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Wills v. USP-Canaan

United States District Court, Middle District of Pennsylvania

January 28, 2014

USP-CANAAN, et al., Defendants




I. Statement of Facts and of the Case.

This case comes before the Court for further consideration of the complaint, (Doc. 1), and a proposed amended complaint, (Doc. 25-1), filed by the plaintiff. The pro se plaintiff, Christopher Wills, is a federal prisoner who has sued the United States, the prison where he was formerly housed, USP-Canaan, and a number of individual defendants. In his original complaint, Wills initially alleged that in June of 2011 the prison served inmates chicken fajitas. (Doc. 1) According to the plaintiff, the chicken was bad, and was tainted with salmonella bacteria. (Id.) Consequently, the plaintiff contracted food poisoning, and suffered excruciating pain and symptoms which included headaches, diarrhea, abdominal pains, nausea, chills, vomiting, inability to eat and profuse sweating. (Id.) Alleging negligence and deliberate indifference on the part of the prison in the preparation and service of this food, the plaintiff initially damages from the United States, and an institutional defendant identified as “USP-Canaan”, pursuant to the Federal Tort Claims Act, 28 U.S.C. § 2675, et seq., and as a Bivens constitutional tort action.

On December 18, 2013, the defendants filed a motion to dismiss, which we also construed as a motion for summary judgment, in this case. (Doc. 23) This motion alleged that the USP-Canaan was not a proper defendant in this action, and also argued that the plaintiff had failed to exhaust his administrative remedies within the prison before filing this lawsuit, something that prisoner plaintiffs are required by law to do as a prerequisite to seeking relief in federal court.

On January 15, 2014, Wills filed a response to this motion, (Doc. 26), which has caused the United States to notify us that it has withdrawn its contention that Wills failed to exhaust his administrative remedies, while it continues to pursue its claim that “USP-Canaan” is not a proper defendant in this matter. (Doc. 29) On that same day, Wills also filed a motion to amend his complaint, (Doc. 25), along with a proposed amended complaint. (Doc. 25-1) This amended complaint purported to bring both an action under the Federal Tort Claims Act and a Bivens constitutional tort action against the United States, five named individual prison employees, and between 5 and 10 unnamed prison officials at the United States Penitentiary Canaan. According to Wills’ proposed amended complaint, these defendants negligently provided him tainted food, and violated his constitutional rights by showing deliberate indifference to his needs, by denying him due process, and by engaging in “Cultural, Social, Economical and Geological discrimination.” (Id.) Notably, although Wills names five individual prison officials in the caption of the amended complaint, the body of that pleading only makes factual allegations against one of these defendants, defendant Nowitski, who is alleged to have used racial epithets, and threatened to retaliate against the plaintiff if he pursued complaints regarding prison food service. (Id.) The remaining named defendants–defendants Paone, Keiser, Sullivan, and Vanderhaywright–are not referred in the body of this pleading. On the basis of these allegations, Wills’ proposed amended complaint seeks damages totaling $1, 400, 000 from each defendant. (Id.) Wills’ amended complaint also seeks injunctive relief relating to prison food services at the United States Penitentiary, Canaan. Wills seeks this injunctive relief, even though he is not longer housed at that prison.

Having conducted a review of these pleadings, for the reasons set forth below, we find that the complaint and amended complaint remain legally flawed in a number of ways. Therefore, it is recommended that, with the exception of the plaintiff’s pending FTCA claim against the United States, the complaint and amended complaint be dismissed without prejudice to Wills endeavoring to file a final amended complaint which corrects the deficiencies noted in this Report and Recommendation. We also note that the defendant has now expressed a willingness to engage in settlement discussion with Wills. Therefore, we will order mediation in this case, and direct that further action in this case be stayed pending the outcome of these mediation efforts.

II .Discussion

A. Rule 12(b)(6)–Standard of Review

The defendant has moved to dismiss this complaint pursuant to 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 therefrom 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. ...

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