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Schanzle v. Haberman

United States District Court, W.D. Texas, Austin Division

August 1, 2019

DAVID EVAN SCHANZLE, Plaintiff
v.
SUSANA HABERMAN, JONATHAN P. GEBHART, MICHAEL GALDO, BRAD BARBER, LAUREL VANT, JEFF NEFF, MARK LANE, U.S. MAGISTRATE JUDGE; AND 6 TO 8 UNKNOWN GOVERNMENT AGENTS, Defendants

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION OF THE UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

          SUSAN HIGHTOWER, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         TO: THE HONORABLE ROBERT PITMAN UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Before this Court are: Defendants' Motion to Dismiss, filed on May 1, 2019 (Dkt. No. 18); Plaintiff's Demand for Return of Property, filed on May 20, 2019 (Dkt. No. 16); and the parties' related response and reply briefs. On July 15, 2019, the District Court referred the above motions to the undersigned Magistrate Judge for resolution and Report and Recommendation pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1), Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 72 and Rule 1 of Appendix C of the Local Rules of the United States District Court for the Western District of Texas (“Local Rules”).

         I. BACKGROUND

         On October 22, 2018, Jonathan Gebhart, Special Agent with the Internal Revenue Service Criminal Investigation Division (“IRS-CID”), submitted a search warrant application to United States Magistrate Judge Mark Lane, pursuant to Federal Rule Criminal Procedure 41(c), requesting to search the home and property of David Schanzle as part of an ongoing criminal investigation into an alleged tax evasion scheme allegedly perpetrated by Schanzle. The warrant application incorporated the following attachments: (1) a 32-page affidavit of probable cause prepared by Agent Gebhart; (2) “Attachment A, ” which described the property and structures to be searched; and (3) “Attachment B, ” which described the evidence, fruits and instrumentalities to be seized during the search. See Sealed Dkt. No. 3 in 1:18-MJ-685-ML. Magistrate Judge Lane signed the warrant application and affidavit of probable cause and issued the search warrant (“Warrant”) on October 22, 2018. See id.[1]

         On October 24, 2018, at approximately 10:30 a.m., Agent Gebhart and several other federal agents executed the Warrant and conducted a search of Schanzle's home and business, Gardens of the Ancients, located at 4800 Yager Lane, Manor, TX 78652. Schanzle alleges that when the federal agents arrived, he requested a copy of the Warrant. Schanzle contends that he was presented with a one-page copy of the Warrant that (1) failed to have the affidavit of probable cause attached to it, and (2) failed to describe the name of the person or the description of the property to be searched. Schanzle alleges the federal agents proceeded to perform a search of his property and seized computers, external hard drives, iPads, a cell phone, documents and records, gold and silver coins “and took almost everything except Plaintiff's guns and his furniture.” Dkt. No. 2 at p. 3 ¶ 12. At approximately 1:20 p.m., the Agents completed their search and presented Schanzle with a copy of the inventory of the property taken.

         On October 30, 2018, Schanzle filed this lawsuit, pursuant to Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents of Fed. Bureau of Narcotics, 403 U.S. 388 (1971), against Magistrate Judge Lane, Assistant United States Attorney Michael Galdo, FBI Special Agent Susana Haberman, IRS Special Agents Laurel Vant, Jonathan Gebhart and James Neff, and “6 to 8 unknown agents” (“Defendants”). Schanzle's Amended Complaint primarily alleges that the issuance of the Warrant and the manner of its execution violated his constitutional rights. Specifically, Schanzle alleges: (1) the Warrant was invalid under the particularity requirement of the Fourth Amendment because the copy he was provided failed to describe the name of the person to be searched and the description of the property searched, and the affidavit of probable cause; (2) the Defendants' execution of the Warrant violated his Fourth Amendment rights; (3) Agent Gebhart's participation in the search exceeded his authority under 26 U.S.C. § 7608; and (4) the Defendants violated his rights under the Eighth Amendment. Schanzle seeks to recover $50, 000 to $100, 000 in monetary damages from each Defendant, a return of his property, and attorneys' fees and costs.[2]

         On May 1, 2019, Defendants filed the instant Motion to Dismiss pursuant to Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1), 12(b)(5) and 12(b)(6), arguing that Schanzle's Amended Complaint should be dismissed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, insufficient service of process, and failure to state a claim. Because the Court finds that the Motion to Dismiss should be granted under Rule 12(b)(6), the Court need not address Defendants' alternative arguments.[3]

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) allows a party to move to dismiss an action for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. In deciding a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, “[t]he court accepts all well-pleaded facts as true, viewing them in the light most favorable to the [nonmovant].” In re Katrina Canal Breaches Litig., 495 F.3d 191, 205 (5th Cir. 2007) (internal quotation marks omitted). The Supreme Court has explained that a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter “to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). “A claim has facial plausibility when the [nonmovant] pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the [movant] is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Ashcroft, 556 U.S. at 678. The court's review is limited to the complaint, any documents attached to the complaint, and any documents attached to the motion to dismiss that are central to the claim and referenced by the complaint. Lone Star Fund V (U.S.), L.P. v. Barclays Bank PLC, 594 F.3d 383, 387 (5th Cir. 2010).

         III. ANALYSIS

         A. Absolute Immunity

         1. U.S. Magistrate Judge Lane

         Schanzle alleges that United States Magistrate Judge Lane violated his Fourth Amendment rights by signing the Warrant without probable cause and without attaching a description of the persons or property to be searched or seized. Schanzle seeks to recover $50, 000 from Judge Lane.

         It is well settled law that a judge enjoys absolute immunity from liability for damages for judicial acts performed within his or her jurisdiction. Pierson v. Ray, 386 U.S. 547 (1967). “Few doctrines were more solidly established at common law than the immunity of judges from liability for damages for acts committed within their judicial jurisdiction.” Id. at 553-54. “This immunity applies even when the judge is accused of acting maliciously and corruptly, and it is not for the protection or benefit of a malicious or corrupt judge, but for the benefit of the public, whose interest it is that the judges should be at liberty to exercise their functions with independence and without fear of consequences.” Id. at 554 (internal quotations and citations omitted). The doctrine of absolute judicial immunity protects judges not only from liability, but also from suit. Mireles v. Waco, 502 U.S. 9, 11 (1991). Motive of the judicial officer is irrelevant when considering absolute immunity. See Mitchell v. McBryde, 944 F.2d 229, 230 (5th Cir. 1991) (“The judge is absolutely immune for all judicial acts not performed in clear absence of all jurisdiction, however erroneous the act and however evil the motive.”). Judges acting in their official capacity also enjoy absolute immunity from suits for injunctive relief because the Federal Courts Improvement Act of 1996 extended the doctrine of judicial immunity to injunctive relief and damages. Machetta v. Moren, 726 Fed.Appx. 219, 220 (5th Cir. 2018).

         Absolute judicial immunity is overcome in only two rather narrow sets of circumstances: First, a judge is not immune from liability for nonjudicial actions, i.e., actions not taken in the judge's judicial capacity; and second, a judge is not immune for actions, though judicial in nature, taken in complete absence of all jurisdiction. Mireles, 502 U.S. at 11-12. “A judge's acts are judicial in nature if they are ‘normally performed by a judge' and the parties affected ‘dealt with the judge in his judicial capacity.'” Boyd v. Biggers, 31 F.3d 279, 285 (5th Cir. 1994) (quoting Mireles, 502 U.S. at 12). “The limitation on judicial immunity applies not to improper exercises of jurisdiction, or even to conduct taken in ‘excess of jurisdiction,' but only to conduct taken categorically without jurisdiction, like the conduct of ‘a probate court, invested only with authority over wills and the settlement of estates of deceased persons . . . [that] proceed[s] to try parties for public offences.'” Creech v. Pater, 701 Fed.Appx. 456, 460 (6th Cir. 2017) (quoting Bradley v. Fisher, 80 U.S. 335, 351-52 (1871)).

         In the case at bar, Judge Lane was clearly acting in his judicial capacity when he signed the Warrant at issue. See Burns v. Reed, 500 U.S. 478, 492 (1991) (stating that “the issuance of a search warrant is unquestionably a judicial act”); Creech, 701 Fed.Appx. at 460 (“signing a Warrant is a function normally performed by a judge”); Raab v. McLoed, 2019 WL 2511221, at *2 (W.D. Mich. June 18, 2019) (“There is no doubt that approving a search warrant was a judicial act and that Judge Blubaugh was acting within his jurisdiction in doing so. Accordingly, Judge Blubaugh is absolutely immune from liability.”); Sadowski v. Dyer, 2019 WL 2085994, at *5 (D. Conn. May 13, 2019) (“[I]ssuing an arrest or search warrant is a judicial act . . . .”). Schanzle does not complain of any actions taken by Judge Lane that were nonjudicial in nature; nor does he show that Judge Lane was acting in the clear absence of all jurisdiction. Accordingly, Judge Lane is entitled to absolute judicial immunity.

         2. AUSA Michael Galdo

         Schanzle alleges that AUSA Michael Galdo, the federal prosecutor responsible for seeking the Warrant in this case, violated his Fourth Amendment rights because he “should have known that a warrant without a description with particularity of the place to be searched, and a detailed description of the things to be seized, is an invalid warrant.” Dkt. No. 17 at p. 5. Schanzle seeks $50, 000 in damages against Defendant Galdo.

         Prosecutors like Defendant Galdo enjoy absolute immunity from civil rights actions seeking monetary damages related to “initiating a prosecution and . . . presenting the State's case” as well as any activities “intimately associated with the judicial phase of the criminal process.” Esteves v. Brock, 106 F.3d 674, 677 (5th Cir. 1997) (quoting Imbler v. Pachtman, 424 U.S. 409, 430-31 (1976)). The Supreme Court has held that a prosecutor has absolute immunity for an appearance before a judge in support of an application for a search warrant and the presentation of evidence in support of a motion for a search warrant because those actions “clearly involve the prosecutor's ‘role as advocate for the State,' rather than his role as ‘administrator or investigative officer.'” Burns v. Reed, 500 U.S. 478, 493 (1991) (quoting Imbler, 424 U.S. at 430-31); see also Kalina v. Fletcher, 522 U.S. 118, 129 (1997) (finding that a prosecutor's activities in connection with the preparation and filing of the information and the motion for an arrest warrant are protected by absolute immunity); Richardson v. Scholz, 194 F.3d 1309 (5th Cir. 1999) (finding that district attorneys were entitled to prosecutorial immunity from plaintiff's claim that the defendants conspired to obtain a search warrant illegally). Schanzle alleges no facts against Defendant Galdo that would destroy his absolute immunity and Schanzle's claims against Defendant Galdo should therefore be dismissed.

         B. Qualified Immunity

         As noted, Schanzle filed this lawsuit pursuant to Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents of Fed. Bureau of Narcotics, 403 U.S. 388, 389 (1971). In Bivens, the Supreme Court held that an individual injured by a federal agent's alleged violation of the individual's constitutional rights may bring an action for damages against the agent, providing deterrence against and relief for the deprivation of federally guaranteed rights caused by a person acting under color of federal law. A Bivens action mirrors those brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, which applies to a person acting under color of state law. Izen v. Catalina, 398 F.3d 363, 367 n.3 (5th Cir. 2005). To state a Bivens claim, Schanzle must allege sufficient facts to establish that the Defendants are federal actors and that the Defendants, while acting under color of federal law, violated Schanzle's rights under the Constitution or laws of the United States. Bivens, 403 U.S. at 395-96. Bivens provides a cause of action against federal agents only in their individual capacities and requires a showing of personal involvement. Correctional Servs. Corp. v. Malesko, 534 U.S. 61, 70-71 (2001); Cronn v. Buffington, 150 F.3d 538, 544 (5th Cir. 1998).

         Defendants argue that all of Schanzle's claims in this case should be dismissed because Defendants are entitled to qualified immunity. As with § 1983 actions against state and local officials, a claimant seeking relief under Bivens must overcome the federal official's qualified immunity. Alexander v. Verizon Wireless Servs., L.L.C., 875 F.3d 243, 253 (5th Cir. 2017). “The doctrine of qualified immunity shields officials from civil liability so long as their conduct ‘does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.'” Mullenix v. Luna, 136 S.Ct. 305, 308 (2015) (quoting Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 231 (2009)).

         Once invoked, a plaintiff bears the burden of rebutting qualified immunity by showing: (1) that the officials violated a statutory or constitutional right, and (2) that the right was “‘clearly established' at the time of the challenged conduct.” Ashcroft v. al-Kidd, 563 U.S. 731, 735 (2011) (quoting Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818 (1982)); see also McClendon v. City of Columbia, 305 F.3d 314, 323 (5th Cir. 2002) (en banc) (per curiam) (“When a defendant invokes qualified immunity, the burden is on the plaintiff to demonstrate the inapplicability of the defense.”). Law is “clearly established” for these purposes only if “the contours of the right [were] sufficiently clear that a reasonable official would understand that what he [was] doing violate[d] that right.” Anderson v. Creighton, 483 U.S. 635, 640 (1987). An official who violates a constitutional right is still entitled to qualified immunity if his or her actions were objectively reasonable. Spann v. Rainey, 987 F.2d 1110, 1114 (5th Cir. 1993). At bottom, a plaintiff must show that “no reasonable officer could have believed his actions were proper.” Brown v. Callahan, 623 F.3d 249, 253 (5th Cir. 2010).

         The Court will address each of Schanzle's claims to determine whether he has demonstrated that the federal agents violated a statutory or constitutional right and that the right was ...


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