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Restrepo v. Phelps

United States District Court, D. Delaware

April 6, 2018

PERRY PHELPS, et al., Defendants.



         The plaintiff, Juan Restrepo ("Restrepo"), an inmate at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center ("VCC") in Smyrna, Delaware, filed this lawsuit pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging violation of his constitutional rights, violations of the UCC (i.e., Uniform Commercial Code), and violations of the Vienna Convention. (D.I. 3.) He appears pro se and was granted permission to proceed in forma pauperis pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915.


         Restrepo alleges the defendants engaged in wrongful conduct from February 2017 to date. He states that he has been diagnosed as "severely mentally ill, " requiring treatment and placement in a residential treatment setting as required by law and the agreement and order entered on September 1, 2016 in Community Legal Aid Society, Inc. v. Coupe, Civ. No. 15-688-GMS at D.I. 38 and D.I. 40 ("Civ. No. 15-688-GMS"), a case that raised issues regarding improvement of mental health care for inmates, improving conditions of confinement and other aspects of restrictive housing, and reducing the length of disciplinary sanctions and the use of other forms of restrictive housing. Restrepo alleges that the defendant the Delaware Department of Correction ("DOC"), by and through its Commissioner Perry Phelps ("Phelps"), also a defendant, violated the law and the terms of the settlement in Civ. No. 15-688-GMS.[1] Restrepo alleges that the defendant the State of Delaware ("State of Delaware") allowed the defendant the Delaware Department of Justice ("DO J") to place him in the custody of the DOC and house him at the defendant VCC which has been under the supervision of the defendant VCC warden Dana Metzger ("Metzger") for several months. Restrepo alleges that none of the named defendants stepped up to ensure the protection of his rights, and this has resulted in a downward mental spiral.

         Restrepo relies upon Civ. No. 15-688-GMS as requiring the treatment of severely mentally ill inmates held in solitary confinement at the VCC. He alleges that beginning February 1, 2017, [2] treatment was stopped for all severely mentally ill inmates, mental health conditions exacerbated, more than six months passed, and treatment is still non-compliant with Civ. No. 15-688-GMS order. Restrepo alleges that his lack of treatment for an extended amount of time violates the Fifth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution, Article Six of the United States Constitution, UCC 1-306 and 1-308, and the Vienna Convention.[3] It is Restrepo's position that when the State of Delaware, through the DOC, subjects an inmate like himself to an Eighth Amendment violation, it forfeits or loses the right to any further confinement of Restrepo who is serving a sentence following his conviction in Criminal Action ID No. 1002011017.[4] (D.I. 3 at 16, 17.) Restrepo contends this Court has jurisdiction to release him for treatment. (Id.)

         The defendants are sued in their personal capacities. Restrepo seeks compensatory and punitive damages, declaratory relief, arid injunctive relief in the form of an immediate and permanent transfer (i.e., unconditional release) from his confinement by the State of Delaware and the DOC.


         A federal court may properly dismiss an action sua sponte under the screening provisions of 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B) and § 1915A(b) if "the action is frivolous or malicious, fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, or seeks monetary relief from a defendant who is immune from such relief." Ball v. Famiglio, 726 F.3d 448, 452 (3d Cir. 2013); see also 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2) (in forma pauperis actions); 28 U.S.C. § 1915A (actions in which prisoner seeks redress from a governmental defendant); 42 U.S.C. § l997e (prisoner actions brought with respect to prison conditions). The court must accept all factual allegations in a complaint as true and take them in the light most favorable to a pro se plaintiff. Phillips v. County of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 229 (3d Cir. 2008); Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 93 (2007). Because Restrepo proceeds pro se, his pleading is liberally construed and his complaint, "however inartfully pleaded, must be held to less stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers." Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. at 94 (citations omitted).

         An action is frivolous if it "lacks an arguable basis either in law or in fact." Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319, 325 (1989). Under 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B)(i) and § 1915A(b)(1), a court may dismiss a complaint as frivolous if it is "based on an indisputably meritless legal theory" or a "clearly baseless" or "fantastic or delusional" factual scenario. Neitzke, 490 at 327-28; Wilson v. Rackmill, 878 F.2d 772, 774 (3d Cir. 1989); see, e.g., Deutsch v. United States, 67 F.3d 1080, 1091-92 (3d Cir. 1995) (holding frivolous a suit alleging that prison officials took an inmate's pen and refused to give it back).

         The legal standard for dismissing a complaint for failure to state a claim pursuant to § 1915(e)(2)(B)(ii) and § 1915A(b)(1) is identical to the legal standard used when ruling on Rule 12(b)(6) motions. Tourscher v. McCullough, 184 F.3d 236, 240 (3d Cir. 1999) (applying Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6) standard to dismissal for failure to state a claim under § 1915(e)(2)(B)). However, before dismissing a complaint or claims for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted pursuant to the screening provisions of 28 U.S.C. §§ 1915 and 1915A, the court must grant Restrepo leave to amend his complaint unless amendment would be inequitable or futile. See Grayson v. Mayview State Hosp., 293 F.3d 103, 114 (3d Cir. 2002).

         A well-pleaded complaint must contain more than mere labels and conclusions. See Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662 (2009); Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007). A plaintiff must plead facts sufficient to show that a claim has substantive plausibility. See Johnson v. City of Shelby, ___U.S. ___, 135 S.Ct. 346, 347 (2014). A complaint may not dismissed, however, for imperfect statements of the legal theory supporting the claim asserted. See Id. at 346.

         Under the pleading regime established by Twombly and Iqbal, a court reviewing the sufficiency of a complaint must take three steps: (1) take note of the elements the plaintiff must plead to state a claim; (2) identify allegations that, because they are no more than conclusions, are not entitled to the assumption of truth; and (3) when there are well-pleaded factual allegations, the court should assume their veracity and then determine whether they plausibly give rise to an entitlement to relief. Connelly v. Lane Const. Corp., 809 F.3d 780, 787 (3d Cir. 2016) (internal citations and quotations omitted). Elements are sufficiently alleged when the facts in the complaint "show" that the plaintiff is entitled to relief. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679 (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2)). Deciding whether a claim is plausible will be a "context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense." Id.


         A. Eleventh Amendment

         Named as defendants are the State of Delaware, the DOC, the DOJ, and the VCC. These defendants are immune from suit. The Eleventh Amendment of the United States Constitution protects an unconsenting state or state agency from a suit brought in federal court by one of its own citizens, regardless of the relief sought. See Seminole Tribe of Fla. v. Florida, 517 U.S. 44, 54 (1996); Pennhurst State Sch. & Hosp. v. Halderman, 465 U.S. 89 (1984); Edelman v. Jordan, 415 U.S. 651 (1974). The DOC and DOJ are agencies of the State of Delaware, and the VCC falls under the umbrella of the DOC. The Eleventh Amendment protects states, their agencies, and departments from suit in federal court regardless of the kind of relief sought. Pennhurst State School & Hosp., 465 U.S. at 100. "Absent a state's consent, the Eleventh Amendment bars a civil rights suit in federal court that names the state as a defendant." Laskaris v. Thomburgh, 661 F.2d 23, 25 (3d Cir. 1981) (citing Alabama v. Pugh, 438 U.S. 781 (1978)). Delaware has not waived its immunity from suit in federal court; although Congress can abrogate a state's sovereign immunity, it did not do so through the enactment of 42 U.S.C. § 1983. See Brooks-McCollum v. Delaware, 213 Fed.Appx. 92, 94 (3d Cir. 2007) (unpublished). In addition, dismissal is proper because none of the foregoing defendants are persons for purposes of § 1983. See Will v. Michigan Dep't of State Police, 491 U.S. 58, 71(1989); Calhoun v. Young, 288 Fed.Appx. 47 (3d Cir. 2008) (unpublished).

         Accordingly, the court will dismiss all claims against the State of Delaware, the DOC, the DOJ, and the VCC pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B)(iii) and § 1915A(b)(2) as they are immune from suit.

         B. Respondeat Superior

         The complaint is quite lengthy, but when its facts are distilled, it is evident that Restrepo has named Phelps and Metzger as defendants based upon their supervisory positions. It is well established that claims based solely on the theory of respondeat superior or supervisor liability are facially deficient. See Ashcroft, 556 U.S. at 676-77; see also Solan v. Ranch, 326 Fed.Appx. 97, 100-01 (3d Cir. 2009) ("[a] defendant in a civil rights action must have personal involvement in the alleged wrongs; liability cannot be predicated solely on the operation of respondeat superior").

         The complaint alleges that the VCC is under the supervision of Metzger. It alleges that Phelps violated the terms of the agreement in Civ. No. 15-688-GMS, but does not allege Phelps' personal involvement or knowledge of Restrepo's complaints. Finally, the complaint alleges that Phelps and Metzger violated Restrepo's constitutional rights by allowing "the other in command to effect such violations" and have not "stepped up" to ensure the upholding and protection of Restrepo's rights. (D.I. 3 at 6.) Restrepo's claims rest impermissibly upon a theory of supervisory liability and, therefore, the claims against Phelps and Metzger will be dismissed as frivolous pursuant 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B)(i) and § 1915A(b)(1).

         C. Retaliation

         The complaint alleges that following the February 1, 2017 prison siege, a faction of the DOC sought violent retaliation against any and all inmates due to false claims that the death of Lt. Floyd was the result of treatment that severely mentally ill inmates received as a result of Civ. No. 15-688-GMS. Restrepo alleges that because he is a severely mentally ill inmate, he is a perfect target for retaliation. (D.I. 3 at 9.)

         "Retaliation for the exercise of constitutionally protected rights is itself a violation of rights secured by the Constitution actionable under § 1983." White v. Napoleon,897 F.2d 103, 111-12 (3d Cir. 1990). To state a claim for retaliation, a prisoner must allege that: (1) he was engaged in constitutionally protected conduct, (ii) he suffered some adverse action at the hands of prison officials, and (iii) "his constitutionally protected conduct was 'a substantial or motivating ...

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