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Stockton v. Wetzel

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

July 18, 2017

JOHN WETZEL, et al., Defendants


          William W. Caldwell United States District Judge

         I. Introduction

         Pro se plaintiff, Ronald Stockton, an inmate currently confined at the State Correctional Institution at Houtzdale (SCI-Houtzdale), Pennsylvania, filed this civil-rights action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Presently before us are Defendants' motion to dismiss the Amended Complaint and motion to stay discovery pending our resolution of their motion to dismiss. For the reasons that follow, the motion to dismiss will be granted in part and denied in part, and the motion to stay discovery granted.

         Defendants' motion to dismiss will be granted as to all claims except Stockton's Eighth Amendment excessive-force claim and his Eighth Amendment medical claims related to the events of December 20, 2013. Defendants shall respond to Stockton's outstanding discovery within thirty days.

         II. Standard of Review

         A motion to dismiss under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6) authorizes the dismissal of a complaint “for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.” Under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6), the district 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 is entitled to relief.” Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 210 (3d Cir. 2009) (quoting Phillips v. Cnty. of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 231 (3d Cir. 2008)). The court may also rely on exhibits attached to the complaint and matters of public record. Sands v. McCormick, 502 F.3d 263, 268 (3d Cir. 2007).

         Pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a), a complaint need only “include 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.” “[T]he factual allegations of a complaint ‘must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level' and the complaining party must offer ‘more than labels and conclusions' or ‘formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action.'” W. Run Student Hous. Assocs., LLC. v. Huntingdon Nat'l Bank, 712 F.3d 165, 169 (3d Cir. 2013) (quoting Bell Atl. Copr. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 1964, 167 L.Ed.2d 929 (2007)). Legal conclusions are “not entitled to the assumption of truth.” Bistrian v. Levi, 696 F.3d 352, 365 (3d Cir. 2012)(citing Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 1949, 173 L.Ed.2d 868 (2009)). “Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678, 129 S.Ct. at 1949 (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555, 127 S.Ct. at 1964). Courts “disregard such legal conclusions.” In re Horizon Healthcare Servs. Inc. Data Breach Litig., 846 F.3d 625, 633 (3d Cir. 2017)(citing Santiago v. Warminster Twp., 629 F.3d 121, 128 (3d Cir. 2010)). “A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678, 129 S.Ct. at 1949.

         Additionally, pro se pleadings must be liberally construed and “held ‘to less stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers.'” Fantone v. Latini, 780 F.3d 184 (3d Cir. 2015) (citing Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, 520 - 21, 92 S.Ct. 594, 596, 30 L.Ed.2d 652 (1972)); see also Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94, 127 S.Ct. 2197, 2200, 167 L.Ed.2d 1081 (2007); Giles v. Kearney, 571 F.3d 318, 322 (3d Cir. 2009). Pro se litigants are to be granted leave to file a curative amended complaint even when a plaintiff does not seek leave to amend, unless such an amendment would be inequitable of futile. See Estate v. Lagano v. Bergen Cnty. Prosecutor's Office, 769 F.3d 850, 861 (3d Cir. 2014). A complaint that sets forth facts which affirmatively demonstrate that the plaintiff has no right to recover is properly dismissed without leave to amend. Grayson v. Mayview State Hosp., 293 F.3d 103, 106 (3d Cir. 2002).

         With this standard in mind, the following is the background to this litigation, as Stockton alleges it.

         III. Allegations of the Amended Complaint

         Ronald Stockton, a state prisoner in the custody of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC), is currently confined at SCI-Houtzdale. The events giving rise to this lawsuit occurred while he was housed in SCI-Smithfield's Restricted Housing Unit (RHU). Named as defendants are the following DOC employees: Secretary Wetzel; Superintendent Fisher; Deputy Oliver; Major Myers; Corrections Classification Program Manager (CCPM) Biser; Deputy Whitesal; Lt. Allison; Lt. Bard; Sgt. Miller; Corrections Officer (CO) Willinsky; CO Harper; CO Wilson; CO Barndt; Nurse Melissa Houck; Hearing Examiner (Himes) Amy Himes; and CO Parks. (ECF No. 33, Am. Compl.)

         Plaintiff alleges Defendants retaliated against him because of his legal activities. The retaliation occurred over a three-month period, the last day of September through December 2013. Defendants also conspired to violate his First and Eighth Amendment rights by either assaulting him, failing to protect him from assault, or failing to provide him with medical care. Stockton additionally claims HEX Himes violated his due process rights in connection with two misconduct hearings. (Id.)

         Stockton avers that on September 30, 2013, a day before he was to testify in a matter against the DOC, CO Kanagy (non-defendant) “opened [his] cell door from the bubble at 2:34 to 2:36 p.m. and told [him] from the bubble window to come out of [his] cell so that he can ‘kick [his] ass'” before the hearing. (Id., p. 3 and ECF No. 33-1, p. 1). Stockton wrote to Deputy Whitesal, advising him of the incident and requesting that an allegation of abuse complaint be filed with the DOC. (ECF No. 33-1, p. 1). Deputy Whitesal forwarded Stockton's allegations to Captain Goss (non-defendant) of the Security Office for review as well as Deputy Oliver and Major Myers. (Id.) Stockton does not assert he was physically assaulted or approached by CO Kanagy.

         On November 15, 2013, while housed in the RHU Psychiatric Observation Cell (POC), Stockton was placed in pre-hearing confinement following his receipt of two misconducts: B602771 (use of abusive language toward an employee or their family) and B602772 (threatening an employee, use of abusive language toward employee or their family, refusing to obey an order, and presence in an unauthorized area). (ECF No. 33-1, pp. 7 - 8). The original misconducts were dismissed without prejudice by HEX Himes who allowed the reporting staff member “the opportunity to determine if they wished to resubmit the misconduct for consideration.” (Id.)

         Both misconducts were re-written and re-issued on December 3, 2013. (Id.) Stockton was served with both misconducts the day before he was released from the POC. At his December 11, 2013, misconduct hearing, Stockton submitted a written version of the events for consideration. (Id.) Stockton was found guilty of both misconducts and received a thirty-day disciplinary sanction on each offense. HEX Himes directed Stockton's disciplinary sanctions be served concurrently with an effective date of December 11, 2013. (Id.)

         Stockton appealed the result of both misconduct hearings to the Program Review Committee (PRC). (Id.) The PRC consisted of CCPM Biser, Unit Manager Morder (non-defendant), and Deputy Whitesal. (Id.) Stockton claimed both misconducts were originally dismissed because HEX Himes did not hold the hearings within the time frame established by DOC policy and thus they could not be re-written or re-issued. (ECF No. 33, p. 3). Additionally, he claimed that HEX Himes, who is not a Notary, was not qualified to perform the duties of a Hearing Examiner. (Id., p. 4; ECF No. 33-1, pp. 5-6).

         On December 17, 2013, the PRC issued a decision noting that HEX Himes followed DOC policy when she allowed the two misconducts to be dismissed, re-written and re-issued. (ECF No. 33-1, p. 7). The PRC found “no violation of law or procedure as it relate[d] to the service and hearing of the misconduct.” (Id.) However, the PRC agreed with Stockton that his disciplinary sentence should have been retroactively applied to the date he was placed in pre-hearing confinement for the misconducts, November 15, 2013. The PRC adjusted his sanction accordingly. (Id.) Stockton alleges Deputy Oliver, Deputy Whitesal, Major Myers and CCPM Biser conspired to leave him in the RHU following the decision of the PRC that his disciplinary sentence expired on December 15, 2013. (Id., p. 9).

         On December 20, 2013, after Stockton alerted Sgt. Miller and Lt. Bard that he was being held in the RHU past his disciplinary sentence, they directed his cell door to be opened and he was then assaulted by Defendants CO Willinsky, CO Barndt, CO Wilson and CO Harpster. (Id., p. 7; ECF No. 33-1, pp. 5, 9-16). CO Parks opened Stockton's cell door from the bubble. (ECF No. 33, p. 5). Defendants later told Stockton his door was opened by accident. Regardless, once the cell door opened, Plaintiff fled to avoid a confrontation with the officers. (Id., p. 6). He exited the cell and refused orders to return to it. (ECF No. 33-1, pp. 9-16). The officers used force to secure Stockton. (Id.) The following individuals were involved in this event: Lt. Bard, CO Willinsky, CO Barndt, CO Wilson, CO Park, CO Harpster, Sgt. Miller. Defendants CO Barndt, CO Wilson, CO Harpster and CO Willinsky were injured during this altercation. (Id., p. 7; ECF No. 33-1, pp. 20- 21 and 25-26). A portion of the encounter was captured on video. (Id., pp. 27-28).

         Nurse Mellissa Houck denied Stockton any medical treatment for his facial injures and wounds following the assault. (ECF No. 33, p. 7). Lt. Allison contacted PSP Huntingdon and reported that Stockton had attacked the four officers after refusing to return to his cell. (ECF No. 33-1, pp. 29-30). Robert Fennell, a fellow RHU inmate, wrote to the local district attorney and volunteered to testify that Wilson and Harpster conspired with him to assault Stockton when their doors were unlocked. (Id., p. 24). However, when Fennel's cell door was opened he froze and relocked his celldoor avoiding the encounter. (Id. ...

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