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Ashford v. Francisco

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

September 26, 2019

LT. FRANCISCO, et al., Defendants


          Kane Judge

         On July 31, 2019, pro se Plaintiff Kenneth W. Ashford (“Plaintiff”), who is presently confined at the State Correctional Institution in Houtzdale, Pennsylvania (“SCI Houtzdale”), initiated the above-captioned civil action by filing a complaint pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Defendants Lt. Francisco (“Francisco”), Lt. Attwater (“Attwater”), Unit Manager Morales (“Morales”), Corrections Emergency Response Team (“CERT”) Officer Bolding (“Bolding”), and three (3) unnamed CERT Team Officers, all of whom are employed at the York County Prison in York, Pennsylvania (“YCP”). (Doc. No. 1.) In an Administrative Order dated August 8, 2019, the Court directed Plaintiff either to pay the requisite filing fee or submit a motion for leave to proceed in forma pauperis within thirty (30) days. (Doc. No. 4.) The Court received Plaintiff’s motion for leave to proceed in forma pauperis on August 19, 2019. (Doc. No. 6.) In an Administrative Order dated August 20, 2019, the Court directed the Superintendent of SCI Houtzdale to provide to Plaintiff and the Court, within fifteen (15) days, certified copies of Plaintiff’s trust fund statement reflecting all activity for the six (6)-month period preceding receipt of Plaintiff’s complaint by the Court. (Doc. No. 7.) The Court received the certified trust fund account statement on August 8, 2019. (Doc. No. 8.)

         In a Memorandum and Order dated September 12, 2019, the Court granted Plaintiff leave to proceed in forma pauperis and performed its mandatory screening of Plaintiff’s complaint pursuant to the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995 (“PLRA”). (Doc. Nos. 10, 11.) The Court construed Plaintiff’s complaint as alleging violations of his Fourth Amendment rights based upon a strip search that occurred while Plaintiff was incarcerated at YCP. (Doc. No. 10 at 5.) The Court concluded, however, that Plaintiff’s complaint failed to state a claim upon which relief may be granted against Defendants because it “neither set[] forth any allegations against the Defendants nor identifie[d] how Defendants engaged in any wrongdoing that violated Plaintiff’s constitutional rights.” (Id.) The Court granted Plaintiff leave to file an amended complaint within thirty (30) days. (Id. at 7.) On September 25, 2019, the Court received a motion to amend from Plaintiff. (Doc. No. 12.) Plaintiff’s motion contains his amended complaint in response to the Court’s September 12, 2019 Memorandum and Order. Accordingly, the Court will grant Plaintiff’s motion to amend and deem his motion to be his amended complaint. For the reasons set forth below, however, the Court will dismiss Plaintiff’s amended complaint with prejudice.

         I. BACKGROUND

         In his amended complaint, Plaintiff alleges that on May 1, 2019, Defendants entered his assigned dorm at YCP and directed all inmates “to the day room area.” (Doc. No. 12 at 2.) Defendant Francisco “went directly to the recreational area, then came back to the day room with a lighter.” (Id.) Plaintiff and the other inmates were ordered “into the shower room two (2) by two (2) and strip searched.” (Id.) A CERT team officer directed Plaintiff to strip, lift his genitals, bend over, cough, and lift his bottom and upper lips. (Id. at 2-3.) Plaintiff maintains that the strip search occurred “while other inmates [in] the dorm watched, and there were females [in] the dorm.” (Id. at 3.) Plaintiff alleges that the strip search was conducted “to demean, [embarrass], and abuse inmates.” (Id.) He asserts that the strip search made him feel “humiliated, depressed, angry, emotionally[, and] sexually abused.” (Id.) As relief, Plaintiff requests $500, 000.00 in damages. (Id.)


         A. Screening and Dismissal of Prisoner Complaints

         Under 28 U.S.C. § 1915A, federal district courts must “review . . . a complaint in a civil action in which a prisoner seeks redress from a governmental entity or officer or employee of a governmental entity.” See 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(a). If a complaint fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, the Court must dismiss the complaint. See id. § 1915A(b)(1). District courts have a similar screening obligation with respect to actions filed by prisoners proceeding in forma pauperis and prisoners challenging prison conditions. See id. § 1915(e)(2)(B)(ii) (“[T]he [C]ourt shall dismiss the case at any time if the [C]ourt determines that . . . the action or appeal . . . fails to state a claim on which relief may be granted . . . .”); 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(c)(1) (“The [C]ourt shall on its own motion or on the motion of a party dismiss any action brought with respect to prison conditions under section 1983 of this title . . . by a prisoner confined in any jail, prison, or other correctional facility if the court is satisfied that the action . . . fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.”).

         In dismissing claims under §§ 1915(e), 1915A, and 1997e, district courts apply the standard governing motions to dismiss filed pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. See, e.g., Smithson v. Koons, No. 15-01757, 2017 WL 3016165, at *3 (M.D. Pa. June 26, 2017) (“The legal standard for dismissing a complaint for failure to state a claim under § 1915A(b)(1), § 1915(e)(2)(B)(ii), or § 1997e(c)(1) is the same as that for dismissing a complaint pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.”); Mitchell v. Dodrill, 696 F.Supp.2d 454, 471 (M.D. Pa. 2010) (explaining that when dismissing a complaint pursuant to § 1915A, “a court employs the motion to dismiss standard set forth under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6)”). To avoid dismissal under Rule 12(b)(6), a civil complaint must set out “sufficient factual matter” to show that its claims are facially plausible. See Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009); Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 210 (3d Cir. 2009). The plausibility standard requires more than a mere possibility that the defendant is liable for the alleged misconduct. “[W]here the well-pleaded facts do not permit the [C]ourt to infer more than the mere possibility of misconduct, the complaint has alleged – but it has not ‘show[n]’ – ‘that the pleader is entitled to relief.’” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679 (citing Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2)). When evaluating the plausibility of a complaint, the Court accepts as true all factual allegations and all reasonable inferences that can be drawn from those allegations, viewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. See Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679; In re Ins. Brokerage Antitrust Litig., 618 F.3d 300, 314 (3d Cir. 2010). However, the Court must not accept legal conclusions as true, and “a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action” will not survive a motion to dismiss. See Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555-56 (2007).

         Based on this standard, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has identified the following steps that a district court must take when reviewing a Rule 12(b)(6) motion: (1) identify the elements that a plaintiff must plead to state a claim; (2) identify any conclusory allegations contained in the complaint that are “not entitled” to the assumption of truth; and (3) determine whether any “well-pleaded factual allegations” contained in the complaint “plausibly give rise to an entitlement to relief.” See Santiago v. Warminster Twp., 629 F.3d 121, 130 (3d Cir. 2010). In addition, in the specific context of pro se prisoner litigation, a district court must be mindful that a document filed pro se is “to be liberally construed.” See Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 106 (1976). A pro se complaint, “however inartfully pleaded, ” must be held to “less stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers.” See Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007) (internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting Estelle, 429 U.S. at 106).

         B. Section 1983 Standard

          Section 1983 is the vehicle by which private citizens may seek redress for violations of federal constitutional rights committed by state officials. See 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The statute states, in pertinent part:

Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State or Territory or the District of Columbia, subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress.

Id. “Section 1983 is not a source of substantive rights, ” but is merely a means through which “to vindicate violations of federal law committed by state actors.” See Pappas v. City of Lebanon, 331 F.Supp.2d 311, 315 (M.D. Pa. 2004) (quoting Gonzaga Univ. v. Doe, 536 U.S. 273, 284-85 (2002)). To state a cause of action under Section 1983, a plaintiff must allege that: (1) the conduct complained of was committed by persons acting under color of state law; and (2) the conduct violated a right, privilege, or immunity secured by the Constitution or laws of the United ...

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