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Gadra-Lord v. Varano

United States District Court, Third Circuit

June 20, 2013

JONATHON GADRA-LORD, Plaintiff,
v.
DAVID VARANO, et al., Defendants.

REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

MARTIN C. CARLSON, Magistrate Judge.

I. Statement of Facts and of The Case

This is a pro se civil rights case that was first brought by Jonathon Gadra-Lord, a state inmate, through the filing of a complaint on December 5, 2012. (Doc. 1.) The plaintiff's initial pro se complaint was a spare, terse document. (Id.) It named nineteen correctional defendants, ranging from the prison superintendent to various supervisors, majors, captains, lieutenants, and other correctional staff. (Id.) The complaint then contained a one paragraph hand written narrative, which simply listed a series of legal claims, unadorned by any supporting facts, alleging that unidentified prison officials improperly confiscated Gadra-Lord's property, including legal property; interfered with Gadra-Lord's access to courts by seizing unidentified legal materials; and retaliated against Gadra-Lord in ways that were not further described. ( Id., Section IV.)

Nowhere in this pleading did Gadra-Lord identify who committed these alleged acts. Thus, Gadra-Lord's complaint did not allege any facts linking any of the named defendants to any of these alleged violations. Nor did Gadra-Lord state when these acts were alleged to have occurred. (Id.) Indeed, the only factual averment that was pleaded with any specificity in the complaint was Gadra-Lord's statement that he was provided with a grievance procedure to challenge this property confiscation, and fully exhausted his grievances regarding the seizure of this property. ( Id., Section II.) Gadra-Lord then demanded compensatory damages of $100, 000 from the defendants jointly and severally. (Id.)

Along with his complaint, the plaintiff sought leave to proceed in forma pauperis. While we granted this motion for leave to proceed in forma pauperis, (Doc. 2.), as part of our legally-mandated screening of pro se, in forma pauperis cases, we carefully reviewed this complaint, and concluded that, in its current form, the complaint failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. Accordingly, we recommended that the complaint be dismissed, without prejudice to the plaintiff endeavoring to file an amended complaint which addressed the deficiencies noted in this Report and Recommendation, provided that the plaintiff acts within 20 days of any dismissal order. (Doc. 8.) The district court adopted this recommendation, dismissed this original complaint, and referred this matter to us for evaluation of Gadra-Lord's amended complaint. (Doc. 13.)

Gadra-Lord has filed an amended complaint, (Doc. 9.), which provides further factual detail regarding some of Gadra-Lord's allegations, thus addressing our primary threshold concern in this case. However, as to three defendants-David Varano, Major Miller, and Grievance Coordinator Kelley-Gadra-Lord's amended complaint remains fatally flawed in our view.

With respect to these three defendants, Gadra-Lord's allegations in his amended complaint can be simply stated: First, while the amended complaint identifies a Deputy Superintendent Miller and a Captain Miller as defendants and makes factual averments regarding these officials, it contains no factual references to a Major Miller. To these extent that this individual is a defendant separate and apart from the other named defendants who share the surname Miller, this defendant should, therefore, be dismissed from this action. As for Superintendent Varano, the amended complaint simply states that he is "legally responsible for operation of SCI-Coal Township, " is "directly... involved with the grievance process, " and received complaint in the past from Gadra-Lord. (Doc. 9, p.4.) Likewise, Grievance Coordinator Kelley is named in this amended complaint simply because Gadra-Lord feels that she did not handle his grievance regarding this property dispute with sufficient dispatch under corrections policy. (Id.)

In our view these spare allegations are insufficient to state a claim against any of these supervisory defendants. Therefore, it is recommended that the complaint be dismissed, with prejudice, as to these defendants, but served upon the remaining named defendants.

II. Discussion

A. Screening of Pro Se In forma Pauperis Complaints-Standard of Review

This court has a statutory obligation to conduct a preliminary review of pro se complaints brought by plaintiffs given leave to proceed in forma pauperis in cases which seek redress against government officials. Specifically, we are obliged to review the complaint pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915A which provides, in pertinent part:

(a) Screening. - The court shall review, before docketing, if feasible or, in any event, as soon as practicable after docketing, a complaint in a civil action in which a prisoner seeks redress from a governmental entity or officer or employee of a governmental entity.
(b) Grounds for dismissal. - On review, the court shall identify cognizable claims or dismiss the complaint, or any portion of the complaint, if the complaint-
(1) is frivolous, malicious, or fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted; or
(2) seeks monetary relief from a defendant who is immune from such relief.

Under Section 1915A, the court must assess whether a pro se complaint "fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted." This statutory text mirrors the language of Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, which provides that a complaint should be dismissed for "failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted." Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6).

With respect to this benchmark standard for legal sufficiency of a complaint, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has aptly noted the evolving standards governing pleading practice in federal court, stating that:

Standards of pleading have been in the forefront of jurisprudence in recent years. Beginning with the Supreme Court's opinion in Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly , 550 U.S. 544 (2007) continuing with our opinion in Phillips [v. County of Allegheny , 515 F.3d 224, 230 (3d Cir. 2008)]and culminating recently with the Supreme Court's decision in Ashcroft v. Iqbal ___ U.S. ___ , 129 S.Ct. 1937 (2009) pleading standards have seemingly shifted from simple notice pleading to a more heightened form of pleading, requiring a plaintiff to plead more than the possibility of relief to survive a motion to dismiss.

Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside , 578 F.3d 203, 209-10 (3d Cir. 2009).

In considering whether a complaint fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, the court must accept as true all allegations in the complaint and all reasonable inferences that can be drawn from the complaint are to be construed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. Jordan v. Fox Rothschild, O'Brien & Frankel, Inc. , 20 F.3d 1250, 1261 (3d Cir. 1994). However, a court "need not credit a complaint's bald assertions or legal conclusions when deciding a motion to dismiss." Morse v. Lower Merion Sch. Dist. , 132 F.3d 902, 906 (3d Cir. 1997). Additionally a court need not "assume that a... plaintiff can prove facts that the... plaintiff has not alleged." Associated Gen. Contractors of Cal. v. California State Council of Carpenters , 459 U.S. 519, 526 (1983). As the Supreme Court held in Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly , 550 U.S. 544 (2007), in order to state a valid cause of action a plaintiff must provide some factual grounds for relief which "requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of actions will not do." Id. at 555. "Factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level." Id . In keeping with the principles of Twombly, the Supreme Court has underscored that a trial court must assess whether a complaint states facts upon which relief can be granted when ruling on a motion to dismiss. In Ashcroft v. Iqbal , 556 U.S. 662 (2009), the Supreme Court held that, when considering a motion to dismiss, a court should "begin by identifying pleadings that, because they are no more than conclusions, are not entitled to the assumption of truth." Id. at 679. According to the Supreme Court, "[t]hreadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice." Id. at 678. Rather, in conducting a review of the adequacy of complaint, the Supreme Court has advised trial courts that they must:

[B]egin by identifying pleadings that because they are no more than conclusions are not entitled to the assumption of truth. While legal conclusions can provide the framework of a complaint, they must be supported by factual allegations. When there are well-pleaded factual allegations, a court should assume their veracity and then determine whether they plausibly give rise to an entitlement to relief.

Id. at 679.

Thus, following Twombly and Iqbal a well-pleaded complaint must contain more than mere legal labels and conclusions. Rather, a complaint must recite factual allegations sufficient to raise the plaintiff's claimed right to relief beyond the level of mere speculation. As the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has stated:

[A]fter Iqbal, when presented with a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, district courts should conduct a two-part analysis. First, the factual and legal elements of a claim should be separated. The District Court must accept all of the complaint's well-pleaded facts as true, but may disregard any legal conclusions. Second, a District Court must then determine whether the facts alleged in the complaint are sufficient to show that the plaintiff has a "plausible claim for relief." In other words, a complaint must do more than allege the plaintiff's entitlement to relief. A complaint has to "show" such an entitlement with its facts.

Fowler , 578 F.3d at 210-11.

In practice, consideration of the legal sufficiency of a complaint entails a three-step analysis: "First, the court must tak[e] note of the elements a plaintiff must plead to state a claim.' Iqbal , 129 S.Ct. at 1947. Second, the court should identify allegations that, because they are no more than conclusions, are not entitled to the assumption of truth.' Id. at 1950. Finally, where there are well-pleaded factual allegations, a court should assume their veracity and then determine whether they plausibly give rise to an entitlement for relief.' Id." Santiago v. Warminster Tp. , 629 F.3d 121, 130 (3d Cir. 2010).

In addition to these pleading rules, a civil complaint must comply with the requirements of Rule 8(a) of the Federal Rule of Civil Procedure which defines what a complaint should say and provides that:

(a) A pleading that states a claim for relief must contain (1) a short and plain statement of the grounds for the court's jurisdiction, unless the court already has jurisdiction and the claim needs no new jurisdictional support; (2) a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief; and (3) a demand for the relief sought, which may include relief in the alternative or different types of relief.

Thus, a well-pleaded complaint must contain more than mere legal labels and conclusions. Rather, a pro se plaintiff's complaint must recite factual allegations which are sufficient to raise the plaintiff's claimed right to relief beyond the level of mere speculation, set forth in a "short and plain" statement of a cause of action.

B. Gadra-Lord's Amended Complaint Fails to State a Claim Against Superintendent Varano, Major Miller and Grievance Coordinator Kelley

In this case, Gadra-Lord's amended complaint includes three supervisory defendants-Superintendent Varano, Major Miller and Grievance Coordinator Kelley -but is bereft of any factual averments relating to direct involvement of these supervisory officials in any alleged acts of wrongdoing. This cursory style of pleading is insufficient to state a claim against these prison supervisors. In considering claims brought against supervisory officials arising out of alleged constitutional violations, the courts recognize that agency supervisors may be exposed to liability only in certain, narrowly defined, circumstances.

At the outset, it is clear that a claim of a constitutional deprivation cannot be premised merely on the fact that the named defendants were prison supervisors when the incidents set forth in the complaint occurred. Quite the contrary, to state a constitutional tort claim the plaintiff must show that the supervisory defendants actively deprived him of a right secured by the Constitution. Morse v. Lower Merion School Dist. , 132 F.3d 902 (3d Cir. 1997); see also Maine v. Thiboutot , 448 U.S. 1 (1980). Constitutional tort liability is personal in nature and can only follow personal involvement in the alleged wrongful conduct shown through specific allegations of personal direction or of actual knowledge and acquiescence in the challenged practice. Robinson v. City of Pittsburgh , 120 F.3d 1286 (3d Cir. 1997).

In particular, with respect to prison supervisors it is well-established that:

"A[n individual government] defendant in a civil rights action must have personal involvement in the alleged wrongdoing; liability cannot be predicated solely on the operation of respondeat superior. Personal involvement can be shown through allegations of personal direction or of actual knowledge and acquiescence." Rode v. Dellarciprete , 845 F.2d 1195, 1207 (3d Cir.1988).

Evancho v. Fisher , 423 F.3d 347, 353 (3d Cir. 2005).

As the Supreme Court has observed:

Government officials may not be held liable for the unconstitutional conduct of their subordinates under a theory of respondeat superior. ... See Monell v. New York City Dept. of Social Servs. , 436 U.S. 658, 691, 98 S.Ct. 2018, 56 L.Ed.2d 611 (1978) (finding no vicarious liability for a municipal "person" under 42 U.S.C. § 1983); see also Dunlop v. Munroe , 7 Cranch 242, 269, 3 L.Ed. 329 (1812) (a federal official's liability "will only result from his own neglect in not properly superintending the discharge" of his subordinates' duties); Robertson v. Sichel , 127 U.S. 507, 515-516, 8 S.Ct. 1286, 3 L.Ed. 203 (1888) ("A public officer or agent is not responsible for the misfeasances or position wrongs, or for the nonfeasances, or negligences, or omissions of duty, of the subagents or servants or other persons properly employed by or under him, in the discharge of his official duties"). Because vicarious liability is inapplicable to Bivens and § 1983 suits, a plaintiff must plead that each Government-official defendant, through the official's own individual actions, has violated the Constitution.

Ashcroft v. Iqbal , 556 U.S. 662, 676 (2009).

Applying these benchmarks, courts have frequently held that, in the absence of evidence of supervisory knowledge and approval of subordinates' actions, a plaintiff may not maintain an action against supervisors based upon the misdeeds of their subordinates. O'Connell v. Sobina, No. 06-238 , 2008 WL 144199, * 21 (W.D. Pa. Jan. 11, 2008); Neuburger v. Thompson , 305 F.Supp.2d 521, 535 (W. D. Pa. 2004). Rather, "[p]ersonal involvement must be alleged and is only present where the supervisor directed the actions of supervisees or actually knew of the actions and acquiesced in them. See Rode v. Dellarciprete , 845 F.2d 1195, 1207 (3d Cir.1988)." Jetter v. Beard , 183 F.Appx. 178, 181 (3d Cir. 2006)(emphasis added).

Indeed, "[n]umerous courts, including this one, have expressed uncertainty as to the viability and scope of supervisory liability after Iqbal.' Santiago , 629 F.3d at 130 n. 8 (collecting cases); see also Argueta, 643 F.3d at 70." Bistrian v. Levi , 696 F.3d 352, 366 n. 5 (3d Cir. 2012). To the extent that supervisory liability survives after Iqbal, the scope of that liability is clearly and narrowly defined. As the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has observed: "[t]here are [only] two theories of supervisory liability' one under which supervisors can be liable if they established and maintained a policy, practice or custom which directly caused [the] constitutional harm, ' and another under which they can be liable if they participated in violating plaintiff's rights, directed others to violate them, or, as the person[s] in charge, had knowledge of and acquiesced in [their] subordinates' violations.' A.M. ex rel. J.M.K. v. Luzerne Cnty. Juvenile Det. Ctr. , 372 F.3d 572, 586 (3d Cir.2004) (second alteration in original)." Santiago v. Warminster Twp. , 629 F.3d 121, 129 (3d Cir. 2010).

Here, Gadra-Lord's amended complaint does not meet these exacting pleading requirements. Rather, the complaint does little more than name Superintendent Varano, Major Miller, and Grievance Coordinator Kelley in the caption of the case, and then seeks to hold these officials personally liable based upon the official's supervisory status without making any specific factual allegations about these defendants in the body of this pleading. To the extent that Gadra-Lord simply premises the liability of these defendants upon their supervisory status without setting forth any further factual basis for a claim in the body of this pleading, this cursory style of pleading is plainly inadequate to state a claim against a prison supervisor and compels dismissal of these defendants. Hudson v. City of McKeesport , 244 F.Appx. 519 (3d Cir. 2007) (affirming dismissal of defendant who was only named in caption of case.)

Gadra-Lord cannot save this deficient complaint merely by alleging in a summary fashion that defendants Varano and Kelley failed to act upon his grievance regarding the alleged loss of his property. This contention fails because Gadra-Lord cannot sustain a supervisory liability claim against these officials by simply alleging in a talismanic fashion that they failed to adequately act upon a grievance he lodged.

To the extent that this supervisory liability claims rest on the premise that officials did not after-the-fact act favorably upon his past grievances, this claim also fails. An inmate cannot sustain a constitutional tort claim against prison supervisors based solely upon assertions that officials failed to adequately investigate or respond to his past grievances. Inmates do not have a constitutional right to a prison grievance system. Speight v. Sims , 283 F.Appx. 880 (3d Cir. 2008) (citing Massey v. Helman , 259 F.3d 641, 647 (7th Cir. 2001) ("[T]he existence of a prison grievance procedure confers no liberty interest on a prisoner."). Consequently, dissatisfaction with a response to an inmate's grievances does not support a constitutional claim. See also Alexander v. Gennarini , 144 F.Appx. 924 (3d Cir. 2005) (involvement in post-incident grievance process not a basis for § 1983 liability); Pryor-El v. Kelly , 892 F.Supp. 261, 275 (D. D.C. 1995) (because prison grievance procedure does not confer any substantive constitutional rights upon prison inmates, the prison officials' failure to comply with grievance procedure is not actionable). See also Cole v. Sobina, No. 04-99J , 2007 WL 4460617, at *5 (W.D. Pa. Dec. 19, 2007) ("[M]ere concurrence in a prison administrative appeal process does not implicate a constitutional concern."). As the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit observed when disposing of a similar claim by another inmate:

Several named defendants, such as the Secretaries of the Department of Corrections or Superintendents, were named only for their supervisory roles in the prison system. The District Court properly dismissed these defendants and any additional defendants who were sued based on their failure to take corrective action when grievances or investigations were referred to them. See Rode v. Dellarciprete , 845 F.2d 1195, 1207 (3d Cir.1988) (defendant in a civil rights action must have personal involvement in the alleged wrongs; liability cannot be predicated solely on the operation of respondeat superior ); see also Antonelli v. Sheahan , 81 F.3d 1422, 1430 (7th Cir.1996) (state's inmate grievance procedures do not give rise to a liberty interest protected by the Due Process Clause).

Pressley v. Beard , 266 F.Appx. 216, 218 (3d Cir. 2008).

Indeed, as to such claims, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has recently held that summary dismissal is appropriate "because there is no apparent obligation for prison officials to investigate prison grievances. See Inmates of Attica Corr. Facility v. Rockefeller , 477 F.2d 375, 382 (2d Cir.1973)." Paluch v. Sec'y Pennsylvania Dept. Corr. , 442 F.Appx. 690, 695 (3d Cir. 2011).

In sum, the plaintiff's claims against Superintendent Varano, Major Miller and Grievance Coordinator Kelley consist of little more than assertions of respondeat superior liability, coupled with dissatisfaction with the processing of this inmate's past grievance, assertions which as a matter of law do not suffice to state a constitutional tort claim. Therefore, these defendants are entitled to be dismissed from this case.

Having conducted this second screening analysis of the plaintiff's amended complaint and determined that Gadra-Lord's amended complaint is still wanting as to defendants Varano, Kelley and Major Miller, we recognize that in civil rights cases pro se plaintiffs often should be afforded an opportunity to amend a complaint before the complaint is dismissed in its entirety, See Fletcher-Hardee Corp. v. Pote Concrete Contractors , 482 F.3d 247, 253 (3d Cir. 2007), unless granting further leave to amend would be futile or result in undue delay. Alston v. Parker , 363 F.3d 229, 235 (3d Cir. 2004). With respect to these defendants named in this amended complaint, in this case the court has previously provided the plaintiff with ample opportunity to amend these pleadings, but to no avail. The current amended complaint still fails to state a viable civil rights cause of action against these defendants, and actually repeats assertions that were previously found to be legally insufficient. Since the plaintiff has been afforded opportunities to correct the deficiencies identified in his prior complaint with respect to these defendants, has failed to state a viable civil rights cause of action, and the factual and legal grounds proffered in support of the second amended complaint make it clear that he has no right to relief, granting further leave to amend would be futile or result in undue delay. Alston v. Parker , 363 F.3d 229, 235 (3d Cir. 2004). Therefore, it is recommended that the amended complaint (Doc. 9.) be dismissed as defendants Varano, Kelley and Major Miller without further leave to amend.

III. Recommendation

Accordingly, for the foregoing reasons, IT IS RECOMMENDED that the plaintiff's complaint be dismissed with respect to supervisory defendants Varano, Kelley and Major Miller without further leave to amend. It is recommended that the amended complaint be served upon the remaining named defendants.

The Parties are further placed on notice that pursuant to Local Rule 72.3:

Any party may object to a magistrate judge's proposed findings, recommendations or report addressing a motion or matter described in 28 U.S.C. § 636 (b)(1)(B) or making a recommendation for the disposition of a prisoner case or a habeas corpus petition within fourteen (14) days after being served with a copy thereof. Such party shall file with the clerk of court, and serve on the magistrate judge and all parties, written objections which shall specifically identify the portions of the proposed findings, recommendations or report to which objection is made and the basis for such objections. The briefing requirements set forth in Local Rule 72.2 shall apply. A judge shall make a de novo determination of those portions of the report or specified proposed findings or recommendations to which objection is made and may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations made by the magistrate judge. The judge, however, need conduct a new hearing only in his or her discretion or where required by law, and may consider the record developed before the magistrate judge, making his or her own determination on the basis of that record. The judge may also receive further evidence, recall witnesses or recommit the matter to the magistrate judge with instructions.

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