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Alfred Ward v. Tharp

United States District Court, W.D. Michigan, Southern Division

October 22, 2019

DENNIS LONNIE ALFRED WARD et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
KATHY THARP et al., Defendants.

          OPINION

          PAUL L. MALONEY UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         This is a civil rights action brought by state prisoners under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Under the Prison Litigation Reform Act, Pub. L. No. 104-134, 110 Stat. 1321 (1996) (PLRA), the Court is required to dismiss any prisoner action brought under federal law if the complaint is frivolous, malicious, fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted, or seeks monetary relief from a defendant immune from such relief. 28 U.S.C. §§ 1915(e)(2), 1915A; 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(c). The Court must read Plaintiffs' pro se complaint indulgently, see Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, 520 (1972), and accept Plaintiffs' allegations as true, unless they are clearly irrational or wholly incredible. Denton v. Hernandez, 504 U.S. 25, 33 (1992). Applying these standards, the Court will dismiss Plaintiffs' complaint for failure to state a claim.

         Discussion

         I. Factual allegations

         Plaintiffs Dennis Lonnie Alfred Ward, Walter Neal, Aundra Beckem, Jamal Umar Buchanan, Samaj Ramone Lawson, Sandy Holt Jr., and Dandree Black are seven state prisoners presently incarcerated with the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) at the Lakeland Correctional Facility (LCF), the Muskegon Correctional Facility (MCF), and the G. Robert Cotton Correctional Facility (JCF). The events about which they complain, however, occurred prior to their incarceration. Plaintiffs sue Muskegon County Executive Kathy Tharp, the County of Muskegon, and Muskegon County Clerk Nancy A. Waters. Plaintiffs' complaint was originally filed in the Muskegon County Circuit Court on June 6, 2019, but was removed to this Court by Defendants on July 29, 2019. Defendants filed a motion to dismiss (ECF No. 3) on August 5, 2019.

         Plaintiffs allege that they were all convicted and sentenced in the Muskegon County Circuit Court between 2001 and 2012. Plaintiffs state that they were indigent and were each represented by appointed counsel. Plaintiffs claim that the County of Muskegon failed in its obligation to adequately fund, train, and supervise the court-appointed attorneys who defended Plaintiffs in their criminal prosecutions. Each of the Plaintiffs state that they were represented by multiple attorneys during the course of their criminal cases, that the attorneys were changed without the notice or consent of the Plaintiffs, and that the representation provided was inconsistent and inadequate.

         Plaintiffs claim that Defendants' conduct violated their rights under the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments, as well as under state law. Plaintiffs seek declaratory and injunctive relief, as well as “any other relief . . . including monetary damage awards and out of pocket expenses for the costs of this litigation, including court costs.” (ECF No. 1-1, PageID.17.)

         II. Failure to state a claim

         A complaint may be dismissed for failure to state a claim if it fails “‘to 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)). While a complaint need not contain detailed factual allegations, a plaintiff's allegations must include more than labels and conclusions. Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555; 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.”). The court must determine whether the complaint contains “enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” 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.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679. Although the plausibility standard is not equivalent to a “‘probability requirement,' . . . it asks for more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556). “[W]here the well-pleaded facts do not permit the court to infer more than the mere possibility of misconduct, the complaint has alleged-but it has not ‘show[n]'-that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679 (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2)); see also Hill v. Lappin, 630 F.3d 468, 470-71 (6th Cir. 2010) (holding that the Twombly/Iqbal plausibility standard applies to dismissals of prisoner cases on initial review under 28 U.S.C. §§ 1915A(b)(1) and 1915(e)(2)(B)(i)).

         To state a claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, a plaintiff must allege the violation of a right secured by the federal Constitution or laws and must show that the deprivation was committed by a person acting under color of state law. West v. Atkins, 487 U.S. 42, 48 (1988); Street v. Corr. Corp. of Am., 102 F.3d 810, 814 (6th Cir. 1996). Because § 1983 is a method for vindicating federal rights, not a source of substantive rights itself, the first step in an action under § 1983 is to identify the specific constitutional right allegedly infringed. Albright v. Oliver, 510 U.S. 266, 271 (1994).

         In their motion to dismiss, Defendants state that Plaintiffs' claims are barred by Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994). A challenge to the fact or duration of confinement should be brought as a petition for habeas corpus and is not the proper subject of a civil rights action brought pursuant to § 1983. See Preiser v. Rodriguez, 411 U.S. 475, 484 (1973) (the essence of habeas corpus is an attack by a person in custody upon the legality of that custody and the traditional function of the writ is to secure release from illegal custody). Therefore, to the extent that Plaintiffs' complaint challenges the fact or duration of their incarceration, it must be dismissed. See Adams v. Morris, 90 Fed.Appx. 856, 858 (6th Cir. 2004) (dismissal is appropriate where § 1983 action seeks equitable relief and challenges fact or duration of confinement); see also Moore v. Pemberton, 110 F.3d 22, 23-24 (7th Cir. 1997) (reasons for not construing a § 1983 action as one seeking habeas relief include (1) potential application of Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994), (2) differing defendants, (3) differing standards of § 1915(a)(3) and § 2253(c), (4) differing fee requirements, and (5) potential application of second or successive petition doctrine or three-strikes rules of § 1915(g)).

         In addition, to the extent Plaintiffs seek injunctive, declaratory, and monetary relief for alleged violations of Constitutional rights related to their convictions, their claims are barred by Heck, 512 U.S. at 486-87, which held that “in order to recover damages for allegedly unconstitutional conviction or imprisonment, or for other harm caused by actions whose unlawfulness would render a conviction or sentence invalid, a § 1983 plaintiff must prove that the conviction or sentence has been [overturned].” See Edwards v. Balisok, 520 U.S. 641, 646 (1997) (emphasis in original). In Heck, the Supreme Court held that a state prisoner cannot make a cognizable claim under § 1983 for an allegedly unconstitutional conviction or for “harm caused by actions whose unlawfulness would render a conviction or sentence invalid” unless a prisoner shows that the conviction or sentence has been “reversed on direct appeal, expunged by executive order, declared invalid by a state tribunal authorized to make such determination, or called into question by a federal court's issuance of a writ of habeas corpus.” Id. at 486-87 (footnote omitted). The holding in Heck has been extended to actions seeking injunctive or declaratory relief. See Edwards, 520 U.S. at 646-48 (declaratory relief); Clarke v. Stalder, 154 F.3d 186, 189-90 (5th Cir. 1998) (claim for injunctive relief intertwined with request for damages); Wilson v. Kinkela, No. 97-4035, 1998 WL 246401, at *1 (6th Cir. May 5, 1998) (injunctive relief).

         As noted by Defendants in their motion to dismiss, Plaintiffs' claims in this case clearly relate to the validity of their convictions because they allege that they did not receive adequate legal representation in their criminal cases. None of the Plaintiffs have alleged that they have had their convictions reversed or invalidated. Therefore, Plaintiffs' claims are barred under Heck until their criminal convictions have been invalidated.

         Moreover, as noted by Defendants, Plaintiffs' claims are barred by the applicable statute of limitations. State statutes of limitations and tolling principles apply to determine the timeliness of claims asserted under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Wilson v. Garcia, 471 U.S. 261, 268-69 (1985). For civil rights suits filed in Michigan under § 1983, the statute of limitations is three years. See Mich. Comp. Laws § 600.5805(2) (eff. June 12, 2018) (previously § 600.5805(10)); Carroll v. Wilkerson, 782 F.2d 44, 44 (6th Cir. 1986) (per curiam); Stafford v. Vaughn, No. 97-2239, 1999 WL 96990, at *1 (6th Cir. Feb. 2, 1999). Accrual of the claim for relief, however, is a question of federal law. Collyer v. Darling, 98 F.3d 211, 220 (6th Cir. 1996); Sevier v. Turner, 742 F.2d 262, 272 (6th Cir. 1984). The statute of limitations begins to run when the aggrieved party knows or has reason to know of the injury that is the basis of his action. Collyer, 98 F.3d at 220.[1]

         Plaintiffs' complaint is untimely. They assert claims arising between 2001 and 2012. Plaintiffs had reason to know of the “harms” done to them at the time they occurred. Hence, their claims accrued between 2001 and 2012. However, they did not file their complaint until June 6, 2019, well past Michigan's three-year limit. Moreover, Michigan law no longer tolls the running of the statute of limitations when a plaintiff is incarcerated. See Mich. Comp. Laws § 600.5851(9). Further, it is well established that ignorance of the law does not warrant equitable tolling of a statute of limitations. See Rose v. Dole, 945 F.2d 1331, ...


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