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Rosa-Diaz v. Harry

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

June 14, 2018

LAUREL HARRY, et al., Defendants.

          Rambo Judge


          Martin C. Carlson United States Magistrate Judge

         I. Statement of Facts and of the Case

         This is apro se state prisoner civil rights lawsuit. This case now comes before the court for consideration of a motion to dismiss filed by the defendants, (Doc. 26), which challenges the legal sufficiency of Rosa-Diaz's amended complaint. (Doc. 12-1.)

         The well-pleaded facts in the plaintiffs amended complaint, which we must accept as true for purposes of considering this motion to dismiss, are as follows: In March and April of 2017 Gabriel Rosa-Diaz was a state prisoner housed at the State Correctional Institution (SCI) Camp Hill. The principal events at issue in this lawsuit allegedly occurred during a one month period in March and April of 2017. According to Rosa-Diaz, on March 30, 2017, Lieutenant Gildea, Sergeant Zimmerman and correctional officers Herig, Kluck and Reese transferred Rosa-Diaz from one cell "to another cell due to plaintiff [sic] 90 days cell movement, as Defendant Digby's policy requires." (Doc. 12-1, ¶ 29.)

         According to Rosa-Diaz "there were human feces inside the air conditioner and exhaust ventilations [in his new cell]; ... the plumbing for the hot water did not work and plaintiff did not had [sic] access to hot water;... the exhaust air ventilation was broken and inoperative and;... the cell smelled of urine and feces." (Id., ¶ 36.) Over the next 17 days Rosa-Diaz complained repeatedly and vociferously about the conditions in his cell, asking numerous correctional staff to report these cell conditions to Unit Manager Digby, the prison official who was responsible for this cell assignment. (Id., ¶¶ 35-42, 64-70.) As to many of the correctional staff who are now named as defendants in this lawsuit, [1] Rosa-Diaz's amended complaint affirmatively discloses that these correctional officials were consistently responsive to his complaints and relayed his cell transfer requests to Unit Manager Digby. Thus, Rosa-Diaz specifically alleges that these correctional staff addressed his complaints, referred these complaints to their supervisors and reported back to Rosa-Diaz that he needed to raise his concerns directly with Unit Manager Digby, or Digby's superiors at SCI Camp Hill. (Id.)

         Rosa-Diaz asserts that he followed this guidance, but Digby never responded to his requests for a cell transfer. (Id., ¶¶ 71-73.) Rosa-Diaz also contends that on April 5, 2017 he raised his concerns regarding these conditions of his confinement directly with the Superintendent at SCI Camp Hill, Defendant Harry, while Harry was making rounds in the prison. (Id., ¶¶ 44-47.) According to Rosa-Diaz, Superintendent Harry allegedly endorsed Digby's cell placement decision for Rosa-Diaz and linked that cell placement decision to Rosa-Diaz's litigation activities, telling Rosa-Diaz to "stop filing lawsuits and we'll think about it [i.e., changing his cell assignment.]" (Id., ¶ 46.)

         While housed in this cell, Rosa-Diaz also met with two prison medical staff, Defendants Arnold and Searer on April 6, 2017. (Id., ¶¶ 49-55.) Searer worked as a psychologist at SCI Camp Hill and Arnold was employed as a Correctional Counsellor at the prison. (Id., ¶¶ 25-26.) According to Rosa-Diaz these health care providers sought him out during their medical rounds on his cell block, inquiring into his mental health needs. (Id., ¶ 49.) In response to this medical outreach by Searer and Arnold, Rosa-Diaz related to these health care professionals his dissatisfaction and upset with his cell assignment. (Id., ¶5O.) Rosa-Diaz's amended complaint states that Searer and Arnold responded to his emotional upset in a clinically appropriate manner, inquiring into whether his frustration was leading him to consider destructive or self-destructive actions. (Id., ¶¶ 50-55.) While Rosa-Diaz assured Arnold and Searer that he was not contemplating self-harm, they instructed him to report any self-destructive ideation to correctional staff so they could provide him with care and counseling. (Id.) According to Rosa-Diaz, Arnold and Searer also took notes of his health concerns and counseled him, advising him to raise these cell assignment concerns with Unit Manager Digby. (Id.)

         In Rosa-Diaz's factual narrative, his frustration with this cell assignment boiled over on April 17, 2017, when the plaintiff destroyed the toilet in his cell, forcing staff to move him to another cell. (Id., ¶ 75.) In the wake of this destructive act, Rosa-Diaz filed a grievance against prison staff. (Id., ¶ 76.) Shortly thereafter, on or about April 27, 2017, Rosa-Diaz alleges that he was summoned to a meeting with Superintendent Harry, who allegedly told him "that when you file grievances and lawsuits you become a problematic inmate. Stop filing grievances and lawsuits and we'll think about treating you better. Otherwise I will make sure that you do not make it through the [Special Management Unit (SMU)] program and that you get put on Restricted Release List (RRL)." (Id., ¶ 80.)[2] According to Rosa-Diaz he protested any placement on the RRL because he understood that placement on this list would impede his ability to obtain parole. (Id., ¶ 81.) Nonetheless Rosa-Diaz alleges that, without warning, he was informed on June 17, 2017 that he was being removed from the SMU program, was being placed on the RRL and was being transferred to SCI Albion, actions he attributed to Superintendent Harry as retaliation for his petitioning activity. (Id., ¶¶ 81-87.)

         On the basis of these factual averments, Rosa-Diaz has named 24 correctional and medical officials as defendants in this lawsuit. These defendants include Superintendent Harry, Unit Manger Digby, Psychologist Searer, Counselor Arnold, and numerous other correctional staff. As to these defendants, Rosa-Diaz alleges that the defendants violated his rights under the Eighth Amendment to be free from cruel and unusual punishment by housing him under severe conditions of confinement, and displaying deliberate indifference to his medical needs. Rosa-Diaz also appears to allege that Defendant Harry retaliated against him for his petitioning activity through this cell placement decision, by failing him out of the SMU program, and by placing him on the RRL. Rosa-Diaz also asserts in a cryptic and undeveloped fashion that the defendants violated his right to due process and equal protection under the laws. Finally, in addition to these federal claims, Rosa-Diaz contends that the defendants committed a series of common law torts under state law involving both negligence and the intentional infliction of emotional distress.

         The defendants have now moved to dismiss this amended complaint, arguing that Rosa-Diaz's pleading fails as a matter of law. (Doc. 26.) This motion is fully briefed by the parties, (Doc. 27 and 30), albeit in a cursory fashion by Rosa-Diaz. Accordingly, this motion to dismiss is ripe for resolution.

         For the reasons set forth below, it is recommended that this motion to dismiss be granted, in part, and denied in part, as follows: The motion to dismiss should be denied with respect to any Eighth Amendment conditions of confinement claims brought against defendants Digby, Harry and Strohecker, and should be denied with respect to Rosa-Diaz's First Amendment retaliation claim leveled against Defendant Harry. In all other respects the motion to dismiss should be granted.

         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, ___U.S.___, 129 S.Ct. 1937 (2009) pleading standards have seemingly shifted from simple notice pleading to a more heightened form of pleading, requiring a plaintiff to plead more than the possibility of relief to survive a motion to dismiss.

Fowler v. UPMC Shadvside, 578 F.3d 203, 209-10 (3d Cir. 2009).

         In considering whether a complaint fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, the court must accept as true all allegations in the complaint and all reasonable inferences that can be drawn therefrom are to be construed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. Jordan v. Fox Rothschild, O'Brien & Frankel, Inc., 20 F.3d 1250, 1261 (3d Cir. 1994). However, a court "need not credit a complaint's bald assertions or legal conclusions when deciding a motion to dismiss." Morse v. Lower Merion Sch. Dist., 132 F.3d 902, 906 (3d Cir. 1997). Additionally a court need not "assume that a . . . plaintiff can prove facts that the . .. plaintiff has not alleged." Associated Gen. Contractors of Cal. v. California State Council of Carpenters, 459 U.S. 519, 526 (1983). As the Supreme Court held in Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007), in order to state a valid cause of action a plaintiff must provide some factual grounds for relief which "requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of actions will not do." Id. at 555. "Factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level." Id.

         In keeping with the principles of Twombly, the Supreme Court has underscored that a trial court must assess whether a complaint states facts upon which relief can be granted when ruling on a motion to dismiss. In Ashcroft v. Iqbal 556 U.S. 662 (2009), the Supreme Court held that, when considering a motion to dismiss, a court should "begin by identifying pleadings that, because they are no more than conclusions, are not entitled to the assumption of truth." Id. at 679. According to the Supreme Court, "[t]hreadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice." Id. at 678. Rather, in conducting a review of the adequacy of complaint, the Supreme Court has advised trial courts that they must:

[B]egin by identifying pleadings that because they are no more than conclusions are not entitled to the assumption of truth. While legal conclusions can provide the framework of a complaint, they must be supported by factual allegations. When there are well-pleaded factual allegations, a court should assume their veracity and then determine whether they plausibly give rise to an entitlement to relief.

Id. at 679.

         Thus, following Twombly and Iqbal a well-pleaded complaint must contain more than mere legal labels and conclusions. Rather, a complaint must recite factual allegations sufficient to raise the plaintiffs claimed right to relief beyond the level of mere speculation. As the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has stated:

[A]fter Iqbal, when presented with a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, district courts should conduct a two-part analysis. First, the factual and legal elements of a claim should be separated. The District Court must accept all of the complaint's well-pleaded facts as true, but may disregard any legal conclusions. Second, a District Court must then determine whether the facts alleged in the complaint are sufficient to show that the plaintiff has a'plausible claim for relief.' In other words, a complaint must do more than allege the plaintiffs entitlement to relief. A complaint has to 'show' such an entitlement with its facts.

Fowler, 578 F.3d at 210-11.

         As the Court of Appeals has observed:

The Supreme Court in Twombly set forth the "plausibility" standard for overcoming a motion to dismiss and refined this approach in Iqbal. The plausibility standard requires the complaint to allege "enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570, 127 S.Ct. 1955. A complaint satisfies the plausibility standard when the factual pleadings "allow[ ] the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Iqbal 129 S.Ct. at 1949 (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556, 127 S.Ct. 1955). This standard requires showing "more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully." Id. A complaint which pleads facts "'merely consistent with' a defendant's liability, 'stops short of the line between possibility and plausibility of "entitlement of relief."'"

Burtch v. Milberg Factors, Inc., 662 F.3d 212, 220-21 (3d Cir. 2011).

         In practice, consideration of the legal sufficiency of a complaint ...

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