IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE MIDDLE DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA
February 6, 2008
ELMER RODRIGUEZ, PLAINTIFF,
ALBERTO GONZALES, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Jones
THE BACKGROUND OF THIS MEMORANDUM IS AS FOLLOWS:
Pending before this Court is a "Motion to Dismiss or, in the Alternative, for Summary Judgment" ("the Motion"), filed by all Defendants*fn1 on August 27, 2007. (Rec. Doc. 20 (emphasis omitted)). For the reasons that follow, the Motion shall be granted.
On April 23, 2007, Plaintiff initiated this Bivens*fn2 action by filing a Complaint and an Application to Proceed In Forma Pauperis. (See Rec. Docs. 1, 2).
On August 27, 2007, Defendants filed the instant Motion.*fn3 (See Rec. Doc. 20). As the Motion has been fully briefed (see docs. 21, 26, 27, 28),*fn4 it is ripe for our disposition.
STANDARDS OF REVIEW
A. MOTIONS TO DISMISS
In considering a motion to dismiss pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted, a court must "accept as true all of the allegations in the complaint and all reasonable inferences that can be drawn therefrom, and view them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff." Morse v. Lower Merion School Dist., 132 F.3d 902, 906 (3d Cir. 1997). The court should "not inquire whether the plaintiffs will ultimately prevail, only whether they are entitled to offer evidence to support their claims." Nami v. Fauver, 82 F.3d 63, 65 (3d Cir. 1996). A Rule 12(b)(6) motion should be granted "if it appears to a certainty that no relief could be granted under any set of facts which could be proved . . . [b]ut a court need not credit a complaint's bald assertions or legal conclusions when deciding a motion to dismiss." Morse, 132 F.3d at 906.
B. MOTIONS FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT
Summary judgment is appropriate if "there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and . . . the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c); see also Turner v. Schering-Plough Corp., 901 F.2d 335, 340 (3d Cir. 1990). The party moving for summary judgment bears the burden of showing "there is no genuine issue for trial." Young v. Quinlan, 960 F.2d 351, 357 (3d Cir. 1992). Summary judgment should not be granted when there is a disagreement about the facts or the proper inferences that a fact finder could draw from them. See Peterson v. Lehigh Valley Dist. Council, 676 F.2d 81, 84 (3d Cir. 1982).
Initially, the moving party has a burden of demonstrating the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. See Celotex Corporation v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). This may be met by the moving party pointing out to the court that there is an absence of evidence to support an essential element as to which the non-moving party will bear the burden of proof at trial. See id. at 325.
Rule 56 provides that, where such a motion is made and properly supported, the non-moving party must then show by affidavits, pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, that there is a genuine issue for trial. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(e). The United States Supreme Court has commented that this requirement is tantamount to the non-moving party making a sufficient showing as to the essential elements of their case that a reasonable jury could find in its favor. See Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322-23 (1986).
It is important to note that "the non-moving party cannot rely upon conclusory allegations in its pleadings or in memoranda and briefs to establish a genuine issue of material fact." Pastore v. Bell Tel. Co. of Pa., 24 F.3d 508, 511 (3d Cir. 1994) (citation omitted). However, all inferences "should be drawn in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, and where the non-moving party's evidence contradicts the movant's, then the non-movant's must be taken as true."
Big Apple BMW, Inc. v. BMW of North America, Inc., 974 F.2d 1358, 1363 (3d Cir. 1992) (citations omitted).
Still, "the mere existence of some alleged factual dispute between the parties will not defeat an otherwise properly supported motion for summary judgment; the requirement is that there be no genuine issue of material fact." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247-48 (1986). "As to materiality, the substantive law will identify which facts are material." Id. at 248. A dispute is considered to be genuine only if "the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Id.
STATEMENT OF MATERIAL FACTS
In light of the nature of the pending Motion, our recitation of the facts underlying this action is based upon our thorough review of the contents of each of the following: Plaintiff's Complaint and the documents attached thereto (see doc. 1), Defendants' Statement of Material Facts*fn5 (doc. 22), and the record submitted by Defendants (see doc. 21). As required by the applicable standards of review, we have viewed all facts and inferences therefrom in the light most favorable to Plaintiff. Additionally, pursuant to Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, 520 (1972), we have also liberally construed this pro se Plaintiff's allegations.
This action arises out of the medical treatment that this pro se Plaintiff received for chronic left knee pain while he was incarcerated at the Low Security Correctional Institution, in Allenwood, Pennsylvania ("LSCI-Allenwood"). Plaintiff's pertinent allegations regarding his injury and treatment therefor (see doc. 1) follow: On an unspecified date, while playing basketball at LSCIAllenwood, Plaintiff injured his left knee. Thus, in November 2003, Mr. Craig, a physician's assistant at LSCI-Allenwood, drained the left knee in an effort to reduce the "constant pain and swelling," id. at 4, and also recommended that Plaintiff undergo an MRI. An x-ray and a January 29, 2004 MRI revealed no injury.
Nevertheless, in October 2004, Plaintiff returned to the medical unit complaining of the same pain and swelling that he had experienced the year prior. Again, Mr. Craig drained Plaintiff's left knee. However, Plaintiff appears to allege that during this October 2004 treatment of his knee, Mr. Craig made a mistake and left a portion of the metallic needle in Plaintiff's knee. See id. at 5-7. In support of this allegation, Plaintiff avers, inter alia, that during the October 2004 draining, Mr. Craig looked nervous and Plaintiff saw blood draining out of his knee, which had not occurred during the prior draining. Plaintiff also notes that following this draining, he continued to experience difficulty with his knee,*fn6 and that on January 24, 2006, an MRI revealed a likely (see also doc. 21-2 at 106) metallic foreign object in his knee.*fn7
Finally, despite Plaintiff's initial claim that LSCI-Allenwood had no grievance procedure, Plaintiff's Complaint details the steps that he undertook in attempting to achieve an informal resolution of what he contends amounted to deliberate indifference in the provision of medical care, and he attaches substantially documents confirming his summary.*fn8 (Rec. Doc. 1 at 2, 5-7). First, on March 3, 2005, Plaintiff filed an "Informal Resolution," expressing his concerns about the persistent pain in his left knee and the failure to refer him to an orthopedic specialist. Next, on April 1, 2005, Plaintiff apparently submitted to medical director James Potope, an "Inmate Request to Staff," which claimed that a scheduled MRI and trip to a hospital had been canceled and again sought examination by a specialist. Then, on April 15, 2005, Plaintiff filed a "Request for Administrative Remedy," which appears to reference the allegedly problematic visit to Mr. Craig, and which asks whether health services can address the persistent pain and swelling that followed. On May 8, 2005, Plaintiff filed a "Regional Administrative Remedy Appeal." Therein, Plaintiff indicated that on October 7, 2004, Mr. Craig made a mistake in draining his knee, and Plaintiff requested that an MRI be done, that orthopedic specialist be consulted, and that "an investigation be conducted to see if pa Craig was authorized to drain [the] knee . . . ." (Rec. Doc. 1 at 15). Plaintiff's May 8, 2005 submission also requested "to see have [sic] a copy of PA Craig's license and credentials to see if he is authorized to performe [sic] such operations." Id.
A review of the record provided by Plaintiff reveals that on June 22, 2005, D. Scott Dodrill ("Mr. Dodrill"), the Bureau of Prison's ("BOP") Regional Director, denied Plaintiff's "Regional Administrative Remedy Appeal."*fn9 Id. at 17.
He did so on several grounds, including because "[t]he records do not support your contention that blood was drained from your knee or that the PA is not qualified to perform this procedure," and because the requested documents regarding Mr. Craig's credentials were not releasable to Plaintiff at the institution.*fn10 Id. Mr. Dodrill's June 22, 2005 denial of Plaintiff's regional appeal also indicated that if Plaintiff were not satisfied with Mr. Dodrill's response, Plaintiff could appeal to the General Counsel, Federal Bureau of Prisons, in Washington, D.C. Id.
Plaintiff concedes that he made no such appeal to the General Counsel. (Rec. Doc. 26 at 6 ("[P]laintiff did not filed [sic] an appeal to the Central Office . . . .")). Plaintiff contends that he failed to do the same because during the thirty (30) day period in which he could have filed an appeal, he was informed that he would "be referred to an orthopedic doctor for an MRI."*fn11 Id. at 6.
The instant Motion seeks dismissal of the Complaint in its entirety, and, in the alternative, the entry of summary judgment in favor of all Defendants. (See Rec. Doc. 20 at 1). Specifically, Defendants contend: 1) pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, Plaintiff's claims against all Defendants should be dismissed because the statute of limitations bars Plaintiff's claims; and 2) in the alternative, pursuant to Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, summary judgment should be entered in favor of all Defendants because Plaintiff has not exhausted his administrative remedies. (Rec. Doc. 21 at 12-13).
Plaintiff counters each of Defendants' arguments. First, Plaintiff asserts that the statute of limitations does not bar his claims because "before January 2006, [Plaintiff] did not have any supported evidence other than his words that P.A. Craig, pinch [sic] his knee and broke a needle inside." (Rec. Doc. 26 at 9). Second, Plaintiff appears to contend that he sufficiently exhausted his administrative remedies as to render his claims properly before this Court. Id. at 2-7.
Although it is now well-established that under the Eighth Amendment, the government has an "obligation to provide medical care for those whom it is punishing by incarceration," Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 103 (1976), certain procedural requirements must be satisfied prior to any analysis of whether a prison official exhibited deliberate indifference by "act[ing] or fail[ing] to act despite his knowledge of a substantial risk of serious harm." Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825, 841 (1994). In the instant matter, the relevant procedural doctrines are the statute of limitations and the administrative remedy exhaustion requirement. As outlined below, Plaintiff's instant claims are barred by both of these doctrines.
As to the statute of limitations issue, both sides recognize (doc. 21 at 12; 26 at 8) that federal civil rights actions do not have a specific statute of limitations imposed by Congress. Accordingly, federal courts in Pennsylvania have adopted the Commonweath's two-year personal injury statute of limitations, 42 Pa. C.S. § 5524. See, e.g., Lake v. Arnold, 232 F.3d 360, 368 (3d Cir. 2000). The statute of limitations begins to run "'from the time the cause of action accrued,' which . . . [was] previously interpreted to mean when 'the first significant event necessary to make the claim suable' occurs." Id. at 366 (quoting Ross v. Johns-Manville Corp., 766 F.2d 823, 826 (3d Cir. 1985)). However, as Plaintiff aptly notes, federal courts have recognized that the statute of limitations may be tolled for a number of reasons, such as minority or via operation of the discovery rule. See id. at 366.
Nevertheless, Defendants correctly assert that the only potentially relevant tolling mechanism to these circumstances, the discovery rule, "which tolls the statute of limitations until a plaintiff actually discovers the harm caused by an earlier inflicted but latent injury," id. at 367 (emphasis added), is not applicable. The discovery rule does not apply here because Plaintiff's Complaint clearly reveals that the injury allegedly inflicted by Mr. Craig in October 2004 was not latent, and that Plaintiff knew of the alleged harm at the moment it was allegedly inflicted. (See Rec. Doc. 1 at 5 ("P.A. Craig began to drain my knee again with a big needle and I felt that he, pinch me, and something prick inside my knee. I scream loud and, told him, it hurts. He looks nervous and he told me that everything was alright. I saw blood with yellow liquid coming out of my knee, and I ask P.A. Craig about it and he told me that it was normal not to worry. But I told him, last time you drain my knee there was no blood in the liquid.") (emphasis added)). Contrary to Plaintiff's assertions, the discovery rule does not toll the statute of limitations until such point as plaintiffs have evidence to support their claims. Thus, because the first significant event to make Plaintiff's claim suable, Mr. Craig's alleged breaking of a needle in Plaintiff's knee, occurred in October 2004, more than two years prior to his April 2007 commencement of this suit, pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6), we will dismiss with prejudice Plaintiff's claims against Defendants because they are barred by the statute of limitations.
Assuming arguendo that Plaintiff's claims are not barred by the statute of limitations, we turn to the issue of administrative remedies exhaustion. 42 U.S.C. 1997e(a) provides that "[n]o action shall be brought with respect to prison conditions under [42 U.S.C. § 1983], or any other federal law, . . . until such administrative remedies are exhausted," and, thus, courts have repeatedly interpreted administrative remedy exhaustion as mandatory. See, e.g., Woodford v. Ngo, 548 U.S. 81 (2006); Porter v. Nussle, 534 U.S. 516, 532 (2002); Booth v. Churner, 532 U.S. 731, 739 (2001); Nyhuis v. Reno, 204 F.3d 65, 78 (3d Cir. 2000). The exhaustion requirement is not satisfied "by filing an untimely or otherwise procedurally defective administrative grievance or appeal"; "[p]roper exhaustion demands compliance with an agency's deadlines and other critical procedural rules because no adjudicative system can function effectively without imposing some orderly structure on the course of proceedings." Woodford, 126 S.Ct. at 2382, 2386. To be clear, "[e]xhaustion is no longer left to the discretion of the district court, but is mandatory." Id. at 2382 (indicating also that regardless of the relief the administrative process can provide or the nature of the claim asserted, prisons must exhaust the administrative remedies). Thus, whatever Plaintiff's explanation for his failure to complete the administrative grievance process, it is immaterial. Accordingly, as 28 C.F.R. § 542.15 explicitly states that in the BOP's administrative grievance process, "[a]ppeal to the General Counsel is the final administrative appeal," id., and as Plaintiff has conceded (doc. 26 at 6), and the record confirms, that Plaintiff has not filed such an appeal, Defendants are entitled to summary judgment on Plaintiff's claims.
For all of the aforestated reasons, Defendants' "Motion to Dismiss or, in the Alternative, for Summary Judgment" (doc. 20) shall be granted. An appropriate Order closing this case shall issue on today's date.