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Hines v. Ferguson

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

September 26, 2019

ROBERT L. HINES, III, Plaintiff,
v.
TAMMY FERGUSON, et al, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM

          PETRESE B. TUCKER, J.

         Currently before the Court is an Amended Complaint filed by Plaintiff Robert L. Hines, III, a prisoner currently incarcerated at SCI Phoenix, which raises claims pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 stemming from the destruction of inmate property during the transfer of prisoners from SCI Graterford to SCI Phoenix. Hines also asserts claims related to his mail. For the following reasons, the Court will dismiss Hines's claims based on the destruction of his property and sever the claims based on Hines's mail.

         I. FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY[1]

         Hines's initial Complaint named 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 moving the inmates and their property; and (4) Secretary of Correction John Wetzel. Hines generally alleged that members of a Corrections Emergency Response Team ("CERT") who were responsible for transporting inmates' property from SCI Graterford to SCI Phoenix deliberately destroyed some of that property during the move. Hines alleged that CERT members destroyed certain of his religious materials, art supplies, legal materials, family photographs, and other personal property. He asserted claims under the First, Fifth, Sixth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments, and appeared to seek relief based on the destruction of his own property as well as on behalf of prisoners other than himself who suffered similar property loss.

         After granting Hines leave to proceed in forma pauperis, the Court screened the Complaint pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B). Relevant here, the Court concluded that Hines failed to state a claim for denial of access to the courts because he failed to plausibly allege that he was prevented from pursing a non-frivolous challenge to his conviction based on the loss or destruction of his legal property. The Court also observed that Hines had not stated a First Amendment claim based on the destruction of religious items because he failed to allege that he was prevented from practicing his religion. Hines could not state a due process claim based on the loss and/or destruction of his property due to the availability of post-deprivation remedies, and he failed to state an equal protection claim because he did not plausibly allege that he was treated differently from others similarly situated. Hines was given leave to file an amended complaint.

         Hines filed an Amended Complaint which again names Ferguson, Sipple, Wetzel, and CERT John Does as Defendants, and adds Smart Communications as a Defendant. He brings First, Sixth and Fourteenth Amendment claims predominately based on the destruction of his legal, religious, artistic, and other personal property in connection with the transfer of prisoners to SCI Phoenix.[2] He has also added claims that concern his mail, which were not included in the initial Complaint and that do not relate to the destruction of property that occurred during the transfer. Hines seeks compensatory and punitive damages, and declaratory relief as to his mail-based claims.

         Hines, who was convicted of murder in 1998 but claims his innocence, alleges that the loss of legal property prevented him from pursuing an extra-judicial challenge to his conviction through the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office's Conviction Integrity Unit ("CIU"). See Commonwealth v. Hines, CP-51-CR-0606671-1997 (Phila. Ct. of Common Pleas); see also Com. v. Hines, No. 2353 EDA 2015, 2016 WL 2798224, at *1 (Pa. Super. Ct. May 11, 2016) ("On June 11, 1998, following a bench trial, the trial court convicted [Hines] of murder of the first degree, and related offenses."). He alleges that the destroyed legal materials included affidavits, "prepared legal briefs, documents, exhibits, transcripts, letters from attorneys, District Attorneys, Judges like (Honorable David Savitt), who is now deceased, that shed light on [his] innocence, or a cover up of the truth of [his] innocence." (Am. Compl. ECF No. 7 at 13-14.)[3]

         On August 2, 2019, Hines received a letter from the CIU which indicated that the CIU received Hines's submission, reported that the CIU began a "preliminary investigation into [his] claims," and asked Hines to complete "revised and updated Submission and Consent forms" to assist with the "process." (Id. at 15 & 27.) Hines asserts that the materials he sought to submit to the CIU to support his allegations of "actual innocence, corrupt offices, [and] Brady proof were destroyed. (Id. at 15.) Hines also indicates that he was prevented from pursuing a challenge in state court. (Id.)

         Turning to his religious property, Hines alleges that among the destroyed property were four kufis, one prayer rug, and four religious texts. Hines asserts that "these type and colored items (Kufis, Books, and Prayer Rug), are no longer allowed for purchase." (Id. at 20.) Hines also alleges that, as a condition of his Islamic faith, he must have a clean prayer rug, the ability to cover his head, and the ability to pray and read religious texts.

         Hines also asserts claims based on the destruction of his art work and family photographs. According to Hines, the loss of his art work-which he describes as "a hand crafted assortment of origami work"-and art supplies violates his First Amendment right to express himself. (Id. at 23.) He also asserts a First Amendment claim based on the loss of his family photographs.

         Hines further alleges that members of CERT conspired against him because he is African American, Muslim, and a "Jail House Litigator." (Id. at 24.) That allegation is based on Hines's assertion that most of the CERT members were "majority white males of the Middle or Western district, [whose] conduct shows traits of religious, racial, and [ethnic] misconduct." (Id.) Hines contends that CERT members' behavior "fits the pattern of retaliation" and notes that he was using the grievance system and litigating matters in court at the time of the move. (Id.)

         Hines's Amended Complaint adds claims not asserted in his original Complaint that the Court understands to be challenging the Department of Corrections's recently adopted mail policy. "Pursuant to that policy, non-privileged incoming mail addressed to inmates must be sent to Smart Communications' facility in Florida where the mail is scanned, emailed to the facility where the inmate is located, printed by DOC staff, and delivered to the inmate."[4] Robinson v. Pa. Dep't of Corr., Civ. A. No. 19-1689, 2019 WL 2106204, at *1 (E.D. Pa. May 13, 2019). Hines alleges that his "protected mail" is being "read, copied, censored, infringed, [and] invaded," and that prison officials contracted with Smart Communications to violate his "protected rights to communicate, without intrusion of privacy to his attorney, the district attorney. Judges and the courts." (Am. Compl. ECF No. 7 at 17 (underscore in original).) In that regard, Hines alleges that letters from the District Attorneys Office and letters from other law firms who contacted him were not opened in his presence, and he did not receive the original copy. He also contends that his mail is being copied and stored in a database for seven years in accordance with the policy.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         As Hines is proceeding in forma pauper is, 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B)(ii) applies, which requires the Court to dismiss the Amended Complaint if it fails to state a claim. Whether the Amended 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), seeTourscher 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 ...


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