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Delaware Federal Court Examines Requirements for Civil Rights Claims Against States and State Governors

Thomas E. Noble v. The State of Delaware, Governor Jack Markell, and Anyone Else Responsible
Case No. 16-188-SLR (United States District Court for the District of Delaware, July 11, 2016)

by Richard J. Medoff, Associate
Semmes, Bowen & Semmes (www.semmes.com)

Available at: http://www.ded.uscourts.gov/sites/default/files/opinions/slr/2016/july/16-188.pdf

Thomas E. Noble v. The State of Delaware, Governor Jack Markell, and Anyone Else Responsible involved a motion for leave to file a civil rights complaint filed by a pro se litigant who had previously been enjoined by the United States District Court for the District of Delaware from filing any pro se civil rights complaints without prior approval of the Court. The Court concluded that the defendants named in the pro se litigant’s proposed complaint were immune from suit under the Eleventh Amendment, and thus, that the litigant’s claims were frivolous and could not be cured by amendment. Therefore, the Court denied the motion for leave to file the proposed complaint.

By way of factual background, movant Thomas E. Noble (“movant”), a pro se litigant, had a history of filing numerous lawsuits that contained “frivolous legal arguments that were vexatious and an abuse of the judicial process.” On September 13, 2004, the United States District Court for the District of Delaware entered an order enjoining movant from filing any pro se civil rights complaints without prior approval of the Court (the “barring order”). In the case at bar, movant filed a motion requesting leave to file a complaint against The State of Delaware (the “State”), Governor Jack Markell (“Markell”), and “anyone else responsible” (the “proposed complaint”). Movant argued that the barring order was inapplicable because it applied solely to prisoners proceeding in forma pauperis, that it did not address allowing him to hire an attorney to file civil rights complaints for him, that it did not address allowing him to proceed pro se if he paid the filing fee, and that the Court lacked constitutional authority to require him to seek prior approval to file a complaint if he paid the filing fee.

The Court noted that the barring order did not refer to movant’s status as an incarcerated or non-incarcerated individual, or as a plaintiff who pays the filing fee or who proceeds in forma pauperis. According to the Court, the barring order referred to movant’s status as a pro se litigant and to cases he filed alleging violations of his civil rights. Here, movant proceeded pro se and his proposed complaint against the State and Markell alleged violations of his civil rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Therefore, the Court concluded that the barring order applied to movant’s proposed complaint.

The Court noted that the proposed complaint sought class action status, was brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, challenged the constitutionality of 11 Del. C. § 1109 (dealing in child pornography), and raised numerous claims regarding the conditions of confinement movant experienced while housed in the Delaware Department of Correction. According to the Court, the proposed complaint raised claims that were “legally frivolous.”

The Court further noted that in an attempt to avoid the immunity of the proposed defendants, movant did not seek compensatory damages, but solely declaratory and injunctive relief. The Court explained that the State was immune from suit as the Eleventh Amendment provides that, “The Judicial power of the United States shall not be construed to extend to any suit in law or equity, commenced or prosecuted against one of the United States by Citizens of another State, or by Citizens or Subjects of any Foreign State.” See U.S. Const. Amend. XI. The Court explained that the Eleventh Amendment has been interpreted “to render states - and by extension, state agencies, departments, and officials when the state is the real party in interest - generally immune from suit by private parties in federal court.” See Pennsylvania Fed'n of Sportsmen's Clubs, Inc. v. Hess, 297 F.3d 310, 323 (3d Cir. 2002).

The Court noted, however, that immunity under the Eleventh Amendment was subject to three (3) primary exceptions: (1) congressional abrogation; (2) waiver by the state; and (3) suits against individual state officials for prospective injunctive and declaratory relief to end an ongoing violation of federal law. Id. See also Idaho v. Coeur d'Alene Tribe of Idaho, 521 U.S. 261, 267 (1997) (state may waive immunity); Seminole Tribe of Fla. v. Florida, 517 U.S. 44, 55-56 (1996) (Congress may abrogate immunity); Ex parte Young, 209 U.S. 123 (1908) (prospective injunctive and declaratory relief).

The Court noted that the State had not waived its immunity from suit in federal court and, although Congress can abrogate a state’s sovereign immunity, it did not do so through the enactment of 42 U.S.C. § 1983. See Brooks-McCollum v. Delaware, 213 F.App'x 92, 94 (3d Cir. 2007) (unpublished). Regarding Markell, the Court noted that the proposed complaint did not indicate if Markell was named in his individual or official capacity, but to the extent that the proposed claims were raised against Markell in his official capacity, they failed. See Will v. Michigan Dep't of State Police, 491 U.S. 58, 71 (1989) (“A suit against a state official in his or her official capacity is not a suit against the official but rather is a suit against the official’s office. As such, it is no different from a suit against the State itself.”).

With regard to claims against Markell in his individual capacity, the Court noted that movant could only possibly avail himself of the third exception under Eleventh Amendment immunity. In analyzing the applicability of this immunity exception, the Court noted that Markell was mentioned in three (3) places in the proposed complaint: (1) “Markell ... is not immune from declaratory or injunctive relief;” (2) “the State unconstitutionally misuses state law and its threat of ultra-huge prison time to extort guilty pleas ... is egregiously unconstitutional, but also is a scam that should be prosecuted as such against Markell;” and (3) “while Markell exhorts citizens outside of prison to help conserve energy and to reduce the possibility of power failures during peak usage hours, during those same periods Markell has his prisons’ staff misusing the AC to torture detainees and other prisoners.”

First, the Court found that the first statement about Markell was a legal conclusion. See Davis v. Abington Mem'l Hosp., 765 F.3d 236, 241 (3d Cir. 2014) (complaint must do more than simply provide labels and conclusions or a formulaic recitation of the elements of cause of action). Next, the Court found that the second statement was frivolous given that it stated that Markell should be prosecuted for his alleged involvement in a scam, as movant lacked standing to impose criminal liability upon Markell pursuant to a criminal statute. See Allen v. Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts, 270 F.App'x 149, 150 (3d Cir. 2008) (unpublished); see also United States v. Friedland, 83 F.3d 1531, 1539 (3d Cir. 1996) (“The United States Attorney is responsible for the prosecution of all criminal cases within his or her district.”). Finally, the Court noted that the third statement was raised against Markell in his supervisory position, and that it was well established that claims based solely on the theory of respondeat superior or supervisor liability are facially deficient. See Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 676-77 (2009). Accordingly, the Court concluded that movant’s allegations were frivolous and could not be cured by amendment. Therefore, the Court denied movant’s motion for leave to file the proposed complaint. See Chambers v. NASCO, Inc., 501 U.S. 32, 43 (1991) (the court has inherent authority “to manage its own affairs so as to achieve the orderly and expeditious disposition of cases.”).


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