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Bakhtiari v. Spaulding

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

June 27, 2017

STEVEN SPAULDING, et al., Defendants


          Judge Kane

         This is a civil action initiated upon the filing of a complaint in this matter on January 4, 2017, by pro se prisoner Plaintiff Alireza Bakhtiari (“Bakhtiari”), seeking to recover monetary damages against a total of twenty-one (21) Defendants under the Federal Tort Claims Act (“FTCA”), 28 U.S.C. § 2671 et seq., Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, 403 U.S. 388 (1977), 42 U.S.C. § 1985, 42 U.S.C. § 1986, and the Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”). The Court has conducted a screening review of the complaint in accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 1915A and 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2). For the reasons that follow, the Court will dismiss Plaintiff's complaint in part and permit Plaintiff the opportunity to file an amended complaint.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On January 4, 2017, Bakhtiari, a federal inmate currently confined at the York County Prison located in York, Pennsylvania, filed a 19-count, 47-page complaint under 28 U.S.C. § 1331, asserting federal and state law claims against 21 Defendants named in their individual and official capacities, including: 13 prison officials employed at the Federal Correctional Institution at Allenwood, Pennsylvania (“FCI-Allenwood”); 5 Middle District of Pennsylvania Assistant United States Attorneys (“AUSA's”); 2 Bureau of Prison (“BOP”) administrators; and the United States of America.[1]

         The events forming the basis of Plaintiff's complaint occurred while Plaintiff was interned at FCI-Allenwood. The crux of Plaintiff's complaint concerns his cellmate assignment. Specifically, Plaintiff alleges that he was “brutalized, battered and physically and psychologically tortured” by FCI-Allenwood employees (“Allenwood Defendants”), [2] and by his assigned cellmate, Champaign (whom Plaintiff labels a white-supremacist), because of his Iranian nationality. (Doc. No. 1 at 12-13.) Bakhtiari claims that the Allenwood Defendants intentionally placed him in this cell in retaliation for comments he made about certain prison staff. (Id.) Specifically, Plaintiff alleges that the Allenwood Defendants instructed Champaign to torture him because of Plaintiff's nationality and as a result of having called the Allenwood Defendants “rejects.” (Id.) Fearing for his life, Plaintiff alleges that he repeatedly pleaded with the Allenwood Defendants to allow him to switch cells, but with no success. (Id. at 11-15.) The tension within the cell continued to escalate until January 9, 2016, when Plaintiff finally convinced Allenwood Defendants Martin and Felton to remove him from the cell and place him in a temporary holding cell. (Id. at 14.)

         After examining him and finding no signs of physical marks or abuse, the Allenwood Defendants proceeded to introduce Plaintiff back into the cell with Champaign. However, Plaintiff, still hand-cuffed, began resisting their efforts to secure him in the cell out of fear that Champaign would assault him. (Id.) Plaintiff avers that the Allenwood Defendants responded to Plaintiff's resistance by throwing him to the concrete floor, breaking his glasses, and assaulting him. (Id. at 15.) Plaintiff alleges he was then taken to the “dry-room to be chained and tortured.” (Id. at 16.)

         According to Plaintiff, after spending at least 18 hours in the “dry-room, ” the Allenwood Defendants took him back to the cell with Champaign. (Id.) Plaintiff alleges that after the Allenwood Defendants placed him in the cell and walked away, Champaign punched Plaintiff in the face and continued to punch him in the head and face until Champaign “became tired.” (Id. at 18.) That next morning, Allenwood Defendant Slokum came to Plaintiff's cell and informed him that he was being transferred to a different cell. (Id.) Plaintiff alleges that when he was finished packing, Champaign stated “Well[, ] [Defendant] Lozano asked me for this favor when I came here, I better deliver[]” and then began punching Plaintiff again. (Id.) Plaintiff avers that despite the visible signs of blood, bruises and wounds on him, the Allenwood Defendants refused to provide him with necessary medical attention. (Id. at 19.)

         In addition to Plaintiff's allegations relating to his cell assignment, Plaintiff also alleges that Allenwood Defendant Bittenbender, the disciplinary hearing adjudication officer, failed to afford him with impartial hearings on two occasions, resulting in the loss of a total of 160 days of good time credit from the two decisions. (Id. at 12, 19.) Plaintiff further contests the Regional and Central Office of the BOP's failure to address his appeals of those adjudications of his misconduct. (Id.; Doc. No. 1-2, Declaration of Facts ¶ 1-5.) Plaintiff alleges that because the Regional and Central Officer staff were “playing games and avoiding adjudication of [his] claims, ” he submitted his appeals to the Prison Litigation Unit, and specifically to the five AUSA's named as Defendants in the caption of the complaint, but did not receive any response from them. (Doc. No. 1-2 at 3.) Finally, Plaintiff complains that FCI-Allenwood employees refused his numerous requests for his prescriptions while housed in the Special Housing Unit (“SHU”). (Doc. No. 1 at 10-11.)

         Plaintiff sets forth a total of 19 causes of action against the above-named Defendants. The matter is now before the Court pursuant to its statutory obligation under 28 U.S.C. §§ 1915A and (e)(2) to screen the complaint and dismiss it if it fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.[3]


         Under 28 U.S.C. § 1915A, the Court is obligated, prior to service of process, to screen a civil complaint in which a prisoner is seeking redress from a governmental entity or officer or employee of a governmental entity. 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(a); James v. Pa. Dep't of Corr., 230 F.App'x 195, 197 (3d Cir. 2007). The Court must dismiss the complaint if it fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(b)(1); Mitchell v. Dodrill, 696 F.Supp.2d 454, 471 (M.D. Pa. 2010). The Court has a similar obligation with respect to actions brought in forma pauperis. See 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2). In performing this mandatory screening function, a district court applies the same standard applied to motions to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Mitchell, 696 F.Supp.2d at 471.

         When ruling on a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), the Court must accept as true all factual allegations in the complaint and all reasonable inferences that can be drawn from them, viewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. See In re Ins. Brokerage Antitrust Litig., 618 F.3d 300, 314 (3d Cir. 2010). The Court's inquiry is guided by the standards of Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007), and Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662 (2009). Under Twombly and Iqbal, pleading requirements have shifted to a “more heightened form of pleading.” See Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 210 (3d Cir. 2009). To prevent dismissal, all civil complaints must set out “sufficient factual matter” to show that the claim is facially plausible. Id. The plausibility standard requires more than a mere possibility that the defendant is liable for the alleged misconduct. As the Supreme Court instructed in Iqbal, “where the well-pleaded facts do not permit the court to infer more than the mere possibility of misconduct, the complaint has alleged - but it has not ‘show[n]' - ‘that the pleader is entitled to relief.'” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679 (citing Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2)).

         Accordingly, to determine the sufficiency of a complaint under Twombly and Iqbal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has identified the following steps a district court must take when determining the sufficiency of a complaint under Rule 12(b)(6): (1) identify the elements a plaintiff must plead to state a claim; (2) identify any conclusory allegations contained in the complaint “not entitled” to the assumption of truth; and (3) determine whether any “well-pleaded factual allegations” contained in the complaint “plausibly give rise to an entitlement to relief.” See Santiago v. Warminster Twp., 629 F.3d 121, 130 (3d Cir. 2010) (citation and quotation marks omitted).

         In ruling on a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, “a court must consider only the complaint, exhibits attached to the complaint, matters of public record, as well as undisputedly authentic documents if the complainant's claims are based upon these documents.” Mayer v. Belichick, 605 F.3d 223, 230 (3d Cir. 2010) (citing Pension Benefit Guar. Corp. v. White Consol. Indus., Inc., 998 F.2d 1192, 1196 (3d Cir. 1993)). A court may also consider “any ‘matters incorporated by reference or integral to the claim, items subject to judicial notice, matters of public record, orders, [and] items appearing in the record of the case.'” Buck v. Hampton Twp. Sch. Dist., 452 F.3d 256, 260 (3d Cir. 2006) (quoting 5B Charles A. Wright & Arthur R. Miller, Federal Practice & Procedure § 1357 (3d Ed. 2004)).

         In conducting its screening review of a complaint, the court must be mindful that a document filed pro se is “to be liberally construed.” Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 106 (1976).

         A pro se complaint, “however inartfully pleaded, ” must be held to “less stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers” and can only be dismissed for failure to state a claim if it appears beyond doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of his claim which would entitle him to relief. Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, 520-21 (1972).


         As set forth above, Plaintiff has asserted 19 causes of action. The Court will now address each ad seriatim.

         A. Foia Claim (Count 1)

         Plaintiff asserts a FOIA claim against three individual Defendants: Tafleski, Qureishi and Spaulding. Plaintiff asserts that these Defendants withheld and refused to disclose information that Plaintiff requested. (Doc. No. 1 at 26.) While it is not entirely clear as to what information Plaintiff is alleging was unlawfully withheld, liberally construing the complaint and the attached “declaration of facts” (Doc. No. 1-2), it appears that Plaintiff argues that these Defendants did not respond to: (1) his request as to why he was placed in SHU at FCI-Allenwood; (2) his request to preserve evidence from the alleged incidents that took place while at FCI-Allenwood; and (3) his BP-9 and BP-10 grievance forms that he submitted directly to Tafleski and Spaulding. (Doc. No. 1-2 at 1, 2, 4.)

         Plaintiff's FOIA claim fails for three reasons. First, Plaintiff cannot maintain a FOIA action against individually named defendants. FOIA creates disclosure obligations for federal agencies, but does not impose individual liability on government personnel. Kaplan v. Ebert, 648 F.App'x 177, 180 (3d Cir. 2016). Indeed, courts have consistently held that individual governmental officials are not properly named as defendants in FOIA lawsuits. See, e.g., Nelson v. United States, Civ. No. 1:15-CV-1696, 2015 WL 6501243, at *4 (M.D. Pa. Oct. 27, 2015); Martinez v. Bureau of Prisons, 444 F.3d 620, 624 (D.C. Cir. 2006). Second, money damages-the relief Plaintiff seeks to recover in his complaint-are not available under FOIA. See Kaplan, 648 F.App'x at 180. Third, the complaint is of factual averments from which an inference could be drawn that Plaintiff submitted a proper FOIA request for “records.” Rather, it appears that Plaintiff premises liability on allegations that Defendants failed to respond to his questions and provide him with a rationale or explanation of certain prison policies and procedures, which are not countenanced by the scope and reach of the FOIA. Jean-Pierre v. Fed. Bureau of Prisons, 880 F.Supp.2d 95, 104 (D.D.C. 2012) (citations omitted); see also Thomas v. Comptroller of Currency, 684 F.Supp.2d 29, 33 (D.D.C. 2010) (“To the extent that plaintiff's FOIA requests were questions or requests for explanations of policies or procedures, these are not proper FOIA requests requiring . . . [a] response.”).

         Since Defendants Tafleski, Qureishi, and Spaulding are not proper parties, Plaintiff's FOIA claim will be dismissed against them with prejudice. However, the Court will permit Plaintiff leave to amend his complaint to assert a cognizable FOIA claim against the proper institutional defendant. Plaintiff is reminded that should he choose to re-assert a FOIA claim and name the proper institutional defendant, he must set forth factual allegations that support his claim that Defendants failed to respond to his properly submitted FOIA requests.

         B. FTCA Claims (Counts 2-7)

         Next, in Counts 2 through 7, Plaintiff alleges violations of the FTCA. Specifically, in Count 2, Plaintiff asserts a claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress against Defendants Bittenbender, Brewagoner, Hause, Lozano, Trithol, Spaulding, Reedy, Martin, Tafleski, Slokum, Galloza, Maize, Felton, John Does 1-4, and the United States. He alleges that these Defendants beat, assaulted and battered him, tortured him in the “dryroom” by cuffing and chaining him so tight that it lacerated his flesh, and ignored his cries for help and medical care. (Doc. No. 1 at 22.) In Count 3 he alleges civil conspiracy against all named Defendants by acting in a common purpose to torture, abuse, and torment him. (Id. at 23.) In Counts 4 and 5 Plaintiff alleges assault and battery by Defendants Felton, Martin, Reedy, Maize, Galloza, John Does 1-4, Brewagoner, and the United States. He alleges that these Defendants assaulted and battered him in the corridor of the SHU, dragged him down the stairs to a holding cell, beat him in the holding cell, sat on his chest, and with unnecessary force, chained and shackled him so tightly that the chain cut through his flesh. (Id. at 24, 25.) In Count 6, Plaintiff alleges negligence by Defendants Bittenbender, Brewagoner, Hause, Lozano, Trithol, Spaulding, Reedy, Martin, Tafleski, Slokum, Galloza, Maize, Felton, and the United States. Specifically, Plaintiff alleges that despite BOP program statements setting forth these Defendants' duties and obligations towards Plaintiff, Defendants failed to intervene to provide him with needed medical care and violated policies relating to cuffing, chaining, transfer, and placement of inmates. (Id. at 26.) At Count 7, Plaintiff asserts a “negligence - special relationship” claim against Defendants Bittenbender, Brewagoner, Huase, Lozano, Trithol, Spaulding, Reedy, Martin, Tafleski, Slokum, Galloza, Maize, Felton, and the United States. Plaintiff's allegations in this Count are identical to those set forth in Count 6. (Id. at 27.)

         1. Proper Defendant

         While the FTCA provides jurisdiction for suits against the United States for torts allegedly committed by federal officials, the United States is the only proper defendant in a case brought under the FTCA. CNA v. United States, 535 F.3d 132, 138 n.2 (3d Cir. 2008); see also Thomas v. United States, 558 F.Supp.2d 553, 557 (M.D. Pa. 2008) (“[T]he only proper party Defendant is the United States, and not individual employees of the BOP.”); Boyd v. United States, 482 F.Supp. 1126, 1128 (W.D. Pa. 1980) (“Only the United States Government itself is amenable to suit under [the FTCA]. Employees and specific government agencies are not proper defendants.”). Accordingly, the Court will dismiss Counts 2-7 against all individually named Defendants with prejudice. Thus, the only remaining Defendant in Counts 2-7 is the United States.

         2. Counts 2 through 7 Having determined the properly named Defendant in Counts 2-7, the Court addresses each Count in turn.

         a. Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress (Count 2)

         The Court looks to Pennsylvania law in assessing whether Plaintiff has alleged sufficient facts to support his claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress. See Tronoski v. Murphy, No. 95-1093, 1995 WL 225312, at *2 (E.D. Pa. Apr. 17, 1995); Frank v. Smith, No. 9-CV-596, 2009 WL 5214978, at *4 (M.D. Pa. Dec. 29, 2009). While the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has yet to formally recognize a cause of action for intentional infliction of emotional distress, Taylor v. Albert Einstein Med. Ctr., 754 A.2d 650, 652 (Pa. 2000), the Pennsylvania appellate courts have recognized the tort. Field v. Phila. Elec. Co., 565 A.2d 1170, 1183-84 (Pa. Super. 1989); Deitrick v. Costa, No. 6-CV-1556, 2015 WL 1606714, at *5 (M.D. Pa. Apr. 9, 2015). The Third Circuit, predicting that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court will ultimately recognize the tort, has allowed recovery for intentional infliction of emotional distress. Williams v. Guzzardi, 875 F.2d 46 (3d Cir. 1989).

         In Pennsylvania, to prevail on a claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress, the plaintiff must prove that:

         defendant, by extreme and outrageous conduct, intentionally or recklessly caused the plaintiff severe emotional distress … Liability will be found only where the conduct has been so outrageous in character, and so extreme in degree, as to go beyond all possible bounds of decency, and to be regarded as atrocious, and utterly intolerable in a civilized community . . . . Generally, the case is one in which the recitation of the facts to an average member of the community would arouse his resentment against the actor, and lead him to exclaim, “Outrageous!” . . . . The extreme and outrageous character of conduct may arise from an abuse by a person in a position of actual or apparent authority over another, or by one with the power to affect the other's interests.

(Id.) (citations omitted).

         Under this standard, “[i]t has not been enough that the defendant has acted with an intent which is tortious or even criminal, or that he has intended to inflict emotional distress, or even that his conduct has been characterized by ‘malice, ' or a degree of aggravation which would entitle the plaintiff to punitive damages for another tort.” Daughen v. Fox, 539 A.2d 858, 861 (Pa. Super.1988) (quoting Restatement of Torts (2d) § 46 Comment (d)). Pennsylvania courts have held that “it is unwise and unnecessary to permit recovery to be predicated on an inference based on the defendant's ‘outrageousness' without expert medical confirmation that the plaintiff suffered the claimed distress.” Kazatsky v. King David Memorial Park, Inc., 527 A.2d 988, 995 (Pa. 1987). Thus, “to state a claim under which relief can be granted for the tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress, the plaintiffs must allege physical injury.” Hart v. O'Malley, 647 A.2d 542, 554 (Pa. Super 1994).

         Liberally construed, Plaintiff's complaint, and accompanying “Declaration of Facts, ” allege, inter alia, that the beating, assault and battery, and torture at the hands of the Allenwood Defendants in the “dryroom” as well as his incessant cries for medical care and to be removed from the cell with the white-supremacist, have caused him both physical and psychological damage. (Doc. No. 1 at 22.) Plaintiff further alleges in his “Declaration” that once transferred from FCI-Allenwood to FCI-McKean, the staff there, including Dr. Adamucci of Psychology, took at least 50 pictures of his wounds and prepared a report. (Doc. No. 1-2 at 2.) Considering these allegations, the Court is satisfied that Plaintiff has met the initial pleading requirements to allow this claim to proceed through screening.

         b. Pennsylvania - Civil Conspiracy (Count 3)

         In Count 3 Plaintiff alleges civil conspiracy against all named Defendants by acting in a common purpose to torture, abuse, and torment him. (Id. at 23.) Under Pennsylvania law, to establish a prima facie case of civil conspiracy, a plaintiff must plead and prove: (1) a combination of two or more persons acting with a common purpose to do an unlawful act or to do a lawful act by unlawful means or for an unlawful purpose; (2) an overt act in furtherance of the conspiracy; and (3) actual legal damages. Costa, 2015 WL 1606714, at *9 (citing Goldstein v. Phillip Morris, Inc., 854 A.2d 585, 590 (Pa. Super. 2004). Proof of malice, defined as an intent to injure, is required. Reading Radio, Inc. v. Fink, 833 A.2d 199, 212 (Pa. Super. 2003). The unlawful intent must be without justification. Thompson Coal Co. v. Pike Coal Co., 412 A.2d 466, 472 (Pa. 1979). The elements of civil conspiracy may be proven circumstantially, so long as the evidence is “full, clear and satisfactory.” Rumbaugh v. Beck, 601 A.2d 319, 327 (Pa. Super. 1991). A plaintiff cannot rely on subjective suspicions and unsupported speculation. Young v. Kann, 926 F.2d 1396, 1405 n.16 (3d Cir. 1991).

         Here, Plaintiff's vague and conclusory allegations of conspiracy fail to satisfy the specific pleading requirements set forth above. Indeed, Plaintiff does no more than refer the Court to 62 paragraphs included, by reference, in Count 3, and concludes that these “many overt-acts supra” committed by the Defendants were “in pursuit of their common unlawful purpose.” (Doc. No. 1 at 23). Even assuming the Court could glean such an inference from the complaint, these allegations provide no substitute for the requirement that Plaintiff plead the circumstances of the conspiracy with specificity in order to place the Defendants on notice of the precise misconduct with which they are charged, such as the period of the conspiracy, the object of the conspiracy, and certain actions the alleged conspirators have taken to achieve that purpose. See Young, 926 F.2d at 1405 n.16. Accordingly, this claim will be dismissed without prejudice and Plaintiff will be granted leave to amend this claim in accordance with the above.

         c. Assault and Battery (Counts 4 and 5)

         In Counts 4 and 5, Plaintiff claims that Defendants assaulted and battered him in the corridor of the SHU, dragged him down the stairs to a holding cell, beat him in the holding cell, sat on his chest, and with unnecessary force, chained and shackled him so tightly that the chain cut through his flesh. (Id. at 24, 25.)

         In Pennsylvania, “an assault occurs when one acts with the intent to place another in reasonable and immediate apprehension of harmful or offensive contact, and that act does cause such apprehension. Zimmerman v. Schaeffer, 654 F.Supp.2d 226, 255 (M.D. Pa. 2009). Additionally, the actor must be in a position to inflict this contact and take some affirmative action to do so. Picariello v. Fenton, 491 F.Supp. 1026, 1037 (M.D. Pa. 1980). Battery, on the other hand, requires that the actor have the intent to cause harmful or offensive contact with the person, and that such contact actually occur. Benjamin v. Fassnacht, 39 F.Supp.3d 635, 648 (E.D. Pa. 2014). “While corrections officers have the authority to use necessary force under appropriate circumstances, the reasonableness of this force in relation to their employment duties determines whether particular conduct is considered an assault and battery.” Tejada v. Dale, No. 14-CV-5604, 2015 WL 5729273, at *6 (E.D. Pa. 2015) (citing Picariello, 491 F.Supp. at 1038 (determining that “necessary touchings by correctional officers of inmates in the performance of their duties are not batteries, but privileged contacts.”)).

         Accepting the complaint's allegations as true, the Court is satisfied that Plaintiff has sufficiently pled the requisite elements comprising claims of assault and battery. Accordingly, Counts 4 and 5 survive the screening requirements of the PLRA.

         d. Negligence and Negligence Special Relationship (Counts 6 and 7)

         In Pennsylvania, to prevail in a negligence action, a plaintiff must demonstrate the following elements: (1) the defendant owed a duty to the plaintiff; (2) the defendant breached that duty; (3) a causal relationship between the breach and the resulting injury suffered by the plaintiff; and (4) actual loss suffered by the plaintiff. Merlini ex rel. Merlini v. Gallitzin Water Auth., 980 A.2d 502, 506 (Pa. 2009). In Pennsylvania, whether a defendant owes a duty of care to a plaintiff is a question of law for the court to decide. Kleinknecht v. Gettysburg College, 989 F.2d 1360, 1366 (3d Cir. 1993). A ...

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