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Vogt v. Wetzel

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

June 25, 2018

STEVEN VOGT, Plaintiff,




         Presently before the Court is the Motion to Dismiss filed on behalf of John Wetzel (“Wetzel”), pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). ECF No. 10. Wetzel seeks dismissal of all claims asserted in the pro se Complaint filed by Plaintiff Steven Vogt (“Plaintiff”). ECF No. 3. Plaintiff brings his claims pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and alleges the violation of his rights under the First, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution of the United States. This Court exercises subject-matter jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331. For the reasons that follow, it is recommended that Wetzel's Motion to Dismiss be GRANTED.

         II. REPORT


         In the context of the pending Motion to Dismiss, the following facts alleged in Plaintiff's Complaint are accepted as true. Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 93-94 (2007). Plaintiff is presently an inmate at the State Correctional Institution at Fayette (“SCI-Fayette”), and is serving a life sentence imposed following trial in the Court of Common Pleas of Butler County. ECF No. 3 at 2. Beginning in and around “late October 2016, ” SCI-Fayette received a letter addressed to Plaintiff, but with no return address. Id. at 2 - 3. Per Department of Corrections Policy DC-ADM-803, any mail that arrives without a return address is refused and not accepted for delivery by the facility.[1] Id. at 3. As a consequence, a letter written by Arthur McClearn and sent to SCI-Fayette during this time period was not provided to Plaintiff. Id. The letter allegedly included a recantation of trial testimony that contributed to Plaintiff's conviction in the Court of Common Pleas of Butler County. Id. McClearn died in January 2017. Id. at 4.

         Plaintiff alleges that it was Department of Corrections' policy to reject mail missing a return address without providing notice to the intended recipient. Id. at 3. Plaintiff states that in April 2017, he learned that a friend's letter was missing and the author later conveyed she was concerned that she had not used a return address. Id. Plaintiff states he sent inquiries to “numerous Post Offices and the Mail Reclamation Center asking if any mail addressed to [him] was being held as undeliverable, and if so if it could be forwarded to [him or a family member].” Id. On May 17, 2017, he received an envelope containing several letters, apparently forwarded by the United States Postal Service in response to his inquiry. Plaintiff alleges one of the letters was from McClearn. Id.

         Based upon the contents of McClearn's letter, Plaintiff filed a petition pursuant to the Pennsylvania Post Conviction Relief Act, 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. §§ 9541, et seq. (“PCRA”), on June 6, 2017. Id. The petition was denied because it was not filed within sixty days of the date on the letter, and because the PCRA court determined that an unsworn letter is not considered acceptable evidence to repudiate sworn trial testimony. Id. at 4.

         As indicated by the parties in supplemental briefing, on March 28, 2018, the Pennsylvania Superior Court vacated the dismissal order and remanded Plaintiff's petition to the trial court to permit consideration of whether Plaintiff's request for habeas relief is timely; alleges newly discovered facts; whether Plaintiff exercised diligence in discovering those facts; and whether he filed his petition within 60 days of the first date on which it could have been filed. The Superior Court specifically noted that the typewritten, unsigned letter bears a date that “does not match the much earlier date on which the prison apparently received it, ” requiring the authenticity of the letter to be weighed by the trial court in the first instance. Commonwealth v. Vogt, 2018 WL 1516372 *3 (Pa. Super. March 28, 2018).[2]

         Plaintiff commenced this action with the filing of a Motion for Leave to Proceed In Forma Pauperis and his Complaint, which was granted on November 6, 2017. ECF Nos. 1, 2. Through the Complaint, Plaintiff alleges the violation of his due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment as a result of Defendants' failure to provide notice of the rejection of his incoming mail. Plaintiff next alleges the violation of his due process rights under the Fifth Amendment - also for rejection of incoming mail without notice. Finally, Plaintiff alleges the violation of his right to access the courts under the First and Fourteenth Amendments, because the lack of notice regarding rejection of McClearn's letter allegedly deprived Plaintiff of the ability to file a successful PCRA claim.

         On January 18, 2018, Wetzel filed the instant Motion to Dismiss. ECF No. 10. Briefs and supplemental materials have been submitted by each party. ECF Nos. 11, 13, 15, 16. The Motion to Dismiss is now ripe for disposition.


         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a)(2) requires that a complaint contain a short and plain statement of a claim, and show that the pleader is entitled to relief. Dismissal of a complaint or portion of a complaint is justified under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) when a claimant fails to sufficiently state a claim upon which relief can be granted. Avoiding dismissal under Rule 12(b)(6) requires a pleading party's complaint to provide “enough factual matter” to allow the case to move beyond the pleading stage of litigation; the pleader must “‘nudge his or her claims across the line from conceivable to plausible.'” Phillips v. Cnty. of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 234 - 35 (3d Cir. 2008) (quoting Bell Atlantic Co. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 556, 570 (2007)).

         In assessing the merits of a claim subject to a motion to dismiss, a court must engage in a two-part analysis. Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 210 - 11 (3d Cir. 2009). First, factual and legal elements of a claim must be distinguished. Id. Second, it must be determined whether the facts as alleged support a “plausible claim for relief.” Id. In making the latter determination, the court must be mindful that the matter pleaded need not include “detailed factual allegations, ” Phillips, 515 F.3d at 231 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555), and the court must construe all alleged facts, and draw all inferences gleaned therefrom, in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Id. at 228 (citing Worldcom, Inc. v. Graphnet, Inc., 343 F.3d 651, 653 (3d Cir. 2003)).

         A well-pleaded complaint, even when “it strikes a savvy judge that actual proof of…facts is improbable, ” will not be dismissed as long as the pleader demonstrates that his or her claim is plausible. Phillips, 515 F.3d at 234 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555 - 56). A pleading party need only “put forth allegations that ‘raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence of the necessary element[s].'” Fowler, 578 F.3d at 213 (quoting Graff v. Subbiah Cardiology Assoc., Ltd., 2008 WL 2312671 (W.D. Pa. June 4, 2008)). Moreover, pleadings filed by pro se litigants are to be liberally construed, and courts should be flexible when applying procedural rules. Mala v. Crown Bay Marina, Inc., 704 F.3d 239, 244 (3d Cir. 2013) (citing Higgs v. Att'y Gen., 655 F.3d 333, 339 (3d Cir. 2011)).

         Nevertheless, the facts pled do need to raise the expectation of relief above a purely speculative level, and must include more than “labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action.” Phillips, 515 F.3d at 231 - 32 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 554 - 56). Rule 8(a)(2) “requires a ‘showing' rather than a blanket assertion of an entitlement to relief.” Id. at 232. “[T]hreadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice, ” Fowler, 578 F.3d at 211 (quoting Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 ...

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