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Albert Juan Ortiz v. Prison Board Members

February 28, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Rambo


Plaintiff Albert Juan Ortiz ("Ortiz"), an inmate presently confined at the State Correctional Institution, Graterford, Pennsylvania ("SCI-Graterford"), filed this pro se civil rights action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. In a memorandum and order dated October 7, 2009, Judge Vanaskie of this court dismissed the claims against Defendants Dauphin County Prison, City of Harrisburg, and Mayor Reed. (Doc. 12.)

By order dated June 22, 2010, Judge Vanaskie granted Plaintiff's motion requesting leave to file an amended complaint and accepted his proposed amended complaint. (Doc. 33-3.) This matter was subsequently reassigned to the undersigned on June 30, 2010. In a memorandum and order dated December 21, 2010, the court denied Defendant Lisa Reitz's motion to dismiss the amended complaint. (Doc. 42.)

Presently pending is a motion to dismiss the amended complaint filed by Defendants Warden Dominick DeRose, Captain Lahr, and Deputy Warden Nichols("moving Defendants"), all of whom are employees of the Dauphin County Prison. (Doc. 37.) The motion is ripe for consideration.

I. Background

This matter involves events that purportedly transpired during Ortiz's prior confinement as a pretrial detainee at the Dauphin County Prison, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Ortiz alleges that he was deprived medications previously prescribed for high blood pressure and a heart condition, and was also deprived of an adequate diet over a 138-day period during a prolonged institutional lockdown.*fn1 (Doc. 33-3, ¶¶ 22-23.) Purportedly as a result of those deprivations, Plaintiff claims he fainted. Ortiz also alleges that he was subjected to unconstitutional conditions of confinement during the lockdown. Specifically, he asserts that several days into the lock-down, correctional staff, acting under orders from Defendants DeRose, Nichols, and Lahr, conducted a shakedown search of his cell. During this search, correctional staff purportedly destroyed his personal property, including legal documents relating to his pending state criminal prosecution. (Id. at ¶ 17.) As a result, Plaintiff claims his ability to participate in the defense of his pending criminal prosecution was impaired.

In addition, Ortiz claims his personal hygiene products were destroyed and he was denied access to towels, sheets, and blankets "while the air conditioning was blasting." (Id. at ¶ 20.) It is further asserted that all water service to Ortiz's cell block was shut off for a five-day period which prevented toilets from being flushed resulting in a stench. The amended complaint's remaining contention with respect to the moving Defendants is that Plaintiff was fed bologna sandwiches three times per day for 138 days. (Id. at ¶ 23.)

In short, Plaintiff asserts that the moving Defendants' conduct during the lockdown violated his constitutional right of access to the courts, and constituted cruel and unusual punishment as well as deliberate indifference to his medical needs as contemplated under the Eighth Amendment.Plaintiff seeks injunctive and declaratory relief along with compensatory and punitive damages.

II. Standard of Review for Motion to Dismiss Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides for the dismissal of complaints that fail to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. When ruling on a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), the court must "accept as true all factual allegations in the complaint and all reasonable inferences that can be drawn therefrom, and view them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff." Kanter v. Barella, 489 F.3d 170, 177 (3d Cir. 2007)(quoting Evancho v. Fisher, 423 F.3d 347, 350 (3d Cir. 2005)). The plaintiff must present facts that, if true, demonstrate a plausible right to relief. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a)(stating that the complaint should include "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief"); Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007)(requiring plaintiffs to allege facts sufficient to "raise a right to relief above the speculative level"). Rule 8 demands "more than an unadorned, the-defendant-unlawfully-harmed-me accusation." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, __ U.S. __ ,129 S.Ct 1937, 1949 (2009). This requirement "calls for enough facts to raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence of" the necessary elements of the plaintiff's cause of action. Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556. The reviewing court must determine whether the complaint "contain[s] either direct or inferential allegations respecting all the material elements necessary to sustain recovery under some viable legal theory." Id. at 562.

A civil rights complaint should allege the conduct violating plaintiff's rights, the time and the place of that conduct, and the identity of the responsible officials. "Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements do not suffice." Iqbal, 129 S.Ct at 1949. Legal conclusions must be supported by factual allegations and the complaint must state a plausible claim for relief. See id. at 1950; see also Phillips v. County of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 234 (3d Cir. 2008). It is additionally noted that pro se pleadings are to be construed liberally. Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, 520 (1972).

Additionally, because Plaintiff describes himself as being a pretrial detainee, his conditions of confinement claims must be considered under the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment as opposed to the Eighth Amendment, which is the applicable standard for incarcerated persons. Hubbard v. Taylor, 399 F.3d 150, 158 (3d Cir. 2005). As noted in Hubbard, the appropriate inquiry to use in a condition of confinement claim by a pretrial detainee is "whether those conditions amount to punishment prior to an adjudication of guilt in accordance with law." Id.

III. Damages in Sum Certain

The moving Defendants' pending motion correctly notes that the amended complaint in part "seeks various specific amounts of compensation." (Doc. 38 at 13.) They contend that Plaintiff's demand for specific sums of money damages should be stricken pursuant to Local Rule 8.1.

Pursuant to the Local Rules of this court, a prayer for relief which seeks a specific amount of damages must be stricken. See M.D. Pa. Local Rule 8.1(a demand for judgment "shall not claim any specific sum where unliquidated damages are involved"). Based upon this provision in Local Rule 8.1, the court will strike the amended complaint to the extent that it seeks specific sums of money damages.

IV. Access to the Courts

The amended complaint asserts that during the shakedown search of his cell, Plaintiff's personal legal documents including letters from his criminal defense attorney were confiscated. (Doc. 33-3 at ¶ 19.) It is also vaguely alleged that his legal mail was withheld. (See id. at ¶ 28.) Moving Defendants' argue in their motion that Ortiz has failed to state a claim of denial of access to the courts because he has not "alleged any injury as a result of the purported actions regarding his legal mail." (Doc. 38 at 7.) Ortiz responds in his brief in opposition to Defendants' motion that during the pendency of this litigation, he was also facing criminal prosecution in Dauphin County. (Doc. 41.) He admits that a criminal defense attorney was appointed to represent him in the criminal proceedings. (Id. at 9.) He asserts that during the 138-day lockdown, he was denied access to his attorney and he was also prohibited from visiting the prison law library. (Id.) Ortiz also contends that due to the confiscation of his legal documents and inability to communicate with his legal counsel (presumably referring to the alleged taking of letters sent to him from counsel) he was unable to "research the charges and prepare himself for trial." (Id.)

Plaintiff states that he had no alternative but to enter a guilty plea "once he went to court in January of the following year." (Id.)

A plaintiff, in order to state an actionable civil rights claim, must plead two essential elements: (1) that the conduct complained of was committed by a person acting under color of law, and (2) that said conduct deprived the plaintiff of a right, privilege, or immunity secured by the Constitution or laws of the United States. Groman v. Township of Manalapan, 47 F.3d 628, 638 (3d Cir. 1995); Shaw by Strain v. Strackhouse, 920 F.2d 1135, 1141-42 (3d Cir. 1990). Inmates have a constitutional right to meaningful access to law libraries, legal materials or legal services. Bounds v. Smith, 430 U.S. 817, 821-25 (1977). The United States Supreme Court in Lewis v. Casey, 518 U.S. 343, 351-54 (1996), clarified that an inmate plaintiff, in order to set forth a viable claim under ...

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