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Lopez v. Pennsylvania Dep't of Corr.

Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania

June 26, 2015

George Ivan Lopez, Petitioner
Pa. Department of Corrections, Commissioner, John Wetzel, Pa. Governor, Tom Corbett, Superintendent, Louis S. Folino, Jane and John Doe, et al., Respondents

Submitted December 5, 2014

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George Ivan Lopez, Pro se.

Joseph G. Fulginiti, Assistant Counsel, Mechanicsburg, for respondents.



Page 1083


Before this Court are preliminary objections in the nature of a demurrer filed by the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC) on behalf of John Wetzel, Secretary of Corrections; Tom Corbett, former Governor of Pennsylvania; and Louis S. Folino, former Superintendent at the State Correctional Institution at Greene County (SCI-Greene) (together, Respondents) in response to a pro se petition for writ of mandamus (Petition) filed by George Ivan Lopez (Lopez) in our original jurisdiction. We sustain in part and overrule in part Respondents' preliminary objections.

I. Facts/Preliminary Objections

Lopez is a capital case prisoner[1] confined at SCI-Greene. As asserted in the Petition,[2] the facts of this case are as

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follows. Capital case prisoners at SCI-Greene are held in solitary confinement separate from the prison's general population. Capital case prisoners are permitted to have two hours of outside recreational activity five days a week and three showers per week. In the capital case unit, cell lighting is on twenty-four hours a day. Lopez avers that because of the constant cell lighting, he cannot receive uninterrupted sleep, resulting in physical ailments and psychological disorders. (Petition at ¶ ¶ 1, 9, 11, 13, 24.)

Lopez filed the Petition with this Court on February 5, 2014. In the Petition, Lopez asserts that Respondents are violating his Fourteenth Amendment due process and equal protection rights and his Eighth Amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishment because of his solitary and punitive confinement, twenty-four-hour cell lighting, and inability to participate in a work program. (Petition at ¶ ¶ 22, 25, 28, 33-34.) Lopez seeks an order compelling Respondents to: provide access to adequate medical and mental health care; cease solitary and punitive confinement for capital case prisoners; cease the twenty-four-hour cell lighting; establish a general population unit for capital case prisoners; modify the grievance system; provide a fair opportunity for all capital case prisoners to have access to the work program; and permit discovery. Lopez does not contest that he is appropriately housed in the capital case unit.

Respondents filed preliminary objections to Lopez's Petition in the nature of a demurrer. Respondents assert that Lopez has not been denied his due process rights by being held in solitary confinement in the capital case unit because prisoners do not have a protected liberty interest in which unit they are housed. Respondents also assert that Lopez has failed to state a claim that his confinement conditions violate the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment because Lopez has failed to allege that he specifically suffers from any physical or psychological ailments, and conditions in the capital case unit are merely restrictive inconveniences that Lopez must endure due to his conviction.

II. Discussion

Mandamus is an extraordinary writ which is not to be granted in doubtful cases. Bronson v. Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole, 491 Pa. 549, 421 A.2d 1021, 1023 (Pa. 1980), cert. denied, 450 U.S. 1050, 101 S.Ct. 1771, 68 L.Ed.2d 247 (1981). Mandamus only lies where " (1) the petitioner has a clear legal right to enforce the performance of the act, (2) the defendant has a corresponding duty to perform the act, and (3) the petitioner has no other adequate or appropriate remedy." Saunders v. Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, 749 A.2d 553, 556 (Pa.Cmwlth. 2000). " Mandamus is based upon a duty by an agency to follow a law and is available only when, under a correct interpretation of the law, the agency has an absolute ministerial duty--no choice--to act in a certain way." Weaver v. Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole, 688 A.2d 766, 777 (Pa.Cmwlth. 1997). " Mandamus is appropriate only to enforce established rights; it is not available to establish legal rights. Further, a court may not direct the manner in which an official performs a discretionary function." Buehl v. Beard, 54 A.3d 412, 416 (Pa.Cmwlth. 2012).

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A. Due Process

Respondents' first preliminary objection is that Lopez has failed to state a claim that his Fourteenth Amendment due process rights have been violated. In analyzing a due process claim, the first step is to determine " whether the nature of the interest is one within the contemplation of the 'liberty or property' language of the Fourteenth Amendment." Shoats v. Horn, 213 F.3d 140, 143 (3d Cir. 2000). Once it is determined that the interest is protected by the Due Process Clause, the issue is then " what process is due to protect it." Id. at 143.

" It is entirely a matter of [DOC's] discretion where to house an inmate." Clark v. Beard, 918 A.2d 155, 160 (Pa.Cmwlth. 2007). " It is well settled that the decision where to house inmates is at the core of prison administrators' expertise." McKune v. Lile, 536 U.S. 24, 39, 122 S.Ct. 2017, 153 L.Ed.2d 47 (2002). Under DOC's regulations, " an inmate does not have a right to be housed in a particular facility or in a particular area within a facility." 37 Pa. Code § 37.11. " [J]udges may not indiscriminately denominate the place a prisoner is housed; statutes and regulations establish the presumptive place of confinement." Clark, 918 A.2d at 161. A change in the level of an inmate's security within a prison is not the type of deprivation of a liberty interest that provides a legitimate basis for an inmate lawsuit. Sandin v. Conner, 515 U.S. 472, 485, 115 S.Ct. 2293, 132 L.Ed.2d 418 (1995). As this Court stated in Dial v. Vaughn, 733 A.2d 1 (Pa.Cmwlth. 1999):

[C]hanges in a prisoner's location, variations of daily routine, changes in conditions of confinement (including administrative segregation), and denials of privileges - matters which every prisoner can anticipate are contemplated by his original sentence to prison - are necessarily functions of ...

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