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Petoff v. Yeaney

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

March 28, 2018

THOMAS PETOFF, Plaintiff,
v.
EDWARD YEANEY, et al, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION [1]

          SUSAN PARADISE BAXTER United States Magistrate Judge.

         Relevant Procedural History

         This civil action was filed in this Court on April 11, 2016. Plaintiff, a pretrial detainee at the Erie County Prison, brought this civil rights action. In his original complaint, Plaintiff named a single defendant: Lt. Edward Yeaney, a guard at Erie County Prison. ECF No. 3. In an amended complaint, Plaintiff expanded on his claims and named the following Erie County Prison employees as Defendants: Lt. Edward Yeaney, Correctional Officer Anthony Allman, Deputy Warden Gary Seymour, Deputy Warden Michael Holman, and Warden Kevin Sutter. ECF No. 21. Plaintiff alleges that Yeaney used excessive force against him and that Allman and Sutter failed to intervene to protect him from Yeaney. Plaintiff claims that after he filed this lawsuit against Yeaney only, Seymour and Holman retaliated against him by denying him reclassification into general population.

         Defendants filed a motion to dismiss [ECF No. 62] and Plaintiff filed a brief in opposition [ECF No. 68]. This motion is fully briefed and is ripe for disposition by this Court.

         Standards of Review

         1) Pro Se Litigants

         Pro se pleadings, “however inartfully pleaded, ” must be held to “less stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers.” Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, 520-521 (1972). If the court can reasonably read pleadings to state a valid claim on which the litigant could prevail, it should do so despite failure to cite proper legal authority, confusion of legal theories, poor syntax and sentence construction, or litigant's unfamiliarity with pleading requirements. Boag v. MacDougall, 454 U.S. 364 (1982); United States ex rel. Montgomery v. Bierley, 141 F.2d 552, 555 (3d Cir. 1969) (petition prepared by a prisoner may be inartfully drawn and should be read “with a measure of tolerance”); Smith v. U.S. District Court, 956 F.2d 295 (D.C.Cir. 1992); Freeman v. Dep't of Corrections, 949 F.2d 360 (10th Cir. 1991). Under our liberal pleading rules, during the initial stages of litigation, a district court should construe all allegations in a complaint in favor of the complainant. Gibbs v. Roman, 116 F.3d 83 (3d Cir. 1997). See, e.g., Nami v. Fauver, 82 F.3d 63, 65 (3d Cir. 1996) (discussing Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6) standard); Markowitz v. Northeast Land Co., 906 F.2d 100, 103 (3d Cir. 1990) (same). Because Plaintiff is a pro se litigant, this Court may consider facts and make inferences where it is appropriate.

         2) Motion to dismiss

         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 Conley 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, Pa., 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 plaintiff's 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. Cty. 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. at 556 n.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).

         3) Motion for summary judgment

         Because the parties have filed evidence in support of their filings, this Court will convert the motion to dismiss pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) to a motion for summary judgment pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56. See Burns v. Harris County Bail Bond Bd., 139 F.3d 513, 517 (5th Cir.1998). (“When matters outside the pleadings are presented to and not excluded by the district court, the district court must convert a motion to dismiss into a motion for summary judgment.”); Greer v. Smith, 2003 WL 1090708, *1 (3d Cir. (Pa.) March 10, 2003) (“the District Court considered material outside of the pleadings and, therefore, should have converted the motion for dismissal to a summary judgment motion, allowing the plaintiff an opportunity for appropriate discovery and a reasonable opportunity to present all material made pertinent to the motion.”).

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(a) provides that summary judgment shall be granted if the “movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” When applying this standard, the court must examine the factual record and reasonable inferences therefrom in the light most favorable to the party opposing summary judgment. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co., Ltd. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986).

         The moving party has the initial burden of proving to the district court the absence of evidence supporting the non-moving party's claims. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 330 (1986); Andreoli v. Gates, 482 F.3d 641, 647 (3d Cir. 2007); UPMC Health System v. Metropolitan Life Ins. Co., 391 F.3d 497, 502 (3d Cir. 2004). The burden then shifts to the non-movant to come forward with specific facts showing a genuine issue for trial. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e); Williams v. Borough of West Chester, Pa., 891 F.2d 458, 460-461 (3d Cir. 1989) (the non-movant must present affirmative evidence - more than a scintilla but less than a preponderance -which supports each element of his claim to defeat a properly presented motion for summary judgment). The non-moving party must go beyond the pleadings and show specific facts by affidavit or by information contained in the filed documents (i.e., depositions, answers to interrogatories and admissions) to meet his burden of proving elements essential to his claim. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322. See also Saldana v. Kmart Corp., 260 F.3d 228, 232 (3d Cir. 2001).

         When considering a motion for summary judgment, the court is not permitted to weigh the evidence or to make credibility determinations, but is limited to deciding whether there are any disputed issues and, if there are, whether they are both genuine and material. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986).

         The Allegations of the Amended Complaint

         In January of 2016, Plaintiff was a pretrial detainee in the Erie County Prison. ECF No. 21, ¶ ¶ 3, 11. Plaintiff is confined to a wheelchair and suffers from bedsores. In the early morning hours of January 2nd, Plaintiff asked Allman to notify medical that a wound vac machine was beeping indicating a loss of suction. Id. at ¶ 12. Nurse Barbalaci came to Plaintiff's cell to adjust Plaintiff's bandages and the vac machine. After Barbalaci left Plaintiff's cell, the wound vac machine began to beep again and Plaintiff asked Allman to call the medical department. Id. at ¶ ¶ 16-17.

         Approximately an hour later, Allman directed Plaintiff to get dressed so that he could be transported to the medical department. Plaintiff refused. Id. at ¶ ¶ 19-22. Allman allegedly told Plaintiff “Get up in your wheelchair or me and Lt. Yeaney will drag you to medical.” Plaintiff responded: “I'm allowed to refuse medical for something that's ‘as needed' so if you're gonna drag me, drag me.” Id. A couple minutes later, Lt. Yeaney and Officer Allman entered Plaintiff's cell. Plaintiff claims Yeaney swore at him, grabbed him by the throat, pushed him down on his bunk and choked him, while Allman watched. Id. at ¶ ¶ 23-26. Lt. Yeaney choked Plaintiff for one minute before picking him up and dropping him on the floor. Plaintiff claims that Yeaney and Allman then grabbed him by the arms and forcefully slammed him into his wheelchair. Id. at ¶ ¶ 27-28. Plaintiff was transported to the medical department where he refused medication attention before being returned to his cell. Id. at ¶ ¶ 29-30. Plaintiff claims he suffered pain and injuries as a result of this incident. Plaintiff contends that his due process rights were violated.

         Plaintiff claims that Yeaney used excessive force against him and that Allman failed to intervene to protect him from the use of excessive force. Id. at ¶ ¶ 48-50. Plaintiff also claims that Warden ...


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