United States District Court, D. New Jersey
May 9, 2005.
JONATHAN LOPEZ, Plaintiff,
WARDEN GARY MERLINE, et al., Defendants.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: ROBERT KUGLER, Magistrate Judge
Plaintiff Jonathan Lopez, a prisoner currently confined at
Northern State Prison, seeks to bring this action in forma
pauperis pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging violations of
his constitutional rights. Based on his affidavit of indigence
and the absence of three qualifying dismissals within
28 U.S.C. § 1915(g), the Court will grant Plaintiff's application to proceed
in forma pauperis pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915(a) and order
the Clerk of the Court to file the Complaint.
At this time, the Court must review the Complaint to determine
whether it should be dismissed as frivolous or malicious, for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be
granted, or because it seeks monetary relief from a defendant who
is immune from such relief.
The following faual allegations are taken from Plaintiff's
Complaint and are accepted as true for purposes of this review.
On or about August 20, 2004, Plaintiff was taken from a state
prison to the Atlantic County Justice Facility to await an
appearance in the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division,
Upon arrival, Plaintiff was placed into the general population,
consisting primarily of pre-trial detainees. Plaintiff contends
that his placement into the general population, rather than into
protective segregation, was done with reckless disregard for his
personal safety, despite his numerous requests to be placed in
From August 20, 2004 to September 2, 2004, Plaintiff vigorously
complained to the defendants about his mental state and suicidal
thoughts. Plaintiff asked for an opportunity to talk with a
psychiatrist or to receive appropriate medical treatment. On
September 3, 2004, Plaintiff attempted suicide by overdosing on
prescription pills obtained from pretrial detainees. While
unconscious, Plaintiff was left in a cell for approximately 20 minutes, after which he was transported to a
local hospital for treatment.
Plaintiff also complains that while confined at Atlantic County
Justice Facility he was denied access to the law library and
Plaintiff names as Defendants Warden Gary Merline, Social
Worker Adrienne Landgraf, and Sgt. Hall, as well as John Does. He
seeks compensatory and punitive damages.
II. STANDARDS FOR A SUA SPONTE DISMISSAL
This Court must dismiss, at the earliest practicable time,
certain in forma pauperis and prisoner actions that are
frivolous, malicious, fail to state a claim, or seek monetary
relief from a defendant who is immune from such relief. See
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. § 1997e (prisoner actions
brought with respect to prison conditions).
In determining the sufficiency of a pro se complaint, the
Court must be mindful to construe it liberally in favor of the
plaintiff. Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, 520-21 (1972);
United States v. Day, 969 F.2d 39, 42 (3d Cir. 1992). The Court
must "accept as true all of the allegations in the complaint and
all reasonable inferences that can be drawn therefrom, and view
them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff." Morse v.
Lower Merion School Dist., 132 F.3d 902, 906 (3d Cir. 1997). The
Court need not, however, credit a pro se plaintiff's "bald
assertions" or "legal conclusions." Id.
A pro se complaint may be dismissed for failure to state a
claim only if it appears "`beyond doubt that the plaintiff can
prove no set of facts in support of his claim which would entitle
him to relief.'" Haines, 404 U.S. at 521 (quoting Conley v.
Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 45-46 (1957)); Milhouse v. Carlson,
652 F.2d 371, 373 (3d Cir. 1981). Where a complaint can be remedied
by an amendment, a district court may not dismiss the complaint
with prejudice, but must permit the amendment. Denton v.
Hernandez, 504 U.S. 25, 34 (1992); Grayson v. Mayview State
Hospital, 293 F.3d 103, 108 (3d Cir. 2002) (dismissal pursuant
to 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)); Shane v. Fauver, 213 F.3d 113,
116-17 (3d Cir. 2000) (dismissal pursuant to
42 U.S.C. § 1997e(c)(1)); Urrutia v. Harrisburg County Police Dept.,
91 F.3d 451, 453 (3d Cir. 1996).
III. SECTION 1983 ACTIONS
A plaintiff may have a cause of action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983
for certain violations of his constitutional rights. Section 1983
provides in relevant part:
Every person who, under color of any statute,
ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State
or Territory . . . subjects, or causes to be
subjected, any citizen of the United States or other
person within the jurisdiction thereof to the
deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities
secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable
to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other
proper proceeding for redress. . . .
Thus, to state a claim for relief under § 1983, a plaintiff must
allege, first, the violation of a right secured by the
Constitution or laws of the United States and, second, that the
alleged deprivation was committed or caused by a person acting
under color of state law. West v. Atkins, 487 U.S. 42
(1988); Piecknick v. Pennsylvania, 36 F.3d 1250
, 1255-56 (3d
A. Eighth Amendment Medical-Care Claim
The Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution,
applicable to the individual states through the Fourteenth
Amendment, prohibits the states from inflicting "cruel and
unusual punishments" on those convicted of crimes. Rhodes v.
Chapman, 452 U.S. 337, 344-46 (1981). This proscription against
cruel and unusual punishment requires that prison officials
provide inmates with adequate medical care. Estelle v. Gamble,
429 U.S. 97, 103-04 (1976). In order to set forth a cognizable
claim for a violation of his right to adequate medical care, an
inmate must allege: (1) a serious medical need; and (2) behavior
on the part of prison officials that constitutes deliberate
indifference to that need. Id. at 106.
To satisfy the first prong of the Estelle inquiry, the inmate
must demonstrate that his medical needs are serious. "Because society does not expect that prisoners will have
unqualified access to health care, deliberate indifference to
medical needs amounts to an Eighth Amendment violation only if
those needs are `serious.'" Hudson v. McMillian, 503 U.S. 1, 9
(1992). Serious medical needs include those that have been
diagnosed by a physician as requiring treatment or that are so
obvious that a lay person would recognize the necessity for
doctor's attention, and those conditions which, if untreated,
would result in lifelong handicap or permanent loss. Monmouth
County Correctional Institutional Inmates v. Lanzaro,
834 F.2d 326, 347 (3d Cir. 1987), cert. denied, 486 U.S. 1006 (1988).
The second element of the Estelle test requires an inmate to
show that prison officials acted with deliberate indifference to
his serious medical need. "Deliberate indifference" is more than
mere malpractice or negligence; it is a state of mind equivalent
to reckless disregard of a known risk of harm. Farmer v.
Brennan, 511 U.S. 825, 837-38 (1994). Furthermore, a prisoner's
subjective dissatisfaction with his medical care does not in
itself indicate deliberate indifference. Andrews v. Camden
County, 95 F.Supp.2d 217, 228 (D.N.J. 2000); Peterson v.
Davis, 551 F.Supp. 137, 145 (D. Md. 1982), aff'd,
729 F.2d 1453 (4th Cir. 1984). Similarly, "mere disagreements over medical
judgment do not state Eighth Amendment claims." White v.
Napoleon, 897 F.2d 103, 110 (3d Cir. 1990). "Courts will disavow
any attempt to second-guess the propriety or adequacy of a particular course
of treatment . . . [which] remains a question of sound
professional judgment. Implicit in this deference to prison
medical authorities is the assumption that such informed judgment
has, in fact, been made." Inmates of Allegheny County Jail v.
Pierce, 612 F.2d 754, 762 (3d Cir. 1979) (internal quotation and
citation omitted). Even if a doctor's judgment concerning the
proper course of a prisoner's treatment ultimately is shown to be
mistaken, at most what would be proved is medical malpractice and
not an Eighth Amendment violation. Estelle, 429 U.S. at 105-06;
White, 897 F.2d at 110.
"Where prison authorities deny reasonable requests for medical
treatment, however, and such denial exposes the inmate `to undue
suffering or the threat of tangible residual injury,' deliberate
indifference is manifest. Similarly, where `knowledge of the need
for medical care [is accompanied by the] . . . intentional
refusal to provide that care,' the deliberate indifference
standard has been met. . . . Finally, deliberate indifference is
demonstrated `[w]hen . . . prison authorities prevent an inmate
from receiving recommended treatment for serious medical needs or
deny access to a physician capable of evaluating the need for
such treatment." Monmouth County Corr. Inst. Inmates v.
Lanzaro, 834 F.2d at 346 (citations omitted). "Short of absolute
denial, `if necessary medical treatment [i]s . . . delayed for non-medical reasons, a case of deliberate
indifference has been made out." Id. (citations omitted).
"Deliberate indifference is also evident where prison officials
erect arbitrary and burdensome procedures that `result? in
interminable delays and outright denials of medical care to
suffering inmates.'" Id. at 347 (citation omitted). Compare
Durmer v. O'Carroll, 991 F.2d 64, 69 (3d Cir. 1993) (summary
judgment properly granted to prison warden and state commissioner
of corrections, the only allegation against whom was that they
failed to respond to letters from prisoner complaining of prison
doctor's treatment decisions) with Sprull v. Gillis,
372 F.3d 218, 236 (3d Cir. 2004) (a non-physician supervisor may be liable
under § 1983 if he knew or had reason to know of inadequate
Here, Plaintiff alleges that he made repeated requests for
medical care for his psychological problems, that such requests
were ignored or denied, and that he thereafter attempted suicide.
Plaintiff has stated a claim for unconstitutional denial of
medical care that is sufficient to avoid dismissal at this
preliminary stage of the litigation.
B. The Classification Claim
With respect to convicted and sentenced prisoners, "[a]s long
as the conditions or degree of confinement to which the prisoner
is subjected is within the sentence imposed upon him and is not otherwise violative of the Constitution, the Due Process
Clause does not in itself subject an inmate's treatment by prison
authorities to judicial oversight." Montanye v. Haymes,
427 U.S. 236, 242 (1976), quoted in Hewitt v. Helms,
459 U.S. 460, 468 (1983) and Sandin v. Conner, 515 U.S. 472, 480 (1995).
Cf. Washington v. Harper, 494 U.S. 210, 221-22 (1990)
(prisoner possesses liberty interest under the Due Process Clause
in freedom from involuntary administration of psychotropic
drugs); Vitek v. Jones, 445 U.S. 480, 493-94 (1980) (prisoner
possesses liberty interest under the Due Process Clause in
freedom from involuntary transfer to state mental hospital
coupled with mandatory treatment for mental illness, a punishment
carrying "stigmatizing consequences" and "qualitatively
different" from punishment characteristically suffered by one
convicted of a crime).
It is well established that a prisoner possesses no liberty
interest arising from the Due Process Clause in a particular
custody level or place of confinement. See, e.g., Olim v.
Wakinekona, 461 U.S. 238, 245-46 (1983); Hewitt,
459 U.S. at 466-67; Meachum v. Fano, 427 U.S. 215, 224-25 (1976);
Montanye, 427 U.S. at 242. Because Plaintiff alleges that he
should have been placed in "protective" segregation, however,
this Court construes the Complaint as alleging that Defendants
failed to protect Plaintiff, as required by the Eighth Amendment. Under the Eighth Amendment, prison officials have a duty to
provide humane conditions of confinement, including adequate
food, clothing, shelter, medical care, and personal safety.
Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825, 832 (1994); Young v.
Quinlan, 960 F.2d 351, 364 (3d Cir. 1992). Accordingly, prison
officials must take reasonable measures "to protect prisoners
from violence at the hands of other prisoners." Farmer,
511 U.S. at 833 (1994) (internal quotations omitted). "Being
violently assaulted in prison is simply `not part of the penalty
that criminal offenders pay for their offenses against society.'"
Id. at 834 (quoting Rhodes v. Chapman, 452 U.S. 337, 347
To successfully state a claim for violation of the Eighth
Amendment, an inmate must satisfy both the objective and
subjective components of such a claim. The inmate must allege a
deprivation which was "sufficiently serious," and that in their
actions or omissions, prison officials exhibited "deliberate
indifference" to the inmate's health or safety. See Farmer,
511 U.S. at 834; Wilson v. Seiter, 501 U.S. 294, 305 (1991);
Nami v. Fauver, 82 F.3d 63, 67 (3d Cir. 1996).
In the context of a failure-to-protect claim, the inmate must
show that he is "incarcerated under conditions posing a
substantial risk of harm," Farmer, 511 U.S. at 833, and that
prison officials knew of and disregarded the excessive risk to
inmate safety, Id. at 837. "A pervasive risk of harm may not ordinarily be shown by pointing to a single incident or isolated
incidents, but it may be established by much less than proof of a
reign of violence and terror." Riley v. Jeffes, 777 F.2d 143,
147 (3d Cir. 1985). "Whether . . . prison official[s] had the
requisite knowledge of a substantial risk is a question of fact
subject to demonstration in the usual ways, including inference
from circumstantial evidence, and a fact finder may conclude that
. . . prison official[s] knew of a substantial risk from the very
fact that the risk was obvious." Farmer, 511 U.S. at 842.
Deliberate indifference is more than a mere lack of ordinary due
care, however; it is a state of mind equivalent to a reckless
disregard of a known risk of harm. Farmer, 511 U.S. at 834.
Applying Farmer to the instant action, the first question is
whether Plaintiff has alleged facts showing that inmates, or
Plaintiff in particular, faced a substantial risk of harm from
confinement in the general population with pre-trial detainees.
The second question is whether Plaintiff has alleged facts from
which it could be inferred that defendants were aware of and
disregarded that risk.
Plaintiff does not allege facts which suggest that defendants
were informed or aware of a specific risk of harm to himself or
other inmates, Nami, 82 F.3d at 67-68; Young,
960 F.2d at 362, or that "a substantial risk of inmate attacks was
longstanding, pervasive, well-documented" or otherwise obvious to them. Farmer, 511 U.S. at 842; accord Hamilton v. Leavy,
117 F.3d 742, 747-48 (3d Cir. 1997); Ingalls v. Florio,
968 F.Supp. 193, 199-200 (D.N.J. 1997). Even if Defendants failed to
exercise due care by placing Plaintiff in the general population,
such negligence is insufficient to establish a violation of the
Eighth Amendment. Davidson v. Cannon, 474 U.S. 344, 345-48
(1986) (finding that prison officials' negligent failure to heed
prisoner's notification of threats from another inmate, followed
by an assault, is not a deprivation of constitutional rights);
see also Schwartz v. County of Montgomery, 843 F.Supp. 962
(E.D. Pa.), aff'd, 37 F.3d 1488 (3d Cir. 1994) (stating that
corrections officers' failure to observe institutional policies
regarding the supervision of dangerous inmates constitutes
negligence, which cannot support a § 1983 action for violation of
the Eighth or Fourteenth Amendments).
Here, Plaintiff fails to allege any facts from which it could
be inferred either that he faced a substantial risk of harm from
being confined in the general population, that the Defendants
were aware of such a risk, or that the Defendants were
deliberately indifferent to such risk. Plaintiff has failed to
state a claim for failure to protect; however, Plaintiff will be
granted leave to file an amended complaint. C. Access-to-Courts Claim
The constitutional right of access to the courts is an aspect
of the First Amendment right to petition the government for
redress of grievances. Bill Johnson's Restaurants, Inc. v.
NLRB, 461 U.S. 731, 741 (1983). In addition, the constitutional
guarantee of due process of law has as a corollary the
requirement that prisoners be afforded access to the courts in
order to challenge unlawful convictions and to seek redress for
violations of their constitutional rights. Procunier v.
Martinez, 416 U.S. 396, 419 (1974), overruled on other
grounds, Thornburgh v. Abbott, 490 U.S. 401, 413-14 (1989).
See also Peterkin v. Jeffes, 855 F.2d 1021, 1036 n. 18 (3d
Cir. 1988) (chronicling various constitutional sources of the
right of access to the courts).
In Bounds v. Smith, 430 U.S. 817, 828 (1977), the Supreme
Court held that "the fundamental constitutional right of access
to the courts requires prison authorities to assist inmates in
the preparation and filing of meaningful legal papers by
providing prisoners with adequate law libraries or adequate
assistance from persons trained in the law." The right of access
to the courts is not, however, unlimited. "The tools [that
Bounds] requires to be provided are those that the inmates need
in order to attack their sentences, directly or collaterally, and
in order to challenge the conditions of their confinement. Impairment of any other litigating capacity is simply one of
the incidental (and perfectly constitutional) consequences of
conviction and incarceration." Lewis v. Casey, 518 U.S. 343,
355 (1996) (emphasis in original).
Moreover, a prisoner alleging a violation of his right of
access must show that prison officials caused him past or
imminent "actual injury." See Lewis, 518 U.S. at 348-55 and
n. 3 (1996); Oliver v. Fauver, 118 F.3d 175, 177-78 (3d Cir.
1997). There is no "abstract, freestanding right to a law library
or legal assistance, [and] an inmate cannot establish relevant
actual injury simply by establishing that his prison's law
library or legal assistance program is subpar in some theoretical
sense. . . . [T]he inmate therefore must go one step further and
demonstrate that the alleged shortcomings in the library or legal
assistance program hindered his efforts to pursue a
[nonfrivolous] legal claim. He might show, for example, that a
complaint he prepared was dismissed for failure to satisfy some
technical requirement which, because of deficiencies in the
prison's legal assistance facilities, he could not have known. Or
that he had suffered arguably actionable harm that he wished to
bring before the courts, but was so stymied by inadequacies of
the law library that he was unable to file even a complaint."
Lewis, 518 U.S. at 351. In describing the scope of services which must be provided by
the state to indigent prisoners, the Supreme Court has stated,
"[i]t is indisputable that indigent inmates must be provided at
state expense with paper and pen to draft legal documents, with
notarial services to authenticate them, and with stamps to mail
them. . . . This is not to say that economic factors may not be
considered, for example, in choosing the methods used to provide
meaningful access. But the cost of protecting a constitutional
right cannot justify its total denial." Bounds,
430 U.S. at 824-25, clarified on other grounds, Lewis v. Casey,
518 U.S. 343. Thus, "there is no First Amendment right to subsidized mail
or photocopying. [Instead], the inmates must point to evidence of
actual or imminent interference with access to the courts."
Reynolds v. Wagner, 128 F.3d 166, 183 (3d Cir. 1997).
Here, Plaintiff fails to allege any actual interference with an
attempt to attack his conviction or conditions of confinement.
Accordingly, Plaintiff fails to state a claim for denial of his
right of access to the courts. Plaintiff will be granted leave to
file an amended complaint.
For the reasons set forth above, Plaintiff's Eighth Amendment
medical care claim may proceed. Plaintiff's other claims will be
dismissed without prejudice for failure to state a claim. See
28 U.S.C. §§ 1915(e)(2)(B)(ii) and 1915A(b)(1); 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(c), for failure to state a claim. However, because
it is conceivable that Plaintiff may be able to cure the
deficiencies of his Complaint, the Court will grant Plaintiff
leave to file an amended complaint].*fn1 An appropriate