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Story v. Wetzel

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

May 24, 2017

STANTON STORY, Plaintiff,
v.
JOHN E. WETZEL, DORFNA VARNER, KERRI MOORE, ROBIN M. LEWIS, L.S. KERNS, BARR, ROBERT GILMORE, TRACEY SHAWLEY, IRMA VIHLIDAL, DR. BYUNGHAK JIN, CAPTAFN ARMSTRONG, CAPTAIN MITCHELL, LT. KELLY, LT. SILBAUGH, LT. HOWELLS, LT. A.J. MORRIS, LT. GREGO, CO. JOHNSON, CO. BARNHART, CO. SCHIRRA, SARGENT PLUMLEY, SARGENT TROUT, and NURSE JANE DOE, Defendants.

          OPINION AND ORDER RE: ECF NOS. 72 AND 87

          MAUREEN P. KELLY CHIEF UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Plaintiff Stanton Story ("Plaintiff) is an inmate in the custody of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections ("DOC"), and is currently incarcerated at the State Correctional Institution at Greene ("SCI Greene"). Plaintiff initiated this civil action against various DOC officials and employees at SCI Greene ("the DOC Defendants"), alleging that they violated his rights provided by the United States Constitution by shackling him to the wall of a "dry cell" for twenty-six hours and by confiscating his legal and personal property. Plaintiff has also has named Byunghak Jin, MD ("Dr. Jin") as a defendant contending that Dr. Jin violated his constitutional rights when he performed an anal probe on Plaintiff and by failing to treat him for a skin condition and facial and nose pain that Plaintiff was experiencing. ECF No. 12.

         Following the adjudication of Motions to Dismiss filed by the DOC Defendants and Dr. Jin, ECF Nos. 49, 57, Defendants DOC officials John E. Wetzel, Dorina Varner, Kerri Moore, Robin M. Lewis, L.S. Kerns Barr, Robert Gilmore, Tracey Shawley, Irma Vihlidal, Captain Armstrong, Captain Mitchell, Lt. Silbaugh, Lt. Howells, Lt. A.J. Morris, and Lt. Grego were dismissed from the action. ECF No. 70. In addition, all of Plaintiff s claims except for his Eighth Amendment claim brought at Count II against Defendants Lt. Kelly, CO. Johnson-I, CO. Barnhart, CO. Schirra, and Sargent Plumley stemming from being shackled to the wall of a dry cell and his state law claim for conversion brought at Count VII against Defendants Sargent Trout and CO. Johnson-II were dismissed. Id[1] Plaintiff, however, was granted leave to file an Amended Complaint with respect to two claims: his Eighth Amendment deliberate indifference claim brought against Dr. Jin at Count IV of the Complaint and his First Amendment access to the court claims brought at Count VI against Defendants Sargent Trout and CO. Barnhart. Plaintiff filed an Amended Complaint on December 9, 2016. ECF No. 71.

         The remaining DOC Defendants and Dr. Jin have now filed renewed Motions to Dismiss arguing that Plaintiff has failed to cure the defects cited in the Court's Opinion relative to Counts IV and VI. ECF Nos. 72, 87. Plaintiff has filed "Objections" to both Motions, ECF Nos. 100 and 109, and Dr. Jin has filed a Reply to Plaintiffs Objections. ECF No. 105. As such both Motions are ripe for review.

         I. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         In assessing the sufficiency of the complaint pursuant to a motion to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), the Court must accept as true all material allegations in the complaint and all reasonable factual inferences must be viewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. Odd v. Malone, 538 F.3d 202, 205 (3d Cir. 2008). The Court, however, need not accept bald assertions or inferences drawn by the plaintiff if they are unsupported by the facts set forth in the complaint. See Cal. Pub. Empl. Ret. Svs. v. The Chubb Corp.. 394 F.3d 126, 143 (3d Cir. 2004), citing Morse v. Lower Merion Sch. Dist. 132 F.3d 902, 906 (3d Cir. 1997). Nor must the Court accept legal conclusions set forth as factual allegations. Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). Rather, "[f]actual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level." Id., citing Papasan v. Allain, 478 U.S. 265, 286 (1986). Indeed, the United States Supreme Court has held that a complaint is properly dismissed under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6) where it does not allege "enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face, " Id at 570, or where the factual content does not allow 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). See Phillips v. Cty. of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 231 (3d Cir. 2008) (finding that, under Twombly, "labels, conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action" do not suffice but, rather, the complaint "must allege facts suggestive of [the proscribed] conduct" and that are sufficient "to raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence of the necessary element[s] of his claim").

         In addition, 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, 520-521 (1972). In a civil rights action, the court must liberally construe the pro se litigant's pleadings and "apply the applicable law, irrespective of whether a pro se litigant has mentioned it by name." Higgins v. Beyer, 293 F.3d 683, 688 (3d Cir. 2002), quoting Holley v. Dep't of Veteran Affairs. 165 F.3d 244, 247-48 (3d Cir. 1999). Notwithstanding this liberality, pro se litigants are not relieved of their obligation to allege sufficient facts to support a cognizable legal claim. See, e.g, Taylor v. Books A Million, Inc., 296 F.3d 376, 378 (5th Cir. 2002).

         II. DISCUSSION

         A. The DOC Defendants' Motion to Dismiss First Amendment Claim (Count VI)

         Plaintiff alleges at Count VI of the original Complaint that his right of access to the courts provided by the First Amendment to the Constitution was violated when his legal materials were confiscated by DOC Defendants Trout and Barnhart. ECF No. 12 ¶¶ 66-69, 106.

         An incarcerated prisoner, like any other citizen, has a constitutionally protected right of access to the courts. Lewis v. Casey, 518 U.S. 343, 346 (1996). The United States Supreme Court has established that in order to have standing to bring a claim for denial of access to the courts, an inmate must establish that he suffered an "actual injury" as a result of the alleged denial. Id., at 349. See Dunbar v. Barone, 487 F.App'x 721, 724 (3d Cir. 2012). "Actual injury occurs when a prisoner demonstrates that a 'nonfrivolous' and 'arguable' claim was lost because of the denial of access to the courts." Fortune v. Hamberger, 379 F.App'x 116, 120 (3d Cir. 2010), quoting Christopher v. Harbury, 536 U.S. 403, 415 (2002). See Dunbar v. Barone, 487 F.App'x at 724; Atwell v. Lavan, 557 F.Supp.2d 532, 558-59 (M.D. Pa. 2008), aff'd, 366 F.App'x 393 (3d Cir. 2010) (proof of actual injury caused by virtue of absence of records is required). Thus, in order to state a claim for denial of access, the allegedly lost suit must have been non-frivolous since losing the ability to litigate a frivolous suit simply causes no injury. Christopher v. Harbury, 536 U.S. at 415. It therefore follows that "the underlying cause of action ... is an element that must be described in the complaint, just as much as the allegations must describe the official acts frustrating the claim." Id. See Id. at 416 ("[h]ence the need for care in requiring that the predicate claim be described well enough to apply the 'nonfrivolous' test and to show that the 'arguable' nature of the underlying claim is more than hope").

         In this case, the Court previously dismissed Plaintiffs First Amendment claim finding that Plaintiffs general allegations that he informed Defendant Trout that he had "open cases in Federal and State Court, " and that the confiscation of his legal documents caused him to miss important deadlines which, in turn, caused "litigations in both state and federal court to be denied, " was insufficient to describe the underlying causes of action or demonstrate that Plaintiff suffered an actual injury. ECF No. 70 at 15. The Court also found that the documents that Plaintiff attached to his original Complaint to support his claim did not demonstrate that any filing deadlines were missed. Id. at 15-16.

         In the Amended Complaint, Plaintiff largely reiterates the same factual allegations set forth in his original Complaint and cites to the same documents that he attached thereto, which this Court already determined were insufficient to support a First Amendment access to the courts claim.[2] ECF No. 71 ¶¶ 33-48. Although Plaintiff specifically alleges in the Amended Complaint, unlike in the original Complaint, that his Petition for Allowance of Appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court was denied because the legal documents putting forth his argument were amongst the documents confiscated by Trout and Barnhart, Plaintiff does not set forth any facts regarding the nature of the appeal, the underlying issues or any facts to suggest his case had any merit. Plaintiff therefore has failed to plead facts that would suggest he suffered an actual injury as the result of his documents being confiscated and thus has failed to cure the defects in his original Complaint. As such, Plaintiff has failed to state a First Amendment access to the courts claim against Defendants Trout and Barnhart and Count VI of the Amended Complaint is properly dismissed.

         B. Dr. Jin's Motion to Dismiss Eighth ...


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