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Palakovic v. Wetzel

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

June 26, 2015

RENEE and DARIAN PALAKOVIC, as Administrators of the Estate of BRANDON PALAKOVIC, Plaintiffs,
v.
JOHN WETZEL, KENNETH CAMERON, JAMIE BOYLES, JAMEY LUTHER, JAMES HARRINGTON, DR. RATHORE, MICHELLE HOUSER, MORRIS HOUSER, FRANCIS PIROZZOLA, JOHN DOE #1, #2, JOHN DOES #3-6, MHM, INC., Defendants.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

KIM R. GIBSON, District Judge.

I. Introduction

This civil rights action arises from the suicide of Brandon Palakovic while he was incarcerated at the State Correctional Institution at Cresson ("SCI Cresson") and housed in the prison's Restricted Housing Unit ("RHU"). Plaintiffs-Palakovic's parents and the administrators of his estate-have asserted various civil rights claims against Defendants, alleging violations of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution and the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"), as well as state law claims. Presently before the Court are Defendants' motions to dismiss (ECF Nos. 9, 10)[1] the complaint pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). Having reviewed the motions and briefs, along with the applicable law, and for the reasons explained below, the Court will GRANT Defendants' motions to dismiss. However, Plaintiffs will be granted leave to file an amended complaint.

II. Jurisdiction

The Court has jurisdiction over the federal constitutional claims pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331, 1343(a)(3) and (4), and 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The Court has supplemental jurisdiction over the state law claims pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1367. Venue is proper under 28 U.S.C. § 1391(b)(2) because a substantial portion of the events giving rise to the claims occurred in the Western District of Pennsylvania.

III. Background

This case involves the untimely death of Brandon Palakovic, who committed suicide while he was incarcerated at SCI Cresson. The following facts are alleged in the complaint, which the Court will accept as true for the sole purpose of deciding the pending motions.

Palakovic was sentenced to serve 16-48 months imprisonment for burglarizing an occupied structure. (ECF No. 1 ¶ 21). Palakovic began his sentence in June 2011 and was incarcerated at SCI Cresson. ( Id. ). During the thirteen months while he was at SCI Cresson, Palakovic was "repeatedly subjected to solitary confinement via placement in the prison's Restricted Housing Unit (RHU), characterized by extreme deprivations of social interaction and environmental stimulation, abusive staff, and inadequate to non-existent mental health care." ( Id. ¶ 22). According to Plaintiffs, "Defendants created and sustained conditions of solitary confinement in the RHU that subjected Brandon Palakovic to torture, causing him to take his own life." ( Id. ¶ 24). Four days before his death, Palakovic was placed in solitary confinement for a minor rules violation. ( Id. ¶ 45). On July 17, 2012, Palakovic committed suicide. ( Id. ¶ 24). Palakovic had a history of mental health issues as a child and was institutionalized for mental health reasons on four occasions and had been diagnosed with various mental illnesses. ( Id. ¶ 25).

Palakovic's parents, as administrators of his estate, commenced this action by filing a five-count complaint on September 8, 2014. (ECF No. 1). Count I asserts a claim for deliberate indifference to the deprivation of basic human needs in violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution. ( Id. ¶¶ 139-40). Count II asserts a claim for deliberate indifference to serious medical needs in violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution. ( Id. ¶¶ 141-42). Count III asserts a claim for discrimination on the basis of a disability in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"). ( Id. ¶¶ 143-45). Count IV asserts a wrongful death claim under Pennsylvania law. ( Id. ¶¶ 146-51). Count V asserts a survival action under Pennsylvania law. ( Id. ¶¶ 152-54).

Defendants now move to dismiss the complaint. (ECF Nos. 9, 10). The parties have fully briefed the Court on the pending motions ( see ECF Nos. 11, 13, 17, and 18), and this matter is now ripe for adjudication.

IV. Standard of Review

Defendants move to dismiss the complaint pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6). The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure require that a complaint contain "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief." Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). Rule 12(b)(6) allows a party to seek dismissal of a complaint or any portion of a complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. Although the federal pleading standard has been "in the forefront of jurisprudence in recent years, " the standard of review for a Rule 12(b)(6) challenge is now well established. Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 209 (3d Cir. 2009).

In determining the sufficiency of a complaint, a district court must conduct a two-part analysis. First, the court must separate the factual matters averred from the legal conclusions asserted. See Fowler, 578 F.3d at 210. Second, the court must determine whether the factual matters averred are sufficient to show that plaintiff has a "plausible claim for relief." Id. at 211 (quoting Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 679 (2009)). The complaint need not include "detailed factual allegations." Phillips v. County of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 231 (3d Cir. 2008) (quoting Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007)).

Moreover, the court must construe the alleged facts, and draw all inferences gleaned therefrom, in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. See id. at 228 (citing Worldcom, Inc. v. Graphnet, Inc., 343 F.3d 651, 653 (3d Cir. 2003)). However, "legal conclusions" and "[t]hreadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action... do not suffice." Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678. Rather, the complaint must present sufficient "factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Sheridan v. NGK Metals Corp., 609 F.3d 239, 263 n.27 (3d Cir. 2010) (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678).

Ultimately, whether a plaintiff has shown a "plausible claim for relief" is a "context specific" inquiry that requires the district court to "draw on its judicial experience and common sense." Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679. The relevant record under consideration includes the complaint and any "document integral or explicitly relied on in the complaint." U.S. Express Lines, Ltd. v. Higgins, 281 F.3d 383, 388 (3d Cir. 2002) (citing In re Burlington Coat Factory Sec. Litig., 114 F.3d 1410, 1426 (3d Cir. 1997)). If a complaint is vulnerable to dismissal pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6), the district court must permit a curative amendment, irrespective of whether a plaintiff seeks leave to amend, unless such amendment would be inequitable or futile. Phillips, 515 F.3d at 236; see also Shane v. Fauver, 213 F.3d 113, 115 (3d Cir. 2000).

V. Discussion

The Corrections Defendants have filed a motion to dismiss the complaint, arguing that Plaintiffs have failed to state a cognizable Eighth Amendment claim arising from Palakovic's suicide, that Plaintiffs have failed to sufficiently allege the personal involvement of several of the Corrections Defendants in the underlying constitutional violations, that Plaintiffs' ADA claim against the Corrections Defendants in their individual capacities is not cognizable as a matter of law, and that Plaintiffs' state law claims for wrongful death and survivorship are barred by sovereign immunity. In response, Plaintiffs "concede that Counts Four and Five are appropriately dismissed against all [Corrections] Defendants except Dr. Harrington." (ECF No. 17 at 1). However, Plaintiffs argue that the complaint states cognizable Eighth Amendment conditions of confinement and mental health claims against each of the Corrections Defendants, that Plaintiffs' ADA claim is properly asserted against the Corrections Defendants in their official capacities, and that Plaintiffs' state law claims against Dr. Harrington are not barred by sovereign immunity.

The Mental Health Defendants have also filed a motion to dismiss the complaint, arguing that Plaintiffs have failed to establish that Defendants acted with deliberate indifference to support Plaintiffs' Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment claims, that Plaintiffs have failed to allege a cognizable discrimination claim under the ADA, and that the facts alleged in the complaint do not support a claim for punitive damages. Plaintiffs concede that Count III should be dismissed as to the Mental Health Defendants, MHM, Inc., and Dr. Rathore. (ECF No. 18 at 1).[2] However, Plaintiffs contend that the complaint adequately alleges facts supporting cognizable Eighth Amendment claims for deliberate indifference to conditions of confinement and serious medical needs, and that the complaint adequately alleges facts supporting a claim for punitive damages.

A. Counts I and II - Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment Claims

In Counts I and II of the complaint, Plaintiffs allege violations of Palakovic's Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment rights pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. "To state a claim under § 1983, a plaintiff must allege the violation of a right secured by the Constitution and laws of the United States, and must show that the alleged deprivation was committed by a person acting under color of state law." Tatsch-Corbin v. Feathers, 561 F.Supp.2d 538, 543 (W.D. Pa. 2008) (citing West v. Atkins, 487 U.S. 42, 48 (1988)).

The Eighth Amendment prohibits the infliction of cruel and unusual punishment. To state a claim under the Eighth Amendment, Plaintiffs must establish that Defendants acted with deliberate indifference to Palakovic. See Tatsch-Corbin, 561 F.Supp.2d at 543. In the context of prison suicide cases, "if [custodial] officials know or should know of the particular vulnerability to suicide of an inmate, then the Fourteenth Amendment imposes on them an obligation not to act with reckless indifference to that vulnerability." Wargo v. Schuylkill Cnty., 348 F.Appx. 756, 759 (3d Cir. 2009) (quoting Colburn v. Upper Darby Twp., 838 F.2d 663, 669 (3d Cir. 1988)); see also Clentscale v. Beard, No. 3:07-cv-307, 2008 WL 3539664, at *2 (W.D. Pa. Aug. 13, 2008). The Supreme Court has instructed that deliberate indifference occurs when a prison official "knows of and disregards an excessive risk to inmate health or safety; the official must both be aware of facts from which the inference could be drawn that a substantial risk of serious harm exists and he must also draw the inference." Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825, 837 (1994).

This Court has previously summarized the deliberate indifference standard in prison suicide cases as follows:

"[A] plaintiff in a prison suicide case has the burden of establishing three elements: (1) the detainee had a particular vulnerability to suicide, ' (2) the custodial officer or officers knew or should have known of that vulnerability, and (3) those officers acted with reckless indifference' to the detainee's particular vulnerability." Colburn v. Upper Darby Township, 946 F.2d 1017, 1023 (3d Cir. 1991). In order to establish liability, Plaintiffs must prove that [Defendants] "[knew] of and disregard[ed] an excessive risk to the inmate's health or safety." Natale v. Camden County Correctional Facility, 318 F.3d 575, 582 (3d Cir. 2003) (citing Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825, 837 (1994)). Plaintiffs must show that [Defendants were] "aware of facts from which the inference could be drawn that a substantial risk of serious harm exist[ed], and [that she drew] the inference." Natale, 318 F.3d at 582; Farmer, ...

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