United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Harrisonburg Division
Elizabeth K. Dillon United States District Judge.
1, 2017, plaintiff Rodney Soulsby, II (Soulsby) filed
apro se complaint naming two parties as defendants:
Ashlyn D. Soulsby (Ashlyn), his ex-wife, and Victor Ludwig,
an Augusta County, Virginia judge. Soulsby's complaint,
brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleges that his
right to due process was violated when Judge Ludwig signed an
order of adoption awarding Soulsby parental rights over a
minor child without his consent. He claims that Ashlyn, who
was then his wife, submitted a signature on adoption
paperwork that was somehow forged or fraudulent. He complains
that Judge Ludwig did not ensure that the adoption paperwork
was properly signed by Soulsby, witnessed, or notarized. He
thus alleges that the petition for adoption was sought and
approved without his permission and that he has now been
required to pay child support for this adopted child.
before the court are two motions-a motion to dismiss by
defendant Ashlyn Soulsby (Dkt. No. 9) and a motion to amend
the complaint by Soulsby. Ashlyn argues that the case should
be dismissed on at least three different grounds. First, she
contends that plaintiff lacks standing. Second, she argues
that Soulsby has failed to state a 42 U.S.C. § 1983
claim against her. Third, she asserts that Soulsby's
challenge to the adoption order is barred by the applicable
statute of limitations. (Dkt. No. 9 at 1.)
responding to the motion to dismiss, Soulsby filed a motion
to amend his complaint in which he asks that the court remove
Ashlyn Soulsby as a defendant. (Dkt. No. 14.) Under Federal
Rule 15(a)(1), a party is permitted to amend its pleading
"once as a matter of course within ... 21 days after
service of a responsive pleading or 21 days after service of
a motion under Rule 12(b), (3), or (f), whichever is
earlier." Fed.R.Civ.P. 15(a)(1). The court concludes
that Soulsby's motion to amend was filed within 21 days
after service of a motion under Rule 12(b),  and thus that
Soulsby has the right to amend "as a matter of
course." Id. Accordingly, Soulsby's motion
to amend (Dkt. No. 14) will be granted. Pursuant to the
amendment, Ashlyn Soulsby will be dismissed without prejudice
and terminated as a defendant in this case. Ashlyn
Soulsby's motion to dismiss (Dkt. No. 9) will be denied
§ 1983 Claim Against Judge Ludwig
court also has the obligation to determine whether the
remaining claim against Judge Ludwig should be permitted to
proceed. See Eriline Co. S.A. v. Johnson, 440 F.3d
648 (4th Cir. 2006) (recognizing that, with regard to in
forma pauperis complaints, district courts have a duty
to screen initial filings, and so can consider certain
defenses sua sponte). Specifically, pursuant to 28
U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B), a court shall "at any
time" dismiss an in forma pauperis complaint if
it "fails to state a claim on which relief may be
granted" or "seeks monetary relief against a
defendant who is immune from such relief." 28 U.S.C.
§ 1915(e)(2)(B)(ii)-(iii). In evaluating
Soulsby'spro se complaint, the court must
construe the complaint liberally, holding it to "less
stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted by
lawyers." Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94
(2007) (citation omitted). Nonetheless, "a complaint
must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to
'state a claim of relief that is plausible on its
face.'" Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662,
678 (2009) (quoting BellAtl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550
U.S. 544, 570 (2007)).
review of the face of Soulsby's complaint shows that his
claim against Judge Ludwig suffers from at least two flaws
that require its dismissal. First of all, it appears from the
face of the complaint that Soulsby's claim is barred by
the applicable statute of limitations. See Eriline Co.
S.A., 440 F.3d at 656-57 (explaining that a district
court can raise a statute of limitations defense sua
sponte in evaluating complaints filed in forma
pauperis if the defense appears on the face of the
complaint); Nasim v. Warden, Md. House of
Correction, 64 F.3d 951, 953-54 (4th Cir. 1995)
(affirming sua sponte dismissal of claim on
limitations grounds because the face of the complaint plainly
revealed the existence of the defense).
§ 1983 action brought in a Virginia federal court is
governed by the two-year state statute of limitations for
personal injuries. A Soc 'y Without a Name v.
Virginia, 655 F.3d 342, 348 (4th Cir. 2011) ("With
regard to the § 1983 . . . claims, the
statute-of-limitations period ... is two years.").
Federal law determines when the statute beings to run, and
the latest event it could run from here is Soulsby's
discovery of the adoption order. Id. ("A civil
rights claim accrues when the plaintiff "knows or has
reason to know of the injury which is the basis of the
action.") (quotation marks and citation omitted).
adoption order was signed in July 2013, and Soulsby's
complaint explicitly states that he learned about the order
in March 2015. (Compl. 8, Dkt. No. 3) He did not file this
action, however, until July 2017, more than two years later.
Accordingly, any claim challenging the propriety of the July
2013 order must be dismissed as time-barred.
and as an independent ground for dismissal, the claim against
Judge Ludwig is barred by the doctrine of judicial immunity.
See Wachtler v. Cnty. of Herkimer, 35 F.3d 77, 82
(2d Cir. 1994) (affirming district court's sua
sponte dismissal of § 1983 claims against a state
judge based on the doctrine of judicial immunity); Rice
v. Bennett, No. 08-cv-1015, 2008 WL 5484115, at *2 (D.
Md. June 2, 2008) (dismissing sua sponte claim
against defendant entitled to judicial immunity). Judicial
immunity confers on judicial officers absolute immunity from
suits for monetary relief and any claim for injunctive relief
under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Lepelletier v. Tran,
633 F.App'x 126, 127 (4th Cir. 2016) (per curiam)
(holding that the plaintiffs "claims seeking injunctive
relief against a sitting state court judge for actions taken
in his judicial capacity . . . were barred by the plain
language of 42 U.S.C. § 1983"); Malave v.
Abrams, 547 F.App'x 346, 347 (4th Cir. 2013)
(acknowledging prior authority that judicial immunity did not
apply to claims for injunctive relief, but noting that
Section 1983 was amended in 1996 to provide that
"injunctive relief [against a judicial officer] shall
not be granted unless a declaratory decree was violated or
declaratory relief was unavailable"); see also King
v. Myers, 973 F.2d 354, 356 (4th Cir. 1992) (describing
judicial immunity under federal law). Although he seeks
"declaratory relief invalidating the order of adoption,
as well as injunctive relief and damages (Compl. 9), Soulsby
has not alleged that a declaratory decree was violated or
that such relief was unavailable. See Murphy v.
Ross, No. 3:14-CV-870, 2015 WL 1787351, at *3 (E.D. Va.
Apr. 15, 2015) (explaining, in the context of Section 1983
claim, the meaning of declaratory decrees or declaratory
relief being unavailable). Thus, if Judge Ludwig has judicial
immunity, it bars the claim against him here.
are two possible exceptions to judicial immunity.
Specifically, it does not shield a judge for (1) non-judicial
acts; or (2) acts taken in the clear absence of all
jurisdiction. Mireles v. Waco, 502 U.S. 9, 11-12
(1991). Neither exception applies here, though. As to the
first, an act is a judicial one if it is "normally
performed by a judge" and "the parties dealt with
the judge in his or her judicial capacity."
King, 973 F.2d at 357 (citing Stump v.
Sparkman, 435 U.S. 349, 357 (1978)). Soulsby challenges
only actions by Judge Ludwig that were judicial acts-the
signing of orders in a judicial proceeding in which Soulsby
was a party-so the exception for non-judicial acts clearly
does not apply.
does not allege an absence of jurisdiction, either. Instead,
Soulsby alleges that Judge Ludwig (1) failed to ensure the
petition for adoption was properly signed, witnessed, and
notarized; and (2) failed to correct his error even after
acknowledging it, and ordered Soulsby to pay child support
anyway. But neither of these allegations render judicial
immunity inapplicable. Notably, judicial jurisdiction is
"construed broadly, " and a judge will not lose
immunity merely "because the action he took was in
error, was done maliciously, or was in excess of his
authority." Stump, 435 U.S. at 356. As the
Fourth Circuit has explained, "the absolute immunity
extended to a judge performing a judicial action is not in
any way diminished even if his or her 'exercise of
authority is flawed by the commission of grave procedural
errors."' King, 973 F.2d at 357 (quoting
Stump, 435 U.S. at 359). "The errors do not
render the act any less judicial, nor permit a determination
that the court acted in the absence of all
jurisdiction." Id; see Mireles, 502 U.S. at 12
(concluding that a judge's alleged direction to the
police to bring an attorney in the ...