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Wheeler v. Pennsylvania Dep't of Corrections

June 11, 2009


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Mitchell, Magistrate Judge


Presently before the Court is a motion for summary judgment submitted by the defendants. For reasons discussed below, the defendants' motion for summary judgment (Document No. 22) is granted.

The plaintiff, Joseph E. Wheeler, has filed a race discrimination and civil rights complaint against defendants Pennsylvania Department of Corrections ("DOC") S.C.I.- Fayette, a state correctional institution in Fayette County, PA where he formerly worked, and one of its officials, Lt. Shawn Nose.*fn1 In his complaint, the plaintiff asserts that on April 17, 2005, while he was employed as a corrections officer at S.C.I.- Fayette, he was subjected to an unwarranted pat- down search and a drug residue screening, and he had his vehicle searched by a K-9 dog in contravention of DOC's policies and procedures. On April 25, 2005, the plaintiff filed a grievance about the searches and complained of race discrimination, after which he avers he was subjected to two more drug residue screenings in retaliation for having grieved the matter.*fn2

In his complaint, the plaintiff contends that DOC-S.C.I. Fayette discriminated against him because of his race, which is black, and/or in retaliation for having complained of discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e, et seq. ("Title VII") and Pennsylvania law, as he is not aware of white corrections officers that were searched in a similar manner. As discussed more fully below, on April 17, 2005 (the day of the initial searches at issue), seventeen (17) DOC employees were randomly searched, including the plaintiff, and only three of them were black.*fn3 Under DOC policy, every staff member is to be searched at least twice per year which includes, at a minimum, a pat-down search and an electronic drug residue screening.*fn4

The record shows that on the morning of April 17, 2005, when the plaintiff arrived for work at S.C.I. Fayette, he was told by Captain Manchas to go into a side room, and there, Lt. Krimpolsky, assisted by corrections officers Moats and Rohal, had the plaintiff empty his pockets, the contents of which they inspected. The plaintiff was given a pat-down search, had to place his thumb on an electronic drug testing machine, and was told by Captain Manchas to go outside to see Lt. Nose.*fn5 The plaintiff asserts that Manchas and Krimpolsky were nasty, overly aggressive and spoke to him in a demeaning manner.*fn6

The plaintiff went outside to the parking lot to meet with defendant Nose, who demanded that he produce his driver's license. The plaintiff testified that Lt. Nose yelled and screamed at him, was very demanding and was "in his face", especially when the plaintiff told Nose that his driver's license was in his car.*fn7 Nose screamed at the plaintiff as he went to his car and got his license, and Nose told him to give his license to another official. As Nose continued to speak to him, the plaintiff saw that a K-9 dog was placed in his car, presumably to search for contraband, after which the plaintiff was ordered to go back into the institution, where he reported to work.*fn8

It is not disputed that on April 17, 2005, the plaintiff was searched as part of a planned random staff search -- prompted by a confidential tip to a K-9 sergeant that there would be an attempt to smuggle contraband into the prison that day. A K-9 sergeant and his dog form a unit (the "K-9 unit"), and they are dispatched from DOC's central office in Harrisburg to various prisons; on April 17, 2005, based on the aforesaid tip, the K-9 unit was at S.C.I. Fayette. Captain Manchas, who is S.C.I. Fayette's Security Captain, planned the exercise that day, and he randomly selected those who would be searched. It is DOC's policy that every staff member may be subjected to a search when on state property with or without a reason.*fn9

The plaintiff was not the target of the confidential tip. The actual target suspect called off work on April 17, 2005, but Captain Manchas decided to continue with the random search, since everything, including the K-9 unit, was in place.*fn10

Captain Manchas designed the random search that day, and it was pre-approved by the deputy superintendent as an investigative/emergency search, which was planned to extend beyond the confines of the usual random search procedure. Under the usual random search procedure, a number of employees may be randomly selected to be screened with the electronic drug testing machine and patted down, and if they show no indicators of contraband, the search is finished. However, since the K-9 unit was already on site, the random search procedure was expanded. Based on the expanded confines of the search on April 17, 2005, the plaintiff was subjected to a K-9 vehicle search, even after he showed no indicators of contraband on the pat-down search and electronic drug testing machine. According to the defendants, had they not gone ahead with the expanded search that day after the target suspect called off work, it may have alerted the target that he or she was the focus of the investigation.*fn11 In addition, the security staff wanted to use the K-9 unit on site that day to reinforce the prohibition against bringing guns to work in one's vehicle (which could enable an inmate working outdoors to obtain a gun).*fn12

On April 17, 2005, there were seventeen (17) K-9 vehicle searches conducted at S.C.I. Fayette, one of which involved the plaintiff.*fn13 On that day, Captain Manchas ordered Lt. Nose to search the interior of every randomly-selected employee's vehicle with a K-9 dog.

Two K-9 dogs were used during the vehicle searches, but they were exclusively handled by Sergeants Arensburg and Kurek who became part of the facility's chain of command. When the dogs were used in the vehicle searches, Lt. Nose stood back and merely observed them; however, when the dogs were removed from a vehicle, Nose aided in searching the interior of the vehicle.*fn14

On April 25, 2005, the plaintiff filed an internal grievance on the searches. The plaintiff's grievance was settled on June 16, 2005, but he expressed an intent to pursue the matter outside of the grievance process.*fn15 On or about August 25, 2005 and November 20, 2005, the plaintiff was subjected to drug residue screenings at S.C.I. Fayette.

On January 4, 2006, the plaintiff filed intake questionnaires with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC").*fn16 On April 5, 2006, the plaintiff filed a verified charge of discrimination with the EEOC, which was dual-filed with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission ("PHRC").*fn17 On December 13, 2006, the EEOC issued the plaintiff a notice of dismissal and a right to sue letter.*fn18

On March 14, 2007, the plaintiff filed a six-count complaint against the defendants. As gleaned from the record, it appears that Count I is pled only against DOC S.C.I. Fayette, while the remaining claims are asserted against both defendants.

In Count I, the plaintiff contends that he was subjected to race discrimination in violation of Title VII.*fn19 In Count II, the plaintiff asserts a claim of race discrimination in violation of the Pennsylvania Constitution and/or state law, i.e., the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act, as amended, 43 P.S. § 951, et seq. ("PHRA").*fn20 In Count III, the plaintiff alleges that he was retaliated against for having complained of discrimination in violation of Title VII and state law. In Count IV, the defendants are said to have violated the plaintiff's Fourth Amendment rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. In Counts V and VI, the plaintiff asserts state law tort claims against the defendants for intentional infliction of emotional distress and trespass respectively. In his prayer for relief, the plaintiff seeks compensatory and punitive damages, declaratory and injunctive relief, and attorneys' fees and costs. The Court has jurisdiction over this matter pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331 and 1367.

The defendants have moved for summary judgment on all of the plaintiff's claims. Summary judgment is appropriate if no genuine issue of material fact is in dispute, and the movants are entitled to judgment as a matter of law. F.R.Civ.P. 56(c); Neumeyer v. Beard, 421 F.3d 210, 212-13 (3d Cir. 2005).

With respect to the plaintiff's state law claims, the defendants argue that they are entitled to summary judgment on several grounds, including that they are immune from suit pursuant to the Eleventh Amendment of the United States Constitution and/or sovereign immunity, that the PHRA claims are untimely, and that the complaint fails to state viable claims against them. We agree that the defendants are entitled to summary judgment on the plaintiff's state law claims.

As for DOC S.C.I. Fayette, it is immune from the plaintiffs' state law claims by virtue of the Eleventh Amendment. Absent a waiver of immunity, the Eleventh Amendment bars suits against a state in federal court. Pennhurst State School & Hosp. v. Halderman, 465 U.S. 89, 104 (1984).*fn21 Eleventh Amendment immunity also extends to agencies, instrumentalities, or arms of the state. Mt. Healthy City Sch. Dist. Bd of Educ. v. Doyle, 429 U.S. 274, 280 (1977).

There are exceptions to Eleventh Amendment immunity, such as when a state waives its immunity and consents to suit in federal court, or where Congress has specifically abrogated the state's Eleventh Amendment immunity in legislation or a particular statute. See, College Savings Bank v. Florida Prepaid Postsecondary Educ. Expense Bd., 527 U.S. 666, 670 (1999). No such exceptions to immunity are applicable on the plaintiff's state law claims.*fn22

Clearly, DOC is an agency or arm of Pennsylvania, as it is an "administrative department" obligated to perform "administrative work of this Commonwealth". See, 71 P.S. § 61. Hence, DOC is protected from suit by virtue of the Eleventh Amendment, Lavia v. PA Dept. Of Corrections, 224 F.3d 190, 195 (3d Cir. 2000), as is S.C.I. Fayette, which is a sub-unit of DOC. Demyun v. PA Dept. Of Corrections, 2001 WL 1083936, *3 & n.3 (M.D.Pa., Sept. 14, 2001). Thus, DOC S.C.I.-Fayette is entitled to Eleventh Amendment immunity on the plaintiff's state law employment discrimination claims in Counts II and III. Rhodes v. S.C.I. Somerset, 2007 WL 2406947, *8 (W.D.Pa., Aug. 21, 2007); Fitzpatrick v. PA Dept. of Transp., 40 F.Supp.2d 631, 635 (E.D.Pa. 1999). Likewise, it is afforded Eleventh Amendment immunity from the state law tort claims against it in Counts V and VI. See, Wikert v. PA Dept. Of Transp., 2008 WL 169702, *1 (W.D.Pa., Jan. 17, 2008); Demyun, supra, 2001 WL 1083936, at *5.

With respect to defendant Shawn Nose, "[t]he Eleventh Amendment also extends to suits for retrospective monetary relief against state officials in their official capacities". Fitzpatrick, supra, 40 F.Supp.2d at 634, citing Kentucky v. Graham, 473 U.S. 159, 169-70 (1985). Thus to the extent that defendant Nose is sued in his "official capacity", he too is entitled to Eleventh Amendment immunity on the state law claims which seek monetary damages. Id.; Lekich v. Municipal Police Ed. Training Com'n. 2009 WL 513260, *7 (E.D.Pa., Feb. 26, 2009).

As to the PHRA claims asserted against defendant Nose in his individual capacity, he is not entitled to immunity from them. See, Dennison v. PA Dept. Of Corrections, 268 F.Supp.2d 387, 405 (M.D.Pa. 2003); Fitzpatrick, 40 F.Supp.2d at 635. Still, Lt. Nose is entitled to summary judgment on the PHRA claims asserted against him in Counts II and III.

Under the PHRA, an individual may be held liable for retaliatory discrimination, or for aiding and abetting a discriminatory employment practice. See, 43 Pa.C.S.A. ยงยง 955(d) & (e). Presumably, the plaintiff purports to allege in Count II that Lt. Nose aided and abetted a discriminatory employment practice, while in Count III, Nose is said to have retaliated against the plaintiff in violation of the PHRA. As discussed infra, the plaintiff has failed to establish an employment discrimination ...

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