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Bly v. Circuit Court for Howard County

United States District Court, D. Maryland

October 9, 2019

RAYMOND J. BLY Plaintiff,
v.
CIRCUIT COURT FOR HOWARD COUNTY, MD, et al Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          J. MARK COULSON, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         The case is before me for all proceedings by the consent of the parties pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). (ECF Nos. 40 and 43).[1] Now pending is Lenore Gelfman and Wayne A. Robey's (collectively “Defendants”) Motion for Summary Judgment. (ECF No. 21). Plaintiff, Raymond J. Bly, filed two pleadings in Opposition (ECF Nos. 24 and 27); Defendants filed a reply addressing each. (ECF Nos. 26 and 31). Plaintiff also filed his own “Motion for Limited Summary Judgment” which the Court will consider as a cross-motion. (ECF No. 51).[2] A hearing was held on October 7, 2019, and this proceeding involved: production of the original court files at issue, hearing testimony from the custodian of the records, and the opportunity for cross examination.[3] As set forth more fully below, Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 21) is GRANTED and Plaintiffs' Motion for Limited Summary Judgment (ECF No. 51) is DENIED.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff, proceeding pro se, originally filed suit in this action on May 8, 2018 alleging various violations of the United States Constitution and the Maryland Declaration of Rights. (ECF Nos. 1, 2). This suit was based on Plaintiff's assertion that Defendants Circuit Court for Howard County (“Howard County”), Honorable Lenore Gelfman (“Judge Gelfman”) and Clerk of Court Wayne A. Robey (“Clerk Robey”) wrongfully sealed or removed (or acquiesced in the removal of) two case files from their “customary and appropriate place of storage” and from their “digital place within the data maintained by the Maryland Judiciary . . . .” (ECF No. 2 ¶¶ 1, 7, 11, 14). These files relate to a criminal matter (of which Plaintiff was ultimately convicted) from 1986.[4] Id. ¶¶ 1-5. Defendants moved to dismiss the action. (ECF No. 7). Plaintiff filed an Opposition. (ECF No. 13).

         On June 26, 2019, Judge Russell of this Court granted in part and denied in part Defendants' Motion to Dismiss. (ECF No. 15). Judge Russell dismissed all claims except Plaintiff's claim against Judge Gelfman and Clerk Robey based on a denial of his First Amendment right of access to the above-described court records. Id. at 21-22.[5]

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(a) requires the Court to “grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” The moving party can do so by demonstrating the absence of any genuine dispute of material fact or by showing an absence of evidence to support the non-moving party's case. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323-25 (1986). A dispute as to a material fact “is genuine if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” J.E. Dunn Const. Co. v. S.R.P. Dev. Ltd. P'ship, 115 F.Supp.3d 593, 600 (D. Md. 2015) (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986)).

         A nonmoving party “opposing a properly supported motion for summary judgment ‘may not rest upon the mere allegations or denials of [his] pleadings,' but rather must ‘set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.'” Bouchat v. Baltimore Ravens Football Club, Inc., 346 F.3d 514, 522 (4th Cir. 2003) (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e)). The court is “required to view the facts and draw reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to” the nonmoving party. Iko v. Shreve, 535 F.3d 225, 230 (4th Cir. 2008) (citing Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 377 (2007)). However, the Court must also “abide by the ‘affirmative obligation of the trial judge to prevent factually unsupported claims and defenses from proceeding to trial.'” Heckman v. Ryder Truck Rental, Inc., 962 F.Supp.2d 792, 799-800 (D. Md. 2013) (quoting Drewitt v. Pratt, 999 F.2d 774, 778-79 (4th Cir. 1993)). Consequently, a party cannot create a genuine dispute of material fact through mere speculation or compilation of inferences. See Deans v. CSX Transp., Inc., 152 F.3d 326, 330-31 (4th Cir. 1998).

         In response to a properly supported motion for summary judgment, the specific facts which the nonmoving party must identify (to avoid summary judgment) must be evidentiary facts. The evidentiary standard under “Rule 56 requires the nonmoving party ‘to set forth specific facts showing there is a genuine issue for trial' by affidavit, depositions, answers to interrogatories, admissions, or other evidence that would be admissible at trial.” Warren v. Fort Lincoln Cemetery, Inc., 2001 WL 743199, at *3 (D. Md. June 26, 2001) (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c), (e)). “Accordingly, ‘the mere existence of some alleged factual dispute between the parties will not defeat an otherwise properly supported motion for summary judgment.'” Sher v. Barclays Capital, Inc., 35 F.Supp.3d 725, 733 (D. Md. 2014) (citing Anderson, 447 U.S. at 248)). In sum, factual disputes that are irrelevant, i.e., those that would not affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law, will not be counted. Id.

         Pro se pleadings are to be liberally construed and held to a less stringent standard than pleadings drafted by lawyers. Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007). Pro se complaints are entitled to special care to determine whether any possible set of facts would entitle the plaintiff to relief. Hughes v. Rowe, 449 U.S. 5, 9-10 (1980) (discussing dismissal for failure to state a claim). However, even a pro se complaint must be dismissed if it does not allege a plausible claim for relief. Forquer v. Schlee, 2012 WL 6087491, at *3 (D. Md. Dec. 4, 2012). “Finally, ‘[w]hile pro se complaints may represent the work of an untutored hand requiring special judicial solicitude,' a district court is not required to recognize ‘obscure or extravagant claims defying the most concerted efforts to unravel them.'” Id. (quoting Weller v. Social Servs, 901 F.2d 397, 391 (4th Cir. 1990)).

         III. DISCUSSION

         In 1987, a jury in the Circuit Court for Howard County, Maryland convicted Plaintiff of “criminal charges, including a felony, predicated upon the victim of the alleged crimes being a ‘child.'” (ECF No. 2 ¶ 7). Plaintiff, both then and now, “vigorously denie[s]” the charges. Id. At some point, Plaintiff claims that Defendants acting with the “authorization” or “acquiescence” of Judge Gelfman and/or Clerk Robey, “removed the subject [case] records from their customary and appropriate place of storage authorized by the Defendant Court and from their digital place within the data maintained by the Maryland Judiciary, ” whose public portal is the Maryland Judiciary Case Search. Id. ¶¶ 1, 7, 14.

         In December of 2015, Plaintiff moved for and was denied a new trial. Id. ¶ 9. In 2016, he attempted to access his case records at the Clerk's Office of the Circuit Court and at an off-site records facility but, according to Plaintiff, he was told that the records did not exist. Id. ¶ 11. Plaintiff never received any notice that his records might be sealed. Id. ¶¶ 7, 14. Generally, Plaintiff avers that the alleged removal of the records interfered with unspecified efforts to overturn or materially undermine the credibility of his convictions, to question the integrity of the state courts, and to run for Congress. Id. ¶¶ 24, 27.

         For their part, Defendants have contended from the outset that the court records from Plaintiff's criminal case are available at the Clerk's office for his inspection. (ECF No. 19). In support of such, Defendants' Answer included correspondence from Howard County to Plaintiff dated October 24, 2017, authored by Chief Deputy Clerk Diana Liebno advising Plaintiff of the availability of his records. (ECF No. 19-1). Defendants have now also put before the Court, as exhibits in support of their Motion for Summary Judgment, the following: Plaintiff's October 13, 2017 request letter (to which the above-refenced October 24, 2017 was a response) (ECF No. 21- 2); and a Declaration from Howard County's Chief Deputy Clerk Diana Liebno (ECF No. 21-4). At the ...


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