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Bowens v. Matthews

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

July 11, 2018

CO MATTHEWS, et al., Defendants.


          SLOMSKY, J.


         Plaintiff Joshua Bowens, an inmate confined at the State Correctional Institution (SCI) at Graterford and proceeding pro se, brings this action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and § 1984 against Defendants[1] CO Nyenye Matthews, CO Matt, CO Martin, and John/Jane Does.[2] (Doc. No. 4.) Plaintiff claims that Defendants, who are correctional officers at SCI Graterford, Pennsylvania were responsible for the loss of certain documents that were necessary for his ongoing criminal case. (Doc. No. 1-3.) He further alleges that because the documents were “misplaced, lost, stolen and/or disregarded, ” a law clinic refrained from accepting his case for representation, thereby hindering his ability to raise in a post-conviction motion a claim about an incompetency defense at trial. (Id.) Defendant Nyenye Matthews has filed a Motion to Dismiss (Doc. No. 9) and Supplemental Motion to Dismiss (Doc. No. 16), which are now ripe for a decision.[3]


         On or about June 5, 2017, Plaintiff was admitted to the psychiatric observation cell at SCI Graterford for “mental health problems.” (Id. ¶ 8.) A week later, on June 12, 2017, he returned to the unit where he was previously assigned and discovered that certain legal papers related to his criminal case were missing. (Id. ¶¶ 9-10.) These documents purportedly contained information related to his “mental health illness, defect, condition, treatment and history” and allegedly were considered by the trial judge who presided over his sentencing. (Id. ¶ 10; Doc. No. 16 at 5.) He identifies Defendants Matthews, Matt, and Martin as the correctional officers responsible for collecting his personal items outside of his presence. (Doc. No. 1-3 at 4 ¶ 12.)

         On or about June 22, 2017, Plaintiff filed an Official Inmate Grievance with SCI Graterford officials requesting that his documents be returned to him or, alternatively, if the documents could not be returned, that he be awarded $50, 000 in compensatory damages and $100, 000 in punitive damages. (Id. 4 ¶ 13.) On July 15, 2017, Plaintiff's grievance was denied by “T. McGrier.” (Id. at 12.) The denial stated that Plaintiff had signed an inventory sheet, confirming that he had received a box of mail and other documents, presumably including the allegedly lost papers at issue. (Id. at 12.)

         Plaintiff appealed the denial to the Facility Manager of SCI Graterford claiming that the legal papers he was seeking were not listed on the inventory sheet. (Id. at 5 ¶ 15.) In this undated appeal, he further explained that he had received mail in May while assigned to his former unit, of which he made copies and gave them to a librarian at the prison law library. (Id. at 5 ¶ 15; 15.) Then, while he was placed in the psychiatric observation cell “for a week and half, ” Defendants Matthews, Matt, and Martin packed his property, including the legal papers. (Id.) Plaintiff again alleged that they were “responsible for my legal work not being returned to [sic] when I was released out of [psychiatric observation cell] housing area.” (Id.) He argued that the “matter should be remanded back to the I-block housing lieutenant for further investigation” and stated that the “missing legal documents are listed” with an individual named James Hendel at the “mental health group paraprofessional law clinic” located at “1500 walnut st ste 800 Philadelphia pa, 19102.” (Id. at 13.)

         On August 18, 2017, Facility Manager Cynthia Link denied this appeal. (Id. at 14.) In upholding the previous denial of Plaintiff's grievance, Link stated: “I have reviewed your grievance appeal. The assigned grievance officer appropriately responded to [your] grievance. You had signed the property sheet. In doing such, you are acknowledging all of your property is account [sic] for. You will not be awarded any monetary compensation. (Id.)

         On August 26, 2017, Plaintiff filed a second appeal with the “Office of Special Intelligence/ Investigations” at the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections. (Id. at 15.) He claimed that the property sheet referred to in Link's denial did not contain the missing documents at issue. (Id.) He repeated his previous grievance about the disappearance of his legal documents but also alleged that Defendants Matthews, Matt, and Martin told Plaintiff that they were going to discard his legal materials. (Id.) Additionally, he called for the investigation of the Facility Manager, claiming that she “did a low level of [investigation] and lacked due diligence in this matter ultimately depriving me of the intangible right of honest services as a facility manager.” (Id.) Plaintiff reiterated his request for relief of $50, 000 in compensatory damages and $100, 000 in punitive damages, but also stated that he was “willing to settle this matter before it becomes a civil action before the federal court.” (Id.)

         On September 26, 2017, Dorina Varner, Chief Grievance Officer of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, upheld the previous denials of Plaintiff's request. (Id. at 16.) Varner's denial stated that Plaintiff failed to provide any evidence to support his claims. (Id.) On October 25, 2017, Plaintiff filed the instant action against the following Defendants: CO Matthews; CO Matt; CO Martin; and John/Jane Does. (Doc. No. 4.)

         On December 28, 2017, Defendant Nyenye Matthews filed a Motion to Dismiss, moving to dismiss all claims against all Defendants under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). (Doc. No. 9.) Matthews argues that Plaintiff fails to plead adequately a constitutional infringement, despite his allegations that his rights under the First, Fifth, Eighth, Ninth, and Fourteenth Amendments were violated. (Id. at 4.) Matthews contends that Plaintiff failed to set forth any facts to support the notion that his claims amounted to constitutional violations. (Id.)

         On February 27, 2018, the Court held a hearing on the Motion to Dismiss, as well as Plaintiff's Motion for Appointment of Counsel (Doc. No. 11).[4] (Doc. No. 14.) Based upon statements made by Plaintiff and Defendant Matthews' counsel, it became apparent that the documents at issue were two mental health reports which had been ordered by the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County during his criminal trial in state court. At the hearing, the Court ordered Defendant's counsel to make reasonable efforts to locate the reports, provide copies of the reports to Plaintiff, or submit a status update if she could not find them. (Doc. No. 17.)

         On March 1, 2018, Matthews filed a Supplement to the Motion to Dismiss, which included an update to the Court regarding her counsel's efforts to locate the two missing mental health reports. (Doc. No. 16.) Matthews' counsel had located a 2004 psychological reevaluation report from Plaintiff's school district and a 2005 mental health evaluation, both of which were ordered around the time of Plaintiff's conviction. (Id. at 4.) She sent copies of these reports to Plaintiff and to the Court. (Id.) Based upon review of the documents, which contain dates that correlate with the timing of Plaintiff's conviction and match the description Plaintiff provided regarding the missing items, it appeared that these were copies of the two missing reports at issue.

         On March 12, 2018, Plaintiff filed a Response to Matthews' Motion to Dismiss alleging that the documents located by Matthews' counsel “are not the same documents that Commonwealth Defendants confiscated from Plaintiff's cell and that are in question in this matter.” (Doc. No. 19 ¶ 3.) On April 30, 2018, Plaintiff also filed a Notice on the docket addressed to Defendant's counsel, once again claiming that the recently located documents are not the missing documents at issue.[5] (Doc. No. 22.) Thus, for purposes of deciding the Motion to Dismiss, the state of the record is that Plaintiff had certain papers in his cell, he was removed from the cell for the reasons stated, and when he returned, the papers were missing. The Motion to Dismiss is now ripe for a decision.[6]


         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a)(2) requires a pleading to contain a “short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). Although this standard “does not require ‘detailed factual allegations,' . . . it demands more than an unadorned, the-defendant-unlawfully-harmed-me accusation.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007)). While pro se litigants are held to less stringent standards and their pleadings are to be “liberally construed, ” they still must adhere to the basic standards of Rule 8. Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007). Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) provides for the dismissal of a complaint, in whole or in part, for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. A motion under Rule 12(b)(6) therefore tests the sufficiency of the complaint against the pleading requirements of Rule 8(a).

         The motion to dismiss standard under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) is set forth in Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662 (2009). After Iqbal, it is clear that “threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements do not suffice” to defeat a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss. Id. at 663; see also Twombly, 550 U.S. at 544. “To survive dismissal, ‘a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Tatis v. Allied Interstate, LLC, 882 F.3d 422, 426 (3d Cir. 2018) (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678). Facial plausibility is “more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully.” Id. (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678). Instead, “[a] claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Id. (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678).

         Applying the principles of Iqbal and Twombly, the Third Circuit in Santiago v. Warminster Twp., 629 F.3d 121 (3d Cir. 2010), set forth a three-part analysis that a district court in this Circuit must conduct in evaluating whether allegations in a complaint survive a 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss:

First, the court must “tak[e] note of the elements a plaintiff must plead to state a claim.” Second, the court should identify allegations that, “because they are no more than conclusions, are not entitled to the assumption of truth.” Finally, “where there are well-pleaded factual allegations, a court should assume their veracity and then determine whether they plausibly give rise to an entitlement for relief.”

Id. at 130 (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 675, 679). “This means that our inquiry is normally broken into three parts: (1) identifying the elements of the claim, (2) reviewing the complaint to strike conclusory allegations, and then (3) looking at the well-pleaded components of the complaint and evaluating whether all of the elements identified in part one of the inquiry are sufficiently alleged.” Malleus v. George, 641 F.3d 560, 563 (3d Cir. 2011).

         A complaint must do more than allege a plaintiff's entitlement to relief, it must “show” such an entitlement with its facts. Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 210-11 (citing Phillips v. County of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 234-35 (3d Cir. 2008)). “[W]here the well-pleaded facts do not permit the court to infer more than the mere possibility of misconduct, the complaint has alleged - but it has not ‘shown' - ‘that the pleader is entitled to relief.'” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679. The “plausibility” determination is a “context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense.” Id.

         When determining a motion to dismiss, the court must “accept all factual allegations in the complaint as true and view them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff.” Buck v. Hampton Twp. Sch. Dist., 452 F.3d 256, 260 (3d Cir. 2006). Where, as here, the complaint is filed pro se, the “complaint, ‘however inartfully pleaded' must be held to ‘less stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers.'” Fatone v. Latini, 780 F.3d 184, 193 (3d Cir. 2015) (quoting Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, 520-21 (1972)). It should be dismissed only if it appears “beyond doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of [his] ...

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