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Meeker v. Buskirk

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

May 23, 2018

SAMUEL S. MEEKER, et al., Plaintiffs,
WARDEN TODD BUSKIRK, et al., Defendants.



         Five inmates at the Northampton County Prison filed this civil action against Warden Todd Buskirk, Northampton County, Pennsylvania, and the “US Government.” In an Order docketed February 27, 2018, the Court informed the Plaintiffs that, if they sought to proceed in forma pauperis as suggested in their Complaint, they would each be obligated to file a motion to proceed in forma pauperis and a certified copy of their prison account statements for the six-month period preceding the filing of this case as required by 28 U.S.C. § 1915(a)(2). (ECF No. 2.) The Court also informed the Plaintiffs that each litigant granted leave to proceed in forma pauperis would be obligated to pay the filing fee in installments in accordance with the Prison Litigation Reform Act. (Id. citing Hagan v. Rogers, 570 F.3d 146, 155 (3d Cir. 2009)). Two of the Plaintiffs, Samuel S. Meeker and Tashwan Hunter, responded to the Order by filing Motions to Proceed In Forma Pauperis and their prison account statements. (ECF Nos. 3 & 4.) They also submitted an Amended Complaint, which named new inmates as the Plaintiffs in this action. (ECF No. 1-3.)

         The Court issued an Order docketed on April 4, 2018, which directed the Clerk's Office to amend the caption to reflect the caption of the Amended Complaint and gave the newly-added Plaintiffs an opportunity to either pay the fees or file motions for leave to proceed in forma paupeirs with their prison account statements as required by 28 U.S.C. § 1915(a)(2). (ECF No. 5.) None of those individuals responded to the Order in any respect. Accordingly, the Court will dismiss those Plaintiffs as parties to this case without prejudice. In the meantime, Meeker filed a Motion for Appointment of Attorney and a Notice of Change of Address. (ECF Nos. 6 & 7.) For the following reasons, the Court will grant Meeker and Hunter leave to proceed in forma pauperis and dismiss the Amended Complaint for failure to state a claim, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B)(ii).

         I. FACTS

         As with the initial Complaint, the Amended Complaint identifies the Defendants in this action as Warden Todd Buskirk, Northampton County, the “State of Pennsylvania, ” and “US Gov't.” The Court understands Meeker and Hunter to be raising constitutional claims pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents of the FBI, 403 U.S. 388 (1971), based on the conditions at the Northampton County Prison, primarily in connection with the denial of access to “legal materials.” (Am. Compl. ECF No. 1-3 at 5.)[1] They also appear to be challenging the performance of counsel in their criminal cases.

         A search of public dockets reflects that Meeker is awaiting trial in the Northampton County Court of Common Pleas for burglary and related charges. See Commonwealth v. Meeker, Docket No. CP-48-CR-0000703-2018. Meeker was recently released on bail to a long term inpatient facility. Id. Hunter recently pled guilty in the Northampton County Court of Common Pleas to possession of a controlled substance and disorderly conduct. See Commonwealth v. Hunter, Docket Nos. CP-48-CR-0000287-2018 & CP-48-CR-0004139-2017. Both Meeker and Hunter were represented by counsel from the Public Defender's Office.

         As the basis for their claims, Meeker and Hunter allege that:

Northampton County Prison and Northampton County have intentionally failed to provide adequate legal research facilities or a reasonable alternative in the form of trained legal professionals in an effort to profit off of legal injustices and the resultant mass incarceration of its citizens through their practice of charging “room board” to inmates at Northampton County Prison. Additionally, Northampton County has fostered an environment that is openly hostile and discriminates against pro se litigants or defendants by refusing to hear motions they filed through a faulty application of case law to PA C.R.P. 576; in which the county holds that if “hybrid representation” is present no pro se motions will be heard . . . .

(Am. Compl. at 17-18.) That final allegation appears to refer to the state court's practice of declining to address pro se motions in criminal cases when a defendant is represented by counsel, as appears to have happened in Meeker's criminal case based on the docket. The Amended Complaint reflects Meeker and Hunter's disapproval of the fact that prison officials have distributed copies of the relevant rules and case law pertaining to the state court's prohibition on “hybrid representation.” Meeker and Hunter add that the Public Defender's Office is a “complete failure” based on Meeker and Hunter's apparent dissatisfaction with the legal services they received. (Id. at 19.)

         Although the Amended Complaint focuses on access to legal materials and counsel's performance, it raises other allegations that pertain to the conditions at Northampton County Prison. Meeker and Hunter claim that prison officials “engaged in retaliation for discussing lawsuits, prohibiting distribution of the PA C.R.P to inmates and thus to have reasonable access to legal materials crucial to achieving meaningful access to the courts . . . .” (Id. at 20-21.) In that regard, they contend that “wholesale violations of prisoner's rights” have occurred including “retaliation against litigants by restricting access to photocopies of the criminal rules to [sic] procedure and by failing to provide a reasonable alternative to legal materials.” (Id. at 24.) Prison officials have also allegedly failed to provide grievances when asked. Relatedly, Meeker attached to the Amended Complaint a request he filed in which he seeks a grievance form to “contest [his] unlawful, arbitrary and capricious pre-trial detention and the patently false statements” that presumably gave rise to his incarceration. (Id. at 13.) The block officer replied to Meeker, and informed him that those issues were not grievable within the institution and recommended that he speak with his attorney.

         The Amended Complaint seeks “immediate, declaratory, preliminary and permanent injunctive relief to enjoin the defendants' conduct” and damages. (Id. at 21.) Among the requests for relief include a request for a federal takeover of the criminal justice system within Northampton County.


         The Court grants Meeker and Hunter leave to proceed in forma pauperis because it appears that they are incapable of paying the fees to commence this civil action.[2] Accordingly, 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B)(ii) applies, which requires the Court to dismiss the Amended Complaint if it fails to state a claim. Whether a complaint fails to state a claim under § 1915(e)(2)(B)(ii) is governed by the same standard applicable to motions to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), see Tourscher v. McCullough, 184 F.3d 236, 240 (3d Cir. 1999), which requires the Court to determine whether the complaint contains “sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quotations omitted). Conclusory allegations do not suffice. Id. As Meeker and Hunter are proceeding pro se, the Court construes their allegations liberally. Higgs v. Att'y Gen., 655 F.3d 333, 339 (3d Cir. 2011).

         III. ...

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