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Mears v. Kauffman

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

July 26, 2018





         This pro se complaint alleging civil rights and state tort claims was filed in the Huntingdon County Court of Common Pleas by Nicholas Mears regarding his confinement at the State Correctional Institution, Huntingdon, Pennsylvania (SCI-Huntingdon). Counsel for Defendant Jessica Cousins, PA-C subsequently filed a notice of removal of Plaintiff's action to this Court pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 1441. See Doc. 1, p. 1.

         Named as Defendants are Chief Grievance Officer Dorina Varner of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC), and the following SCI-Huntingdon officials: Superintendent Kevin Kauffman; Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) Coordinator Mandy Sipple;[1]Lieutenant Daniel Wendle; and Psychologist Christina Neri. Also named as Defendants are Chaplain Burks and Psychiatrist Cousins, both of whom are described as being independent contractors who work at the prison.

         According to the Complaint, Plaintiff was subjected to verbal harassment by Chaplain Burks during a religious service in the SCI-Huntingdon chapel on January 1, 2017. It is alleged that Burks singled out the Plaintiff and another prisoner in front of a large gathering of prisoners by insinuating that there was homosexual activity between the two inmates.[2] Plaintiff contends that the degrading and false verbal harassment by Burks violated his religious freedom rights under the First Amendment as well as other constitutional protections and caused him to suffer emotional distress. Uon the conclusion of the service, Burks purportedly apologized in private to the Plaintiff and invited him back to attend services the following week. Mears filed an institutional grievance against Burks four (4) days later.

         Upon arriving at the next religious service on January 8, 2017, the Plaintiff and the other prisoner were immediately removed from the chapel at the direction of Burks allegedly in retaliation for the filing of a grievance regarding the prior incident. After being removed, Lieutenant Wendle allegedly told the Plaintiff that although the officer didn't know what happened, he “suggested” that the Plaintiff should either stop going to services conducted by Burks or to attend without the other prisoner. Doc. 1, ¶ 17. The Lieutenant purportedly added that if anything else occurred with respect to the aforementioned events, Mears would be placed in segregation. Plaintiff asserts that the conduct of Defendant Wendle likewise violated his First Amendment rights.

         It is next alleged that Defendants Kauffman, Nerri, and Cousins, failed to properly supervise and train Burks, implement policies to prevent harassment and retaliation by staff, and were deliberately indifferent to Burks' actions by failing to take corrective measures. It is further asserted that Chief Grievance Officer Varner and PREA Coordinator Sipple likewise failed to take action in response to the Plaintiff's grievance regarding Burks' conduct. The Complaint also raises an allegation of conspiracy and state law claims of invasion of privacy and negligence against the Defendants.

         Presently pending is a motion to dismiss the complaint for failure to state a claim filed by the Corrections Defendants (Varner, Kauffman, Sipple, Wendle, and Neri).[3] See Doc. 7. The opposed motion is ripe for consideration.


         Corrections Defendants claim entitlement to dismissal on the grounds: (1) the claims against Defendants Kauffman, Varner, Simple, Neri, and Wendle should be dismissed for lack of personal involvement; (2) a cognizable First or Eighth Amendment claim is not alleged against Wendle; (3) a viable assertion of retaliation against Wendle is not raised in the Complaint; and (4) the verbal threat by Lieutenant Wendle does not rise to level of a constitutional claim; (5) the allegation of conspiracy is insufficient; (6) Plaintiff cannot recover monetary damages for emotional injury; and (7) the state law claims by Plaintiff are barreed from consideration.

         Standard of Review

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) provides for the dismissal of complaints that fail to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. A court in addressing a motion to dismiss must “accept as true all factual allegations in the complaint and all reasonable inferences that can be drawn therefrom, and view them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff.” Kanter v. Barella, 489 F.3d 170, 177 (3d Cir. 2007)(quoting Evancho v. Fisher, 423 F.3d 347, 350 (3d Cir. 2005)).

         A complaint must set forth facts that, if true, demonstrate a plausible right to relief. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(stating that the complaint should include “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief”); Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). This requirement “calls for enough facts to raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence of” the necessary elements of the plaintiff's cause of action. Id. at 556. A complaint must contain “more than an unadorned, the-defendant-unlawfully-harmed-me accusation.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). “Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements do not suffice.” Id. Legal conclusions must be supported by factual allegations and the complaint must state a plausible claim for relief. See id. at 679.[4]

         The reviewing court must determine whether the complaint “contain[s] either direct or inferential allegations respecting all the material elements necessary to sustain recovery under some viable legal theory.” Id. at 562; see also Phillips v. County of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 234 (3d Cir. 2008)(in order to survive a motion to dismiss, a plaintiff must allege in his complaint “enough facts to raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence of the necessary element[s]” of a particular cause of action). Finally, it is noted that pro se pleadings must be afforded liberal construction. See Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, 520 (1972).

         Emotional Injury

         The Complaint asserts that Plaintiff has suffered emotional distress for which he seeks to recover monetary damages. See Doc. 2, p. 16. There is no allegation that Mears has suffered any accompanying physical injury. Corrections Defendants argue that Plaintiff is not entitled to recover compensatory damages on his federal civil rights claims for mental anguish or emotional injury. See Doc. 8, p. 17.

         42 U.S.C. § 1997e(e) provides that “[n]o federal civil action may be brought by a prisoner confined in a jail, prison or other correctional facility, for mental or emotional injury suffered while in custody without a prior showing of physical injury." In Allah v. Al-Hafeez, 226 F.3d 247, 250 (3d Cir. 2000), the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit recognized that where a plaintiff fails to allege actual injury, Section 1997e(e) bars recovery of compensatory damages. However, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals added that an inmate alleging a violation of his constitutional rights may still pursue the action to recover nominal and/or punitive damages even in the absence of compensable harm.

         Under the standards announced in Allah, this Court agrees that Plaintiff's request for monetary relief to the extent that it seeks compensatory damages for emotional and psychological injuries for violation of his constitutional rights is barred by Section 1997e(e).

         Personal Involvement

         Corrections Defendants' second argument contends that the Complaint fails to allege personal involvement in constitutional misconduct by Defendants Kauffman, Varner, Sipple, Neri, and Wendle. See Doc. 8, p. 11.

         A plaintiff, in order to state an actionable civil rights claim, must plead two essential elements: (1) that the conduct complained of was committed by a person acting under color of law, and (2) that said conduct deprived the plaintiff of a right, privilege, or immunity secured by the Constitution or laws of the United States. Groman v. Township of Manalapan, 47 F.3d 628, 638 (3d Cir. 1995); Shaw by Strain v. Strackhouse, 920 F.2d 1135, 1141-42 (3d Cir. 1990).

         Civil rights claims brought cannot be premised on a theory of respondeat superior. Rode v. Dellarciprete, 845 F.2d 1195, 1207 (3d Cir. 1988). Rather, each named defendant must be shown, via the complaint's allegations, to have been personally involved in the events or occurrences which underlie a claim. See Rizzo v. Goode, 423 U.S. 362 (1976); Hampton v. Holmesburg Prison Officials, 546 F.2d 1077 (3d Cir. 1976). As explained in Rode:

A defendant in a civil rights action must have personal involvement in the alleged wrongs. . . . [P]ersonal involvement can be shown through allegations of personal direction or of actual knowledge and acquiescence. Allegations of participation or actual knowledge and acquiescence, however, must be made with appropriate particularity.

Rode, 845 F.2d at 1207.

         Superintendent Kauffman, Chief Grievance Officer Varner, Lieutenant Wendle, and Coordinator Sipple were each clearly employed in supervisory roles with either the DOC or SCI-Huntingdon. There are no facts which clearly show that any Corrections Defendant including Psychologist Neri directly supervised Chaplain Burks or that Burks' alleged actions were initiated pursuant to a directive from any of the Corrections Defendants. Pursuant to the standards announced in Rode, any claims against the Corrections Defendants solely based upon their respective supervisory roles cannot proceed.

         It is undisputed that Plaintiff filed an institutional grievance and raised other complaints with members of the correctional staff regarding the alleged mistreatment by Chaplain Burks. Mears' pending action attempts to establish liability against Defendants Kauffman, Varner, Neri, Sipple due to their responses or non-response to his administrative grievance and complaints. There is also no indication that Psychologist ...

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