violate the plaintiff's constitutional rights.” D'Ambrosio v. Marino, 747 F.3d
378, 386 (6th Cir. 2014)(quoting Monell v. Dep't of Soc. Servs., 436 U.S. 658, 692, 98 S. Ct. 2018,
56 L.Ed.2d 611 (1978)).
“Official municipal policy includes the decisions of a government's lawmakers, the acts of
its policymaking officials, and practices so persistent and widespread as to practically have the force
of law.” Connick, 131 S. Ct. at 1359. Thus, to state a municipal liability claim, a plaintiff must
adequately allege “(1) the existence of an illegal official policy or legislative enactment; (2) that an
official with final decision making authority ratified illegal actions; (3) the existence of a policy of
inadequate training or supervision; or (4) the existence of a custom of tolerance [of] or acquiescence
[to] federal rights violations.” Burgess v. Fischer, 735 F.3d 462, 478 (6th Cir. 2013).
The inadequacy of police training only serves as a basis for § 1983 liability where the failure
to train amounts to deliberate indifference to the rights of persons with whom the police come into
contact. Slusher v. Carson, 540 F.3d 449, 457 (6th Cir. 2008). To establish deliberate indifference,
the plaintiff may show prior instances of unconstitutional conduct demonstrating that the
governmental entity has ignored a history of abuse and was clearly on notice that the training in this
particular area was deficient and likely to cause injury. Id.; see also Gregory v. City of Louisville,
444 F.3d 725, 752-53 (6th Cir. 2006). In the alternative, where the constitutional violation was not
alleged to be part of a pattern of past misconduct, a supervisory official or a municipality may be
held liable only where there is essentially a complete failure to train the police force or training that
is so reckless or grossly negligent that future police misconduct is almost inevitable or would
properly be characterized as substantially certain to result. Hays v. Jefferson Cnty., Ky., 668 F.2d
869, 874 (6th Cir.1982).
At this early stage of the proceedings, the complaint’s allegations, which ultimately may
prove to be untrue, warrant further development. Read generously, the pro se complaint alleges that
Sheriff Arnold’s inadequate training or supervision of officers under his command caused or
contributed to the alleged violation of the Plaintiff’s civil rights and/or that policies, customs, and
practices exist within Rutherford County that caused or contributed to the alleged violations of the
Plaintiff’s civil rights– practices and policies that Flaggs also enforced. Consequently, the court
finds that the complaint states a colorable § 1983 claim against Rutherford County in this regard for
purposes of further developing the record. The Court takes these kinds of allegations seriously, but
Plaintiff must be able to substantiate his claims in order for case to proceed.
Claims against Officer Applegate
The complaint alleges that Defendant police officer Shawn Applegate failed to respond or
otherwise take appropriate action after receiving complaints and letters from the Plaintiff pertaining
to the allegations he raises in this lawsuit. (Doc. No. 1 at p. 156). Although the Plaintiff may feel
that his grievances or complaints were not taken seriously or handled properly, a Plaintiff cannot
premise a § 1983 claim on allegations that the an institution’s grievance procedure was inadequate
and/or unresponsive because there is no inherent constitutional right to an effective jail grievance
procedure in the first place. See Hewitt v. Helms, 459 U.S. 460, 467 (1983)(overruled in part on
other grounds by Sandin v. Conner, 515 U.S. 472 (1995)); Antonelli v. Sheahan, 81 F.3d 1422, 1430
(7th Cir. 1996); Adams v. Rice, 40 F.3d 72, 75 (4th Cir. 1994); Flick v. Alba, 932 F.2d 728, 729 (8th
Cir. 1991). Since a prisoner does not have a constitutional right to an effective or responsive
grievance procedure, the Plaintiff’s claims based on any Defendant’s failure to respond to Plaintiff’s
grievances do not state a claim upon which relief can be granted, and those claims will be dismissed.
Some of the Plaintiff’s claims sound in habeas corpus and are not appropriately brought in
a § 1983 action. The law is well established that “habeas corpus is the exclusive remedy for a state
prisoner who challenges the fact or duration of his confinement . . . even though such a claim may
come within the literal terms of § 1983.” Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477, 481 (1994)(citing
Preiser v. Rodriguez, 411 U.S. 475, 488-90 (1973))(emphasis added). A § 1983 claim challenging
confinement must be dismissed even where a plaintiff seeks only injunctive or monetary relief.
Heck, 512 U.S. at 489-90 (claim for damages is not cognizable); Preiser, 411 U.S. at 488-90 (claim
for injunctive relief is only cognizable under 28 U.S.C. § 2254). Additionally, a state prisoner does
not state a cognizable claim under § 1983 where a ruling on his claim would imply the invalidity of
his conviction and/or confinement, unless and until the conviction has been favorably terminated,
i.e., reversed on direct appeal, expunged by executive order, declared invalid by a state tribunal, or
called into question by a federal court’s issuance of a writ of habeas corpus. Heck, 512 U .S. at
486-87; Ruff v. Runyon, 258 F.3d 498, 502 (6th Cir. 2001). More recently, the United States
Supreme Court extended Heck to bar § 1983 actions that do not directly challenge confinement, such
as here, but instead challenge the procedures that imply unlawful confinement. Edwards v. Balisok,
520 U.S. 641, 648 (1997).
Under Heck, the court cannot grant the relief requested (release from custody) by the
Plaintiff in his complaint.
The Plaintiff’s claims concerning the validity of his continued
confinement or his complaints against the quality of his court-appointed lawyer’s representation
would be more appropriately brought in a separate petition for writ of habeas corpus, not in a civil
rights complaint. Those claims will be dismissed without prejudice, should the Plaintiff wish to
pursue them via the appropriate legal route.
Claims against unidentified grand jurors and jury foreperson
The Plaintiff names the twelve unidentified grand jurors and the jury foreperson, Karen
Hudson, as Defendants to this action. “[J]urors acting within the scope of their duties” enjoy
absolute immunity from suit. Van de Kamp v. Goldstein, 555 U.S. 335, 341 (2009). Therefore, the
Plaintiff’s claims against the twelve grand jurors and jury foreperson Hudson must be dismissed for
failure to state claims upon which relief can be granted.
As set forth above, the court finds that all claims are dismissed with prejudice except as
follows: Plaintiff’s false arrest and false imprisonment claims against Defendants Price, Gibbs, and
Gorham in their individual capacities; Plaintiff’s excessive force claims against Defendant Price in
his individual capacity; and Plaintiff’s official capacity claims against Defendants Robert Arnold,
Aneta Flaggs, and Rutherford County, Tennessee as described herein. These claims survive the
required PLRA screening and shall proceed for further development of the record.
This dismissal will be without prejudice to the Plaintiff’s ability to pursue any remedies
available to him by way of a petition for writ of habeas corpus.
An appropriate order will be entered.
WAVERLY D. CRENSHAW, JR.
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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