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Johnson v. Maricopa County Sheriff's Office

United States District Court, District of Arizona

January 28, 2015

Michael David Johnson, Plaintiff,
Maricopa County Sheriff's Office, et al., Defendants.


David G. Campbell United States District Judge

Plaintiff Michael David Johnson, who is confined in the Maricopa County Lower Buckeye Jail in Phoenix, Arizona, has filed a pro se civil rights Complaint pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (Doc. 1) and an Application to Proceed In Forma Pauperis (Doc. 2). The Court will dismiss the Complaint with leave to amend.

Plaintiff has also filed two Motions to Add Additional Counts (Docs. 5, 6), and a Motion for Disclosure of Electronic Communications and Records (“Motion for Disclosure”) (Doc. 7). The Court will construe the Motions to Add Additional Counts as Motions to Amend and will grant the motion to the extent that it will dismiss the Complaint with leave to amend. The Court will construe the Motion for Disclosure as a motion for discovery and will deny it as premature.

I. Application to Proceed In Forma Pauperis and Filing Fee

Plaintiff’s Application to Proceed In Forma Pauperis will be granted. 28 U.S.C. § 1915(a). Plaintiff must pay the statutory filing fee of $350.00. 28 U.S.C. § 1915(b)(1). The Court will not assess an initial partial filing fee. Id. The statutory filing fee will be collected monthly in payments of 20% of the previous month’s income credited to Plaintiff’s trust account each time the amount in the account exceeds $10.00. 28 U.S.C. § 1915(b)(2). The Court will enter a separate Order requiring the appropriate government agency to collect and forward the fees according to the statutory formula.

II. Statutory Screening of Prisoner Complaints

The Court is required to screen complaints brought by prisoners seeking relief against a governmental entity or an officer or an employee of a governmental entity. 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(a). The Court must dismiss a complaint or portion thereof if a plaintiff 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. 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(b)(1)–(2).

A pleading must contain a “short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2) (emphasis added). While Rule 8 does not demand detailed factual allegations, “it demands more than an unadorned, the-defendant-unlawfully-harmed-me accusation.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). “Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice.” Id.

“[A] complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.’” Id. (quoting Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). A claim is plausible “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. “Determining whether a complaint states a plausible claim for relief [is] . . . a context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense.” Id. at 679. Thus, although a plaintiff’s specific factual allegations may be consistent with a constitutional claim, a court must assess whether there are other “more likely explanations” for a defendant’s conduct. Id. at 681.

But as the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has instructed, courts must “continue to construe pro se filings liberally.” Hebbe v. Pliler, 627 F.3d 338, 342 (9th Cir. 2010). A “complaint [filed by a pro se prisoner] ‘must be held to less stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers.’” Id. (quoting Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007) (per curiam)).

If the Court determines that a pleading could be cured by the allegation of other facts, a pro se litigant is entitled to an opportunity to amend a complaint before dismissal of the action. See Lopez v. Smith, 203 F.3d 1122, 1127-29 (9th Cir. 2000) (en banc). Plaintiff’s Complaint will be dismissed for failure to state a claim, but because it may possibly be amended to state a claim, the Court will dismiss it with leave to amend.

III. Complaint

In his one-count Complaint, Plaintiff sues the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office (“MCSO”) and the Scottsdale City Court. Plaintiff seeks punitive damages, court costs, and to review transcripts and appeal an August 6, 2014 hearing in Scottsdale City Court, Civil Case #M-0751-CV-2013024796.

Plaintiff asserts that his “due process of law” rights and his “right to appeal” have been violated. Plaintiff alleges that the judge in his Scottsdale City Court civil case was “very negligent” in managing a hearing on August 6, 2014, and Plaintiff has appealed. According to Plaintiff, the appeals process requires him to review transcripts of the hearing, and the court mailed him an audio transcript, but jail officials have refused to provide a means for him to listen to the audio transcript and the court will not provide an alternative. Plaintiff asserts that he has written to the court and has “exhausted the internal and external appeals process at the jail, ” but “neither party accepts any responsibility to ensure [his] right . . . to appeal this hearing.” Plaintiff alleges that he has already had his appeal of the hearing extended once, but the appeal instructions clearly state that he is required to obtain and review the transcript, and because he still has no access to the transcript, he fears he will lose his appeal right. Plaintiff also believes the hearing at issue “may have had an impact on the sentencing in [his] current case.”

IV. Failure to State a Claim

To prevail in a § 1983 claim, a plaintiff must show that (1) acts by the defendants (2) under color of state law (3) deprived him of federal rights, privileges or immunities and (4) caused him damage. Thornton v. City of St. Helens, 425 F.3d 1158, 1163-64 (9th Cir. 2005) (quoting Shoshone-Bannock Tribes v. Idaho Fish & Game Comm’n, 42 F.3d 1278, 1284 (9th Cir. 1994)). In addition, a plaintiff must allege that he suffered a specific injury as a result of the conduct of a particular defendant and he must allege an affirmative link between the injury and the conduct of that defendant. Rizzo v. Goode, 423 U.S. 362, 371-72, 377 (1976).

Although pro se pleadings are liberally construed, Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, 520-21 (1972), conclusory and vague allegations will not support a cause of action. Ivey v. Bd. of Regents of the Univ. of Alaska, 673 F.2d 266, 268 (9th Cir. 1982). Further, a liberal interpretation of a civil rights complaint may not supply essential elements of the claim that were not initially pled. Id.


The Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office is not a proper defendant. In Arizona, the responsibility of operating jails and caring for prisoners is placed by law upon the sheriff. See Ariz. Rev. Stat. § 11-441(A)(5); Ariz. Rev. Stat. § 31-101. A sheriff’s office is simply an administrative creation of the county sheriff to allow him to carry out his statutory duties and not a “person” amenable to suit pursuant to § 1983. Accordingly, the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office will be dismissed.

B. Scottsdale City Court

Claims under § 1983 may be directed at “bodies politic and corporate.” Monell v. New York City Dept. of Social Services, 436 U.S. 686, 688-89 (1978). “[A] municipality can be sued under § 1983, but it cannot be held liable unless a municipal policy or custom caused the constitutional injury.” Leatherman v. Tarrant County Narcotics Intelligence and Coordination Unit, 507 U.S. 163, 166 (1993). “A municipality may be liable for actions resulting in violations of constitutional rights only when the conduct of its official or agent is executed pursuant to a government policy or custom.” Lewis v. Sacramento County, 98 F.3d 434, 446 (9th Cir. 1996), rev’d on other grounds, 523 U.S. 833 (1998). Although the Scottsdale City Court is an arm or agency of the City of Scottsdale, which is subject to suit under § 1983, Plaintiff does not allege that his rights were violated due to a policy or custom of the City of Scottsdale. There is also no respondeat superior liability under § 1983; thus, the City of Scottsdale’s position as the employer or supervisor of someone who may have violated Plaintiff’s constitutional rights does not impose liability. Monell, 436 U.S. at 691-92. Plaintiff therefore fails to state a claim against Defendant Scottsdale City Court, and it will be dismissed.[1]

C. Plaintiff’s Due Process and Right to Appeal Claim

Insofar as Plaintiff attempts to assert a Fourteenth Amendment due process claim, it is unclear whether he claims his due process rights were violated by the Scottsdale City Court judge for his alleged negligence during the August 6, 2014 hearing, or by employees or agents of either the Scottsdale City Court or the Lower Buckeye Jail for allegedly denying Plaintiff’s requests to obtain or listen to his hearing transcript, or by these or other individuals for actions taken during the “internal and external appeals process” at the Lower Buckeye Jail. Absent facts showing specifically what right was violated, by whom, in what way, and what injury resulted, Plaintiff fails to state a due process claim.

To the extent that Plaintiff specifically asserts a violation of his “right to appeal, ” Plaintiff should note that the right of meaningful access to the courts prohibits officials from actively interfering with inmates’ attempts to prepare or file legal documents. Lewis v. Casey, 518 U.S. 343, 350 (1996). The right of access to the courts is only a right to bring petitions or complaints to federal court, however, and not a right to discover such claims or even to ligate them effectively once filed with a court. Id. at 354. The right “guarantees no particular methodology but rather the conferral of a capability–the capability of bringing contemplated challenges to sentences or conditions of confinement before the courts.” Id. at 356.

As a matter of standing, for an access-to-courts claim, a plaintiff must show that he suffered an “actual injury” with respect to contemplated litigation. Id. at 349. To show actual injury with respect to contemplated litigation, the plaintiff must demonstrate that the defendants’ conduct frustrated or impeded him from bringing to court a nonfrivolous claim that he wished to present. Id. at 352-53.

Moreover, “the injury requirement is not satisfied by just any type of frustrated legal claim.” Id. at 354. The right of access to the courts “does not guarantee inmates the wherewithal to transform themselves into litigating engines capable of filing everything from shareholder derivative actions to slip-and-fall claims.” Id. at 355. The nonfrivolous claim must be a direct or collateral attack on the inmate’s sentence or a challenge to the conditions of his confinement. Id. “Impairment of any other litigating capacity is simply one of the incidental (and perfectly constitutional) consequences of conviction and incarceration.” Id. (emphasis in original).

Plaintiff alleges that he believes that the hearing he is attempting to challenge “may have had an impact on the sentencing” in his current case. This is not enough, however, to show that Plaintiff’s appeal of his civil court case is either a direct or collateral attack on his criminal sentence or conditions of confinement. Even if Plaintiff had alleged facts showing a direct connection between his sentence or conditions of confinement and his civil case, this would nonetheless be insufficient to state an access-to-courts claim for the reasons already stated. Plaintiff fails to identify who allegedly violated his rights, in what way, or what injuries he suffered as a result. Thus, absent additional facts, Plaintiff fails to show that anyone actively interfered with, frustrated, or impeded his attempts to bring an appeal. For all these reasons, Plaintiff fails to state a claim in Count One, and this count will be dismissed.

V. Leave to Amend

For the foregoing reasons, Plaintiff’s Complaint will be dismissed for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. Within 30 days, Plaintiff may submit a first amended complaint to cure the deficiencies outlined above. The Clerk of Court will mail Plaintiff a court-approved form to use for filing a first amended complaint. If Plaintiff fails to use the court-approved form, the Court may strike the amended complaint and dismiss this action without further notice to Plaintiff.

Plaintiff must clearly designate on the face of the document that it is the “First Amended Complaint.” The first amended complaint must be retyped or rewritten in its entirety on the court-approved form and may not incorporate any part of the original Complaint by reference. Plaintiff may include only one claim per count.

A first amended complaint supersedes the original complaint. Ferdik v. Bonzelet, 963 F.2d 1258, 1262 (9th Cir. 1992); Hal Roach Studios v. Richard Feiner & Co., 896 F.2d 1542, 1546 (9th Cir. 1990). After amendment, the Court will treat an original complaint as nonexistent. Ferdik, 963 F.2d at 1262. Any cause of action that was raised in the original complaint and that was voluntarily dismissed or was dismissed without prejudice is waived if it is not alleged in a first amended complaint. Lacey v. Maricopa County, 693 F.3d 896, 928 (9th Cir. 2012) (en banc).

VI. Other Matters

A. Plaintiff’s Motions to Add Additional ...

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