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White v. Wireman

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

May 19, 2017

IVAN WHITE, Plaintiff
v.
DARRELL WIREMAN, et al., Defendants

          MEMORANDUM

          William W. Caldwell United States District Judge

         I. Introduction

         Presently before the court is the report (Doc. 13) entered by Magistrate Judge Joseph F. Saporito, Jr., recommending that certain claims contained in Plaintiff Ivan White's eleven-count complaint (Doc. 1) be dismissed with leave to amend. The report follows Defendants' motion to dismiss, (Doc. 5), which sought dismissal of six of the eleven counts in the complaint. Plaintiff has raised multiple objections to Judge Saporito's report. (See Doc. 14). For the following reasons, the court will sustain in part and overrule in part Plaintiff's objections.

         II. Background[1]

         Plaintiff is an inmate at the State Correctional Institution in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania. (Doc. 1 ¶ 3). He filed this civil rights lawsuit claiming that multiple Department of Corrections employees violated his constitutional rights and several provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1981-2000h-6. A thorough summary of Plaintiff's allegations is provided in the report from Judge Saporito, (see Doc. 13 at 2-7), and will not be repeated here.

         The following claims are currently at issue: (Count 1) alleging that defendants Duvall, Smith, and Eckard violated Plaintiff's right to testify and give evidence under 42 U.S.C. § 1981 as well as his rights under the First Amendment's Free Speech Clause, both made actionable by 42 U.S.C. § 1983; (Count 2) alleging that defendants Duvall, Dunkle, Smith, and Eckard conspired to deter Plaintiff from testifying freely in federal court in violation of the First Amendment's Free Speech Clause (made actionable by § 1983), and in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1985; (Count 3) alleging that defendants Duvall, Dunkle, Smith, and Eckard violated Plaintiff's First Amendment Petition Clause right to petition the government for redress of grievances, made actionable by § 1983; (Count 4) alleging that defendants Duvall, Dunkle, Smith, and Eckard conspired to violate Plaintiff's First Amendment Petition Clause rights, made actionable by § 1983; (Count 9) alleging that defendants Wireman, Dunkle, and Eckard violated Plaintiff's Fourteenth Amendment Procedural Due Process Clause rights, made actionable by § 1983; (Count 10) alleging that defendants Eckard and Smith knowingly refused or neglected to prevent others from violating § 1985, in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1986. (Doc. 13 at 11-12).

         Judge Saporito recommended dismissing Counts 2, 3, 4, 9, and 10, as well as portions of Count 1, for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. (Id. at 32-33). He also recommended that the court grant leave to amend the claims that were found to be insufficiently pleaded. (Id. at 33).

         Plaintiff specifically requests de novo review of the recommendation to dismiss Counts 1, 3, and 9. (Doc. 14 at 1). He also objects to the finding that Counts 2 and 4 fail to adequately plead civil conspiracy claims, and that Count 10 must be dismissed for failure to sufficiently plead the underlying § 1985 claim. (Id. at 2, 15-16). The matter is ripe for disposition.

         III. Standard of Review

         When a party objects to a magistrate judge's report and recommendation, the district court must review de novo the contested portions of the report. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(C); M.D. Pa. Local Rule 72.3. Uncontested portions of the report are reviewed for “clear error on the face of the record.” Clouser v. Johnson, 40 F.Supp.3d 425, 430 (M.D. Pa. 2014) (quoting Cruz v. Chater, 990 F.Supp. 375, 375-78 (M.D. Pa. 1998) (quoting 1983 Advisory Committee Notes to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 72(b))).

         At the motion to dismiss stage, Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) provides for the dismissal of complaints that fail to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. When ruling on a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), the court must “accept all factual allegations as true, construe the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, and determine whether, under any reasonable reading of the complaint, the plaintiff may be entitled to relief.” Phillips v. County of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 233 (3d Cir. 2008) (citation omitted).

         Federal notice and pleading rules require the complaint to provide “the defendant fair notice of what the . . . claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.” Id. at 232 (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007)). To test the sufficiency of the complaint, the court conducts a three-step inquiry. See Santiago v. Warminster Township, 629 F.3d 121, 130-31 (3d Cir. 2010). In the first step, “the court must ‘tak[e] note of the elements a plaintiff must plead to state a claim.'” Id. at 130 (alteration in original) (quoting Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 675 (2009)). Next, the factual and legal elements of a claim must be separated; well-pleaded facts must be accepted as true, while mere legal conclusions may be disregarded. Id. at 131-32. Once the court isolates the well-pleaded factual allegations, it must determine whether they are sufficient to show a “plausible claim for relief.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679 (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556). A claim is facially plausible when the plaintiff pleads facts “that allow[ ] the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Id. at 678.

         Courts should grant leave to amend before dismissing a curable pleading in civil rights actions. See Fletcher-Harlee Corp. v. Pote Concrete Contractors, Inc., 482 F.3d 247, 251 (3d Cir. 2007). Courts need not grant leave to amend sua sponte when dismissing non-civil rights claims pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6), id. at 252-53, but leave is broadly encouraged “when justice so requires, ” Fed.R.Civ.P. 15(a)(2).

         IV. Discussion

         As stated above, Judge Saporito found Counts 2, 3, 4, 9, and 10 of the complaint, as well as portions of Count 1, to be insufficiently pleaded. For the sake of clarity, the court will address each claim-and Plaintiff's corresponding objections-in the order they are discussed in Judge Saporito's report.

         A. Count 9: Fourteenth Amendment Procedural Due Process Claims

         Both Defendants and Judge Saporito narrowly construe Plaintiff's Fourteenth Amendment Procedural Due Process Clause claims as challenging the adequacy of the prison administrative grievance system and the right to assistance of counsel in connection with this system. Plaintiff objects to this characterization, and argues that his procedural due process claims encompass more than just the prison grievance system. (Doc. 14 at 4). Plaintiff maintains that he has adequately stated a Fourteenth Amendment due process claim by alleging liberty and property interests of which he was deprived by state actors without any process. (Id. at 3-4). The portions of the complaint discussing the prison grievance system's shortcomings, he argues, are merely facts showing that no process whatsoever was afforded to him before he was deprived of his constitutionally protected interests. (Id. at 4).

         Prisoners are not completely stripped of the protections of the Due Process Clause simply because they are incarcerated. Evans v. Sec'y Pa. Dep't of Corr., 645 F.3d 650, 662-63 (3d Cir. 2011). The extent of those protections for prisoners, however, is necessarily more limited than for the average person. See Wolff v. McDonnell, 418 U.S. 539, 556 (1974) (explaining that Due Process Clause rights are subject to “restrictions imposed by the nature of the regime to which [prisoners] have been lawfully committed”). In analyzing a procedural 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) (citing Fuentes v. Shevin, 407 U.S. 67 (1972)). If no constitutionally protected interest is asserted, the court's inquiry is at an end. Evans, 645 F.3d at 663.

         Prisoner liberty interests triggering due process protections come in two forms: (1) the so-called “state-created liberty interest, ” which occurs when “state statutes and regulations create a liberty interest in freedom from restraint that imposes atypical and significant hardship on the inmate in relation to the ordinary incidents of prison life”; and (2) the so-called “independent due process liberty interest, ” which occurs when “severe changes in conditions of confinement amount to a grievous loss that should not be imposed without the opportunity for notice and an adequate hearing.” Id. (quoting Renchenski v. Williams, 662 F.3d 315, 325 (3d Cir. 2010)). Examples of prisoner property interests that have been found to implicate Due Process Clause protections include funds held in prison accounts, Higgins v. Beyer, 293 F.3d 683, 693 (3d Cir. 2002), an inmate's noncontraband personal property, Hudson v. Palmer, 468 U.S. 517, 520, 533 (1984) (finding intentional destruction of prisoner's noncontraband personal property implicated Due Process Clause, but no constitutional violation if meaningful post-deprivation remedy is provided), and wages earned under state law while working for a private party, Piatt v. MacDougall, 773 F.2d 1032, 1035-36 (9th Cir. 1985).

         Here, Plaintiff claims the liberty interests deprived without process include consulting his attorney, testifying fully and freely in court, and observing religious exercises. (Doc. 1 ¶¶ 141-43; Doc. 14 at 3-4). He contends that the property interest deprived was “food sufficient for sustenance” that comported with his personal religious beliefs. (Doc. 1 ¶¶ 141, 143).

         Initially, the court agrees with Plaintiff that, as stated, the claims in Count 9 encompass more than a constitutional challenge to the prison administrative grievance system. Nonetheless, none of the allegedly deprived interests fall under the “liberty or property” interests for prisoners as recognized by Fourteenth Amendment Due Process Clause jurisprudence. Because Count 9 of Plaintiff's complaint does not implicate any protected liberty or property interest within the meaning of the Due Process Clause, the court's inquiry is over, Evans, 645 F.3d at 663, and Count 9 must be dismissed for failure to state a claim. Plaintiff, however, will be granted leave to amend his Fourteenth Amendment Due Process Clause claim.

         B. Count 1: § 1981 and First Amendment Free Speech Clause Claims

         In Count 1, Plaintiff claims that defendants Duvall, Smith, and Eckard violated 42 U.S.C. § 1981 and the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment when they interfered with an attorney-client conference on May 24, 2015, “in retaliation for Plaintiff's earlier testimony and complaints about violations of his constitutional and statutory rights, and with the intent and effect of influencing Plaintiff's federal testimony.” (Doc. 1 ¶¶ 115-16). Count 1 actually contains three claims: an alleged violation of § 1981 and two different alleged violations of the First Amendment Free Speech Clause-retaliation and interference with confidential attorney communication. Each claim will be addressed in turn.

         1. Count 1: ...


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