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Ortiz v. Aragon

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

May 28, 2019

DALE ORTIZ, Plaintiff,
ABIGAIL P. ARAGON, Judge, THOMAS A CLAYTON, Prosecutor, AND ARTHUR B. BUSTOS, Defense Counsel, Defendants.


         Before the Court is Plaintiff's Pro Se Civil Rights Complaint (Doc. 1). Plaintiff is incarcerated, pro se, and proceeding in forma pauperis. He asserts 42 U.S.C. Section 1983 claims against the judge, prosecutor, and defense counsel who were involved in his state criminal case. Having reviewed the matter sua sponte under 28 U.S.C. § 1915, the Court concludes that Plaintiff cannot successfully sue those individuals. The Court therefore must dismiss the Complaint with prejudice.


          In 2014, Plaintiff pled guilty to child abuse and aggravated assault against a household member in New Mexico's Fourth Judicial District Court (No. D-412-CR-2014-0134). See Doc. 1 at 8, 11. The state court sentenced him to four and a half years imprisonment. Id. at 9, 12. Plaintiff alleges that District Attorney Thomas Clayton knowingly used false information to obtain a conviction. Id. at 2. Plaintiff further alleges that Judge Abigail Aragon and defense counsel Arthur Bustos failed to correct the false information. Id. at 1-3. The Complaint raises claims under 42 U.S.C. Section 1983. Id. at 1. Plaintiff seeks damages equal to $1, 800 for each day of incarceration and $150 per year for lost wages. Id. at 6. He also asks the Court to prosecute Defendants and vacate the conviction. Id.

         Standards Governing Initial Review

          The Court has discretion to dismiss an in forma pauperis complaint sua sponte under Section 1915(e)(2) “at any time if … the action … is frivolous or malicious; [or] fails to state a claim on which relief may be granted.” The Court may also dismiss a complaint sua sponte under Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure if “it is patently obvious that the plaintiff could not prevail on the facts alleged, and allowing [plaintiff] an opportunity to amend [the] complaint would be futile.” Hall v. Bellmon, 935 F.2d 1106, 1110 (10th Cir. 1991) (quotations omitted). The plaintiff must frame a complaint that contains “sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim for relief that is plausible on its face.'” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). “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.” Id.

         Because Plaintiff is pro se, his “pleadings are to be construed liberally and held to a less stringent standard than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers.” Hall, 935 F.2d at 1110. While pro se pleadings are judged by the same legal standards that apply to represented litigants, the Court can overlook the “failure to cite proper legal authority, … confusion of various legal theories, … poor syntax and sentence construction, or … unfamiliarity with pleading requirements.” Id.


          “A cause of action under section 1983 requires the deprivation of a civil right by a [qualifying] ‘person' acting under color of state law.” McLaughlin v. Bd. of Trustees, 215 F.3d 1168, 1172 (10th Cir. 2000). The plaintiff must allege that each government official, through the official's own individual actions, has personally violated the Constitution. See Trask v. Franco, 446 F.3d 1036, 1046 (10th Cir. 1998). There must also be a connection between the official conduct and the constitutional violation. Fogarty v. Gallegos, 523 F.3d 1147, 1162 (10th Cir. 2008); Trask, 446 F.3d at 1046.

         Applying these standards, Plaintiff's complaint does not state a cognizable constitutional claim. Judge Aragon is absolutely immune from a civil rights suit based on actions taken in her judicial capacity. See Mireles v. Waco, 502 U.S. 9, 11 (1991). “[I]mmunity applies even when the judge is accused of acting maliciously and corruptly.” Id. (quoting Pierson v. Ray, 386 U.S. 547, 554 (1967)). The only exception is when a judge “acts clearly without any colorable claim of jurisdiction.” Snell v. Tunnell, 920 F.2d 673, 686 (10th Cir. 1990). As a state District Judge, Judge Aragon had jurisdiction over the state criminal proceeding, notwithstanding any allegations of wrongdoing. Consequently, Plaintiff cannot sue Judge Aragon.

         The claims against District Attorney Clayton fail for similar reasons. District attorneys are entitled to absolute immunity in Section 1983 suits for activities within the scope of their prosecutorial duties. See Imbler v. Pachtman, 424 U.S. 409, 420-24 (1976). “[I]nitiating and pursuing a criminal prosecution” constitute “activities which are intimately associated with the judicial process.” Snell, 920 F.2d 686 (10th Cir. 1990) (quotations omitted). Immunity attaches to these activities even where, as here, the plaintiff alleges that the prosecutor knowingly presented false evidence to the Court. See Burns v. Reed, 500 U.S. 478 (1991) (applying immunity where prosecutor presented false statements in the probable cause affidavit). Further, even if Clayton was not immune, a claim for malicious prosecution is only viable where the underlying criminal action terminated in the plaintiff's favor. See Wilkins v. DeReyes, 528 F.3d 790, 799 (10th Cir. 2008). Because Plaintiff pled guilty in his underlying case, he cannot claim Clayton is responsible for any wrongful conviction. The claims against Clayton therefore fail.

         Nor is the last Defendant, Arthur Bustos, subject to liability in this case. As noted above, a plaintiff can only recover in a Section 1983 action where the defendant was “acting under color of state law.” McLaughlin, 215 F.3d at 1172. The Supreme Court has held that public defenders and private defense attorneys do not act under color of state law within the meaning of Section 1983. See Polk Cty. v. Dodson, 454 U.S. 312, 316 (1981); Anderson v. Kitchen, 389 Fed.Appx. 838, 841 (10th Cir. 2010) (applying the rule to private defense counsel).

         Finally, even if Plaintiff could successfully sue Defendants, any claim for damages is barred under Heck v. Humphry, 512 U.S. 477, 487 (1994). Heck held that the federal court must dismiss any Seciton 1983 damages claim that, if resolved in the plaintiff's favor, would necessarily imply the invalidity of his conviction or sentence. Id. at 487. Plaintiff's request to be compensated for each day of incarceration, based on the wrongful conduct of a judge, prosecutor, or public defender, necessarily attacks the criminal proceedings. See e.g., Baldwin v. O'Connor, 466 Fed.Appx. 717, 717 (10th Cir. 2012) (Heck barred § 1983 monetary claims “alleging violations of . . . constitutional rights by . . . the deputy district attorney who prosecuted [plaintiff] and the district-court judge who presided in his case”); Murphy v. Willmore, 752 Fed.Appx. 653, 656 (10th Cir. 2018) (same).

         For these reasons, the complaint fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. The Court will dismiss the Complaint pursuant to 28 U.S.C. Section 1915(e)(2)(B)(ii).

         Amendment ...

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