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Talley v. Doyle

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

November 15, 2019



          Savage, J.

         Plaintiff Quintez Talley, a prisoner proceeding pro se and in forma pauperis, filed this civil action asserting that the defendants violated the Americans with Disabilities Act[1](ADA) and the First, Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments.[2] He also asserts a claim for federal conspiracy and several state law torts. He has sued the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC), Secretary John Wetzel, former Superintendent Cynthia Link, Deputy Superintendent Laura Banta, Corrections Evaluation Supervisor George Ondrejka, Major Gina Clark, Captain David Mascellino, Lieutenant David Jankoviak, the Unknown Extraction Team (collectively, Commonwealth Defendants), Dr. R. Doyle, and MHM (together, MHM Defendants).[3]

         All defendants have moved to dismiss for failure to exhaust administrative remedies pursuant to the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) and failure to state a claim. The Commonwealth Defendants also invoke qualified and sovereign immunity.[4]


         On January 9, 2018, Talley smeared feces on the wall of his Psychiatric Observation Cell (POC) to ward off the evil spirits he believed to be present there.[6] When he was told that he was being discharged from the POC, he informed a nurse he was suicidal.[7] He was then recommitted.[8]

         On January 10, 2018, Talley told Doyle that he was suicidal, had been hearing voices, and wanted to sign himself into the Mental Health Unit (MHU).[9] Doyle responded that Talley required a greater level of mental healthcare, but he had been directed by Link, Banta, Ondrejka and Clark to place Talley in restraints anytime he claimed he was suicidal.[10] Doyle told Talley that this practice had been implemented to deter him from filing additional lawsuits.[11]

         That evening Sergeant Mower informed Talley that Doyle was discharging him from the POC.[12] Talley claimed he was suicidal and asked to speak to a psychiatrist.[13]Mower responded that pursuant to orders from Link, Banta and Clark, if Talley claimed he was suicidal upon his discharge from the POC, he would be placed in a Diversionary Treatment Unit (DTU) camera cell in restraints.[14] Mower left and returned with Jankoviak and the Extraction Team.[15] Talley was escorted to a DTU cell, where he was placed in restraints.[16]

         Talley attempted suicide that night.[17] He was taken to medical triage but recommitted to the POC by the on-call psychiatrist.[18] Although it was not part of the commitment order, Talley was placed in restraints in the POC.[19] He complains that the POC was “freezing cold” and that he was “virtually unable to eat &/or properly use the facilities” there.[20]

         Talley alleges that the DOC and Doyle violated his rights under the ADA and the First, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments.[21] He claims that Doyle and MHM committed medical malpractice when Doyle refused to allow Talley to sign himself into the MHU in retaliation for his prior lawsuits challenging the conditions of his confinement.[22] He alleges that the DOC, Wetzel, Link, Banta, Ondrejka, Clark and Mascellino conspired to violate his rights under the ADA and the First, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments by implementing and carrying out a policy whereby anytime he claimed he was suicidal he was placed in restraints in retaliation for his prior lawsuits.[23] He claims that Jankoviak and the Extraction Team violated his Eighth Amendment rights and committed coercion, extortion and assault and battery when they removed him from the POC and placed him in the DTU in restraints rather that providing him the opportunity to speak to mental health staff about his suicidal ideation.[24]

         Standard of Review

         Pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6), a court may dismiss all or part of an action for “failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). The complaint must plead “factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (citing Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 556 (2007)). The plaintiff must allege facts that indicate “more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully.” Id. Pleading only “facts that are ‘merely consistent with' a defendant's liability” is insufficient and cannot survive a motion to dismiss. Id. (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 557).

         A conclusory recitation of the elements of a cause of action is not sufficient. Phillips v. Cty. of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 233 (3d Cir. 2008). The plaintiff must allege facts necessary to make out each element. Id. (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 563 n.8). In other words, the complaint must contain facts which, if proven later, support a conclusion that the cause of action can be established.

         In assessing the sufficiency of a complaint, a court must: (1) identify the elements of the causes of action; (2) disregard conclusory statements, leaving only factual allegations; and (3) assuming the truth of those factual allegations, determine whether they plausibly give rise to an entitlement to relief. Palakovic v. Wetzel, 854 F.3d 209, 220 (3d Cir. 2017) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted) (quoting Burtch v. Millberg Factors, Inc., 662 F.3d 212, 221 (3d Cir. 2011)).


         Exhaustion of Administrative Remedies

         Before filing suit challenging prison life under any federal law, a prisoner must exhaust all available administrative remedies. Rinaldi v. United States, 904 F.3d 257, 265 (3d Cir. 2018). The PLRA provides that “[n]o action shall be brought with respect to prison conditions under [42 U.S.C. § 1983 or any other federal law] until administrative remedies as available are exhausted.” 42 U.S.C. § 1997(e)(a). To properly exhaust, the prisoner must comply with all deadlines and procedural rules. Woodford v. Ngo, 548 U.S. 81, 90 (2006). He must pursue all available steps in the process. Id. See also Ross v. Blake, 136 S.Ct. 1850, 1859-60 (2016); Spruill v. Gillis, 372 F.3d 218, 222 (3d Cir. 2004). If he fails to do so, his action must be dismissed. Spruill, 372 F.3d at 227.

         The exhaustion requirement is mandatory, precluding judicial discretion. A court may not excuse a failure to exhaust even if there are “special circumstances.” Ross, 136 S.Ct. at 1856. The only exception is where an administrative remedy is not available. Section 1997e(a) of the PLRA only requires the exhaustion of available remedies. Stated differently, if the administrative remedies are not available, there is nothing to exhaust.

         The administrative remedies are deemed unavailable where: (1) the administrative procedure, in practice, does not afford inmates a real chance for redress because the prison administrators refuse or are unable to process the grievance; (2) the procedure is so “opaque” that inmates cannot “discern or navigate it”; and (3) the prison administrators prevent or thwart inmates from pursuing grievances through the process by “machination, misrepresentation, or intimidation.” Ross, 136 S.Ct. at 1859-60.

         The DOC maintains an official grievance process entitled the “Inmate Grievance System” and is governed by Administrative Regulation 804 (DC-ADM 804).[25] Defendants argue that Talley failed to exhaust administrative remedies because he did not take any of the steps set forth in DC-ADM 804.[26] As the Commonwealth Court has explained:

While DOC policy DC-ADM 804 provides that claims of inmate abuse can be the subject of a grievance (DC-ADM 804 Procedures Manual § 1(B)(10)), the DOC policy governing inmate abuse, DC-ADM 001, provides that inmates are not required to use the prison grievance procedure to report abuse, and may also proceed by other means, including notifying a staff member of the abuse. DC-ADM 001 § IV(D).

Parran v. Rozum, No. 239 C.D. 2012, 2013 WL 3942101, at *3 (Pa. Commw. Ct. Jan. 4, 2013) (unreported panel decision).

         DC-ADM 001 defines “abuse” as the use of excessive or improper force, an unwarranted life-threatening act, or a threat to inflict physical injury.[27] It excludes “claims of inadequate medical or intentionally denied medical care.”[28]

         Talley alleges that he made an on-camera verbal complaint to prison personnel regarding the denial of mental health treatment and the use of restraints.[29] But, MHM and Dr. Doyle's denial of mental health treatment in the MHU does not constitute abuse.[30]Rather, Talley claims they intentionally denied him mental health treatment.[31] Because Talley failed to grieve this claim through the procedures provided by DC-ADM 804, we shall dismiss it for failure to exhaust administrative remedies.

         On the other hand, Talley's claim that the Commonwealth Defendants improperly placed him in restraints constitutes an allegation of abuse. They argue that he failed to grieve this issue under DC-ADM 804, but they fail to explain why he was required to do so where that policy provides that “[a] grievance dealing with allegations of abuse shall be handled in accordance with Department policy DC-ADM 001, ‘Inmate Abuse.'”[32] In Parran, the court concluded that dismissal was inappropriate at the pleadings stage where the defendants failed “to discuss whether the grievance procedure is mandatory for abuse claims, in light of the language in DC-ADM 001.” 2013 WL 3942101, at *3. Because Talley exhausted the administrative remedies available to him under DC-ADM 001, we find dismissal for failure to exhaust administrative remedies unwarranted as to the claims against the Commonwealth Defendants at this time.

         ADA Claims

         Title II of the ADA makes it unlawful for public entities, including prisons, to discriminate against the disabled in the provision of services, programs and activities. Disability Rights N.J., Inc. v. Comm'r, N.J. Dep't of Human Servs., 796 F.3d 293, 301 (3d Cir. 2015) (citing Tennessee v. Lane, 541 U.S. 509, 517 (2004)); Chisholm v. McManimon, 275 F.3d 315, 325 (3d Cir. 2001) (citing Pa. Dep't of Corr. v. Yeskey, 524 U.S. 206 (1998)). To state an ADA claim, the plaintiff must allege “that he is a ‘qualified individual with a disability' [and] that he was excluded from a service, program, or activity of a public entity . . . because of his disability.” Disability Rights N.J., Inc., 796 F.3d at 301 (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 12102(1)(A)). Mental illness is a disability under the ADA. 42 U.S.C. § 12102(1)(A).

         Talley sues the DOC and Wetzel, Link, Banta, Ondrejka, Clark, and Mascellino in their official capacities for denying him placement in the MHU and POC because of the lawsuits he has filed against the DOC and Wetzel.[33] Thus, by his own allegations, this denial was not “because of his disability.” Disability Rights N.J., Inc., 796 F.3d at 301.

         Talley's claim for retaliation under Title V of the ADA fails for a similar reason. Talley must allege facts showing (1) he engaged in protected activity, (2) he suffered an adverse action after or contemporaneous with the protected activity, and (3) a causal connection between the protected activity and the adverse action. Fogleman v. Mercy Hosp. Inc., 283 F.3d 561, 567-68 (3d Cir. 2002) (citing Krouse v. Am. Sterilizer Co., 126 F.3d 494, 500 (3d Cir.1997)). However, his allegations demonstrate a lack of a causal connection between the protected activity and the adverse action he suffered. According to Talley, he was placed in restraints “because of [his] numerous civil actions” against DOC personnel.[34]

         Section 1983 Claims

         “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). The DOC, as a state agency, is not a “person” under § 1983. Estate of Lagano v. Bergen Cty. Prosecutor's Office, 769 F.3d 850, 847 (3d Cir. 2014). Nor do the facts pled by Talley establish a plausible constitutional violation against any individual defendant.[35]

         First Amendment Claims

         To state a First Amendment retaliation claim, Talley must allege facts showing: (1) the conduct that instigated the retaliatory action was constitutionally protected; (2) he suffered an adverse action as a result of the prison official's retaliatory acts; and (3) there was a causal link between the exercise of his constitutional right and the adverse action, that is, his constitutionally protected conduct was a substantial or motivating factor in the state actor's decision to take the adverse action. Rauser v. Horn, 241 F.3d 330, 333 (3d Cir. 2001).

         While conceding that filing a lawsuit is constitutionally protected, Commonwealth Defendants claim that Talley fails to specify the lawsuits he filed.[36] They have notice of Talley's prior lawsuits. He has filed 15 lawsuits against DOC personnel since 2016, as a docket search shows.[37] Contrary to Commonwealth Defendants' assertion, three of these were filed prior to the events at issue here.[38]

         Commonwealth Defendants also argue that “the alleged retaliatory conduct is not sufficiently adverse” because it resulted in no lasting injury and would not “deter a person of ordinary firmness” from exercising his rights, as demonstrated by the fact that Talley continued to file lawsuits.[39] We disagree that placement in a cold cell in restraints for 24 hours was insufficiently adverse. As Allah v. Seiverling, cited by Commonwealth Defendants, observes, “[g]overnment actions, which standing alone do not violate the Constitution, may nonetheless be constitutional torts if motivated in substantial part by a desire to punish an individual for exercise of a constitutional right.” 229 F.3d 220, 224-25 (3d Cir. 2000) (quotation omitted) (administrative segregation could be sufficiently adverse). Further, if Commonwealth Defendants were correct that the filing of a lawsuit indicated that the retaliation was not adverse enough, no plaintiff could ever maintain a retaliation claim.

         Talley also pleads a causal link between his prior lawsuits and his placement in restraints. He claims that Doyle told him that “because of [his] numerous civil actions” against DOC personnel anytime he indicated he was suicidal he would be denied treatment and placed in restraints “as a deterrent.”[40] He alleges that he was singled out for this treatment “as punishment . . . for having been successful in redressing previous violations by Defendant DOC and Wetzel.”[41]

         Commonwealth Defendants argue that they are protected by qualified immunity. Government officials are immune from suit when their actions do not violate “clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.” Tolan v. Cotton, 572 U.S. 650, 656 (2014) (citing Hope v. Pelzer, 536 U.S. 730, 739 (2002)).

         In evaluating a qualified immunity defense, we ask two questions. First, do the alleged facts, viewed in a light most favorable to the plaintiff, demonstrate that the official's conduct violated a statutory or constitutional right? Baloga v. Pittston Area Sch. Dist., 927 F.3d 742, 762 (3d Cir. 2019) (citing Dougherty v. Sch. Dist. of Phila., 772 F.3d 979, 986 (3d Cir. 2014)). Second, was the right “clearly established” at the time of the challenged conduct? Id.

         We may address these questions in either order. Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 236 (2009). In other words, if we find that the alleged right was not clearly established, the inquiry ends and the official is entitled to qualified immunity. To deny immunity, there must be sufficient precedent at the time of the action to put the official on notice that his or her conduct was prohibited. Baloga, 927 F.3d at 762 (quoting Mammaro v. N.J. Div. of Child Prot. & Permanency, 814 F.3d 164, 169 (3d Cir. 2016)).

         The relevant inquiry in determining whether a right is clearly established is whether it would be clear to a reasonable officer that his conduct was unlawful in the situation he confronted. Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194, 202 (2001).

         Applying this test, we find that the “right of prisoners to petition the court” is clearly established. Atkinson v. Taylor, 316 F.3d 257, 269 (3d Cir. 2003) (citing Milhouse v. Carlson, 652 F.2d 371, 373-74 (3d Cir. 1981)). Further, “a reasonable prison official would know that he violates this right if he retaliates against a prisoner for filing a lawsuit.” Atkinson, 316 F.3d at 269. ...

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