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Plaintiff’s Allegations of Unconstitutional Conspiracy Came within Federal Court Jurisdiction But Failed to State a Claim on Which Relief Could be Granted
David Anthony Wiggins v. 11 Kew Garden Court, et. al.
In this recently issued per curiam opinion from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, the Court affirmed the U.S. District Court’s dismissal of the Plaintiff’s Complaint, but not on jurisdictional grounds as the District Court had held.
The Plaintiff, David Wiggins, filed a complaint in Federal Court including claims of breach of contract and malicious prosecution and unconstitutional conspiracy against all the Defendants. Specifically he alleged that the Defendants (including two state judges and a state court clerk) conspired to prevent him from obtaining title to a specific piece of real estate on the basis of his race, gender, ethnicity, and elective enfranchisement. The Complaint claimed that certain of the Defendants filed false and fraudulent suits in state court and the judiciary Defendants aided them by deciding the case without justification.
Wiggins claimed federal question jurisdiction arising under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (2006). While § 1983 provides a remedy for violations of an individual’s constitutional rights, it only does so when those violations occur as a result of state action. A § 1983 claim cannot be premised on purely private conduct, no matter how unlawful that conduct may be. American Mfrs. Mut. Ins. Co. v. Sullivan, 526 U.S. 40, 50 (1999). The U.S. District Court dismissed the Plaintiff’s action based on lack of federal jurisdiction.
The Fourth Circuit noted that it may affirm the District Court on “any grounds apparent from the record,” including the alternative ground that the complaint fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. Pitt County v. Hotels.com, L.P., 553 F.3d 308, 311 (4th Cir. 2009). The Court then affirmed the dismissal of Plaintiff’s claims made only against the private citizens, but could not do so for all of Plaintiff’s claims.
The Court wrote that the Supreme Court has held that “[p]rivate parties who corruptly conspire with a judge in connection with [an official judicial act] are ... acting under color of state law within the meaning of § 1983.” Dennis v. Sparks, 449 U.S. 24, 29 (1980). As such, the Court found that Wiggins’ claims that Defendants engaged in a conspiracy involving his state suit did allege federal causes of action.
Despite this finding, the Court determined that the complaint was properly dismissed because the allegations failed to adequately plead an unconstitutional conspiracy.
In order to adequately plead an unconstitutional conspiracy, the plaintiff must assert facts from which a conspiratorial agreement can be inferred. Great Western Mining & Mineral Co. v. Fox Rothschild LLP, 615 F.3d 159, 178 (3d Cir. 2010), cert. denied, 131 U.S. 1798 (2011). Further, conclusory pleadings are not entitled to an assumption of truth. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678-79 (2009).
The Fourth Circuit held that the Plaintiff failed to plead any agreement between the state court judges and the other defendants, and the bare allegations that Defendants resorted to the courts and won are insufficient to show a joint action with the judiciary. Dennis, 449 U.S. at 28. Here, the Plaintiff failed to make any factual contentions concerning conduct by any of the judiciary Defendants aside from entering orders and making legal decisions. As such, the Court held that Plaintiff’s complaint must be dismissed.
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