Johnson v. Byrd

Decision Date21 November 2016
Docket Number1:16cv1052
CourtU.S. District Court — Middle District of North Carolina
PartiesTALIA JOHNSON, Plaintiff, v. DAVID V. BYRD, et al., Defendants.

This case comes before the Court for a sua sponte determination of frivolousness. For the reasons that follow, the Court should dismiss this action without prejudice to Plaintiff's right to pursue her claims in a proper forum.


On August 12, 2016, Plaintiff initiated the instant action by filing an Application for Leave to Proceed in Forma Pauperis (Docket Entry 1) (the "IFP Application"), "Complaint" (Docket Entry 3) (the "Complaint"), "Plaintiff's Motion for a Preliminary Injunction" (Docket Entry 4) (the "PI Motion"), "Memorandum in Support of [the PI Motion]" (Docket Entry 5), "[Plaintiff]'s Supporting Declaration" (Docket Entry 6), and numerous exhibits (Docket Entry 6-1 at 1-60). The Complaint challenges approximately 20 orders entered by the District Court of Yadkin County (the "State Court") in an ongoing child custody case involving Plaintiff and her ex-husband, Daniel Brock Johnson ("Brock Johnson"). (Docket Entry 3 at 2 ("This action stems from file number 14-CVD-568, Daniel Brock Johnson . . . v. Talia Dratsch Johnson, pending before the [State Court]"), 14 (discussing divorce of Plaintiff and Brock Johnson), and 44 (requesting injunction against enforcement of 20 orders entered by the State Court); see also Docket Entry 6-1 (providing copies of several of the State Court's orders).) The Complaint names defendants David V. Byrd, Chief District Court Judge for the 23rd Judicial District ("Defendant Byrd"), Jeanie R. Houston, District Court Judge for the 23rd Judicial District ("Defendant Houston"), William F. Brooks, District Court Judge for the 23rd Judicial District ("Defendant Brooks"), Angela B. Puckett, District Court Judge for the 17B Judicial District ("Defendant Puckett," and collectively with Defendants Byrd, Houston, and Brooks, the "Judge Defendants"), and Renee M. Hauser, DC Trial Court Coordinator for Wilkes County - District 23, North Carolina ("Defendant Hauser," and collectively with the Judge Defendants, the "Defendants"). (Docket Entry 3 at 1, 7-8.) Plaintiff sues Defendants in both their individual and official capacities for their alleged involvement in her pending child custody case in the State Court. (Id. at 1-2.)

According to the Complaint, "Defendants conspired to commit fraud upon the court to deprive constitutional rights under color of state law to retaliate against the Plaintiff for speakingagainst in [sic] court about federal and constitutional violations by the Defendants in favor of [Brock Johnson]." (Id. at 2.) Specifically, the Complaint alleges that Brock Johnson's family "are well known and have influence throughout Yadkin . . . and other surrounding counties" (id. at 17), resulting in an overall bias against Plaintiff throughout her child custody case (see, e.g., id. ("Plaintiff was desperate to be heard [in the State Court], but just could not make that happen . . . . On the other hand, [Brock Johnson] effortlessly moved through court proceedings . . . .")). The Complaint also asserts that, as a result of Brock Johnson's influence, Defendants "engag[ed] in ex parte determinations that effectively terminate[d] Plaintiff's parental rights [in favor of Brock Johnson] based on bogus allegations," and violated and continue to violate Plaintiff's state and federal constitutional rights. (Id. at 39.) Further, the Complaint states that Defendants entered numerous "ex-parte" orders against Plaintiff without "proceeding transcripts," "findings," or "reliance on specific law," thereby "mak[ing] adequate and meaningful state appellate review remedies unavailable to the Plaintiff." (Id. at 5 (bold and all-caps font omitted).)

Although it generally describes collective mistreatment by Defendants, the Complaint also presents specific allegations against Defendant Houston. (See id. at 19-24.) In particular, the Complaint asserts that Defendant Houston declared a mistrial andrecused herself from Plaintiff's child custody case based on Defendant Houston's false accusation that "Plaintiff went to [Defendant Houston's] church on purpose." (Id. at 19; see also id. at 20 (stating that "Plaintiff was informed that a [j]udge from another district was to be brought in to handle the case").) The Complaint alleges that the mistrial and recusal effectively "sabotaged everything Plaintiff worked for, putting [her child custody] case back at square one." (Id. at 19.) The Complaint further alleges that, after Defendant Houston declared a mistrial, Brock Johnson moved for attorney's fees (id.), and that Defendant Houston conducted ex parte communications with Brock Johnson's attorney regarding her reasons for the recusal and declaring a mistrial (id. at 19-20, 24). According to the Complaint, Defendant Houston testified at the hearing on the attorney's fees motion and "changed her story" about her interactions with Plaintiff. (Id. at 23.) Plaintiff contends that these actions amount to judicial misconduct. (Id. at 13, 24, 46.)

In pursuing relief, the Complaint asserts violations of North Carolina law and its constitution (see, e.g., id. at 8-9, 13-14, 39-40), as well as violations under 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983, 1985, and 1986, arising from Defendants' alleged interference with Plaintiff's federal constitutional rights (see, e.g., id. at 10-11). The Complaint requests a declaratory judgment pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2201 (id. at 1) that "Plaintiff's parental right isconstitutionally protected," "Defendants' state deprivation of parental right and freedom of movement requires due process of law and the application of strict scrutiny," and Defendants' alleged practices of (1) engaging in ex parte communications, (2) failing to provide adequate notice and stenographic recordings of child custody proceedings, and (3) entering judgments against Plaintiff without jurisdiction or findings of fact, qualify as unconstitutional (id. at 44-48). Finally, the Complaint seeks an injunction prohibiting Defendants from enforcing the 20 challenged orders and from engaging in unrecorded, ex parte custodial proceedings that deprive Plaintiff of due process and prevent meaningful appellate review. (Id. at 44-45.)


After filing the IFP Application (Docket Entry 1), Plaintiff paid the filing fee (see Docket Entry dated Aug. 25, 2016). To the extent that conduct effectively withdrew the IFP Application, the Court may no longer dismiss the Complaint under 28 U.S.C. § 1915. See Yi v. Social Sec. Admin., 554 F. App'x 247, 248 (4th Cir. 2014) (explaining that, "[b]ecause [the plaintiff] is neither a prisoner nor proceeding in forma pauperis in district court, the provisions of 28 U.S.C. §§ 1915(e)(2), 1915A (2006), permitting sua sponte dismissal of complaints which fail to state a claim are inapplicable"). Regardless, the Court possesses inherent authority to dismiss a frivolous action, even when "the filing fee has beenpaid." Id. (citing Mallard v. United States Dist. Ct. for the S. Dist. of Iowa, 490 U.S. 296, 307-08 (1989) (explaining that the informa pauperis statute "authorizes courts to dismiss a 'frivolous or malicious' action, but there is little doubt they would have the power to do so even in the absence of this statutory provision")); see also Nagy v. Federal Med. Ctr. Butner, 376 F.3d 252, 256-57 (4th Cir. 2004) ("The word frivolous is inherently elastic and not susceptible to categorical definition. . . . The term's capaciousness directs lower courts to conduct a flexible analysis, in light of the totality of the circumstances, of all factors bearing upon the frivolity of a claim." (internal quotation marks omitted)). Moreover, "because a [federal] court lacks subject matter jurisdiction over an obviously frivolous complaint, dismissal prior to service of process is permitted." Yi, 554 F. App'x at 248 (citing Ricketts v. Midwest Nat'l Bank, 874 F.2d 1177, 1181-83 (7th Cir. 1989)); see also Constantine v. Rectors & Visitors of George Mason Univ., 411 F.3d 474, 480 (4th Cir. 2005) ("A federal court has an independent obligation to assess its subject-matter jurisdiction, and it will raise a lack of subject-matter jurisdiction on its own motion." (internal quotation marks omitted)).1

In this case, the Complaint's federal claims qualify as frivolous in light of various immunity-related doctrines, jurisdictional bars, and abstention principles. Additionally, the Court lacks original jurisdiction over Plaintiff's state claims (as diversity jurisdiction does not exist), and the Court should decline to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over those claims.

I. Immunity and Related Doctrines

As an initial matter, each Defendant enjoys immunity in this Court from liability for the allegations in the Complaint. All four of the Judge Defendants serve as North Carolina district court judges. (Docket Entry 3 at 7-8.) "Judges performing judicial acts within their jurisdiction are entitled to absolute immunity from civil liability claims," In re Mills, 287 F. App'x. 273, 279 (4th Cir. 2008) (emphasis added), "even if such acts were allegedly done either maliciously or corruptly," King v. Myers, 973 F.2d 354, 356 (4th Cir. 1992) (citing Pierson v. Ray, 386 U.S. 547, 554 (1967)). See also Mireles v. Waco, 502 U.S. 9, 11 (1991) (stating that "judicial immunity is an immunity from suit, not just from ultimate assessment of damages"). To determine whether an action constitutes a "judicial act" protected by judicial immunity, the Court must consider "whether the function is one normally performed by a judge, and whether the parties dealt with the judge in his or her judicial capacity." King, 973 F.2d at 357. Thus, a plaintiffcan overcome the judicial immunity bar to recovery only if the judge's "actions were non-judicial or the actions were judicial but were taken without jurisdiction."...

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