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Rinaldi v. United States

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

May 7, 2015

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, et al., Defendants.


SYLVIA H. RAMBO, District Judge.

Plaintiff Michael Rinaldi initiated this civil rights action pursuant to Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents of Fed. Bureau of Narcotics, 403 U.S. 388 (1971), by filing a complaint on February 19, 2013 against numerous officers and staff at the United States Penitentiary, Lewisburg (USP-Lewisburg), the facility where he was formerly confined. (Doc. 1.) In the complaint, Plaintiff alleges several civil rights violations involving his confinement with a hostile cell-mate, Defendants' refusal to allow him to practice his religion, and USP-Lewisburg's policy regarding psychiatric treatment. (Id. at 5.) Presently before the court is Defendants' motion to dismiss and/or for summary judgment. (Doc. 18.) For the reasons stated below, the motion will be granted.

I. Background[1]

In January, 2012, approximately two months after arriving at USP-Lewisburg, Plaintiff was told by Defendant Baysore that if he did not stop filing administrative remedy requests, she would have him moved into a cell with an inmate who was known for assaulting his cell-mates. (Doc. 1 at 3.) When Plaintiff reported this to Defendant Kissell (a case manager at USP-Lewisburg), Kissell told him that he was not going to get involved because it was "over his head" and the other officials were tired of Plaintiff filing administrative remedy requests. (Id. ) On February 2, 2012, Defendant Officer Gee informed Plaintiff that he was being moved because he had continued filing administrative remedy requests. (Id. ) When Plaintiff refused to cooperate, Gee threatened to call a team of officers and have Plaintiff gassed and placed in restraints. (Id. ) Plaintiff was then moved into a cell with an inmate who had told prison officials that he would kill Plaintiff. (Id. )

Over the next few weeks, Plaintiff had several physical altercations with his cell-mate that left him with cuts and bruises. (Id. ) The cell in which he was placed was also dirty and had a toilet stained from urine and feces. (Id. ) When Plaintiff complained of this, the staff refused to do anything and provided him with no cleaning supplies aside from a small amount of disinfectant. (Id. at 3-4.) Prison officials also turned off the prison's heating system just before the temperature dropped below freezing. (Id. at 4.) When Plaintiff complained of this, he was told that the building was "too old" to turn the heat back on and was refused any blankets to keep warm. (Id. ) Plaintiff contracted a cold as a result of the temperature drop. (Id. )

While at USP-Lewisburg, Defendants Packard, Tanner, and Bingaman (prison officers) ridiculed Plaintiff and called him a "rat" or "snitch" because he had filed administrative remedy requests. (Id. ) They denied Plaintiff his recreation period on multiple occasions due to issues such as having milk cartons out in his cell or having a clothesline hanging up. (Id. ) Plaintiff was denied the opportunity to attend Friday prayers in congregation, which is required by his religion. (Id. ) Defendant Officer Shivery also stole Plaintiff's personal property during a search of his cell; when Plaintiff requested a confiscation sheet showing the items that were taken, his request was denied. (Id. )

Plaintiff suffered emotional distress from these events and requested a psychological review with the prison's psychologist, Defendant Dr. Mink. (Id. ) Plaintiff was then informed that the review would have to be conducted through the cell door within hearing range of other nearby inmates. (Id. ) Because of this, Plaintiff was unable to confidentially express his emotional distress and other psychological issues to Dr. Mink. (Id. )

Plaintiff filed an administrative remedy request regarding these issues, but it was not "appropriately investigated or responded to." (Id. ) Plaintiff also appealed this request to the General Counsel of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, but this was "not adequately investigated" and was not responded to. (Id. ) Plaintiff claims that numerous staff, including the warden and associate wardens, of USP-Lewisburg "make light of the administrative remedy situation and refer to it as a joke." (Id. ) He further alleges that staff members "acknowledge that all they have to do is stick together and lie for each other and they can get away with whatever they want." (Id. at 5.)

Plaintiff filed the instant complaint on February 19, 2013. (Doc. 1.) Defendants filed a motion to dismiss and/or for summary judgment on May 28, 2013. Plaintiff later filed a brief in opposition to this motion (Doc. 30), and Defendants filed a reply brief (Doc. 36). The motion is thus now ripe for disposition.

II. Legal Standard

A. Motion to Dismiss-Lack of Jurisdiction

Federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction, possessing "only that power authorized by Constution and statute." Kokkonen v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. of America, 511 U.S. 375, 377 (1994). A party may challenge whether a district court has subject matter jurisdiction to hear a given claim through a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(1). A court may treat a Rule 12(b)(1) motion as either a facial or factual challenge to jurisdiction. Mortensen v. First Fed. Sav. and Loan Ass'n, 549 F.2d 884, 891 (3d Cir. 1977). In reviewing a facial attack, the court must accept all of the allegations in the complaint as true, whereas when reviewing a factual attack the court has no obligation to accept the truth of these allegations and may base its decision on information not contained in the complaint. Id.; see also Gould Elecs. v. United States, 220 F.3d 169, 176-77 (3d Cir. 2000). As subject matter jurisdiction is a fundamental prerequisite for any judicial action, the court cannot consider the merits of a claim without first determining that it has jurisdiction. See Steel Co. v. Citizens for a Better Env't, 523 U.S. 83, 94 (1998).

B. Motion to Dismiss-Failure to State a Claim

The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure require that a complaint set forth "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief." Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). This statement must "give the defendant fair notice of what the... claim is and the grounds upon which it rests." Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007) (quoting Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 47 (1957)). "Fair notice" in the context of Rule 8 "depends on the type of case-some complaints will require at least some factual allegations to make out a showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.'" Phillips v. County of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 232 (3d Cir. 2008) (quotation omitted). A plaintiff must provide more than "labels and conclusions" or "a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action" to show entitlement to relief. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555) (recognizing that Rule 8 pleading standard "does not require detailed factual allegations, ' but it demands more than an unadorned, the-defendant-unlawfully-harmed-me accusation"); see also Baraka v. McGreevey, 481 F.3d 187, 195 (3d Cir. 2007) (stating that the court is not "compelled to accept unsupported conclusions and unwarranted inferences or a legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation.") (quotations omitted).

A defendant may attack a complaint by a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. In deciding a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), the court is required to accept as true all of the factual allegations in the complaint and all reasonable inferences permitted by the factual allegations, and view them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. Watson v. Abington Twp., 478 F.3d 144, 150 (3d Cir. 2007); Kanter v. Barella, 489 F.3d 170, 177 (3d Cir. 2007). If the facts alleged are sufficient to "raise a right to relief above the speculative level" such that the plaintiff's claim is "plausible on its face, " a complaint will survive a motion to dismiss. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 663 (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555, 570) (explaining a claim has "facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged"); see also Phillips, 515 F.3d at 234; Victaulic Co. v. Tieman, 499 F.3d 227, 234 (3d Cir. 2007); Stevenson v. Carroll, 495 F.3d 62, 66 (3d Cir. 2007). When a complaint contains 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 664. However, a court is "not bound to accept as true a legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation." Id. at 678 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555). "Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements do not suffice." Id.

When presented with a pro se complaint, the court should construe the complaint liberally and draw fair inferences from what is not alleged as well as from what is alleged. Dluhos v. Strasberg, 321 F.3d 365, 369 (3d Cir. 2003); Youse v. Carlucci, 867 F.Supp. 317, 318 (E.D. Pa. 1994). Such a complaint "must be held to less stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers." Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007) (quoting Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 106 (1976)).

Finally, in the Third Circuit, a court must grant leave to amend before dismissing a civil rights complaint that is merely deficient. See, e.g., Fletcher-Harlee Corp. v. Pote Concrete Contractors, Inc., 482 F.3d 247, 252 (3d Cir. 2007); Shane v. Fauver, 213 F.3d 113, 116 (3d Cir. 2000). "Dismissal without leave to amend is justified only on the grounds of bad faith, undue delay, prejudice, or futility." Alston v. Parker, 363 F.3d 229, 236 (3d Cir. 2004).

C. Summary Judgment

Summary judgment may be granted if, drawing all inferences in favor of the non-moving party, "the movant shows that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); see also Melrose, Inc. v. City of Pittsburgh, 613 F.3d 380, 387 (3d Cir. 2010).

A fact is "material" if proof of its existence or non-existence might affect the outcome of the suit under applicable law. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986); see also Lamont v. New Jersey, 637 F.3d 177, 181 (3d Cir. 2011). Disputes must be both (1) material, meaning concerning facts that will affect the outcome of the issue under substantive law, and (2) genuine, meaning there is sufficient evidence supporting the claimed factual dispute "to require a jury or judge to resolve the parties' differing versions of the truth at trial." In re Lemington Home for Aged, 659 F.3d 282, 290 (3d Cir. 2011); see also S.H. ex rel. Durrell v. Lower Merion Sch. Dist., 729 F.3d 248, 256 (3d Cir. 2013).

A party moving for summary judgment has the initial burden of supporting its assertion that the material facts are not genuinely disputed by citing to particular parts of materials in the record-i.e., depositions, documents, affidavits, stipulations, or other materials- or by showing that: (1) the materials cited by the non-moving party do not establish the presence of a genuine dispute, or (2) that the non-moving party cannot produce admissible evidence to support its factual allegations. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(1). The moving party may discharge its burden by "pointing out to the district court" the "absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party's case" when the nonmoving party bears the ultimate burden of proof for the claim in question. Conoshenti v. Public Serv. Elec. & Gas Co, 364 F.3d 135, 140 (3d Cir. 2004) (quoting Singletary v. Pennsylvania Dept. of Corr., 266 F.3d 186, 192 n.2 (3d Cir. 2001)).

Conversely, in order to defeat a motion for summary judgment, the non-moving party must support its assertion that at least some facts are genuinely disputed by citing to particular parts of materials in the record, or by showing that: (1) the materials cited by the moving party do not establish the absence of a genuine dispute, or (2) the moving party cannot produce admissible evidence to support its fact(s). Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(1). When determining whether there are any genuine issues of material fact, the court "should view the facts in the light most favorable to the non-moving party and draw all reasonable inferences in that party's favor." Lower Merion Sch. Dist., 729 F.3d at 256.

In reviewing a motion for summary judgment, the court does not make credibility determinations, and summary judgment is "inappropriate when a case will turn on credibility determinations." El v. Southeastern Pa. Transp. Auth., 479 F.3d 232, 235 (3d Cir. 2007) (quoting Horowitz v. Federal Kemper Life Assur. Co., 57 F.3d 300, 302 n.1 (3d Cir. 1995)).

III. Discussion

In his complaint, Plaintiff sets forth the following claims: 1) the conditions of his confinement at USP-Lewisburg, including being forced to reside with an inmate who stated that he wanted to kill Plaintiff, constituted cruel and unusual punishment;

2) Defendants unlawfully retaliated against Plaintiff for filing grievances by forcing him to reside with an inmate who stated that he wanted to kill Plaintiff; 3) Defendants violated his Fifth and Eighth Amendment rights by denying him access to adequate recreation; 4) the denial of Plaintiff's ability to worship in congregation violated his right to religious freedom; and 5) the requirement to have psychological review conducted through the cell door resulted in Plaintiff being denied proper medical care and violated his right to confidentiality with his doctor. (Doc. 1 at 3, 5.) Defendants raise the following grounds for dismissal and/or summary judgment: 1) Plaintiff failed to exhaust his administrative remedies for the claims regarding the conditions of his confinement, retaliation, and the denial of his ability to worship in congregation; 2) The doctrine of sovereign immunity renders this court without jurisdiction to hear claims against the United States and the individual defendants in their official capacities; 3) Plaintiff failed to adequately establish his claim of retaliation; 4) Plaintiff's claims should be dismissed as to Defendants Kissell, Baysore, and Gee because the threats they allegedly made do not amount to a constitutional violation; 5) The denial of Plaintiff's recreation time does not rise to the level of an Eighth Amendment violation; 6) Plaintiff's claim that Defendant Shivery stole his personal property is factually unsupported; 7) Plaintiff's claim regarding his psychological treatment by Defendant Mink does not rise to the level of an Eighth Amendment violation; 8) The claims against Defendants Norwood, Thomas, Gondolosky, Young, Bahre, and Taggert should be dismissed because Plaintiff does not allege any direct involvement by them in his claims; 9) Plaintiff has failed to show that he was denied the free practice of his religion; 10) Summary judgment should be granted to the United States because Plaintiff's injuries are not compensable under the Federal Tort Claims Act; and 11) The prison official defendants are entitled to qualified immunity. (Doc. 24 at 5-6.) The court will first address the question of jurisdiction before turning to the other grounds for dismissal.

A. Lack of Jurisdiction-Sovereign Immunity

Defendants argue that, insofar as Plaintiff asserts his claims against the United States and individual Defendants in their official capacity, this court lacks jurisdiction to hear those claims because of the doctrine of sovereign immunity. It is well established that "the United States, as sovereign, is immune from suit save as it consents to be sued.'" United States v. Testan, 424 U.S. 392, 399 (1976) (quoting United States v. Sherwood, 31 U.S. 584, 586 (1941)). Sovereign immunity applies in the same manner to prevent suits against individual defendants in their official capacity. Kentucky v. Graham, 473 U.S. 159, 166-67 (1985).

Plaintiff does not explicitly respond to this argument to indicate what authority he relies on to show that the United States has waived immunity for this suit. ( See Doc. 31.) However, this court notes that Plaintiff cited the Federal Tort Claims Act ("FTCA") as one of the jurisdictional authorities for his complaint. (Doc. No. 1 at 2.) The FTCA, in relevant part, states:

Subject to the provisions of chapter 171 of this title, the district courts... shall have exclusive jurisdiction of civil actions on claims against the United States, for money damages... for injury or loss of property, or personal injury or death caused by the negligent or wrongful act or omission of any employee of the Government while acting within the scope of his office or employment, under circumstances where the United States, if a private person, would be liable to the claimant in accordance with the law of the place where the act or omission occurred.

28 U.S.C. § 1346(b)(1). In order for a court to exercise jurisdiction under the FTCA, the plaintiff must first have "presented the claim to the appropriate Federal agency" and the agency must have issued a final denial of the claim within six months before the filing of the FTCA action. 28 U.S.C. § 2675(a). On May 26, 2012, Plaintiff filed an administrative tort claim complaining about being forced to live with an inmate who threatened to kill him and subsequently being assaulted. (Doc. 26-1 at 4.) This claim was denied on November 28, 2012. (Id. at 6.) ...

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