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Hutchins v. Camardella

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

December 29, 2017

ANTHONY J. CAMARDELLA, et al., Defendants.


          Jeffrey Alker Meyer United States District Judge

         Plaintiff Robert Hutchins has filed an amended complaint pro se under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against fourteen named defendants and an additional ten anonymous Jane and John Does. Plaintiff's claims arise from criminal proceedings in which he was charged with several crimes, adjudicated incompetent to stand trial, and involuntarily committed to the Connecticut Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services. The named defendants include the public defenders that represented plaintiff in the criminal proceedings, Maya Sparks and Barry Butler, as well as several police officers involved in the criminal charges, including John Brown, Jeffrey Stempien, and Michael Vangroski. To the extent that can be gleaned from plaintiff's 168 page amended complaint, plaintiff appears to allege that defendants violated his rights under the Fourth, Sixth, and Fourteenth Amendments, and committed various torts, including breach of contract, negligent and intentional infliction of emotional distress, and legal malpractice.

         Defendants Sparks and Butler now move to dismiss this case pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) on the ground that they are not state actors subject to liability under § 1983. Defendants Brown, Stempien, and Vangroski move to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(2) and 12(b)(5) for lack of personal jurisdiction due to faulty service. The remaining defendants in this case were never served despite four extensions of time granted by this Court for service of process. For the foregoing reasons, I will grant defendants' motions to dismiss and dismiss this case as to all remaining defendants.


         The background principles governing a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss are well established. The Court must accept as true all factual matters alleged in a complaint, although a complaint may not survive unless the facts it recites are enough to state plausible grounds for relief. See, e.g., Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009); Mastafa v. Chevron Corp., 770 F.3d 170, 177 (2d Cir. 2014). Although this “plausibility” requirement is “not akin to a probability requirement, ” it “asks for more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678. Because the focus must be on what facts a complaint alleges, a court is “not bound to accept as true a legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation” or “to accept as true allegations that are wholly conclusory.” Krys v. Pigott, 749 F.3d 117, 128 (2d Cir. 2014). In short, my role in reviewing a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) is to determine if the complaint-apart from any of its conclusory allegations-alleges enough facts to state a plausible claim for relief.

         The Court liberally construes the pleadings of a pro se party in a non-technical manner to raise the strongest arguments that they suggest. See, e.g., McLeod v. Jewish Guild for the Blind, 864 F.3d 154, 157 (2d Cir. 2017) (per curiam). Still, a pro se complaint may not survive dismissal if its factual allegations do not meet the basic plausibility standard. See, e.g., Fowlkes v. Ironworkers Local 40, 790 F.3d 378, 387 (2d Cir. 2015).

         Claims under § 1983 against non-state actors

         Plaintiff's principal claims against Sparks and Butler arise under § 1983 for various violations of plaintiff's constitutional rights. Section 1983 provides a cause of action “only against persons acting under color of state law.” Tapp v. Champagne, 164 Fed.Appx. 106, 108 (2d Cir. 2006). Generally, a “public defender does not act under color of state law when performing a lawyer's traditional functions as counsel to a defendant in a criminal proceeding.” Polk Cty. v. Dodson, 454 U.S. 312, 325 (1981); Tapp, 164 Fed.Appx. at 108 (same). Sparks' and Butler's participation in the events described in the complaint falls squarely within the “traditional function” of a public defender as counsel to plaintiff during the course of his criminal and commitment proceedings. Nor has plaintiff alleged in anything but conclusory terms that his public defenders conspired with state actors, such that they should be deemed to be state actors liable under § 1983. See ibid. (rejecting a plaintiff's “wholly conclusory” claim that public defenders “conspired with judges and district attorneys to pursue his malicious prosecution”); Ciambrello v. Cnty. of Nassau, 292 F.3d 307, 325 (2d Cir. 2002) (same). Accordingly, plaintiff's § 1983 claims against Sparks and Butler are insufficient as a matter of law and are dismissed.

         Insufficient Service of Process

         Defendants Jeffrey Stempien, Michael Vangroski, and John Brown have moved to dismiss plaintiff's claims for a lack of personal jurisdiction under Rule 12(b)(2) and for insufficient service of process under Rule 12(b)(5). In order for a federal court to exercise jurisdiction over defendants, “plaintiff's service of process upon the defendant must have been procedurally proper.” Licci ex rel. Licci v. Lebanese Canadian Bank, SAL, 673 F.3d 50, 59 (2d Cir. 2012). When a defendant moves to dismiss for failure to serve process under Rule 12(b)(5), “the plaintiff bears the burden of proving adequate service.” Skipp v. Connecticut Judicial Branch, 2015 WL 1401989, at *4 (D. Conn. 2015) (quoting Dickerson v. Napolitano, 604 F.3d 732, 752 (2d Cir. 2010)).

         Rule 4(e) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure specifies that service may be effectuated by (1) complying with state law regarding service; (2) delivering a copy of the summons and complaint to the individual personally; (3) leaving a copy of the summons and complaint at the individual's home with someone of suitable age and discretion who resides there; or (4) delivering a copy of the summons and complaint to an agent authorized to receive service for the individual. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 4(e).

         Connecticut law provides that service upon an individual may be made either by personally delivering the necessary documents to the individual, or by leaving them at his home. See Conn. Gen. Stat. § 52-57(a). It also states that process shall be served in a suit “against an employee of a town, city or borough in a cause of action arising from the employee's duties or employment, upon the clerk of the town, city or borough, provided two copies of such process shall be served upon the clerk and the clerk shall retain one copy and forward the second copy to the employee.” Conn. Gen. Stat. § 52-57(b)(7).

         Here, defendants John Brown and Jeffrey Stempien are police officers employed by the Greenwich Police Department, and defendant Michael Vongroski is a former officer of the department. Doc. #25-1 at 2-3. The Court granted plaintiff several extensions of time to effectuate service, the last of which gave plaintiff until January 21, 2017, to serve defendants. Doc. #12. Plaintiff's proof of service indicates that copies of service for John Brown and Jeffrey Stempien were given by a third party to Sergeant Ernest Mulhern at the Greenwich police department on January 21, 2017.[1] Doc. #37 at 2-3. Neither officer was on duty on that day. The packages were left on the officers' desks, and both discovered the packages when they reported for duty on January 23 and January 24, respectively. Doc. #25-1 at 7-8. Stempien alleges that the package contained a copy of plaintiff's amended complaint but not the summons, while Brown does not recall whether the package contained a summons.

         As for Vongroski, he discovered a package containing the summons and amended complaint on the front porch of his residence on January 23, 2017. Doc. #25-1 at 11. Plaintiff's proof of service indicates that a copy of service was left ...

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