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Hopkins v. Luzerne Co. District Attorney's Office

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

April 6, 2015

KENTLIN HOPKINS, Plaintiff
v.
LUZERNE CO. DISTRICT ATTORNEY'S OFFICE, ET AL., Defendants.

MEMORANDUM

RICHARD P. CONABOY, District Judge.

Background

Kentlin Hopkins (Plaintiff), an inmate presently confined at the Luzerne County Correctional Facility, Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, initiated this pro se civil rights action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The Plaintiff has also submitted an in forma pauperis application.[1]

Named as Defendants are the Luzerne County District Attorney's Office and the Luzerne County Correctional Facility. Plaintiff states that on Tuesday, March 10, 2015 he was made aware that the Luzerne County District Attorney had placed his life in danger. See Doc. 1, ¶ IV(1). The Complaint vaguely alleges that two known street gang members were allegedly "given paperwork" listing Plaintiff's name and describing him as being a possible witness in a criminal case against those two gang members. Id. at (2). As a result of that purported conduct, Plaintiff claims that his safety has been put at risk. There are no other allegations set forth in the Complaint. Plaintiff seeks compensatory damages.

Discussion

28 U.S.C. § 1915 imposes obligations on prisoners who file civil actions in federal court and wish to proceed in forma pauperis under 28 U.S.C. § 1915, e.g., that the full filing fee ultimately must be paid (at least in a non-habeas suit) § 1915(e)(2)provides:

(2) Notwithstanding any filing fee, or any portion thereof, that may have been paid, the court shall dismiss the case at any time if the court determines that (A) the allegation of poverty is untrue; or (B) the action or appeal (i) is frivolous or malicious; (ii) fails to state a claim on which relief may be granted; or (iii) seeks monetary relief against a defendant who is immune from such relief.

When considering a complaint accompanied by a motion to proceed in forma pauperis, a district court may rule that process should not be issued if the complaint is malicious, presents an indisputably meritless legal theory, or is predicated on clearly baseless factual contentions. Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319, 327-28 (1989); Wilson v. Rackmill, 878 F.2d 772, 774 (3d Cir. 1989). Indisputably meritless legal theories are those "in which either it is readily apparent that the plaintiff's complaint lacks an arguable basis in law or that the defendants are clearly entitled to immunity from suit...." Roman v. Jeffes, 904 F.2d 192, 194 (3d Cir. 1990) (quoting Sultenfuss v. Snow, 894 F.2d 1277, 1278 (11th Cir. 1990)).

The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has added that "the plain meaning of frivolous' authorizes the dismissal of in forma pauperis claims that... are of little or no weight, value, or importance, not worthy of serious consideration, or trivial." Deutsch v. United States, 67 F.3d 1080, 1083 (3d Cir. 1995). It also has been determined that "the frivolousness determination is a discretionary one, " and trial courts "are in the best position" to determine when an indigent litigant's complaint is appropriate for summary dismissal. Denton v. Hernandez, 504 U.S. 25, 33 (1992).

Luzerne County Correctional Facility

Courts have repeatedly recognized that a prison or correctional facility is not a person for purposes of civil rights liability. See Fischer v. Cahill, 474 F.2d 991, 992 (3d Cir. 1973); Philogene v. Adams County Prison, Civ. No. 97-0043, slip op. at p. 4 (M.D. Pa. Jan. 30, 1997) (Rambo, C.J.); Sponsler v. Berks County Prison, Civ. A. 95-1136, 1995 WL 92370, at *1 (E.D. Pa. Feb. 28, 1995). Pursuant to the above standards, the Luzerne County Correctional facility is clearly not a person and therefore not subject to civil rights liability. See Thompkins v. Doe, No. 99-3941, slip op. at 3 (3d Cir. March 16, 2000).

It is also noted that there are no factual allegations set forth in the Complaint whatsoever that any prison official engaged in any conduct which violated the Plaintiff's constitutional rights. There is also no claim by Plaintiff that his constitutional rights were violated as the result of any policy, custom or practice of the Luzerne County Correctional Facility. See Monell v. Department of Social Servs., 436 U.S. 658, 690-91 (1978).

District Attorney's Office

A plaintiff, in order to state an actionable civil rights claim, must plead two essential elements: (1) that the conduct complained of was committed by a person acting under color of law, and (2) that said conduct deprived the plaintiff of a right, privilege, or immunity secured by the Constitution or laws of the United States. Groman v. Township of Manalapan, 47 F.3d 628, 638 (3d Cir. 1995); Shaw by Strain v. Strackhouse, 920 F.2d 1135, 1141-42 (3d Cir. 1990).

Claims brought under § 1983 cannot be premised on a theory of respondeat superior. Rode v. Dellarciprete, 845 F.2d 1195, 1207 (3d Cir. 1988). Rather, each named defendant must be shown, via the complaint's allegations, to have been personally involved in the events or occurrences which underlie a claim. See Rizzo v. Goode, 423 U.S. 362 (1976); Hampton v. Holmesburg Prison Officials, 546 F.2d 1077 (3d Cir. 1976). As explained in Rode:

A defendant in a civil rights action must have personal involvement in the alleged wrongs.... [P]ersonal involvement can be shown through allegations of personal direction or of actual knowledge and acquiescence. Allegations of participation or actual knowledge and acquiescence, however, must be made with appropriate particularity.

Rode, 845 F.2d at 1207.

A municipal body or other local governmental unit, not part of a state for Eleventh Amendment purposes, is a "person" subject to suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Monell, 436 U.S. at 690-91 ("Congress did intend municipalities and other local government units to be included among those persons to whom § 1983 applies.") "Local governing bodies, like every other § 1983 person, ' by the very terms of the statute, may be sued for constitutional deprivations visited pursuant to governmental custom' even though such a custom has not received formal approval through the body's official decisionmaking channels." Id . See also Board of County Comm'rs of Bryan County, OK v. Brown, 520 U.S. 398, 403-07 (1997); Roman v. Jeffes, 904 F.2d 192, 196-97 (3d Cir. 1990); Illiano v. Clay Township, 892 F.Supp. 117, 121 (E.D. Pa. 1995).

However, it has been repeatedly held that a municipality may not be subjected to § 1983 liability on a theory of respondeat superior. Bryan County, 520 U.S. at 403; City of Canton v. Harris, 489 U.S. 378, 392 (1989); Pembaur v. Cincinnati, 475 U.S. 469, 478-79 (1986); Monell, 436 U.S. at 691; Beck v. City of Pittsburgh, 89 F.3d 966, 971 (3d Cir. 1996); Andrews v. City of Philadelphia, 895 F.2d 1469, 1480 (3d Cir. 1990). Rather, "... a plaintiff seeking to impose liability on a municipality under § 1983 [is required] to identify a municipal policy' or custom' that caused the plaintiff's injury." Bryan County, 520 U.S. at 403; Beck, 89 F.3d at 971. In Bryan County, the United States Supreme Court elaborated on the showing required for municipal liability under § 1983, stating:

... [I]t is not enough for a § 1983 plaintiff merely to identify conduct properly attributable to the municipality. The plaintiff must also demonstrate that through its deliberate conduct, the municipality was the moving force' behind the injury alleged. That is, a plaintiff must show that the municipal action was taken with the requisite degree of culpability and must demonstrate a direct causal link between the municipal action and the deprivation of federal rights.

Id. at 404; see Kneipp v. Tedder, 95 F.3d 1199, 1213 (3d Cir. 1996).

The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has held that a municipality can be held liable under § 1983 "only when 'execution of a government's policy or custom, whether made by its lawmakers or by those whose edicts or acts may fairly be said to represent official policy, inflicts the injury.'" Andrews, 895 F.2d at 1480 (citing Monell, 436 U.S. at 694).[2]

A review of the present complaint establishes that Hopkins has not set forth any claim that his constitutional rights were violated as the result of any Luzerne County District Attorney's Office policy or custom. Consequently, the District Attorney's Office, which is clearly a local government unit, is also entitled to entry of summary dismissal.

It is additionally noted that although no individual employee of the District Attorney's Office is named as a defendant in this matter, there is no assertion that the alleged improper release of personal information was undertaken by a employee of the District Attorney's Office as part of that person's administrative or investigative duties.

It is a well-established principle of law that a state prosecuting attorney is absolutely immune from liability for damage under § 1983 for acts such as the initiation of the prosecution and presentation of the state's case which are intimately associated with the judicial phase of the criminal process. Imbler v. Pachtman, 424 U.S. 409, 420 (1976); Urrutia v. Harrisburg County Police Dep't, 91 F.3d 451, 462 (3d Cir. 1996). However, only qualified immunity is available to prosecutors with regard to allegations based on their administrative and/or investigative duties. See Hawk v. Brosha, 590 F.Supp. 337, 344 (E.D. Pa. 1984).

Emotional Injury

Finally, Plaintiff is not entitled to recover compensatory damages for mental anguish or emotional injury. 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(e) provides that "[n]o federal civil action may be brought by a prisoner confined in a jail, prison or other correctional facility, for mental or emotional injury suffered while in custody without a prior showing of physical injury." In Allah v. Al-Hafeez, 226 F.3d 247, 250 (3d Cir. 2000), the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit recognized that where a plaintiff fails to allege actual injury, Section 1997e(e) bars recovery of compensatory damages. However, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals added that an inmate alleging a violation of his constitutional rights may still pursue the action to recover nominal and/or punitive damages even in the absence of compensable harm.

Under the standards announced in Allah, Plaintiff's request for monetary relief to the extent that it seeks compensatory damages for emotional and mental injuries for violation of his constitutional rights is barred by Section 1997e(e).

Conclusion

Since Hopkins' Complaint is "based on an indisputably meritless legal theory, " his pending claims will be dismissed, without prejudice, as legally frivolous. Wilson, 878 F.2d at 774. An appropriate Order will enter.


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