United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division.
David M. Johnson Plaintiff,
Lynette T. Thompson-Smith, Ronald Rascia, William Blumthal, and Unknown Defendants, Defendants.
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
Honorable Thomas M. Durkin United States District Judge.
David Johnson brings this § 1983 action seeking redress
for harms he alleges to have suffered in connection with the
dismissal of an arbitration action he brought before the
Illinois Workers Compensation Commission (IWCC). R. 6.
Specifically, Johnson seeks damages from Defendant Lynette
Thompson-Smith, the IWCC arbitrator assigned to his case, who
he alleges wrongfully dismissed his action without a hearing
on the merits. Johnson also brings claims against Defendants
Ronald Rascia, Chairman of the IWCC, and William Blumthal,
Director of the IWCC’s Fraud Unit, for their alleged
failure to intervene, whether by negligently hiring or
inadequately supervising Thompson-Smith, by failing to
investigate Johnson’s written complaints, or by
otherwise conducting the business of their respective offices
in a negligent manner. Simply put, Johnson alleges that the
Defendants failed to ensure his “right to a fair
hearing, ” and that as a consequence, he has been
unable to collect workers’ compensation, receive
necessary medical treatment, or collect fringe benefits owed
under the terms of his employment agreement.
have moved to dismiss Johnson’s claims arguing (1) that
as quasi-judicial and public officials, they are immune from
suit as to the conduct alleged, and (2) that even in the
absence of immunity, Johnson has failed to state plausible
claims against them. R. 14. The Court agrees in both regards.
For the following reasons, Defendants’ motion is
granted and Johnson’s complaint is dismissed with
12(b)(6) motion challenges the sufficiency of the
complaint. See, e.g., Hallinan v. Fraternal Order of
Police of Chi. Lodge No. 7, 570 F.3d 811, 820 (7th Cir.
2009). A complaint must provide “a short and plain
statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled
to relief, ” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2), sufficient to
provide defendant with “fair notice” of the claim
and the basis for it. Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly,
550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). This standard “demands more
than an unadorned, the-defendant-unlawfully-harmed-me
accusation.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662,
678 (2009). While “detailed factual allegations”
are not required, “labels and conclusions, and a
formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action
will not do.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555. The
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.’” Mann v.
Vogel, 707 F.3d 872, 877 (7th Cir. 2013) (quoting
Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678). In applying this standard,
the Court accepts all well-pleaded facts as true and draws
all reasonable inferences in favor of the non-moving party.
Mann, 707 F.3d at 877.
evaluating a pro se complaint, the Court applies a
less stringent standard than formal pleadings drafted by
lawyers. Smith v. Dart, 803 F.3d 304, 309 (7th Cir.
2015). However, the court need not ignore facts set forth in
the complaint that undermine the plaintiff’s claim, nor
is the court required to accept the plaintiff’s legal
conclusions. Bullock v. Peters, 1993 WL 315561, at
*1 (7th Cir. 1993) (unpublished disposition); Faulker v.
Otto, 2016 WL 1381795, at *2 (N.D. Ill. Apr. 5, 2016)
(noting even pro se litigants must comply with the
rules (citing McNeil v. United States, 508 U.S. 106,
alleges that as of May 2013, he was a full time driver for
Melton Truck Lines (Melton), an Oklahoma company, and a
beneficiary of Melton’s Occupational Injury Benefit
Plan. R. 6 ¶¶ 11-12. On or about May 3, 2013,
Johnson injured his left hand while on the job in Alabama.
Id. ¶ 13. The injury left Johnson’s
fingers “frozen, ” preventing him from lifting
heavy items or operating a motor vehicle. Id.
¶¶ 13-15. He was advised to seek specialized
medical treatment for this condition. Id.
thereafter, in July 2013, Johnson brought a workers’
compensation claim against Melton before the IWCC (Case No.
13 WC 21814). See R. 14 at 17 (Johnson’s
application for benefits under the Illinois Workers’
Compensation Act (“IWCA”)); see also
IWCC case portal (“Case Portal”), available
at http://www.iwcc.il.gov/caseinfo.htm (last visited
June 20, 2016) (cataloguing standard docketing
information). The IWCC is empowered by the IWCA to
designate an arbitrator to determine any disputed questions
of law or fact regarding liability for accidental injuries
arising out of and in the course of employment. See
820 ILCS 305/19(a). Thompson-Smith, as previously noted, was
the arbitrator assigned to Johnson’s claim.
See Case Portal.
early 2015, Melton moved to set the case for trial, or in the
alternative, to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction or failure
to prosecute. See R. 14 at 22-23. At least one
trial date certain was set in the case, but no trial ever
took place. See Case Portal; see
also R. 14 at 25. For reasons the Court is unable to
ascertain from the current and public record, Thompson-Smith
granted Melton’s motion and dismissed the case with
prejudice on September 22, 2015. See Case Portal;
see also R. 14 at 25. Johnson did not appeal the
dismissal to the state circuit court as permitted by Illinois
law, 820 ILCS 305/19(f)-(g). Instead, this lawsuit
Immunity from Suit
have been admonished to resolve immunity issues at the
earliest possible stage of litigation, preferably before
allowing discovery. Hunter v. Bryant, 502 U.S. 224,
227 (1991). Indeed, the Seventh Circuit has observed that
“no principle forbids a court to notice that such a
defense exists, is bound to be raised, and is certain to
succeed when raised.” Buckley v. Fitzsimmons,
20 F.3d 789, 793 (7th Cir. 1994). Where a defendant’s
immunity is absolute, a claim against him cannot stand.
See Faulkner v. Otto, 2016 WL 1381795, at *5 (N.D.
Ill. Apr. 5, 2016) (citing Stump v. Sparkman, 435
U.S. 349, 356 (1978)). Where immunity is qualified, dismissal
is also required if the allegations of the complaint, taken
as true, fail to allege the violation of a clearly
established right. McGreal v. AT&T Corp., 892
F.Supp.2d 996, 1012 (N.D. Ill. 2012) (citing Landstrom v.
Ill. Dep't of Children & Family Servs., 892 F.2d
670, 675 (7th Cir. 1990)).
Thompson Smith is shielded from liability by the doctrine of
absolute judicial immunity. See Coleman v. Dunlap,
695 F.3d 650, 652 (7th Cir. 2012) (“Parties who,
although not judges, engage in adjudication such as private
arbitrators . . . enjoy absolute immunity.”) (internal
parentheses omitted); see also Int’l Med. Group,
Inc. v. Am. Arbitration Ass’n, 312 F.3d 833, 843
(7th Cir. 2002) (collecting authority) (referring to the
doctrine as applied to arbitrators as “arbitral
immunity”). The doctrine of absolute judicial immunity
protects decision makers from undue influence and from
frivolous and vexatious reprisals by dissatisfied litigants.
See Id. The doctrine recognizes that “most
judicial mistakes or wrongs are open to correction through
ordinary mechanisms of review, which are largely free of the
harmful side-effects inevitably associated with exposing
[judicial or quasi-judicial decision-makers] to personal
liability.” Forrester v. White, 484 U.S. 219,
226-27 (1988); see also Int’l Med. Group,
Inc., 312 F.3d at 843. On this premise, absolute
immunity extends to all acts taken by arbitrators within the
scope of their adjudicative duties, even those alleged to be
malicious, irregular, or erroneous. Id. at 227;
Dellenbach v. Letsinger, 889 F.2d 755, 759 (7th Cir.
1989) (“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.”);
see also Sacks v. Dietrich, 663 F.3d 1065, 1070 (9th
Cir. 2011) (“The pivotal question is ‘whether the
claim at issue arises out of a decisional
concedes that in dismissing his workers’ compensation
claim, Thompson-Smith was “acting in the normal scope
of an [a]rbitrator’s duties.” R. 6 ¶¶
7, 22. He complains, specifically, that Thompson-Smith
“(a) allow[ed] [Melton] to allege [a] factual dispute
without evidence or a pre-deprivation hearing; (b) allow[ed]
[Johnson’s arbitration] counsel to withdraw without any
hearing on the merits; (c) stat[ed] “this matter cannot
go to trial with the Petitioner representing himself”;
and (d) grant[ed] [Melton] a dismissal of [Johnson’s]
claim without rendering a final decision on the
merits.” Id. ¶ 23. The conduct Johnson
details, decisional rulings on the progress and disposition
of his case, are precisely the type of “paradigmatic
judicial acts” courts have held absolutely protected
from civil suit. See Forrester, 484 U.S. at 227;
see also Sampson v. Boharic, 1993 WL 484063 (7th
Cir. Nov. 23, 1993) (unpublished disposition) (judge immune
from complaint alleging monetary damages stemming from
rulings on recusal, discovery, and evidentiary issues);
Faulkner, 2016 WL 1381795 at *5 (judge immune from
civil suit alleging misconduct in the administration of
is, however, an exception to absolute judicial immunity,
which Johnson argues applies here: an arbitrator may be
subject to civil liability “when [s]he has acted in the
clear absence of jurisdiction.” Stump, 435 U.S. at
356. The term “jurisdiction” refers to a
decision-maker’s “power to decide a case or issue
a decree.” Black’s Law Dictionary (10th ed.
2014). To forfeit the protections of absolute immunity, a
judge or arbitrator must make an adjudicatory decision
“know[ing] that he lacks jurisdiction, or act[ ]
despite a clearly valid statute or case law expressly
depriving him of jurisdiction.” Wagshal v.
Foster, 28 F.3d 1249, 1254 (D.C. Cir. 1994) (internal
brackets and quotations omitted) (citing authority); see
also Faulkner, 2016 WL 1381795 at *5
(“‘Jurisdiction’ is construed quite broadly
in this context, and the standard will be met only in unusual
cases where, for example, a judge authorized to hear only
probate cases conducts a criminal trial.”); Renner
v. Stanton, 2013 WL 1898389, at *3 (E.D.N.Y. May 7,
2013) (“A judge acts in the clear absence of all
jurisdiction only when the matter upon which he acts is
clearly outside the subject matter of the court over which
has provided nothing here to suggest that as a duly assigned
workers’ compensation arbitrator, Thompson-Smith was
not authorized to preside over his workers’
compensation claim. Rather, Johnson advances a conclusory
(and circular) argument that ...