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Skillings v. Knott

United States District Court, E.D. Virginia, Richmond Division

April 21, 2017

MR. BISHOP L. KNOTT, In his individual and official capacity as Clerk of Court for Prince George, Virginia, HON. WILLIAM A. SHARRETT, In his individual and official capacity as Judge of the Prince George Circuit Court, LINDA L. JOHNSON, and JOYCE JACKSON, Defendants.



         This is essentially a civil rights action filed pursuant to Title 42 U.S.C. § 1983, et seq., by an unprevailing litigant in a child custody case. The Complaint encompasses a wide swath of constitutional and common law claims against the presiding judge, Clerk of Court, Deputy Clerk of Court, and Plaintiffs former husband's counsel. Under the cloak of a civil rights action, Plaintiff, proceeding pro se, challenges the court's award of custody to her former spouse, the court's decision to find her in contempt for failure to abide by a visitation order, and the thirty-day sentence she received. Plaintiff concludes that "Judge Sharrett habitually ruled against her without just cause or legitimate reason. His orders [are] inconsistent with that of a reasonable person." (Compl. ¶ 44, ECF No. 1.) Plaintiff asserts that Judge Sharrett failed to credit her proof of sexual abuse and excluded relevant facts from his opinion letter. (Id. ¶¶ 35-37.) She also maintains that the judge found her "guilty of criminal contempt under an improper standard of proof." (Id. ¶ 77.) It appears, however, that no appeal was noted to the court's judgment. She seeks not only compensatory damages, but also declaratory and injunctive relief, including guidance to the state court.

         With respect to the Clerk of Court Bishop L. Knott ("Clerk"), and his deputy Joyce Jackson (collectively "Clerks"), Plaintiff contends that the Clerk mischaracterized the court's finding of contempt as civil rather than criminal, resulting in her serving the entire thirty-day sentence imposed by the court without any good time deduction. (Id. ¶¶ 85-88.)[1] The Clerks, according to Plaintiff, also failed to follow the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure. (Id. ¶¶ 60-61.)

         Aside from representing her former spouse in custody proceedings, Plaintiff contends that Linda L. Johnson ("Johnson"), a private practitioner, conspired with the co-defendant state actors to violate her civil rights. (Id. at ¶ 6.) During the state court proceedings, Johnson filed a motion to terminate Plaintiffs parental rights and a request for a show cause hearing. (Id. ¶¶ 55-56, 58-59.) According to the Complaint, Johnson also filed a lawsuit against a local television station preparing to air an interview of Plaintiff concerning spousal abuse. (Id. ¶¶ 20, 23.) In Plaintiffs view, Johnson's actions violated her First Amendment right to tell her life story to the press because the television station, for undisclosed reasons, decided not to air her interview. (Id. ¶ 47.)

         Presently before the Court are Defendants' Motions to Dismiss challenging the facial sufficiency of the Complaint pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). (ECF Nos. 5, 14, 17.) Each Defendant has filed a memorandum supporting their contention that the Complaint fails to plead plausible claims. The Honorable William A. Sharrett ("Judge Sharrett") asserts absolute judicial immunity. In addition, a careful review of the Complaint clearly reveals that the Clerks are entitled to derivative judicial immunity. Each action taken by the Clerks was within the ambit of their statutory duties to administer court records. Plaintiff filed an untimely responsive pleading entitled "Answer In Re Johnsons Motion to Dismiss" ("Answer"), addressing only the issues raised by her former husband's attorney, Linda L. Johnson.

         As required by Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, the Court. assumes Plaintiffs well-pleaded allegations to be true and views all facts in the light most favorable to her. T.G. Slater & Son v. Donald P. & Patricia A. Brennan LLC, 385 F.3d 836, 841 (4th Cir. 2004) (citing Mylan Labs, Inc. v. Matkari, 7 F.3d 1130, 1134 (4th Cir. 1993)). But equally important in the analysis, legal conclusions enjoy no such deference by the reviewing court. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). To survive Rule 12(b)(6) scrutiny, a complaint must contain "more than labels and conclusions." Bell Atl Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007).

         The Court acknowledges that pro se filings are to be liberally construed. Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007); De'lonta v. Johnson, 708 F.3d 520, 524 (4th Cir. 2013). However, a pro se complaint still must "present factual allegations that 'state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'" Jackson v. Lightsey, 775 F.3d 170, 178 (4th Cir. 2014) (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678). As the Fourth Circuit has explained, "[t]hough these litigants cannot, of course, be expected to frame legal issues with the clarity and precision ideally evident in the work of those trained in law, neither can district courts be required to conjure up and decide issues never fairly presented to them." Beaudett v. City of Hampton, 775 F.2d 1274, 1276 (4th Cir. 1985).

         At this stage, the Court's analysis is both informed and constrained by the four corners of Plaintiff s Complaint. The Court will dispense with oral argument as it will not aid in the decisional process since the facts and legal contentions are adequately presented in the materials before the Court. For the reasons articulated below, the claims against all Defendants will be dismissed.

         This lawsuit is the byproduct of a contentious custody dispute kindled by the decision of Judge Sharrett to award custody of Plaintiff s child to her former husband- after overturning the decision of the lower court. Plaintiff made several unsuccessful attempts to regain custody of her child over the ensuing four-year period. (Compl. ¶ 13.) In March of 2016, Plaintiff, by agreement with her former husband, took the child to Oklahoma. (Id.¶¶ 14-15.) During that extended period of visitation, Plaintiff was arrested for kidnapping, for reasons not explained in the Complaint, even though she had agreed to return the child to Virginia. (Id. ¶¶ 16-17.) Upon her return to Virginia, the kidnapping charges were dismissed and a Rule to Show Cause was issued for interfering with the custody order. (Id. ¶¶ 18-19.) At the hearing which resulted, Plaintiff was held in criminal contempt and sentenced to serve thirty days in jail. (Id. ¶¶ 24-25.) The court's reasoning is not apparent from the Complaint.

         During her confinement, Plaintiff was informed that she would not receive "good time credit" which would have the effect of reducing her actual period of confinement. (Id. ¶ 29.) Plaintiff learned, apparently from jail personnel, "that Prince George Circuit Court had faxed to them a new disposition sheet that reflected a charge of 'civil contempt' which does not allow for good time credits." (Id. ¶ 30.) This transmittal forms the core claim against the Clerks.

         The Complaint in this case casts a wide net, but provides scant factual support. It includes the following claims:

Count 1: Under Title 42 U.S.C. § 1983-Intentional invidious discrimination (All Defendants);
Count 2: Fourteenth Amendment-Denial of equal protection of the law ...

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