United States District Court, D. New Jersey
September 22, 2005.
WILLIAM C. SEVERS, JR., Plaintiff,
CUMBERLAND COUNTY JAIL, et al., Defendants.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: FREDA WOLFSON, Magistrate Judge
Plaintiff William C. Severs, Jr. ("Severs"), currently confined
at the Cumberland County Jail in Bridgeton, New Jersey, brings
this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging violations of
his constitutional rights. At this time, the Court must review
the Complaint pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915A 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
the Complaint may proceed only in part. I. BACKGROUND
In his Complaint, Severs contends that he has been denied
medical treatment and care for his serious medical conditions;
that he has been denied access to the law library; and that the
defendants at Cumberland County Jail have interfered with his
With respect to his denial of medical care claim, Severs
alleges that he suffers from an incarcerated hernia, highly
elevated high blood pressure, and inflammation of his left
paranasal sinuses. From April 2004 through August 2004,
plaintiff's counsel wrote to the jail officials seeking medical
attention and assistance for Severs. Severs had requested surgery
for his hernia, which was not scheduled until a year later in
August 2005. Severs now claims that the surgery was cancelled due
to his criminal trial. Severs states that he was told by jail
officials that they will not grant surgery or further testing
until after plaintiff is transported to New Jersey State Prison.
Severs' sentencing date is not until October 21, 2005, and he has
no transport date for New Jersey State Prison.
Severs next complains that his legal mail has been opened
outside of his presence on repeated occasions. Severs' attorney
wrote to the warden, Glenn Sauders, several times to correct the
situation, but nothing was done. Finally, Severs states that he is being denied meaningful
access to the law library. In the three years that Severs was
incarcerated, he was permitted access to the law library only two
times even though he had made many requests to visit the law
library. On the two occasions that he was allowed to use the
library, Severs was shackled and in handcuffs.
Severs seeks injunctive relief, namely, an Order directing the
defendants to schedule his hernia operation immediately; and to
investigate the Jail's violation of the inmates' right to use the
law library and the interference with inmates' legal mail. Severs
also seeks an unspecified monetary amount in damages for his pain
II. STANDARDS FOR A SUA SPONTE DISMISSAL
The Prison Litigation Reform Act ("PLRA"), Pub.L. No. 104-134,
§§ 801-810, 110 Stat. 1321-66 to 1321-77 (April 26, 1996),
requires a district court to review a complaint in a civil action
in which a prisoner is proceeding in forma pauperis or
seeks redress against a governmental employee or entity. The
Court is required to identify cognizable claims and to sua
sponte dismiss any claim that is frivolous, 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.
28 U.S.C. §§ 1915(e)(2)(B) and 1915A. 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 complaint is frivolous if it "lacks an arguable basis either
in law or in fact." Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319, 325
(1989) (interpreting the predecessor of § 1915(e)(2), the former
§ 1915(d)). The standard for evaluating whether a complaint is
"frivolous" is an objective one. Deutsch v. United States,
67 F.3d 1080, 1086-87 (3d Cir. 1995).
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
Here, the Complaint seeks redress against the Cumberland County
Jail, the warden, and other jail officials and guards for their
violation of Severs' constitutional rights.*fn1
A. Denial of Medical Care Claim
Severs first complains that he has been denied medical
treatment, namely, surgery for his hernia, and treatment for high
blood pressure and a inflamed sinus condition. He contends that
defendants violated his right against cruel and unusual
punishment as guaranteed under the Eighth Amendment.
Severs was a pretrial detainee when he was allegedly denied
medical care. Thus, his constitutional claims are considered
under the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendments, rather
than the Eighth Amendment. See City of Revere v. Massachusetts
General Hospital, 463 U.S. 239, 243-45 (1983) (holding that the
Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, rather than the Eighth Amendment, controls the issue of whether prison officials
must provide medical care to those confined in jail awaiting
trial); Hubbard v. Taylor, 399 F.3d 150, 158 (3d Cir. 2005);
Fuentes v. Wagner, 206 F.3d 335, 341 n. 9 (3d Cir.), cert.
denied, 531 U.S. 821 (2000); Monmouth County Correctional
Institutional Inmates v. Lanzaro, 834 F.2d 326, 346 n. 31 (3d
Cir. 1987), cert. denied, 486 U.S. 1006 (1988). However, the
Third Circuit has held that the "deliberate indifference"
standard employed in Eighth Amendment cases also applies to
pretrial detainees under the Fourteenth Amendment. See Natale
v. Camden County Correctional Facility, 318 F.3d 575, 581-82 (3d
Cir. 2003) ("In previous cases, we have found no reason to apply
a different standard than that set forth in Estelle . . . We
therefore evaluate Natale's Fourteenth Amendment claim for
inadequate medical care under the standard used to evaluate
similar claims under the Eighth Amendment."); Simmons v. City of
Philadelphia, 947 F.2d 1042, 1067 (3d Cir. 1991), cert.
denied, 503 U.S. 985 (1992); Brown v. Borough of
Chambersburg, 903 F.2d 274, 278 (3d Cir. 1990); Taylor v.
Plousis, 101 F. Supp.2d 255, 262 n. 3 (D.N.J. 2000). See
also Hubbard, 399 F.3d at 166 n. 22. Accordingly, since the
Fourteenth Amendment in this context incorporates the protections
of the Eighth Amendment, the Court will apply the deliberate
indifference standard of the Eighth Amendment in analyzing
plaintiff's denial of medical care claim. See Simmons, 947 F.2d at 1067 (the rights of a detainee are at least as great
as those of a convicted prisoner).
The Eighth Amendment 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); Rouse v. Plantier, 182 F.3d 192 (3d Cir. 1999). 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.
Estelle, 429 U.S. at 106; Natale, 318 F.3d at 582.
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). The
Third Circuit has defined a serious medical need as: (1) "one
that has been diagnosed by a physician as requiring treatment;"
(2) "one that is so obvious that a lay person would recognize the
necessity for a doctor's attention;" or (3) one for which "the
denial of treatment would result in the unnecessary and wanton
infliction of pain" or "a life-long handicap or permanent loss."
Atkinson v. Taylor, 316 F.3d 257, 272-73 (3d Cir. 2003) (internal quotations and citations omitted); see
also 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. See Natale, 318 F.3d at 582
(finding deliberate indifference requires proof that the official
knew of and disregarded an excessive risk to inmate health or
safety). "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."
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.3d at 110.
The Third Circuit has found deliberate indifference where a
prison official: (1) knows of a prisoner's need for medical
treatment but intentionally refuses to provide it; (2) delays
necessary medical treatment for non-medical reasons; or (3)
prevents a prisoner from receiving needed or recommended
treatment. See Rouse, 182 F.3d at 197. The court has also
held that needless suffering resulting from the denial of simple
medical care, which does not serve any penological purpose,
violates the Eighth Amendment. Atkinson, 316 F.3d at 266. See
also Monmouth County Correctional Institutional Inmates,
834 F.2d at 346 ("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"); Durmer v.
O'Carroll, 991 F.2d 64 (3d Cir. 1993); White v. Napoleon,
897 F.2d 103 (3d Cir. 1990).
Here, Severs alleges that he has an incarcerated hernia that
requires surgery due to possible strangulation. He states that
surgery was to be scheduled for August 2005, but was then
cancelled, principally because he was to be transferred to New Jersey State Prison. However, Severs' transfer is not scheduled
at this time, and will not be scheduled until he is actually
sentenced in October 2005.
The Court finds that these allegations, as presented, may be
sufficient at this stage to support a denial of medical care
claim. First, Severs' incarcerated hernia and the scheduled
surgery to prevent strangulation suggest a serious medical need.
Second, Severs allegation that the jail officials cancelled his
surgery for non-medical reasons might also, if true, suggest
deliberate indifference. See Rouse, 182 F.3d at 197 (finding
deliberate indifference where a prison official delays necessary
medical treatment for non-medical reasons). Therefore, at this
early stage of litigation, the Court is inclined to allow the
denial of medical care claim proceed.
B. Inadequate Law Library 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). Similarly, a pretrial detainee
has a right of access to the courts with respect to legal
assistance and participation in one's own defense against pending
criminal charges. See, e.g., May v. Sheahan, 226 F.3d 876,
883-84 (7th Cir. 2000); Caldwell v. Hall, 2000 WL 343229 (E.D.
Pa. March 31, 2000). But see United States v. Byrd,
208 F.3d 592, 593 (7th Cir. 2000) (pretrial detainee who rejects an offer
of court-appointed counsel in satisfaction of the Sixth Amendment
right to counsel has no alternative right to access to a law
library); Wilson v. Blankenship, 163 F.3d 1284, 1290-91 (11th
Cir. 1998) (same); United States v. Walker, 129 F.3d 1266, 1997
WL 720385, **4 (6th Cir. 1997) (same).
Moreover, a prisoner alleging a violation of his right of
access must show that prison officials caused him past or
imminent "actual injury" by hindering his efforts to pursue such
a claim or defense. See Lewis, 518 U.S. at 348-51, 354-55
(1996); Oliver v. Fauver, 118 F.3d 175, 177-78 (3d Cir. 1997).
"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, Severs fails to allege any actual injury as a result of
the alleged limitations on his use of the law library. Moreover,
it is clear that Severs had counsel representing him in his
criminal matters, and in seeking remedies for the claims now
addressed in this Complaint. Finally, Severs has been able to
file this Complaint and other pleadings without any allegations
that his efforts to do so were encumbered in any way. Therefore,
Severs fails to show actual injury with respect to his claim that
he was denied access to the courts by way of inadequate law
library access, and this claim will be dismissed without
C. Interference with Legal Mail
Finally, Severs alleges that Cumberland County Jail officials
have repeatedly interfered with his legal mail on numerous
occasions, even after Severs' attorney had written to the warden
to remedy the situation. In particular, Severs alleges that his legal mail is opened and reviewed outside his
Inmates have a limited liberty interest in their mail under the
First and Fourteenth Amendments; thus, an inmate's constitutional
right to send and receive mail may be restricted only for
legitimate penological interests. See Thornburgh v. Abbott,
490 U.S. 401, 407 (1989); Turner v. Safley, 482 U.S. 78, 89
(1987). A single interference with the delivery of an inmate's
personal mail, without more, does not rise to the level of a
constitutional deprivation. Morgan v. Montayne, 516 F.2d 1367
(2d Cir. 1975), cert. denied, 424 U.S. 973 (1976).
Here, Severs alleges sufficient facts which may demonstrate a
pattern of actual and deliberate interference with plaintiff's
legal mail. Consequently, at this early stage of the proceeding,
the Court will allow this claim to proceed.
For the reasons set forth above, Severs' access-to-courts claim
will be dismissed without prejudice, pursuant to
28 U.S.C. § 1915A(b)(1), for failure to state a claim. However, the remaining
claims, alleging denial of medical care and interference with
legal mail, may proceed at this time. An appropriate order
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