Opala v. Watt

Decision Date20 May 2005
Docket NumberNo. CIV-04-1771-R.,CIV-04-1771-R.
Citation393 F.Supp.2d 1154
PartiesMarian P. OPALA, Plaintiff, v. Joseph M. WATT; James R. Winchester; Robert E. Lavender; Rudolph Hargrave; Yvonne Kauger; James E. Edmondson; Steven W. Taylor; and, Tom Colbert, in their individual and administrative capacities, Defendants.
CourtU.S. District Court — Western District of Oklahoma

Scott F. Brockman, Stanley M. Ward, Woodrow K. Glass, Ward & Glass LLP, Norman, OK, for Plaintiff.

Neal Leader, Attorney General's Office — Capital — OKC Capital Office, Stefan K. Doughty, Attorney General's Office — Lincoln — OKC, Oklahoma City, OK, for Defendants.

ORDER DENYING DEFENDANTS' MOTION TO DISMISS

BRIMMER, District Judge.

This matter is before the Court on Defendants' Motion to Dismiss. Upon reading the briefs, hearing oral argument, and being fully advised in the premises, the Court FINDS and ORDERS as follows:

Statement of the Parties and Jurisdiction

Plaintiff is and has been a resident of Warr Acres, Oklahoma, at all relevant times. Plaintiff is a member and justice of the Oklahoma Supreme Court.

Defendants Watt, Winchester, and Kauger are residents of the Western District of the United States District Court for the State of Oklahoma. Defendants Watt, Winchester, Lavender, Hargrave, Kauger, Edmondson, Taylor, and Colbert were and are currently members and justices of the Oklahoma Supreme Court whose principal place of conducting business is Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.

This is an action for declaratory judgment pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2201. Plaintiff claims violations of his due process and equal protection rights under the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution. Accordingly, this Court has jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331 and 28 U.S.C. §§ 2201 and 2202. Venue is proper pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1391(b).

Background

Plaintiff Marian Opala is a member and Justice of the Oklahoma Supreme Court. All Defendants are also members and Justices of the Oklahoma Supreme Court. Plaintiff is presently the Vice-Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Defendant Watt is presently the Chief Justice.

The Oklahoma Constitution, Article 7, § 2 provides that the Justices shall elect a Chief Justice and a Vice-Chief Justice. The Justices had adopted rules and procedures governing the process for selecting the Chief Justice. The rules are titled "Internal Operating Procedures of the Supreme Court Conference" ("Rules"). Prior to November 4, 2004, the Rules provided:

The term of office of Chief Justice shall rotate among eligible members of the Court every two years. A Justice is eligible to become Chief Justice when each sitting Justice at the time of the Justice's appointment has completed a term as Chief Justice or waived his or her right to do so. No Justice shall succeed himself or herself as Chief Justice nor shall a Justice be eligible hereunder until he or she has completed six years service as Justice of this Court.

Plaintiff asserts that he was the only Justice eligible to be nominated for the Chief Justice position under the above system. Plaintiff states that, despite the language of the rule, traditionally, upon the expiration of the Chief Justice's term, the Vice-Chief Justice succeeded to the office of Chief Justice without an election.1 Plaintiff further alleges that Justice Winchester had informed him that he would become Chief Justice unless the Rules changed. Thus, Plaintiff asserts that he had a legitimate expectation of becoming the next Chief Justice.

However, prior to electing a new Chief Justice, the Justices are alleged to have enacted a change to the Rules which allowed a Chief Justice to succeed himself. The Rule as amended states:

The term of office of Chief Justice shall rotate among eligible members of the Court every two years. The next senior Justice who has never served as Chief Justice should be considered for election as Chief Justice, provided that the Justice has served at least four (4) years on this Court including service as Vice-Chief Justice. If the next senior Justice has not served at least four (4) years on the Court including service as Vice-Chief Justice, the incumbent Chief Justice or any other Justice who has served as Chief Justice may be elected to another two-year term as Chief Justice. Otherwise, the Chief Justice will serve only one term.

Plaintiff states that he was not privy to the discussions which led to this change. According to Plaintiff, the practical effect of this change was to cause Defendant Watt to have the top priority for the position of Chief Justice, while ensuring that it was nearly impossible for Plaintiff to be elected to this position. Plaintiff asserts that the motivation behind this Rule was to prohibit Plaintiff from being elected as Chief Justice. Plaintiff believes that his age, eighty-three, was a significant factor in the amendment of Rule 4.

Plaintiff alleges that his right to equal protection under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution has been violated. Plaintiff asserts that he has been deprived of a significant property interest without Due Process of law in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution because there has not been a hearing or judicial review of Defendants' actions. Thus, Plaintiff is seeking declaratory judgment pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2201. Plaintiff requests that this Court enter a declaratory judgment stating that the amendment constitutes a violation of equal protection and due process and declaring the amendment null and void.

Standard of Review

Defendants assert that this action should be dismissed for three reasons: (1) Plaintiff's Complaint fails to state a claim for which relief can be granted; (2) this Court lacks jurisdiction because Plaintiff's claims fail to present a "substantial federal question" invoking federal question jurisdiction; and (3) the claims against Defendants are barred by legislative, Eleventh Amendment immunity and qualified immunity. The standards for dismissal pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(1) and Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6) are discussed below.

I. Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(1) Motion to Dismiss for Lack of Subject Matter Jurisdiction.

The party invoking federal jurisdiction has the burden of proving that by a preponderance of the evidence, jurisdiction exists. Celli v. Shoell, 40 F.3d 324, 327 (10th Cir.1994). A motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(1) may take two forms. When a defendant makes a facial attack on the complaint's allegations challenging the sufficiency of the complaint, the district court will accept the allegations in the complaint as true. Holt v. United States, 46 F.3d 1000, 1002 (10th Cir.1995). If, however, the defendant goes beyond the allegations contained in the complaint and challenges the facts upon which subject matter jurisdiction depends the district court "may not presume the truthfulness of the complaint's allegations." Id. at 1003. The court has wide discretion to allow other documents to be considered to resolve the disputed jurisdictional facts. Id.

II. Fed. R. 12(b)(6) Motion to Dismiss for Failure to State a Claim.

A federal district court can only dismiss a cause of action for failure to state a claim pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6) when it appears beyond a doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of his claim which would entitle her to relief. Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 45-46, 78 S.Ct. 99, 2 L.Ed.2d 80 (1957); Yousef v. Reno, 254 F.3d 1214, 1219 (10th Cir.2001). The district court must assume all plaintiff's well-pleaded allegations are true and construe them liberally in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. Conley, 355 U.S. at 45-46, 78 S.Ct. 99; Ramirez v. Department of Corrections, Colo., 222 F.3d 1238, 1240 (10th Cir.2000). The district court's function on a Rule 12(b)(6) motion is to assess whether the plaintiff's complaint alone is legally sufficient to state a claim for which relief may be granted. Sutton v. Utah State Sch. for the Deaf and Blind, 173 F.3d 1226, 1236 (10th Cir.1999). In so assessing, the district court is not to weigh potential evidence that might be presented or determine who will ultimately prevail, see id.; rather, the issue is whether the plaintiff is entitled to offer evidence to support her claim. Scheuer v. Rhodes, 416 U.S. 232, 236, 94 S.Ct. 1683, 40 L.Ed.2d 90 (1974).

Discussion

This case presents a myriad of complex issues, many of which are interrelated. Defendants assert three types of immunity which may act as a complete bar to this suit. Defendants further assert that Plaintiff has failed to state a claim for which relief may be granted because Plaintiff's due process and equal protection rights have not been violated. Defendants also contend that Plaintiff's claims fail to present a substantial federal question which invokes this Court's jurisdiction.

This Court will first discuss the applicability of Eleventh Amendment immunity to the present case, as this issue is dispositive. Eleventh Amendment immunity is a challenge to the subject matter jurisdiction of the district court and must be resolved before a court may address the merits of a claim. Frazier v. Simmons, 254 F.3d 1247, 1252 (10th Cir.2001); Fent v. Oklahoma Water Resources Bd., 235 F.3d 553, 558 (10th Cir.2000); Martin v. Kansas, 190 F.3d 1120, 1126 (10th Cir.1999). The Court will next address whether Defendants are immune from suit due to absolute or qualified immunity. Third, the Court will discuss whether, based upon the language of the Complaint, Plaintiff has failed to state a claim for which relief may be granted. This discussion will determine, in part, the outcome of Defendants' argument that Plaintiff has failed to present a substantial federal question. Thus, this issue will be discussed in the final section of this Order.

I. Whether the Claims Against Defendants Are Barred by Absolute Immunity, Eleventh Amendment Immunity...

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1 cases
  • Opala v. Watt, 05-6261.
    • United States
    • U.S. Court of Appeals — Tenth Circuit
    • July 21, 2006
    ...he is requesting is to "end an ongoing violation of Plaintiff's constitutional rights" by reinstating Old Rule 4. Opala v. Watt, 393 F.Supp.2d 1154, 1160 (W.D.Okla.2005). The court correctly concluded that the mere fact that Opala was seeking to "right a previous wrong" did not disqualify t......

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