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Mitchell v. McGinnis

United States District Court, E.D. Wisconsin

December 21, 2017



          J. P. Stadtmueller U.S. District Judge

         Plaintiff Brian DeMarco Mitchell, who is incarcerated at the Outagamie County Jail, proceeds in this matter pro se. He filed a complaint alleging that Defendants Outagamie County Circuit Court Judge Mark J. McGinnis (“Judge McGinnis”) and attorney Daniel M. Muza (“Muza”) violated his constitutional rights. (Docket #1). Plaintiff subsequently filed an amended complaint, providing additional factual details to support his claims. (Docket #7). The amended complaint supersedes the first complaint and is the governing pleading in this case. See Massey v. Helman, 196 F.3d 727, 735 (7th Cir. 1999). After filing his amended complaint, Plaintiff filed a supplement to his amended complaint, purporting to add Outagamie County as a defendant. (Docket #8).

         This matter comes before the court on Plaintiff's petition to proceed without prepayment of the filing fee (in forma pauperis). (Docket #2). Plaintiff has been assessed and paid an initial partial filing fee of $15.80. See 28 U.S.C. § 1915(b)(1). His motion to proceed in forma pauperis will, therefore, be granted.

         Next, the Court is required to screen complaints brought by prisoners seeking relief against a governmental entity or an officer or employee of a governmental entity. 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(a). The Court must dismiss a complaint or portion thereof if the prisoner has raised claims that are legally “frivolous or malicious, ” that fail to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, or that seek monetary relief from a defendant who is immune from such relief. Id. § 1915A(b).

         A claim is legally frivolous when it lacks an arguable basis either in law or in fact. Denton v. Hernandez, 504 U.S. 25, 31 (1992); Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319, 325 (1989); Gladney v. Pendelton Corr. Facility, 302 F.3d 773, 774 (7th Cir. 2002). The Court may, therefore, dismiss a claim as frivolous where it is based on an indisputably meritless legal theory or where the factual contentions are clearly baseless. Neitzke, 490 U.S. at 327; Gladney, 302 F.3d at 774. “Malicious, ” although sometimes treated as a synonym for “frivolous, ” “is more usefully construed as intended to harass.” Lindell v. McCallum, 352 F.3d 1107, 1109 (7th Cir. 2003) (citations omitted); accord Paul v. Marberry, 658 F.3d 702, 705 (7th Cir. 2011).

         To state a cognizable claim under the federal notice pleading system, the plaintiff is required to provide a “short and plain statement of the claim showing that [he] is entitled to relief[.]” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). It is not necessary for the plaintiff to plead specific facts and his statement need only “give the defendant fair notice of what the…claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007) (quoting Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 47 (1957)); see Christopher v. Buss, 384 F.3d 879, 881 (7th Cir. 2004). However, a complaint that offers “labels and conclusions” or “formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555). To state a claim, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, “that is plausible on its face.” Id. (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.” Id. (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556). The complaint's allegations “must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555 (citation omitted); Christopher, 384 F.3d at 881.

         In considering whether a complaint states a claim, courts should follow the principles set forth in Twombly by first, “identifying pleadings that, because they are no more than conclusions, are not entitled to the assumption of truth.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679. Legal conclusions must be supported by factual allegations. Id. If there are well-pleaded factual allegations, the court must, second, “assume their veracity and then determine whether they plausibly give rise to an entitlement to relief.” Id.

         To state a claim for relief under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, a plaintiff must allege that: 1) he was deprived of a right secured by the Constitution or laws of the United States; and 2) the deprivation was visited upon him by a person or persons acting under color of state law. Buchanan-Moore v. County of Milwaukee, 570 F.3d 824, 827 (7th Cir. 2009) (citing Kramer v. Vill. of N. Fond du Lac, 384 F.3d 856, 861 (7th Cir. 2004)); see also Gomez v. Toledo, 446 U.S. 635, 640 (1980). The Court is obliged to give the plaintiff's pro se allegations, “however inartfully pleaded, ” a liberal construction. See Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007) (quoting Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 106 (1976)).

         Plaintiff alleges that on May 9, 2017, the Appleton public defender's office appointed Muza to represent Plaintiff in a criminal case pending in Outagamie County, Case Number 17-CF-59. (Docket #7 at 2). On May 18, 2017, Plaintiff asked Muza to withdraw as his attorney because he believed Muza had a “conflict.” Id. The next day, Muza informed Plaintiff that he would withdraw from the case, and Muza faxed to Judge McGinnis a motion to withdraw and proposed order. Id. Three days later, on May, 22, 2017, Judge McGinnis granted the motion. Id. at 3.

         Then, on May 25, 2017, apparently unaware that the motion to withdraw had been granted, Muza faxed a letter to Judge McGinnis requesting a hearing on the motion to withdraw. Id. The letter states “[a]s you know, I presently represent Brian D. Mitchell in the above-captioned matter.” Id. at 3, see also (Docket #7-1 at 4). Plaintiff contends that Muza “acted negligently when he failed to inquire with the court or by public record in regard to his representation status . . . before requesting a motion hearing[.]” Id. at 3.

         A hearing was scheduled for, and took place on, June 6, 2017 in Outagamie County Circuit Court. Id. at 4. Plaintiff contends he was damaged as the result of this hearing, which should not have taken place. Id. Plaintiff alleges that at the hearing, Judge McGinnis and Muza realized that Muza's motion for withdrawal had already been granted but continued with the hearing anyway. Id. Plaintiff states that, as a result, he was not represented by “effective or legal counsel.” Id. According to Plaintiff, Judge McGinnis went on to find Plaintiff in contempt of court and imposed on him a term of six months' imprisonment and a $5, 000 fine “with purge conditions.” Id. at 4-5. Plaintiff contends that the sanction was “unlawful” and “excessive, ” and that he was sentenced without being afforded legal counsel. Id. at 5.

         Plaintiff served forty-two days in the Outagamie County Jail for contempt before Judge McGinnis ordered his release due to Plaintiff having satisfied his purge conditions and “failure to follow statutory procedure brought to his knowledge by [Plaintiff] and newly appointed counsel Gary Schmidt on July 17, 2017[.]” Id. Plaintiff states that the sentence imposed on him should not have exceeded thirty days' imprisonment and a $500.00 fine. Id. Plaintiff contends that because he served “unlawful days in jail on the contempt charge, ” his Eighth Amendment rights were violated. He states that he suffered emotional and mental damage as a result. Id. at 5-6.

         Finally, Plaintiff alleges that while he was incarcerated at the Outagamie County Jail, he had a mental and emotional breakdown that caused him to enter into a physical altercation with his cellmate. Id. at 6. That altercation led to criminal charges being filed against him. Id. Plaintiff contends that but for the “unlawful” conduct of Judge McGinnis and Muza, Plaintiff would not have been incarcerated at the time of the altercation and, therefore, the altercation would not have happened. Id.

         Plaintiff cannot state a viable claim against any of the named Defendants. First, it has long been established that judges, being sued solely for judicial acts, are protected by absolute judicial immunity. Mireles v. Waco, 502 U.S. 9, 11-12 (1991); Forrester v. White, 484 U.S. 219, 225-29 (1988); Richman v. Sheahan, 270 F.3d 430, 434 (7th Cir. 2001). Without doubt, the actions of Judge McGinnis that form the basis of Plaintiff's claim against him-“hosting a criminal proceeding in which an indigent defendant was not appointed counsel” and “imposing an excessive sentence, ” (Docket #7 at 7)-are judicial acts. Judge McGinnis is thus cloaked with judicial immunity for each of the actions that Plaintiff invokes as the grounds for his constitutional ...

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