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Bates v. MHM Correctional Services

February 11, 2008


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge James M. Munley United States District Court

(Judge Munley)


Before the court for disposition are the defendants' motions for summary judgment in this employment discrimination case. The motions have been fully briefed and are ripe for disposition.


Defendant MHM Correctional Services is in the business of providing onsite mental health services to inmates at correctional systems such as state and local prisons and juvenile detention centers. MHM subcontracted with Defendant Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (hereinafter "DOC") to provide such services at the State Correctional Institution at Frackville ("SCI-Frackville") as of August 31, 2003. Prior to January 1, 2003, Sadar Psychological Services had the contract to provide mental health services to SCI-Frackville. From January 1, 2003 through August 31, 2003, the contract was held by Wexford Health Sources, Inc., and then MHM took over.

Plaintiff Wanda L. Bates began working for Sadar as a "program specialist" in the Mental Health Unit of SCI-Frackville in November 2002. When Wexford took over the contract, in January 2003, plaintiff stayed on as a Program Specialist. Defendant MHM began providing mental health services to SCI-Frackville on September 1, 2003. They retained plaintiff as an employee and changed her title to Activities Specialist.

On July 31, 2004, plaintiff was en route to a class she was directing in the prison when she came upon a locked door. She knocked on the door and indicated to the officer on post in the area that she wanted him to unlock the door for her. A window in the door allowed the officer to see the top portion of plaintiff, including her face. Evidently, there was some delay in the officer unlocking the door. Plaintiff accused the officer of making her wait due to her race, African-American.

Bates then went to the class she was holding, which consisted of between ten to thirteen inmates of different races. She reported to her class what had happened and indicated that the officer was "ignorant." These incidents started a series of events which eventually led to plaintiff being banned from the prison as a security risk and the termination of her employment with MHM.*fn1

During the relevant time period, Defendant Robert Shannon was the Superintendent at SCI-Frackville and was responsible for the overall management of the facility. Defendant John W. Kerestes was Deputy Superintendent for Centralized Services at SCI-Frackville. His responsibilities included overseeing all treatment programs including the Mental Health Programs, activities programs, education programs, food service, laundry and other programs. Defendant David Mont, an employee of MHM, was the Program Director of the SCI-Frackville Mental Health Unit and plaintiff's direct supervisor.

Subsequent to her termination, plaintiff instituted the instant nine-count complaint that raises the following causes of action: 1) violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1981 and § 1983; 2) violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1985; 3) discrimination because of race under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, as amended; 4) hostile work environment violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended; 5) retaliation; 6) age discrimination in employment; 7) conspiracy; 8) wrongful discharge; and 9) violation of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act. At the close of discovery two groups of defendants filed motions for summary judgment. The defendants also filed motions to strike some of the plaintiff's exhibits that she filed in support of her motion, bringing the case to its present posture.


Because this case is filed, in part, for unlawful employment discrimination pursuant to federal law, we have jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1331 ("The district courts shall have original jurisdiction of all civil actions arising under the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States."). We have supplemental jurisdiction over the plaintiff's state law claims pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1367.

Standard of Review

Granting summary judgment is proper if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. See Knabe v. Boury, 114 F.3d 407, 410 n.4 (3d Cir. 1997) (citing FED. R. CIV. P. 56(c)). "[T]his standard provides that 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) (emphasis in original).

In considering a motion for summary judgment, the court must examine the facts in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion. International Raw Materials, Ltd. v. Stauffer Chemical Co., 898 F.2d 946, 949 (3d Cir. 1990). The burden is on the moving party to demonstrate that the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could not return a verdict for the non-moving party. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248 (1986). A fact is material when it might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law. Id. Where the non-moving party will bear the burden of proof at trial, the party moving for summary judgment may meet its burden by showing that the evidentiary materials of record, if reduced to admissible evidence, would be insufficient to carry the non-movant's burden of proof at trial. Celotex v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). Once the moving party satisfies its burden, the burden shifts to the nonmoving party, who must go beyond its pleadings, and designate specific facts by the use of affidavits, depositions, admissions, or answers to interrogatories showing that there is a genuine issue for trial. Id. at 324.


The defendants in this case can be broken into two groups, those who actually employed the plaintiff, that is MHM Correctional Services and David Mont (hereinafter collectively "MHM Defendants") and the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, SCI-Frackville, Robert D. Shannon and John W. Kerestes (hereinafter collectively the "Corrections Defendants"). Both sets of defendants filed motions for summary judgment on all of the plaintiff's claims. We will address each count of plaintiff's complaint separately.

I. Violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1981 and § 1983, First, Fourth, Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments

The first count of the plaintiff's complaint alleges that all the defendants violated her rights under the First, Fourth, Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution. The cause of action is brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1981 (hereinafter "section 1981") and 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (hereinafter "section 1983"). (Doc. 1, Compl. ¶ 82).

Section 1983 provides as follows:

Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State or Territory or the District of Columbia, subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity or other proper proceeding for redress . . . . 42 U.S.C. § 1983.

Thus, to establish a claim under section 1983, two criteria must be met. First, the conduct complained of must have been committed by a person acting under color of state law. Second, the conduct must deprive the complainant of rights secured under the Constitution or federal law. Sameric Corp. of Delaware, Inc. v. City of Philadelphia, 142 F.3d 582, 590 (3d Cir. 1998).*fn2 Both sets of defendants move for judgment on the section 1983 claim. We will address them separately.

A. MHM Defendants

The MHM Defendants are not part of the government. Thus, they assert that they did not act under the color of state law and that they cannot be held liable under section 1983. After a careful review, we agree.

MHM is a private company, although it does contract with the DOC to provide services at state prisons. The mere fact that a private party has a contract with the state does not render a private company a state actor. Black v. Indiana School Dist., 985 F.2d 707, 710 (3d Cir. 1993).

Rather, in Lugar v. Edmondson Oil Co., 457 U.S. 922 (1982), the United States Supreme Court set forth four tests that are used to determine if a private entity has become a state actor for section 1983 purposes. These tests are: 1) the public function test, 2) the state compulsion test, 3) the nexus test and 4) the joint action test. Id. at 939. In the instant case, we will address only the fourth test, "the joint action test" as plaintiff asserts that MHM Defendants acted jointly with the state. In order for this test to be satisfied, a private actor must at least be "a willful participant in joint activity with the State or its agents." Harvey v. Plains Twp. Police Dep't, 421 F.3d 185, 195 (3d Cir. 2005) (quoting United States v. Price, 383 U.S. 787, 794 (1966)). "Joint action" has been explained as follows:

[t]he requirement of action under color of law is satisfied ... when a private person willfully participates in joint action with a state official .... Thus, [to survive the defendant's motion for summary judgment,] plaintiff must demonstrate a genuine issue of material fact that there existed between the private defendant and the state official an understanding, agreement, or conspiracy to deprive the plaintiff of a federal right. He must show a genuine factual issue of a combination, agreement, or understanding among the defendants.... These [sic] must also be a genuine factual issue that the defendants plotted, planned, or conspired together to carry out the chain of events.

Drum v. Nasuti, 648 F.Supp. 888, 897 (E.D.Pa.1986), aff'd mem., 831 F.2d 286 (3d Cir.1987) see also Smith v. Wambaugh, 29 F. Supp. 2d 222, 228 (E.D. Pa. 1998).

The United States Supreme Court has indicated that the necessary close nexus between the State and the challenged action must be such that seemingly private behavior may "fairly be treated as that of the state itself." Brentwood Academy v. Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Ass'n, 531 U.S. 288, 295 (2001).*fn3

In the instant case, the corrections defendants are alleged to have improperly barred the plaintiff from the prison. Subsequently, the MHM defendants terminated her employment. Joint action would have to be in established by demonstrating that the MHM defendants worked together with the corrections defendants (state actors) to ensure that she become barred from the prison. Plaintiff has provided no such evidence. Rather, the defendants have presented evidence that the DOC can bar MHM employees from the prison without any knowledge, input or approval from MHM. (Doc. 35-3, Welch Aff. at ¶ 10). Additionally, MHM made all the decision with respect to plaintiff's discipline throughout her employment and ultimate termination without any direction or consultation with the DOC. (Doc. 35-3, Welch, ¶ 16; Doc. 35-39, Mont Aff. ¶ 37). Plaintiff has presented no evidence of joint activity between the state actors and the non-state actors to bar the plaintiff from the prison or to terminate her employment. In fact, as set forth above, the uncontested evidence establishes that no one from MHM was involved in DOC's investigation that led to her dismissal, and no DOC officials were involved in MHM's decision to terminate plaintiff's employment. (Doc. 35-3, Welch Aff. at ¶ 16; Doc. 48-2, Mont Aff. at ¶ 37). Accordingly, summary judgment is appropriate to the MHM defendants on all of the plaintiff's civil rights claims.

We will therefore grant judgment to the MHM Defendants on plaintiff's ...

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