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Sanchez v. Coleman

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

December 11, 2014

JOSE SANCHEZ, Plaintiff,
v.
BRIAN V. COLEMAN, et al., Defendants.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

CYNTHIA REED EDDY, Magistrate Judge.

Presently before the Court is the Motion to Dismiss For Failure to State A Claim, with brief in support, filed by Defendant Herbik (ECF Nos. 39 and 40) and the Motion To Dismiss For Failure to State a Claim, with brief in support, filed by Defendants Susan Berrier, Brian V. Coleman, Pamela Filchek, Tom Hivanic, Rhonda House, K. Randolph, and Dorina Varner (hereinafter referred to as the "Commonwealth Defendants") (ECF Nos. 65 and 66). For the reasons that follow, the Motion filed by Defendant Herbik will be granted and the Motion filed by the Commonwealth Defendants will be granted to the extent that Plaintiff's claims of deliberate indifference to his medical needs will be dismissed.[1]

Procedural History

Plaintiff Jose Sanchez, is an inmate who is currently confined in the custody of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections ("DOC") in the State Correctional Institution ("SCI") at Fayette. Plaintiff initiated this lawsuit on July 11, 2013, by the filing of a Motion for Leave to Proceed in forma pauperis, with an attached civil rights complaint. (ECF No. 1). By Order entered July 12, 2013, the case was dismissed without prejudice as Plaintiff had failed to provide the necessary financial paperwork required under 28 U.S.C. § 1915(a)(2). Plaintiff thereafter resubmitted a Motion for Leave to Proceed in forma pauperis attaching the required financial paperwork, and a new complaint.[2] The motion was granted, the case was reopened on August 15, 2013, and the Complaint filed. (ECF No. 8). Thereafter, Defendants filed timely motions to dismiss.

In response to Defendants' motions to dismiss, Plaintiff filed a seven-count Amended Complaint (ECF No. 38), which remains the operative complaint.[3] Plaintiff brings this suit pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1981; 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and 42 U.S.C. § 1985, alleging violations of his rights under the First, Fourth, Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution. Generally, he alleges that medical treatment was delayed and/or that he was denied medical treatment for ongoing complaints of pain associated with gastrointestinal issues he was experiencing. He also alleges that Defendants failed to protect him and other similarly situated inmates at SCI-Fayette from harm created by an allegedly "unsafe environment (i.e. contaminated water and/or food)." Amended Complaint, Count VII. As relief, Plaintiff seeks a declaratory judgment, "preliminary permanent injunction" prohibiting retaliation; compensatory and punitive damages, costs and attorney's fees, and any other relief deemed just, equitable, and proper." Amended Complaint, at ¶ VI.

Defendants include employees and health care providers for the Pennsylvania DOC. They include: Brian V. Coleman, Superintendent of SCI-Fayette; Susan Berrier, Corrections Health Care Administrator at SCI-Fayette; K. Randolph, Registered Nurse Supervisor at SCI-Fayette; Rhonda House, Facility Grievance Coordinator at SCI-Fayette; Pamela Filcheck, Nurse at SCI-Fayette; Tom Hivanic, Nurse at SCI-Fayette; and Dorina Varner, Chief Grievance Counselor (collectively referred to as the "Commonwealth Defendants"), Dr. Herbik, Medical Doctor at SCI-Fayette; and Barry Beavan, M.D., Medical Doctor at SCI-Camp Hill (an unserved defendant).

Defendant Dr. Herbik and the Commonwealth Defendants have each filed Motions to Dismiss, pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). (ECF Nos. 39 and 65). Plaintiff responded in opposition to both motions. (ECF No. 71). The matter is ripe for disposition.

Factual Background

Plaintiff alleges the following facts in his Amended Complaint, which are accepted as true for purposes of the motions to dismiss. See Newman v. Beard, 617 F.3d 775, 779 (3d Cir. 2010). While incarcerated at SCI-Camp Hill, Plaintiff began experiencing abdominal pain and gastrointestinal issues. In 2006, Plaintiff was transferred from SCI-Camp Hill to SCI-Fayette, and continued to complain of abdominal pain and gastrointestinal issues. Plaintiff posits two theories on the origin of his abdominal pain and gastrointestinal issues: (i) he was given the wrong medication/antibiotic while he was incarcerated at SCI-Camp Hill, which caused him to develop C-Diff bacteria, and/or (ii) the food and water at SCI-Fayette is contaminated which has made him ill. Plaintiff contends that he has been unable to obtain adequate medical care for his ailments.

Plaintiff also contends that Defendants have failed to protect him and other similarly situation inmates at SCI-Fayette from the harm created by the allegedly contaminated water and/or food. Plaintiff contends that although he has made Defendants aware of the alleged contaminated water and food, Defendants have failed to investigate his complaints, have failed to remedy the contamination, and have engaged in a conspiracy to "cover up" the contamination in order to avoid a lawsuit.

Standard Of Review

A. Pro Se Litigants

Pro se pleadings, "however inartfully pleaded, " must be held to "less stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers." Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, 520-521 (1972). If the court can reasonably read pleadings to state a valid claim on which the litigant could prevail, it should do so despite failure to cite proper legal authority, confusion of legal theories, poor syntax and sentence construction, or the litigant's unfamiliarity with pleading requirements. Boag v. MacDougall, 454 U.S. 364 (1982); United States ex rel. Montgomery v. Bierley, 141 F.2d 552, 555 (3d Cir.1969) (petition prepared by a prisoner may be inartfully drawn and should be read "with a measure of tolerance").

In a § 1983 action, the court must liberally construe the pro se litigant's pleadings and "apply the applicable law, irrespective of whether a pro se litigant has mentioned it by name." Higgins v. Beyer, 293 F.3d 683, 688 (3d Cir. 2002) (quoting Holley v. Dep't of Veteran Affairs, 165 F.3d 244, 247-48 (3d Cir. 1999)). See also Nami v. Fauver, 82 F.3d 63, 65 (3d Cir. 1996) ("Since this is a § 1983 action, the [pro se] plaintiffs are entitled to relief if their complaint sufficiently alleges deprivation of any right secured by the Constitution.") (quoting Higgins, 293 F.3d at 688). Under our liberal pleading rules, during the initial stages of litigation, a district court should construe all allegations in a complaint in favor of the complainant. Gibbs v. Roman, 116 F.3d 83 (3d Cir. 1997). See, e.g., Nami v. Fauver, 82 F.3d 63, 65 (3d Cir.1996) (discussing Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6) standard); Markowitz v. Northeast Land Co., 906 F.2d 100, 103 (3d Cir. 1990) (same). Notwithstanding this liberality, pro se litigants are not relieved of their obligation to allege sufficient facts to support a cognizable legal claim. See, e.g., Taylor v. Books A Million, Inc., 296 F.3d 376, 378, (5th Cir. 2002).

B. Motion to Dismiss Pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) - The Legal Standard

A motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) challenges the legal sufficiently of the complaint. When reviewing a motion to dismiss, the Court must accept all well-pleaded facts and allegations, and must draw all reasonable inferences therefrom in favor of the plaintiff. Burtch v. Milberg Factors, Inc., 62 F.3d 212, 220 (3d Cir. 2011), cert. denied, ___ U.S. ___, 131 S.Ct. 1861 (2012) (citing In re Ins. Brokerage Antitrust Litig., 618 F.3d 300, 314 (3d Cir. 2010)). However, as the Supreme Court of the United States made clear in Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, such "[f]actual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level." 550 U.S. 554, 555 (2007). See also Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (holding that, while the Complaint need not contain detailed factual allegations, it must contain more than a "formulaic recitation of the elements" of a constitutional claim and must state a claim that is plausible on its face) (quoting Twombly, and providing further guidance on the standard set forth therein).

To determine the legal sufficiency of a complaint after Twombly and Iqbal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit instructs that a district court must conduct a three-step analysis when considering a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim . Malleus v. George, 641 F.3d 560, 563 (3d Cir. 2011) (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 675, 679); Santiago v. Warminster Twp., 629 F.3d 121, 130 n.7 (3d Cir. 2010) (noting that although Iqbal describes the process as a "two-pronged approach, " it views the case as outlining three steps) (citing Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 675). First, "the court must tak[e] note of the elements a plaintiff must plead to state a claim.'" Id. at 130 (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 675) (alteration in original). Second, the court "should identify allegations that, because they are no more than conclusions, are not entitled to the assumption of truth.'" Id. (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679). Third, "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. (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679). "While legal conclusions can provide the framework of a Complaint, they must be supported by factual allegations." Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 210-11 (3d Cir. 2009); see also Malleus, 641 F.3d at 560.

The Court may not dismiss a Complaint merely because it appears unlikely or improbable that Plaintiff can prove the facts alleged or will ultimately prevail on the merits. Twombly, 550 U.S. at 563 n.8. Instead, the Court must ask whether the facts alleged raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence of the necessary elements. Id. at 556. Generally speaking, a complaint that provides "how, when, and were" will survive a motion to dismiss. Fowler, 578 F.3d at 212; see also Guirguis v. Movers Speciality Servs., Inc., 346 F.Appx. 774, 776 (3d Cir. 2009). A motion to dismiss should not be granted if a party alleges facts, which could, if established at trial, entitle him or her to relief. Twombly, 550 U.S. at 563, n.8.

Courts generally consider the allegations of the complaint, attached exhibits, and matters of public record in deciding motions to dismiss. Pension Benefit Guar. Corp. v. White Consol. Indus., Inc., 998 F.2d 1192, 1196 (3d Cir. 1993). Factual allegations within documents described or identified in the complaint also may be considered if the plaintiff's claims are based upon those documents. Id. (citations omitted). In addition, a district court may consider indisputably authentic documents without converting a motion to dismiss into a motion for summary judgment. Spruill v. Gillis, 372 F.3d 218, 223 (3d Cir. 2004); Lum v. Bank of America, 361 F.3d 217, 222 (3d Cir. 2004) (in resolving a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6), a court generally should consider "the allegations in the complaint, exhibits attached to the complaint, matters of public record, and documents that form the basis of a claim.").

Moreover, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has held that, in civil rights cases, a court must give a plaintiff the opportunity to amend a deficient complaint-regardless of whether the plaintiff requests to do so - when dismissing a case for failure to state a claim, unless doing so would be inequitable or futile . See Fletcher-Harlee Corp. v. Pote Concrete Contractors, Inc., 482 F.3d 247, 251 (3d Cir. 2007).

Discussion

A. Plaintiff's Claims Under Section 1981

Plaintiff's § 1981 claims are easily disposed of as frivolous.[4] Section 1981, which prohibits racial discrimination provides, in relevant part, the following:

All persons within the jurisdiction of the United States shall have the same right in every State and Territory to make and enforce contracts, to sue, be parties, give evidence, and to the full and equal benefit of all laws and proceedings for the security of persons and property as is enjoyed by white citizens, and shall be subject to like punishment, pains, penalties, taxes, licenses and exactions of every kind, and to no other.

42 U.S.C. § 1981(a). In order to state a claim under Section 1981, a plaintiff "must allege facts in support of the following elements: (1) [that plaintiff] is a member of a racial minority; (2) intent to discriminate on the basis of race by the defendant; and (3) discrimination concerning one or more of the activities enumerated in the statute...." Brown v. Phillip Morris, Inc., 250 F.3d 789, 797 (3d Cir. 2001) (quoting Yelverton v. Lehman, No. Civ. A. 94-6114, 1996 WL 296551, at *7 (E.D.Pa. June 3, 1996), aff'd. mem., 175 F.3d 1012 (3d Cir. 1999)).

Plaintiff fails to make a single factual allegation which supports, or even suggests, that racial discrimination was a factor in the incidents underlying this lawsuit. Such allegations are an essential element of any § 1981 claim. Accordingly, Plaintiff's Section 1981 claims will be dismissed sua sponte with respect to all Defendants.

B. Plaintiff's Claims Under Section 1983

In order to state a claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, a plaintiff must meet two threshold requirements. He must allege: (i) that the alleged misconduct was committed by a person acting under color of state law; and (ii) that as a result, he was deprived of rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the ...


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