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Hector Huertas v. Jeffrey Beard

December 6, 2012

HECTOR HUERTAS, PLAINTIFF,
v.
JEFFREY BEARD, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: McLAUGHLIN, Sean J., District J.,

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Plaintiff Hector Huertas filed this civil action on January 12, 2010 pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §1983. His Second Amended Complaint [19], the operative pleading in this case, alleges violations of his procedural due process and Eighth Amendment rights arising from his continued confinement in segregated housing at various state correctional institutions since October of 2002. He has sued Jeffrey Beard, former Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, as well as various DOC officials employed at SCI-Albion or SCI-Forest.

Presently pending before the Court are the parties‟ cross-motions for summary judgment. On May 31, 2011, the U.S. Magistrate Judge Susan Paradise Baxter entered a Report and Recommendation [99] recommending that the Defendants‟ motion for summary judgment be granted and the Plaintiff‟s cross-motion for partial summary judgment be denied. Plaintiff filed objections to the R&R on June 16, 2011 ([103] and [104]). Subsequently, on November 10, 2011, Plaintiff filed "Additions to the Record" [106]. He also filed, on April 16, 2012, a Motion Requesting Leave of Court to Supplement the Record and Consolidated Memorandum of Law [107], which this Court granted on July 31, 2012. All of these materials have been reviewed on a de novo basis by this Court.*fn1

Having considered the foregoing, the Court concludes that the Defendants‟ are entitled to summary judgment essentially for the reasons expressed in the Magistrate Judge‟s Report and Recommendation. Nevertheless, given the size of the record before me, including Plaintiff‟s prolific objections and other filings, I find that substantial additional commentary is warranted.

I. STANDARD OF REVIEW

Summary judgment is appropriate when, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a). "A disputed fact is "material‟ if it would affect the outcome of the suit as determined by the substantive law," Bouriez v. Carnegie Mellon Univ., 585 F.3d 765, 771 (3d Cir.2009) (citation omitted), and a factual dispute is "genuine," and thus warrants trial, "if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. 242, 248--49, 252 (1986). Accordingly, in order for a claim to survive summary judgment, "there must be [significantly probative] evidence on which the jury could reasonably find for the plaintiff." Id.

II. BACKGROUND

Plaintiff is serving a life sentence for first degree murder and related charges stemming from an incident in which he and two other masked assailants fired weapons (including an AK-47) at a vehicle parked on the streets of Philadelphia. Plaintiff has been incarcerated in the custody of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections since he was originally received at SCI-Graterford on July 26, 1999.

During his first three and 1/2 years of incarceration, Plaintiff was found guilty of seven misconducts, including abusive/obscene language, fighting, refusing to obey an order, possession of contraband, and attempted escape. (Defs.‟ Ex. D [79-5] at pp. 2-3.) The latter misconduct involved an October 28, 2002 incident in which Plaintiff and another inmate were discovered on top of a prison building in the possession of a 39-foot rope with a grappling hook, civilian clothing and maps. (Defs.‟ Ex. E [79-6] at 1-32; Ex. E-1 [79-7] at pp. 1-33.) This incident led to Plaintiff‟s criminal conviction for attempted escape and his subsequent transfer from SCI-Graterford to SCI-Greene. (Defs.‟ Ex. H [79-8] at pp. 12-31.)

Since Plaintiff‟s attempted escape on October 28, 2002, he has been continuously confined to Security Level 5 Housing in the Restricted Housing Unit ("RHU") on either administrative custody ("AC") or disciplinary custody ("DC") status. While awaiting his transfer to SCI-Greene, Plaintiff received two misconducts for assaulting corrections officers. (Defs.‟ Ex. D [79-5] at p. 2.; Ex. I [79-9] at pp. 2-4; Ex. J [79-9] at pp. 6-7.)

Following his transfer to SCI-Greene, Plaintiff became entrenched with the Latin Kings, a Security Threat Group. After the security office at SCI-Greene received information that he was responsible for directing a gang hit on another inmate,*fn2 Plaintiff underwent an administrative separation transfer to SCI-Frackville. (Defs.‟ Ex. N [79-9] at p. 17.)

Within Plaintiff‟s first few months at SCI-Frackville, the Security Office received information that Plaintiff was planning gang assaults on three inmates. Plaintiff also received a misconduct on March 30, 2004 for possession of contraband. (Defs.‟ Ex. D at p. 2.) As a result of the Security Office‟s investigation into the alleged gang hit, Plaintiff underwent an administrative custody transfer to SCI-Smithfield, where he was received on June 15, 2004.

Within one month following his arrival at SCI-Smithfield, security officers received confidential information that Plaintiff and two other inmates were planning an escape attempt. The information received was that Plaintiff and the other two named inmates knew each other from the street and were involved in the same crime. (See Defs.‟ Ex. O [79-9] at p. 19.) After further investigation corroborated Plaintiff‟s association with the two other inmates, the Security Office recommended a separation transfer. (Id.) While awaiting transfer to the Long Term Segregation Unit (LTSU) at SCI-Fayette, Plaintiff received a misconduct and 90 days‟ disciplinary custody for throwing an unknown liquid mixture (which appeared to be urine and feces) through another inmate‟s food aperture, striking the inmate on the leg. (Defs.‟ Ex. C-1 [79-2] at p. 46, Defs.‟ Ex. K [79-9] at p. 9.)

On April 12, 2005, Plaintiff was received into the LTSU at SCI-Fayette. On November 23, 2005, in light of his improved conduct, it was recommended that Plaintiff be released from the LTSU and transferred to a Level 4 institution for longer-term administrative custody inmates. (See Def.‟s Ex. P [79-9] at pp. 21-23.)

Accordingly, Plaintiff was released from the LTSU on May 30, 2006 and transferred to administrative custody at SCI-Albion. (Defs.‟ Ex. Q [79-9] at p. 25.) During his meeting with the Program Review Committee ("PRC" or "Committee") on October 26, 2007, the Committee discussed with Plaintiff his request to get out of the RHU and into general population. Plaintiff was told that, although no promises could be made, the Committee would seriously consider recommending his removal from the Restricted Release List ("RRL")*fn3 if he remained misconduct-free for the next six months. (Defs. Ex. C-2 [79-3] at p. 44.) Plaintiff was reminded again during his February 21, 2008 PRC review that he needed to remain misconduct-free for three more months in order for the Committee to consider recommending his removal from the RRL. (Id. at p. 46.)

Unfortunately, on March 18, 2008, Plaintiff received a misconduct for fighting with another inmate, for which he received 60 days of disciplinary custody. (Defs.‟ Ex. D [79-5] at p. 2.) On May 16, 2008, having completed his disciplinary custody time, Plaintiff was transferred back into administrative custody. (Defs.‟ Ex. C-3 [79-4] at p. 2.)

On July 7, 2009, Plaintiff was transferred to the RHU at SCI-Forest, where he remains in administrative custody. (Defs.‟ Ex. C-3 [79-4] at p. 19.) He filed this action on January 12, 2010.

Although Plaintiff has been continually confined in the RHU setting since October 28, 2002, his claims in this lawsuit concern only the period of segregation beginning April 12, 2005, when he was transferred to the Long-Term Segregation Unit ("LTSU") at SCI-Fayette. Count 1 of the Second Amended Complaint asserts a due process violation on the part of Defendant Beard relative to Plaintiff‟s confinement in the LTSU from April 12, 2005 to May 30, 2006. Count 2 asserts a due process violation on the part of Beard based upon Beard‟s alleged decision to place Plaintiff in "indefinite" confinement in the RHU on long-term administrative custody ("AC") status following his release from the LTSU. Counts 3 and 4 allege due process violations on the part of Beard premised upon Beard‟s alleged decision to continue Plaintiff on AC status following his review of Plaintiff‟s prison record on (respectively) November 24, 2008 and May 29, 2009. Count 5 alleges an Eighth Amendment violation on the part of Beard premised upon the conditions of Plaintiff‟s confinement in the RHU, particularly his subjection to continuous illumination. Counts 6 and 7 assert due process violations on the part of various DOC officials employed at SCI-Albion and SCI-Forest premised upon Plaintiff‟s continued confinement at those facilities in the RHU.

III. DISCUSSION

Plaintiff‟s claims are brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983,*fn4 which does not create substantive rights but instead "provides only remedies for deprivations of rights established elsewhere in the Constitution or federal laws." Kneipp v. Tedder, 95 F.3d 1199, 1204 (3d Cir. 1996). To prevail under § 1983, a plaintiff must prove that he suffered the deprivation of a right secured by the United States Constitution or federal law by a person acting under color of state law. Mark v. Borough of Hatboro, 51 F.3d 1137, 1141 (3d Cir.1995). Here, the only disputed legal issue is whether Plaintiff has produced sufficient evidence to establish the violation of his federal rights -- namely, his right to due process under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments and his Eighth Amendment right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment. We consider each of these legal theories in turn.

A.

In order to demonstrate a violation of the right to procedural due process, a plaintiff must show (1) that the state deprived him of a protected interest in life, liberty, or property; and (2) that the deprivation occurred without due process of law. Burns v. PA Dept. of Correction, 544 F.3d 279 (3d Cir.2008). In the prison setting, protected liberty interests are generally limited to "freedom from restraint which . imposes atypical and significant hardship on the inmate in relation to the ordinary incidents of prison life." Sandin v. Conner, 515 U.S. 472, 484 (1995).

Like the Magistrate Judge, I am willing to assume that Plaintiff has suffered a deprivation of his constitutionally protected liberty interests by virtue of his extended confinement in administrative custody. See Shoats v. Horn, 213 F.3d 140, 144 (3d Cir. 2000) (holding that a prisoner who spent eight years in administrative custody, without any prospect of immediate release back into the general population, had suffered the type of deprivation which was "‟atypical‟ in relation to the ordinary incidents of prison life" and therefore subject to due process considerations). Cf. Griffin v. Vaughn, 112 F.3d 703, 705--07 (3d Cir.1997) (ruling that fifteen months in segregation was not an atypical and significant hardship); Smith v. Mensinger, 293 F.3d 641, 654 (3d Cir.2002) (holding that seven months in disciplinary confinement did not implicate a protected liberty interest).

However, this merely begs the question what process is constitutionally "due." In Hewitt v. Helms, 459 U.S. 460 (1983), the Supreme Court held that the removal of an inmate from the general population into administrative segregation requires "only an informal non-adversary review of evidence," 459 U.S. at 474, which is satisfied when an inmate receives "some notice of the charges against him and an opportunity to present his views to the prison official charged with deciding whether to transfer him to administrative segregation." Id. at 476. No oral hearing is required, and a written statement by the inmate will satisfy this requirement. Hewitt v. Helms, 459 U.S. at 476; Stevenson v. Carroll, Civ. Action No. 04-139-GMS, 2011 WL 6842955 at *12 (D. Del. Dec. 29, 2011). Moreover, given the exigencies inherent in prison management, post-deprivation process is satisfactory, and the proceeding must merely occur "within a reasonable time following an inmate‟s transfer." Hewitt, at 476 n.8; Stevenson v. Carroll, 495 F.3d at 71.

Furthermore, in assessing the penological reason for the placement of a prisoner in administrative custody, federal courts have adopted a deferential approach. As the court stated in Shoats, an inmate "[can] conceivably be held in administrative custody merely because his prior crimes reasonably foreshadow future misconduct." 213 F.3d at 146. And federal courts "are unwilling to substitute [their] judgment on these difficult and sensitive matters of institutional administration and security for that of "the persons who are actually charged with and trained in the running‟ of such facilities." Block v. Rutherford, 468 U.S. 576, 588 (1984) (quoting Bell v. Wolfish, 441 U.S. 520, 562 (1979)).

Finally, our Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld the constitutionality of DC ADM-802, which sets forth the Pennsylvania DOC‟s policies and procedures for confining inmates to administrative custody and the PRC's periodic review of their status. See Shoats v. Horn, 213 F.3d 140, 145--46 (3d Cir.2000). See also Sharp v. Johnson, 669 F.3d 144, 160 n. 23 (3d Cir. 2012). In order to overcome the Defendants‟ motion for summary judgment, therefore, it is incumbent upon Plaintiff to demonstrate a genuine issue of material fact within the record that would support a finding that the Defendants failed to abide by that policy in a manner that violated fundamental due process principles.

In this case, the summary judgment record includes documentation of Plaintiff‟s regular periodic reviews by the Program Review Committee ("PRC") since he was first placed in segregation in October of 2002. Despite this, Plaintiff has filed lengthy objections in regards to the Magistrate Judge‟s ruling, as well as other post-R&R materials, in support of his claim that his due process rights have been violated. Although Plaintiff‟s objections are expansive and somewhat disjointed, we will address seriatim what we perceived to be his more salient complaints.

(i)

Plaintiff objects that the Magistrate Judge erred by going out of her way to make arguments in favor of summary judgment which had not been raised by the Defendants. Having reviewed the R&R in light of the entire summary judgment record, I disagree.

With regard to each of Plaintiff‟s due process claims at Counts 1, 2, 3, 4, 6 and 7, the Magistrate Judge recommended judgment in favor of the Defendants either on statute-of-limitations grounds (Count 1) or because she concluded that Plaintiff had received all of the process to which he was entitled as a matter of federal due process law (Counts 2, 3, 4, 6 and 7). Both grounds were expressly raised by the Defendants in their motion for summary judgment, and the Magistrate ...


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