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Johnson v. Thompson-Smith

United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division.

August 23, 2016

David M. Johnson Plaintiff,
v.
Lynette T. Thompson-Smith, Ronald Rascia, William Blumthal, and Unknown Defendants, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          Honorable Thomas M. Durkin United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff 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.

         Defendants 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 prejudice.

         Standard

         A Rule 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.

         In 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, 113 (1993)).

         Facts

         Johnson 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.

         Shortly 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).[1] 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.

         In early 2015, Melton moved to set the case for trial, or in the alternative, to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction or failure to prosecute.[2] See R. 14 at 22-23. At least one trial date certain was set in the case, but no trial ever took place.[3] 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.[4] 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).[5] Instead, this lawsuit followed.[6]

         Discussion

         I. Immunity from Suit

         Courts 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)).

         1. Absolute Immunity-Thompson-Smith

         Defendant 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 act.’”).

         Johnson 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 foreclosure proceedings).

         There 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.”[7] 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 presides.”).

         Johnson 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 ...


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