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Simmons v. Overmyer

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

December 27, 2019

MICHAEL OVERMYER, et al., Defendants



         I. Introduction

         Plaintiff 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)[1] 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 injunctive relief.

         On May 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.[2]

         II. Factual Background

         On or 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).[3] 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.

         Shortly 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 snitching." Id.

         Around 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. ¶¶ 19-20.[4]

         On 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.

         Several 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.

         Simmons 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.

         Next, 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.

         Simmons 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 disorder. Id.

         On 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.

         Simmons 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.

         Lastly, 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.

         II. Standards of Review

         A. Pro se Litigants

         Pro se 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).

         B. Motion to dismiss

         A 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).

         While a 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.").

         Expounding 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.

         C. Motion for Summary Judgment

         Federal 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).

         When 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, ...

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