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Rushing v. Yazoo County

United States District Court, S.D. Mississippi, Northern Division

March 26, 2019

MICHAEL T. RUSHING PLAINTIFF
v.
YAZOO COUNTY, ET AL. DEFENDANTS

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          TOM S. LEE UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         This cause is before the court on the motion of defendants Mississippi Public Employees Retirement System (PERS) and Yazoo County Circuit Judge Janie M. Lewis-Blackmon to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. The court, having considered the motion and response by plaintiff Michael T. Rushing, concludes the motion should be granted.

         Plaintiff Rushing worked as an assistant public defender for eleven years in Yazoo County, first from 1997 to 1999 and again from 2009 to 2017, when he retired. He has brought this action asserting claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for violation of his Fourteenth Amendment due process and equal protection rights, and under state law for breach of fiduciary duty, based on allegations that he was improperly classified as an independent contractor of Yazoo County, rather than as an employee, and was consequently deprived of the benefits of employment, including the right to participate in the state retirement system administered by the Mississippi Public Employees Retirement System. He has named as defendants Yazoo County (the County); the Yazoo County Board of Supervisors (the Board) and its members, in their individual and official capacities; Yazoo County Public Defender Alva P. Taylor, in her individual and official capacities; Yazoo County Circuit Judge Jannie M. Lewis-Blackmon, in her individual capacity; and the Mississippi Public Employees Retirement System (PERS). As relief, he seeks, inter alia, an order enjoining Yazoo County to properly classify his public defender position as that of an employee of the County for the time he served and to make omitted contributions to PERS to properly fund his retirement account and enjoining Yazoo County and PERS to “work together to enroll [him] as a member of PERS, with all retroactive credits allowable by law....” He also seeks an award from “all defendants” of “all back employment benefits, ” and in addition, seeks compensatory damages representing the actuarial value of his pensions over and above the omitted contributions.

         PERS moves for dismissal of plaintiff's claim against it for monetary relief on the basis of Eleventh Amendment immunity, while Judge Lewis-Blackmon moves for dismissal of the claims against her on the basis of judicial immunity.

         PERS

         With respect to PERS, Rushing states in his response to PERS' motion that he is “not seeking monetary damages against PERS.” With this understanding, PERS' motion to dismiss the claim for monetary relief will be granted.[1]

         Judge Lewis-Blackmon

         While Rushing alleges in his complaint that “Defendants arbitrarily and capriciously improperly classified [his] position as ‘independent contractor' and ‘to receive no benefits'” and refers to “[t]he collective acts of the Defendants pertaining to creation of the Public Defender position and continued denial of benefits” (emphasis added), his single allegation directed specifically to Judge Lewis-Blackmon is that she “perpetuated the deprivation of his rights” through “Court Orders ... [which he believes] were extra judicial and without authority....” While not clear from the complaint, Rushing's response to the motion points to a specific court order to which this allegation refers, namely a January 15, 2015 order by which Judge Lewis-Blackmon reappointed Alva Taylor as the Yazoo County public defender for a four-year term commencing January 1, 2015. Rushing further explains in his response that the basis for his claim against Judge Lewis-Blackmon is language in that order which describes the public defender and assistant public defenders as “contract employees retained to provide indigent representation to defendants charged with felonies in Yazoo County.” It is this language to which Rushing objects as having “perpetuated the deprivation of his rights.”

         Judge Lewis-Blackmon seeks dismissal of Rushing's claims against her on the basis of judicial immunity. “A judge generally has absolute immunity from suits for damages.” Davis v. Tarrant Cty., Tex., 565 F.3d 214, 221 (5th Cir. 2009) (citing Mireles v. Waco, 502 U.S. 9, 9-10, 112 S.Ct. 286, 116 L.Ed.2d 9 (1991) (citations omitted)). “Judicial immunity is an immunity from suit, not just the ultimate assessment of damages.” Id. (citing Mireles, 502 U.S. at 11, 112 S.Ct. 286).[2] Judicial immunity may be overcome in only two circumstances: (1) where the actions complained of were nonjudicial in nature, that is, were not taken in the judge's judicial capacity; and (2) where the judge's actions, though judicial in nature, were taken “in complete absence of all jurisdiction.” Id. at 221 (quoting Mireles, 502 U.S. at 11, 112 S.Ct. 286). See also Kemp ex rel. Kemp v. Perkins, 324 Fed.Appx. 409, 411 (5th Cir. 2009) (“Absolute judicial immunity extends to all judicial acts which are not performed in the clear absence of all jurisdiction.”) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted).

         Rushing does not dispute that Judge Lewis-Blackmon acted in her judicial capacity when entering orders appointing a public defender.[3] He argues, though, that by ordering that the public defender and assistant public defenders were “contract employees, employed at the will of the circuit judge, ” Judge Lewis-Blackmon acted “completely without jurisdiction and in the face of clearly valid statutes expressly depriving her of jurisdiction.” His argument is without merit.

         “[T]he necessary inquiry in determining whether a defendant judge is immune from suit is whether at the time he took the challenged action he had jurisdiction over the subject matter before him.” Stump v. Sparkman, 435 U.S. 349, 356-57, 98 S.Ct. 1099, 55 L.Ed.2d 331 (1978). “[T]he scope of the judge's jurisdiction must be construed broadly where the issue is the immunity of the judge. A judge will not be deprived of immunity because the action he took was in error, was done maliciously, or was in excess of his authority; rather, he will be subject to liability only when he has acted in the “clear absence of all jurisdiction.” Id., 98 S.Ct. 1099 (internal quotation marks omitted). See also Davis v. Bayless, 70 F.3d 367, 373 (5th Cir. 1995) (inquiry “is not whether the judge actually had jurisdiction, or even whether the court exceeded its jurisdictional authority, but whether the challenged actions were obviously taken outside the scope of the judge's power”); Malina v. Gonzales, 994 F.2d 1121, 1125 (5th Cir. 1993) (“Where a court has some subject-matter jurisdiction, there is sufficient jurisdiction for immunity purposes.”). The dispositive question is thus whether Judge Lewis-Blackmon “merely acted in excess of [her] authority in issuing the [subject order], and is thus protected by judicial immunity, or whether [she] acted in clear absence of all jurisdiction.” Malina, 994 F.2d at 1125. The answer is clear: irrespective of whether her order may have contained language that exceeded her authority, she plainly did not act in the “clear absence of all jurisdiction.”

         Mississippi Code Annotated § 25-32-1 authorizes a county board of supervisors to

establish an office of public defender, to provide office space, personnel and funding for the office, and to perform any and all functions necessary for the efficient operation of such an office to the end that adequate legal defense for indigent persons accused of crime shall be provided at every critical stage of their cases as an alternative to court appointed counsel.

Miss. Code Ann. § 25-32-1. Section 25-32-3(1) provides that when an office of public defender is established, the circuit judge of the county “shall appoint a practicing attorney to serve ... as public defender” from a list of attorneys approved by the county bar association. Miss. Code Ann. § 25-32-3(1). If the board has authorized appointment of assistant public defenders, ...


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