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Aulisio v. Chiampi

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

September 21, 2017

ANN CHIAMPI, ET AL., Defendants



         I. BACKGROUND

         Joseph G. Aulisio, an inmate presently confined at the Retreat State Correctional Institution, Hunlock Creek, Pennsylvania (SCI-Retreat) initiated this pro se civil rights action. Named as Defendants are three (3) SCI-Retreat employees: Education Principal Ann Chiampi, Librarian Karen Stroup, and Hearing Examiner Anne Plaska.

         By Memorandum and Order dated March 4, 2015, Defendants' motion to dismiss the complaint was partially granted. See Doc. 20. Specifically, this Court agreed that dismissal was warranted on the claim that the DOC's grievance procedure was unconstitutional as well as the retaliation allegations against Defendants Plaska and Stroup. Dismissal was also granted with respect to the due process claims against Hearing Examiner Plaska and the contentions of denial of equal protection. As a result, Aulisio's surviving claims are (1) a retaliatory confiscation of the second folder by Education Principal Chiampi; (2) denial of access to the courts; (3) conspiracy; (4) violation of Plaintiff's right of freedom of speech.

         It is undisputed that Aulisio was employed as a law clerk/legal reference aide in the SCI-Retreat library on May 24, 2012. According to the Complaint, on that morning the Plaintiff was singled out for harassment by Education Principal Chiampi. Specifically, it is alleged that Chiampi entered the library asked Aulisio whether two closed file folders which were sitting on his work desk were personal or work related. Aulisio maintains that although he responded numerous times that the folders were work related and that he was studying for a scheduled job related test Chiampi seized both folders. Plaintiff describes the confiscation as being enforcement of “a never before enforced rule.” Doc. 1, Section IV, ¶ 12.

         One of the confiscated folders is described by Plaintiff as a seventy-four (74) page civil rights manuscript containing hundreds of prison litigation cases with a copy of the Bill of Rights as the first page.[1] See id., ¶ 8. Aulisio adds that this manuscript was intended to be published as a handbook for inmates wishing to pursue civil rights claims. The second folder is described as consisting of handwritten notes.

         Approximately ten (10) minutes after seizing the folders, Chiampi purportedly returned for the purpose of returning the folder containing the handwritten notes to the Plaintiff. However, when Aulisio informed Chiampi that the confiscation of the other folder (manuscript) was improper because he was engaged in constitutionally protected activity, Chiampi allegedly became angry, decided to keep both folders as a retaliatory measure, and ordered the prisoner to return to his cell block. As a result of the incident Aulisio was issued a misconduct charge by Librarian Stroup which charged him with lying to an employee and possession of contraband. He was later found guilty of the charge by Hearing Examiner Plaska.

         Aulisio contends that the improper confiscation of the manuscript and notes impeded his ability to pursue litigation. On June 13, 2012, Plaintiff purportedly discovered that Chiampi did not follow proper procedure with respect to the confiscation. Specifically, on that date the folder containing the handwritten notes was apparently offered back to the Plaintiff and the inmate was told that the other confiscated folder (manuscript) had not been turned into “Control” as required under prison policy. Id. at ¶ 10. The Complaint assumes that the confiscated manuscript folder was destroyed in an effort to prevent Aulisio from pursuing litigation against Chiampi in violation of his right of access to the courts.[2]

         Aulisio's other surviving claims contend that Defendants engaged in a conspiracy and violated his right of freedom of speech. See Id. at ¶ ¶ 17-18. The Complaint seeks compensatory and punitive damages as well as declaratory relief.

         Presently pending is the Remaining Defendants' motion for summary judgment. See Doc. 69. The opposed motion is ripe for consideration. For the reasons that follow, the motion will be granted.


         Defendants claim entitlement to entry of summary judgment on the grounds that: (1) the undisputed facts show that the confiscation of Plaintiff's documents was not retaliatory; (2) the Complaint does not allege a viable denial of access to the courts claim; (3) Defendants' action did not violate the inmate's right to freedom of speech; and (4) Plaintiff cannot prove a conspiracy claim.

         A. Standard of Review

         Summary judgment is proper if “the pleadings, the discovery and disclosure materials on file, and any affidavits show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c); See also Saldana v. Kmart Corp., 260 F.3d 228, 231-32 (3d Cir. 2001). A factual dispute is “material” if it might affect the outcome of the suit under the applicable law. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A factual dispute is “genuine” only if there is a sufficient evidentiary basis that would allow a reasonable fact-finder to return a verdict for the non-moving party. Id. at 248. The court must resolve all doubts as to the existence of a genuine issue of material fact in favor of the non-moving party. Saldana, 260 F.3d at 232; see also Reeder v. Sybron Transition Corp., 142 F.R.D. 607, 609 (M.D. Pa. 1992). Unsubstantiated arguments made in briefs are not considered evidence of asserted facts. Versarge v. Township of Clinton, 984 F.2d 1359, 1370 (3d Cir. 1993).

         Once the moving party has shown that there is an absence of evidence to support the claims of the non-moving party, the non-moving party may not simply sit back and rest on the allegations in its complaint. See Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 324 (1986). Instead, it must “go beyond the pleadings and by [its] own affidavits, or by the depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, designate specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.” Id. (internal quotations omitted); see also Saldana, 260 F.3d at 232 (citations omitted).

         Summary judgment should be granted where a party “fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden at trial.” Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322-23. “‘Such affirmative evidence - regardless of whether it is direct or circumstantial - must amount to more than a scintilla, but may amount to less (in the evaluation of the court) than a preponderance.'” Saldana, 260 F.3d at 232 (quoting Williams v. Borough of West Chester, 891 F.2d 458, 460-61 (3d Cir. 1989)).

         B. Retaliation

         Defendants Plaska and Stroup's request for dismissal of the retaliation claims against them was granted by this Court's March 4, 2015 Memorandum and Order. Aulisio's remaining limited retaliation claim alleges that Chiampi changed her mind about returning legal property to him because it followed his threat to file a lawsuit against her.

         The pending summary judgment motion asserts that because there “were no ongoing hostilities between the two parties” at the time of the confiscation, a viable retaliation claim has not been asserted. Doc. 71, p. 6. Defendants add that the allegation of retaliation fails because the confiscation was not undertaken for any improper or retaliatory reason and it was Defendant Stroup who issued Aulisio a misconduct. Finally, they argue that since Aulisio was offered the return of the confiscated materials at a later date, it was his own conduct which caused him to suffer adverse action.

         In support of their argument, Defendants have submitted a declaration under penalty of perjury signed by Defendant Chiampi. See Doc. 72, p. 82. Chiampi acknowledges that she was employed as the SCI-Retreat Corrections School Principal during the relevant time period. She indicates that her duties included making rounds in the prison's Educational Building which housed the library where the Plaintiff was employed. Chiampi states while performing that task in the library on the morning of May 24, 2012 she noticed that all the inmates were performing janitorial duties with the exception of Aulisio, who was using the photocopying machine.

         Upon further investigation, Chiampi discovered that although Plaintiff indicated he was performing a work related duty, he had not been assigned any photocopying duties by his supervisor, Librarian Stroup. As a result, the Defendant ordered the Plaintiff “to get to work.” Id. at p. 83, ¶ 4. Aulisio put away his copies and walked away from the photocopier. As Chiampi was subsequently preparing to exit the library, she noticed that while the other inmates were still performing janitorial duties, Plaintiff was now on a law library computer. When she questioned Aulisio about this activity, he repeatedly stated that he was doing a work related task and became “confrontational and argumentative” when Chaimpi asked if she could see his folder. Id. at ΒΆ 6. Chiampi notes that she only recalls Aulisio possessing one folder. Chiampi took the folder which Aulisio was using and gave it to Stroup to determine if the prisoner was doing personal work. Chaimpi then escorted Aulisio from the library ...

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