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Smalls v. C.O. Sassaman

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

September 4, 2019

C.O. SASSAMAN, et al., Defendants


          Christopher C. Conner, Chief Judge United States District Court Middle District of Pennsylvania

         Plaintiff Basheem Smalls (“Smalls”), an inmate who, at all relevant times, was housed at the Federal Correctional Institution, Allenwood, Pennsylvania (“FCI-Allenwood”), commenced this Bivens[1] action on December 6, 2017. (Doc. 1). Named as defendants are A. Sassaman, J. Brown, K. Weaver, H. Reed, P. Yost, F. Martin, J. Lyons, and S. Spaulding. (Id.) Before the court is defendants' partial motion (Doc. 20) to dismiss pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) and for summary judgment pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56.[2] For the reasons set forth below, the motion to dismiss will be granted and the motion for summary judgment will be granted in part and denied in part.

         I. Allegations of the Complaint

         On August 23, 2016, when Smalls was housed in the Special Housing Unit (“SHU”), defendant Sassaman allegedly ordered him to accept a cellmate. (Doc. 1, ¶ 6). Smalls informed defendants Sassaman and Brown that he did not feel safe with the particular inmate they were placing in his cell. (Id. at ¶¶ 7-8). Defendant Sassaman then ordered Smalls out of the cell, handcuffed him, and placed him in the SHU holding cell. (Id. at ¶¶ 9-10).

         Defendant Brown asked Smalls if he was refusing a cellmate. (Id. at ¶ 11). Smalls informed defendant Brown that was not refusing a cellmate, but he did not want to be housed with an inmate who would attack him. (Id.) Defendant Brown then allegedly stated to Smalls, “Don't come at me, I'll knock your teeth out of your mouth”, and “I don't give a damn if you're handcuffed. I'll throw you on the ground.” (Id. at ¶ 12-13).

         While Smalls was in the holding cell, defendant Sassaman searched his cell. (Id. at ¶ 14). Smalls was escorted back to his cell, noticed that his personal property was in a clear plastic bag, and informed defendant Sassaman that the items in the bag were his personal property. (Id. at ¶ 15). Smalls alleges that defendant Sassaman then pushed him down the wall near the stairwell, threw him on the stairs, and used excessive force to press down on Smalls' handcuffed hands while exerting force on his back. (Id. at ¶¶ 16-17). Other officers arrived, lifted Smalls, carried him to a different cell, and stripped him of his clothes. (Id. at ¶¶ 18-19). Smalls alleges that defendant Sassaman used excessive force when trying to put paper underwear on him, causing him to rip the paper underwear and touch Smalls inappropriately in his genital and anal areas, and caused bruising to Smalls' legs. (Id. at ¶ 20).

         Correctional officers then placed Smalls in hand and leg restraints and escorted him to another cell. (Id. at ¶¶ 21-22). Defendants Brown, Sassaman, and Weaver returned to Smalls' cell. (Id. at ¶ 23). Defendant Brown allegedly told Smalls, “he was lucky that it was not him because the Plaintiff wouldn't have any teeth.” (Id.) Defendant Sassaman allegedly stated, “You know how you made me look. You should have taken a celly. Now look how you have to be.” (Id. at ¶ 24).

         Smalls remained in the cell for the night and was intermittently checked by a lieutenant and medical staff member. (Id. at ¶¶ 25-26). At one point during the night, Smalls informed the medical staff member that he was experiencing back pain. (Id. at ¶ 26). The staff member advised Smalls that it was normal for the restraints to cause pain. (Id. at ¶ 27).

         Defendant Reed checked Smalls' hands and legs while he was in restraints and told Smalls he would remove the restraints after the 10:00 a.m. rounds by executive staff. (Id. at ¶ 29). Defendants Reed and Yost took the restraints off of Smalls. (Id. at ¶ 30).

         Smalls was then escorted to the SHU's lieutenant's office and was handed two incident reports issued by defendant Sassaman. (Id. at ¶¶ 31-32). The incident reports were subsequently withdrawn. (Id. at ¶ 45).

         On August 25, 2016, Smalls spoke with defendant Martin and requested treatment with the psychology department due to the alleged inappropriate touching that occurred during the incident. (Id. at ¶ 33). Smalls was escorted to the SHU holding cell and interviewed by defendant Lyons. (Id. at ¶ 34). Defendant Lyons allegedly told Smalls he could not leave until Smalls spoke to him about the incident. (Id. at ¶ 36). Smalls told defendant Lyons about the incident and was escorted back to his cell. (Id. at ¶ 38).

         At dinner, defendant Martin gave Smalls his food on a tray without utensils in alleged retaliation for talking to defendant Lyons about being inappropriately touched. (Id. at ¶ 40). Defendant Martin allegedly told Smalls to eat with his fingers. (Id. at ¶ 41). Smalls complained that he did not receive his entire meal, and defendant Martin allegedly told Smalls that “what he received was all that he was getting for that day.” (Id. at ¶ 42).

         Smalls alleges that he spoke with defendant Spaulding about there being “no restraints put on these officers”, but he allegedly ignored Smalls' complaints. (Id. at ¶ 44).

         II. Motion to Dismiss

         A. Legal Standard

         Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides for the dismissal of complaints that fail to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). When ruling on a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), the court 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)). Although the court is generally limited in its review to the facts contained in the complaint, it “may also consider matters of public record, orders, exhibits attached to the complaint and items appearing in the record of the case.” Oshiver v. Levin, Fishbein, Sedran & Berman, 38 F.3d 1380, 1384 n. 2 (3d Cir. 1994); see also In re Burlington Coat Factory Sec. Litig., 114 F.3d 1410, 1426 (3d Cir. 1997).

         Federal notice and pleading rules require the complaint to provide “the defendant notice of what the . . . claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.” Phillips v. Cty. of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 232 (3d Cir. 2008) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007)). To test the sufficiency of the complaint in the face of a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, the court must conduct a three-step inquiry. See Santiago v. Warminster Twp., 629 F.3d 121, 130-31 (3d Cir. 2010). In the first step, “the court must ‘tak[e] note of the elements a plaintiff must plead to state a claim.'” Id. (quoting Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 675 (2009)). Next, the factual and legal elements of a claim should be separated; well-pleaded facts must be accepted as true, while mere legal conclusions may be disregarded. Id.; see also Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 210-11 (3d Cir. 2009). Once the well-pleaded factual allegations have been isolated, the court must determine whether they are sufficient to show a “plausible claim for relief.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679 (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556); Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555 (requiring plaintiffs to allege facts sufficient to “raise a right to relief above the speculative level”). 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.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678.

         B. Discussion

         1. Lack of Personal Involvement of defendants Brown, Weaver, Reed, Yost, Lyons, and Spaulding

         Defendants Brown, Weaver, Reed, Yost, Lyons, and Spaulding argue that Smalls fails to state a claim against them because they lack personal involvement in the alleged wrongs. (Doc. 23, at 10-12).

         Individual liability can be imposed under section 1983 only if the state actor played an “affirmative part” in the alleged misconduct and “cannot be predicated solely on the operation of respondeat superior.” Evancho v. Fisher, 423 F.3d 347, 353 (3d Cir. 2005) (quoting Rode v. Dellarciprete, 845 F.2d 1195, 1207 (3d Cir. 1998)). “A defendant in a civil rights action must have personal involvement in the alleged wrongs. . . . Personal involvement can be shown through allegations of personal direction or of actual knowledge and acquiescence.” Rode, 845 F.2d at 1207-08; see also Rizzo v. Goode, 423 U.S. 362 (1976); Atkinson v. Taylor, 316 F.3d 257 (3d Cir. 2003). Such allegations, however, must be made with appropriate particularity in that a complaint must allege the particulars of conduct, time, place, and person responsible. Evancho, 423 F.3d at 354; Rode, 845 F.2d at 1207-08. Alleging a mere hypothesis that an individual defendant had personal knowledge or involvement in depriving the plaintiff of his rights is insufficient to establish personal involvement. Rode, 845 F.2d at 1208.

         Smalls alleges only that defendant Brown made verbal threats to him, that defendant Reid appeared at Smalls' cell when he was in restraints, that defendants Reid and Yost assisted in taking the restraints off of Smalls, that defendant Lyons interviewed him concerning his allegations of staff misconduct, and that defendant Spaulding ignored his comment that corrections officers have no restraints on them. (See Doc. 1). Clearly, the complaint is devoid of any factual allegations that these defendants violated Smalls' constitutional rights. To the contrary, the complaint fails to articulate any particular acts or omissions that would rise to the level of a constitutional violation. Moreover, with respect to Smalls' claim that defendant Brown made threatening statements to him, it is ...

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