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St. Clair v. Pennsylvania Department of Corrections

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

February 24, 2014

SHARI ST. CLAIR, Plaintiff,
v.
PENNSYLVANIA DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS; PENNSYLVANIA DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS SCI LAUREL HIGHLANDS; PENNSYLVANIA DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS SCI CAMP HILL; JEFFREY A. BEARD; JOHN E. WETZEL; J. BARRY JOHNSON; DAVID W. PITKINS; JOHN A. PALAKAVICH; and ANNETTE KOWALEWSKI, Defendants.

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER OF COURT

KIM R. GIBSON, District Judge.

I. INTRODUCTION

Plaintiff Shari St. Clair filed this civil rights action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging violations of the First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution. The complaint involves two factual issues: (1) the decision of Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC) officials to deny St. Clair contact visitation with her incarcerated fiance; and (2) St. Clair's termination of employment at a DOC facility. Before the Court is a motion to dismiss, wherein Defendants challenge the sufficiency of the complaint under Fed. R. Civ. P 12(b)(6). (ECF No. 4). For the reasons that follow, Defendants' motion will be granted.

II. JURISDICTION AND VENUE

The Court exercises subject matter jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331 and 1343. Venue is proper under 28 U.S.C. § 1391(b)(2) because a substantial portion of the events giving rise to the claims occurred in the Western District of Pennsylvania.

III. FACTS

From 1999 to 2009, Shari St. Clair worked as a registered nurse at Pennsylvania Department of Corrections institution SCI Laurel Highlands. (Compl. ¶ 15). During this time, St. Clair developed a "platonic acquaintance relationship" with an inmate, Dennis Davis. ( Id. ¶ 18). Shortly after Davis's release from SCI Laurel Highlands in 2003, Davis and St. Clair began living together. ( Id. ¶ 20). They now have a young child and plan to marry. ( Id. ¶¶ 21-22).

The dispute in this case arose after Davis's conviction of rape in 2009, for which a judge sentenced him to 10 to 20 years of imprisonment. (Compl. ¶ 28). St. Clair initially requested permission from DOC officials to visit and correspond with Davis, but those requests were denied in April 2009. ( Id. ¶¶ 30, 32). According to St. Clair, however, she received telephone calls from Davis at her place of work between April and June 2009. ( Id. ¶ 33).

In June 2009, St. Clair allegedly contacted Pennsylvania State Senator Richard Kasunic to "plead her case" for visitation and communication with Davis. ( Id. ¶ 34). St. Clair further avers that, "in retaliation" for involving Senator Kasunic, DOC officials initiated an investigation into St. Clair's contact with Davis. ( Id. ¶ 35). This investigation ultimately led to St. Clair's termination of employment.

The disciplinary process began in August 2009, when DOC officials held a fact-finding meeting with St. Clair. (Compl. ¶ 38). At that time, officials found that St. Clair had violated DOC directives by communicating with Davis without permission, and a pre-disciplinary hearing was scheduled. ( Id. ). The pre-disciplinary hearing was held on August 17, 2009, and St. Clair was suspended without pay in late August 2009. ( Id. ¶ 41). DOC officials eventually informed St. Clair in a November 10, 2009 letter that her nursing position was terminated, effective November 6, 2009. ( Id. ¶ 42).

St. Clair sought reinstatement of her position by following the grievance process outlined in her termination letter. ( Id. ). In January 2010, a "First Step" meeting was held, at which time DOC officials refused to reinstate her position. (Compl. ¶ 44). St. Clair then presented her case at an "Accelerated Grievance Proceeding" on June 2, 2010. ( Id. ¶ 45). But, according to St. Clair, she never received a written decision informing her of that proceeding's outcome. ( Id. ¶¶ 46, 48, 49).

Despite the absence of a DOC written decision, a union representative apparently told St. Clair that her termination was "upheld" on appeal. ( Id. ¶ 46). The union later informed St. Clair in a February 7, 2012 email-a "final confirmation" of dismissal-that she could be employed "anywhere in the Pennsylvania State system, but not at any correctional facility." ( Id. ¶ 49). St. Clair avers that, without a written decision from the DOC, she was deprived of a "forum or procedure for redress of her claims." ( Id. ).

Since her dismissal, DOC officials have continuously denied her requests for physical visitation with Davis, though she has been granted "virtual visits." (Compl. ¶ 51). In January 2013, St. Clair initiated this § 1983 action by filing an 11-count complaint against the DOC, two DOC institutions, and certain DOC officials both in their official and individual capacities. St. Clair asserts that she has a constitutional right to contact visits with Davis under the First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendments. She also avers that her termination of employment amounted to unlawful retaliation, discrimination, and a ...


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