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Welfel v. Luzerne County

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

December 2, 2014

WILLIAM JOHN WELFEL, Plaintiff,
v.
LUZERNE COUNTY, et al., Defendants

Submitted this 2nd day of December, 2014.

William John Welfel, Plaintiff, Pro se, Wilkes-Barre, PA.

Martin C. Carlson, United States Magistrate Judge. Judge Mariani.

REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

Martin C. Carlson, United States Magistrate Judge.

I. Statement of Facts and of the Case

This matter comes before the Court for a screening review of a document captioned by the pro se plaintiff, William Welfel, as an objection to a prior report and recommendation which recommended the dismissal of the plaintiff's initial pro se pleading, but which has been liberally construed by the district court as an amended complaint. (Doc. 17.) Broadly construed, Welfel's amended complaint alleges that he was falsely imprisoned and maliciously prosecuted in January of 2014 for violating a protection from abuse order. (Id.) For the most part, these allegations are made in a summary fashion in the amended complaint without a surfeit of coherent, well-pleaded facts. (Id.)

Welfel then names eight individual defendants in his amended complaint. Two of the defendants are supervisory government officials who were previously identified by Welfel as defendants, and dismissed from Welfel's initial pro se complaint--Robert Lawton, the Luzerne County Executive and David Nesbitt, Director of Prisoner Affairs at the county prison . The remaining six individual defendants are newly named in this amended complaint. Two of these defendants, Attorney James Barr and Attorney Steven Greenwald, are employed by the Public Defender's Office and apparently defended Welfel in connection with this state case. (Id.) Two additional newly named defendants, Patrolman Thomas King and Sergeant Zola, are police officers who arrested Welfel in January 2014 and presented Welfel to Magisterial District Judge Joseph Zola, who ordered Welfel held to answer these state criminal matters. (Id.) Finally, two of the newly named defendants, Dr. Gunnar Kosek and prison psychiatrist Ron Colbert, are health care professionals who allegedly ignored Welfel's medical and mental health care needs while he was incarcerated. (Id.)

On the basis of these allegations, Welfel sues these eight defendants. (Id.) For the reasons set forth below, as part of our on-going legally-mandated screening review of pro se, in forma pauperis complaints we find that the plaintiff has failed to state a claim upon which relief may be granted in this amended complaint with respect to six of the eight defendants named in the complaint. Therefore, we recommend that the Court dismiss defendants Lawton, Nesbitt, Zola, Greenwald, Barr, and King from this complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. We further recommend that the Court serve the amended complaint upon defendants Colbert and Kosek.

II. Discussion

A. Screening of Pro Se Complaints--Standard of Review

This Court has an on-going statutory obligation to conduct a preliminary review of pro se complaints brought by plaintiffs given leave to proceed in forma pauperis in cases which seek redress against government officials. See 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B)(ii). In addition, we are obliged to review prisoners' complaints pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915A which provides, in pertinent part:

(a) Screening.

The court shall review, before docketing, if feasible or, in any event, as soon as practicable after docketing, a complaint in a civil action in which a prisoner seeks redress from a governmental entity or officer or employee of a governmental entity.

(b) Grounds for dismissal.

On review, the court shall identify cognizable claims or dismiss the complaint, or any portion of the complaint, if the complaint-

(1) is frivolous, malicious, or fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted; or
(2) seeks monetary relief from a defendant who is immune from such relief.

Specifically, the Court must assess whether a pro se complaint fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, since Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 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). In addition, when reviewing in forma pauperis complaints, 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B)(ii) specifically enjoins us to " dismiss the complaint at any time if the court determines that . . . the action . . . fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted." This statutory text mirrors the language of 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, " [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. As the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has stated:

[A]fter Iqbal, when presented with a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, district courts should conduct a two-part analysis. First, the factual and legal elements of a claim should be separated. The District Court must accept all of the complaint's well-pleaded facts as true, but may disregard any legal conclusions. Second, a District Court must then determine whether the facts alleged in the complaint are sufficient to show that the plaintiff has a " plausible claim for relief." In other words, a ...

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