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Leekley-Winslow v. State

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

September 30, 2019




         This case comes before the Court on Plaintiff Colton Francis Leekley-Winslow's Complaint [Doc. No. 1], Application to Proceed in District Court Without Prepaying Fees or Costs [Doc. No. 2] (IFP Application), and motion for an order requiring that the U.S. Postal Service conduct service in this matter [Doc. No. 3] (Service Motion). For the following reasons, the Court recommends (1) dismissing Defendants Court Clerk “Cindy” and Court Clerk “Michelle” from this action and (2) dismissing any claims against the State of Minnesota, except to the extent that they seek prospective injunctive relief.


         The Complaint concerns Leekley-Winslow's interactions with state-court clerks in a Minnesota state-court action, Leekley-Winslow v. Fairview Health Services, No. 27-CR-18-19543 (Minn. Dist. Ct.). Leekley-Winslow alleges that he visited the Hennepin County Courthouse on July 31, 2019, to “deliver paperwork” in that action-specifically, a “motion for a default judgment” and “an affidavit certifying compliance with the [state] court's order to comply with evidence discovery.” (Compl. 4.)

         Leekley-Winslow alleges that when he sought to file this paperwork, a court clerk “mentioned filing fees for the motion.”[1] (Id.) Leekley-Winslow told the clerk that the state court had denied his motion to proceed in forma pauperis (IFP) in No. 27-CR-18-19543, and that “he found this unacceptable” for various reasons. (Id.) He thus requested that the court “charge the filing fee but put it ‘on his tab, '” which was $75.00 because of an earlier unpaid filing fee. (Id.)

         Leekley-Winslow alleges that after this request, the person he was speaking to consulted a court clerk named Michelle, who said she would review the status of Leekley-Winslow's case. (See id.) She returned with a court clerk named Cindy, “both of whom immediately became hostile.” (Id.) Cindy allegedly “rudely assert[ed] that the court [would] not receive [Leekley-Winslow's] motion without [him] paying the filing fee.” (Id.) Leekley-Winslow apparently suggested “chang[ing] the motion to a communication, ” but Cindy refused to permit this. (Id. at 4-5). After further discussion, Cindy refused to take Leekley-Winslow's paperwork, and Leekley-Winslow left the courthouse. (See Id. at 5.)

         The Complaint names three Defendants: the State of Minnesota and the court clerks named Michelle and Cindy. (See Id. at 1.) Leekley-Winslow contends that Michelle's and Cindy's conduct violated his rights under the First and Fifth Amendments, and that the State of Minnesota's IFP procedures are unconstitutional (presumably under the First and Fifth Amendments). (See Id. at 5.) As for relief, Leekley-Winslow seeks monetary damages from all three Defendants: $100, 000.00 and legal-expenses reimbursement from the State of Minnesota, and $1.00 from each of the named court clerks. (See id.) He also appears to seek a declaration that Minnesota's current IFP procedures are unconstitutional. (See id.) He suggests that in its place, the state's procedure should be set up so that (1) “[a] litigant who has filed an IFP [application] under penalty of perjury and not been found guilty of perjury may not have paperwork refused at the courthouse due to filing fees, ” and (2) “[t]he State of Minnesota must receive the paperwork, and may assess filing fees based on approval or denial of the IFP only after the case has concluded.” (Id.)

         II. ANALYSIS

         Leekley-Winslow did not pay this action's filing fee; instead, he applied for IFP status. In a separate order, this Court is granting the IFP Application. Under § 1915(e)(2), however, where a plaintiff seeks to proceed IFP, the Court, “[n]otwithstanding any filing fee, or any portion thereof, that may have been paid, . . . shall dismiss the case at any time if the court determines that, ” among other things, “the action or appeal . . . fails to state a claim on which relief may be granted” or “seeks monetary relief against a defendant who is immune from such relief.” While § 1915(e)(2) speaks in terms of dismissing “the case, ” courts also use § 1915(e)(2) to eliminate portions of actions that fail to state a cause of action or that seek monetary relief from immune defendants. See, e.g., Bonczek v. Bd. of Trustees Nat'l Roofing Indus. Pension Plan, No. 14-CV-3768 (JRT/LIB), 2015 WL 1897837, at *4 (D. Minn. Apr. 23, 2015); Abduljabbar v. Minn. Dep't of Transp., No. 14-CV-3583 (ADM/JSM), 2014 WL 7476513, at *4 (D. Minn. Nov. 5, 2014), R. & R. adopted, 2015 WL 75255 (D. Minn. Jan. 6, 2015).

         Leekley-Winslow purports to bring this action based on the U.S. Constitution's First and Fifth Amendments. These do not provide a standalone right of action; litigants suing over state officials' alleged violations of their constitutional rights must use 42 U.S.C. § 1983. See, e.g., Van Stelton v. Van Stelton, No. 11-CV-4045 (MWB), 2014 WL 4898591, at *11 n.7 (N.D. Iowa Sept. 30, 2014) (citing cases); Washington v. Vaghn, No. 14-CV-0525 (JRT/JSM), 2014 WL 3687240, at *4 (D. Minn. July 24, 2014) (same). The Court thus construes Leekley-Winslow's claims as being brought under § 1983.

         Under § 1983, plaintiffs can sue individual defendants in those defendants' individual capacities or in their official capacities. See, e.g., Kentucky v. Graham, 473 U.S. 159, 165-68 (1985) (discussing distinction); Marsh v. Phelps Cty., 902 F.3d 745, 751-57 (8th Cir. 2018) (noting distinction). Here, Leekley-Winslow fails to state the capacity (or capacities) in which he is suing the court-clerk Defendants. Courts in this District faced with complaints failing to specify relevant capacities often ask the plaintiff to provide an addendum specifying the capacities in which he or she is suing individual defendants.[2] In this case, however, because the Court would recommend that any individual-capacity claims against the court-clerk Defendants be dismissed (as discussed below), the Court will simply assume that Leekley-Winslow means to sue all individual Defendants in both their individual capacities and in their official capacities.

         With this backdrop in mind, the Court recommends that certain parts of this case be dismissed. First, the Court recommends dismissing any individual-capacity claims against the court-clerk Defendants. Those clerks have a quasi-judicial immunity that is absolute-an immunity not just from damages, but from suit itself. See, e.g., Hamilton v. City of Hayti, No. 16-CV-0054 (RLW), 2017 WL 836558, at *5-6 (E.D. Mo. Mar. 2, 2017). Court clerks have quasi-judicial immunity for, among other things, “acts taken at the direction of a judge or according to court rule.” See, e.g., Geitz v. Overall, 62 Fed.Appx. 744, 746 (8th Cir. 2003) (per curiam) (citing cases); see also Tyler v. Vicki, No. 16-CV-0189, 2016 WL 3448470, at *2 (D. Neb. June 20, 2016) (discussing Geitz), aff'd, No. 16-3379 (8th Cir. Oct. 7, 2016); Burgie v. Hannah, No. 09-CV-0920 (GTE), 2010 WL 3199691, at *5 (E.D. Ark. Aug. 12, 2010), aff'd, 407 Fed.Appx. 84 (8th Cir. 2011).

         Here, the thrust of Leekley-Winslow's claims against the court-clerk Defendants is that they violated his civil rights by following existing Minnesota rules for litigants who fail to secure IFP status. (This is why he seeks a declaration that the Minnesota-court IFP system is unconstitutional.) Given this thrust, the Court concludes that the court clerks have quasi-judicial immunity to the extent Leekley-Winslow has sued them in their individual capacities.

         The claims that remain, then, are those against the State of Minnesota itself and the official-capacity claims against the court-clerk Defendants. As a second case refinement, the Court recommends dismissing the official-capacity claims against the court-clerk Defendants. An official-capacity claim against a government official essentially amounts to a claim against the relevant governmental entity itself. See, e.g., Hafer v. Melo, 502 U.S. 21, 25 (1991) (“Suits against state officials in their official capacity . . . should be treated as suits against the State.”) (citing Graham, 473 U.S. at 166); Veatch v. Bartels Lutheran Home, 627 F.3d 1254, 1257 (8th Cir. 2010) (citing Baker v. Chisom, 501 F.3d 920, 925 (8th Cir. 2007)). As a result, the Complaint's official-capacity claims against the court-clerk Defendants are redundant. Any official-capacity claim against them is effectively a claim against the State of Minnesota, which Leekley-Winslow has already named as a defendant. The Court thus recommends dismissing the official-capacity claims against the court-clerk Defendants. See, e.g., Artis v. Francis Howell N. Band Booster Ass'n, Inc., 161 F.3d 1178, 1182 (8th Cir. 1998) (affirming district-court dismissal of official-capacity claim against individual ...

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