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Wilson v. Lackawanna County

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

June 6, 2018

LACKAWANNA COUNTY, et al., Defendants.

          Mariani Judge


          Martin C. Carlson United States Magistrate Judge

         I. Statement of Facts and of the Case

         The well-pleaded facts in the plaintiff's complaint, which we must accept as true for purposes of considering this motion to dismiss, are as follows: Sparkles Wilkson is experiencing gender dysphoria, a condition which “involves a conflict between a person's physical or assigned gender and the gender with which he/she/they identify.”[1] In Wilson's case she identifies as a woman, but was born anatomically as a male, and was initially identified as Steven Fritz.

         Wilson was diagnosed with gender dysphoria while she was an inmate at the State Correctional Institution (SCI) Houtzdale in 2015. (Doc. 1, ¶33.) While in state custody, Wilson received hormone therapy, a necessary medical treatment for gender dysphoria. (Id., ¶35-7.) Withdrawing this hormone treatment can result in adverse medical consequences for a person diagnosed with gender dysphoria, including muscle wasting, high blood pressure and neurological complications. (Id.)

         Wilson was released from state custody in November of 2016, but continued to receive this hormone treatment following her release from custody. (Id., ¶¶38-9.) On January 19, 2017, Wilson was incarcerated in the Lackawanna County Prison. (Id., ¶39.) Upon entry into the prison Wilson notified prison officials of her gender dysphoria and the hormone treatment she had been receiving, presenting this information to medical staff including the defendant, Dr. Zaloga. (Id., ¶¶40-42.) Initially, Wilson was denied hormone treatments for several days upon her admission to the prison; she was then provided this therapy for three days before her hormone therapy was discontinued without any notice by prison medical staff. (Id., ¶¶43-5.)

         Wilson grieved the denial of this medical care, and separately notified Warden Betti and Deputy Warden Langan that she was not receiving this hormone therapy. (Id., ¶¶46-48.) These non-medical correctional supervisors referred Wilson's complaints to medical personnel to address. (Id., ¶48.) According to Wilson, once these concerns were referred by the Warden and Deputy Warden to medical staff, medical personnel, including Dr. Zaloga, then declined to reinstate this medically necessary hormone therapy for the plaintiff, causing her pain, suffering and physical disfigurement. (Id., ¶¶ 49-60.)

         On the basis of these factual averments Wilson has now filed a four count civil complaint against an array of individual and institutional defendants, alleging institutional and individual civil rights liability for Eighth Amendment violations for failing to provide Wilson with medically necessary case, (Id., Counts I and II); as well as supplemental state law tort and civil conspiracy claims. (Id., Counts II and V.)[2] With respect to the final count in this complaint, a supplemental state law civil conspiracy claim, the complaint names the individual defendants, Dr. Zaloga, Warden Betti and Deputy Warden Langan, as defendants. The complaint then incorporates by reference all of the factual averments set forth in this pleading, (Id., ¶106), before alleging in a summary fashion that:

All individual Defendants knowingly, maliciously, recklessly, and with gross negligence conspired to engage in the aforementioned Tort Claims and stated facts, whereby each Defendant acted in concert by agreement to cause the foreseeable harm and/or facilitate the harm through individual and/or separate acts and/or omissions.

(Id., ¶107.)

         The defendants have now moved to dismiss this civil conspiracy claim, arguing that this claim fails as a matter of law. This motion is fully briefed by the parties, (Docs. 30, 32, and 33)[3] and is, therefore, ripe for resolution.

         For the reasons set forth below, it is recommended that this motion to dismiss be granted and the civil conspiracy claim set forth in Count V should be dismissed since the only actions Defendants Betti and Langan are alleged to have taken involved referring Wilson's medical grievances to medical personnel, a course of action that case law specifically endorses in this setting. Moreover, following the dismissal of these non-medical correctional defendants it is unclear that the civil conspiracy claim, as pleaded, has the requisite number of actors to survive.

         II. Discussion

         A. Motion to Dismiss-Standard of Review

         A motion to dismiss tests the legal sufficiency of a complaint. It is proper for the court to dismiss a complaint in accordance with Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure only if the complaint fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). With respect to this benchmark standard for legal sufficiency of a complaint, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has aptly noted the evolving standards governing pleading practice in federal court, stating that:

Standards of pleading have been in the forefront of jurisprudence in recent years. Beginning with the Supreme Court's opinion in Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007) continuing with our opinion in Phillips [v. County of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 230 (3d Cir. 2008)] and culminating recently with the Supreme Court's decision in Ashcroft v. Iqbal BU.S.B, 129 S.Ct. 1937 (2009) pleading standards have seemingly shifted from simple notice pleading to a more ...

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