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Hennessey v. Atlantic Office of Public Defender

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

June 18, 2018

FRANK HENNESSEY, Plaintiff,
v.
ATLANTIC OFFICE OF THE PUBLIC DEFENDER and ROBERT MORAN, Defendants.

          Frank Hennessey, # 255009 Atlantic County Justice Facility Plaintiff Pro se

          OPINION

          NOEL L. HILLMAN, U.S.D.J.

         Plaintiff Frank Hennessey, an inmate presently incarcerated at the Atlantic County Justice Facility in Mays Landing, New Jersey, seeks to bring a civil rights action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the Atlantic Office of the Public Defender. ECF No. 1. The Complaint also references public defenders Robert Moran, Kevin Moses, Holly Bitters, and Kimberly Schultz (the “Individual Defendants”); it is unclear whether Plaintiff seeks to assert claims against them but the Court will liberally construe the Complaint as seeking to assert claims against them individually.[1] Id.

         At this time, the Court must review Plaintiff's Complaint pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 1915(e)(2) and 1915A to determine whether it should be dismissed as frivolous or malicious, for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, or because it seeks monetary relief from a defendant who is immune from such relief. For the reasons set forth below, the Court will dismiss the Complaint without prejudice with leave to amend. 28 U.S.C. §§ 1915(e)(2)(b)(ii) and 1915A(b)(1).

         BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff filed the Complaint on November 17, 2017. ECF No. 1. In it, Plaintiff asserts that his due process rights have been violated by Defendants. Compl. ¶ 1a. Specifically, Plaintiff generally complains of the quality of representation he has received by Defendants, noting that “no progress” has been made in his case and he is still in custody. Id. at 4-5. Plaintiff asserts that Defendants are wrongly preoccupied with coercing guilty pleas rather than acting in their clients' best interests. Id. at 8. Plaintiff also asserts that the Defendants have not provided him with “full discovery disclosure” or an opportunity to review surveillance footage of Plaintiff's alleged offense. Id. at 11-12. In addition, Plaintiff claims that the plea deal offered to him was relayed to him by Defendant Schultz and not by a prosecutor or in writing. Id. at 12. Plaintiff asserts that he has requested numerous hearings such as a probable cause hearing and a suppression hearing but that Defendants have ignored his requests. Id. at 15.

         Plaintiff also states in the Complaint that he wishes to “collaterally attack” the manner by which the State of New Jersey, Superior Court Criminal Division Authorities, State of New Jersey County of Atlantic Office of the Prosecutor, Criminal Case Managers, and the Atlantic County Jail Administrators have “significantly crippled, distort, and or block/out” his ability to review evidentiary proofs such as investigatory results, notations, police reports, lab testing, statements and other material based on defective and deficient procedural policies. Id. at 20. Finally, Plaintiff also appears to assert a class action claim on behalf of “all enjoining (class status) parties” as to the mode by which discovery is disclosed to defendants in Atlantic County, some of whom are not literate or computer literate. Id. at 21-23.

         In an effort to informally resolve his grievance, Plaintiff has exchanged multiple letters and engaged in numerous conferences with various public defenders at the Office including the Office's Department Head, Robert Moran. Id. ¶ 5.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Sections 1915(e)(2) and 1915A require a court to review complaints prior to service in cases in which a plaintiff is proceeding in forma pauperis and in which a plaintiff is incarcerated. The Court must sua sponte dismiss any claim that is frivolous, is malicious, fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, or seeks monetary relief from a defendant who is immune from such relief. This action is subject to sua sponte screening for dismissal under 28 U.S.C. §§ 1915(e)(2)(B) and 1915A because Plaintiff is proceeding in forma pauperis and is also incarcerated. See ECF No. 3 (granting in forma pauperis application).

         To survive sua sponte screening for failure to state a claim, the complaint must allege “sufficient factual matter” to show that the claim is facially plausible. Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 210 (3d Cir. 2009). “‘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.'” Fair Wind Sailing, Inc. v. Dempster, 764 F.3d 303, 308 n.3 (3d Cir. 2014) (quoting Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009)). “[A] pleading that offers ‘labels or conclusions' or ‘a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.'” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (quoting Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007)). DISCUSSION Plaintiff's Complaint must be dismissed for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. In order to state a claim pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, the plaintiff must show that “‘(1) the conduct complained of was committed by a person acting under color of state law; and (2) that the conduct deprived a person of rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution or laws of the United States.'” Calhoun v. Young, 288 Fed.Appx. 47, 49 (3d Cir. 2008) (quoting Robb v. City of Phila., 733 F.2d 286, 290-91 (3d Cir. 1984)).

         Plaintiff fails to state a claim as to the Individual Defendants because a public defender acts outside the color of state law when he or she is performing a lawyer's traditional functions as counsel to a defendant. Calhoun, 288 Fed.Appx. at 49 (citing Polk County v. Dodson, 545 U.S. 312, 325 (1981)). Plaintiff makes no allegation that the Individual Defendants were acting in any way other than performing a lawyer's traditional functions as counsel to him. As such, the Individual Defendants must be dismissed. Such dismissal, however, will be without prejudice and leave to amend.[2]

         The Atlantic Office of the Public Defender must also be dismissed because it is immune from suit. The Eleventh Amendment provides:

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 ...

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