MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
Honorable Thomas M. Durkin, United States District Judge
Plaintiff David Johnson brings this § 1983 action seeking redress for harms he alleges to have suffered in connection with the dismissal of an arbitration action he brought before the Illinois Workers Compensation Commission (IWCC). R. 6. Specifically, Johnson seeks damages from Defendant Lynette Thompson-Smith, the IWCC arbitrator assigned to his case, who he alleges wrongfully dismissed his action without a hearing on the merits. Johnson also brings claims against Defendants Ronald Rascia, Chairman of the IWCC, and William Blumthal, Director of the IWCC's Fraud Unit, for their alleged failure to intervene, whether by negligently hiring or inadequately supervising Thompson-Smith, by failing to investigate Johnson's written complaints, or by otherwise conducting the business of their respective offices in a negligent manner. Simply put, Johnson alleges that the Defendants failed to ensure his "right to a fair hearing," and that as a consequence, he has been unable to collect workers' compensation, receive necessary medical treatment, or collect fringe benefits owed under the terms of his employment agreement.
Defendants have moved to dismiss Johnson's claims arguing (1) that as quasi-judicial and public officials, they are immune from suit as to the conduct alleged, and (2) that even in the absence of immunity, Johnson has failed to state plausible claims against them. R. 14. The Court agrees in both regards. For the following reasons, Defendants' motion is granted and Johnson's complaint is dismissed with prejudice.
A Rule 12(b)(6) motion challenges the sufficiency of the complaint. See, e.g., Hallinan v. Fraternal Order of Police of Chi. Lodge No. 7, 570 F.3d 811, 820 (7th Cir.2009). A complaint must provide "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief," Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a)(2), sufficient to provide defendant with "fair notice" of the
In evaluating a pro se complaint, the Court applies a less stringent standard than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers. Smith v. Dart, 803 F.3d 304, 309 (7th Cir.2015). However, the court need not ignore facts set forth in the complaint that undermine the plaintiff's claim, nor is the court required to accept the plaintiff's legal conclusions. Bullock v. Peters, 1993 WL 315561, at *1 (7th Cir.1993) (unpublished disposition); Faulkner v. Otto, 2016 WL 1381795, at *2 (N.D.Ill. Apr. 5, 2016) (noting even pro se litigants must comply with the rules (citing McNeil v. United States, 508 U.S. 106, 113, 113 S.Ct. 1980, 124 L.Ed.2d 21 (1993)).)
Johnson alleges that as of May 2013, he was a full time driver for Melton Truck Lines (Melton), an Oklahoma company, and a beneficiary of Melton's Occupational Injury Benefit Plan. R. 6 ¶¶ 11-12. On or about May 3, 2013, Johnson injured his left hand while on the job in Alabama. Id. ¶ 13. The injury left Johnson's fingers "frozen," preventing him from lifting heavy items or operating a motor vehicle. Id. ¶¶ 13-15. He was advised to seek specialized medical treatment for this condition. Id.
Shortly thereafter, in July 2013, Johnson brought a workers' compensation claim against Melton before the IWCC (Case No. 13 WC 21814). See R. 14 at 17 (Johnson's application for benefits under the Illinois Workers' Compensation Act ("IWCA")); see also IWCC case portal ("Case Portal"), available at http://www. iwcc.il.gov/caseinfo.htm (last visited June 20, 2016) (cataloguing standard docketing information).
Immunity from Suit
Courts have been admonished to resolve immunity issues at the earliest possible
Absolute Immunity — Thompson-Smith
Defendant Thompson Smith is shielded from liability by the doctrine of absolute judicial immunity. See Coleman v. Dunlap, 695 F.3d 650, 652 (7th Cir.2012) ("Parties who, although not judges, engage in adjudication such as private arbitrators...enjoy absolute immunity.") (internal parentheses omitted); see also Int'l Med. Group, Inc. v. Am. Arbitration Ass'n, 312 F.3d 833, 843 (7th Cir.2002) (collecting authority) (referring to the doctrine as applied to arbitrators as "arbitral immunity"). The doctrine of absolute judicial immunity protects decision makers from undue influence and from frivolous and vexatious reprisals by dissatisfied litigants. See id. The doctrine recognizes that "most judicial mistakes or wrongs are open to correction through ordinary mechanisms of review, which are largely free of the harmful side-effects inevitably associated with exposing [judicial or quasi-judicial decision-makers] to personal liability." Forrester v. White, 484 U.S. 219, 226-27, 108 S.Ct. 538, 98 L.Ed.2d 555 (1988); see also Int'l Med. Group, Inc., 312 F.3d at 843. On this premise, absolute immunity extends to all acts taken by arbitrators within the scope of their adjudicative duties, even those alleged to be malicious, irregular, or erroneous. Id. at 227, 108 S.Ct. 538; Dellenbach v. Letsinger, 889 F.2d 755, 759 (7th Cir.1989) ("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."); see also Sacks v. Dietrich, 663 F.3d 1065, 1070 (9th Cir.2011) ("The pivotal question is `whether the claim at issue arises out of a decisional act.'").
Johnson concedes that in dismissing his workers' compensation claim, Thompson-Smith was "acting in the normal scope of an [a]rbitrator's duties." R. 6 ¶¶ 7, 22. He complains, specifically, that Thompson-Smith "(a) allow[ed] [Melton] to allege [a] factual dispute without evidence or a pre-deprivation hearing; (b) allow[ed] [Johnson's arbitration] counsel to withdraw without any hearing on the merits; (c) stat[ed] "this matter cannot go to trial with the Petitioner representing himself"; and (d) grant[ed] [Melton] a dismissal of [Johnson's] claim without rendering a final decision on the merits." Id. ¶ 23. The conduct Johnson details, decisional rulings on the progress and disposition of his case, are precisely the type of "paradigmatic judicial acts" courts have held absolutely protected from civil suit. See Forrester, 484 U.S. at 227, 108 S.Ct. 538; see also Sampson v. Boharic, 1993 WL 484063 (7th Cir. Nov. 23, 1993) (unpublished disposition) (judge immune from complaint alleging monetary damages stemming from rulings on recusal, discovery, and evidentiary issues); Faulkner, 2016 WL 1381795 at *5 (judge immune from civil suit alleging misconduct
There is, however, an exception to absolute judicial immunity, which Johnson argues applies here: an arbitrator may be subject to civil liability "when [s]he has acted in the clear absence of jurisdiction."
Johnson has provided nothing here to suggest that as a duly assigned workers' compensation arbitrator, Thompson-Smith was not authorized to preside over his workers' compensation claim. Rather, Johnson advances a conclusory (and circular) argument that misunderstands the meaning of the term "jurisdiction." He argues:
R. 28 at 9-10 (emphasis in original). Johnson does not contend that Thompson-Smith lacked the authority to decide his case. He argues instead that she made an incorrect ruling (or series of incorrect rulings), which, in his view, prevented him from vindicating certain of his "federal" rights. Even if it were true that Thompson-Smith's rulings in the arbitration were erroneous (an issue the Court need not consider), it does not follow as Johnson mistakenly reasons that she lacked authority to make them. It bears reiteration that to the extent Johnson disagreed with any of Thompson-Smith's conduct or rulings in his case, he was entitled to seek review through the state courts. Without excuse or explanation, he opted not to do so. Arbitral immunity prevents him from now recasting his displeasure with the dismissal of his case as a federal claim for civil damages.
Since her jurisdiction is not actually in dispute, Thompson-Smith is absolutely immune
Qualified Immunity — Rascia and Blumthal
In his Complaint, Johnson alleges that Rascia, acting within the scope of his authority as Chairman of the IWCC, negligently trained, supervised, and "entrusted [Thompson-Smith with] the fair hearing of Plaintiff's [workers' compensation claim]," R. 6 ¶ 78. Johnson alleges that Rascia should have known by virtue of his position as well as certain unspecified statistical data and internal reports that "[Johnson's] civil rights were being violated by Thompson-Smith." Id. ¶¶ 24-25. Finally, Johnson alleges that in the two years his claim was pending before Thompson-Smith, he "made numerous complaints in writing to Defendant Rascia" about Thompson-Smith's administration of his case, which Rascia failed to heed. Id. ¶ 79. As against Blumthal, Johnson alleges that as Director of the Workers' Compensation Fraud Unit ("WCFU"), Blumthal failed to fulfill the obligations of his office set forth in Section 25.5 of the IWCA.
Rascia and Blumthal are protected from suit by the doctrine of qualified immunity. See Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 237, 129 S.Ct. 808, 172 L.Ed.2d 565 (2009) (holding that qualified immunity is "an immunity from suit rather than a mere defense to liability"). The doctrine of qualified immunity protects government officials from lawsuits for damages when their conduct did not violate a clearly established statutory or constitutional right of which a reasonable person would have known. See Woods v. Indiana Univ.-Purdue Univ. at Indianapolis, 996 F.2d 880, 891 (7th Cir.1993). Qualified immunity is grounds for dismissal when the allegations of the complaint, taken as true, fail to allege the violation of a clearly established right. See McGreal, 892 F.Supp.2d at 1012.
As set forth above, Johnson alleges that by virtue of their failure to intervene, Rascia and Blumthal "violated his federal right[ ] to [ ] a fair hearing," and as a consequence infringed his "liberty interest in his medical needs[,] and impair[ed] the enforcement of [his] employment contract
1. Government Impairment of Contract
It is well established that the Contract Clause in Article I, section 10 of the Constitution prohibits only government impairment of contract by legislation. See Tidal Oil Co. v. Flanagan, 263 U.S. 444, 451, 44 S.Ct. 197, 68 S.Ct. 382 (1924) ("It has been settled by a long line of decisions, that the provision of section 10, article 1, of the federal Constitution, protecting the obligation of contracts against state action, is directed only against impairment by legislation and not by judgments of courts. The language — `No state shall pass any law impairing the obligation of contracts' — plainly requires such a conclusion.") (emphasis in original), accord Propst v. Bd. of Educ. Lands & Funds of Neb., 103 F.Supp. 457, 460 (D.Neb.1951). Johnson does not claim that any legislation interfered with the benefits he believes he is owed under his employment contract. Indeed, Johnson claims that legislation (the IWCA) is among the sources of his rights to workers' compensation. See R. 14 at 17. Because Johnson's impairment claims are directed at Thompson-Smith's adjudicatory acts during arbitration and not at the application of any law, Johnson has failed to allege a violation of a clearly established constitutional right.
2. Unconstitutional Taking
A claimant under the Takings Clause must show that the government, by some specific action, took a private property interest for a public use without just compensation. Hodel v. Va. Surface Mining & Reclamation Ass'n, 452 U.S. 264, 294, 101 S.Ct. 2352, 69 L.Ed.2d 1 (1981). Johnson's Takings Clause claim, as best the Court can understand it, is that in dismissing his workers' compensation petition, Thompson-Smith "took" his property interest in the disability benefits he believes he is owed. See R. 28 at 5 ("Plaintiff has an expectation of workers' compensation under the Illinois Workers' Compensation Act...").
This claim fails for the fundamental reason that Johnson has not established an entitlement to benefits under the IWCA. To have a property interest in a public benefit, a plaintiff must have "more than a presumption that [he] is eligible for full benefits or a unilateral expectation of such an interest." Escoe v. Shalala, 842 F.Supp. 646, 651-52 (N.D.N.Y.1994), aff'd, 41 F.3d 1500 (2d Cir.1994). He must, instead, have a legitimate, vested claim of entitlement. Id. (finding no property interest in social security benefits where the Social Security Administration rejected plaintiffs application on the basis that he was not actually retired as claimed). Because Johnson never proved his eligibility for workers' compensation, he does not have a protectable property interest in medical or fringe benefits as claimed. See, e.g., Am. Mfrs. Mut. Ins. Co. v. Sullivan, 526 U.S. 40, 60, 119 S.Ct. 977, 143 L.Ed.2d 130 (1999) (holding that employees do not have a protectable property interest in workers' compensation benefits until they prove every element of entitlement under state law). His Takings Clause claim thus fails to allege the violation of a clearly established constitutional right.
3. Procedural Due Process
The first inquiry in every procedural due process challenge is whether
First, for the reasons set forth above, Johnson does not have a protected property interest in workers' compensation benefits. Second, because Johnson never had a vested interest in those benefits, the dismissal of his case without an award cannot amount to a deprivation. See Proctor v. McNeil, 14 F.Supp.3d 1108, 1115 (N.D.Ill.2014) ("[I]t is well established that the federal entitlement is to process, not to a favorable outcome.") (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). Failing to meet these necessary preconditions dooms Johnson's procedural due process claim. See Wicks, 2015 WL 1598102, at *3.
Even so, Johnson focuses his arguments on the final element of the due process triad.
4. Substantive Due Process
"Both the Supreme Court and [the Seventh Circuit] have emphasized how limited the scope of the substantive due process doctrine is." Lee v. City of Chi., 330 F.3d 456, 467 (7th Cir.2003) (internal quotation omitted). "Unless a governmental practice encroaches on a fundamental right, substantive due process requires only that the practice be rationally related to a legitimate government interest, or alternatively phrased, that the practice be neither arbitrary nor irrational." Id. Fundamental rights include "things like the right to marry, the right to have children, the right to marital privacy, the right to contraception, and the right to bodily integrity." Sung Park v. Ind. Univ. Sch. of Dentistry, 692 F.3d 828, 832 (7th Cir.2012). "[W]hen a substantive due-process challenge involves only the deprivation of a property interest, a plaintiff must show either the inadequacy of state law remedies or an independent constitutional violation before the court will even engage in this deferential rational-basis review." Lee, 330 F.3d at 467.
Johnson does not allege the encroachment of a fundamental right.
Because Johnson's allegations, taken as true, fail to allege the violation of a clearly established right, Rasia and Blumthal are entitled to qualified immunity. The claims against them must be dismissed.
Failure to State a Claim
In determining that Rascia and Blumthal are entitled to qualified immunity, the Court simultaneously determines that Johnson has failed to allege facts sufficient to support Count I (procedural due process), Count II (substantive due process), and Count III (unconstitutional taking and government interference with contract) against Thompson-Smith, see Cnty. of Sacramento v. Lewis, 523 U.S. 833, 842 n. 5, 118 S.Ct. 1708, 140 L.Ed.2d 1043 (1998) (instructing that the preliminary inquiry in analyzing the application of qualified immunity is "whether the plaintiff has alleged a deprivation of a constitutional right at all"), as well as Counts IV and V (failure to intervene) against Rascia and Blumthal, see Leaf v. Shelnutt, 400 F.3d 1070, 1093 (7th Cir.2005) (explaining that to state a claim for failure to intervene, the plaintiff must first allege an underlying constitutional violation).
Defendants' motion to dismiss, R. 14, is therefore granted. Generally, courts should grant litigants, especially pro se litigants, leave to amend after dismissal of the first complaint "unless it is certain from the face of the complaint that any amendment would be futile or otherwise unwarranted." Tate v. SCR Med. Transp., 809 F.3d 343, 346 (7th Cir.2015) (emphasis in original) (citing authority); Delonte v. Duncan Solutions, Inc., 606 Fed.Appx. 839, 840 (7th Cir.2015) (affirming dismissal of original complaint where the statute of limitations on the asserted claim had elapsed). The Court cannot conceive of how any amendment could render the defendants liable under the circumstances of this case, and therefore the dismissal is with prejudice.
Plaintiff's motion to file instanter (R. 30) is granted. Plaintiff's motions to strike and for sanctions (R. 26, R. 27), motion to appoint a special master (R. 29), motion to set a briefing schedule (R. 32), and request for judicial notice (R. 37) are denied as moot.
This case is closed.
Johnson has brought two other actions in this district against Melton, both of which are now closed. See Johnson v. Melton Truck Lines, Inc., et al., 14 C 8817 (N.D.Ill.) (Dow, J.) (dismissed for failure to pay filing fee); Johnson v. Melton Truck Lines, Inc., et al., 16 C 1934 (N.D.Ill.) (Shah, J.) (voluntarily dismissed by Johnson prior to any appearance by the defendants). Johnson also has an unrelated employment discrimination lawsuit pending in this district. Johnson v. Lew, et al., 14 C 2233 (N.D.Ill.) (Lee, J).
Id. Reed thus held that where the application of the doctrine of collateral estoppel would perpetuate an underlying injustice, the doctrine does not apply. The Reed rule is not, as Johnson contends, that every disabled litigant is entitled to full and fair hearing at the time and place of his choosing. Reed has little bearing on this case.