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Brown v. Wexford Health Sources, Inc.

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

June 28, 2018

ALTON D. BROWN, also known as POLITICAL PRISONER, Plaintiff,
v.
WEXFORD HEALTH SOURCES, INC., et al, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM ORDER

          CATHY BISSOON UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         I. MEMORANDUM

         Pending before the Court are the following four Motions to Dismiss. For the reasons that follow, the DOC Defendants' Motion to Dismiss (Doc. 82) will be granted in part and denied in part; Corizon Health, Inc.'s, Dr. Blatt's, Dr. Stefanic's and P. Hallworth's Motion to Dismiss (Doc. 100) will be granted; the Medical Defendants' Motion to Dismiss (Doc. 104) will be granted in part and denied in part; and Dr. McDonald's Motion to Dismiss will be granted (Doc. 143).

         A. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         The instant case was commenced in this Court on November 4, 2016, when Defendants, Correct Care Solutions LLC and Wexford Health Sources, Inc., removed the case from the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County, Pennsylvania. (Doc. 1). The genesis of the case, however, actually began six months earlier on May 17, 2016, when Plaintiff Alton D. Brown (“Plaintiff”), a Pennsylvania state prisoner currently confined at SCI-Fayette, initiated a separate civil rights lawsuit in this Court at Civil Action No. 16-0627, with the filing of a request to proceed in forma pauperis accompanied by a complaint under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. (“Brown I”). Brown I was referred to United States Magistrate Judge Cynthia Reed Eddy for pretrial proceedings in accordance with the Magistrates Act, 28 U.S.C. §§ 636(b)(1)(A) and (B), and Local Rule of Civil Procedure 72.

         In Brown I, Plaintiff alleged that, since medical officials diagnosed him with Hepatitis C in 2000, Defendants have refused to provide appropriate medical care for his liver disease, including providing an adequate diet, and have refused his requests for a new drug treatment, which eliminates Interferon as part of the Hepatitis C treatment regimen. The Magistrate Judge recommended that Plaintiff's request for in forma pauperis in Brown I be denied and the case closed as Plaintiff had not shown that he was in imminent danger of serious physical injury.[1] On August 18, 2016, three days after the report and recommendation was filed, Plaintiff filed a nearly identical complaint to the complaint in Brown I in the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County (“the state court case”).[2]

         On October 14, 2016, this Court adopted the report and recommendation as the opinion of the Court, and the case was dismissed without prejudice to Plaintiff reopening it by paying the full statutory and administrative filing fees, totaling $400.00. (Brown I, Doc. 7). Thereafter, Plaintiff filed a Notice of Appeal of that Order to the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit (Doc. 8), which was docketed at Court of Appeals No. 16-4136.

         While the appeal in Brown I was pending, Defendants, Correct Care Solutions LLC and Wexford Health Sources, Inc., had the state court case removed to this Court. In response to motions to dismiss, Plaintiff filed an Amended Complaint on April 27, 2017 (Doc. 42), which remains his operative pleading. In the Amended Complaint, Plaintiff added approximately twenty-eight (28) additional defendants and eight new claims. The Amended Complaint is comprised of forty-one (41) handwritten pages, names a total of sixty-two (62) defendants, and alleges a variety of federal and state claims: violations of the Eighth Amendment right to medical care (Counts I - V), violation of First Amendment right of the petition clause (Count VI), violation of the Eighth Amendment right from excessive punishment (Count VII), violations of the Fourteenth Amendment right to access to the courts (Counts VIII and IX), medical malpractice, negligence, and vicarious liability (Counts X, XI, XII, XV, and XVII), breach of contract (Count XIII), intentional infliction of emotional distress (Count XIV), equitable estoppel (Count XVI), and assault and battery (Count XVIII).

         On August 29, 2017, the court of appeals remanded Brown I to this Court and on September 1, 2017, Brown I and the instant case were consolidated under Civil Action No. 16-1680. (Doc. 66).

         B. FACTUAL BACKGROUND[3]

         According to the Amended Complaint, in 2000, while confined at SCI-Pittsburgh, Plaintiff was informed by the medical staff that he tested positive for the Hepatitis C virus (also referred to as “Hepatitis C” or “HCV”). (Doc. 42, ¶ 80). He acknowledges that “from 2004 - 2009, [he] was repeatedly advised by Corizon staff that he needed treatment for his HCV, ” id. ¶¶ 80, 89, but that he refused any treatment until 2011 after experiencing “numerous HCV related symptoms and complications” over the years. Id. ¶ 90. Plaintiff claims new drugs to treat Hepatitis C came on the market in 2011, 2013, and 2014, and the Department of Corrections (“DOC”) changed its protocol on Hepatitis C treatment in 2015. Id. ¶¶ 36-39, 46. Specifically, he alleges that “his requests for medical treatment for his HCV during the past 5/6 years while confined at SCI-Graterford, Smithfield, and Greene, have been completely ignored by Defendants ..... ” Id. ¶ 90. Plaintiff contends that his requests for a new drug treatment, one which eliminates the use of Interferon, have been denied because of cost cutting measures. Id. ¶¶ 70-76, 89, 91, 146, 152, 153. He also alleges that due to cost cutting measures and retaliation, Defendants, inter alia, make partial diagnoses, do not follow physicians' orders, and deviate from standard treatment procedures. Id. ¶ 149. Along those same lines, Plaintiff contends that he has been denied meals catered to his special dietary needs and nutritional therapy for non-medical reasons. Id. ¶¶ 56 - 78. Plaintiff contends that he learned of Defendants' “illegal scheme” to provide sub-standard medical care due to Defendants' cost-saving and retaliation policies after reading articles published in the Prison Litigation News Magazine. Id. ¶ 152.

         Plaintiff's multi-faceted Amended Complaint has, in turn, inspired multi-faceted Motions to Dismiss. Each of the Motions challenges Plaintiff's claims on a host of grounds. The Motions will be addressed seriatim.

         C. ANALYSIS [4]

         Before beginning its analysis, the Court notes that throughout the Amended Complaint, Plaintiff predominantly makes generalized references to “Defendants, ” without differentiating them. See, e.g., ¶ 50 (“Defendants have denied numerous requests by Plaintiff for the appropriate and medical necessary DAAD[5] treatment for his HCV infections”); ¶ 98 (“The Defendants' has simply generally refused to provide the basic protections for plaintiff's infected liver . . .”); ¶ 105 (“Defendants' have also intentionally caused harm to Plaintiff over the years covering the period between 2011 to present . . .”); ¶ 149 (“Defendants' tactics employed against Plaintiff and others under their care in support of their cost-saving and retaliation policies and scheme include . . .”). In the few instances where Plaintiff does identify certain Defendants by name, he recites a long list of Defendants and then makes general, vague and conclusory allegations regarding their conduct as a whole. See, e.g., ¶ 150 (“Plaintiff has been intentionally subject to the tactics mentioned in paragraph No. 149 by Defendants Jin, Mwaura, Dascani, Salamen, Mattes, Robinson, Gillman, Doll, Long, Price, Cutshall, Arias, Knauer, Stanikeski, McDonald, Blatt, Stefanic, Capone, Gonzalez, Park, Beaubout, Lightburn, Zimmerly, DeFrangesco, Machak, Agra, Kaminsky, Kephart, Austin, Santos, Valley, Literatore, Hice, Noel, Oppman, Gordan, Silva, Alpert, Malhi, Vihlidal, Guth and Nicholson, on many occasions . . . .”). The Court, and counsel, have endeavored, where possible, to identify specific allegations against specific defendants. Motion to Dismiss filed by the DOC Defendants.[6]

         The Motion filed by the DOC Defendants was filed on October 6, 2017. (Doc. 82). Plaintiff was granted an extension until December 15, 2017 to respond. (Doc. 115). Plaintiff has not responded to the Motion, and the time for responding has now passed. Therefore, in the absence of any timely response by Plaintiff, the Court will deem the Motion to Dismiss ripe for resolution. The issues raised by the DOC Defendants will be addressed seriatim.

         a. Lack of Personal Involvement with Respect to Defendants Wolf, Wetzel, and Beard / Deliberate Indifference Claims against Defendants Wolf, Wetzel, Beard, Gordon, Guth, Vihlidal and Knauer

         Distilled to its essence, the Amended Complaint alleges that Plaintiff has attempted to obtain medical treatment for Hepatitis C and that Defendants have systemically denied his requests based on non-medical reasons.

         As to the claims against Governor Wolf, the Court finds that Plaintiff's contention of personal involvement is not “plausible on its face.” See Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570). The Court finds it implausible, without more, that the Chief Executive of the Commonwealth would have known of or had personal involvement with Plaintiff or with his requests (or denials) for medical treatment. Accordingly, Plaintiff's Amended Complaint insofar as it alleges § 1983 liability against Governor Wolf will be dismissed.

         Similarly, the Court does not find it plausible that either Beard or Wetzel, as the former and current Secretaries of the Department of Corrections, had personal involvement in any denial of medical care to Plaintiff.

         However, the issue is not so clear with respect to Defendants Gordon, Guth, Vihlidal and Knauer. It is plausible that each of these defendants would play a role in the administration of medical and dietary services in the various facilities where Plaintiff was housed and that each would have some control over the extent to which those services were made available to Plaintiff.

         For these reasons, the Court finds that Plaintiff has sufficiently alleged that he was subjected to certain constitutional deprivations and that Defendants Gordon, Guth, Vihlidal and Knauer, acting in supervisory roles, knew of and acquiesced in these deprivations, and that the denials at issue amount to “policies” and “customs.” See Rode, 845 F.2d at 1207. The Court finds that Plaintiff has pleaded sufficient facts to withstand the DOC Defendants' Motion to Dismiss as to his claims against Gordon, Guth, Vihlidal and Knauer.

         b. Claims Against The Bureau of Health Care Services Assistant Medical Director and The Bureau of Health Care Services Infection Control Coordinator

         The DOC Defendants contend these two unidentified defendants should be dismissed as nothing in the Amended Complaint indicates that these two individuals were involved in any alleged unconstitutional conduct. Rather, the only allegation against them is generally that they were members of the Hepatitis C Treatment Committee.

         Defendants' request will be denied without prejudice. The Amended Complaint states that the members of the Hepatitis C Treatment Committee reviewed prisoners' clinical status and prioritization for treatment with DAAD medications. (Doc. 42 at ¶ 45(xvii)). Throughout the Amended Complaint, Plaintiff alleges that individual defendants knowingly acquiescence in the systemic denial of his medical care for cost-saving reasons. The Court finds that Plaintiff has pleaded sufficient facts to withstand the DOC Defendants' Motion to Dismiss. Through discovery, the identity of the individuals on the Hepatitis C Treatment Committee will be made known. (“According to the interim protocol, the HCV Treatment Committee consist of at least four people . . . .” Doc. 42 at ¶ 45(xvi)).

         c. Claims Against the “PA DOC Hepatitis C Treatment Committee”

         The DOC Defendants' request to have the “PA DOC Hepatitis C Treatment Committee” dismissed will be granted. To state a prima facie claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, a plaintiff must allege a violation of rights secured by the United States Constitution and the laws of the United States and must show that the alleged deprivation was committed by a “person” acting under color of state law. West v. Atkins, 487 U.S. 42 (1988).

         The “PA DOC Hepatitis C Treatment Committee” is not a “person” for purposes of a § 1983 claim. Therefore, Defendant “PA DOC Hepatitis C Treatment Committee” will be dismissed.

         d. Official Capacity Claims

         The DOC Defendants seek to have all claims against Defendants in their official capacities dismissed. In Kentucky v. Graham, 473 U.S. 159 (1985), the Supreme Court of the United States discussed the differences between a suit against a public official in his personal capacity and in his official capacity. See id. at 166. The Court noted that personal capacity actions seek to impose liability on government officials for actions taken under color of state law, while official capacity actions represent another way to sue the municipality of which an officer is an agent. See id. Although an action brought against both the entity and the public official in his or her official capacity is redundant, the Court ultimately has discretion in deciding whether to dismiss the claims against the individual defendants. See Satterfield v. Borough of Schuylkill Haven, 12 F.Supp.2d 423, 432 (E.D. Pa. 1998). Furthermore, a claim that is redundant is not necessarily invalid under Rule 12(b)(6). See id. Given the nature of Plaintiff's claims and the early stage of this litigation, the Motion to Dismiss the claims against the DOC Defendants in their official capacities will be denied without prejudice.

         e. Deliberate Indifference to Plaintiff's Dietary Needs (Count II)

         At a minimum, “prison officials must ensure that inmates receive adequate food, clothing, shelter, and medical care, and must ‘take reasonable measures to guarantee the safety of the inmates.'” Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825, 832 (1994) (quoting Hudson v. Palmer, 468 U.S. 517, 526-27 (1984)). Count II of the Amended Complaint alleges generally that Defendants have been deliberately indifferent to Plaintiff's “dietary needs.” (Doc. 42 ¶177).

         Plaintiff alleges that Defendants have refused to provide him with the “adequate and sanitary diet” he requires as a result of his Hepatitis C diagnosis and that the diet he receives is “high in fat content and short on protein.” (Id. ¶ 137). Plaintiff alleges that this prolonged “deficient” diet has had a deleterious impact on his health.

         At this early stage of the litigation, and accepting Plaintiff's allegations as true, it cannot be determined whether Defendants have deliberately disregarded an excessive risk to Plaintiff's health or safety. Therefore, the request to dismiss Count II will be denied.

         f. State Tort Law Tort Claims (Counts XI, XII, XIII, ...


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