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Stanley v. United States

August 14, 2009


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Reagan, District Judge


I. Background

On May 21, 2009, Arthur L. Stanley filed a complaint for declaratory, injunctive and mandamus relief against the United States of America and Chief Judge David R. Herndon as well as his clerks. The case was originally randomly assigned to Judge Herndon who recused on May 26, 2009. The undersigned Judge was then randomly assigned to the case.

Underlying Stanley's claims is his dissatisfaction with the dismissal of a previous action which he brought against Circuit Judges Richard A. Posner, Ilana D. Rovner and Ann C. Williams; District Judge J. Phil Gilbert; Magistrate Judges Philip M. Frazier and Donald G. Wilkerson; and the judges' clerks. Stanley v. Posner, Case No. 09-cv-0223-DRH (S.D. Ill.). Judge Herndon denied Stanley leave to proceed in forma pauperis and dismissed his action with prejudice because the defendant judges were shielded from civil liability for their judicial actions under the common law doctrine of judicial immunity. He also found that the clerks' actions were "within their jurisdiction."

In the current proceeding, Stanley argues that Judge Herndon and his clerks wrongly dismissed his complaint.*fn1 He contends that (1) the defendant judges were not immune because their acts conflicted with the superior authority of the Constitution; (2) Judge Herndon's judgment was void because he stated no legal basis for dismissing the mandamus action; (3) the defendant judges acted in their ministerial capacity; and (4) no other sufficient remedy exists. Now before the Court is Stanley's motion to proceed in forma pauperis (Doc. 2).

II. Analysis

By granting a motion for pauper status, a federal court authorizes a lawsuit to proceed without prepayment of fees. See 28 U.S.C. § 1915(a)(1) ("[A]ny court of the United States may authorize the commencement ... of any suit ... without prepayment of fees or security therefor...."). Before a federal court can grant pauper status, however, it must carefully screen the complaint filed by the pro se litigant. Indeed, 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2) requires federal courts to dismiss any complaint if (a) the allegation of poverty is untrue, (b) the action is frivolous or malicious, (c) the action fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted, or (d) the action seeks monetary relief against a defendant who is immune from such relief.

In reviewing Stanley's complaint, the Court bears in mind that it must construe pro se complaints liberally. Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, 520-21 (1972); Ciarpaglini v. Saini, 352 F.3d 328, 330 (7th Cir. 2003). More specifically, the Court accepts any factual allegations in the complaint as true and draws all reasonable inferences in Stanley's favor. See Jogi v. Voges, 425 F.3d 367, 371 (7th Cir. 2005) (citing Transit Express, Inc. v. Ettinger, 246 F.3d 1018, 1023 (7th Cir. 2001).

Dismissal for failure to state a claim is warranted only if it "appears beyond doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of his claim which would entitle him to relief." Alper v. Altheimer & Gray, 257 F.3d 680, 684 (7th Cir. 2001) (citing Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 45-46 (1957). Accord Alvarado v. Litscher, 267 F.3d 648, 651 (7th Cir. 2001); Brown v. Budz, 398 F.3d 904, 909 (7th Cir. 2005).The question is not whether the plaintiff ultimately will prevail in the suit but only whether he is entitled to offer evidence to support his claims. Caremark, Inc. v. Coram Healthcare Corp., 113 F.3d 645, 648 (7th Cir. 1997).

Even viewed in this friendly light, Stanley's complaint fails to pass muster under § 1915(e)(2). He has established that he is indigent (see Doc. 2), so the Court finds his allegation of poverty to be truthful. However, Stanley has failed to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. Moreover, even though Stanley seeks declaratory, injunctive and mandamus relief in the instant action, he also seeks a determination that Judge Herndon's prior decision was contrary to the Constitution and void. This issue is inextricably tied to the question of whether in the prior action Stanley sought monetary relief against defendants who are immune from such relief.

At least since 1872, the Supreme Court has recognized the common law principle that judges are entitled to absolute immunity from liability for damages when their actions are taken in the exercise of their judicial capacity. Bradley v. Fisher, 80 U.S. (13 Wall.) 335, 351 (1872). The Supreme Court has held that a judge's act is judicial in nature if "it is a function normally performed by a judge." Stump v. Sparkman, 435 U.S. 349, 362 (1978). Additionally, "[a] judge 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.'" Id. at 356-57. Absolute immunity shields a judge from liability "even if his exercise of authority is flawed by the commission of grave procedural errors." Id. at 359.

Although Stanley brings suit against Judge Herndon both individually and in his official capacity, there are no allegations of any actions taken by Judge Herndon that fall outside the ambit of "judicial" acts. See Mireles v. Waco, 502 U.S. 9, 11 (1991) ("whether an act by a judge is a 'judicial' one relate[s] to the nature of the act itself, i.e., whether it is a function normally performed by a judge, and to the expectations of the parties, i.e. whether they dealt with the judge in his judicial capacity")(quoting Stump v. Sparkman, 435 U.S. 349, 362 (1978)). Contrary to Stanley's allegation, only in Judge Herndon's judicial capacity - and not as a ministerial duty - could he order or deny the relief Stanley sought. John v. Barron, 897 F.2d 1387, 1392 (7th Cir. 1990) ([A] judge who "renders a decision acts well within his ... judicial capacity."). In rendering judgment against Stanley, Judge Herndon acted in his judicial capacity, and even if his decision was incorrect - a matter that this Court need not and shall not determine - there is no evidence that his actions were made in the clear absence of all jurisdiction. Accordingly, Judge Herndon is absolutely immune from liability for damages.

Stanley's claim for injunctive relief fares no better. The doctrine of absolute judicial immunity protects federal judges from injunctive relief as well as money damages. Bolin v. Story, 225 F.3d 1234, 1240 (11th Cir. 2000) ("[T]o allow injunctive relief against federal judges would be to permit a 'horizontal appeal' from one district court to another or even 'reverse review' of a ruling of the court of appeals by a district court.").

As to Stanley's request for mandamus relief, a writ of mandamus could issue from an appellate court to direct a district court to "correct a clear abuse of discretion or the failure to carry out a ministerial task." Armstrong v. Martin Marietta Corp., 138 F.3d 1374, 1385 (11th Cir.), cert. denied 525 U.S. 1019 (1998). The writ is "a drastic remedy, that must not be used to regulate the trial court's judgment in matters properly left to its sound discretion...."Armstrong, 138 F.3d at 1386, n. 22 (quoting In re Estelle, 516 F.2d 480, 483 (5th Cir. 1975). The writ may issue to aid appellate jurisdiction but not to create judicial inefficiency with piecemeal litigation or for the undesirable result "of making a district judge a litigant." Mallard v. U.S. Dist. Court for ...

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