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Burns v. Unknown Parties

United States District Court, S.D. Illinois

May 13, 2015

DERRICK BURNS, # B-82889, Plaintiff,


MICHAEL J. REAGAN, Chief District Judge.

At the time of filing this action, Plaintiff Derrick Burns was a federal pretrial detainee[1] awaiting trial on charges of making and mailing a bomb threat against Southern Illinois University in United States v. Burns, Case No. 14-cr-40081-SMY (S.D. Ill. Oct. 7, 2014) (Doc. 1, p. 3). He filed the instant pro se complaint (Doc. 1) against three unidentified officials, whom he blames for his allegedly wrongful detention and prosecution in connection with the pending criminal action. These officials include an Assistant United States Attorney ("Prosecutor Doe"), a United States Marshal ("Marshal Doe"), and the White County Sheriff in White County, Illinois ("Sheriff Doe").

Plaintiff claims that he was taken into custody on baseless charges in a grand jury indictment (Doc. 1, pp. 4-6). He was detained "for weeks" in the White County Jail, where he was denied access to legal materials while awaiting trial. He also faced constitutionally objectionable conditions at the White County Jail.

Plaintiff now brings this civil rights action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. He sues the three "Doe" defendants for conspiracy under 42 U.S.C. § 1985(3) and for depriving him of his rights under the First, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. He seeks monetary damages, declaratory judgment, and injunctive relief.

Merits Review Under 28 U.S.C. § 1915A

This case is now before the Court for a preliminary review of the complaint pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915A. Under Section 1915A, the Court is required to promptly screen prisoner complaints to filter out nonmeritorious claims. 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(a). The Court is required to dismiss any portion of the complaint that is legally frivolous, malicious, fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, or asks for money damages from a defendant who by law is immune from such relief. 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(b).

An action or claim is frivolous if "it lacks an arguable basis either in law or in fact." Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319, 325 (1989). An action fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted if it does not plead "enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). The claim of entitlement to relief must cross "the line between possibility and plausibility." Id. at 557. Conversely, a complaint is plausible on its face "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). Although the Court is obligated to accept factual allegations as true, see Smith v. Peters, 631 F.3d 418, 419 (7th Cir. 2011), some factual allegations may be so sketchy or implausible that they fail to provide sufficient notice of a plaintiff's claim. Brooks v. Ross, 578 F.3d 574, 581 (7th Cir. 2009). Additionally, Courts "should not accept as adequate abstract recitations of the elements of a cause of action or conclusory legal statements." Id. At the same time, however, the factual allegations of a pro se complaint are to be liberally construed. See Rodriguez v. Plymouth Ambulance Serv., 577 F.3d 816, 821 (7th Cir. 2009). The complaint does not survive preliminary review under this standard.

The Complaint

In the complaint, Plaintiff claims that Prosecutor Doe secured a baseless grand jury indictment against him for mailing threatening communications through the United States Postal Service in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 876(c) (Doc. 1, pp. 6-7). Plaintiff alleges that Prosecutor Doe sought the indictment in an effort to quiet Plaintiff's protected speech. Pursuant to it, Marshal Doe took Plaintiff into custody and transported him to White County Jail in White County, Illinois. There, Plaintiff was placed in segregation "for weeks" without justification while awaiting trial (Doc. 1, pp. 4-6). He was deprived of mental health treatment and outside recreation. He was also denied access to the law library and other legal materials necessary to seek injunctive, declaratory, and habeas relief.

Based on these allegations, Plaintiff asserts claims against Prosecutor Doe, Marshal Doe, and Sheriff Doe for conspiracy and for violations of his rights under the First, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments. Plaintiff seeks to enjoin the criminal proceedings that are currently pending against him in United States v. Burns, Case No. 14-cr-40081-SMY (S.D. Ill. Oct. 7, 2014), as well as all further indictments (Doc. 1, pp. 10, 12). He challenges the constitutionality of 18 U.S.C. § 876(c) (Doc. 1, p. 11). He seeks to enjoin the criminal proceedings and all further indictments against him (Doc. 3). Finally, Plaintiff seeks $200, 000, 000.00 in compensatory damages and $500, 000.00 in punitive damages (Doc. 1, p. 12).


The complaint fails to state a cognizable claim against any of the defendants. The pleading contains numerous deficiencies that lead the Court to this conclusion. The more significant problems are discussed below. Under the circumstances, the complaint shall be dismissed.

A. Section 1983 or Bivens

Plaintiff sues three defendants under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for violations of his federal constitutional and statutory rights. Whether any of these defendants are subject to suit under Section 1983 is unclear.

Section 1983 specifically pertains to the actions of state actors, not federal officials. The statute "creates a federal remedy against anyone who, under color of state law, deprives any citizen of the United States... of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws.'" Planned Parenthood of Indiana, Inc. v. Commissioner of Indiana State Dept. Health, 699 F.3d 962, 972 (7th Cir. 2012) (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 1983). To state a claim under Section 1983, a plaintiff must allege that some person acting under color of state law deprived him of a federal right. Gomez v. Toledo, 446 U.S. 635, 640 (1980).

In contrast, claims against federal actors are brought pursuant to Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents of the Fed. Bureau of Narcotics, 403 U.S. 388 (1971). A Bivens claim is the equivalent of a claim brought pursuant to Section 1983, only against a federal actor. Because Prosecutor Doe and Marshal Doe are federal actors, Section 1983 is inapplicable to claims against them.

But Sheriff Doe is a closer call. The Seventh Circuit has held that an Illinois sheriff can be a state actor. See Mercado v. Dart, 604 F.3d 360, 366 (7th Cir. 2010); Scott v. O'Grady, 975 F.2d 366, 369 (7th Cir. 1992) ("A sheriff in Illinois may perform some tasks on behalf of the state."); Richman v. Sheahan, 270 F.3d 430, 439 (7th Cir. 2001) ("A county sheriff may act as an arm of the state when performing certain functions."). Although the Seventh Circuit has questioned whether a county employee caring for federal prisoners becomes a federal actor by virtue of these duties (thereby rendering Section 1983 inapplicable), this question remains unanswered by the Seventh Circuit. See Lewis v. Downey, 581 F.3d 467, 471 n. 3 (7th Cir. 2009) (citations omitted)). Absent any clear indication to the contrary, it would appear that Plaintiff appropriately brought his claims against Sheriff Doe pursuant to Section 1983.

With that said, Plaintiff's failure to properly invoke Bivens and/or Section 1983 is not fatal to his claims ...

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