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Gessner v. Department of Corrections

United States District Court, Middle District of Pennsylvania

January 23, 2014

AMANDA GESSNER, Plaintiff
v.
DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS, et al., Defendants

Kosik, Judge.

REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

Martin C. Carlson, United States Magistrate Judge.

I. Statement of Facts and of the Case

This case comes before the Court for a statutorily mandated screening review. The plaintiff, Amanda Gessner, is a state inmate, who filed a 155-page complaint on January 22, 2014. (Doc. 1) In this complaint, Gessner sues a state agency, the state Department of Corrections, and one individual correctional officer. (Id.) Liberally construed, Gessner’s complaint alleges that she has been physically, verbally, and sexually abused by a correctional officer from 2010 through 2013. According to Gessner, after she reported this abuse in 2013, the correctional officer then retaliated against her. (Id.) As a remedy for these alleged constitutional infractions, Gessner seeks injunctive relief and damages from the defendants, along with an order directing the criminal prosecution of correctional staff.

Along with this pro se complaint, Gessner filed a motion for leave to proceed in forma pauperis, (Doc. 2), which we will grant. While we will grant this motion to proceed in forma pauperis, as part of our legally-mandated screening of pro se, in forma pauperis cases, we have carefully reviewed this complaint and conclude that, in its current form several aspects of the complaint fail to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. Specifically, we find that any claim for damages from the Department of Corrections is precluded by the Eleventh Amendment to the United States Constitution. We further find that Gessner may not obtain some of the relief that she seeks in this lawsuit, in that she may not use this civil case to institute a criminal prosecution of some third party. Accordingly, for the reasons set forth below, it is recommended that these claims in the complaint be dismissed. It is further recommended that the complaint be served upon the individual correctional officer named as a defendant in this matter.

II. Discussion

A. Screening of Pro Se 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. See 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B)(ii). Specifically, the Court must assess whether a pro se complaint fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, since Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 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). In addition, when reviewing in forma pauperis complaints, 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B)(ii) specifically enjoins us to “dismiss the complaint at any time if the court determines that . . . the action . . . 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 ...

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