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Carder v. Tinney

United States District Court, N.D. West Virginia

August 10, 2017

JOSH CARDER, Plaintiff,
v.
BRADLEY TINNEY, Circuit Court Probation Officer; BRIAN THOMPSON, State Parole and Probation Officer; BENITA MURPHY, Chairperson, West Virginia Sate Parole Board; UNKNOWN EMPLOYEES OF THE WEST VIRGINIA DIVISION OF CORRECTIONS; and UNKNOWN EMPLOYEES OF THE WEST VIRGINIA REGIONAL JAIL AUTHORITY, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER GRANTING DEFENDANTS' MOTIONS TO DISMISS [DKT NOS. 25, 28, 41, AND 48]

          IRENE M. KEELEY, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Pending before the Court are motions to dismiss filed by each of the named defendants seeking to dismiss the amended complaint filed by the plaintiff, Josh Carder (“Carder”). For the reasons that follow, the Court GRANTS the defendants' motions (dkt. nos. 25, 28, 41, and 48) and DISMISSES this case.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On February 10, 2012, the Circuit Court of Lewis County, West Virginia, convicted the plaintiff, Josh Carder (“Carder”), of a third or subsequent offense of driving under the influence of alcohol, and sentenced him to an indeterminate term of one to three years. Carder began a period of home confinement on February 16, 2012, that lasted until February 8, 2013. During that time, he served ten days of incarceration for violating the conditions of his home confinement. On February 9, 2013, Carder was released on parole and remained on parole until a curfew violation occurred on January 15, 2014. At Carder's sentencing on the parole violation, the defendant, Bradley Tinney (“Tinney”), a probation officer for the Circuit Court, calculated Carder's time served to that point. Carder alleges that Tinney miscalculated his time served as only 278 days, which caused his effective date of sentence to be incorrectly set as May 5, 2013.

         Carder remained incarcerated on his parole violation from January 15, 2014, until August 15, 2014. Upon his release, Carder alleges that authorities erroneously placed him on parole again and that, on November 14, 2014, he was again revoked for another parole violation. This revocation resulted in his incarceration for an additional thirty days. Following his release on December 15, 2014, Carder again was placed on parole, but yet again was revoked on January 12, 2015, for another parole violation.

         According to Carder, during his last period of incarceration, beginning January 12, 2015, he realized that his effective sentencing date was incorrect and that his sentence should have been discharged on July 28, 2014. He further alleges that he reported this error to the defendant, Brian Thompson (“Thompson”), who allegedly stated that “[Carder] would not be under parole if he was not supposed to be.” Dkt. No. 7 at 5. Additionally, in an attempt to resolve the error, Carder's girlfriend, Michele Hickman (“Hickman”), made phone calls to the defendant, Benita Murphy (“Murphy”), the chairperson of the West Virginia State Parole Board, and defendant Judy Fitzgerald (“Fitzgerald”), former Director of Parole Services. Allegedly, Murphy and Fitzgerald told Hickman that, “even if there was an error, there was nothing [they] could do until a court ordered his release.” Id. Carder asserts that neither Murphy nor Fitzgerald attempted to investigate Hickman's complaint.

         After continued efforts by Hickman, the error finally was addressed by the Lewis County Prosecuting Attorney's Office and, pursuant to the circuit court's amended sentencing order, Carder ultimately was released on April 10, 2015. He alleges that he is credited for 393 days beyond his original sentence of three years and that his liberty was deprived by either wrongful incarceration or parole for 257 days.[1]

         After filing his original complaint in this Court against Tinney, Murphy, Thompson, and unknown employees of the West Virginia Division of Corrections and the West Virginia Regional Jail Authority on October 26, 2016 (dkt. no. 1), Carder amended his complaint on December 15, 2016, to add Judy Fitzgerald as a defendant(dkt. no. 7).

         Carder's amended complaint asserts two causes of action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and § 1988 for violations of his Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment rights under the United States Constitution. In addition, he alleges three state law claims, including reckless infliction of emotional distress, battery, and assault. Id. Each of the four individual defendants has filed motions to dismiss based on immunity, the applicable statute of limitations, and for failure to state a claim (dkt. no. 25, 28, 41, and 48).

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         In reviewing the sufficiency of a complaint, a district court “‘must accept as true all of the factual allegations contained in the complaint.'” Anderson v. Sara Lee Corp., 508 F.3d 181, 188 (4th Cir. 2007)(quoting Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007)). However, while a complaint does not need detailed factual allegations, a plaintiff's obligation to provide the grounds of his entitlement to relief requires more than mere labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do. Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). Indeed, courts “are not bound to accept as true a legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation.” Papasan v. Allain, 478 U.S. 265, 286 (1986). In considering whether the facts alleged are sufficient, “a complaint must contain ‘enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Anderson, 508 F.3d at 188 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 547). “A motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) tests the sufficiency of a complaint; importantly, it does not resolve contests surrounding the facts, the merits of a claim, or the applicability of defenses.” Republican Party of N.C. v. Martin, 980 F.2d 943, 952 (4th Cir. 1992).

         III. DISCUSSION

         All of the defendants argue that they are entitled either to absolute or qualified immunity, that Carder's claims are barred by the applicable statute of limitations, or that he has failed to state a claim. Because the statute of limitations is an affirmative defense, the Court declines to address this argument at this early stage. See Fluharty v. City of Clarksburg, 2015 WL 2341727, at *3 (N.D.W.Va. 2015) (“A motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) tests the sufficiency of a complaint; importantly, it does not resolve contests surrounding the facts, the merits of a claim, or the applicability of defenses.” (quoting Republican Party of N.C. v. Martin, 980 F.2d 943, 952 (4th Cir. 1992)). Nevertheless, as discussed below, all of the defendants are entitled to either absolute or qualified immunity as to the constitutional violations asserted in Counts One and Two. Furthermore, Carder has failed to state a claim as to his state law claims in Counts Three, Four, and Five.

         A. The Defendant's are Entitled to Immunity from the Constitutional Violation Claims in Count One and Count Two

         1. Tinney is Entitled to Absolute Immunity

         Tinney has moved to dismiss the claims against him, arguing that, because “the doctrine of judicial immunity [] extends to probation officers when assisting the court in carrying out judicial functions, ” he is immune from suit. The long-standing doctrine of judicial immunity entitles judges to absolute immunity for their judicial decisions, even when those decisions are clearly erroneous and without regard to the severity of the consequences. See Forrester v. White, 484 U.S. 219, 225 (1988); Pierson v. Ray, 386 U.S. 547 (1967); Bradley v. Fisher, 80 U.S. 335 (1871). The Supreme Court of the United States has extended this absolute immunity to non-judges who perform functions integral to the judicial process. See Imbler v. Pachtman, 424 U.S. 409 (1986) (extending judicial immunity to prosecutors and grand jurors); Briscoe v. LaHue, 460 U.S. 325 (1983) (extending judicial immunity to witnesses, including police officers); Butz v. Economou, 438 U.S. 478 (1978) (extending judicial immunity to Executive Branch officials performing “quasi-judicial” functions). Building on this precedent, district courts have extended this quasi-judicial immunity to “probation officers sued for performing tasks ‘intimately associated with the judicial phase of the criminal process.'” Gant v. U.S. Probation Office, 994 F.Supp. 729, 733 (S.D.W.Va. 1998) (quoting Imbler, 424 U.S. at 430).

         In determining whether a government official is entitled to quasi-judicial immunity, the Supreme Court of the United States has adopted a “‘functional' approach” that examines the nature of the functions rather than the defendant's “rank or title or ‘location within the Government.'” Cleavinger v. Saxner, 474 U.S. 193, 201 (U.S. 1985) (quoting Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 807 (1982); Butz, 438 U.S. at 511). Six non-exhaustive factors determine whether absolute immunity exists. These include:

(a) [T]he need to assure that the individual can perform his functions without harassment or intimidation; (b) the presence of safeguards that reduce the need for private damages actions as a means of controlling unconstitutional conduct; (c) insulation from political influence; (d) the importance of precedent; (e) the ...

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