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Hankins v. Wetzel

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

September 30, 2014

ROBERT HANKINS, Plaintiff,
v.
SECRETARY JOHN WETZEL, ET AL., Defendants.

MEMORANDUM

RICHARD P. CONABOY, District Judge.

Background

Robert Hankins, an inmate presently confined at the State Correctional Institution, Coal Township, Pennsylvania (SCI-Coal Twp.), initiated this pro se civil rights action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Service of the Complaint was previously ordered.

There are twenty-nine (29) Defendants named in the Complaint, including Secretary John Wetzel; Chief Hearing Examiner Robin Lewis; Vincent Mooney; Chief Grievance Officers Dorina Varner and Tracy Williams of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC) as well as the following officials at Plaintiff's prior place of confinement the State Correctional Institution, Dallas, Pennsylvania (SCI-Dalllas): Superintendent Jerome Walsh; Captain Vincent Kopec; Deputy Superintendents Norm Demming and Lawrence Mahally; Hearing Examiners Kerns-Barr and C.J. McKeown; Lieutenants David Mosier and Daniel Zielen.

Plaintiff is also proceeding against the following officials of the Rockview State Correctional Institution, Bellefonte, Pennsylvania (SCI-Rockview): Superintendent Marirosa Lamas; Deputy Superintendent Horton; Captain L. Eaton; former Deputy Superintendent Robert Marsh; Lieutenant Hardy; Captain Kormatic; Major Snedeker;[1] Superintendent's Assistants Jeffrey Rackovan and Robin Lucas; and Captain Pall.[2] Also named are numerous John/Jane Doe defendants who are described as being employees of either the DOC, SCI-Dallas, or SCI-Rockview.

Plaintiff generally alleges that due to a "systematic custom & practice" of the DOC, he has been housed around prisoners who have mental health problems "on many occasions over the years" in the Restrictive Housing Units (RHU) at various state correctional facilities. Doc. 1, ¶¶ 2 & 4.[3] Hankins vaguely claims that because those mentally ill prisoners have not been provided with proper treatment, they have assaulted him, contaminated their RHUs with human waste, prevented him from sleeping through their disruptive actions, and he has had to witness their self destructive and bizarre behavior. There are no specific incidents referenced in the Complaint. However, Plaintiff states that he is seeking relief for conduct that stretches as far back as 1990 and which purportedly transpired in the RHUs at seven (7) different Pennsylvania state correctional facilities. See id. ¶ 9.

Hankins indicates that because of being exposed to the above described conduct he as suffered sleep deprivation and headaches and has not been properly evaluated by the DOC's psychology staff. See id. at ¶ 8. The Complaint additionally raises general contentions that Hankins has been subjected to unconstitutional conditions of confinement, food is used as punishment by correctional officers in that he was placed on a modified meal restriction, there was interference with his legal mail and delivery of publications, and he was denied due process with respect to multiple retaliatory misconduct charges. However, with respect to many of those allegations, Plaintiff fails to state when or where those deprivations and acts occurred. Hankins seeks nominal, compensatory, and punitive damages as well as injunctive relief.

Discussion

Defendants claim entitlement to entry of dismissal on the grounds that: (1) many of Plaintiff's claims are barred by the statute of limitations; (2) the allegations of interference with legal mail fail to state a viable claim; (3) Plaintiff's contention of denial of publications does not rise the level of a constitutional violation; (4) Hankins has failed to allege personal involvement by many of the named Defendants; (5) the Complaint fails to set forth an actionable retaliation claim; (6) since Hankins enjoys no right to be housed in a particular housing unit, his conditions of confinement allegations must fail; (7) a viable claim of failure to protect Plaintiff's safety has not been raised; and (8) the Complaint has failed to set forth a cognizable denial of due process claim with respect to Hankins' misconduct proceedings. See Doc. 24, pp. 10-11.

Standard of Review

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) provides for the dismissal of complaints that fail to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. When ruling on a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), the court must "accept as true all factual allegations in the complaint and all reasonable inferences that can be drawn therefrom, and view them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff." Kanter v. Barella , 489 F.3d 170, 177 (3d Cir. 2007)(quoting Evancho v. Fisher , 423 F.3d 347, 350 (3d Cir. 2005)). A plaintiff must present facts that, if true, demonstrate a plausible right to relief. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(stating that the complaint should include "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief"); Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly , 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). This requirement "calls for enough facts to raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence of" the necessary elements of the plaintiff's cause of action. Id. at 556. A complaint must contain "more than an unadorned, the-defendant-unlawfully-harmed-me accusation." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, ___ U.S. ___ , 129 S.Ct. 1937, 1949 (2009). "Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements do not suffice." Iqbal , 129 S.Ct. at 1949. Legal conclusions must be supported by factual allegations and the complaint must state a plausible claim for relief. See id. at 1950.

"Factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level, on the assumption that all the allegations in the complaint are true (even if doubtful in fact)." Twombly, at 555. The reviewing court must determine whether the complaint "contain[s] either direct or inferential allegations respecting all the material elements necessary to sustain recovery under some viable legal theory." Id. at 562; see also Phillips v. County of Allegheny , 515 F.3d 224, 234 (3d Cir. 2008)(in order to survive a motion to dismiss, a plaintiff must allege in his complaint "enough facts to raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence of the necessary element[s]" of a particular cause of action). Additionally, pro se pleadings are to be construed liberally, Haines v. Kerner , 404 U.S. 519, 520 (1972).

Statute of Limitations

Defendants argue that Plaintiff include claims that occurred several years, if not decades ago, and that such claims are time barred. See Doc. 24, p. 17. This Court agrees.

In reviewing the applicability of the statute of limitations to a civil rights action, a federal court must apply the appropriate state statute of limitations which governs personal injury actions. Wilson v. Garcia , 471 U.S. 261, 276 (1985); Urrutia v. Harrisburg County Police Dep't , 91 F.3d 451, 457 n.9, 25 (3d Cir. 1996). The United States Supreme Court clarified its decision in Wilson when it held that courts considering civil rights claims should borrow the general or residual [state] statute for personal injury actions. Owens v. Okure , 488 U.S. 235, 250 (1989); Little v. Lycoming County , 912 F.Supp. 809, 814 (M.D. Pa. 1996).It has also been held that "state statutes of limitations should be borrowed for suits under Bivens." Roman v. Townsend , 48 F.Supp.2d 100, 104 (D. Puerto Rico 1999).

Pennsylvania's applicable personal injury statute of limitations is two years. See 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 5524(7) (Purdon Supp. 1996); Kost v. Kozakiewicz , 1 F.3d 176, 190 (3d Cir. 1993); Smith v. City of Pittsburgh , 764 F.2d 188, 194 (3d Cir. 1985).

The question of when a cause of action accrues is a question of federal law. Smith v. Wambaugh , 887 F.Supp. 752, 755 (M.D. Pa. 1995). A civil rights claim accrues when the facts which support the claim reasonably should have become known to the plaintiff. If a defendant's conduct is part of a continuing practice, an action is timely so long as the last act evidencing the continuing pattern falls within the limitations period. Brenner v. Local 514 , 927 F.2d 1283, 1295 (3d Cir. 1991). It is also well settled that a person may realize he has been injured but is not adequately apprised as to the cause of his injury. See McGowan v. University of Scranton , 759 F.2d 287 (3d Cir. 1985). In Oshiver v. Levin, Fishbein, Sedran, & Berman , 38 F.3d 1380 (3d Cir. 1993), the Third Circuit Court of Appeals recognized two doctrines, equitable tolling and the discovery rule, which may extend the statute of limitations.

The statute of limitations may be subject to equitable tolling where it is shown that the plaintiff exercised reasonable diligence in bringing his claims. Campbell v. Kelly , 87 Fed.Appx. 234, 236 (3d Cir. 2003). The discovery rule is a judicially created principle which tolls the statue of limitations in cases where a reasonable person in the plaintiff's shoes lacks the critical facts to put him on notice that he needs to investigate.

However, it has been recognized that the limitations period in a civil rights action will begin to run even if the Plaintiff does not know all the facts necessary for his claim, all that is required is that the plaintiff have sufficient notice to place him on alert of the need to begin investigating. Gordon v. Lowell , 95 F.Supp.2d 264, 272 (E.D. Pa. 2000). Under Gordon a "claim accrues upon knowledge of the actual injury, not that the injury constitutes a legal wrong." Id . This Court is satisfied that Plaintiff had the necessary information to pursue his pending claims on the dates on which they occurred.

Under the standards announced in Houston v. Lack , 487 U.S. 266 (1988), Plaintiff's Complaint will be deemed filed as of October 9, 2013, the date the Complaint is dated.[4] See Doc. 1, p. 13. Furthermore, it has not been asserted, nor is it apparent to this Court that the continuing pattern exception is applicable to those allegations. Accordingly, the motion to ...


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