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Powell v. Wetzel

United States District Court, Middle District of Pennsylvania

February 25, 2014

KEVIN POWELL, Plaintiff,
JOHN E. WETZEL, et al., Defendants.

Kane Judge


Susan E. Schwab United States Magistrate Judge

The plaintiff, Kevin Powell (“Powell”), a state prisoner who has since been released, brings this civil action for alleged constitutional and statutory injuries incurred while he was imprisoned at the State Correctional Institution at Huntingdon (“SCI Huntingdon”).[1] The matter is presently proceeding via an amended complaint. In the amended complaint, Powell raises claims for violations under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983; violations of his rights under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (“ADA”); and violations of his rights under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (“RA”). The defendants have filed a motion to dismiss Powell's amended complaint pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. The defendants also move to strike certain paragraphs of the amended complaint under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(f). For the following reasons, I recommend that the defendants' motion be granted in part and denied in part.

I. Procedural History.

On December 10, 2012, Powell initiated this action by filing a pro se complaint. Doc. 1. On December 17, 2012, Powell also filed a motion to proceed in forma pauperis that I eventually granted. Docs. 9 & 11. Thereafter, on February 15, 2013, Powell's counsel entered her appearance. Doc. 25. As well, through counsel, Powell filed an amended complaint, Doc. 30, rendering moot the defendants' prior motion to dismiss.

On March 21, 2013, the defendants' filed the motion under review and a timely brief in support. Docs. 31 & 33. Subsequently, Powell filed a timely brief in opposition. Doc. 35. The defendants did not file a reply brief and the briefing period has since closed. The motion, having been briefed by the parties, is ripe for disposition on the merits.

II. Powell’s Amended Complaint.

In his amended complaint, Powell names the following 6 defendants: (1) John Wetzel (“Wetzel”), the Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (“DOC”); (2) Tabb Bickell, the Superintendent at SCI Huntingdon; (3) Mark Garman, the Deputy Superintendent at SCI Huntingdon; (4) William Walters, a Major in charge of Unit Management at SCI Huntingdon; (5) Timothy Johnson, a Lieutenant at SCI Huntingdon; and (6) the DOC. Doc. 30 at ¶¶ 4-9. Wetzel is sued in his official capacity while the other named defendants are sued in their individual and official capacities. Id.

In the amended complaint, Powell begins laying the framework for his claims by explaining that he is involved in other cases filed in the federal courts; at least three of those matters have been filed in this Court and assigned to me. Rather than going into detail, I will take judicial notice of those cases including the fact that this Court, in a 2009 federal criminal proceeding, ruled that Powell was incompetent to stand trial on charges that he allegedly sent a threatening communication to former United States President George W. Bush. The Court rendered its ruling based on a psychologists' evaluation from 2009, finding that Powell suffers from a delusional disorder. With respect to the allegations pertinent to his claims in this case, Powell alleges the following.

In addition to his delusional disorder, Powell claims that his prison records indicate that he participated in the sport of boxing throughout his life and he has suffered a history of head trauma. Doc. 30 at ¶¶ 33-34. Based on his mental condition, Powell alleges that he is vulnerable, impressionable, and gullible. Id. at ¶ 34. On several occasions, Powell submitted written and verbal requests for “safer and more appropriate housing” within a DOC institution. Id. at ¶ 35. The defendants, however, purportedly ignored or denied them. Id. at ¶ 36.

With respect to Powell's requests, Johnson allegedly told Powell that the Restricted Housing Unit (“RHU”) is a good place for him to remain safe. Id. at ¶ 37. This sentiment was repeated to Powell, when Walters informed him that there was no other suitable placement in general population. Id. at ¶ 49. As a result, Powell claims that Johnson caused him to be confined in the RHU beginning in November 2012. Id. at ¶ 40.

On November 8, 2012, almost a week after Powell had been placed in the RHU, Powell avers that he informed Johnson that he feared being murdered there because of his race. Id. at ¶ 41. Johnson, though, allegedly did not take any action. Id. at ¶ 42. Similarly, in November 2012, Powell claims that he informed Bickell that he feared being murdered in the RHU, but Bickell apparently took no action. Id. at ¶¶ 43-44. And, Powell claims to have asked Walters to be transferred to a different prison; however, rather than taking any action, Powell alleges that Walters told Powell that he is crazy and files too many lawsuits. Id. at ¶¶ 476-48.

Aside from Walter's purported comment that Powell is crazy, Powell claims that “staff” made racial slurs, references to their unlimited power, their intent to murder him, and his (i.e. Powell's) inability to do anything about it. Id. at ¶¶ 50, 64-65, 81-83. Powell avers that such “petty” and “hostile” comments greatly affected him because of his mental illness. As well, Powell claims that the negative treatment he received exacerbated the symptoms of his mental illness. See Id . at ¶¶ 52, 68.

Powell further avers that he was baited by SCI Huntingdon employees, who targeted him because of his mental illness. Id. at ¶ 53. Powell provides the following specific examples: (1) January 10, 2013, two non-defendant employees at SCI Huntingdon slammed the cell door on him as he tried to exit to get his medication[2]; (2) & (3) January 19 and February 4, 2013, a non-defendant SCI Huntingdon employee told Powell that he was going to do something “real bad” to him (i.e. Powell); (4) a non-defendant SCI Huntingdon employee refused to allow Powell to follow inventory procedures while transferring him and informed Powell that his documents would be destroyed because of his legal complaints; (5) non-defendant SCI Huntingdon employees required Powell to be in two places at the same time resulting in Powell missing his opportunity to shower or else miss out on taking his medications; (6) two of the same non-defendants entered Powell's cell in his absence, threw his legal papers on the ground, pretended to conceal other papers, slammed the cell door closed, and later falsely claimed that Powell used abusive language; and (7) a non-defendant SCI Huntingdon employee ordered Powell to stand up during a visit and dragged him to his feet causing him to fall on the floor and strike his head on a metal chair. Id. at ¶¶ 54-56, 58-61, 67-71.

In his complaint, Powell also alleges that Bickell, Garman, Walters, and Johnson, were made personally aware of these incidents, and the general conduct of SCI Huntingdon employees, through oral and written correspondence. See Id . at ¶¶ 76, 85-86. Through the defendants' communication with him, Powell avers that they also observed his “deteriorating mental state.” Id. at ¶ 85.

Moreover, according to Powell, he received no psychological counseling while in the DOC's custody. Id. at ¶ 89. Instead, Powell claims that he was solely confined to a cell in the RHU, where his mental state worsened. Id. at ¶ 90-91. Similarly, Powell complains that his confinement in the RHU prevented him from gaining access to some federally funded programs including prison employment, classes, recreational facilities, chapel services, media, the law library, the commissary, and the common dining hall. Id. at ¶¶ 95-98.

Last, Powell claims that prisoners offering to assist him on legal matters were prevented from having contact with him. Id. at ¶ 99-100. As well, Powell asserts that the defendants did not provide him with assistance to help him understand the prison grievance procedure, they misled Powell about filing claims in the courts, and they denied him access to legal resources resulting in a delay in trying to obtain relief under the law. Id. at ¶¶ 104-06.

For exhaustion purposes, Powell avers that he has exhausted his administrative remedies. Id. at ¶ 108. He now brings this action seeking to recover declaratory and injunctive relief, in addition to damages.

III. Jurisdiction and Legal Standards.

First, given Powell's claims, arising under both the United States Constitution and federally enacted statutes, I find that this Court maintains subject matter jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331. Moreover, the defendants have not challenged the Court's personal jurisdiction, and since it is a defense than can be waived, see Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(h)(1), I decline to address that issue herein.

With respect to the applicable legal standards, Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) provides for the dismissal of a complaint, in whole or in part, for a complainant's failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). When ruling on a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), the court must “accept all factual allegations as true, construe the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, and determine whether, under any reasonable reading of the complaint, the plaintiff may be entitled to relief.” Gelman v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., 583 F.3d 187, 190 (3d Cir. 2009) (quoting Phillips v. Cnty. of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 233 (3d Cir. 2008)); see also Kanter v. Barella, 489 F.3d 170, 177 (3d Cir. 2007) (quoting Evancho v. Fisher, 423 F.3d 347, 350 (3d Cir. 2005)).

Federal notice and pleading rules require the complaint to provide “the defendant notice of what the ... claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.” Phillips, 515 F.3d at 232 (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555, (2007)). To test the sufficiency of the complaint in the face of a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, the Court must conduct a three-step inquiry. See Santiago v. Warminster Twp., 629 F.3d 121, 130–31 (3d Cir. 2010). In the first step, “the court must 'tak[e] note of the elements a plaintiff must plead to state a claim.'” Id. (quoting Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 675 (2009)). Next, the factual and legal elements of a claim should be separated; well-pleaded facts must be accepted as true, while mere legal conclusions may be disregarded. Id.; see also Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 210–11 (3d Cir. 2009). Once the well-pleaded factual allegations have been isolated, the court must determine whether they are sufficient to show a “plausible claim for relief.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 679 (2009) (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555 (requiring plaintiffs to allege facts sufficient to “raise a right to relief above the speculative level”)). A claim “has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 663.

With respect to the defendants' motion to strike, under Rule 12(f) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, the Court may strike from a pleading “an insufficient defendant or any redundant, immaterial, impertinent, or scandalous matter.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(f). These types of motions, however, are not favored by federal courts and should generally be denied unless the challenged allegations have no possible relation or logical connection to the subject matter of the controversy and may cause some form of significant prejudice to one of more of the parties to the action. 5C Fed. Prac & Proc. Civ. § 1382 (3d ed.); see e.g., Lakits v. York, 258 F.Supp.2d 401 (E.D. Pa.2003) (Baylson, J.), Garlanger v. Verbeke, 223 F.Supp.2d 596 (D.N.J. 2002) (Brotman, J.), Loughrey v. Landon, 381 F.Supp. 884, 888 (E.D. Pa.1974) (Gorbey, J.), Randolph Laboratories, Inc. v. Specialties Development Corp., 62 F.Supp. 897 (D.N.J. 1945) (Meaney, J.), F.T.C. v. Hope Now Modifications, LLC, 2011 WL 883202 (D.N.J. Mar. 10, 2011) (Simandale, J.), American Oil Co. v. Cantelou Oil Co., 41 F.R.D. 143 (W.D. Pa. 1966) (Rosenberg, J.). This position is in line with the view that modern litigation is too protracted and expensive for a court to expend time and effort pruning or polishing the pleadings. 5C Fed. Prac & Proc. ...

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