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Winn v. Ferguson

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

August 27, 2019

RONALD WINN, Plaintiff,
v.
TAMMY FERGUSON, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM

          JOHN R. PADOVA, J.

         Plaintiff Ronald Winn, a prisoner currently incarcerated at SCI Phoenix, filed this civil action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 based on allegations involving the transfer of prisoners from SCI Graterford to SCI Phoenix. In a prior Memorandum, the Court granted his request to proceed in forma pauperis and dismissed his Complaint without prejudice for failure to state a claim. (ECF Nos. 6, 7.) Winn was granted leave to file an Amended Complaint ("AC") to attempt to cure the defected identified in his original Complaint. The Court received Winn' AC on August 22, 2019. (ECF No. 9.) Because he has failed to cure the defects, the AC will also be dismissed.

         I. FACTS [1]

         As fully set forth in the Court's earlier Memorandum, Winn was previously incarcerated at SCI Graterford. As that prison was closing, inmates and their property were relocated to SCI Phoenix. Winn alleges members of a Corrections Emergency Response Team ("CERT") took custody of prisoners' property in connection with the move. Winn alleges that his property was destroyed, lost, or left in disarray by CERT members. (ECF No. 9 at 2-3.) He alleges that Defendants Wetzel, Ferguson and Sipple are "indirectly responsible as they hired and over-seen these Defendants 'C.E.R.T. and thus know about the crimes this group of officers were doing." (Id. at 3.) Winn claims that there was a systematic conspiracy designed to harm and frustrate him by "causing an atypical hardship" on his liberty, life, property and freedom through the destruction of his religious articles, legal material, journal, school documents, and years of research. (Id.) He asserts claims that his rights under the First, Fifth, Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments were violated. (Id. at 1.)

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The Court previously granted Winn leave to proceed in forma pauperis. Accordingly, 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B)(ii) applies, which requires the Court to dismiss the AC 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) (quotations omitted). Conclusory allegations do not suffice. Id. As Winn is proceeding pro se, the Court construes his allegations liberally. Higgs v. Att'y Gen., 655 F.3d 333, 339 (3d Cir. 2011).

         III. DISCUSSION

         "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). Winn's original constitutional claims based on the loss of his property were found to be defective and subject to dismissal because the negligent or intentional deprivations of property by a state employee do not give rise to constitutional claims if the state provides an adequate post-deprivation remedy. Hudson v. Palmer, 468 U.S. 517, 533 (1984). Winn appears to reallege the same facts to again attempt to state constitutional claims pursuant to § 1983 against the Defendants. Specifically, he asserts that the taking of his religious items, legal material, and personal items "is definitely a Fifth, Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment violation." (ECF No. 9 at 3.)

         A. First/Fourteenth Amendment Access to the Courts Claim

         Winn appears to again be pursuing a claim under the First and Fourteenth Amendments that he was denied access to the courts because his legal papers and research were allegedly destroyed by CERT members in the move to SCI Phoenix. He alleges that they "purposely intended to hinder Plaintiff from seeking Plaintiffs freedom, they conspired to frustrate the courts, the appeal system and the chance that Plaintiff have a shot to go home." (ECF No. 9 at 5.) He also alleges that the CERT Defendants ruined "any future hope of relief which is tantamount to due process violation, equal protection violation, a liberty interest violation, governmental interference and depriving Plaintiff the right to petition courts if necessary." (Id.)

         "Under the First and Fourteenth Amendments, prisoners retain a right of access to the courts." Monroe v. Beard, 536 F.3d 198, 205 (3d Cir. 2008). "Where prisoners assert that defendants' actions have inhibited their opportunity to present a past legal claim, they must show (1) that they suffered an 'actual injury'-that they lost a chance to pursue a 'nonfrivolous' or 'arguable' underlying claim; and (2) that they have no other 'remedy that may be awarded as recompense' for the lost claim other than in the present denial of access suit." Id. (quoting Christopher v. Harbury, 536 U.S. 403, 415 (2002)). "[T]he underlying cause of action, ... is an element that must be described in the complaint." Christopher, 536 U.S. at 415.

         Winn has not stated a plausible claim for denial of access to the courts. Winn asserts in the AC that due to the destruction of his property he was hindered "from possibly gaining appeal rights [because] new evidence, affidavits, petitions, briefs, case law that took years of research [] as well as formulating evidence intended for the Integrity Unit in Philadelphia is definitely a First Amendment [] violation." (ECF No. 9 at 4 (emphasis added).) This allegation is insufficient to state an access to the courts claim since Winn's allegation of "possibly" gaining appeal rights constitutes mere speculation. He has failed to allege that he lost an actual opportunity to pursue a nonfrivolous or arguable underlying claim. As the Court previously identified this defect and Winn has failed to cure it through plausible allegations, the access to courts claim will be dismissed with prejudice.[2]

         B. First Amendment Free Exercise Claim

         Winn asserts a Free Exercise claim based upon the CERT Defendants' alleged destruction of his Kufis, religious books, paper work, and prayer rugs. The threshold question in any First Amendment case is whether the prison's conduct "has substantially burdened the practice of the inmate-plaintiffs religion." Robinson v. Superintendent Houtzdale SCI,693 Fed.Appx. 111, 115 (3d Cir. 2017) (per curiam). Winn has not alleged any facts explaining how the loss of this property prevented him from practicing his religion. To the contrary, he has not alleged at all that he has been prevented from exercising his religion. Accordingly, the Complaint does not state a plausible First Amendment free exercise claim. See Peele v. Klemm,663 Fed.Appx. 127, 130 (3d Cir. 2016) (per curiam) (upholding dismissal of First Amendment claim where "Peele failed to provide any factual support for his First Amendment claims beyond general conclusory allegations that [a prison policy] was inimical to his and possibly other inmates First Amendment rights"); O 'Banion v. Anderson,50 Fed.Appx. 775, 776 (7th Cir. 2002) ("O'Banion has no First Amendment freedom-of-religion claim because he does not suggest that the confiscation of his property restricted the exercise of his religious beliefs. He cannot resurrect his property claim simply by characterizing the feathers and furs as 'religious property' without alleging that his religious observance was unreasonably restricted"); Grohs v. Santiago, Civ. A. No. 13-3877, 2014 WL 4657116, at *10 (D.N.J. Sept. 17, 2014) (dismissing free exercise claim where plaintiff "never identified his faith nor has he identified the sincerely held religious beliefs that required him to retain [certain religious] ...


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