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Sloan v. Pitkins

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

August 17, 2017

AARON SLOAN, Plaintiff,
v.
DAVID PITKINS, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          KIM R. GIBSON JUDGE

         Pending before the Court in this prisoner civil-rights case is defendants' motion to dismiss for failure to prosecute (ECF No. 87). Defendants' motion is based on plaintiff Aaron Sloan's alleged improper conduct during the December 1, 2016 telephonic pretrial conference in this case. That telephonic pretrial conference was cut short when Sloan's call was disconnected following an audible commotion from his end of the call. A prison employee later explained that the call was disconnected-and that Sloan was escorted back to his cell-because he had exposed his penis and begun masturbating in front of the employee while he was on the phone. Sloan denies that he did this, and claimed in the resulting prison disciplinary process that these allegations are “part of a conspiracy and retaliatory in nature.” (ECF No. 89-2.)

         This is a sordid situation. After weighing the factors for dismissal for failure to prosecute, and because the Court credits the prison employee's explanation of what occurred during the telephonic pretrial conference, the Court concludes that defendants' motion to dismiss should be granted. This case will therefore be dismissed with prejudice.

         I. Background

         On May 16, 2013, Sloan filed this civil-rights case against several correctional officers at SCI Somerset and employees of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (“DOC”). (See ECF No. 1.) Sloan's claims arise from an alleged incident of excessive force on July 15, 2010, at SCI Somerset. Over the course of this case, a number of defendants and claims were dismissed as a result of defendants' motions to dismiss and for summary judgment, and the Court eventually scheduled trial for January 2017 (see ECF No. 82).

         On December 1, 2016, this Court unsuccessfully attempted to hold the pretrial conference in this case by telephone. The reason the pretrial conference was unsuccessful is because the plaintiff-Aaron Sloan, who is now incarcerated at SCI Greene and represents himself-was disconnected from the line by the prison. (See ECF Nos. 86, 91 at 6:22-9:17.[1]) Initially, when the Court got on the line, defendants' counsel was the only person on the call. (ECF Nos. 86, 91 at 2:4-22.) Defendants' counsel then stated that Sloan had been on the call but that someone in the background on his end had said “[h]e's being inappropriate. We have to end the call, ” and that the call had then ended. (See ECF No. 91 at 2:4-9.) Defendants' counsel then stated that she would call the prison back to get an explanation of what had occurred. (Id. at 2.)

         A few minutes later, defendants' counsel called the Court back with Sloan on the line. No explanation was given for the interruption, and the Court again attempted to hold the pretrial conference. A minute or so into the conference, however, a commotion could be heard from- what appeared to be-Sloan's end of the line, and Sloan stated that he was being told to end the call. (See Id. at 4:23-6:2.) Defendants' counsel asked to speak to someone at the prison but eventually the call ended without explanation or response. Defendants' counsel then stated that she would call the prison back again and then call the Court with an explanation.

         Approximately ten minutes later, defendants' counsel called back. This time she had a prison employee on the line. (See Id. at 6:22-25.) The prison employee told the Court that she had been present for the first call (this, it seems, was before the Court got on the line), and had been separated from Sloan by a glass barrier and cage with a small opening. (Id. at 7:6-8:11.) The employee stated that she had placed the call on speaker phone after defendants' counsel called in the first time, and that-while they were waiting for the call to connect (presumably while they were waiting for the Court to get on the line)-she “noticed [Sloan's] hand moving, and [she] looked down and he had his penis all the way out and he was jacking off . . . .” (Id. at 7:8-10.) The employee stated further that she “[didn't] want to be too graphic with it, but he was masturbating. I mean that's just inappropriate so.” (Id. at 7:12-13.) She explained that she had then said “[h]e's being inappropriate so I'm going to end the phone call, ” and had ended the call and left the room to get correctional officers to escort Sloan back to his cell. (Id. at 7:14-16, 8:17-18.)

         At this point defendants' counsel explained that, after Sloan's call disconnected the first time, she had called the number back and that the prison receptionist connected counsel back to the conference room. Defendants' counsel said that Sloan had picked up-which is when counsel called the Court back and the second call with the Court began. (See Id. at 7:17-23.) Defendants' counsel asked the employee whether that second call should have occurred, and she explained as follows:

[PRISON EMPLOYEE]: No, I mean the reason why the operator put you back through is because I'm in a different part of the prison. So she probably just thought we got disconnected and was trying to connect you guys again. I had left the room. There's glass and a cage separating us. I'm really surprised he was even able to get his hand through there to answer the phone, because it wasn't that close.
I'm not sure how he was even able to do that. But there's a little slit there so that you can hear. He was probably able to get his hand through to at least push the button to put it back on speaker, I would assume.
[DEFENDANTS' COUNSEL]: Okay. And then you --
[PRISON EMPLOYEE]: But I wasn't in the room at that time, so yeah, the officers were probably trying ...

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