United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania
December 2, 2014
WILLIAM JOHN WELFEL, Plaintiff,
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.
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:
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."
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 complaint must do more than allege the plaintiff's entitlement to relief. A complaint has to " show" such an entitlement with its facts.
Fowler, 578 F.3d at 210-11.
As the court of appeals has observed: " The Supreme Court in Twombly set forth the 'plausibility' standard for overcoming a motion to dismiss and refined this approach in Iqbal. The plausibility standard requires the complaint to allege 'enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'
Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570, 127 S.Ct. 1955. A complaint satisfies the plausibility standard when the factual pleadings 'allow[ ] the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.'
Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. at 1949 (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556, 127 S.Ct. 1955). This standard requires showing 'more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully.' Id. A complaint which pleads facts 'merely consistent with' a defendant's liability, [ ] 'stops short of the line between possibility and plausibility of " entitlement of relief." '" Burtch v. Milberg Factors, Inc., 662 F.3d 212, 220-21 (3d Cir. 2011) cert. denied, 132 S.Ct. 1861, 182 L.Ed.2d 644 (U.S. 2012).
In practice, consideration of the legal sufficiency of a complaint entails a three-step analysis: " First, the court must 'tak[e] note of the elements a plaintiff must plead to state a claim.'
Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. at 1947. Second, the court should identify allegations that, 'because they are no more than conclusions, are not entitled to the assumption of truth.' Id. at 1950. Finally, '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. " Santiago v. Warminster Tp., 629 F.3d 121, 130 (3d Cir. 2010).
In addition to these pleading rules, a civil complaint must comply with the requirements of Rule 8(a) of the Federal Rule of Civil Procedure which defines what a complaint should say and provides that:
(a) A pleading that states a claim for relief must contain (1) a short and plain statement of the grounds for the court's jurisdiction, unless the court already has jurisdiction and the claim needs no new jurisdictional support; (2) a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief; and (3) a demand for the relief sought, which may include relief in the alternative or different types of relief.
Thus, a well-pleaded complaint must contain more than mere legal labels and conclusions. Rather, a pro se plaintiff's complaint must recite factual allegations which are sufficient to raise the plaintiff's claimed right to relief beyond the level of mere speculation, set forth in a " short and plain" statement of a cause of action.
Applying these legal benchmarks, we conclude that this complaint is fatally flawed in the following respects and the following defendants should, therefore, be dismissed.
B. Welfel May Not Sue His Court-Appointed Defense Counsel for Civil Rights Violations
At the outset, dismissal of this complaint as to Welfel's court-appointed state criminal defense counsel, defendants Barr and Greenwald, is warranted because Welfel may not bring civil rights claims against his own state criminal defense counsel as civil rights violations pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983.
It is well-established that § 1983 does not by its own force create new and independent legal rights to damages in civil rights actions. Rather, § 1983 simply serves as a vehicle for private parties to bring civil actions to vindicate violations of separate, and pre-existing, legal rights otherwise guaranteed under the Constitution and laws of the United States. Albright v. Oliver, 510 U.S. 266, 271 (1994); Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 393-94 (1989). Therefore, any analysis of the legal sufficiency of a cause of action under § 1983 must begin with an assessment of the validity of the underlying constitutional and statutory claims advanced by the plaintiff.
In this regard, it is also well-settled that:
Section 1983 provides a remedy for deprivations of federally protected rights caused by persons acting under color of state law. The two essential elements of a § 1983 action are: (1) whether the conduct complained of was committed by a person acting under color of state law ; and (2) whether this conduct deprived a person of a federally protected right. Parratt v. Taylor, 451 U.S. 527, 535 (1981).
Boykin v. Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania, 893 F.Supp. 409, 416 (M.D.Pa. 1995), aff'd, 91 F.3d 122 (3d Cir. 1996)(emphasis added). Thus, it is essential to any civil rights claim brought under § 1983 that the plaintiff allege and prove that the defendant was acting under color of law when that defendant allegedly violated the plaintiff's rights. To the extent that a complaint seeks to hold private parties liable for alleged civil rights violations, it fails to state a valid cause of action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 since the statute typically requires a showing that the defendants are state actors. Am. Mfrs. Mut. Ins. Co. v. Sullivan, 526 U.S. 40, 49-50 (1999).
This principle applies with particular force to civil rights plaintiffs like Welfel, who may invite the courts to consider lawsuits against their own state criminal defense counsel. With respect to this state action requirement, it is well-settled that the conduct of an attorney, representing a client in a state criminal case, does not by itself rise to the level of state action entitling a state prisoner to bring a federal civil rights actions against his own prior counsel.
See, e.g., West v. Atkins, 487 U.S. 42, 50 (1988); Polk County v. Dodson, 454 U.S. 312 (1981); Pete v. Metcalfe, 8 F.3d 214 (5th Cir. 1993). Therefore, in the absence of some further well-pleaded facts, Welfel may not convert his dissatisfaction with the performance of his state criminal defense counsel into a federal civil rights lawsuit and these defendants should be dismissed.
C. Welfel Continues to Fail to State Viable Claims Against the Supervisory County Defendants
Welfel also names two previously dismissed county supervisory officials as defendants, Robert Lawton and David Nesbitt, but his amended complaint contains no factual averments relating to these supervisory officials beyond general assertions that these defendants failed to respond to his grievances about prison conditions. This will not do to allege personal liability against these officials. In considering claims brought against supervisory officials arising out of alleged constitutional violations, the courts recognize that supervisors may be exposed to liability only in certain, narrowly defined, circumstances.
At the outset, it is clear that a claim of a constitutional deprivation cannot be premised merely on the fact that the named defendant was an agency supervisor when the incidents set forth in the complaint occurred. Quite the contrary, to state a constitutional tort claim the plaintiff must show that the supervisory defendants actively deprived him of a right secured by the Constitution. Morse v. Lower Merion School Dist., 132 F.3d 902 (3d Cir. 1997); see also Maine v. Thiboutot, 448 U.S. 1 (1980). Constitutional tort liability is personal in nature and can only follow personal involvement in the alleged wrongful conduct shown through specific allegations of personal direction or of actual knowledge and acquiescence in the challenged practice. Robinson v. City of Pittsburgh, 120 F.3d 1286 (3d Cir. 1997).
In particular, it is well-established that:
" A[n individual government] defendant in a civil rights action must have personal involvement in the alleged wrongdoing; liability cannot be predicated solely on the operation of respondeat superior . Personal involvement can be shown through allegations of personal direction or of actual knowledge and acquiescence." Rode v. Dellarciprete, 845 F.2d 1195, 1207 (3d Cir.1988).
Evancho v. Fisher, 423 F.3d 347, 353 (3d Cir. 2005).
As the Supreme Court has observed:
Government officials may not be held liable for the unconstitutional conduct of their subordinates under a theory of respondeat superior . . . .
See Monell v. New York City Dept. of Social Servs., 436 U.S. 658, 691, 98 S.Ct. 2018, 56 L.Ed.2d 611 (1978) (finding no vicarious liability for a municipal " person" under 42 U.S.C. § 1983); see also Dunlop v. Munroe, 7 Cranch 242, 269, 3 L.Ed. 329 (1812) (a federal official's liability " will only result from his own neglect in not properly superintending the discharge" of his subordinates' duties); Robertson v. Sichel, 127 U.S. 507, 515-516, 8 S.Ct. 1286, 3 L.Ed. 203 (1888) (" A public officer or agent is not responsible for the misfeasances or position wrongs, or for the nonfeasances, or negligences, or omissions of duty, of the subagents or servants or other persons properly employed by or under him, in the discharge of his official duties"). Because vicarious liability is inapplicable to Bivens and § 1983 suits, a plaintiff must plead that each Government-official defendant, through the official's own individual actions, has violated the Constitution.
Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 676 (2009).
Applying these benchmarks, courts have frequently held that, in the absence of evidence of supervisory knowledge and approval of subordinates' actions, a plaintiff may not maintain an action against supervisors based upon the misdeeds of their subordinates. O'Connell v. Sobina, No. 06-238, 2008 WL 144199, * 21 (W.D. Pa. Jan. 11, 2008); Neuburger v. Thompson, 305 F.Supp.2d 521, 535 (W. D. Pa. 2004). Rather, " [p]ersonal involvement must be alleged and is only present where the supervisor directed the actions of supervisees or actually knew of the actions and acquiesced in them. See Rode v. Dellarciprete, 845 F.2d 1195, 1207 (3d Cir.1988)."
Jetter v. Beard, 183 F.App'x 178, 181 (3d Cir. 2006).
Here, as to these supervisory defendants, the amended complaint continues to largely base liability on their supervisory status without any further, specific and well-pleaded facts describing their involvement in this matter. This cursory style of pleading is plainly inadequate to state a claim against agency supervisors and compels dismissal of these defendants. Hudson v. City of McKeesport, 244 F.App'x 519 (3d Cir. 2007)(affirming dismissal of defendant who was only named in caption of case.) Therefore, these officials should be dismissed from this action.
Nor can Welfel sustain a supervisory liability claim against these officials by simply alleging in a talismanic fashion that they failed to train, oversee or supervise their subordinate employees. In this regard, we note that: " 'Numerous courts, including this one, have expressed uncertainty as to the viability and scope of supervisory liability after Iqbal.'
Santiago, 629 F.3d at 130 n. 8 (collecting cases); see also Argueta, 643 F.3d at 70." Bistrian v. Levi, 696 F.3d 352, 366 n. 5 (3d Cir. 2012). To the extent that supervisory liability survives after Iqbal, the scope of that liability is clearly and narrowly defined. As the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has observed: " '[t]here are two theories of supervisory liability' one under which supervisors can be liable if they 'established and maintained a policy, practice or custom which directly caused [the] constitutional harm, ' and another under which they can be liable if they 'participated in violating plaintiff's rights, directed others to violate them, or, as the person[s] in charge, had knowledge of and acquiesced in [their] subordinates' violations.' A.M. ex rel. J.M.K. v. Luzerne Cnty. Juvenile Det. Ctr., 372 F.3d 572, 586 (3d Cir.2004) (second alteration in original)." Santiago v. Warminster Twp., 629 F.3d 121, 129 (3d Cir. 2010).
Welfel has not adequately pleaded either of these theories of supervisory liability to support his current amended complaint. First, Welfel has not alleged well-pleaded facts showing that " the person[s] in charge, had knowledge of and acquiesced in [their] subordinates' violations.' A.M. ex rel. J.M.K. v. Luzerne Cnty. Juvenile Det. Ctr., 372 F.3d 572, 586 (3d Cir.2004) (second alteration in original)." Santiago v. Warminster Twp., 629 F.3d 121, 129 (3d Cir. 2010). Moreover, there are not well--pleaded facts which support a claim of supervisory liability here grounded upon an assertion that the defendants " established and maintained a policy, practice or custom which directly caused [a] constitutional harm." Santiago v. Warminster Twp., 629 F.3d 121, 129 (3d Cir. 2010).
Furthermore, to the extent that Welfel's supervisory liability claims rest on the premise that officials did not after-the-fact act favorably upon his past grievances, this claim also fails. An inmate cannot sustain a constitutional tort claim against prison supervisors based solely upon assertions that officials failed to adequately investigate or respond to his past grievances. Inmates do not have a constitutional right to a prison grievance system. Speight v. Sims, 283 F.App'x 880 (3d Cir. 2008) (citing Massey v. Helman, 259 F.3d 641, 647 (7th Cir. 2001) (" [T]he existence of a prison grievance procedure confers no liberty interest on a prisoner."). Consequently, dissatisfaction with a response to an inmate's grievances does not support a constitutional claim. See also Alexander v. Gennarini, 144 F.App'x 924 (3d Cir. 2005) (involvement in post-incident grievance process not a basis for § 1983 liability); Pryor-El v. Kelly, 892 F.Supp. 261, 275 (D. D.C. 1995) (because prison grievance procedure does not confer any substantive constitutional rights upon prison inmates, the prison officials' failure to comply with grievance procedure is not actionable).
See also Cole v. Sobina, No. 04-99J, 2007 WL 4460617, at *5 (W.D. Pa. Dec. 19, 2007) (" [M]ere concurrence in a prison administrative appeal process does not implicate a constitutional concern."). As the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit observed when disposing of a similar claim by another inmate:
Several named defendants, such as the Secretaries of the Department of Corrections or Superintendents, were named only for their supervisory roles in the prison system. The District Court properly dismissed these defendants and any additional defendants who were sued based on their failure to take corrective action when grievances or investigations were referred to them. See Rode v. Dellarciprete, 845 F.2d 1195, 1207 (3d Cir.1988) (defendant in a civil rights action must have personal involvement in the alleged wrongs; liability cannot be predicated solely on the operation of respondeat superior ); see also Antonelli v. Sheahan, 81 F.3d 1422, 1430 (7th Cir.1996) (state's inmate grievance procedures do not give rise to a liberty interest protected by the Due Process Clause).
Pressley v. Beard, 266 F.App'x 216, 218 (3d Cir. 2008).
Indeed, as to such claims, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has recently held that summary dismissal is appropriate " because there is no apparent obligation for prison officials to investigate prison grievances. See Inmates of Attica Corr. Facility v. Rockefeller, 477 F.2d 375, 382 (2d Cir.1973)." Paluch v. Sec'y Pennsylvania Dept. Corr., 442 F.App'x 690, 695 (3d Cir. 2011).
In sum, as presently drafted, the plaintiff's claims against these supervisory defendants consist of little more than assertions of respondeat superior liability, coupled with dissatisfaction with the processing of this inmate's past grievances, assertions which as a matter of law do not suffice to state a constitutional tort claim. Therefore, these defendants are entitled to be dismissed from this case.
D. Patrolman King and Sergeant Zola Should be Dismissed from this Action
Further, in this case Welfel also seeks to sue the two police officers who he alleges arrested him, and took him before a District Magisterial Judge, who ordered Welfel held to answer on these allegations of violating a protection from abuse order. As to these defendants the gist of Welfel's claims seems to be that the defendants violated his constitutional rights through their unlawful arrest of the plaintiff. These claims implicate Welfel's rights under the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which provides that:
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and now Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
U.S. Const. amend IV. Under the Fourth Amendment, an arrest without probable cause is a constitutional violation that may be redressed under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. See Walmsley v. Philadelphia, 872 F.2d 546, 551 (3d Cir. 1989) (citing Patzig v. O'Neill, 577 F.2d 841, 848 (3d Cir. 1978). However, in order to make out a false arrest claim, a plaintiff must demonstrate both that police lacked probable cause to arrest and that the underlying criminal case terminated in a fashion that was favorable to the plaintiff. Groman v. Twp. of Manalpan, 47 F.3d 628, 634 (3d Cir. 1995). Similarly:
To prove malicious prosecution under section 1983, a plaintiff must show that: (1) the defendants initiated a criminal proceeding; (2) the criminal proceeding ended in plaintiff's favor ; (3) the proceeding was initiated without probable cause ; (4) the defendants acted maliciously or for a purpose other than bringing the plaintiff to justice; and (5) the plaintiff suffered deprivation of liberty consistent with the concept of seizure as a consequence of a legal proceeding.
Estate of Smith v. Marasco, 318 F.3d 497, 521 (3d Cir. 2003)(emphasis added).
Thus, whether characterized as a false arrest, or couched in terms of malicious prosecution, proof that probable cause was lacking is essential to any § 1983 claim arising out of the arrest and prosecution of an individual. For purposes of the Fourth Amendment, probable cause to arrest exists " whenever reasonably trustworthy information or circumstances within a police officer's knowledge are sufficient to warrant a person of reasonable caution to conclude that an offense has been committed by the person being arrested." U.S. v. Myers, 308 F.3d 251, 255 (3d Cir. 2002) (citing Beck v. Ohio, 379 U.S. 89, 91 (1964)). An arrest by a police officer without a warrant " is reasonable under the Fourth Amendment where there is probable cause to believe that a criminal offense has been or is being committed." Devenpeck v. Alford, 543 U.S. 146, 152 (2004). In conducting an inquiry into whether probable cause to arrest existed, a court should consider the totality of the circumstances presented, and " must assess the knowledge and information which the officers possessed at the time of arrest, coupled with the factual occurrences immediately precipitating the arrest." United States v. Stubbs, 281 F.3d 109, 122 (3d Cir. 2002).
Although " [t]he probable-cause standard is incapable of precise definition or quantification, " Maryland v. Pringle, 540 U.S. 366, 371 (2003), all interpretations of probable cause require " a belief of guilt that is reasonable as opposed to certain." Wright v. City of Philadelphia, 409 F.3d 595, 602 (3d Cir. 2005) (citing Hill v. California, 401 U.S. 797, 804 (1971)). Probable cause " does not require the same type of specific evidence of each element of the offense as would be needed to support a conviction."
Wright, 409 F.3d at 602 (quoting Adams v. Williams, 407 U.S. 143, 149 (1972)). Accordingly, the evidentiary standard for probable cause is significantly lower than that required for conviction. Id. (citing Michigan v. DeFillippo, 443 U.S. 31, 36 (1979)); see also Wilson v. Russo, 212 F.3d 781, 789 (3d Cir. 2000) (holding that probable cause requires only a " fair probability" that a person committed the relevant crime). Because an arrest is made with probable cause if at the moment it was made the facts and circumstances within the officer's knowledge " were sufficient to warrant a prudent man in believing that [the suspect] had committed or was committing an offense, " Beck v. Ohio, 379 U.S. 89, 91 (1964), the constitutional validity of an arrest does not turn on whether the suspect actually committed any crime, Johnson v. Campbell, 332 F.3d 199, 211 (3d Cir. 2003). Thus, " [t]he determination that probable cause exists is fundamentally a factual analysis that must be performed by officers at the scene. It is the function of the court to determine whether the objective facts available to the officers at the time of arrest were sufficient to justify a reasonable belief that an offense was being committed." United States v. Glasser, 750 F.2d 1197, 1206 (3d Cir. 1984). Although officers on the scene may draw inferences and make deductions that might elude an untrained person, United States v. Cortez, 449 U.S. 411, 418 (1981), " an officer's inferences and deductions can only justify a warrantless arrest if the government satisfies its burden of establishing the probable cause necessary to support the arrest, "
Myers, 308 F.3d at 255.
In this case, the actions taken by the police officer defendants were affirmed by the district magisterial judge who, according to the plaintiff's amended complaint, found that probable cause existed hold Welfel to answer in this case. While this probable cause finding does not automatically confer qualified immunity upon the defendants, police officers like these defendants whose probable cause determinations also bear the imprimatur of the courts are often cloaked with qualified immunity as a matter of law. See e.g., Wilson v. Russo, 212 F.3d 781 (3d Cir. 2000); Sherwood v. Mulvihill, 113 F.3d 396 (3d Cir. 1997). Indeed, in this setting a plaintiff like Welfel must meet an exacting standard to defeat a police officer's claim of qualified immunity from damages. In the face of a judicial finding of probable cause, " a plaintiff may succeed in a § 1983 action for false arrest [only] if the plaintiff shows, by a preponderance of the evidence: (1) that the police officer 'knowingly and deliberately, or with a reckless disregard for the truth, made false statements or omissions that create a falsehood . . .; ' and (2) that 'such statements or omissions are material, or necessary, to the finding of probable cause.'" Wilson v. Russo, 212 F.3d 781, 786-87 (3d Cir. 2000). Welfel has made no such showing here. Therefore, Magisterial District Judge Zola's " independent judicial determination: that grounds existed to hold Welfel effectively insulates these defendants from civil liability in the absence of evidence that the police affirmatively misled the judge, something that Welfel has not alleged in this case. See Fisher v. Matthews, 792 F.Supp.2d 745, 781 (M.D. Pa. 2011).
Moreover, Welfel has not satisfied a second prerequisite to sustain a false arrest or malicious prosecution claim in this setting. He has not alleged that " the criminal proceeding ended in plaintiff's favor." Estate of Smith v. Marasco, 318 F.3d 497, 521 (3d Cir. 2003). Indeed, since Welfel remains in local custody it does not appear that the plaintiff can satisfy this element of a false arrest claim. It is well-settled that an essential element of a civil rights false arrest or imprisonment claim is that the underlying criminal case must have been terminated in favor of the civil rights claimant. Therefore, where, as here, the civil rights plaintiff brings a malicious prosecution, or false arrest claim but does not allege that the underlying state case was resolved favorably for the plaintiff, the plaintiff's claim fails as a matter of law. The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has aptly observed in this regard:
The Supreme Court has " repeatedly noted that 42 U.S.C. § 1983 creates a species of tort liability." Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477, 483(1994) (quoting Memphis Community School Dist. v. Stachura, 477 U.S. 299, 305(1986) (internal quotation marks omitted)). Given this close relation between § 1983 and tort liability, the Supreme Court has said that the common law of torts, " defining the elements of damages and the prerequisites for their recovery, provide[s] the appropriate starting point for inquiry under § 1983 as well."
Heck, 512 U.S. at 483(quoting Carey v. Piphus, 435 U.S. 247, 257-58, (1978)). The Supreme Court applied this rule in Heck to an inmate's § 1983 suit, which alleged that county prosecutors and a state police officer destroyed evidence, used an unlawful voice identification procedure, and engaged in other misconduct. In deciding whether the inmate could state a claim for those alleged violations, the Supreme Court asked what common-law cause of action was the closest to the inmate's claim and concluded that " malicious prosecution provides the closest analogy ... because unlike the related cause of action for false arrest or imprisonment, it permits damages for confinement imposed pursuant to legal process."
Heck, 512 U.S. at 484. Looking to the elements of malicious prosecution, the Court held that the inmate's claim could not proceed because one requirement of malicious prosecution is that the prior criminal proceedings must have terminated in the plaintiff's favor, and the inmate in Heck had not successfully challenged his criminal conviction. Id.
Hector v. Watt, 235 F.3d 154, 155-156 (3d Cir. 2000).
Since " one requirement of malicious prosecution is that the prior criminal proceedings must have terminated in the plaintiff's favor." id., the failure to allege that this underlying proceeding has concluded in Welfel's favors presently defeats any federal civil rights claims against the arresting officers based upon false arrest or malicious prosecution in this state case.
E. Welfel's' Prison Health Care Claims May Proceed Forward
Finally, in his amended complaint Welfel alleges that two of the defendants, Dr. Gunnar Kosek and prison psychiatrist Ron Colbert, both of whom are health care professionals, ignored Welfel's medical and mental health care needs while he was incarcerated. Liberally construed, Welfel alleges that these defendants violated his rights under the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution by displaying " deliberate indifference" to this inmate's medical needs. Welfel faces an exacting burden in advancing this Eighth Amendment claim against prison officials in their individual capacities. To sustain such a claim, Welfel must plead facts which:
[M]eet two requirements: (1) " the deprivation alleged must be, objectively, sufficiently serious; " and (2) the " prison official must have a sufficiently culpable state of mind." Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825, 834, 114 S.Ct. 1970, 128 L.Ed.2d 811 (1994) (quotation marks and citations omitted). In prison conditions cases, " that state of mind is one of 'deliberate indifference' to inmate health or safety." Id. " Deliberate indifference" is a subjective standard under Farmer-the prison officialdefendant must actually have known or been aware of the excessive risk to inmate safety.
Beers-Capitol v. Whetzel, 256 F.3d 120, 125 (3d Cir. 2001).
By including a subjective intent component in this Eighth Amendment benchmark, the courts have held that a mere generalized knowledge that prisons are dangerous places does not give rise to an Eighth Amendment claim. See Jones v. Beard, 145 F.App'x 743 (3d Cir. 2005)(finding no Eighth Amendment violation where inmateplaintiff complained about cellmate who had a history of psychological problems, but where plaintiff failed to articulate a specific threat of harm during the weeks prior to an attack.) In short, when " analyzing deliberate indifference, a court must determine whether the prison official 'acted or failed to act despite his knowledge of a substantial risk of serious harm.' Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825, 841 (1994). A prisoner plaintiff must prove that the prison official 'knows of and disregards an excessive risk to inmate health or safety.' Id. at 837." Garvey v. Martinez, 08-2217, 2010 WL 569852, at *6 (M.D.Pa. Feb. 11, 2010).
These principles apply with particular force to Eighth Amendment claims premised upon inadequate medical care. In the medical context, a constitutional violation under the Eighth Amendment occurs only when state officials are deliberately indifferent to an inmate's serious medical needs. Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 105 (1976). To establish a violation of his constitutional right to adequate medical care in accordance with this standard, Welfel is required to allege facts that demonstrates (1) a serious medical need, and (2) acts or omissions by prison officials that indicate deliberate indifference to that need. Rouse v. Plantier, 182 F.3d 192, 197 (3d Cir. 1999).
Deliberate indifference to a serious medical need involves the " unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain." Estelle, 429 U.S. at 104. Such indifference may be evidenced by an intentional refusal to provide care, delayed provision of medical treatment for non-medical reasons, denial of prescribed medical treatment, denial of reasonable requests for treatment that results in suffering or risk of injury, Durmer v. O'Carroll, 991 F.2d 64, 68 (3d Cir. 1993), or " persistent conduct in the face of resultant pain and risk of permanent injury, " White v. Napoleon, 897 F.2d 103, 109 (3d Cir. 1990).
However, it is also clear that the mere misdiagnosis of a condition or medical need, or negligent treatment provided for a condition, is not actionable as an Eighth Amendment claim because medical malpractice standing alone is not a constitutional violation.
Estelle, 429 U.S. at 106. " Indeed, prison authorities are accorded considerable latitude in the diagnosis and treatment of prisoners."
Durmer, 991 F.2d at 67 (citations omitted). Furthermore, in a prison medical context, deliberate indifference is generally not found when some significant level of medical care has been offered to the inmate. Thus, such complaints fail as constitutional claims under § 1983 since " the exercise by a doctor of his professional judgment is never deliberate indifference.
See e.g. Brown v. Borough of Chambersburg, 903 F.2d 274, 278 (3d Cir.1990) ('[A]s long as a physician exercises professional judgment his behavior will not violate a prisoner's constitutional rights.')" . Gindraw v. Dendler, 967 F.Supp. 833, 836 (E.D. Pa. 1997).
Applying this exacting standard, courts have frequently rejected Eighth Amendment claims that are based upon the level of professional care that an inmate received; see, e.g., Ham v. Greer, 269 F.App'x 149 (3d Cir. 2008); James v. Dep't of Corrections, 230 F.App'x 195 (3d. Cir. 2007); Gillespie v. Hogan, 182 F.App'x 103 (3d Cir. 2006); Bronson v. White, No. 05-2150, 2007 WL 3033865 (M.D. Pa. Oct. 15, 2007); Gindraw v. Dendler, 967 F.Supp. 833 (E.D. Pa. 1997), particularly where it can be shown that significant medical services were provided to the inmate but the prisoner is dissatisfied with the outcome of these services. Instead, courts have defined the precise burden which an inmate must sustain in order to advance an Eighth Amendment claim against a healthcare professional premised on allegedly inadequate care, stating that:
The district court [may] properly dis[miss an] Eighth Amendment claim, as it concerned [a care giver], because [the] allegations merely amounted to a disagreement over the proper course of his treatment and thus failed to allege a reckless disregard with respect to his . . . care. The standard for cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment, established by the Supreme Court in Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 104 (1976), and its progeny, has two prongs: 1) deliberate indifference by prison officials and 2) serious medical needs. " It is well-settled that claims of negligence or medical malpractice, without some more culpable state of mind, do not constitute 'deliberate indifference.'" " Nor does mere disagreement as to the proper medical treatment support a claim of an eighth amendment violation." . . . . [The inmate] alleged no undue delay in receiving treatment and, as the district court noted, the evidence he presented established that he received timely care . . . . Although [an inmate plaintiff] may have preferred a different course of treatment, [t]his preference alone cannot establish deliberate indifference as such second-guessing is not the province of the courts.
James, 230 F.App'x. at 197-198. (citations omitted).
Furthermore, it is well-settled that an inmate's dissatisfaction with a course of medical treatment, standing alone, does not give rise to a viable Eighth Amendment claim. Therefore, where a dispute in essence entails nothing more than a disagreement between an inmate and doctors over alternate treatment plans, the inmate's complaint will fail as a constitutional claim under § 1983; see e.g., Gause v. Diguglielmo, 339 F.App'x 132 (3d Cir. 2009)(dispute over choice of medication does not rise to the level of an Eighth Amendment violation); Innis v. Wilson, 334 F.App'x 454 (3d Cir. 2009)(same); Rozzelle v. Rossi, 307 F.App'x 640 (3d Cir. 2008)(same); Whooten v. Bussanich, 248 F.App'x 324 (3d Cir. 2007)(same); Ascenzi v. Diaz, 247 F.App'x 390 (3d Cir. 2007)(same), since " the exercise by a doctor of his professional judgment is never deliberate indifference." Gindraw v. Dendler, 967 F.Supp. 833, 836 (E.D. Pa. 1997)(citations omitted). In short, in the context of the Eighth Amendment, any attempt to second-guess the propriety or adequacy of a particular course of treatment is disavowed by courts since such determinations remain a question of sound professional medical judgment. Inmates of Allegheny County Jail v. Pierce, 612 F.2d 754, 762 (3d Cir. 1979) (quoting Bowring v. Godwin, 551 F.2d 44, 48 (4th Cir. 1977)).
However, in many instances a determination of whether an Eighth Amendment deliberate indifference claim fails as a matter of law entails consideration of undisputed facts beyond those alleged in the complaint, and, therefore, these questions may not be resolved thorough an initial screening review of a complaint. So it is in this case. Fairly construed, the amended complaint alleges a complete failure by the defendants to treat or respond to known medical conditions. Therefore, on the face of the pleadings, Welfel has alleged sufficient well-pleaded facts to proceed with respect to these defendants and dismissal of these particular defendants at the outset of this litigation should be denied. See, Henry v. Wilson, No. 06-1439, 131164 (W.D. Pa. Jan. 9, 2008) (denying Rule 12(b)(6) motion relating to Eighth Amendment deliberate indifference claim concerning Hepatitis C treatment); Thomas v. Arias, No. 06-291, 2007 WL 210097 (E.D. Pa. Jan. 23, 2007)(same).
In reaching this conclusion we are mindful of the fact that, in a prison medical context, deliberate indifference is generally not found when some significant level of medical care has been offered to the inmate; Clark v. Doe, 2000 WL 1522855, at *2 (E.D.Pa. Oct. 13, 2000)(" courts have consistently rejected Eighth Amendment claims where an inmate has received some level of medical care"), and that medically-based Eighth Amendment claims typically fail when an inmate has received on-going care since " the exercise by a doctor of his professional judgment is never deliberate indifference. See e.g. Brown v. Borough of Chambersburg, 903 F.2d 274, 278 (3d Cir.1990) ('[A]s long as a physician exercises professional judgment his behavior will not violate a prisoner's constitutional rights.')" . Gindraw v. Dendler, 967 F.Supp. 833, 836 (E.D. Pa. 1997). However, at this stage of these proceedings, an assessment of the nature, extent and quality of that care is not possible. Rather, this assessment would entail a consideration of facts beyond the pleadings, something which can only be done in a properly documented motion for summary judgment and must await another day.
Accordingly, for the foregoing reasons, IT IS RECOMMENDED that the plaintiff's amended complaint be dismissed with respect to defendants Lawton, Nesbitt, Zola, Greenwald, Barr, and King 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.
The Parties are further placed on notice that pursuant to Local Rule 72.3:
Any party may object to a magistrate judge's proposed findings, recommendations or report addressing a motion or matter described in 28 U.S.C. § 636 (b)(1)(B) or making a recommendation for the disposition of a prisoner case or a habeas corpus petition within fourteen (14) days after being served with a copy thereof. Such party shall file with the clerk of court, and serve on the magistrate judge and all parties, written objections which shall specifically identify the portions of the proposed findings, recommendations or report to which objection is made and the basis for such objections. The briefing requirements set forth in Local Rule 72.2 shall apply. A judge shall make a de novo determination of those portions of the report or specified proposed findings or recommendations to which objection is made and may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations made by the magistrate judge. The judge, however, need conduct a new hearing only in his or her discretion or where required by law, and may consider the record developed before the magistrate judge, making his or her own determination on the basis of that record. The judge may also receive further evidence, recall witnesses or recommit the matter to the magistrate judge with instructions.