United States District Court, D. New Jersey
August 5, 2005.
PHILLIP WOOD, Plaintiff,
LATANYA WOOD EL, et al., Defendants.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: ROBERT KUGLER, Magistrate Judge
Plaintiff Phillip Wood ("Wood"), a civilly-committed
person*fn1 currently confined at the Ann Klein Forensic
Center in West Trenton, New Jersey, seeks to bring this action
in forma pauperis pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Based on
his affidavit of indigence with respect to recently filed
applications for in forma pauperis status with this Court,
the Court will grant Wood'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
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. For the reasons stated below, the Court finds
that the Complaint should be dismissed.
The following factual allegations are taken from the Complaint
and are accepted as true for purposes of this review.
Wood alleges that he has been a mental patient for 25 years. He
claims that defendants, Latanya Wood El, Chief Executive Officer
("CEO") of the Ancora State Psychiatric Hospital, and John Main,
CEO at the Ann Klein Forensic Center, "allowed subordinance to
illegally incarcerate [plaintiff] when [he] did not meet the
criteria for involuntary commitment." (Complaint, ¶¶ 4b, 4c).
Wood further claims that the defendants departed from their legal
obligations by allowing psychiatrists to involuntarily commit
plaintiff to a state hospital when he did not require any
psychiatric treatment. (Compl., ¶ 6). He seeks compensatory
damages "in an amount that is fair". (Compl., ¶ 7). II. STANDARDS FOR A SUA SPONTE DISMISSAL
This Court must dismiss, at the earliest practicable time,
certain in forma pauperis 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).
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); Alston v. Parker, 363 F.3d 229 (3d Cir.
2004) (complaint that satisfied notice pleading requirement that
it contain short, plain statement of the claim, but lacked
sufficient detail to function as a guide to discovery, was not
required to be dismissed for failure to state a claim; district
court should permit a curative amendment before dismissing a
complaint, unless an amendment would be futile or inequitable);
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. Supervisor Liability
Wood's § 1983 claim alleging unlawful involuntary confinement
as against the "CEO" defendants or administrators at the state
psychiatric facilities should be dismissed since supervisor
liability is not cognizable in § 1983 actions. Local government
units and supervisors typically are not liable under § 1983
solely on a theory of respondeat superior. See City of
Oklahoma City v. Tuttle, 471 U.S. 808, 824 n. 8 (1985). "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. Personal involvement
can be shown through allegations of personal direction or of
actual knowledge and acquiescence." Rode v. Dellarciprete,
845 F.2d 1195, 1207 (3d Cir. 1988) (citations omitted). Accord
Robinson v. City of Pittsburgh, 120 F.3d 1286, 1293-96 (3d Cir.
1997); Baker v. Monroe Twp., 50 F.3d 1186, 1190-91 (3d Cir.
Here, it would appear that the named defendants are liable only
under a theory of respondeat superior. Wood alleges that it
was psychiatrists, not the CEOs, who committed him involuntarily. There are no factual allegations attesting to the personal
involvement of these CEO defendants in plaintiff's involuntary
commitment. Therefore, the Complaint may be dismissed in its
entirety, without prejudice, for failure to state a claim upon
which relief may be granted.
B. Challenge to Commitment Not Cognizable in a § 1983 Action
Although Wood seems only to request monetary damages in this
action against the defendants for an illegal involuntary
commitment, in actuality, he appears to challenge his commitment.
Thus, his action is not cognizable under § 1983, but instead,
should be raised in a habeas proceeding.
In a series of cases beginning with Preiser v. Rodriguez,
411 U.S. 475 (1973), the Supreme Court has analyzed the intersection
of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and the federal habeas corpus statute,
28 U.S.C. § 2254. In Preiser, state prisoners who had been
deprived of good-conduct-time credits by the New York State
Department of Correctional Services as a result of disciplinary
proceedings brought a § 1983 action seeking injunctive relief to
compel restoration of the credits, which would have resulted in
their immediate release. 411 U.S. at 476. The prisoners did not
seek compensatory damages for the loss of their credits.
411 U.S. at 494. The Court held that "when a state prisoner is challenging
the very fact or duration of his physical imprisonment, and the
relief he seeks is a determination that he is entitled to immediate release or a speedier release from that
imprisonment, his sole federal remedy is a writ of habeas
corpus." Id. at 500.
This same analysis applies to those involuntarily committed in
state mental institutions as well as to criminal prisoners. See
Souder v. McGuire, 516 F.2d 820, 823 (3d Cir. 1975) ("There is
no question about the appropriateness of habeas corpus as a
method of challenging involuntary commitment to a mental
institution"); see also Buthy v. Com'r of Office of Mental
Health of New York State, 818 F.2d 1046, 1051-52 (2d Cir. 1987);
Greist v. Norristown State Hospital, No.CIV.A. 96-CV-8495, 1997
WL 661097 (E.D.Pa. Oct. 22, 1997). Thus, Wood can challenge the
fact of his involuntary commitment, as opposed to the conditions
of his confinement, only by petitioning for a writ of habeas
corpus and after exhausting his state court remedies as required
by 28 U.S.C. § 2254.
In Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994), the Court addressed
a corollary question to that presented in Preiser, whether a
prisoner could challenge the constitutionality of his conviction
in a suit for damages only under § 1983, a form of relief not
available through a habeas corpus proceeding. Again, the Court
rejected § 1983 as a vehicle to challenge the lawfulness of a
[I]n order to recover damages for allegedly
unconstitutional conviction or imprisonment, or for other harm caused by actions whose unlawfulness would
render a conviction or sentence invalid, a § 1983
plaintiff must prove that the conviction or sentence
has been reversed on direct appeal, expunged by
executive order, declared invalid by a state tribunal
authorized to make such determination, or called into
question by a federal court's issuance of a writ of
habeas corpus, 28 U.S.C. § 2254. A claim for damages
bearing that relationship to a conviction or sentence
that has not been so invalidated is not cognizable
under § 1983.
512 U.S. at 486-87 (footnote omitted). The Court further
instructed district courts, in determining whether a complaint
states a claim under § 1983, to evaluate whether a favorable
outcome would necessarily imply the invalidity of a criminal
Thus, when a state prisoner seeks damages in a § 1983
suit, the district court must consider whether a
judgment in favor of the plaintiff would necessarily
imply the invalidity of his conviction or sentence;
if it would, the complaint must be dismissed unless
the plaintiff can demonstrate that the conviction or
sentence has already been invalidated. But if the
district court determines that the plaintiff's
action, even if successful, will not demonstrate
the invalidity of any outstanding criminal judgment
against the plaintiff, the action should be allowed
to proceed, in the absence of some other bar to the
512 U.S. at 487 (footnotes omitted). The Court further held that
"a § 1983 cause of action for damages attributable to an
unconstitutional conviction or sentence does not accrue until the
conviction or sentence has been invalidated." Id. at 489-90.
Wood's claim for compensatory damages against the state
administrators of the mental institutions where he was, and is,
involuntarily committed, presents the type of claim addressed in Heck; that is, a finding that Wood's current confinement is the
result of an allegedly improper application of commitment
criteria by the psychiatrists would necessarily imply the
invalidity of his commitment. As Wood does not contend that his
involuntary commitment has been invalidated, his claim for
damages has not yet accrued.
For the reasons set forth above, the Complaint must be
dismissed without prejudice as premature and for failing to state
a claim. It does not appear that Plaintiff could amend the
Complaint to state a claim at this time.