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Merrell v. Lawler

June 24, 2009


The opinion of the court was delivered by: William W. Caldwell United States District Judge


I. Introduction

The pro se plaintiff, Willie Merrell, an inmate at SCI- Huntingdon, filed this civil-rights complaint alleging that he was wrongfully denied parole, a medically needed transfer to another prison, his right to attend religious services, and subjected to retaliation. He names the following defendants: R.M. Lawler, Huntingdon's superintendent; Mr. J. Keller, Plaintiff's unit manager who then became a program manager at Huntingdon; Mr. A. Lovett, a counselor at Huntingdon; Jill J. Spyker, a psychological services specialist at Huntingdon; Connie Green, the grievance coordinator at Huntingdon; Lawrence F. Murray, an agent for the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole; Dorina Varner, the chief grievance officer for the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC); and Jeffrey A. Beard, the secretary of the DOC.

Plaintiff has also requested in forma pauperis status. We will grant that request, and because Plaintiff is proceeding in forma pauperis, we will examine the complaint under 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B) for legal sufficiency before authorizing service.

II. Background

Plaintiff makes the following claims. First, he alleges the Eighth Amendment was violated because there was no heat in his cell. He avers that while he was an inmate at SCI-Greene in 2000, the prison administrators decided he had to be in a prison that had heat in his cell because of a back injury he suffered in a 1993 DOC van accident. (Compl. ¶¶ 13-16). Plaintiff was transferred to SCI-Huntingdon but placed on BA-Block, a block with opened windows, no ventilation, and radiators with no heat. (Id. ¶ 18). Further, Plaintiff's cell was on the bottom tier, where the cold air collected. Huntingdon did have F-Block, which were bottom, single cells for inmates with Plaintiff's back condition, but that option was ignored. (Id. ¶ 21). The BA-Block unit team told Plaintiff he would be transferred to either Graterford or Dallas after he was seen by the Parole Board. (Id. ¶¶ 22 and 23).

The medical department supported Plaintiff's need to be in a prison that provided heat to his back and body and wrote reports and made phone calls to the defendants in support. (Id. ¶ 41). Defendant Keller told Plaintiff when he was Plaintiff's unit manager that if Plaintiff were approved for a medical transfer, he would transfer Plaintiff, but when Keller became program manager, he participated in the denial of Plaintiff's transfer. (Id. ¶ 32).

Defendant Lovett refused to clarify for the other defendants that the medical department supported the transfer to either Graterford or Dallas. (Id. ¶ 33).

On March 20, 2009, Plaintiff's back gave out on him "due to the freezing conditions" on BA-Block. (Id. ¶ 42). He collapsed on the floor and had to be helped into bed until he was taken to the medical department in the morning, (id. ¶ 43 and 44), where they acknowledged that his injury was due to a lack of heat. (Id. ¶ 45).

Plaintiff also makes a due-process claim arising from his participation in a sex-offender program at Huntingdon. Plaintiff had a sex-offense conviction and was in a sex-offender group while he was incarcerated at SCI-Greene, but Plaintiff had served all of his time on the sex offense, and he alleges there was no longer any need for him to participate in the sex-offender group. Defendant, Jill J. Spyker, the psychological services specialist at Huntingdon, taught the sex-offender group. (Id. ¶¶ 5 and 24). Spyker insisted that Plaintiff participate in the group at Huntingdon, and discuss his sex offense, even though he had served his maximum time on that offense. (Id. ¶¶ 25 and 26). Spyker then told Plaintiff he could leave the group and get back into the class at his next prison. However, Spyker then prepared a false report stating that Plaintiff had quit the group and had been uncooperative, sending this report to the Parole Board. (Id. ¶ 28). Because of this report, the Board denied parole, using the sex program as the reason for the denial, even though defendant Murray, a Board agent, knew Plaintiff had maxed out his sentence on that offense. (Id. ¶¶ 29 and 31). Defendant Lovett then denied Plaintiff a transfer because he had not completed the sex group and because he had been denied parole. (Id. ¶ 30). Defendant Lovett also refused to clarify for the other defendants that Plaintiff had "maxed out" on his sex offense. (Id. ¶ 33).

As an additional injury from denial of parole, Plaintiff was unable to visit family properties he had inherited from his parents, resulting in the family properties being damaged or destroyed by "family squatters." (Id. ¶¶ 52 and 53).

Additionally, Plaintiff makes a First Amendment claim for denial of the right to practice his religion. Plaintiff alleges he was unable to attend chapel because he is a first-tier medical prisoner based on his back injury and the chapel is on the fourth tier. (Id. ¶¶ 48 and 49). Plaintiff cannot walk the steps up to the fourth tier, (id. ¶ 49), and "[a]ll other prisons have religious services on the ground level, and have alternative settings for prisoners that cannot climb steps." (Id. ¶ 51).

Plaintiff sets forth retaliation claims, alleging that the defendants "retaliated due to Plaintiff[']s rights to redress program requirements and grievances," (id. ¶ 56), which we take as a reference to his First Amendment right to petition the government. He also alleges he was deprived of his First Amendment free-exercise rights "due to retaliation." (Id. ¶ 58).

Additionally, he alleges "Defendants retaliated and conspired to prevent Plaintiff from being transfer[red], endangering Plaintiff[']s ...

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