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Wisniewski v. Fisher

United States Court of Appeals, Third Circuit

May 16, 2017

THOMAS WISNIEWSKI, Appellant
v.
JON D. FISHER; R. SUE HANNAH; JAY B. WHITESEL; LISA HOLLIBAUGH; CHARLES MITCHELL; MANDY BISER; BRIAN LIGHTNER; MARY ANNE MORDER; FRANK CAMPOPIANO; ROBIN RUTTER; DANIEL MYERS; JOSEPH EICHENLAUB; JEFFREY OAKS; F. SHOOP; DOUG LOY; M. SHEETZ; J. DELINE; KEVIN SMITH; GREGORY BARNETT; MARK HARLAN; RENEE LUBERT; TITUS MOOLATHARA; BETH MCCREARY; WILLIAM DREIBELBIS; JULIE COWLER; JOSH MAHUTE; DORINA VARNER

          Argued January 17, 2017

         On Appeal from the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania (D.C. Civil Action No. 3-13-cv-02642) District Judge: Honorable Malachy E. Mannion

          Richard L. Heppner, Jr., Esq. [ARGUED] Reed Smith Michael P. Yingling, Esq. Reed Smith Counsel for Appellant

          Debra S. Rand, Esq. [ARGUED] Pennsylvania Department of Corrections Office of Chief Counsel Counsel for Appellee

          Before: AMBRO, VANASKIE AND SCIRICA, Circuit Judges

          OPINION

          VANASKIE, Circuit Judge.

         Appellant Thomas Wisniewski, appeals from an order of the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania dismissing his amended complaint for failure to state a claim. For the reasons set forth below, we will reverse in part the District Court's order and will remand for further proceedings.

         I.

         In 2013, Wisniewski filed a civil rights action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, naming as defendants officials and employees of the State Correctional Institution at Smithfield ("SCI-Smithfield") in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, where he is confined. In a sprawling amended complaint, Wisniewski asserted claims of First Amendment retaliation and violations of his Fourth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendment rights.

         Wisniewski's amended complaint alleged that he worked as an Inmate Legal Reference Aide in the prison's law library. Perceiving staffing shortages and believing that other library policy decisions were harming the ability of inmates to access the courts, he registered complaints with prison officials and filed inmate requests about the issues. He asserted that, in turn, he was subject to additional scrutiny when, in his library position, he provided legal assistance to qualified inmates who had been assigned to his caseload by prison officials. An inmate specifically assigned to Wisniewski's caseload based on his mental health diagnosis sought assistance in preparing a grievance challenging a yard policy. In order to assist the inmate, Wisniewski obtained a draft grievance from another inmate regarding the same topic to use as a template. Prison officials discovered the draft grievance in Wisniewski's possession and confiscated it based on their suspicions that it was from a notoriously litigious inmate and was similar or identical to multiple other grievances that had been filed. A questionnaire originating from the attorney for the same litigious inmate was also discovered during a subsequent search of Wisniewski's cell. Based on his possession of these documents, Wisniewski was charged with, and found guilty of, engaging in or encouraging unauthorized group activity, possession or circulation of a petition, possession of contraband, and lying to an employee. Certain defendants supported the misconduct charge by claiming that the documents were "petitions" prohibited under prison policy, despite the fact that neither of the documents had the requisite three or more signatures to be considered a petition under prison guidelines. Accordingly, the misconduct charge was ultimately dismissed, but not until Wisniewski had already spent nearly 90 days in the Restricted Housing Unit ("RHU") as a result of the charges.

         Wisniewski alleged that, in addition to contriving these charges and issuing a guilty verdict for conduct that did not contradict prison guidelines, the defendants engaged in a series of additional actions in retaliation for helping his assigned inmate prepare a grievance. These retaliatory acts included removing him from his law library position, tampering with his television, denying him yard time, delaying his release from disciplinary confinement, interfering with his access to legal materials, and limiting his access to a photocopier to copy legal materials. Wisniewski filed multiple grievances challenging the allegedly unconstitutional conduct.

         The defendants filed a motion to dismiss. The Magistrate Judge recommended granting defendants' motion, and the District Court, over Wisniewski's objections, adopted the Magistrate Judge's report in its entirety and dismissed the amended complaint with prejudice. Specifically, the District Court dismissed all of Wisniewski's claims arising out of events that occurred more than two years prior to the filing of the complaint based on the statute of limitations. The District Court then dismissed the two remaining First Amendment retaliation claims, which related to his limited access to the photocopier and his removal from his Inmate Legal Reference Aide position, for failure to state a claim. The District Court determined that helping a fellow inmate to prepare a grievance was not protected conduct under the First Amendment, and that limiting access to a photocopier did not constitute an adverse action sufficient to support a First Amendment retaliation claim. Wisniewski timely appealed.[1]

         II.

         This Court has jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1291 and exercises plenary review over the District Court's dismissal of Wisniewski's amended complaint. See Allah v. Seiverling, 229 F.3d 220, 223 (3d Cir. 2000). To survive dismissal pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), "a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to 'state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'" Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). This Court will affirm a district court's dismissal for failure to state a claim "only if, accepting all factual allegations as true and construing the complaint in the light most favorable to the ...


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