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Charles v. O'Garro

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

June 11, 2018

EDMOND O'GARRO, NORWALK HOUSING COURT CLERK, in his individual capacity, Defendant.


          Stefan R. Underhill United States District Judge

         Margarette Charles (“Charles”) has filed this action pro se against Edmond O'Garro (“O'Garro”), a clerk of the Connecticut Superior Court's Housing Session at Norwalk. (Doc. # 1 [hereinafter, the “Complaint”]).[1] Charles alleges wrongdoing by O'Garro in his handling of attempts by her ex-husband and her ex-husband's friend to file documents on Charles's behalf in a foreclosure action then pending against Charles in the Norwalk Housing Court (the “Foreclosure Action”).[2] Following review, I have determined that Charles's Complaint does not currently present any non-frivolous claims. O'Garro in his individual capacity is protected by judicial immunity from claims for damages or injunctive relief, and, because Charles's appearance has subsequently been entered in the Foreclosure Action, even any claim for declaratory relief now appears to be moot. Moreover, at least some aspects of Charles's Complaint appear to be an attempt to interfere with the judgment obtained in the Foreclosure Action prior to the filing of this lawsuit, which is barred by the Rooker-Feldman doctrine. Finally, the Complaint itself is too vague in its current form for me to discern a plausible entitlement to relief. Accordingly, in the interests of judicial efficiency, I dismiss Charles's Complaint. Although I am skeptical that she can state a justiciable claim against O'Garro, because of the solicitousness due pro se litigants and because my dismissal is sua sponte, I will permit her thirty days to file an amended complaint. See J.S. v. T'Kach, 714 F.3d 99, 103 (2d Cir. 2013).

         I. Background

         Charles alleges that her ex-husband, Lexene Charles, and his friend, Heather Lindsay (“Lindsay”) went “as proxy” for her to the Norwalk Housing Court on April 1, 2018, to file a notice of her appearance in the Foreclosure Action and a petition for a writ of audita querela. Charles was apparently incapacitated by illness, and thus could not travel to the Court to file her appearance herself. Charles claims that O'Garro time-stamped the notice of appearance, but “explicitly and vehemently told [her proxies] that he was not going to file the . . . [n]otice of [a]ppearance”, and that despite her proxies “implor[ing] and beseech[ing]” O'Garro, O'Garro “heatedly insisted that he was not going to do so”.

         Charles alleges that, on or about April 24, 2018, she realized that “not only was her [n]otice of [a]ppearance not filed . . ., but neither was her [p]etition for [a] [w]rit of [a]udita [q]uerela.” The next day, Charles's proxies again attempted to file her notice of appearance and petition, this time presenting the documents to a court clerk other than O'Garro. Although the second court clerk also time-stamped the notice of appearance and returned a copy to her proxies, the documents were again not filed on the Foreclosure Action's docket.

         On April 26, 2018, the Housing Session of the Connecticut Superior Court granted U.S. Bank's motion for default for failure to appear against Charles and the other defendants in the Foreclosure Action.[3] The judgment granted against Charles in the Foreclosure Action permits U.S. Bank to take immediate possession of the pertinent premises five days after the date of the judgment, but I note that Charles appears to have followed the instructions in the notice docketed in the Foreclosure Action on the same day as the judgment, and has filed for a stay of execution of the judgment, which can delay her eviction by up to six months.[4]

         Charles filed suit against O'Garro in this court on April 30, 2018, alleging violation of her right to due process under the United States Constitution (and potentially violations of other rights secured to her in the Bill of Rights), her right of access to the courts under the Connecticut Constitution, and Connecticut anti-discrimination law. The Complaint at one point states that O'Garro's misconduct is “actionable as a claim for which damages may be granted”, but is most focused on obtaining an injunction “against the ruling of the Norwalk Housing Court that was unfairly procured by the [p]laintiff in that case by the indifference and deliberate subterfuge of the Clerk of the Court, Defendant Edmond O'Garro”. The Complaint also seeks a declaratory judgment that Charles “was deprived of her intrinsic constitutional rights”. On April 30, 2018, Charles also moved for a temporary restraining order and emergency injunction preventing either O'Garro or U.S. Bank from interfering with her possession of the pertinent premises.[5] Neither O'Garro nor U.S. Bank has been served in this action.

         II. Discussion

         Because Charles is proceeding pro se, I must construe her Complaint “liberally, reading it with special solicitude and interpreting it to raise the strongest claims that it suggests”. T'Kach, 714 F.3d at 103. The indulgence to which the Complaint is entitled, however, does not excuse it from an obligation to state a valid ground for relief. Ferran v. Town of Nassau, 11 F.3d 21, 22 (2d Cir. 1993). For the reasons stated below, it is unmistakably clear that Charles's claims are lacking in merit. Accordingly, I sua sponte dismiss her Complaint.

         Because Charles and O'Garro are both residents of Connecticut, my jurisdiction over any state law claims in the Complaint relies on 28 U.S.C. § 1367, and thus depends on the survival of the Complaint's federal claims. See Carnegie-Mellon Univ. v. Cohill, 484 U.S. 343, 350 n.7 (1988). Most generously, the Complaint can be construed as pleading due process and other non-specific federal constitutional claims against O'Garro. The appropriate vehicle for allegations of constitutional violations is a claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and because Charles is proceeding pro se, I will construe her claims against O'Garro as having been properly brought under that statute. See Morales v. New York, 22 F.Supp.3d 256, 272 (S.D.N.Y. 2014).

         As a preliminary matter, O'Garro, as a clerk of the court, is a judicial officer and is thus entitled to immunity for actions taken in performance of a judicial function. Rodriguez v. Weprin, 116 F.3d 62, 66 (2d Cir. 1997). Charles accuses O'Garro of failing to file documents provided to him on Charles's behalf. “A court's inherent power to control its docket is part of its function of resolving disputes between parties”, and actions taken by court staff in furtherance of docket control are part of that judicial function. Id. at 66-67 (holding that claim that “the court clerks violated [the plaintiff's] due process rights by failing to properly manage the court calendar” was barred by judicial immunity”); see also Peker v. Steglich, 324 Fed.Appx. 38, 40 (2d Cir. 2009) (holding that clerk's act of filing exhibits was “basic and integral to the judicial function”); Argentieri v. Clerk of Court for Judge Kmiotek, 420 F.Supp.2d 162, 164-65 (W.D.N.Y. 2006) (holding that “plaintiff claims that defendants violated his rights by refusing to acknowledge his motions or to schedule his court proceedings, . . . [we]re barred by absolute immunity”); Ceparano v. Southampton Justice Court, 2010 WL 11527157, at *8 (E.D.N.Y. Mar. 22, 2010), report and recommendation adopted, 2010 WL 11527158 (E.D.N.Y. May 12, 2010), aff'd, 404 Fed.Appx. 537 (2d Cir. 2011) (holding that clerk's act of entering an erroneously-issued warrant into the system was shielded by judicial immunity). O'Garro's actions, as described in the complaint, are thus covered by judicial immunity.

         My holding that the complained-of conduct is protected by judicial immunity might end the inquiry. See, e.g., Azubuko v. Judges of U.S. Court of Appeals - for the First Circuit, 2008 WL 1990829, at *1 (E.D.N.Y. May 2, 2008) (“This court, construing plaintiff's complaints liberally, dismisses them as frivolous. Plaintiff's claims are barred by the doctrine of absolute judicial immunity. Plaintiff seeks damages and additional relief from judges, courts, a court clerk, and an appeals attorney. Judges and certain judicial employees are immune from such suits.”). Section 1983 did not abolish the common-law judicial immunity for actions proceeding under the statute. Pierson v. Ray, 386 U.S. 547, 554-55 (1967). Charles is, however, seeking a declaratory judgment, among other remedies, and there is some ambiguity about whether the judicial immunity applicable to section 1983 suits covers declaratory relief, compare Koltun v. Berry, 2013 WL 3816611, at *2 (S.D.N.Y. July 19, 2013) (“Because judicial immunity is absolute, it provides immunity from suit, not just from damages.”) (citing Mireles v. Waco, 502 U.S. 9, 11 (1991)), with Montero v. Travis, 171 F.3d 757, 761 (2d Cir. 1999) (holding that absolute immunity bars not only section 1983 claims for damages, but also claims for injunctive relief against judicial officers where declaratory relief is available).

         Even if O'Garro is not shielded by judicial immunity from a claim for declaratory judgment, Charles's complaint must fail. First, a declaration regarding Charles's constitutional right to have Lexene Charles and Lindsay file her notice of appearance in the Foreclosure Action is now moot, because Charles has successfully filed a notice of appearance in the Foreclosure Action.[6] “Declaratory judgment is inappropriate when it is sought to adjudicate past acts . . . . [A] change in the relief requested [from an injunction to declaratory judgment] does not prevent mootness.” Scheiner v. ACT Inc., 2013 WL 685445, at *3 (E.D.N.Y. Feb. 24, 2013). I do not have the jurisdiction to render a declaratory judgment when the underlying question is moot. Pancake v. McCarthy, 806 F.Supp. 378, 379 (E.D.N.Y. 1992) (citing Golden v. Zwickler, 394 U.S. 103 (1969)).

         Second, the mootness of any declaration that Charles has a right to have her appearance entered (or any injunction requiring Charles's appearance to be entered), combined with O'Garro's immunity from any damage claims, highlights that Charles actually appears to be seeking a declaration of “her [r]ights under the law” in order to “ascertain . . . whether or not the U.S. BANK has a right to proceed with . . . [the] remedies” granted to it in the state Foreclosure Action. Inasmuch as Charles is thus seeking to interfere with the unfavorable state court judgment, her attempt is barred by the Rooker-Feldman doctrine. Exxon Mobil Corp. v. Saudi Basic Indus. Corp., 544 ...

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