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Coleman v. Engle

United States District Court, N.D. New York

February 27, 2017

PAULA ENGLE, SARAH MERRICK, Onondaga County of Social Services Commissioner, ROBERT ANTUNACCI, Onondaga County Comptroller, Defendants.

          ROCHELLE COLEMAN Plaintiff Pro Se


          Mae A. D'Agostino, U.S. District Judge

         On July 8, 2016, pro se Plaintiff Rochelle Coleman filed three civil rights complaints as one action against Defendants Paula Engle, an attorney, Sarah Merrick, the Onondaga County Social Services Commissioner and Comptroller, and Robert Antunacci, the Onondaga County Comptroller. See Dkt. Nos. 1, 1-1, and 1-2. Plaintiff asserts claims pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 ("section 1983"), Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("Title VII"), 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq., and the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"), 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq. See id.

         On July 29, 2016, Magistrate Judge Peebles issued a Report, Recommendation and Order granting Plaintiff's application to proceed in forma pauperis ("IFP") while denying Plaintiff's motion for appointment of counsel. See Dkt. No. 6 at 18. After review, Magistrate Judge Peebles recommended the Court dismiss all three of Plaintiff's complaints with prejudice due to her failure to state a claim. See Id. at 19. Currently before the Court is Magistrate Judge Peebles' Report, Recommendation and Order.

         When a plaintiff seeks to proceed IFP, "the court shall dismiss the case at any time if the court determines that . . . the action or appeal (i) is frivolous or malicious; (ii) fails to state a claim on which relief may be granted; or (iii) seeks monetary relief against a defendant who is immune from such relief." 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B). In making this determination, "'the court has the duty to show liberality towards pro se litigants, ' however, 'there is a responsibility on the court to determine that a claim has some arguable basis in law before permitting a plaintiff to proceed with an action in forma pauperis.'" Griffin v. Doe, 71 F.Supp.3d 306, 311 (N.D.N.Y. 2014) (citing Moreman v. Douglas, 848 F.Supp. 332, 333-334 (N.D.N.Y. 1994) (internal citations omitted)); see also Thomas v. Scully, 943 F.2d 259, 260 (2d Cir. 1991) (per curiam) (holding that a district court has the power to dismiss a complaint sua sponte if the complaint is frivolous).

         When reviewing a complaint under 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e), courts are guided by the applicable requirements of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Rule 8(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides that a pleading must contain "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief." Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). While Rule 8(a) "does not require 'detailed factual allegations, ' . . . it demands more than an unadorned" recitation of the alleged misconduct. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (citing Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007)) (other citations omitted).

         To survive dismissal for failure to state a claim, a party need only present a claim that is "plausible on its face." Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570. "A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (citation omitted). In determining whether a complaint states a claim upon which relief may be granted, "the court must accept the material facts alleged in the complaint as true and construe all reasonable inferences in the plaintiff's favor." Hernandez v. Coughlin, 18 F.3d 133, 136 (2d Cir. 1994) (citation omitted). However, "the tenet that a court must accept as true all of the allegations contained in a complaint is inapplicable to legal conclusions. Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice." Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (citation omitted).

         Neither party objected to Magistrate Judge Peebles' Report, Recommendation, and Order. As a general matter, when a party files specific objections to a magistrate judge's report and recommendation, the district court "make[s] a de novo determination of those portions of the report or specified proposed findings or recommendations to which objection is made." 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(C). However, when a party files "'[g]eneral or conclusory objections, or objections which merely recite the same arguments presented to the magistrate judge, '" the court reviews those recommendations "'for clear error.'" Chime v. Peak Sec. Plus, Inc., 137 F.Supp.3d 183, 187 (E.D.N.Y. 2015) (quotation omitted). After the appropriate review, "the court may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations made by the magistrate judge." 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(C).

         A litigant's failure to file objections to a magistrate judge's report and recommendation, even when that litigant is proceeding pro se, waives any challenge to the report on appeal. See Cephas v. Nash, 328 F.3d 98, 107 (2d Cir. 2003) (holding that, "[a]s a rule, a party's failure to object to any purported error or omission in a magistrate judge's report waives further judicial review of the point") (citation omitted). A pro se litigant must be given notice of this rule; notice is sufficient if it informs the litigant that the failure to timely object will result in the waiver of further judicial review and cites pertinent statutory and civil rules authority. See Frank v. Johnson, 968 F.2d 298, 299 (2d Cir. 1992); Small v. Sec'y of Health and Human Servs., 892 F.2d 15, 16 (2d Cir. 1989) (holding that a pro se party's failure to object to a report and recommendation does not waive his right to appellate review unless the report explicitly states that failure to object will preclude appellate review and specifically cites 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1) and Rules 72, 6(a), and former 6(e) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure).

         In her section 1983 complaint, Plaintiff alleges that her benefits were stolen, accuses "county workers" of welfare fraud and asserts that after she made her accusations, Defendants contributed to the wrongful removal of her children from her custody. See Dkt. No. 1 at 3; see also Dkt. No. 6 at 3. Specifically, Plaintiff claims that Defendants ignored her complaints, conspired to cover up the fraud, and conspired to remove Plaintiff's children from her custody. See Dkt. No. 1 at 3. Liberally construed, Plaintiff's section 1983 complaint includes claims for retaliation, violation of due process rights, unlawful seizure, and conspiracy to deprive Plaintiff of constitutional rights. See Dkt. No. 6 at 9.

         A section 1983 retaliation claim exists when a state actor takes adverse action against a plaintiff motivated by the plaintiff's exercise of a constitutional right, such as free speech under the First Amendment. See Friedl v. City of N.Y., 210 F.3d 79, 85 (2d Cir. 2000) ("In general, a section 1983 claim will lie where the government takes negative action against an individual because of his exercise of rights guaranteed by the Constitution or federal laws") (citations omitted). To succeed on a section 1983 claim for retaliatory conduct, a plaintiff must demonstrate that (1) she engaged in protected conduct; (2) the defendant took adverse action against her; and (3) there was a causal connection between the protected activity and the adverse action - in other words, that the protected conduct was a "substantial or motivating factor" in the government official's decision to take action against the plaintiff. See Mt. Healthy City Sch. Dist. Bd. of Educ. v. Doyle, 429 U.S. 274, 287 (1977); Dillon v. Morano, 497 F.3d 247, 251 (2d Cir. 2007); Garrett v. Reynolds, No. 9:99-cv-2065, 2003 WL 22299359, *4 (N.D.N.Y. Oct. 3, 2003).

         Here, in connection with Plaintiff's section 1983 claim for retaliatory conduct, the only identified adverse action is the removal of her children. See Dkt. No. 1 at 3. As Magistrate Judge Peebles correctly found, Plaintiff has failed to allege any facts to plausibly suggest that Defendants were involved in the decision to remove Plaintiff's children from her custody, or that this alleged adverse action was motivated by Plaintiff's complaints. See Dkt. No. 6 at 10.

         As to the second claim in her section 1983 complaint, Magistrate Judge Peebles correctly determined that Plaintiff failed to state a claim for violation of due process under the Fourteenth Amendment or unlawful seizure under the Fourth Amendment. See Id. at 10-11. Again, Plaintiff alleges nothing that "plausibly suggest[s] that any of the defendants were personally involved in any respect with the removal of [P]laintiff's children from her custody." See id. at 11; see also Grullon v. City of New Haven, 720 F.3d 133, 138 (2d Cir. 2013) ("It is well settled that, in order to establish a defendant's individual liability in a suit brought under § 1983, a plaintiff must show, inter alia, the defendant's personal involvement in the alleged constitutional deprivation") (citations omitted).

         Lastly, Magistrate Judge Peebles correctly determined that Plaintiff's section 1983 conspiracy claim failed to state a claim against Defendants. See Dkt. No. 6 at 11-12. Plaintiff failed to provide any details "relative to defendants' alleged involvement in the conspiratorial conduct" and she "failed to allege any of the defendants entered into an agreement with anyone to deprive [P]laintiff of her constitutional rights." See Id. at 12. To sustain a conspiracy claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, "a plaintiff must demonstrate that a defendant 'acted in a willful manner, culminating in an agreement, understanding or meeting of the minds, that violated the plaintiff's rights . . . secured by the Constitution or the federal courts.'" Krebs v. New York State Division of Parole, No. 9:08-cv-0255, 2009 WL 2567779, *13 (N.D.N.Y. Aug. 17, 2009) (quoting Malsh v. Austin, 901 F.Supp. 757, 763 (S.D.N.Y. 1995)). Finally, Magistrate Judge Peebles also correctly determined that all claims raised in Plaintiff's section 1983 complaint are also subject to dismissal pursuant to the Rooker-Feldman doctrine. See Torres v. ...

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