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Hildalgo v. Pennsylvania Department of Corrections

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

January 10, 2017

EFRAIN HILDALGO, Plaintiff,
v.
PENNSYLVANIA DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS, et al., Defendants

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          SUSAN PARADISE BAXTER United States Magistrate Judge

         I. Background

         A. Introduction

         Plaintiff Efrain Hildalgo (“Hildalgo”) is a prisoner at SCI Forest. (Docket No. 5 at p. 2). Acting pro se, Plaintiff brought this action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the following defendants: the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (“DoC”); Mr. Bailey, spiritual advisor and master of ceremonies of Native American services at SCI Forest; Mr. McGowen, SCI Forest's chaplain; Mr. Overmeyer, superintendent at SCI Forest; Ms. Haupt, unit manager at SCI Forest; Ms. Dorina Varner, DoC's chief grievance coordinator; Mr. Klemm, DoC's head of religious departments; and C.C.P.M. Ireland.[1] (Id. at pp. 2, 6). Hildalgo claims that Defendants violated his rights under the First, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”), the Fort Stanwix and Fort Harmer treaties, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. (Id. at ¶¶ 17-18, 24-26). As relief, Plaintiff seeks compensatory and punitive damages, as well as declaratory and injunctive relief.[2]

         Defendants responded to Hildalgo's claims by filing a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss. (Docket No. 29). They argued that Hildalgo's lawsuit is barred by the Eleventh Amendment and that the individual defendants (except for Bailey) were not personally involved in the alleged violations of federal law Hildalgo alleged. (Docket No. 30 at pp. 3, 6). Since the filing of this case and the motion to dismiss, counsel has entered her appearance on behalf of Plaintiff. On January 6, 2017, Plaintiff, through counsel, filed a brief in opposition to the pending dispositive motion. (Docket # 61).

         After considering the complaint (Docket No. 5), Defendants' brief in support of their motion to dismiss (Docket No. 30), and Hildalgo's opposition brief to the motion to dismiss (Docket No. 37), the Court will grant the motion to dismiss (Docket No. 29) in part and deny it in part.

         B. Facts

         The following well-pleaded facts, taken from Plaintiff's pro se complaint, will be taken as true in the motion-to-dismiss context. Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007).

         Hildalgo attended Native American services overseen by Bailey at SCI Forest. (Docket No. 5 ¶ 1). On September 30, 2014, Bailey announced that the services would be styled after Lakota practices and prisoners who disagreed “were told to leave.” (Id.). Bailey instructed Hildalgo to smudge; Hildalgo refused because his nation, the Mohawks, do not smudge with sage. (Id. at ¶¶ 2, 14). Bailey responded that Hildalgo was not allowed to participate because he refused to smudge. (Id. at ¶ 4).

         Native American religious practices dictate that when many nations come together, “it is up to the individual to decide whether . . . he or she chooses to smudge with the herbs being used.” (Id. at ¶ 12). For smudging, “the herbs used are different for all [n]ations.” (Id. at ¶ 11). The Native Americans at SCI Forest are “told to follow a Lakota teaching” even though members of many other tribes are there. (Id. at ¶ 13). Hildalgo also averred that the DoC “receives financial assistance from the [f]ederal government to accommodate religious activities pursuant to” RLUIPA. (Id. at ¶ 20).

         Hildalgo returned to the prison chapel at 1:00PM on September 30, 2014. (Id. at ¶ 5). But before he could enter, Bailey stopped him and remarked that they needed to talk. (Id.). Bailey reiterated that he is the master of ceremonies and that Hildalgo “was to go into services and smudge” and asked him if he understood. (Id. at ¶ 6). Hildalgo again refused because his people do not smudge with sage. (Id. at ¶ 7). Bailey responded “I don't care[;] you will smudge or you must leave.” (Id.). Immediately following this, Hildalgo asked to speak with McGowen, SCI Forest's chaplain. (Id. at ¶ 8). McGowen stated that “he supports whatever Mr. Bailey decides.” (Id.).

         About two weeks later, Hildalgo filed a grievance regarding Bailey's behavior after contacting Haupt and Overmeyer; C.C.P.M. Ireland denied the grievance. (Id. at ¶ 21). Hildalgo appealed to Overmeyer, who upheld Ireland's grievance denial. (Id. at ¶ 22). Following these setbacks, Hildalgo appealed to Chief Grievance Coordinator Varner and Klemm. (Id. at p. 2; ¶ 23). Varner and Klemm also upheld the grievance denial. (Id. at ¶ 23). The result of these events is that Hildalgo was “banned from participating in Native American [s]ervices and removed from the [p]rison [c]all out sheet.” (Id. at ¶ 15).

         II. Standard of Review

         A. Pro Se Litigants

         Pro se pleadings, “however inartfully pleaded, ” must be held to “less stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers.” Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, 520-21 (1972). If the court can reasonably read pleadings to state a valid claim on which the litigant could prevail, it should do so despite failure to cite proper legal authority, confusion of legal theories, poor syntax and sentence construction, or litigant's unfamiliarity with pleading requirements. Boag v. MacDougall, 454 U.S. 364 (1982); United States ex rel. Montgomery v. Brierley, 141 F.2d 552, 555 (3d Cir. 1969) (petition prepared by a prisoner may be inartfully drawn and should be read “with measure of tolerance”). Under our liberal pleading rules, during the initial stages of litigation, a district court should construe all allegations in a complaint in favor of the complainant. Gibbs v. Roman, 116 F.3d 83 (3d Cir. 1997), overruled on other grounds by Abdul-Akbar v. McKelvie, 239 F.3d 307, 310 (3d Cir. 2001); see, e.g., Nami v. Fauver, 82 F.3d 63, 65 (3d Cir. 1996) (discussing Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6) standard); Markowitz v. Northeast Land Co., 906 F.2d 100, 103 (3d Cir. 1990) (same). Because the complaint was filed by Plaintiff as a pro se litigant, this court may consider facts and make inferences when appropriate.

         B. Rule 12(b)(1) Motion to Dismiss Standard[3]

         A defendant's motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(1) may be treated as either a facial or factual challenge to the court's subject matter jurisdiction. Gould Elecs., Inc. v. United States, 220 F.3d 169, 176 (3d Cir. 2000) (citing Mortensen v. First Fed. Sav. & Loan Ass'n., 549 F.2d 884, 891 (3d Cir. 1977)). In reviewing a facial attack, which addresses a deficiency in the pleadings, the court must only consider the allegations on the face of the complaint, taken as true, and any documents referenced in the complaint, viewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. Id.; Turicentro, S.A. v. Am. Airlines, Inc., 303 F.3d 293, 300 (3d Cir. 2002), overruled on other grounds by Animal Sci. Prods. v. China Minmetals Corp., 654 F.3d 462, 467-68 (3d Cir. 2011). “The plaintiff must assert facts that affirmatively and plausibly suggest that the pleader has the right he claims ...


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