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Harris v. Giroux

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

July 19, 2017

SUPT. NANCY GIROUX, et al., Defendants


          SUSAN PARADISE BAXTER United States Magistrate Judge.


         A. Relevant Procedural History

         On February 11, 2016, Plaintiff Jorge Harris, an inmate at the State Correctional Institution at Albion, Pennsylvania ("SCI Albion"), filed a pro se civil rights complaint pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"), and the Rehabilitation Act ("Rehab Act"). Plaintiff subsequently filed an amended complaint on January 6, 2017, which supersedes the original complaint and is the operative pleading in this case. [ECF No. 23]. Named as Defendants are the following individuals employed by the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections ("DOC"), most of whom are staff members at SCI Albion: Superintendent Nancy Giroux ("Giroux"); Deputy Melinda L. Adams ("Adams"); Deputy Michael R. Clark ("Clark"); Deputy Barry R. Smith ("Smith"); Counselor Nichole Norton ("Norton"); COl Benjamin Beringer ("Beringer"); Hearing Examiner Ryan Szylewski ("Szylewski"); Grievance Coordinator Ronnie Martucci ("Martucci"); Unit Manager Bryan E. Flinchbaugh ("Flinchbaugh"); Intelligence Captain Earl J. Jones ("Jones"); Acting Major of Unit Management Melanie Kosinski ("Kosinski"); and DOC Secretary Wetzel ("Wetzel").[2]

         Plaintiffs amended complaint contains three causes of action. Count I is a First Amendment retaliation claim asserting that Defendants retaliated against him for filing grievances and inmate requests by unjustifiably confining him in the restricted housing unit ("RFJU") for almost four months, refusing his numerous requests for reasonable accommodations for his disabilities, and subjecting him to constant verbal and emotional abuse. (ECF No. 23, Amended Complaint, at ¶¶ 104-111). Count II is a claim under both the Rehab Act and the ADA asserting that Defendants discriminated against him and refused to provide reasonable accommodations on account of his disabilities. (Id. at ¶¶ 112-118). Count III is an Eighth Amendment claim arising from his confinement in the RHU for 108 days. (Id. at ¶¶ 119-127).

         On January 20, 2017, Defendants filed a motion to dismiss Plaintiffs amended complaint [ECF No. 25] on the following grounds: (i) Plaintiff has failed to show the personal involvement of Defendants Giroux, Clark, Adams, Smith, Norton, Szelewski, Martucci, Flinchbaugh, Jones, Kosinski, and Wetzel, in any of the alleged wrongdoing; (ii) Plaintiff has failed to state a claim against Defendant Beringer related to the filing of false misconduct reports; (iii) Plaintiff has otherwise failed to state causes of action upon which relief may be granted; and (iv) Plaintiffs claims against Defendants in their official capacities are barred by Eleventh Amendment immunity. [ECF No. 26]. Plaintiff has since filed a brief in opposition to Defendants' motion. [ECF No. 28]. This matter is now ripe for consideration.

         B. Relevant Factual History

         Plaintiff is completely blind in his right eye and suffers from bilateral hearing loss, having no hearing in his left ear and 75% hearing loss in his right ear. (ECF No.23, Amended Complaint, at ¶ 2). Plaintiffs partial blindness occurred during his prior incarceration at SCI-Albion, which resulted in Plaintiff filing suit against SCI-Albion officials and employees that ultimately led to a negotiated monetary settlement. (Id. at ¶¶ 3, 33). Approximately two years after his prior release from SCI-Albion in June 2013, Plaintiff was convicted of violating his parole and was sent back to SCI-Albion on May 11, 2015. (Id. at ¶¶ 34-38). Upon his return to SCI-Albion, Plaintiff was placed in the RHU, where he remained for a period of 108 days. (Id. at ¶¶ 5-7, 44). Plaintiff alleges that he was originally told he was placed in the RHU pending medical clearance, but was informed ten days later that he was being kept in the RHU because of a lack of bed space in general population. (Id. at ¶¶ 45-46).

         On May 29, 2015, Plaintiff submitted a request to Defendant Smith that he be given a Z-code, which denotes single cell status in general population. (Id. at ¶ 49). Defendant Norton was allegedly responsible for processing the necessary paperwork to obtain the Z-code. (Id. at ¶ 51). Plaintiff alleges that, although the process for obtaining a Z-code usually takes only two to three weeks, Defendant Norton delayed the process for nearly three months. (Id.).

         While he was in the RHU, Plaintiff alleges that he was "denied access to assistive devices, personal hygiene opportunities (showers, shaves, etc.), exercise opportunities, and phone calls to family members or attorneys." (Id. at ¶ 8). In particular, Plaintiff alleges that he was not given access to a hearing aid for his right ear until November 2016. (Id. at ¶ 61). Plaintiff also alleges that he was subjected to verbal and emotional abuse in the form of racial epithets and food tampering. (Id. at ¶ 9).

         C. Standard of Review

         A motion to dismiss filed pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) must be viewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff and the complaint's well-pleaded allegations must be accepted as true. Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 93-94 (2007). A complaint must be dismissed pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) if it does not allege "enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007) (rejecting the traditional 12(b)(6) standard set forth in Conlev v. Gibson. 355 U.S. 41 (1957)). See also Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662 (2009) (specifically applying Twombly analysis beyond the context of the Sherman Act).

         A court need not accept inferences drawn by a plaintiff if they are unsupported by the facts set forth in the complaint. See California Pub. Emps'. Ret. Sys. v. The Chubb Corp., 394 F.3d 126, 146 (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. Twombly. 550 U.S. at 555, citing Papasan v. Allain, 478 U.S. 265, 286 (1986); see also McTernan v. City of York, Pennsylvania, 577 F.3d 521, 531 (3d Cir. 2009) ("The tenet that a court must accept as true all of the allegations contained in a complaint is inapplicable to legal conclusions"). A plaintiffs factual allegations "must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level." Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556, citing 5 C. WRIGHT & A. MILLER, FEDERAL Practice and Procedure § 1216, pp. 235-36 (3d ed. 2004). Although the United States Supreme Court ("Supreme Court") does "not require heightened pleading of specifics, [the Court does require] enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570.

         In other words, at the motion to dismiss stage, a plaintiff is "required to make a 'showing' rather than a blanket assertion of an entitlement to relief." Smith v. Sullivan, No. 07-528, 2008 WL 482469, at *1 (D. Del. Feb. 19, 2008), quoting Phillips v. County of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 231 (3d Cir. 2008). "This 'does not impose a probability requirement at the pleading stage, ' but instead 'simply calls for enough facts to raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence of the necessary element." Phillips, 515 F.3d at 234, quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at556n.3).

         The Third Circuit has expounded on the Twombly/Iqbal line of cases. To determine the sufficiency of a complaint under Twombly and Iqbal, the court must follow three steps:

First, the court must 'tak[e] note of the elements a plaintiff must plead to state a claim.' Second the court should identify allegations that, 'because they are no more than conclusions, are not entitled to the assumption of truth.' Finally, 'where there are well-pleaded factual allegations, a court should assume their veracity and then determine whether they plausibly give rise to an entitlement for relief

Burtch v. Milberg Factors, Inc., 662 F.3d 212, 221 (3d Cir. 2011), quoting Santiago v.Warminster Twp, 629 F.3d 121, 130 (3d Cir. 2010).

         "The purpose of a motion to dismiss is to test the sufficiency of a complaint, not to resolve disputed facts or decide the merits of the case." Tracinda Corp. v. DaimlerChrysler AG, 197 F.Supp.2d 42, 53 (D. Del. 2002), citing Kost v. Kozakiewicz, 1 F.3d 176, 183 (3d Cir.1993). Indeed, the Supreme Court has held that a complaint is properly dismissed under Rule 12(b)(6) when it does not allege "enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face, " Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570, or when the factual content does not allow the court "to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678. The question is not whether the plaintiff will prevail in the end. Rather, the question "is whether the plaintiff is entitled to offer evidence in support of his or her claims." Swope v. City of Pittsburgh, 90 F.Supp.3d 400, 405 (W.D. Pa. 2014), citing Oatway v. Am. Int'l Grp., Inc., 325 F.3d 184, 187 (3d Cir. 2003).

         D. Discussion

         1. Official Capacity Claims

         Defendants assert that, to the extent Plaintiff is suing them in their official capacities for monetary damages, they are immune from suit under the Eleventh Amendment. The Court agrees.

         It is well settled that suits for damages by individuals against state governments, state agencies, or state officers acting in their official capacities are barred by the Eleventh Amendment. See Kentucky v. Graham, 473 U.S. 159, 165-67 (1985) (holding that claims for damages against a state officer acting in his official capacity are barred by the Eleventh Amendment); Chittister v. Dep't of Community and Economic Development, 226 F.3d 223 (3d Cir. 2000) (holding that individuals are barred from seeking monetary damages from state governments or state agencies). See ...

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