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K. Kabasha Griffin-El A/K/A Keith Fedele Griffin v. Jeffrey A. Beard

January 22, 2013

K. KABASHA GRIFFIN-EL A/K/A KEITH FEDELE GRIFFIN, PLAINTIFF,
v.
JEFFREY A. BEARD, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: L.FELIPE Restrepo United States Magistrate Judge

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

Plaintiff K. Kabasha Griffin-El, a state inmate, filed this Section 1983 suit against numerous officials and employees of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections ("DOC"), alleging the violation of his constitutional rights arising from the search of his cell and confiscation of his property that followed the enactment of a DOC policy prohibiting inmate possession of certain materials related to the Uniform Commercial Code ("UCC"). See GriffinEl v. Beard, 411 Fed. Appx. 517, 518 (3d Cir. 2011). Defendants moved for summary judgment on the basis of, among other things, qualified immunity. By Memorandum and Order filed April 30, 2010, I granted defendants' motions on all claims except a First Amendment claim that alleged that defendants had retaliated against Griffin-El for making complaints and filing grievances related to the search and seizure. The defendants appealed from this ruling, and on February 3, 2011, the Third Circuit "vacat[ed] the portion of the order denying [defendants'] motion for summary judgment on [plaintiff's] First Amendment retaliation claims," see GriffinEl, 411 Fed. Appx. at 520, in light of the requirement that "qualified immunity be assessed in the context of each individual defendant's specific conduct," see Griffin-El, 411 Fed. Appx. at 519-20. See Forbes v. Twp. of Lower Merion, 313 F.3d 144, 149 (3d Cir. 2002); Grant v. City of Pittsburgh, 98 F.3d 116, 123 (3d Cir. 1999). In compliance with our Court of Appeals' ruling and for the reasons that follow, defendant John W. Moyer's motion on the issues relevant here is denied, while the other remaining defendants' motions are granted.

I.LEGAL STANDARDS

A. Summary Judgment

Summary judgment is appropriate if there are no genuine issues of material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a). Unless evidence in the record would permit a jury to return a verdict for the nonmoving party, there are no issues for trial, and summary judgment becomes appropriate. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). The court must consider the evidence, and all reasonable inferences which may be drawn from it, in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Matsushita Elec. Indus. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986).

An issue is "genuine" only if there is sufficient evidence with which a reasonable jury could find for the nonmoving party. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249. Furthermore, a factual dispute is only "material" if it might affect the outcome of the case. Id. at 248.

The movant bears the burden of demonstrating that the evidence presented is insufficient to support the claims and therefore a reasonable jury would be unable to reach a verdict for the plaintiff. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). Where the nonmoving party bears the burden of proof on a particular issue at trial, the movant's initial burden can be met simply by "pointing out to the district court that there is an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party's case." Id. at 325.

If this initial burden is met, then the nonmoving party bears the burden of demonstrating that there are disputes of material fact that should proceed to trial. Matsushita Elec., 475 U.S. at 586. "There must be sufficient evidence for a jury to return a verdict in favor of the nonmoving party; if the evidence is merely colorable or not significantly probative, summary judgment should be granted." Monroe v. Beard, 536 F.3d 198, 207 (3d Cir. 2008) (quoting Armbruster v. Unisys Corp., 32 F.3d 768, 777 (3d Cir. 1994)), cert. denied, 129 U.S. 1647 (2009); see Celotex Corp., 477 U.S. at 322 (If the nonmoving party does not carry this burden, then summary judgment should be granted.).

B. Qualified Immunity

Qualified immunity insulates from civil liability government officials, including prison officials, performing discretionary functions "insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known." Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818 (1982); see Montanez v. Thompson, 603 F.3d 243, 249-50 (3d Cir. 2010) (quoting Pearson v. Callahan, 129 S. Ct. 808, 815 (2009)). Therefore, government officials' discretionary acts are immune from civil liability insofar as "their actions could reasonably have been thought consistent with the rights they are alleged to have violated." Forbes, 313 F.3d at 148 (quoting Anderson v. Creighton, 483 U.S. 635, 638 (1987)).

Determining whether the defendants are entitled to qualified immunity requires two inquiries, which can be taken in either order. Pearson, 129 S. Ct. at 818; Montanez, 603 F.3d at 250. The first is "whether the facts that a plaintiff has alleged or shown make out a violation of a constitutional right"; the second is "whether the right at issue was 'clearly established' at the time of defendant's alleged misconduct." Pearson, 129 S. Ct. at 816 (internal citations omitted); Montanez, 2010 WL 1610612, at *4.

With regard to the first inquiry, in this case plaintiff alleges unlawful retaliation for exercising his First Amendment rights. To succeed on a First Amendment retaliation claim, an inmate plaintiff must prove that: (1) "the conduct which led to the alleged retaliation was constitutionally protected," Rauser v. Horn, 241 F.3d 330, 333 (3d Cir. 2001); (2) the inmate "suffered some adverse action at the hands of the prison officials," which requires demonstration that the adverse action "was sufficient to deter a person of ordinary firmness from exercising his constitutional rights," id. (quotation marks omitted); and (3) there is "a causal link between the exercise of his constitutional rights and the adverse action taken against him." Id.

Mincy v. Klem, 277 Fed. Appx. 239, 243 (3d Cir. 2008).

Here, the moving defendants do not contest, for purposes of their motion, that "plaintiff's correspondences to DiGuglielmo dated August 9, 2005 and January 9, 2006; the grievance he filed on May 14, 2006; the grievance he filed on June 15, 2006; the grievance he filed on June 7, 2006; and the filing of the complaint in this action on August 1, 2006, were protected activities under the First Amendment." See Def.'s Br. (Doc. 192) 6. Defendants also do not contest, for purposes of their motion, that "plaintiff was strip[-]searched; his cell was searched; certain documents were seized during the searches of his cell; he had one disciplinary hearing; he was placed in disciplinary custody for ninety days; loss of his prison job and his custody level was increased from a three to a four." Id. What defendants do dispute is the causation element -- that any of these events occurred because plaintiff engaged in activity protected by the First Amendment. Id.

The causation element of a First Amendment retaliation claim consists of a burden-shifting framework. Rauser v. Horn, 241 F.3d 330, 333 (3d Cir. 2001) (citing Mount Healthy Bd. of Ed. v. Doyle, 429 U.S. 274, 287 (1977)); Brooks v. Smith, 2007 WL 3275266, *9 (E.D. Pa. Nov. 6, 2007). To show a causal link, the prisoner plaintiff bears "the initial burden of proving that his constitutionally protected conduct was 'a substantial or motivating factor' in the decision to discipline him." Rauser, 241 F.3d at 333 (quoting Mount Health, 429 U.S. at 187); see Mincy, 277 Fed. Appx. at 243 (citing Rauser); Brooks, 2007 WL 3275266, at *9. To show a causal connection, a plaintiff must prove "either (1) an unusually suggestive temporal proximity between the protected activity and the allegedly retaliatory action, or (2) a pattern of antagonism coupled with timing to establish a causal link." Lauren W. ex rel. Jean W. v. Deflaminis, 480 F.3d 259, 267 (3d Cir. 2007); see Estate of Smith v. Marasco, 318 F.3d 497, 512 (3d Cir. 2003) (citing Krouse v. Am. Sterilizer Co., 126 F.3d 494, 503 (3d Cir. 1997)) (holding that the temporal proximity between the protected conduct and the alleged retaliatory action must be "unusually suggestive" before the court will infer a causal link).

Our Court of Appeals has also acknowledged that prison administration is an unenviable task, and that decisions of prison officials should be afforded deference. Brooks, 2007 WL 3275266, at *9 (citing Rauser, 241 F.3d at 334). Therefore, if the prisoner proves that his constitutionally protected conduct was a substantial or motivating factor for the adverse action, "the defendants may prevail if they prove by a preponderance of the evidence 'that they would have made the same decision absent the protected conduct for reasons reasonably related to a legitimate penological interest.'" Id. (citing Rauser, 241 F.3d at 334); see Mincy, 277 Fed. Appx. at 243 (citing Rauser). "In establishing the elements of a retaliation claim, a plaintiff must come forward with more than 'general attacks' upon the defendant's motivations and must produce 'affirmative evidence' of retaliation from which a jury could find that the plaintiff had carried his burden of proving the requisite motive." Nifas v. Coleman, 2012 WL 707063, *6 (W.D. Pa. Feb. 9, 2012) (citing Crawford-El v. Britton, 523 U.S. 574, 600 (1998) (internal citations omitted)), adopted, 2012 WL 707035 (W.D. Pa. Mar. 5, 2012).

With regard to the second test applicable in addressing the qualified immunity issue, "[t]he relevant, dispositive inquiry in determining whether a right is clearly established is whether it would be clear to a reasonable officer that his conduct was unlawful in the situation he confronted." Montanez, 2010 WL 1610612, at *6 (citing Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194, 201 (2001)). Thus, because this inquiry focuses on the official's actual situation, the analysis "must be undertaken in light of the specific context of the case, not as a broad general proposition." Id. (quoting Saucier, 533 U.S. at 201). The second prong of the qualified immunity analysis therefore turns on the "objective legal reasonableness of the action, assessed in light of the legal rules that were clearly established at the time it was taken." Id. (quoting Pearson, 129 S. Ct. at 822); see Pearson, 129 S. Ct. at 822 (quoting Wilson v. Layne, 526 U.S. 603, 614 (1999)).

Consistent with the instruction that qualified immunity be assessed in the context of each individual defendant's specific conduct, our Court of Appeals requires "an analysis of the facts adduced concerning the conduct of the official who claims immunity." Brown v. Grabowski, 922 F.2d 1097, 1111(3d Cir. 1990). Thus, here, we must "analyze separately the conduct of each . . . Defendant against the constitutional right allegedly violated," see Griffin-El, 411 Fed. Appx. at 519 (citing Grant, 98 F.2d at 123); see also Rouse, 182 F.3d at 200-01, and "specify those material facts that are and are not subject to genuine dispute and explain their materiality," Forbes, 313 F.3d at 146. "[E]ach state actor is entitled to have the defense of qualified immunity considered in the context of his or her specific conduct in determining whether there is indeed a genuine dispute of fact material to the question of whether 'it would be clear to a reasonable officer that his conduct was unlawful in the situation he confronted.'" Griffin-El, 411 Fed. Appx. at 521 n.2. In that regard, the Court must address plaintiff's claims as to each of the moving defendants, mindful of the necessity "to specify, in compliance with Forbes, which material facts, if any, preclude qualified immunity as to each" moving defendant. Id.

"When immunity is raised at the summary judgment stage, the court's analysis of the merits of the claims for purposes of summary judgment essentially merges with its analysis of the existence of a deprivation of federal rights for purposes of immunity." Ober v. Miller, 2007 WL 4443256, *8 (M.D. Pa. Dec. 18, 2007) (citing Gruenke v. Seip, 225 F.3d 290, 299-300 (3d Cir. 2000); Russoli v. Salisbury Twp., 126 F. Supp.2d 821, 838-41 (E.D. Pa. 2000)); Barshinger v. Buffington, 2004 WL 3607974, *6 (M.D. Pa. June 10, 2004); see also Monteiro v. City of Elizabeth, 436 F.3d 397, 404-05 (3d Cir. 2006) (whether "conduct violated clearly established law depended upon [the defendant's] motivation" for alleged retaliation); Grant v. City of Pittsburgh, 98 F.3d 116, 122 (3d Cir. 1996) ("[C]rucial to the resolution of [the] assertion of qualified immunity is a careful examination of the record . . . to establish . . . a detailed factual description of the actions of each individual defendant (viewed in a light most favorable to the plaintiff)."). Therefore, the Court of Appeals "vacat[ed] the portion of the order denying [defendants'] motion for summary judgment on [plaintiff's] First Amendment retaliation claims," see Griffin-El, 411 Fed. Appx. at 520, in light of the requirement that "qualified immunity be assessed in the ...


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