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Szubielski v. Pierce

United States District Court, D. Delaware

October 15, 2018

DAVID PIERCE, in his personal capacity, and DANA METZGER, in his official capacity, Defendants.


         Presently before the Court is Defendants' Motion to Dismiss Plaintiffs Second Amended Complaint. (D.I. 63). The Parties have fully briefed the issues. (D.I. 64, 66, 67). For the reasons set out below, Defendants' Motion is DENIED.

         I. Background

         On March 2, 2007, Plaintiff was sentenced to life in prison as a habitual offender. See Szubielski v. State, 82 A.3d 730 (Del. 2013). The second amended complaint alleges that Plaintiff was then transferred to the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center ("VCC") and housed in maximum security ("SHU"), which is a "solitary confinement unit." (D.I. 59 at ¶¶ 12-13). Plaintiff was classified to SHU until October 2016. (Id. at ¶ 22). Defendant Pierce served as warden at the VCC from 2013 until 2017. (Id. at ¶ 7). Defendant Metzger is the current VCC warden. (Id. at ¶ 8).

         Once a year, the Institutional Based Classification Committee ("IBCC") classifies Plaintiff. (Id. at ¶ 14). The classification assigned determines where he will be housed, for which privileges he will be eligible, and other aspects of his day-to-day life. (Id.). After each of Plaintiffs reviews from 2007-2014, the IBCC recommended Plaintiffs housing in maximum security. (Id. at¶ 16)

         In early 2015, Plaintiff wrote to Defendant Pierce and requested a transfer from SHU. (Id. at ¶ 17). Pierce replied that he would consider the transfer after the August 2015 classification review. (Id.). On August 6, 2015, the ACLU and Community Legal Aid Society, Inc. filed a Section 1983 lawsuit ("the CLASI lawsuit") against the Delaware Department of Correction over the mental health treatment provided to inmates in SHU and the length of time that they are housed there. See Community Legal Aid Society, Inc. v. Coupe, Civ. No. 15-688-GMS (D. Del.). Individual inmates were not named in the lawsuit, but Plaintiff was one of the exemplar inmates described in the complaint. (D.I. 59 at ¶ 18). The identities of the exemplar inmates were known by attorneys and officials at the DOC, including Defendant Pierce. (Id.).

         The IBCC conducted its 2015 annual review on September 1, 2015 and classified Plaintiff to medium security, medium high programs, and inmate worker. (Id. at ¶ 20). On October 14, 2015, Defendant Pierce exercised his unilateral veto authority to retain Plaintiff in SHU. (Id. at ¶ 21).

         II. Legal Standards

         When reviewing a motion to dismiss pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), the Court must accept the complaint's factual allegations as true. See Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555-56 (2007). Rule 8(a) requires "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief." Id. at 555. The factual allegations do not have to be detailed, but they must provide more than labels, conclusions, or a "formulaic recitation" of the claim elements. Id. ("Factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level... on the assumption that all the allegations in the complaint are true (even if doubtful in fact)."). Moreover, there must be sufficient factual matter to state a facially plausible claim to relief. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). The facial plausibility standard is satisfied when the complaint's factual content "allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Id. ("Where a complaint pleads facts that are merely consistent with a defendant's liability, it stops short of the line between possibility and plausibility of entitlement to relief." (internal quotation marks omitted)).

         III. Discussion

         Defendants move to dismiss the case claiming: (1) Defendant Pierce is entitled to immunity from suit on Count I; (2) Plaintiffs retaliation claim in Count II against Defendant Pierce is implausible; and (3) Plaintiff has failed to state a cognizable claim against Defendant Metzger in Count III.

         a. Count I

         Plaintiff alleges that Defendant Pierce violated the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments when he unilaterally vetoed Plaintiffs new IBCC classification. (D.I. 59 at ¶¶ 23-38). Defendant Pierce argues that the doctrine of qualified immunity shields him from liability for this alleged violation. (D.I. 64 at 5-8).

         Qualified immunity protects government officials from insubstantial claims to "shield officials from harassment, distraction, and liability when they perform their duties reasonably." Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 231 (2009). "When properly applied, it protects 'all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law.'" Ashcroft v. al-Kidd, 563 U.S. 731, 743 (2011) (quoting Malley v. Briggs, 475 U.S. 335, 341 (1986)). Qualified immunity protects government officials performing discretionary functions unless: (1) the official's conduct violates "a statutory or constitutional right, and (2) [] the right was 'clearly established' at the time of the challenged conduct." Id. at 735.

         "A Government official's conduct violates clearly established law when, at the time of the challenged conduct, '[t]he contours of [a] right [are] sufficiently clear' that every 'reasonable official would have understood that what he is doing violates that right.'" Id. at 741 (alteration in original) (quoting Anderson v. Creighton, 483 U.S. 635, 640 (1987)). "In other words, there must be sufficient precedent at the time of action, factually similar to the plaintiffs allegations, to put defendant on notice that his or her conduct is constitutionally prohibited." McLaughlin v. Watson,271 F.3d 566, 572 (3d Cir. 2001). To determine if a right is clearly established, the Third Circuit directs a court to look first for Supreme Court precedent. Mammaro v. N.J. Div. of Child Prot. & Permanency,814 F.3d 164, 169 (3d Cir. 2016). If there is none, then a court may rely on a '"robust consensus of cases of persuasive authority' in the Court of Appeals." Id. (quoting Taylor v. Barkes,135 S.Ct. 2042, 2044 (2015) (per curiam)). "[Although ...

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