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Perez v. Wetzel

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

May 19, 2015

ALBERT PEREZ, Plaintiff,
JOHN WETZEL et al., Defendants.


Gerald Austin McHugh United States District Court Judge

Plaintiff Albert Perez, an inmate at SCI-Graterford, has brought this § 1983 action against a number of named and unnamed prison officials, several named and unnamed medical services providers, and the company contracted to provide healthcare services to the SCI-Graterford facility. Plaintiff alleges that he was subjected to excessive force in violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments when he was handcuffed with his hands behind his back during a cell search which resulted in injury to his shoulder. Plaintiff further asserts that he received improper medical treatment for this injury also in violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. Certain named Defendants have moved for dismissal of this action for failure to state a claim pursuant to Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6).

I. Factual Background

Plaintiff avers that he was present in the J-Unit Recreational Area at SCI-Graterford on October 2, 2012. At 8:30 A.M., the rest of the capital inmates were removed from their cells and brought to the recreational area under the pretense of a fire drill. Members of the facility’s Correctional Emergency Response Team (CERT) placed all the inmates in flexcuffs with their arms behind their backs. Plaintiff alleges that his cuffs were pulled too tightly. Plaintiff informed members of the CERT that his flexcuffs were very tight and were cutting off his circulation, causing his fingers to swell and turn blue. He was told that the message would be relayed to supervisors, but Plaintiff states that the CERT members never went inside to do so. Furthermore, during that period, no supervisor came outside to check on the inmates. Plaintiff claims that he was informed that Secretary of the State of Pennsylvania Department of Corrections John Wetzel, Superintendent of SCI-Graterford Mike Wenerowicz, Deputy Superintendent for Facilities Management Jay Lane, and Deputy Superintendent of Security George Ondrejka were all inside J-Unit at the time and were made aware of the situation outside.

Plaintiff later informed the CERT members that he suffers from chronic back pain and that the position the flexcuffs placed him in was aggravating that pain, as well as causing pain in his shoulder. Plaintiff requested to be cuffed with his hands in front instead, but CERT members refused. Plaintiff also claims to have been refused the opportunity to use the restroom which caused him to urinate on himself.

The inmates were kept in the flexcuffs behind their backs until 12:00 P.M., almost three and a half hours later. When the cuffs were removed, Plaintiff was in extreme pain and requested medical attention immediately. At 2:00 P.M., the inmates were returned to their cells from the recreational area, again with their hands cuffed behind their backs. Plaintiff’s individual cell was searched at 5:00 P.M., and Plaintiff was again cuffed behind his back despite informing CERT members of the pain he was experiencing. At that time, Plaintiff again requested medical attention. Around 7:00 P.M., Plaintiff was given his usual pain medication for his chronic back pain, and filled out a sick-call form to be seen by a doctor the next day.

Plaintiff was seen by a sick-call doctor on October 3, 2012. He was prescribed pain medication for his shoulder and signed up for the physician line. Plaintiff was next administered x-rays on November 29, 2012, and received a temporary pass to be handcuffed in front of his body due to a possible tear in his rotator cuff. Plaintiff was seen by a physician in his cell on December 4, 2012, but the physician merely inquired about his condition.

After numerous sick-calls for pain, limited mobility, and loss of strength in his shoulder, Plaintiff was assigned to physical therapy, but that treatment was terminated by the therapist after only three sessions because Plaintiff’s injury was not responding. Plaintiff was seen by Dr. Mohammad Golsorkhi on June 6, 2013, and was told to deal with his pain and that it would go away with meditation. Dr. Golsorkhi refused to renew Plaintiff’s pain medication prescription and placed him on Motrin instead. Dr. Golsorkhi also gave Plaintiff an unlimited handcuff-in-front pass.

Plaintiff now alleges that he was subjected to excessive and unreasonable force with regard to the handcuffing he experienced, and also alleges that the medical attention he received was improper.

II. Claim for Excessive Force Pertaining to Plaintiff’s Restraint During Cell Search

Plaintiff’s Complaint names the following prison officials as Defendants in this action: John Wetzel, Secretary of the State of Pennsylvania Department of Corrections; Mike Wenerowicz, Superintendent of SCI-Graterford; Jay Lane, Deputy Superintendent for Facilities Management at SCI-Graterford; George Ondrejka, Deputy Superintendent of Security at SCI-Graterford; Joseph Korsziak, Medical Department Supervisor at SCI-Graterford; and unnamed CERT Members employed by the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections. These individuals are sued in both their official and individual capacities.

Defendants assert that Plaintiff’s claims against Defendants in their official capacity are barred by the Eleventh Amendment. Sovereign immunity by way of the Eleventh Amendment serves to bar suits by private parties against a state in federal court absent a waiver by the state or valid congressional override. See Idaho v. Coeur d’Alene Tribe of Idaho, 521 U.S. 261, 267 (1997); Seminole Tribe of Florida v. Florida, 517 U.S. 44, 54 (1996); Kentucky v. Graham, 473 U.S. 159, 169 (1985). Pennsylvania has expressly withheld its consent to suit, 42 Pa. C.S. § 8521(b), and § 1983 does not override the Eleventh Amendment’s sovereign immunity. Quern v. Jordan, 440 U.S. 332, 342 (1979). The Eleventh Amendment further bars suit “against departments or agencies of the state having no existence apart from the state, ” as well as suits against a state official acting in his official capacity where retrospective relief, like damages, is being sought. Laskaris v. Thornburgh, 661 F.2d 23, 25-26 (3d Cir. 1981).

As Defendants point out, the Department of Corrections is an executive department of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and cannot exist apart from the state. 71 P.S. § 732-102; see Lavia v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, et al., 224 F.3d 190, 195 (3d Cir. 2000). The Department of Corrections and its officers in their official capacities are immune from lawsuits for damages unless an exception applies. “In addition to Eleventh Amendment immunity, the Commonwealth defendants in their official capacities are not considered ‘persons’ amenable to suit for damages under § 1983.” Mohamad v. Wenerowicz, No. 13-3702, 2014 WL 2957445, at *5 (E.D. Pa. July 1, 2014) (citing Will v. Michigan Dept. of State Police, 491 U.S. 58, 69–71 & n. 10 (1989)).

Wetzel, Wenerowicz, and Korsziak are officials within the Department of Corrections, and as such, may not be sued for damages in a § 1983 action. Plaintiff is barred by sovereign immunity in seeking such damages against the state officials in their official capacities. While Plaintiff seeks injunctive relief in the form of an MRI and treatment of his injuries, the only state official from whom injunctive relief is sought is Korsziak. Korsziak’s involvement in this ...

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