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Hookey v. Dalton

October 21, 2010

MEGAN HOOKEY, PLAINTIFF
v.
HARRIET DALTON, DEFENDANT



The opinion of the court was delivered by: (Judge Rambo)

MEMORANDUM

Plaintiff Megan Hookey ("Hookey"), an inmate confined at the State Correctional Institution in Muncy, Pennsylvania ("SCI-Muncy"), initiated this pro se civil rights action with the filing of a complaint pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 on December 22, 2008, as amended on April 29, 2009. (Doc. 25.) Hookey has set forth allegations against several employees of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections ("DOC") and Pennsylvania State Trooper David Townshend ("Commonwealth Defendants," collectively); Harriet Dalton, an employee of the Lighthouse Prison Ministry; and the Honorable John DiSalle of the Court of Common Pleas of Washington County, Pennsylvania. Hookey contends that all these Defendants violated her constitutional rights in the context of state court custody proceedings involving her child.

Presently pending is Hookey's motion for default judgment as to Defendant Dalton. (Doc. 87.) For the reasons that follow, the court will construe an earlier-filed letter from Defendant Dalton as a motion to set aside the entry of default and grant that motion based on a finding of good cause. Thus, the motion for default judgment will be deemed moot. In addition, the court will further screen the claims against Defendant Dalton in the amended complaint pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B) and dismiss those claims as frivolous and for failure to state a constitutional claim.

I. Background

In her amended complaint, Hookey asserts the following. Hookey began her incarceration at SCI-Muncy on January 23, 2008. (Doc. 25 ¶ 14.) At the time, she was pregnant. (Id.) According to Hookey, prior to giving birth, her parenting counselor at SCI-Muncy contacted Defendant Dalton for arrangements for Dalton's agency, Lighthouse Prison Ministry, to care for the child after its birth. (Id. ¶ 20.) Hookey and a caretaker from the agency named Susie Mack signed an agreement granting Mack legal and physical custody of the child until Hookey's release from prison. (Id. ¶ 21.)

After Hookey gave birth to a son while still incarcerated, an individual named Aaron Jones filed for custody of the child on April 8, 2008. (Id. ¶ 22.) Hookey maintains that Jones is not the biological father of her child. (Id. ¶ 23.) On July 28, 2008, Judge DiSalle entered an order awarding sole custody of the child to Aaron Jones and allowed law enforcement to enforce the order in order to give physical custody of the child to Jones. (Id. ¶ 27.)

On July 28, 2008, with the court order and the assistance of Defendant Townshend, a Pennsylvania State Trooper, Jones acquired physical custody of the child from Susie Mack. (Id. ¶ 28.) On November 18, 2008, Judge DiSalle issued an order scheduling a custody review hearing for January 6, 2009. (Id. ¶¶ 47-48.) In the order, Judge DiSalle directed SCI-Muncy officials to allow Hookey to participate by telephone. (Id. ¶ 48.) According to Hookey, SCI-Muncy officials refused to comply with Judge DiSalle's order and thus she was unable to testify at the review hearing about the abuse and neglect suffered by her child. (Id. ¶ 49.)

Hookey filed the amended complaint on April 29, 2009, seeking compensatory and punitive damages against all the Defendants.*fn1 (Id. ¶¶ 64-65.) Motions to dismiss were filed by the Commonwealth Defendants and Judge DiSalle on June 29, 2009 and July 20, 2009, respectively. (Docs. 40, 46.) The court granted these motions on March 15, 2010 and March 11, 2010, respectively, and dismissed these parties. (Docs. 73, 71.) Defendant Dalton, however, did not file an answer or seek an enlargement of time in which to do so. Thus, she is the remaining defendant in this case. In her amended complaint, Hookey sets forth a blanket allegation that Defendant Dalton violated her right to equal protection seemingly for failing to assist her in her custody case. (See Doc. 25 ¶ 40-42.) She further claims that Defendant Dalton was deliberately indifferent to the safety and medical needs of herself and her child. (Id. at ¶ 61.)

On July 6, 2010, Hookey filed a declaration for entry of default as to Defendant Dalton. (Doc. 84.) Accordingly, on July 28, 2010, the Clerk of Court entered default against Defendant Dalton for failure to plead or otherwise defend pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 55(a). (Doc. 85.) Subsequently, Defendant Dalton filed a letter informing the court that she was in receipt of the Clerk's entry of default, but has no attorney, nor can she afford one. (See Doc. 86.) Further, she provided the following response to the allegations set forth against her by Hookey in the amended complaint:

I [help] inmates find care for their children while they are incarcerated. I also provide a suitcase of clothes for those being released and have nothing.

This is exactly what I did for Megan. I found her a caretaker, of the mennonite faith who would care for her baby, take him to visit her, etc. When the child was born there was no father in the picture. I was not aware that the baby's father, accompanied by the police, came and took the baby until quite some time later. Then I did not hear it from the caretaker or Megan, I heard it from a friend of the caretaker. I naturally assumed that if the police accompanied the man to pick up the baby that it was all legal. I never heard anything more about it until I received the letter from the attorney.

I knew the letter said I needed to respond so I did write to Megan. I thought she was who I needed to contact. I sent the letter to the prison. It was not returned to me so I assumed she received it and that I did the proper thing. (Id.)

Presently pending is Hookey's motion for default judgment as to Defendant Dalton. (Doc. 87.) In light of Defendant Dalton's letter, which provides a response to the allegations set forth in the amended complaint, the court is not inclined to grant Hookey's motion. Rather, the court will construe Defendant Dalton's letter as a motion to set aside the entry of default, and upon consideration of Defendant Dalton's letter and further consideration of the amended complaint, the court will set aside the default judgment as to Defendant Dalton for good cause, see Fed. R. Civ. P. 55(c), as Hookey's ...


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