United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania
ORDER ON DEFENDANTS' MOTION TO DISMISS [ECF NO.
RICHARD A. LANZILLO UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.
Augustus Simmons, an inmate in the custody of the
Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, initiated this pro se
action on July 6, 2018, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1983.
ECF No. 1. In his Amended Complaint, Simmons asserts nine
counts for relief against officials at the State Correctional
Institution at Forest (SCI-Forest) based on alleged violations
of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act
and the First, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the
Constitution. ECF No. 25. Simmons names the following
individuals as Defendants: Facility Manager Michael Overmyer,
Major Blicha, Unit Manager Lee, Lt. Wonderling, Lt. Dietrich,
Sgt. Mravintz, PSS Sheesly, Grievance Coordinator Reeher, and
Correctional Officers Kundick, Coleman, Weiss, Newark, and
Ellenberger. Simmons seeks both compensatory damages and
14, 2019, Defendants moved to dismiss for failure to state a
claim pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6).
ECF No. 31. Because Defendants attached several exhibits to
their motion, the Court instructed Simmons that the motion
"may be treated, either in whole or in part, as a motion
for summary judgment under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure
56." ECF No. 33 (citing Renchenski v. Williams,
622 F.3d 315 (3d Cir. 2010)). Simmons responded to the motion
to dismiss on June 28, 2019. ECF No. 36. As a result, this
matter is ripe for disposition.
about November 6, 2017, the Pennsylvania Department of
Corrections (DOC) transferred Simmons from SCI-Greene to
SCI-Forest and assigned him to the Restricted Housing Unit
(RHU) and the Security Threat Group Management Unit
(STGMU). Simmons, a former gang member, adheres to
a self-created religion known as "the fellowship of
spiritual science." ECF No. 25 ¶¶ 16-17.
According to Simmons, "[i]t is a mandatory requirement
in the fellowship of spiritual science to read historical,
philosophical, scientific and spiritual books."
Id. ¶ 15.
after arriving at SCI-Forest, Kundick stopped at Simmons'
cell door and claimed to have searched Simmons' legal
property and discovered Simmons' prior lawsuit against
officials at SCI-Greene. ECF No. 25 ¶ 4. Kundick warned
Simmons to "get with the program" if he ever wanted
to get out of the RHU. Id. ¶ 5. When Simmons
objected, Kundick loudly accused Simmons of being a
"snitch" and a "rat," knowing that such
accusations would place Simmons in danger from other
prisoners "due to the 'street code' of no
that same time, Weiss and Coleman conducted an inventory of
Simmons' . property. Id. ¶ 14. Simmons
noticed that several books were missing including world
history books, a philosophical dictionary of quotations, and
various self-help and science books. Id.
¶¶ 15-16. When Simmons complained that these books
were essential to his religion, Weiss accused Simmons of
creating a "fake religion" and stated: "we
don't care about your spiritual science or your rights
dude, just give that up, get with our program and act like a
blood man." Id. ¶ 17. Coleman added that
Simmons could have his property back if he would "lay
down and not file any more grievances." Id.
¶ 18. When Simmons refused Coleman's
"deal," Coleman and Weiss refused to inventory
Simmons' property and deprived him of his books for
almost two months. Id. ¶¶
November 16, 2017, several staff members conducted an
investigative cell search of Simmons' cell. Id.
¶ 7. After "trashing" his cell, one of the
officers told Simmons to "take it up with Kundick,
he's the one that got us down here." Id.
¶ 8. Kundick later told Simmons that he would make his
life in the STGMU "hell" and stated: "Check
the computer Simmons, I'm undefeated in the Courts,
Kundick never loses. So do all the crying you want,
[we'll] win and you'll los[e], rat!"
Id. ¶ 9.
months later, Simmons sustained a back injury when
correctional officer Newark forced him to walk to the
recreational yard in a dangerous manner. Id. ¶
50. According to Simmons, when inmates forget to untie their
boots after visiting the recreational yard, staff members at
SCI-Forest refuse to allow inmates to untie them before the
next time they leave their cells. Id. , ¶ 46.
Instead, they require them to "wear their boots with
only their toes barely in the boots," forcing them to
"hop" and "wobble" around for the
amusement of staff. Id. ¶ 46. Such was the case
on February 18, 2018, when Simmons forgot to untie his boots,
a mistake he attributes to short-term memory loss.
Id. ¶¶ 48-49. Rather than allow Simmons to
untie them, Newark ordered: "wear the boots or get
burned for yard, nobody told you to leave them tied like
this." Id. ¶ 49. Because he didn't
want to miss yard, Simmons put his toes into the tied boots
and "tried to wobble and walk" but "tripped
and fell face first," banging his head and body on the
concrete floor. Id. ¶ 50.
next presents several allegations against Unit Manager Lee.
First, Lee demoted Simmons within the STGMU program in
response to misconducts that Simmons had not yet had a chance
to challenge. By way of background, the STGMU program at
SCI-Forest "encompasses five steps or phases and each
phase offers progressively more privileges and
services." Imes, 2017 WL 1400143, at *2.
Inmates in the STGMU program begin at Phase 5 and progress to
Phase 1, at which point they may reintegrate into the general
prison population. Id. Lee twice demoted Simmons to
a lower phase based on a misconduct that Simmons intended to
contest at a hearing. ECF No. 25 ¶¶ 54-55. Simmons
contends that this deprived him of due process of law.
Id. ¶ 56.
Lee deprived Simmons of his legal paperwork and access to the
law library in retaliation for his extensive grievance
history. Id. ¶¶ 57-66. Specifically,
Simmons had several legal exemptions (i.e., approvals to keep
extra legal paperwork in his cell or swap boxes of legal
materials) which Lee ignored or obstructed. Id.
next contends that the conditions of confinement in the STGMU
program amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. He
maintains that Sheesly, a mental health specialist, subjected
him to "psychological torture" throughout his
tenure in the STGMU by depriving him of yard, group
activities, therapeutic journals and activities, television
programming, and access to friends and family. Id.
¶ 74. Sheesly also ignored Simmons when he threatened to
kill himself and refused to monitor the mental health
implications stemming from Simmons' long-term confinement
in solitary. Id. ¶ 76. As a result, Simmons
suffers from night terrors, sleep disorders, excessive weight
loss, and episodes of anxiety and post-traumatic stress
December 12, 2019, Simmons filed a request to his grievance
coordinator asking why he had not received appeal decisions
for several of his grievances. Id. ¶ 79.
Simmons determined that Grievance Coordinator Reeher
"withheld numerous grievances . . . and grievance
appeals in an attempt to thwart" Simmons from filing
lawsuits. Id. ¶ 81. Reeher later "lied on
an official document and conspired with Unit Manager
Lee" to deny and thwart Simmons' grievances.
Id. ¶ 83. Finally, Reeher advised Simmons that
his "constant manipulative and obstructive behavior
[with respect to grievances] only increase[d] the risk of
desensitizing staff." Id. ¶ 85. Simmons
construed this language as a retaliatory threat. Id.
asserts a supervisory liability claim against Overmyer,
Wonderling, Dietrich, Lee, Blich, and Mravintz based on their
failure to "stop, prevent, investigate or reform,
protect, separate and or halt any bad acts that violated
[his] U.S. Constitutional rights." Id. at p.
24. Simmons contends that each of these supervisory
defendants "had notice of the bad acts of correctional
staff named in this action" but failed to prevent those
acts. Id. ¶ 92. Defendants also ignored the
"vast amount of request slips and grievances" that
he sent. Id.
Simmons accuses Ellenberger, Coleman, and Mravintz of
retaliating against him for acting as a witness for another
inmate who had filed a sexual harassment complaint against
Mravintz. Id. ¶ 94. Defendants' retaliatory
conduct included verbal threats, "aggressive and
unethical strip searches," and trashing his cell.
Id. ¶¶ 95-96.
Standards of Review
pleadings, "however inartfully pleaded," are held
to "less stringent standards than formal pleadings
drafted by lawyers." Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S.
519, 520-521 (1972). If the court can reasonably read
pleadings to state a valid claim on which the litigant could
prevail, it should do so despite failure to cite proper legal
authority, confusion of legal theories, poor syntax and
sentence construction, or litigant's unfamiliarity with
pleading requirements. Boag v. MacDougall, 454 U.S.
364 (1982); United States ex rel. Montgomery v.
Bierley, 141 F.2d 552, 555 (3d Cir. 1969) (petition
prepared by a prisoner may be inartfully drawn and should be
read "with a measure of tolerance"). Under our
liberal pleading rules, during the initial stages of
litigation, a district court should construe all allegations
in a complaint in favor of the complainant. Gibbs v.
Roman, 116 F.3d 83 (3d Cir. 1997).
Motion to dismiss
motion to dismiss pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure
12(b)(6) tests the legal sufficiency of the complaint.
Kost v. Kozakiewicz, 1 F.3d 176, 183 (3d Cir. 1993).
In deciding a motion to dismiss, the court is not opining on
whether the plaintiff will likely prevail on the merits;
rather, the plaintiff must only present factual allegations
sufficient "to raise a right to relief above the
speculative level." Bell Atlantic Corp. v.
Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 556 (2007) (citing 5 C. Wright
& A. Miller, Federal Practice and Procedure
§ 1216, pp. 235-236 (3d ed. 2004)). See also
Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662 (2009)). A complaint
should only be dismissed pursuant to Rule 12 (b)(6) if it
fails to allege "enough facts to state a claim to relief
that is plausible on its face." Twombly, 550
U.S. at 570 (rejecting the traditional 12 (b)(6) standard
established in Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41
(1957)). In making this determination, the court must accept
as true all well-pled factual allegations in the complaint
and views them in a light most favorable to the plaintiff.
U.S. Express Lines Ltd. v. Higgins, 281 F.3d 383,
388 (3d Cir. 2002).
complaint does not need detailed factual allegations to
survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must provide more
than labels and conclusions. Twombly, 550 U.S. at
555. A "formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause
of action will not do." Id. (citing Papasan
v. Allain, 478 U.S. 265, 286 (1986)). Moreover, a court
need not accept inferences drawn by a plaintiff if they are
unsupported by the facts in the complaint. See California
Pub. Employee Ret. Sys. v. The Chubb Corp., 394 F.3d
126, 143 (3d Cir. 2004) (citing Morse v. Lower Merion
Sch. Dist., 132 F.3d 902, 906 (3d Cir. 1997)). Nor must
the Court accept legal conclusions disguised as factual
allegations. Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555 (citing
Papasan, 478 U.S. at 286). See also McTernan v.
City of York, Pennsylvania, 577 F.3d 521, 531 (3d Cir.
2009) ("The tenet that a court must accept as true all
of the allegations contained in a complaint is inapplicable
to legal conclusions.").
on the Twombly/Iqbal line of cases, the Third
Circuit has articulated the following three-step approach:
First, the court must 'tak[e] note of the elements a
plaintiff must plead to state a claim.' Second, the court
should identify allegations that, 'because they are no
more than conclusions, are not entitled to the assumption of
truth.' Finally, 'where there are well-pleaded
factual allegations, a court should assume their veracity and
then determine whether they plausibly give rise to an
entitlement for relief.'
Burtch v. Milberg Factors, Inc., 662 F.3d 212, 221
(3d Cir. 2011) (quoting Santiago v. Warminster Twp.,
629 F.3d 121, 130 (3d Cir. 2010)). This determination is
"a context-specific task that requires the reviewing
court to draw on its judicial experience and common
sense." Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679.
Motion for Summary Judgment
Rule of Civil Procedure 56(a) requires the court to enter
summary judgment "if the movant shows that there is no
genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is
entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P.
56(a). Under this standard "the mere existence of some
alleged factual dispute between the parties will not defeat
an otherwise properly supported motion for summary judgment;
the requirement is that there be no genuine issue of material
fact." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477
U.S. 242, 247-48 (1986). A disputed fact is
"material" if proof of its existence or
nonexistence would affect the outcome of the case under
applicable substantive law. Anderson, 477 U.S. at
248; Gray v. York Newspapers, Inc., 957 F.2d 1070,
1078 (3d Cir. 1992). An issue of material fact is
"genuine" if the evidence is such that a reasonable
jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.
Anderson, 477 U.S. at 257; Brenner v. Local 514,
United Bhd. of Carpenters and Joiners of Am., 927 F.2d
1283, 1287-88 (3d Cir. 1991).
determining whether a genuine issue of material fact remains
for trial, the court must view the record and all reasonable
inferences to be drawn therefrom in favor of the nonmoving
party. Moore v. Tartler,986 F.2d 682 (3d Cir.
1993); Clement v. Consol. Rail Corp.,963 F.2d 599,
600 (3d Cir. 1992); White v. Westinghouse Electric
Co.,862 F.2d 56, 59 (3d Cir. 1988). To avoid summary
judgment, however, the nonmoving party may not rest on the
unsubstantiated allegations of his or her pleadings. Instead,
once the movant satisfies its burden of identifying evidence
that demonstrates the absence of a genuine issue of material
fact, the nonmoving party must to go beyond his pleadings
with affidavits, ...