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Burchfield v. Harrelson

United States District Court, W.D. Arkansas, Texarkana Division

October 25, 2016

BRADLEY CRAIG BURCHFIELD PLAINTIFF
v.
JEFF HARRELSON; MONTY WOODS; BRYAN CHESSHIR; DEPUTY CHRIS WALCOTT; SHERIFF BENNY SIMMONS; and DEFENDANT DOE (BETTY) DEFENDANTS DOE BETTY DEFENDANTS

          ORDER

          Susan O. Hickey United States District Judge

         Before the Court is the Report and Recommendation filed July 21, 2016, by the Honorable Barry A. Bryant, United States Magistrate Judge for the Western District of Arkansas. (ECF No. 18). Judge Bryant recommends that Plaintiff Bradley Craig Burchfield's claims be dismissed with prejudice as to the following defendants: Jeff Harrelson, Defendant Doe (Betty), Monty Woods, and Bryan Chesshir. Plaintiff has timely filed objections to the Report and Recommendation, along with two supplements. (ECF Nos. 23-24, 32). The Court finds this matter ripe for consideration.

         I. BACKGROUND

         This case is a § 1983 action brought by Plaintiff on May 24, 2016, suing Defendants in both their official and personal capacities. Plaintiff alleges that when he was awaiting state charges and incarcerated in the Sevier County Detention Center (“SCDC”) in De Queen, Arkansas, SCDC did not have a law library.[1] Plaintiff states that it is SCDC's policy to provide access to law library materials through appointed counsel and free phone calls to counsel. Plaintiff alleges that Defendant Chris Walcott and Defendant Benny Simmons denied him access to a law library at SCDC.[2] Plaintiff also alleges that while at SCDC, he believes someone read his “privileged legal mail” because some of it had been opened and handwriting on the outside was not his. (ECF No. 9).

         Plaintiff claims that Defendant Jeff Harrelson, a public defender, violated his constitutional rights by failing to effectively represent him. Plaintiff states that he was only able to speak with Defendant Harrelson on one occasion regarding his case. Plaintiff alleges that at court, Defendant Harrelson was unable to provide the law he was being charged with, and that Defendant Harrelson has “several ethics reviews and other cases of ‘ineffective counsel' under suit from other inmates.” (ECF No. 9). Plaintiff alleges that Defendant Harrelson's secretary, Defendant Doe (Betty), spoke with Plaintiff on the telephone several times, indicated that she would pass messages along to Defendant Harrelson, and on one occasion, told Plaintiff that she could not send him paperwork to fill out to “have a misdemeanor ran [sic] concurrent with a felony.” (ECF No. 1).

         Plaintiff alleges that Defendant Monty Woods and Defendant Bryan Chesshir, both prosecuting attorneys in Sevier County, Arkansas, exaggerated the charges against him for drug possession. Plaintiff alleges that Defendants Harrelson, Woods, and Chesshir use “arcane tactics to force people who can't afford a paid lawyer into taking pleas well above the range of the law.” (ECF No. 9).

         On May 24, 2016, Plaintiff filed the present pro se case in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas. On May 27, 2016, the case was transferred to the Western District of Arkansas. Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1) & (3), the Court referred this case to Judge Bryant for the purpose of making a Report and Recommendation. On July 12, 2016, Judge Bryant issued a Report and Recommendation, recommending that Plaintiff's claims against Defendants Harrelson, Doe (Betty), Woods, and Chesshir be dismissed with prejudice pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 1915(e)(2)(B)(i-iii) and 1915A(a). Judge Bryant concluded that Plaintiff's § 1983 claims against Defendants Harrelson and Doe (Betty) fail because public defenders do not act under color of state law while representing a client in a criminal proceeding. Judge Bryant also concluded that Plaintiff's §1983 claims against Defendants Woods and Chesshir fail because prosecuting attorneys have absolute immunity from suits for damages filed under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 related to all acts “intimately associated with the judicial phase of the criminal process.” (ECF No. 18). Judge Bryant recommended that Plaintiff's claims against Defendants Walcott and Simmons should proceed. On August 4, Plaintiff timely filed objections to the Report and Recommendation, as well as a supplement to his objections.[3] On August 18, Plaintiff filed an additional supplement to his objections.

         II. DISCUSSION

         Pursuant to the screening provisions of the Prison Litigation Reform Act (“PLRA”), the Court must review complaints in civil actions in which a prisoner seeks redress from a government entity or any officers or employees of a government entity. 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(a). The complaint, or any portion of the complaint, will be dismissed if it: (1) is frivolous or malicious, (2) fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, or (3) seeks monetary relief against a defendant who is immune from such relief. For purposes of this analysis, a “frivolous” complaint is one that lacks an arguable basis in law and/or fact. Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319, 325 (1989). To state a claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, a plaintiff must “allege the violation of a right secured by the Constitution and laws of the United States, and must show that the alleged deprivation was committed by a person acting under color of state law.” West v. Atkins, 487 U.S. 42, 48 (1988).

         According to 28 U.S.C. § 646(b)(1), the Court will conduct a de novo review of all issues related to Plaintiff's specific objections. Plaintiff objects to Judge Bryant's recommendations that Plaintiff's claims against Defendants Harrelson, Doe (Betty), Woods, and Chesshir be dismissed.[4] The Court will now turn its analysis to each of the defendants at issue here and discuss whether Plaintiff's claims against each should be dismissed.

         A. Defendant Harrelson and Defendant Doe (Betty)

         As stated above, a § 1983 claim must allege that a defendant, acting under color of state law, deprived the plaintiff of rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws of the United States. 42 U.S.C. § 1983; Neitzke, 490 U.S. at 325. Generally, a public defender does not act under color of state law while representing a plaintiff in a criminal proceeding. Polk Cnty v. Dodson, 454 U.S. 312, 324 (1981).

         Plaintiff objects to Judge Bryant's recommendation that Defendant Harrelson, a public defender, and his secretary, Defendant Doe (Betty), were not acting under color of state law. In his first supplement to his objections to the Report and Recommendation, Plaintiff relies on White v. State, 277 Ark. 429, 643 S.W.2d 304 (1982) for the proposition that “[t]he accused has the right to counsel in criminal cases protected by the 6th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and Arkansas Constitution, Art. 2, § 10.” (ECF No. 24). Plaintiff further argues that White “clearly states the defendants are ‘acting under color of statute' and ‘state law' while representing and assisting Plaintiff in his criminal proceeding.” (ECF No. 24). However, White does not make any reference to a § 1983 claim or contain the words “acting under color of.” Instead, White concerned a prisoner's allegations that his conviction should be set aside because he was underage and under the influence of drugs at the time the crime was committed, and because he received misleading advice from his attorney. Nothing in White addresses whether a public defender or court-appointed counsel acted under color of state law. Thus, the Court finds that Plaintiff's reliance on White is misplaced.

         In an unrelated filing, Plaintiff references Tower v. Glover, which he states “identifies professionals as state actors.” (ECF No. 53). In Tower, the Supreme Court found that a state public defender acted under color of state law and thus was not immune from liability under § 1983. Tower v. Glover, 467 U.S. 914, 923 (1984). However, this exception to the general rule was limited to where public defenders engage in intentional misconduct through alleged conspiratorial action with state officials to deprive clients of federal rights. Id. Allegations of conspiratorial action must be made with sufficient specificity and factual support so as to suggest a “meeting of the minds.” Deck v. Leftridge, 771 F.2d 1168, 1170 (8th Cir. 1985) ...


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