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Vega v. Mullen

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

March 16, 2017

MICHAEL MULLEN et al., Defendants.


          GENE E.K. PRATTER United States District Judge.

         I. Introduction

         This case dramatizes-perhaps in a small, yet undeniably poignant way-the human price paid by parent and child alike when one of them is in prison. It is hard to know whether to think first of educator Patty S. Hill who is credited with giving title to the song “Happy Birthday to You” in the 19th century or of Chapter 16 of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, in which the unescapable nature of punishment of the family of a prisoner is exposed. The Court is mindful of the principle de minimis non curat lex.[1] But, as discussed below, a child's birthday card sent to an imprisoned father is no trifle, even though it may not suffice as a cause of action.

         Pro se plaintiff Norman Vega, a prisoner incarcerated at the Berks County jail at all times relevant to this dispute, brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Mr. Vega alleges violations of his First, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendment rights arising out of the alleged destruction of a birthday card mailed to Mr. Vega by his five-year-old daughter. Mr. Vega has sued four employees of the Berks County jail system: Warden Janine Quigley, Deputy Warden Jeffrey Smith, Lieutenant Booking Supervisor Jennifer Sharp, and Mailroom Supervisor Michael Mullen. Defendants moved to dismiss Mr. Vega's complaint pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), arguing that the complaint fails to state a claim for which relief can be granted. For the reasons that follow, notwithstanding being perplexed by the penological prohibition at the root of this case, the Court will grant Defendants' motion with an acknowledgement that Mr. Vega may endeavor to file an amended pleading that will prompt an inquiry to the panel of lawyers who may be available to handle prisoners' civil rights claims.

         II. Allegations in the Complaint

         Mr. Vega, while incarcerated at the Berks County jail, learned that his five-year-old daughter wanted to send him a birthday card containing a drawing made in colored pencil. Aware that the jail prohibited inmates from receiving drawings in crayon, Mr. Vega utilized the jail's internal correspondence system to inquire whether or not the prison would prohibit him from receiving a drawing in colored pencil. Mr. Mullen, the jail's mailroom supervisor, responded to Mr. Vega that the jail would not accept letters containing colored pencil markings. Mr. Vega informed his family that he could not accept the card containing colored pencil markings. Mr. Vega's family subsequently informed him that they would mail him a birthday card containing a drawing from his daughter made in pen and pencil only.

         When Mr. Vega did not receive the birthday card, he inquired of the jail's mailroom whether or not the mailroom had received the birthday card he was expecting. Mr. Mullen responded by providing Mr. Vega with an envelope with 20 pictures and a form stating that a letter had been destroyed because it had crayon markings. Mr. Vega inquired why he was not given an opportunity to contest the destruction of the birthday card, to which Mr. Mullen replied, “I have explained this several times. Confiscated items are destroyed. You will not be called in advance for disposition of the item.” Compl. Ex. D (Doc. No. 5). Mr. Vega then filled out an Inmate Grievance Form contesting the destruction of the birthday card. In response to Mr. Vega's grievance, Ms. Sharp replied that jail personnel had previously informed Mr. Vega what mail was acceptable, both via his prior inquiries and in the Inmate Handbook, and that jail personnel would “not call inmates down to the mailroom to look at contraband items when they have already been advised of what is acceptable.” Compl. Ex. E. Mr. Vega appealed the denial of his grievance up the chain of command. The jail authorities ultimately denied Mr. Vega's grievance.[2]

         III. Legal Standard

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) authorizes testing the legal sufficiency of a complaint. Although Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8 requires only “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief, ” in order to “give the defendant fair notice of what the . . . claim is and the grounds upon which it rests, ” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007) (citations and internal quotation marks omitted) (alteration in original), the plaintiff must provide “more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.” Id. (citation omitted).

         To survive a motion to dismiss, the plaintiff must plead “factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). Specifically, “[f]actual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level . . . .” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555 (citations omitted). The question is not whether the claimant will ultimately prevail, but whether the complaint is “sufficient to cross the federal court's threshold.” Skinner v. Switzer, 562 U.S. 521, 529-30 (2011).

         To decide a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, the Court may look only to the facts alleged in the complaint and its attachments. See Jordan v. Fox, Rothschild, O'Brien & Frankel, 20 F.3d 1250, 1261 (3d Cir. 1994). The Court may also consider documents that are “integral to or explicitly relied upon in the complaint . . . without converting the motion [to dismiss] into one for summary judgment.” In re Burlington Coat Factory Sec. Litig., 114 F.3d 1410, 1426 (3d Cir. 1997) (citation omitted). The Court must accept as true all well-pleaded allegations in the complaint and view them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. Angelastro v. Prudential-Bache Sec., Inc., 764 F.2d 939, 944 (3d Cir. 1985). Likewise, the Court must accept as true all reasonable inferences that may be drawn from the allegations, and view those facts and inferences in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. See Rocks v. City of Phila., 868 F.2d 644, 645 (3d Cir. 1989).

         IV. Discussion

         Mr. Vega invokes 42 U.S.C. § 1983 in order to bring his First, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendment claims. Section 1983 affords individuals with a remedy when state actors violate their federally protected rights. See Kopec v. Tate, 361 F.3d 772, 775-76 (3d Cir. 2004). In order to articulate a cognizable § 1983 claim, a plaintiff must establish “that a person acting under color of law deprived him of a federal right.” Berg v. Cty. of Allegheny, 219 F.3d 261, 268 (3d Cir. 2000). Prisoners, like all citizens, have a right to have federal courts determine whether or not a state actor violated their constitutional rights. See Turner v. Safley, 482 U.S. 78, 84 (1987). “Prison walls do not form a barrier separating prison inmates from the protections of the Constitution.” Id. Courts, however, must review prisoners' constitutional claims in light of the “policy of judicial restraint regarding prisoner complaints and . . . the need to protect constitutional rights.” Id. at 85 (citation omitted). The policy of judicial restraint is premised upon the recognition that “[r]unning a prison is an inordinately difficult undertaking.” Id. at 84-85. By the same token, we do well to recall the 17th century English poet Richard Lovelace's observation: “Stone walls do not a prison make, Nor iron bars a cage.”[3]

         A. First ...

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