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Hamre v. City of Moorhead

United States District Court, D. North Dakota

September 26, 2018

John Phillip Hamre, Plaintiff,
City of Moorhead, Brian Melton, Robert Matheson, City of Fargo, Tristan Jones Van De Streek, Brent Malone, and Philip Swan, Defendants.

          ORDER RE § 1915A SCREENING

          Charles S. Miller, Jr., Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. This matter is now before the undersigned for initial review as required by 28 U.S.C. § 1915A.[1]

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff initiated this action on July 13, 2018, with the filing of a complaint dated July 4, 2018. (Doc. No. 6). On August 13, 2018, plaintiff filed another document dated August 4, 2018, containing additional allegations against the defendants. (Doc. No. 10). The court will treat both plaintiff's initial filing and the supplement as the operative complaint. Consequently, unless otherwise stated, the reference to plaintiff's complaint in what follows includes both the initial July 4, 2018 pleading and the August 4, 2018 supplement.

         In this action, plaintiff is attempting to sue two separate groups of defendants. One group consists of the City of Moorhead (the county seat of Clay County, Minnesota) and three individuals-Brian Melton, Robert Matheson, and Lori Conroy-who, presumably, are Minnesota residents. Melton and Conroy are Clay County prosecutors. Matheson is a Moorhead police officer. This first group will be referred to collectively as the “Minnesota defendants.”

         The second group of named defendants consists of the City of Fargo (the county seat for Cass County, North Dakota) and three individuals-Tristan Jones Van De Streek, Brent Malone, and Phillip Swan-who, presumably, are all North Dakota residents. Van De Streek is a Cass County prosecutor. Malone and Swan are Fargo police officers. The second group will be referred to collectively as the “North Dakota defendants.”

         It is difficult to determine from plaintiff's complaint exactly what he is contending amounted to a federal constitutional violation by each of the defendants. In substantial part, this is due to plaintiff's disjointed and conclusory allegations that appear to involve multiple criminal proceedings-at least one of which was (and, perhaps, still is) pending in Clay County, Minnesota and another that began in June 2017 in Cass County, North Dakota, and resulted in a conviction that is now on appeal to the North Dakota Supreme Court.

         The relief that plaintiff seeks is money damages against each of the named defendants in varying amounts. The complaint is silent in terms of whether plaintiff is suing the individually-named defendants in their individual as opposed to their official capacities.


         Congress enacted the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995 (“PLRA”) to address the burden imposed by prisoner suits that are too often frivolous and without merit. Jones v. Bock, 549 U.S. 199, 203-04 (2007); Woodford v. Ngo, 548 U.S. 81, 84 (2006). One of the reforms enacted as part of the PLRA for cases in which prisoners are seeking to sue a governmental entity, officer, or employee requires courts to conduct an early screening to weed out claims that clearly lack merit. 28 U.S.C. § 1915A. In conducting the screening, the court is required to identify any cognizable claims and to dismiss the complaint, or any part of it, that is frivolous, malicious, fails to state a claim, or seeks monetary relief from an immune defendant. Id.

         In screening a pro se prisoner complaint, the court is obligated to construe it liberally and hold it to a less stringent standard than what normally would be required of attorneys. Id.; see also Federal Express Corp. v. Holowecki, 552 U.S. 389, 402 (2008); Solomon v. Petray, 795 F.3d 777, 787 (8th Cir. 2015) (“When we say that a pro se complaint should be given liberal construction, we mean that if the essence of an allegation is discernible . . . then the district court should construe the complaint in a way that permits the layperson's claim to be considered within the proper legal framework.”) (internal quotation marks omitted). This does not mean that the court must accept everything or anything that is filed by a prisoner proceeding pro se, however. In enacting the screening requirement, Congress obviously expected it to be more than an a ritualistic exercise and that courts would only allow to go forward those claims that are cognizable, that seek relief from a non-immune party, and that are not clearly frivolous or malicious.

         To meet the minimal pleading requirements of Rule 8(a)(2) for stating a cognizable claim, something more is required than simply expressing a desire for relief and declaring an entitlement to it. See Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 556 n.3 (2007) (“Twombly”). The complaint must state enough to “‘give the defendant fair notice of what the . . . claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.'” Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 93 (2007) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555). Also, it must state enough to satisfy the “plausibility standard” for stating a cognizable claim as established in Twombly and further amplified by the Supreme Court in Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678-84 (2009) (“Iqbal”). And, even though a pro se prisoner complaint is entitled to a liberal construction, these minimal pleading requirements must still be satisfied. E.g., Story v. Foote, 782 F.3d 968, 969 (“To state a claim, . . . [the pro se prisoner's] complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.”) (internal quotation marks omitted and citing Twombly and Iqbal). Complaints that offer nothing more than labels and conclusions or a formulaic recitation of the elements are not sufficient. Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555; Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 680-81. Frivolous claims are those that are clearly baseless, fanciful, fantastic, or delusional. See Denton v. Hernandez, 504 U.S. 25, 32-34 (1992).

         To state a claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, a plaintiff must normally allege a violation of a right secured by the Constitution or the laws of the United States and that the alleged deprivation was committed by a person acting under color of state law. West v. Atkins, 487 U.S. 42, 48 (1988); Walker v. Reed, 104 F.3d 156, 157 (8th Cir. 1997). Even under liberal pleading standards, a pro se litigant must, at the very least, invoke rights under the Constitution or federal law in order to plead a § 1983 claim. Walker v. Reed, 104 F.3d at 157-58. Also, the pleading must allege a sufficient causal link between the alleged violation and the basis upon which the particular defendant is to be held responsible, keeping in mind that persons sued in their individual capacities must be personally involved or directly responsible since § 1983 does not impose respondeat superior liability. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 676-77; Gordon v. Hansen, 168 F.3d 1109, 1113 (8th Cir. 1999).

         Finally, the court is not required to ignore facts that are pled by a prisoner when they undermine the prisoner's claim. The court may accept as true all facts pled in the complaint and conclude from them that there is no claim as a matter of law. E.g., Thompson v. Ill. Dep't of ...

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