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Booze v. Wetzel

United States District Court, Third Circuit

December 16, 2013

JOSHUA BOOZE, Plaintiff,
JOHN WETZEL, et al., Defendants.


SUSAN E. SCHWAB, Magistrate Judge.

The plaintiff, Joshua Booze ("Booze"), an inmate at the State Correctional Institution at Coal Township ("SCI Coal Township), filed this comprehensive pro se civil rights complaint asserting a plethora of claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Along with his complaint, Booze filed a motion to proceed in forma pauperis pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915. Based on his application and the apparent absence of three dismissals within 28 U.S.C. § 1915(g), I recommend granting Booze's motion. I have screened Booze's complaint in accord with 28 U.S.C. § 1915A, however, and I recommend its dismissal.

I. Background and Procedural History.

On August 13, 2013, Booze initiated this civil action by filing a complaint containing 107 paragraphs against the following 22 defendants: (1) John Wetzel ("Wetzel"), the Secretary of Corrections for the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections ("DOC"); (2) M. Cloptoski ("Cloptoski"), the Eastern Regional Superintendent for the DOC; (3) David Varano, the Superintendent at SCI Coal Township; (4) Ronda Ellett ("Ellett"), oversaw security management at SCI Coal Township and was the chair of the prison's "Program Review Committee" ("PRC"); (5) George Miller ("Miller"), a Deputy Superintendent at SCI Coal Township and member of the prison's PRC; (6) Anthony Luscavage ("Luscavage"), a Deputy Superintendent and member of SCI Coal Township's PRC; (7) Michael Miller ("Miller"), a Deputy Superintendent at SCI Coal Township and, another, chairman of the PRC; (8) Linda Chisma ("Chismar"), Correctional Classification and Program Manager at SCI Coal Township and member of the PRC; (9) Charles Stetler ("Stetler"), Captain of Security at SCI Coal Township; (10) R.E. Long ("Long"), Security Lieutenant at SCI Coal Township; (11) Charles Custer ("Custer"), a unit manager at SCI Coal Township; (12) Rhonda Tomcavage ("Tomcavage"), counselor at SCI Coal Township; (13) John Dunn ("Dunn") a unit manager at SCI Coal Township; (14) Therese Jellen ("Jellen"), Mail Inspector Supervisor at SCI Coal Township; (15) Michael White ("White"), Mail Inspector at SCI Coal Township; (16) Steve Moraskie ("Moraskie"), Mail Inspector at SCI Coal Township; (17) Janice Keller ("Keller"), Mail Inspector at SCI Coal Township; (18) Shawn McGinly ("McGinly"), a manager at the Sunbury State Police; (19) FNU Tobaz, a Sergeant at the Sunbury State Police Station; (20) John Chapman, a State Trooper at the Sunbury State Police; (21) Kathleen Strausser ("Strausser"), the Northumberland County Court Prothonotary; (22) Anthony Rosini, ("Rosini"), the Northumberland County District Attorney. Doc. 1 at ¶¶ 4-25. Booze sues these individuals in their individual and official capacities. Moreover, along with his complaint, Booze filed a motion to proceed in forma pauperis . Doc. 2.

In his complaint, Booze primarily complains that he was placed in the restricted housing unit ("RHU") on the restricted release list ("RRL"), without a hearing and without explanation. Booze avers, though, that he had a hearing in front of the PRC, he pleaded guilty to misconduct charges at the prison, and his custody status was regularly reviewed by the PRC.

To better understand Booze's complaint about his placement on the RRL, I shall take judicial notice of DOC policy statement, DC-ADM 802, captioned "Administrative Custody Procedures."[1] Under DC-ADM 802, "[t]he Facility Manager/designee may request that an inmate be placed on the [RRL] when he/she poses a threat to the secure operation of the facility and where a transfer to another facility or jurisdiction would not alleviate the security concern." DC-ADM 802 at p. 1-2. Criteria for placing an inmate on the RRL includes, but is not limited to, the following: the inmate's assaultive history against staff and/or inmates; sexual assault history; escape or serious escape attempt history; a threat to the orderly operation of a facility; a Special Management Unit (SMU) graduate who remains a threat; and or an SMU failure. Id. at pp. 1-2 and 1-3.

According to Booze, the PRC voted to place Booze on the RRL. See Doc. 1 at ¶¶ 89, 95. After the PRC voted, Booze alleges that Varano adopted the PRC's vote and sent the recommendation onto Cloptoski and Wetzel, who made the ultimate decision to place Booze on the RRL. Id. at ¶¶ 88-89. Booze, however, alleges that he did not meet the criteria for placement on the RRL.

In the prison context, being placed on administrative custody ("AC") status, such as being placed on the RRL, is a status of confinement for non-disciplinary reasons, which provides closer supervision, control, and protection than is provided for in general population. See DC-ADM 802 at p. 1-1. AC status inmates are housed in a Security Level 5 Housing Unit. Id. There are procedures for placing an inmate in AC.

When an inmate is initially placed in AC, whenever practical, the procedures require that written notice of the reasons for the placement be given to the inmate prior to placement, but in all cases within 24 hours after placement on AC custody status. Id. at p. 1-2. The PRC is required to hold an administrative hearing and explain to the inmate the reasons for placement on AC status. Id. at p. 1-2 and p. 2-1. The inmate is permitted to respond to the rationale for AC placement. The PRC decision must be based on some evidence as to whether there is a valid security reason to confine the inmate in AC. Id. at 2-1. The PRC is required to prepare a written summary of the hearing that includes the reasons relied upon in reaching its decision. Id. The inmate may appeal, in writing, the PRC's decision concerning their initial confinement in AC to the Facility Manager/designee within two days of the completion of the hearing. Id. at p. 2-2. If dissatisfied with the responses, the inmate may appeal the decision of the Facility Manager to the Office of the Chief Hearing Examiner. Id.

Further, the PRC is charged with reviewing the status of each inmate in AC status every seven days for the first two months. Id. at p. 2-3. The Unit Management Team is also required to review the status of every AC inmate every 30 days. The PRC must interview every inmate in AC status every 90 days unless the Unit Management Team recommends an earlier review. During the PRC reviews, the PRC will either decide to release the inmate to general population or continue his or her AC status. Id. While the PRC may recommend the release of an inmate on the RRL, only the Secretary of the DOC may approve the release of an RRL inmate from a Security Level 5 Housing Unit, or his transfer to another facility. Id. at p. 4-2. An inmate's RRL status is reviewed annually. Id. at p. 2-4.

Inmates housed in AC custody do not have the same privileges as inmates housed in general population. Id. at p. 3-1. For AC inmates, greater restrictions are placed on the availability of radios, televisions, telephone calls, personal property, visitation, access to the law library, clothing, recreation, and more, when compared to those privileges enjoyed by inmates housed in general population. Id. at pp. 3-1 and 3-2.

However, inmates in AC custody may gain additional privileges over time if granted by the PRC for positive behavior during the review period and for remaining misconduct free. Id. at p. 3-2. Inmates held in AC custody, and who have an RRL designation, "may be considered for PRC approved privileges after 90 days from the date he [or she] is assigned to the RRL." Id. Likewise, inmates housed in AC status, including those on the RRL, are to be provided access to educational services, commissary, library services, religious guidance, and counseling. Id. at pp. 3-3 and 3-4.

While the crux of Booze's complaint involves his custody status, he further alleges that while detained in the RHU, on the RRL, his personal and legal mail was opened outside of his presence and stolen. He bases his conclusion on the fact that his mother once wrote to him, informing him that he forgot her birthday. However, according to Booze he had written to her at least twice within the three weeks preceding her birthday. Booze also claims that he has proof that his mail was tampered with by prison officials because he was told as much by Stetler and by Long through a misconduct report. At the same time, while making these allegations, Booze claims that he was also informed by Long that his mail was confiscated by the prison because of the content, which violated prison policy.

In addition, Booze complains that he was discriminated against while placed on the RRL in that he did not receive certain privileges that other inmates enjoyed; namely, his ability to place phone calls. Despite his alleged attempts to do so, Booze claims that he rarely, if ever, received responses from the defendants whenever he wrote to them; whether it was a letter that he had written, a grievance, or a request slip. In each instance, whenever Booze complained, it involved the issues that he had with his custody status and his personal belief about the mail system at the prison. Booze even went so far as reaching outside the prison walls by allegedly contacting the Northumberland County District Attorney's Office and the State Police. However, nothing ever materialized for him. In fact, according to Booze, his attempts to reach outside the prison walls proved even more fruitless when he once mailed a habeas corpus petition to both Struasser and Rosini, but it was never filed. Not satisfied, Booze filed this civil rights complaint.

Based on his allegations, Booze raises claims including conspiracy to retaliate and discriminate, retaliation, violation of due process, discrimination in violation of equal protection rights, harassment, theft, willful and wanton misconduct, criminal coercion, actual malice, gross negligence, emotional distress, official oppression, violations of the First, Fourth, Fifth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution, and violations of the Pennsylvania Constitution. Additionally, Booze specifically prays for a declaratory judgment, injunctive relief, compensatory damages in the amount of $250, 000, and punitive damages in the amount of $500, 000.

II. Legal Standard for Screening Complaints Filed by Prisoners.

In accord with 28 U.S.C. § 1915A I have a statutory obligation to review a complaint filed by a prisoner seeking redress against government officials. In pertinent part, the statute provides:

(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.

Thus, as explicitly stated in the Statute, I must assess whether a prisoner's 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 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 , [556 U.S. 662], 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 Twombly , 550 U.S. 544 (2007), in order to state a valid cause of action a plaintiff must provide some factual grounds for relief ...

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