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Sanders v. Wetzel

Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania

December 16, 2019

Thomas Sanders, Petitioner
John Wetzel, Secretary; Michael Overmyer, Warden; Josh Shapiro, Attorney General; Respondents

          Submitted: June 8, 2018




         Before the Court in our original jurisdiction are the preliminary objections of John E. Wetzel (Wetzel), Secretary of the Department of Corrections (Department), Michael Overmyer (Overmyer), Warden of the State Correctional Institution at Forest (SCI-Forest) (collectively, Department Respondents), and Josh Shapiro, Attorney General of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania (Attorney General), to a petition for writ of mandamus (Petition) filed by Thomas Sanders (Sanders), alleging, in part, a deprivation of due process. For the reasons set forth below, we sustain the Attorney General's preliminary objection for failure to state a claim, sustain Department Respondents' preliminary objection for failure to state a claim, and dismiss the action.

         In his Petition, Sanders sets forth the following averments of fact. On January 30, 2017, while incarcerated at SCI-Forest, a correctional officer (Munson) approached Sanders as he was using the telephone and requested to see his hands. Sanders complied with Munson's request, and Munson discovered a "marijuana stick" on the floor near Sanders. Several correctional officers then escorted Sanders to a separate room, at which time they conducted a strip search. During this search, correctional officers located drugs in a garbage can, which the correctional officers attributed to Sanders, apparently assuming he threw the contraband in the garbage can just prior to the strip search. Sanders received misconducts for possession of contraband.

         As a result of these misconducts, Sanders received 90 days of disciplinary custody and the loss of his prison job. Upon the completion of his disciplinary custody, he learned that the Department recommended him for placement in the special management unit (SMU)-a housing unit that he avers is designated for inmates who are or have been disruptive or violent. Sanders avers that he received neither notice of the rationale for this recommendation nor an opportunity to appeal the recommendation. Thereafter, Sanders filed the instant Petition.

         In his Petition, Sanders alleges that the Department violated DC-ADM 802[1] when placing him in the SMU. More specifically, Sanders asserts a procedural violation of DC-ADM 802-i.e., the Department failed to provide Sanders with notice of the reasons for his placement recommendation and an opportunity to challenge the placement-and asserts a challenge to the appropriateness of his placement-i.e., whether he meets the criteria for placement in the SMU based on DC-ADM 802. Sanders seeks mandamus relief in the form of an order directing Department Respondents to comply with the requirements of DC-ADM 802 and to release him into the general prison population.

         In response, Department Respondents and the Attorney General filed separate preliminary objections. Department Respondents argue: (1) the Court lacks jurisdiction over the matter; (2) the Petition fails to state a claim for mandamus relief; and (3) the Court lacks jurisdiction over Overmyer. The Attorney General objects to the Petition as it applies to him, arguing: (1) the Petition fails to articulate any facts to state a claim against him; (2) the Petition fails to articulate sufficient facts to join him as a party; and (3) Sanders lacks standing to assert a claim against him.

         In ruling on preliminary objections, we accept as true all well-pleaded material allegations in the petition for review and any reasonable inferences that we may draw from the averments. Meier v. Maleski, 648 A.2d 595, 600 (Pa. Cmwlth. 1994). The Court, however, is not bound by legal conclusions, unwarranted inferences from facts, argumentative allegations, or expressions of opinion encompassed in the petition for review. Id. We may sustain preliminary objections only when the law makes clear that the petitioner cannot succeed on the claim, and we must resolve any doubt in favor of the petitioner. Id. "We review preliminary objections in the nature of a demurrer under the above guidelines and may sustain a demurrer only when a petitioner has failed to state a claim for which relief may be granted." Armstrong Cty. Mem'l Hosp. v. Dep't of Pub. Welfare, 67 A.3d 160, 170 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2013) (en banc).

         With the above standard in mind, we turn to the Attorney General's preliminary objections. The Attorney General first argues that Sanders has failed to articulate any facts to state a claim against him. See Pa. R.C.P. No. 1028(a)(3). We agree, as a review of the Petition reveals no mention of the Attorney General aside from the caption naming him as a party. A pleading must be sufficiently specific to enable a responding party to prepare a defense. Phila. Cty. Intermediate Unit No. 26 v. Dep't of Educ., 432 A.2d 1121, 1125 (Pa. Cmwlth. 1981) (en banc). "Specific averments, rather than mere notice pleading, are required in matters brought within this Court's original jurisdiction." Feigley v. Dep't of Corr., 872 A.2d 189, 196 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2005). We agree with the Attorney General that the Petition sets forth no facts against him and, therefore, does not enable him to prepare a defense. Further, the relief Sanders seeks-i.e., being afforded the benefit of the process and procedures found in DC-ADM 802-is strictly within the purview of the Department. Accordingly, we sustain the Attorney General's preliminary objection and dismiss him as a party to this action.[2]

         We now turn to Department Respondents' first preliminary objection, wherein they object to this Court's jurisdiction over the Petition. Couching the Petition as an attempt to seek judicial review of the Department's decisions finding Sanders guilty of the misconducts and the Department's subsequent denial of Sanders's misconduct appeals, Department Respondents argue that such decisions are within the sole discretion of the Department and that this Court has no jurisdiction-original or appellate-to review such a decision.[3]

         As a general matter, we agree with Department Respondents that this Court does not have jurisdiction over inmate misconduct appeals. See Bronson v. Cent. Office Review Comm., 721 A.2d 357, 358-59 (Pa. 1998) (holding Commonwealth Court has no appellate jurisdiction over inmate grievance and misconduct appeals). A review of the Petition, however, makes clear that Sanders is not asking this Court to review a misconduct or denial of a grievance. Rather, Sanders seeks a writ of mandamus to require Department Respondents to provide him with the notice and opportunity to challenge what, he contends, is required by DC-ADM 802 and to comply further with DC-ADM 802 by applying the criteria for placement set forth therein.[4] For these reasons, we overrule Department Respondents' preliminary objection based on lack of jurisdiction.

         We now turn to Department Respondents' second preliminary objection, wherein they challenge the sufficiency of the Petition. Specifically, Department Respondents argue that Sanders has failed to state a claim for mandamus relief, as Sanders does not have a legal right to the process and procedures set forth in DC-ADM 802 nor do Department Respondents have a legal duty to comply with DC-ADM 802.

         A writ of mandamus compels the performance of a ministerial and mandatory duty. Chadwick v. Dauphin Cty. Office of Coroner, 905 A.2d 600, 603 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2006), appeal denied, 917 A.2d 847 (Pa. 2007). To prevail in mandamus, the petitioner must demonstrate a clear legal right for performance of an act by the government, a corresponding duty in the government to perform the ministerial act and mandatory duty, and the absence of any other appropriate or adequate remedy. Filippi v. Kwitowski, 880 A.2d 711, 713 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2005). A mandatory duty is "one which a public officer is required to perform upon a given state of facts and in a prescribed manner in obedience to the mandate of legal authority." Id. Where the public official has discretion in how to perform the act, mandamus may compel the exercise of discretion, but it may not interfere with the manner in which the discretion is exercised. Chadwick, 905 A.2d at 604. "A writ of mandamus is an extraordinary remedy," the purpose of which is "to ...

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