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Shoatz v. Wetzel

United States District Court, Third Circuit

January 27, 2014

RUSSELL SHOATZ a/k/a RUSSELL SHOATS, Plaintiff,
v.
JOHN E. WETZEL, in his official capacity as Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections; LOUIS S. FOLINO, in his official capacity as Superintendent of the State Correctional Institution at Greene; and JOHN KERESTES, in his official capacity as Superintendent of the State Correctional Institution at Mahanoy, Defendants.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

CYNTHIA REED EDDY, Magistrate Judge.

Presently pending is the Motion to Dismiss filed by Defendants, with brief in support (ECF Nos. 12 and 13), the Brief in opposition filed by Plaintiff (ECF No. 23), and the Reply Brief filed by Defendants (ECF No. 24). For the reasons that follow, the Motion will be denied.[1]

Factual Background

Plaintiff, Russell Shoatz a/k/a Russell Shoats, is a state prisoner committed to the custody of the Pennsylvania Department of Correction.[2] This action was initiated by Plaintiff on May 8, 2014, by the filing of a counseled prisoner civil rights Complaint. (ECF No. 1). Named as Defendants are the Secretary of Corrections, John E. Wetzel, and the Superintendents of SCI-Greene, Louis S. Folino, and SCI-Mahanoy, John Kerestes.

Plaintiff has been held in solitary confinement continuously since June of 1991, approximately twenty-two (22) years. He alleges that the "specific conditions of his solitary confinement - conditions which he has been subjected to for over 21 consecutive years - amount to cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment." Br. at 1-2. He also claims that under his specific circumstances, Defendants have failed to afford him all of the process he is due, thus, violating both his procedural and substantive due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment. Plaintiff seeks declaratory and injunctive relief, including placement in general population, as well as compensatory and punitive damages.

Defendants have filed the instant Motion to Dismiss, with brief in support, in which they seek to have Plaintiff's claims dismissed with prejudice pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). The matter has been fully briefed and is ripe for disposition.

Standard of Review

A motion to dismiss pursuant Rule 12(b)(6) challenges the legal sufficiently of the complaint. When reviewing a motion to dismiss, the Court must accept all well-pleaded facts and allegations, and must draw all reasonable inferences therefrom in favor of the plaintiff. Burtch v. Milberg Factors, Inc., 62 F.3d 212, 220 (3d Cir. 2011), cert. denied, ___ U.S. __ , 131 S.Ct. 1861 (2012) (citing In re Ins. Brokerage Antitrust Litig., 618 F.3d 300, 314 (3d Cir. 2010)). However, as the Supreme Court of the United States made clear in Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, such "[f]actual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level." 550 U.S. 554, 555 (2007). See also Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (holding that, while the Complaint need not contain detailed factual allegations, it must contain more than a "formulaic recitation of the elements" of a constitutional claim and must state a claim that is plausible on its face) (quoting Twombly, and providing further guidance on the standard set forth therein).

To determine the legal sufficiency of a complaint after Twombly and Iqbal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit instructs that a district court must make a three-step approach when presented with a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim . Santiago v. Warminster Twp., 629 F.3d 121, 130 n.7 (3d Cir. 2010) (noting that although Iqbal describes the process as a "two-pronged approach, " it views the case as outlining three steps) (citing Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 675). First, "the court must tak[e] note of the elements a plaintiff must plead to state a claim." Id. at 130 (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 675) (alteration in original). Second, the court "should identify allegations that, because they are no more than conclusions, are not entitled to the assumption of truth.'" Id. (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679). Third, "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. (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679).

Courts generally consider the allegations of the complaint, attached exhibits, and matters of public record in deciding motions to dismiss. Pension Benefit Guar. Corp. v. White Consol. Indus., Inc., 998 F.2d 1192, 1196 (3d Cir. 1993). Factual allegations within documents described or identified in the complaint also may be considered if the plaintiff's claims are based upon those documents. Id. (citations omitted). In addition, a district court may consider indisputably authentic documents without converting a motion to dismiss into a motion for summary judgment. Spruill v. Gillis, 372 F.3d 218, 223 (3d Cir. 2004); Lum v. Bank of America, 361 F.3d 217, 222 (3d Cir. 2004) (in resolving a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6), a court generally should consider "the allegations in the complaint, exhibits attached to the complaint, matters of public record, and documents that form the basis of a claim.").

Moreover, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has held that, in civil rights cases, a court must give a plaintiff the opportunity to amend a deficient complaint - regardless of whether the plaintiff requests to do so - when dismissing a case for failure to state a claim, unless doing so would be inequitable or futile. See Fletcher-Harlee Corp. v. Pote Concrete Contractors, Inc., 482 F.3d 247, 251 (3d Cir. 2007).

Discussion

A. Claims Brought under the Eighth Amendment

As noted supra, Plaintiff alleges that the specific conditions of his solitary confinement, namely conditions which he has been subjected to for over twenty-two consecutive years, amount to a violation of the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. See U.S. Const. amend. VIII.

Courts consider the conditions of confinement as a whole because several deprivations in combination may constitute a constitutional violation when they have a mutually enforcing effect that produce the deprivation of a single, identifiable human need, such as health, safety, food, warmth, or exercise. See Wilson v. Seiter, 501 U.S. 294, 298, 304 (1991). For a condition of confinement to be considered cruel and unusual it must be: (i) grossly disproportionate to the severity of the crime warranting punishment, (ii) involve the wanton and unnecessary infliction of pain, or (iii) deprive inmates of the minimal civilized measure of life's necessities. Rhodes v. Chapman, 452 U.S. 337, 347 (1981). The prison environment itself may not be so brutal or unhealthy as to be in itself a punishment. Bell v. Wolfish, 441 U.S. 520, 539 (1979).

A plaintiff asserting a claim of cruel and unusual conditions of confinement under the Eighth Amendment must satisfy a two-part test, with an objective and a subjective component. Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825, 834 (1994). To satisfy the objective component, a plaintiff must show that the conditions to which he is subjected are "sufficiently serious, " and to satisfy the subjective component, the plaintiff must show that the defendants are deliberately indifferent to his health or safety. Id.

The standard for determining whether prison conditions satisfy the Eighth Amendment's objective component focuses on whether the conditions are contrary to "the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society, " Id. at 833-34, or whether the inmate has been denied "the minimal civilized measure of life's necessities." Rhodes v. Chapman, 452 U.S. 337, 347 (1981). Such things as food, sleep, clothing, shelter, medical attention, reasonable safety, sleep, and exercise have been recognized by courts as basic physical human needs subject to deprivation by conditions of confinement.

In Young v. Quinlan, 960 F.2d 35, 364 (3d Cir. 1992), the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit discussed conditions of segregation in the context of the objective component of a claim ...


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