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Williams v. Gavins

United States District Court, Third Circuit

September 3, 2013

WAYNE GAVINS, et al., Defendants.


MARTIN C. CARLSON, Magistrate Judge.

I. Statement of Facts and of the Case

This is a civil rights action brought by a state inmate, Ronald Williams, who claims that the defendants, state correctional officials, used cell searches to retaliate against him and wrongfully interfere with his right of access to the courts. (Doc. 1.) The defendants have moved to dismiss Williams' complaint, (Doc. 11), arguing that Williams' pleading is fatally defective because Williams has not fully exhausted his administrative remedies as required by law before proceeding in federal court. (Id.) While the defendants' motion to dismiss raises this straightforward legal claim, it presents the claim against a highly disputed factual backdrop.

For their part, the defendants present this exhaustion claim as a legal defense which rests on an immutable fact-Williams has not exhausted his administrative remedies within the prison system. (Docs. 11 and 12.) In contrast, Williams presents a more subtle, complex and controversial factual thread, both in his complaint and in his response to this motion to dismiss. According to Williams, in August of 2012, as part of an effort to informally resolve this dispute, he wrote directly to the Secretary of the Department of Corrections, John Wetzel, and to the Department of Corrections, Office of Special Investigations, seeking an investigation into the matters which he was alleging regarding retaliatory cell searches. (Doc. 6, Exs. 3 and 5.) Williams contends that on August 22, 2012, shortly after mailing these letters, he was contacted by the Deputy Superintendent at SCI Waymart, who allegedly informed Williams that, due to the on-going investigation instigated at his request, prison officials at the institution were unable to address his problems. Instead, Williams avers that he was informed that any resolution of his concerns would have to come through Secretary Wetzel and the Special Investigations review process, (Docs. 6 and 13.), allegations which we understand the defendants deny.

Thus, the instant motion to dismiss presents a straightforward legal question regarding the exhaustion requirement in prison litigation, but poses that question against the background of a highly disputed and contested factual record. Given these disputed, and material, questions of fact it is submitted that this motion to dismiss should be denied without prejudice to resolution of this question by the court at a later date, either on a summary judgment motion or following an evidentiary proceeding.

II. Discussion

A. Motion to Dismiss-Standard of Review

A motion to dismiss is designed to test the legal sufficiency of a complaint. Thus, Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rule of Civil Procedure provides for the dismissal of a complaint, in whole or in part, if the plaintiff fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. The moving party bears the burden of showing that no claim has been stated, Hedges v. United States , 404 F.3d 744, 750 (3d Cir. 2005), and dismissal is appropriate only if, accepting all of the facts alleged in the complaint as true, the plaintiff has failed to plead "enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face, " Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly , 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007) (abrogating "no set of facts" language found in Conley v. Gibson , 355 U.S. 41, 45-46 (1957)). The facts alleged must be sufficient to "raise a right to relief above the speculative level." Twombly , 550 U.S. 544, 555. This requirement "calls for enough fact[s] to raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence" of necessary elements of the plaintiff's cause of action. Id. at 556. Furthermore, in order to satisfy federal pleading requirements, the plaintiff must "provide the grounds of his entitlement to relief, " which "requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do. Phillips v. County of Allegheny , 515 F.3d 224, 231 (3d Cir. 2008) (brackets and quotation marks omitted) (quoting Twombly , 550 U.S. at 555). Thus, "[a]t the motion to dismiss stage, we accept as true all factual assertions, but we disregard threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, legal conclusions, and conclusory statements. See Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678-79, 129 S.Ct. 1937; Twombly , 550 U.S. at 555-57, 127 S.Ct. 1955; Burtch , 662 F.3d at 220-21." James v. City of Wilkes-Barre , 700 F.3d 675, 681 (3d Cir. 2012).

As the court of appeals has observed: "The Supreme Court in Twombly set forth the plausibility' standard for overcoming a motion to dismiss and refined this approach in Iqbal. The plausibility standard requires the complaint to allege enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.' Twombly , 550 U.S. at 570, 127 S.Ct. 1955. A complaint satisfies the plausibility standard when the factual pleadings allow[ ] the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.' Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. at 1949 (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556, 127 S.Ct. 1955). This standard requires showing more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully.' Id . A complaint which pleads facts merely consistent with' a defendant's liability, [ ] stops short of the line between possibility and plausibility of "entitlement of relief."'" Burtch v. Milberg Factors, Inc. , 662 F.3d 212, 220-21 (3d Cir. 2011) cert. denied, 132 S.Ct. 1861 , 182 L.Ed.2d 644 (U.S. 2012).

Thus, in assessing a motion to dismiss the court engages in 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 undertaking this task, the court generally relies only on the complaint, attached exhibits, and matters of public record. Sands v. McCormick , 502 F.3d 263, 268 (3d Cir. 2007). The court may also consider "undisputedly authentic document[s] that a defendant attached as an exhibit to a motion to dismiss if the plaintiff's claims are based on the [attached] documents." Pension Benefit Guar. Corp. v. White Consol. Indus. , 998 F.2d 1192, 1196 (3d Cir. 1993). Moreover, "documents whose contents are alleged in the complaint and whose authenticity no party questions, but which are not physically attached to the pleading, may be considered." Pryor v. Nat'l Collegiate Athletic Ass'n , 288 F.3d 548, 560 (3d Cir. 2002); see also, U.S. Express Lines, Ltd. v. Higgins , 281 F.3d382, 388 (3d Cir. 2002) (holding that "[a]lthough a district court may not consider matters extraneous to the pleadings, a document integral to or explicitly relied upon in the complaint may be considered without converting the motion to dismiss in one for summary judgment.") However, the court may not rely on other parts of the record in determining a motion to dismiss. Jordan v. Fox, Rothschild, O'Brien & Frankel , 20 F.3d 1250, 1261 (3d Cir. 1994).

B. At This Time Disputed Factual Issues Preclude The Court from Reaching a Judgment as a Matter of Law Regarding Whether Williams Failed to Properly Exhaust His Administrative Remedies

In this case, the defendants urge the Court to dismiss the plaintiff's claims because Williams has failed to timely exhaust the administrative remedies available to him. Williams, in turn, has countered this defense claim by asserting that corrections officials frustrated his efforts to exhaust his claims by informing him that any action of his grievances would have to be deferred pending completion of an internal investigation instigated by Williams.

This dispute, which comes before the Court on an incomplete factual record, is critically important because Williams' alleged failure to timely pursue these administrative remedies can have substantive significance for the plaintiff since the Prison Litigation Reform Act provides that "[n]o action shall be brought with respect to prison conditions under... [42 U.S.C. § 1983], or any other Federal law, by a prisoner confined in any jail, prison, or other correctional facility until such administrative remedies as are available are exhausted." 42 U.S.C. § 1197e(a). Section 1997e's exhaustion requirement applies to a wide-range of inmate complaints, including damages complaints like those made here. See Spruill v. Gillis , 372 F.3d 218 (3d. Cir. 2004); Booth v. Churner , 206 F.3d 289 (3d Cir. 2000). While this exhaustion requirement is not a jurisdictional bar to litigation, this requirement is strictly ...

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