United States District Court, E.D. New York
June 8, 2005.
JABBAR COLLINS, Plaintiff,
JONATHAN LIPPMAN, individually, and as Chief Administrative Judge for the New York City Office of Court Administration; JAMES F. IMPERATRICE, individually, and as Chief Clerk of the Criminal Term of the Supreme Court, Kings County; and JOHN DOES 1-3, individually, and as Justices of the Supreme Court, Kings County, Defendants.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: FREDERIC BLOCK, District Judge
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER
Plaintiff, Jabbar Collins ("Collins"), proceeding pro se,
brings this § 1983 action and alleges that the defendants have
violated his rights under the First, Fifth and
Fourteenth Amendments by denying him access to docket sheets and other court
records. The defendants move to dismiss the complaint. For the
following reasons, the defendant's motion is granted in part and
denied in part. I. BACKGROUND
Collins is a prisoner at Green Haven Correctional Facility.
Defendant Jonathan P. Lippman ("Lippman") is the Chief
Administrative Judge for the New York City Office of Court
Administration. Defendant James Imperatrice ("Imperatrice") is
the Clerk of the Criminal Term of the Supreme Court of the State
of New York, Kings County. Defendants John Does 1-3 ("Does 1-3")
are unidentified justices of the same court.
Collins alleges that, on July 13, 2004, he requested that
Imperatrice provide him with copies of the docket sheet and
certain documents filed in People v. Adrian Diaz, a criminal
case pending before the State court. Collins is not a party to
Diaz and his interest in the case is unclear.
Many of the documents that Collins requested were not listed on
the docket sheet or contained in the court file. Collins alleges
that those documents were filed under seal and entered on a
separate docket sheet that was also filed under seal. He further
alleges that Imperatrice sealed the documents and docket sheet
"by administrative fiat," Compl. ¶ 62, and not pursuant to
statutory authority or court order. In the alternative, Collins
alleges that Does 1-3 ordered the documents and docket sheet
sealed, but did so without adequate justification or prior
Collins alleges that, on July 19, 2004, he wrote to Lippman to
complain about the allegedly improper sealings. In the letter, he
asked Lippman "to direct Imperatrice to disclose the sealed
records." Compl. ¶ 77.
Collins alleges that the defendants' actions violated his
federal constitutional rights. He seeks a declaratory judgment
that all the documents he requested are "open for public inspection," Compl. at 20, and an injunction requiring
Imperatrice and Lippman to provide him with copies of the
documents. He also seeks compensatory and punitive damages from
Imperatrice and Lippman.
The defendants contend that the reason Collins has not received
copies of all the documents he requested is that the allegedly
sealed documents and docket sheet simply do not exist. In support
of this contention, they have submitted an affidavit from
Imperatrice attesting that "[t]he Supreme Court has willingly
provided all of the documents maintained by the Court in Diaz,"
Imperatrice Aff. ¶ 20.*fn1
Under the First Amendment, the public generally enjoys a right
of access "to both judicial proceedings and judicial documents."
See United States v. Gotti, 322 F.Supp. 2d 230, 239 (E.D.N.Y.
2004) (citing In re New York Times, 828 F.2d 110 (2d Cir.
1987)). As the Second Circuit recently held, that right includes
the right to inspect docket sheets. See Hartford Courant Co. v.
Pellegrino, 380 F.3d 83, 96 (2d Cir. 2004). The right is not
absolute, however, and may be overcome "upon demonstration that
suppression `is essential to preserve higher values and is
narrowly tailored to serve that interest.'" Id. (quoting
Press-Enterprise Co. v. Superior Court, 464 U.S. 501 (1984)).
While conceding the existence of a First Amendment right of
access, the defendants argue that the complaint must nevertheless be
dismissed. In essence, they argue (1) that the Court lacks
jurisdiction over Collins' claims, (2) that the defendants are
immune from suit, and (3) that the complaint fails to state a
A. Jurisdictional Issues
The defendants' argument that this Court lacks jurisdiction
over the case relies on three legal theories: (1) mootness, (2)
the Eleventh Amendment and (3) the Rooker-Feldman doctrine.
"The mootness doctrine, which is mandated by the `case or
controversy' requirement in Article III of the United States
Constitution, requires that federal courts may not adjudicate
matters that no longer present an actual dispute between
parties." See Catanzano v. Wing, 277 F.3d 99, 107 (2d. Cir.
2001). "Thus, `when the issues presented are no longer "live" or
the parties lack a legally cognizable interest in the outcome,' a
case is moot and the federal court is divested of jurisdiction
over it." Id. (quoting Powell v. McCormack, 395 U.S. 486
The defendants argue that the present case is moot because
Collins has already received copies of "all of the documents
maintained by the Court in Diaz." Imperatrice Aff. ¶ 20.
Collins, however, disputes that fact. Because of this dispute,
the case is not moot.
2. Eleventh Amendment
The Eleventh Amendment bars a district court from exercising
jurisdiction over a suit against a state. See College Sav. Bank
v. Florida Prepaid Postsecondary Educ. Expense Bd., 527 U.S. 666 (1999). When a state official is sued for
damages in his or her official capacity, "such a suit is deemed
to be a suit against the state, and the official is entitled to
invoke the Eleventh Amendment immunity belonging to the state."
Ying Jing Gan v. City of New York, 996 F.2d 522, 529 (2d Cir.
1993). When sued in his or her individual capacity, however, "the
state official has no Eleventh Amendment immunity." Id.
Moreover, the Eleventh Amendment does not prohibit actions for
injunctive or declaratory relief against state officials. See
Kentucky v. Graham, 473 U.S. 159, 169 n. 18 (1985) (citing,
inter alia, Ex parte Young, 209 U.S. 123 (1908)).
Here, Collins seeks damages from Imperatrice and Lippman, whom
he has sued in both their official and their individual
capacities; the Eleventh Amendment bars the official-capacity
claims, but not the individual-capacity claims. The
Eleventh Amendment also does not bar any of Collins' claims for
declaratory and injunctive relief.
The Rooker-Feldman doctrine provides that, "because only the
United States Supreme Court may review a final decision of a
state court, federal district courts do not have jurisdiction
over claims that have already been decided, or that are
`inextricably intertwined' with issues that have already been
decided, by a state court." Bridgewater Operating Corp. v.
Feldstein, 346 F.3d 27, 29 (2d Cir. 2003) (citing Rooker v.
Fid. Trust Co., 263 U.S. 413 (1923), and D.C. Court of Appeals
v. Feldman, 460 U.S. 462 (1983)). The defendants argue that the
doctrine bars Collins' claims insofar as they ask this Court to
undo the alleged orders sealing documents in Diaz.
"Rooker-Feldman is not generally applied to bar a suit by
those who where not parties to the original state court action." Hartford Courant,
380 F.3d at 101. Moreover, "where plaintiffs do not challenge
specific closure orders but rather the sealing process as
administratively implemented, Rooker-Feldman does not apply."
Id. For these reasons, the doctrine does not bar Collins'
B. Judicial Immunity
The defendants argue that Collins' claims are barred by the
doctrine of judicial immunity. Under that doctrine, judges are
immune from many suits under § 1983: "[I]f the relevant action is
judicial in nature, the judge is immune so long as it was not
taken in the complete absence of jurisdiction." Huminski v.
Corsones, 396 F.3d 53, 75 (2d Cir. 2005). By contrast, a judge
is not immune when he or she "acted in the clear absence of all
jurisdiction," id. (quoting Stump v. Sparkman, 435 U.S. 349
(1978)), or "if the action in question is not judicial in nature,
as when the judge performs an administrative, legislative, or
executive act." Id.
Judicial immunity bars claims for damages. See Montero v.
Travis, 171 F.3d 757, 761 (2d Cir. 1999). It also bars claims
for injunctive relief "unless a declaratory decree was violated
or declaratory relief was unavailable." Id. (quoting 1996
amendments to § 1983). It does not, however, bar claims for
declaratory relief. See Pulliam v. Allen, 466 U.S. 522 (1984);
Supreme Court v. Consumers Union, Inc., 446 U.S. 719, 735 (1980)
("[W]e have never held that judicial immunity absolutely
insulates judges from declaratory or injunctive relief with
respect to their judicial acts.").*fn2 Does 1-3 are State-court judges and ordering documents to be
filed under seal is unquestionably judicial in nature; however,
Collins sues Does 1-3 only for declaratory relief. Judicial
immunity does not extend to such claims.
Lippman is also a State-court judge; however, he is sued for
actions taken as "Chief Administrative Judge for the New York
City Office of Court Administration," Compl. ¶ 11, namely, his
alleged failure to direct Imperatrice to provide copies of all of
the documents requested by Collins. This appears to be an
administrative function and, therefore, beyond the scope of
Imperatrice is not a State-court judge, but rather the clerk of
the court. The Second Circuit has not precisely delineated the
extent to which judicial immunity extends to a court clerk. See
Rodriguez v. Weprin, 116 F.3d 62, 66 (2d Cir. 1997)
("Heretofore, this Court has found it unnecessary to determine
whether and to what extent judicial immunity extends to a clerk
of the court."). "However, several other circuits have concluded
that the same policies underlying immunity for judges also
justify a similar grant of immunity to clerks for performance of
tasks which are judicial in nature and an integral part of the
judicial process." Id. (citing cases). At the very least, "when
functions that are more administrative in character have been
undertaken pursuant to the explicit direction of a judicial
officer, . . . that officer's immunity is also available to the
subordinate." Id. (quoting Kincaid v. Vail, 969 F.2d 594, 601
(7th Cir. 1992)).
Under Rodriguez, if, as Collins alleges, the docket sheet and
other documents were sealed pursuant to court orders, the
judicial immunity of Does 1-3 would extend to Imperatrice.
Whether judicial immunity would also cover Collins' alternative
theory that the sealing took place pursuant to Imperatrice's "administrative
fiat" is unclear; however, it is not necessary to decide that
issue. Under the "administrative fiat" theory, Collins alleges
that Imperatrice sealed the docket sheet and other documents
without a court order or statutory authority in other words,
"in the clear absence of all jurisdiction," Sparkman,
435 U.S. at 357. For that reason, judicial immunity would not apply.
C. Failure to State a Claim
The defendants argue that the complaint fails to state a claim
against Lippman because it does not allege that he was personally
involved in any constitutional violation and, therefore,
improperly seeks to impose respondeat superior liability. See
Monell v. Dep't of Soc. Servs., 436 U.S. 658, 691 (1978) ("[A]
municipality cannot be held liable under § 1983 on a respondeat
superior theory."); Snider v. Dylag, 188 F.3d 51, 54 (2d Cir.
1999) ("[P]ersonal involvement of the defendant in the conduct
that allegedly violates the plaintiff's constitutional rights is
generally a prerequisite for liability under a § 1983
claim.").*fn3 "Personal involvement," however, can be shown
in four ways: "A supervisory official is liable for
constitutional violations if he or she (1) directly participated
in the violation; (2) failed to remedy the violation after
learning of it through a report or appeal; (3) created a custom
or policy fostering the violation or allowed the custom or policy
to continue after learning of it; or (4) was grossly negligent in
supervising subordinates who caused the violation." Sealey v.
Giltner, 116 F.3d 47, 51 (2d Cir. 1997) (citing Williams v. Smith, 781 F.2d 319 (2d Cir. 1986)).
Here, Collins specifically alleges that he wrote to Lippman to
complain about Imperatrice's allegedly unconstitutional actions
and to request that Lippman direct Imperatrice to disclose the
allegedly sealed documents. He further alleges that Lippman
failed to respond to this request. These allegations fall within
the second category of "personal involvement" described in
Insofar as Collins seeks damages from the defendants in their
official capacities, the motion to dismiss is granted. In all
other respects, the motion is denied.