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Owens v. Coleman

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

February 18, 2014

STEVEN OWENS, Plaintiff,
BRIAN COLEMAN; SCOTT NICKELSON, JOHN ALBRIGHT, ROBERT HAWKINBERRY, RONALD HOSTIVICH, and CARL WALKER, sued in their individual and official capacities, Defendants.


CYNTHIA REED EDDY, Magistrate Judge.

Presently pending is the Motion to Dismiss filed by Defendants, with brief in support (ECF Nos. 21 and 22). For the reasons that follow, the Motion will be granted in part and denied in part.[1]

Factual Background

Plaintiff, Steven Owens, is a state prisoner committed to the custody of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections and at all times relevant to this lawsuit was incarcerated at SCI-Fayette, where the Defendants were employed.[2] This action was initiated by Plaintiff on March 6, 2013, by the filing of a prisoner civil rights Complaint. (ECF No. 1). However, because the Complaint was received without a filing fee or an in forma pauperis motion, the case was administratively closed. On March 20, 2013, Plaintiff filed a motion for leave to proceed in forma pauperis and the case was thereafter reopened and the Complaint filed. Named as Defendants are Brian Coleman, Superintendent of SCI-Fayette; Scott Nickelson, Major of the Unit Management Team at SCI-Fayette; Ronald Hostivich, Maintenance Supervisor; Carl E. Walker, Captain of the Restricted Housing Unit ("RHU"); John Albright and Robert Hawkinberry, Lieutenants of the RHU, all sued in their individual and official capacities.

According to the Complaint, on July 14, 2012, Plaintiff was placed in Cell J-D 1012 in the RHU at SCI-Fayette, a cell which was "out of order" as there was a crack in the pipes and in the in-cell shower which would cause the entire cell to flood, even if no one was using the shower. On July 15, 2012, as an inmate in the adjacent cell, J-D 1011, took his in-cell shower, the shower in Plaintiff's cell "turned on by itself flooding" Plaintiff's cell. As a result of the flooding, Plaintiff slipped and fell injuring his back and hitting his head on the floor.

Plaintiff was seen by a nurse who informed him that days prior to his fall, another inmate, who also had been housed in cell J-D 1012, was injured in the same manner caused by the same "cell dysfunctions." Plaintiff was also informed by a Sergeant that cell J-D 1012 had not been repaired even though several works orders had been placed to have the cell repaired and Plaintiff was now the second inmate to be injured as a result of the cell flooding. From the Complaint, it appears that Plaintiff was transferred to a different cell three (3) days after his fall.

Plaintiff alleges that as a result of the injuries he sustained in his fall, he suffers from neck and back injuries, constant headaches, dizzy spells, and pain through his neck, back and shoulders. He seeks declaratory and injunctive relief, as well and compensatory and punitive damages.

Presently pending is Defendants' Motion to Dismiss, with brief in support, arguing that the complaint should be dismissed for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted (ECF Nos. 21 and 22). By Order of October 7, 2013, Plaintiff was given leave to either file an amended complaint in this action no later than November 12, 2013, and if he did not desire to file an amended complaint, Plaintiff was ordered to file a response in opposition to Defendants' Motion to Dismiss no later than November 12, 2013 (ECF No. 23). To date, Plaintiff has not complied with the Court's order, which specifically stated that should Plaintiff fail to comply with the order, the Motion to Dismiss may be decided without the benefit of Plaintiff's response.

On December 12, 2013, the Court entered an Order requiring Plaintiff to show cause on or before December 30, 2013, why the motion should not be decided without the benefit of his response (ECF No. 25). On January 2, 2014, Plaintiff filed a Motion for Extension of Time in which to file a response, which request was granted and Plaintiff was given an extension until January 21, 2014, in which to file a response to the pending motion to dismiss. Plaintiff was again advised that failure to comply with the Order would result in the motion to dismiss being decided without the benefit of his response. (Text Order of 01/02/2014). As of the date of this Memorandum Opinion, Plaintiff has not responded to Defendants' motion and the time for responding has now passed. Therefore, in the absence of any timely response by Plaintiff, the Court will deem the motion to dismiss to be ripe for resolution and will resolve the Motion to Dismiss on the merits without the benefit of Plaintiff's response.

Standard of Review

A. Pro Se Litigants

Pro se pleadings, "however inartfully pleaded, " must be held to "less stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers." Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, 520-521 (1972). If the court can reasonably read pleadings to state a valid claim on which the litigant could prevail, it should do so despite failure to cite proper legal authority, confusion of legal theories, poor syntax and sentence construction, or the litigant's unfamiliarity with pleading requirements. Boag v. MacDougall , 454 U.S. 364 (1982); United States ex rel. Montgomery v. Bierley, 141 F.2d 552, 555 (3d Cir.1969) (petition prepared by a prisoner may be inartfully drawn and should be read "with a measure of tolerance").

In a section 1983 action, the court must liberally construe the pro se litigant's pleadings and "apply the applicable law, irrespective of whether a pro se litigant has mentioned it by name." Higgins v. Beyer , 293 F.3d 683, 688 (3d Cir. 2002) (quoting Holley v. Dep't of Veteran Affairs , 165 F.3d 244, 247-48 (3d Cir. 1999)).[3] See also Nami v. Fauver, 82 F.3d 63, 65 (3d Cir. 1996) ("Since this is a ยง 1983 action, the [pro se] plaintiffs are entitled to relief if their complaint sufficiently alleges deprivation of any right secured by the Constitution.") (quoting Higgins, 293 F.3d at 688). Under our liberal pleading rules, during the initial stages of litigation, a district court should construe all allegations in a complaint in favor of the complainant. Gibbs v. Roman, 116 F.3d 83 (3d Cir. 1997). See, e.g., Nami v. Fauver , 82 F.3d 63, 65 (3d Cir.1996) (discussing Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6) standard); Markowitz v. Northeast Land Co., 906 F.2d 100, 103 (3d Cir. 1990) (same). Notwithstanding this liberality, pro se litigants are not relieved of their obligation to allege sufficient facts to support a cognizable legal claim. See, e.g., Taylor v. Books A Million, Inc ., 296 F.3d 376, 378, (5th Cir. 2002).

Because Plaintiff is a pro se litigant, this Court may consider facts and make inferences where it is appropriate.

B. Motion to Dismiss Pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) - The Legal Standard

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 ...

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