United States District Court, D. New Jersey
September 9, 2005.
AMIR WINN and RAHEEM MANNS, Plaintiffs,
NEW JERSEY DEP'T OF CORRECTIONS, et al., Defendants.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: GARRETT BROWN, District Judge
Plaintiffs, Amir Winn and Raheem Manns, currently confined at
the Garden State Youth Correctional Facility in Yardville, New
Jersey, seek to bring this action alleging violations of their
constitutional rights in forma pauperis. Based on their
affidavits of indigence and the absence of three qualifying
dismissals within 28 U.S.C. § 1915(g), the Court will grant the
applications 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 set forth below, the
Court concludes that dismissal of the complaint is warranted as
against defendants Department of Corrections and Commissioner
Devon Brown. However, the claims against warden Sootkoos will be
permitted to proceed.
The following factual allegations are taken from the complaint
and are accepted as true for purposes of this review.
Plaintiffs are cell mates at the Garden State Youth
Correctional Facility. On June 13, 2005, while plaintiffs were in
the day room of the facility, a search of their cell was
conducted. Allegedly, officers found a pen with a razor attached
to the end of it, and charged plaintiffs with the disciplinary
charge of possession of an unauthorized tool. Plaintiffs were
placed in "lock up" for 23 hours a day. The warden, defendant
Sootkoos, told them that they would be given a lie detector test.
As of the date of filing, they had not yet received the lie
detector test, had not been formally charged with the
disciplinary charge, and had been placed in lock up for 26 days.
Plaintiffs seek to sue the New Jersey Department of
Corrections, Commissioner of the Department of Corrections Devon
Brown, and warden Sootkoos for monetary and injunctive relief. They argue that defendant Brown is liable for not properly
overseeing the prison, and that warden Sootkoos is liable to them
for approving the lie detector, then not following through with
it in a timely manner.
A. Standard of Review
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. § 1997c (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. See 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).
B. 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. See West v. Atkins, 487 U.S. 42
(1988); Piecknick v. Pennsylvania, 36 F.3d 1250
, 1255-56 (3d
Local government units and supervisors 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); Monell
v. New York City Department of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658,
690-91, 694 (1978) (municipal liability attaches only "when
execution of a government's policy or custom, whether made by its
lawmakers or by those whose edicts or acts may fairly be said to
represent official policy, inflicts the injury" complained of);
Natale v. Camden County Correctional Facility, 318 F.3d 575,
583-84 (3d Cir. 2003). "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 Two., 50 F.3d 1186,
1190-91 (3d Cir. 1995). In this case, the plaintiffs make no
claims of personal involvement against defendant Devon Brown, and
the claims against him must be dismissed, without prejudice.
Further, the Department of Corrections is not a "person" who
may be sued pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. See Will v. Michigan
Dept. of State Police, 491 U.S. 58, 68-70 (1989) (holding that
governmental entities considered "arms of the State" for Eleventh
Amendment purposes are not "persons" within the meaning of §
1983); Crabow v. Southern State Correctional Facility, 726 F. Supp. 537, 538-39 (D.N.J. 1989) (stating that New Jersey
Department of Corrections and state prison facilities not
"persons" under § 1983). Therefore, defendant New Jersey
Department of Corrections will be dismissed, with prejudice, from
the instant action.
Plaintiffs' claims against warden Sootkoos will be permitted to
proceed past sua sponte screening. In general, disciplinary
confinement of prisoners does not generally implicate due process
protections. See Sandin v. Connor, 515 U.S. 472, 484-86 (1995).
"As 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, 459 U.S. at 468 and
Sandin v. Conner, 515 U.S. 472, 480 (1995). "Discipline by
prison officials in response to a wide range of misconduct falls
within the expected parameters of the sentence imposed by a court
of law." Sandin, 515 U.S. at 485 (upholding prisoner's sentence
of 30 days' disciplinary segregation following a hearing at which
he was not permitted to produce witnesses).
Liberty interests protected by the Due Process Clause "will be
generally limited to freedom from restraint which, while not
exceeding the sentence in such an unexpected manner as to give rise to protection by the Due Process Clause of its own force,
nonetheless imposes atypical and significant hardship on the
inmate in relation to the ordinary incidents of prison life."
Sandin, 515 U.S. at 484 (finding that 30-day lock-down of
prisoner for disciplinary reasons is not a "major disruption in
his environment" and is therefore constitutional).
However, the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has held
that a Sandin analysis is a fact-based analysis, in which the
court must consider the duration of the disciplinary confinement
and the conditions of that confinement in relation to other
prison conditions. See Mitchell v. Horn, 318 F.3d 523, 531-32
(3d Cir. 2003) (noting the "differing outcomes, reflecting the
fact-specific nature of the Sandin test," and citing cases to
compare). Accordingly, plaintiffs may be able to demonstrate a
"major disruption in their environment," and this Court must
allow the claims to proceed. See Alston v. Parker,
363 F.3d 229, 233 n. 6 (3d Cir. 2004) (stating that at the pleading stage,
a plaintiff need only make out a claim upon which relief can be
granted, and that if more facts are necessary to resolve the
dispute, the parties may avail themselves of discovery
For the reasons set forth above, the claims against defendant
Department of Corrections will be dismissed, with prejudice. The
claims against defendant Devon Brown will be dismissed, without
prejudice. The claims against defendant Sootkoos will be
permitted to proceed. An appropriate Order follows.
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