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Staats v. Phelps

United States District Court, D. Delaware

September 16, 2019

DWAYNE STAATS, et al., Plaintiffs,

          Dwayne Staats, SCI Albion, Albion, Pennsylvania; Jarreau A. Ayers, SCI Huntingdon, Huntingdon, Pennsylvania; Roman Shankaras, Wilmington, Delaware; Lawrence Michaels, Sussex Correctional Institution, Georgetown, Delaware; and Abdul Haqq el-quadeer, James T. Vaughn Correctional Center, Smyrna, Delaware. Pro Se Plaintiffs.




         Plaintiffs, [1] all current or former inmates at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center ("JTVCC") in Smyrna, Delaware, commenced this action on January 17, 2019, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983.[2] (D.I. 1) They also raise supplemental claims under Delaware law. Plaintiffs appear pro se. Plaintiff Dwayne Staats ("Staats") paid the filing fee in full on February 4, 2019.[3] Plaintiffs Jarreau A. Ayers ("Ayers"), Roman Shankaras ("Shankaras"), Lawrence Michaels ("Michaels"), and Abdul Haqq el-quadeer ("Haqq"), sought and were granted leave to proceed in forma pauperis. (D.I. 14, 32, 40, 49) Staats, Shankaras, and Ayers request counsel. (D.I. 3, 22, 48) Shankaras has filed two motions for leave to amend. (D.I. 20, 37) Non-party Nina Shahin ("Shahin") moves to join as a plaintiff in the case. (D.I. 7) The Court proceeds to review and screen the matter pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 1915(e)(2)(b) and 1915A(a).


         As has been widely reported, on February 2, 2017, there was a prison uprising in the C-Building at the JTVCC that resulted in the death of correctional officer Lt Steven Floyd ("Floyd"). At the time, Defendant David Pierce ('Tierce") was the JTVCC warden. Each Plaintiff was criminally charged in the prison uprising. (D.I. 3) Plaintiffs allege that prior to the uprising, abuses and other problems in general occurred at the JTVCC and die Delaware Department of Correction ("DOC"), including: (1) the adversarial culture at die JTVCC was not conducive to a safe facility; (2) policies and procedures were inconsistendy applied, if applied at all; (3) poor medical/mental health treatment; (4) lack of supervision/response to violence; (5) dysfunctional grievance system; and (6) limited access to rehabilitation programs. (D.I. 1 at 7) Plaintiffs allege that following the uprising, abuse and mistreatment of inmates included: (1) unwarranted punching, kicking, pepper spraying, and baton striking by Delaware and Maryland State Police, JTVCC correctional officers, and CERT (Le., "Correction Emergency Response Team") teams; (2) continued abuse by JTVCC correctional officers; (3) destruction and disposal of personal property; (4) inadequate/non-existent medical attention for injuries sustained after the breach of C-Building; (5) derogatory and abusive language directed towards inmates by DOC staff; (6) continued lack of adequate medical and mental health care; (7) non-responsive and ineffective grievance systems for medical and other grievances; (8) inadequate/non-existent medical attention; (9) extremely limited recreation time; (10) mail tampering at the JTVCC and the Sussex Correctional Institution ("SCI") in Georgetown, Delaware; and (11) disregard for the overall well-being of prisoners.

         The Complaint contains four counts. Count I alleges a § 1983 excessive force claim and an assault and battery claim under Delaware law. Count II alleges a § 1983 medical needs claim and a medical negligence claim under Delaware law. Count III raises a claim for lost property. Count IV raises an exhaustion of legal remedies claim because all Plaintiffs were prohibited from submitting grievances or sick call slips until three weeks after the uprising. Plaintiffs seek declaratory and injunctive relief as well as compensatory and punitive damages. (Id. at 15-16)


         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." Bail v. Famiglio, 726 F.3d 448, 452 (3d Cir. 2013); set also 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2) (in forma pauperis actions); 28 U.S.C. § 1915A (actions in which prisoner seeks redress from governmental defendant); 42 U.S.C. § 1997e (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. See Phillips v. County of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 229 (3d Cir. 2008); Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 93 (2007). Because Plaintiffs proceed pro se, their pleading is liberally construed and their Complaint, "however inartfully pleaded, must be held to less stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers." Erickson, 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)® 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 U.S. at 327-28; see also Wilson v. Rackmill, 878 F.2d 772, 774 (3d Cir. 1989); 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 deciding Rule 12(b)(6) motions. See 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 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 a plaintiff 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 complaint may be dismissed only if, accepting the well-pleaded allegations in the complaint as true and viewing them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, a court concludes that those allegations "could not raise a claim of entitlement to relief." Bell All. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 558 (2007). Though "detailed factual allegations" are not required, a complaint must do more man simply provide "labels and conclusions" or "a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action." Davis v. Abington Mem'l Hosp., 765 F.3d 236, 241 (3d Cir. 2014) (internal quotation marks omitted). In addition, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face. See Williams v. BASF Catalysts LLC, 765 F.3d 306, 315 (3d Cir. 2014) (citing Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) and Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570). Finally, a plaintiff must plead facts sufficient to show that a claim has substantive plausibility. See Johnson v. City of Shelby, 574 U.S. 10 (2014). A complaint may not be dismissed for imperfect statements of the legal theory supporting the claim asserted. See Id. at 10.

         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. See Connelly v. Lane Const. Corp., 809 F.3d 780, 787 (3d Cir. 2016). Elements are sufficiently alleged when the facts in the complaint "show" that the plaintiff is entitled to relief. See Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679 (citing 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. Count I: Assault by CERT Team

         Count I alleges "assaults by CERT Team" when, on February 2, 2017, a combination of Delaware and Maryland State Police as well as DOC correction officers and the DOC CERT Team, all of whom were dressed in riot gear, entered the C-Building. (D.I. 1 at 9) They ordered all inmates to return to their cells and lie on the ground with their hands behind their backs. The officers zip-tied die inmates' hands and pulled them as tight as possible. (Id.) Plaintiffs allege they offered no resistance yet, while restrained, they were kicked, kneed, punched, and sprayed with capstan, and suffered injuries. (Id. at 9-10) Plaintiffs allege that, next, they were forced to lie in pools of their blood on freezing cement for hours. (Id. at 10) They were taken to the infirmary where, they allege, the received inadequate medical care, none of their injuries were assessed, and nothing was documented. (Id.) That day, Plaintiffs were also sent to the segregated housing units. (Id. at 11) Plaintiffs allege the CERT Team maliciously and sadistically used physical force against them while they were restrained in violation of the Eighth Amendment and the CERT Team committed assault and battery under Delaware law. (Id.)

         Liberally construing Count I, it appears to state excessive force claims arising under the Eighth Amendment and assault and battery claims under Delaware law. Count I specifically refers to die CERT Team, a named defendant. The CERT Team, however, is not a person, as is required for a § 1983 claim. To state a viable § 1983 claim, a plaintiff must allege facts showing a deprivation of a constitutional right, privilege, or immunity by a person acting under color of state law. See Daniels v. Williams, 474 U.S. 327, 330 (1986). The claim against the CERT Team is not cognizable as it is not raised against a "person" acting under color of state law.

         No other Defendants are named in Count I, although later in the Complaint (in a separate section "Claims for Relief") Plaintiffs refer to Defendants former DOC Commissioner Perry Phelps ("Phelps"), Deputy Warden Parker ("Parker"), Deputy Warder James Scarborough ("Scarborough"), and Major Jeffery Carrothers ("Carrothers") and their alleged failures to intervene in the use of force by the CERT Team. (See D.I. 1 at ¶ 51) A corrections officer's failure to intervene in a beating can be the basis of liability under § 1983 if the corrections officer had a reasonable opportunity to intervene and simply refused to do so. See Smith v. Mensinger,293 F.3d 641, 650 (3d Cir. 2002). Here, however, the failure to intervene claim ...

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