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Eric Hall v. Joseph Piazza

September 22, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Caldwell


I. Introduction

Eric Hall, an inmate at SCI-Somerset in Somerset, Pennsylvania, filed a pro se complaint, alleging he was issued false and retaliatory misconducts while he was housed at SCI-Coal Township, for the explicit purpose of prolonging his disciplinary confinement in segregated housing. He also alleges he was denied meaningful access to the courts during his stay in segregated housing resulting in the untimely filing of a federal habeas corpus petition challenging his underlying state conviction.

He names as defendants the following employees of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC) at SCI-Coal Township: Joseph Piazza, former Superintendent; David Varano, present Superintendent; Robert McMillan, Deputy Superintendent for Facilities Management (DSFM); David McAnnaney, Major of the Guard; Moyer, Restricted Housing Unit (RHU) Lieutenant; Claudfelter, RHU Sergeant; George Burns, RHU Sergeant; B.E. Richy, RHU Sergeant; Corrections Officer (CO) Charles Butts; CO Michael Batiuk; CO Leonard; CO Ferretti; and CO Betz. All defendants are sued in their individual capacities. Doc. 14, Am. Compl. at ¶¶ 2-12. Only defendant Varano is sued "in his official capacity for injunctive relief." Id. at ¶ 13.

We are considering Defendants' motion to dismiss the Amended Complaint pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6) based on the statute of limitations and Hall's failure to allege the personal involvement of the named defendants in the underlying constitutional claims.

For the following reasons, Defendants' motion is granted in part and denied in part.

II. Standard of Review

When considering a motion to dismiss pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6), "a court must consider only the complaint, exhibits attached to the complaint, matters of public record, as well as undisputedly authentic documents if the complainant's claims are based upon these documents." Mayer v. Belichick, 605 F.3d 223, 230 (3d Cir. 2010)(citing Pension Benefit Guar. Corp. v. White Consol. Indust., 998 F.2d 1192, 1196 (3d Cir. 1993). We "'accept all factual allegations as true, construe the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, and determine whether, under any reasonable reading of the complaint, the plaintiff may be entitled to relief.'" Byers v. Intuit, Inc., 600 F.3d 286, 291 (3d Cir. 2010) (quoted case omitted). However, "the tenet that a court must accept as true all of the allegations contained in a complaint is inapplicable to legal conclusions" or "[t]hreadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, U.S. , , 129 S.Ct. 1937, 1949, 173 L.Ed.2d 868 (2009).

A plaintiff's pleading obligation is to set forth "a short and plain statement of the claim," Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a)(2), which gives the defendant "fair notice of what the . . . claim is and the grounds upon which it rests." Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 1964, 167 L.Ed.2d 929 (2007)(quoting Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 47, 78 S.Ct. 99, 103, 2 L.Ed.2d 80 (1957)). To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must allege sufficient facts "to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570, 127 S.Ct. at 1974. If a party does not "nudge [his] claims across the line from conceivable to plausible, [the] complaint must be dismissed." Id.

Pro se pleadings are held to a less stringent standard than formal pleadings drafted by attorneys. See Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94, 127 S.Ct. 2197, 2200, 167 L.Ed.2d 1081 (2007); Mitchell v. Horn, 318 F.3d 523, 529 (3d Cir. 2003). Pro se litigants are to be granted leave to file a curative amended complaint "even when a plaintiff does not seek leave to amend," unless such an amendment would be inequitable or futile. Alston v. Parker, 363 F.3d 229, 235 (3d Cir. 2004). A complaint that sets forth facts which affirmatively demonstrate that the plaintiff has no right to recover is properly dismissed without leave to amend. Grayson v. Mayview State Hospital, 293 F.3d 103, 106 (3d Cir. 2002). A claim that cannot overcome the statute of limitations renders a proposed amendment futile. Cowell v. Palmer Twp., 263 F.3d 286, 296 (3d Cir. 2001).

III. Background

The Amended Complaint (doc. 14) alleges as follows.*fn1 Hall was convicted of robbery and related offenses in January 2003. Doc. 14 ¶ 17. In September 2003 he was sentenced to seven to fourteen years of incarceration. Id. ¶ 18. On October 9, 2005, while at SCI-Frackville, he was given a misconduct sanction of 150-days DC. Id. ¶ 22. Within a year, Hall's DC time increased to the point that SCI-Frackville staff recommended his transfer to the Special Assessment Unit (SAU) at SCI-Waymart for a psychiatric evaluation. Id. ¶ 26. Hall was transferred to SCI-Waymart on November 1, 2006 and remained there until December 21, 2006. Id. ¶ 27.

When he returned to SCI-Frackville's RHU, Hall complained to defendant Varano that staff had issued him false misconducts. Id. ¶ 29. Varano did little to investigate, but told Plaintiff to be thankful for the "six month time cut" off his DC time that staff had granted him. Id. ¶¶ 23, 29 and 30. Hall learned that the time cut was "provisional" and could be taken away if he incurred negative block card reports or additional misconducts. Id. ¶ 30. At some point, Hall received several false and retaliatory misconducts extending his DC time. Id. ¶ 31.

On May 14, 2007, Hall was transferred from SCI-Frackville's RHU to SCI-Coal Township's RHU. Id. ¶ 33. At the time, Hall had accrued 1,770 days of disciplinary time. His transfer was a "fresh start nonetheless." Id. ¶¶ 33-34. Upon his arrival, SCI-Coal Township advised him that pursuant to DC-ADM 801, Inmate Discipline Procedures Manual, if he remained misconduct free for one year they would release him to general population. Id. ¶ 34.

At some point in 2007, defendant Varano was also transferred from SCIFrackville to SCI-Coal Township. Id. ¶ 36. From the moment Varano arrived at SCI-Coal Township he "began to infect the newer members of the [Program Review Committee (PRC)] and" officers formerly "unfamiliar with plaintiff's past history." Id. ¶ 38. Up to then, "besides an isolated incident or two, plaintiff had kept a low profile and was on the road to desegregate himself back into general population." Id. ¶ 38. On August 27, 2008, Hall received a six-month reduction of his 1,815 cumulative DC sanction. Id. ¶ 39. By this time defendant Varano had been promoted to Superintendent of SCI-Coal Township and no longer participated in PRC reviews. Id. ¶ 40. However, Varano instructed defendant McMillian to take "baby steps" when reducing Hall's disciplinary time. Id. ¶ 40.

Nonetheless, Hall remained positive and misconduct free in anticipation of being released to general population at his next PRC review. Id. ¶ 41. However, at his September 2008 review, Hall "only received a six month time reduction with a disciplinary custody expiration date of January 29, 2010." Id. ¶ 42. Defendant McMillian advised Hall he would be released from the RHU at his next PRC review if he remained misconduct free. Id. ¶ 43. "Plaintiff explained desperately to defendants Varano and McMillan that plaintiff had been experiencing some problems from the RHU staff because of his complaining and grieving the lack of meaningful law library access and the officer's actions in denying plaintiff yard, showers, and other entitlements." Id. ¶ 44. He feared that if forced to remain in the RHU, he would stand out in the small group of RHU inmates, and staff "may try to punish plaintiff by issuing him fabricated misconducts." Defendant McMillan overlooked Plaintiff's concerns. Id. ¶ 45.

The day before Hall's next PRC review, he received two fabricated and retaliatory misconducts from different RHU staff members. Id. ¶ 46. As a result of these misconducts, Hall received 90 days' additional disciplinary custody time. Id. ¶ 47.

At his PRC review, McMillian advised Hall that if he remained misconduct free for ninety days he would formulate a plan for his early release from the RHU. Although Hall attended his next monthly PRC review misconduct free, defendant McMillian raised the bar for Hall's early release from the RHU by requiring him to maintain satisfactory block reports in addition to remaining misconduct free. Id. ¶ 49. Frustrated by this "entire ordeal," Hall filed a complaint with the Secretary of the DOC. Id. ¶ 50. Plaintiff was finally released from SCI-Coal Township's RHU in June 2009. Id. ¶ 51.

Hall claims that his punitive confinement in the RHU "for all those years hindered" him from obtaining meaningful access to the courts resulting in his untimely filing of his federal habeas corpus petition.*fn2 Id. ¶ 52. Hall states he was denied sufficient time in the RHU law library as well as adequate legal assistance during his prolonged RHU DC status. Id. On February 2, 2005, after filing a pro se state post-conviction petition, Hall was assigned counsel who filed an amended petition but concluded his representation on Hall's behalf on October 31, 2007, when the state-court petition was denied. Id. ¶¶ 54-55. Counsel suggested that Hall had one year in which to file his federal habeas petition. Id. ¶ 56.

During his RHU incarceration at SCI-Coal Township from May 14, 2007, through June 2009, Hall actively litigated as many as seven legal actions. Id. ¶ 60. When permitted to attend the RHU law library, Hall attempted to research the statute of limitations but was unable to understand the legal jargon surrounding the tolling periods and the procedures to file a habeas petition. Id. ¶ 57.

In June 2007, Hall sent request slips to defendant Richy requesting access to the law library. At that time he began receiving, on average, two hours of RHU law library access a week which he "was discontent with and therefore began to complain about it." Id. ¶ 63. When he asked defendant Richy for more time in the law library he was told he "would have to wait his turn like any one else." Id. ¶ 65. Plaintiff then asked defendant Moyer about receiving more time in the law library and was advised he would look into it. Id. ¶ 66. In late August 2007, after requesting additional time in the library from Sgt. Fogelman, Hall was scheduled to attend multiple sessions in law library each week. Id. ¶ 68. Moyer later rescinded his priority access to the law library, telling Plaintiff "he could cry to whom ever he wanted to about" it. Id. ¶ 69. Hall ...

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