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Fields v. Doe

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

June 4, 2015

JOHN DOE #1, et al., Defendants.


Stengel, J.

I. Background[1]

Pro se plaintiff Verron Fields is currently incarcerated in the State Correctional Institution at Graterford, PA. He brings a host of claims against John Wetzel, Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (PA DOC), for what he calls “systematic degeneration, enslavement and predatory practices.” He alleges a range of statutory and constitutional violations.

First, Mr. Fields alleges that the defendant violates federal antitrust law because the PA DOC has a monopoly over the goods and services consumed by the inmates. Fields claims that the PA DOC unfairly uses its monopoly power by regularly increasing prices and selling expired goods. Inmates allegedly are provided food “packages” which must be pre-paid for by the inmate or an outside party. According to the plaintiff, the PA DOC reduces the size of some of the items purchased after receiving payment for a larger size, “and the PA DOC keeps the difference in price.” Fields also claims that his due process rights have been violated. According to the plaintiff, the PA DOC has a contract with ‘J-Pay’ to receive all inmate funds sent by friends and families of inmates. Money orders sent to J-Pay must be made payable to J-Pay, thereby transferring ownership of the funds to J-Pay. Funds are placed in an interest bearing account and interest payments are divided by J Pay and the PA DOC. Allegedly, inmates and their families do not receive interest from these funds. He claims this taking of interest is “theft and fraud…in violation of [his and other inmates’] property and due process rights and federal banking laws.”

Fields claims his equal protection and due process rights as a musician have been violated as well. Fields has requested permission to create and record music, form a fundraising organization, create an arts and music therapy program, and sell his music. Pointing to PA DOC policy that permits prisoners to sell artwork they have created, Fields claims that musicians should also be permitted to sell music. The prison has denied his requests because of “current policy.” This policy is not clearly stated. The plaintiff also states that PA DOC policy does not allow certain inmates to sell their art work for “a price no less than $5.00.”

Next, Mr. Fields asserts a theft/embezzlement claim. In 2009, the prison mistakenly debited Fields’s account for sixty dollars. Fields’s claims this money was never returned and was “illegally embezzled” from his account.

Lastly, Fields asserts claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Fields has a mental health condition which he treats with medication.[2] He also has a history of drug addiction. He claims that Wetzel and the PA DOC violate Title II of the ADA “by failing to provide adequate banking procedures to the mentally ill, by failing to employ fair business practices for the mentally ill, and by failing to provide programs, activities and services for the mentally ill, amounting to cruel and unusual punishment of the mentally ill.” The defendant’s denial of his requests for music therapy, inter alia, support these allegations. Fields also claims the grievance procedure’s time-bar of 15 days is unreasonable given his mental illness and, therefore, violates the ADA. He filed a grievance regarding the 2009 mistaken debit after the fifteen-day grievance window expired. It was denied due to the time-bar.

Mr. Fields is seeking declaratory judgments that: 1) “there is a clear conflict of interest” for the PA DOC to have total control of inmates’ business affairs; and 2) that the defendants have violated his rights under the ADA, 13th Amendment, and the 14thAmendment’s equal protection and due process clauses. He also seeks the following injunctive relief: 1) that an independent agent be appointed to handle the inmates’ business affairs; 2) that the defendant should “create opportunities for musicians to create and sell their work as other artists are allowed;” and 3) that the defendants “create an organization that represents the mentally ill and drug addicted offenders.” The plaintiff also asks for any other relief the court deems appropriate.

On July 31, 2014, Mr. Fields filed this complaint against Wetzel and numerous other defendants.[3] Claims against all defendants except Wetzel were dismissed without prejudice on September 18, 2014.[4] On October 9, 2014, the defendant executed a waiver of service.[5] On November 4, 2015, the plaintiff filed an amended complaint.[6] The defendants move to dismiss the complaint under Rule 12(b)(6).[7]

II. Legal Standard

A motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted examines the legal sufficiency of the complaint.[8] Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 45-46 (1957). The factual allegations must be sufficient to make the claim for relief more than just speculative. Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). In determining whether to grant a motion to dismiss, a federal court must accept all factual allegations in the complaint as true and draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the plaintiff. Id.; see also D.P. Enters. v. Bucks County Cmty. Coll., 725 F.2d 943, 944 (3d Cir. 1984).

The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure do not require a plaintiff to plead in detail all of the facts upon which she bases her claim. Conley, 355 U.S. at 47. Rather, the Rules require a “short and plain statement” of the claim that will give the defendant fair notice of the plaintiff’s claim and the grounds upon which it rests. Id. The “complaint must allege facts suggestive of [the proscribed] conduct.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 564. Neither “bald assertions” nor “vague and conclusory allegations” are accepted as true. See Morse v. Lower Merion School Dist., 132 F.3d 902, 906 (3d Cir. 1997); Sterling v. Se. Pa. Transp. Auth., 897 F.Supp. 893 (E.D. Pa. 1995). The claim must contain enough factual matters to suggest the required elements of the claim or to “raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence of” those elements. Phillips v. County of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 234 (3d Cir. 2008) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556).

A court “may dismiss a complaint only if it is clear that no relief could be granted under any set of facts that could be proved consistent with the allegations.” Brown v. Card Serv. Ctr., 464 F.3d 450, 456 (3d Cir. 2006)(quoting Hishon v. King & Spalding, 467 U.S. 69, 73 (1984)).

When a plaintiff proceeds pro se, the complaint should be construed liberally. Johnson v. United States, 469 Fed.Appx. 79, 80 (3d Cir. 2012)(citing Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 106 (1976)).

III. Exhaustion of Administrative Remedies under the Prison Litigation Reform Act

Actions regarding prison conditions brought by prisoners under federal law are barred until the prisoner has exhausted available administrative remedies under the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA). 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(a); Woodford v. Ngo, 548 U.S. 81, 93 (2006); Spruill v. Gillis, 372 F.3d 218, 222 (3d Cir. 2004). To survive a motion to dismiss, Mr. Fields must have exhausted the grievance procedures on each of his claims. It is not clear that Mr. Fields has done so.

The plaintiff addressed the exhaustion of only the embezzlement claim in his complaint. He states that he filed a grievance on this claim, but after the fifteen (15) day deadline. It was denied as being time-barred. He does not allege that he appealed this decision through the final two rounds of appeals in order to exhaust the claim or to explain why it was untimely. He did not follow proper procedure in addressing this claim.[9] This claim is procedurally defaulted. See Spruill, 372 F.3d at 222. Inmates who fail to fully complete the prison grievance process are barred from subsequently litigating claims in federal court. See, e.g., Bolla v. Strickland, No. 08-3466, 304 F.App'x. 22, 23 (3d Cir. Dec. 23, 2008); Jetter v. Beard, No. 05–5184, 183 F.App'x 178, 181 (3d Cir. May 31, 2006); Booth v. Churner, 206 F.3d 289, 300 (3d Cir. 2000). The embezzlement claim will be dismissed with prejudice.[10]

The defendant argues that all of the plaintiff’s claims are procedurally defaulted; however, the defendant addresses only the procedural default of the plaintiff’s antitrust claims. The plaintiff states in the “sworn affidavit” attached to the complaint that he filed a grievance about his antitrust claims on September 22, 2013. The defendant confirms the filing of this grievance on this date and topic. The defendant shows that the plaintiff did appeal the denial of this grievance (#478676) at both the intermediate and final appeals levels. See Doc. No. 15, Ex. 3. However, the defendant argues this claim was already procedurally defaulted because the plaintiff had filed a previous grievance related to this same issue in January 2013 (#443932). See id. at Ex. 2. That previous grievance was denied, and the plaintiff appealed the rejection. Id. That appeal upheld the original decision. The plaintiff did not appeal the previous grievance to the final level.

The second grievance filed in September was denied because the plaintiff had filed the previous grievance. It was also denied because the plaintiff did not claim he was harmed by the policy nor was he allowed to assert a grievance on behalf of a group of inmates. The plaintiff specifically explained in his appeal how his September grievance was different than his January one. Nonetheless, the original grievance decision was still upheld on appeal, because the plaintiff had not alleged specific harm related to the procedure and because he had presented the same issue previously. The final appeal decision did not address the plaintiff’s argument that the September grievance differed from the January grievance.

Prisoners are required to “properly” exhaust their claims, meaning “a prisoner must complete the administrative review process in accordance with the applicable procedural rules, including deadlines, as a precondition to bringing suit in federal court.” Woodford v. Ngo, 548 U.S. 81, 93 (2006). The applicable procedural rule, DC-ADM 804 § 1.A.16, states:

Any grievance issue that has been or is currently being addressed will not be readdressed in a subsequent grievance. Any concern disputing previous grievances, appeal decisions or staff members who rendered those decisions should be addressed through the appeal process….[11]

DC-ADM 804 does not explain further when a grievance is barred from refiling because the “issue” has already been addressed. In looking at the two grievances, I cannot say they necessarily cover the same issue. In the January grievance, the plaintiff challenged the pricing policy (i.e. “price fixing”) related to the “monopolization” the PA DOC has over the prisoners’ goods and services. In the September grievance, he challenged the conflict of interest created by the PA DOC’s dual role as both controller of the inmates’ business affairs and their caretaker.[12] They do appear to address two different “issues.”

Nonetheless, neither grievance appears to have been properly exhausted. The plaintiff did not appeal the January grievance to the final level. The September grievance was brought on behalf of a group of prisoners and did not allege individual harm, in compliance with DC-ADM 804.[13] Because the plaintiff did not properly exhaust his claims as to these issues, his antitrust claims will also be dismissed with prejudice.[14]

The plaintiff states in his “sworn affidavit” that he has “made requests” about his other various claims. The defendant offers evidence that the plaintiff has filed sixty-one grievances between July 2008 and December 2013. See Doc. No. 15, Ex. 1. However, the descriptions of these grievances, presented in a list format, are vague and simply described as “commissary, ” “due process, ” “conditions, ” etc. This information is not enough for me to determine whether the grievances include those claims in the amended complaint. “Exhaustion is no longer left to the discretion of the district court, but is mandatory.” Woodford v. Ngo, 548 U.S. 81, 83 (2006)(citing Booth v. Churner, 532 U.S. 731, 739 (2001)). I will dismiss the plaintiff’s remaining claims without prejudice. He will be permitted leave to file an amended complaint, showing that he has exhausted his administrative remedies.[15]

IV. Conclusion

For the foregoing reasons, I will dismiss the plaintiff’s antitrust claims and embezzlement claim with prejudice. The plaintiff’s remaining claims are dismissed without prejudice. The plaintiff is granted leave to file a second amended complaint.

An appropriate Order follows.

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