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Thompson v. Ferguson

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

August 5, 2019

TAMMY FERGUSON, et al., Defendants.


          SCHILLER, J.

         Plaintiff Phillip A. Thompson, a prisoner currently incarcerated at SCI Phoenix, filed this civil action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 based on allegations related to the destruction of inmate property during the transfer of prisoners from SCI Graterford to SCI Phoenix. He names as Defendants: (1) Tammy Ferguson, Superintendent of SCI Graterford and SCI Phoenix; (2) Mandy Sipple, Deputy Superintendent of SCI Graterford and SCI Phoenix; (3) “C.E.R.T. John Does, ” the employees responsible for the move; and (4) Secretary of Correction John Wetzel. Thompson seeks to proceed in forma pauperis. For the following reasons, the Court will grant Thompson leave to proceed in forma pauperis and dismiss his Complaint without prejudice for failure to state a claim.

         I. FACTS [1]

         Thompson was previously incarcerated at SCI Graterford. As that prison was closing, inmates and their property were relocated to SCI Phoenix. Thompson alleges members of a Corrections Emergency Response Team (“CERT”) took custody of prisoners' property in connection with the move. Thompson alleges generally that prisoners' property was destroyed, lost, or left in disarray. He also makes allegations that there were personal disputes among permanent staff at SCI Graterford/Phoenix and members of CERT. He claims that certain CERT members engaged in a systematic conspiracy designed to harm and frustrate the prisoners by damaging and destroying their personal property during the move to SCI Phoenix. This included religious items, legal material, family photos, and other items. Thompson claims that the “root cause of these actions [was] inherently racism, and religious discrimination” motivated by “hatred” because the John Does are “white males, ex or retired military personnel, and live in the middle and western districts.” (Compl. at 23.)[2]

         Thompson's allegations are at times stated generally, discussing the experiences of “prisoners” in conclusory and collective terms, rather than alleging how he himself was injured by the actions he describes. He also describes the actions of the named supervisory Defendants in general terms. For example, he asserts that Defendants Wetzel, Ferguson and Sipple, each of whom are supervisory officials at SCI Graterford/Phoenix, “are indirectly responsible [for the actions of the John Doe CERT Defendants] as they hired and supervised these defendants, and thus, they knew and/or should have known about the crimes this group of officers were committing since hundreds of prisoners were complaining and hundreds of staff members witnessed and had to address this matter to these defendants.” (Id. at 20-21.)

         On an individual level, Thompson alleges that he lost photographs “of his step-father and himself with kufees, beards, prayer rugs over their shoulders, of [his] Muslim nieces and nephews and their children wearing Islamic clothing.” (Id. at 21.) He also indicates that his “legal materials” were taken, depriving him of “a fair and meaningful appeal in the Court of Common Pleas, and the Pa. Superior Court.” (Id.) Thompson also alleges that he had previously been housed at other prisons within the Pennsylvania Department of Correction and was “disliked for his standings against the administration for violating his First Amendment rights, such as his religious beliefs, ethnic background, access to the courts, and also the use of the grievance filing system over the years” to file grievances, some of which were against CERT members. (Id. at 22.)

         Thompson asserts claims under the First, Fifth, Sixth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments. (Id. at 5.) At times he appears to be seeking relief on behalf of prisoners other than himself who also lost property in connection with the transfer. Thompson attached to his Complaint an affidavit he signed, as well as identical affidavits from several prisoners who are not parties to this case, explaining that he filed grievances to remedy the loss of property but that the grievance process at SCI Phoenix was suspended and frustrated. (Id. at 33-46.) Thompson also attached copies of grievances and institutional responses as exhibits to his Complaint. It appears he sought reimbursement for the following items: (1) envelopes; (2) over nineteen years of unspecified legal work; (3) 300 photographs of deceased family; (4) a towel; and (5) a watch. (Id. at 48, 53, 59 & 68.)

         A search of public dockets reflects that Thompson was convicted of murder and related offenses in 2001. See Commonwealth v. Thompson, Docket No. CP-23-CR-0003788-2000 (Ct. of Common Pleas of Delaware Cty). Relevant here, in 2018, he appealed the dismissal of his third post-conviction petition as untimely and filed a concise statement of matters complained of on appeal prior to the transfer of prisoners to SCI Phoenix. Id. The transfer occurred while Thompson's appeal was pending. Thompson was given two extensions of time to file an appellate brief and timely filed his brief in January of 2019. Commonwealth v. Thompson, 1937 EDA 2018 (Pa. Super. Ct). The Pennsylvania Superior Court affirmed the dismissal of Thompson's post- conviction petition “because [the] petition [was] untimely and [Thompson] ha[d] not pled an exception to the time bar.” Commonwealth v. Thompson, No. 1937 EDA 2018, 2019 WL 1596195, at *3 (Pa. Super. Ct. Apr. 15, 2019).


         The Court grants Thompson leave to proceed in forma pauperis because it appears that he is incapable of paying the fees to commence this civil action.[3] Accordingly, 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B)(ii) applies, which requires the Court to dismiss the Complaint if it fails to state a claim. Whether a complaint fails to state a claim under § 1915(e)(2)(B)(ii) is governed by the same standard applicable to motions to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), see Tourscher v. McCullough, 184 F.3d 236, 240 (3d Cir. 1999), which requires the Court to determine whether the complaint contains “sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). Conclusory allegations do not suffice. Id. As Thompson is proceeding pro se, the Court construes his allegations liberally. Higgs v. Att'y Gen., 655 F.3d 333, 339 (3d Cir. 2011).


         “To state a claim under § 1983, a plaintiff must allege the violation of a right secured by the Constitution and 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, 48 (1988). For the following reasons, Thompson has failed to state a claim.

         A. Lack of Standing

         Many of Thompson's allegations pertain to general conduct that occurred during the transition that generally affected other prisoners or that did not clearly affect him. “[A] plaintiff must assert his or her own legal interests rather than those of a third party” to have standing to bring a claim. See Twp. of Lyndhurst, N.J. v., Inc., 657 F.3d 148, 154 (3d Cir. 2011). Specifically, “[t]o have standing to bring a claim in federal court, a plaintiff must show, inter alia, that he has ‘suffered an injury in fact-an invasion of a legally protected interest which is (a) concrete and particularized; and (b) actual or imminent, not conjectural or hypothetical.'” Marin v. Leslie, 337 Fed.Appx. 217, 219 (3d Cir. 2009) (per curiam) (quoting Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555, 560 (1992)). “‘For an injury to be “particularized, ” it ‘must affect the plaintiff in a personal and individual way.'” Spokeo, Inc. v. Robins, 136 S.Ct. 1540, 1548 ...

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