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Eaton v. Coupe

Superior Court of Delaware

February 14, 2017

Robert E. Eaton
Robert Coupe, et al.


          Dear Mr. Eaton and Ms. Sabesan:

         This is the Court's ruling on three motions filed in the above-captioned case. The first is Plaintiff Robert E. Eaton ("Plaintiff) 's Motion to Re-Open Case, filed on October 17, 2016. The second is Plaintiffs Motion for Appointment of Counsel, filed on November 7, 2016. The third and final motion is Defendants, Commissioner Robert Coupe, Deputy Warden Philip Parker, James Scarborough, Ron Drake, and Steven Bilbrough[1] ("Defendants")'s Motion to Dismiss the Complaint, filed on December 8, 2015.

         For the reasons stated below, Plaintiffs Motion to Re-Open Case is GRANTED. Plaintiffs Motion for Appointment of Counsel is DENIED. Defendant's Motion to Dismiss is GRANTED.

          Procedural and Factual Background

         Plaintiff, an inmate at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center ("Center"), filed a civil action in this Court on September 29, 2015.[2] The Complaint alleges Defendants, Department of Correction ("DOC") officers and supervisors, retaliated against Plaintiff when he reported what is alleged to be an "unconstitutional and unhumane [sic]" practice at the Center: "making food trays out of left-over scraps of previously served meals, and fooding [sic] it to inmates when there is not enough trays sent to feed, instead of ordering from the kitchen."[3] He asserts claims arising under the Delaware Whistleblowers' Protection Act, 19 Del. C. §§ 1701-08, and 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The § 1983 claims arise under the First and Fourteenth Amendments: retaliatory firing under the former and procedural due process under the latter. The claims are leveled at Defendants in both their individual and official capacity as employees/officers of DOC.[4]

         The Complaint alleges that Plaintiff was removed from his employment in the Center's canteen after disclosing this allegedly unconstitutional practice in a letter to Deputy Warden Parker.[5] After his termination of employment, he allegedly wrote to "the other named Defendants . . . requesting an investigation into the practice and reinstatement of his employment in light of [] Defendant Bilbrough not complying with institutional due process procedures layed [sic] out for the suspension or firing of any inmate from employment."[6] The Complaint claims that this "policy"-presumably the alleged retaliatory firing of inmate-employees who report certain institutional practices-is "longstanding and continuous. . . ."[7]

          The Complaint seeks monetary and injunctive relief for the "past and continual violation of the First Amendment and employment protection under Delaware's Whistleblowers' Protection Act, and lost wages/with interest.[8]"

         Defendants filed a Motion to Dismiss the Complaint on the basis of a failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted on December 8, 2015. Plaintiff responded on February 2, 2016. While a decision on the Motion was pending, the Prothonotary received a handwritten letter, dated April 5, 2016, stating: "I would like to dismiss voluntarily the above-captioned civil action."[9] The letter is signed by "Robert Eaton." The docket was noted accordingly and the case was closed.

         On August 22, 2016, Plaintiff sent a letter to the Prothonotary requesting a status on the Motion to Dismiss.[10] The Prothonotary instructed Plaintiff that he had dismissed his case and no decision was pending. Plaintiff responded, stating that he did not file the purported notice of voluntary dismissal and "request[ed] a full investigation and prosecution of the person(s) who . . . falsely mislead this Court into dismissing this civil action."[11] The Prothonotary instructed Plaintiff to file a motion should he wish to re-open his case, which he did on October 12, 2016.[12] The Motion to Re-Open Case contains a notarized affidavit from Plaintiff claiming the voluntary dismissal was "fraudulent" and again instructing the Court to investigate the matter.

         While awaiting a response from Defendants to the Motion to Re-Open Case, Plaintiff filed a Motion for Appointment of Counsel in which he requests counsel be appointed in this matter on several bases outlined more fully below.[13]

         After Defendants' response to the Motion to Re-Open Case, Plaintiff filed a reply of sorts, claiming that the notice of voluntary dismissal was orchestrated by a"jailhouse lawyer" that originally helped him prepare his Complaint.[14] He also claims that he did not receive notice of the dismissal until the Prothonotary answered his letter seeking a status on the Motion to Dismiss.

         Having considered the filings and record in this case, the Court will now address the three pending Motions. The Court will address, first, Plaintiffs Motion to Re-Open Case. Then, the Court will decide Plaintiffs Motion for Appointment of Counsel, concluding with Defendants' Motion to Dismiss.


         I. Plaintiffs Motion to Re-Open Case

         A. Standard of Review

         Delaware Superior Court Civil Rule 41(a)(1) permits the plaintiff to voluntarily dismiss the "action" in most civil cases by filing a notice of dismissal "at any time before service by the adverse party of an answer or of a motion for summary judgment."[15] To be effective, the notice must voluntarily dismiss all pending claims against a particular party.[16]

         B. Analysis

         While it is clear that Plaintiff could have dismissed his case in the manner he purportedly did in this case, there is a notable caveat: Plaintiff claims that he never voluntarily dismissed the case and that any such filing was fraudulent.

         In response, Defendants argue that the writing style in the notice of voluntary dismissal resembles Plaintiffs handwriting in all other filings with this Court. While conceding that they have not engaged a handwriting expert to analyze the notice of dismissal, Defendants implore the Court to compare the notice with the style seen in the other submissions.

          The Court has at its disposition presumably multiple exemplars of Plaintiff s handwriting because all of his filings and correspondence with the Court is handwritten. From a review of the notice, the handwriting appears similar to Plaintiffs rather distinctive calligraphy. However, there are noticeable differences from the style of handwriting in the Complaint and notice when compared to the letters from Plaintiff following dismissal. For example, the Complaint and notice are signed "Robert Eaton." The letters and motions from Plaintiff following the dismissal are all signed either "Robert E. Eaton" or "Robert Edward Eaton."

         That is to say that there is some doubt as to whether Plaintiff actually filed the voluntarily dismissal. Weighing against Defendants' argument, moreover, is Plaintiffs rather diligent reaction to his discovery that his claim had been dismissed. This diligence manifests Plaintiffs desire to litigate his claims against Defendants. While the Court cannot conclude whether the notice was actually filed by Plaintiff, the Court will exercise its discretion, in accordance with Delaware's policy of providing litigants their "day in court, "[17] to grant Plaintiffs Motion to Re-Open Case.

         II. Plaintiff's Motion for Appointment of Counsel

         A. Standard of Review

         The Sixth Amendment of the United States Constitution, as incorporated under the Fourteenth Amendment, requires the States provide indigent criminal defendants with assistance of counsel at "every step in the proceedings against him."[18] Article I, Section 7 of the Delaware Constitution further provides assistance of counsel for indigent criminal defendants during all critical stages of the proceedings against him.[19]

          The right to appointed counsel, if any, in a civil case does not arise under the Sixth Amendment.[20] Instead, any such right must arise under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.[21] "When an indigent civil litigant could not possibly be deprived of his personal liberty as a direct result of the litigation, the Constitution does not require, in the absence of special and compelling circumstances, the appointment of counsel.[22]" A special or compelling circumstance exists where the plaintiffs interest in appointed counsel outweighs the other Mathews v. Eldridge procedural due process factors: the government's interest and the risk that the absence of counsel will result in erroneous results.[23]

         B. Analysis

         Plaintiffs proffer for appointment of counsel rests on the following bases: (1) he is indigent; (2) he is "learning impaired;" (3) "sabotage has been injected into the plaintiffs complaint thus causing more difficult and complex problems for the case proceedings;" (4) the supposed existence of a "conflict of interest" between Defendants' counsel and Plaintiffs demands for an investigation into whomever fabricated the notice of dismissal; (5) an allegation that Defendants continue to retaliate against him (noting that "new evidence will be introduced"); and (6) "hostile witnesses . . . need to be brought before the Court to testify of their involvement."

         This Court has addressed nearly identical motions for appointment of counsel in civil cases where the requesting litigants are indigent inmates. For example, in Vick v. Department of Correction, the plaintiff-inmate sued DOC employees under the First, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments, alleging the employees forcibly removed his ring and fez, which were articles of religious significance to the inmate.[24] The inmate alleged that: (1) he was indigent; (2) the case was complex; (3) he lacked the requisite legal knowledge to properly represent himself; and (4) he had very limited access to the prison library.[25] The Court framed the issue as whether the inmate had "meaningful access" to the courts.[26] The Court held that the inmate's filings with the Court belied his claims that the case was complex or that he had no meaningful access to the prison library to prosecute his claim.[27]

         In Jenkins v. Dover Police Commissioner the Court denied the indigent inmate's request for appointment of counsel applying procedural due process precedent.[28] The Court applied a presumption "against requiring appointed counsel when [the] unsuccessful litigant cannot be deprived of his personal liberty, " derived from the U.S. Supreme Court's opinion in Lassiter v. Department of Social Services.[29] The Jenkins Court held that this presumption, coupled with the government's interest "in maintaining order and discipline in its penal institutions" outweighed the litigant's interest in having appointed counsel where the case was not complex and the litigant had access to the prison library.[30]

         Applying Lassiter, Vick, and Jenkins to the present case, the outcome is the same: Plaintiff has failed to show why this "presumption" against appointment of counsel in a civil case is overcome. As in Vick and Jenkins, the Court finds that all six bases alleged in the Motion are unpersuasive. First, Plaintiffs indigence, by itself, is not enough to state a right to appointed counsel. Second, this case is no more complex than the claims in Vick and Jenkins. Third, his ability to cite cases relevant to his contentions belies his asserted lack of legal knowledge or mental capacity to prosecute his case. Finally, his remaining contention-that there is a clandestine operation to subvert his civil claim-is unsupported by any evidence.

         Therefore, Plaintiffs Motion for Appointment of Counsel is

         DENIED. III. Defendants' Motion to Dismiss

         A. Standard of Review

         On a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim under Rule 12(b)(6), all well-pleaded allegations in the complaint must be accepted as true.[31] Even vague allegations are considered well-pleaded if they give the opposing party notice of a claim.[32] The Court must draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the non-moving party; however, it will not "accept conclusory allegations unsupported by specific facts, " nor will it "draw unreasonable inferences in favor of the non-moving party."[33] Dismissal of a complaint under Rule 12(b)(6) must be denied if the non-moving party could recover under "any reasonably conceivable set of circumstances susceptible of proof under the complaint."[34]

         B. Analysis

         Plaintiffs claims mix two distinct grounds for relief. Plaintiffs first claim arises under the Delaware Whistleblowers' Protection Act ("state law claim"). The second claim is a civil rights claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging both a First Amendment retaliatory firing claim and a Fourteenth Amendment due process claim for the deprivation of a protected liberty or ...

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