E-Alert Case Updates
Delaware Federal Court Examines Judicial Immunity and Subject Matter Jurisdiction Issues Regarding Lawsuits Challenging State Court Decisions
Anthony W. Gunzl v. Larry Stewart, et al.
In Anthony W. Gunzl v. Larry Stewart, et al., the Plaintiff, after losing a lawsuit he filed in Delaware state court, filed a second lawsuit in Delaware federal court against the litigants and presiding judge from the state court action. The Plaintiff alleged violations of the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution arising from the state court proceedings. The presiding judge from the state court action filed a motion to dismiss on the grounds that she had absolute judicial immunity, and the state court litigants filed a motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. The United States District Court for the District of Delaware concluded that the presiding judge had absolute immunity from suit for her judicial acts, and that the Court lacked federal question jurisdiction because the Plaintiff’s Sixth and Fourteenth Amendment claims failed as a matter of law. Accordingly, the Court granted the Defendants’ motions to dismiss.
By way of factual background, on April 23, 2012, Plaintiff Anthony W. Gunzl (“Plaintiff”) filed a lawsuit for breach of contract in the Superior Court of the State of Delaware for New Castle County (“Superior Court”) against Larry Stewart (“Stewart”) and One Off Rod & Custom, Inc. (“One Off”). Plaintiff alleged that One Off, a custom repair shop, improperly painted and transported his classic motor vehicle which caused dents and other damage.
Plaintiff appeared pro se in the Superior Court action, and Douglas A. Shachtman (“Shachtman”) represented Stewart and One Off in the Superior Court. The Honorable M. Jane Brady (“Judge Brady”) presided over the Superior Court case. The Superior Court dismissed the action on September 16, 2013, for Plaintiff's failure to comply with an order that required his submission of an expert report. Plaintiff appealed to the Delaware Supreme Court following the Superior Court’s denial of his motions for reargument and reconsideration. On January 2, 2015, the Delaware Supreme Court affirmed and held that dismissal of the complaint for failure to identify an expert as required by scheduling order was not an abuse of discretion.
On December 17, 2015, Plaintiff filed the lawsuit at issue in the United States District Court for the District of Delaware against Stewart, One Off, Shachtman, and Judge Brady (collectively, “Defendants”), alleging violations of the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution based on the Defendants’ conduct in the Superior Court action.
According to the Court, it was evident from the allegations that Plaintiff did not agree with rulings made by Judge Brady. In addition, Plaintiff alleged that Shachtman did not properly respond to discovery requests or subpoenas, and that Judge Brady sided with Stewart and One Off throughout the Superior Court proceedings. Plaintiff sought compensatory and punitive damages and asked the Court to reopen the Superior Court case, for a finding in his favor that One Off breached its contract, and for an investigation of Judge Brady. Judge Brady moved for dismissal on the grounds that she had absolute judicial immunity. Stewart, One Off, and Shachtman moved for dismissal based on lack of subject matter jurisdiction.
Regarding Judge Brady’s motion, the Court noted that “a judicial officer in the performance of her duties has absolute immunity from suit and will not be liable for her judicial acts.” Capogrosso v. The Supreme Court of New Jersey, 588 F.3d 180, 184 (3d Cir. 2009). The Court explained that “a judge will not be deprived of immunity because the action she took was in error, was done maliciously, or was in excess of her authority; rather, she will be subject to liability only when she has acted ‘in the clear absence of all jurisdiction.’” Id.
Turning to the facts of the case, the Court found that Plaintiff’s claims were founded entirely on orders entered against him and other judicial action taken in the course of the Superior Court proceedings. According to the Court, because Plaintiff's claims against Judge Brady were based on the performance of her official duties, judicial immunity clearly applied. Accordingly, the Court granted Judge Brady’s motion to dismiss.
Regarding the motion filed by Stewart, One Off, and Shachtman, the Court noted that Plaintiff alleged violations of his Sixth and Fourteenth Amendment rights and, therefore, asserted jurisdiction by reason of a federal question. See 28 U.S.C. § 1331.
The Court began its analysis by noting that Plaintiff's Sixth Amendment right to a fair and impartial trial claim failed as a matter of law because “Sixth Amendment guarantees are applicable only in the context of criminal prosecutions, and are inapplicable to civil cases.” See Turner v. Rogers, 564 U.S. 431 (2011); Coulter v. Unknown Probation Officer, 2013 WL 2249296, at *9 (M.D. Pa. 2013).
Regarding Plaintiff’s attempt to assert a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment, the Court noted that “conduct by a private actor generally does not give rise to a claim for violations of federal constitutional rights.” See West v. Atkins, 487 U.S. 42, 48 (1988) (to state a claim under 42 U.S.C. §1983, a plaintiff must allege "the violation of a right secured by the Constitution or laws of the United States and must show that the alleged deprivation was committed by a person acting under color of state law”). Given that neither Stewart, One Off, nor Shachtman were state actors, and that the only state actor (Judge Brady) was immune from suit, the Court concluded that it did not have subject matter jurisdiction over the claims alleging violations of Plaintiff's Fourteenth Amendment rights. Additionally, the Court noted that it did not have diversity jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1332, because all the named parties were citizens of the State of Delaware. Accordingly, the Court granted the Defendants’ motions to dismiss.
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