United States District Court, D. New Jersey
September 23, 2005.
LEON WOODSON, Plaintiff,
GLEN FERGUSON, et al., Defendants.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: WILLIAM MARTINI, District Judge
Plaintiff, Leon Woodson ("Woodson"), currently confined at the
Northern Regional Unit ("NRU") in Kearny, New Jersey, seeks to
bring this action in forma pauperis pursuant to
42 U.S.C. § 1983.*fn1 Based on his affidavit of indigence, the Court
will grant Woodson'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.*fn2 For the reasons stated below, the
Court finds that the Complaint should be dismissed.*fn3
The following factual allegations are taken from the Complaint
and are accepted as true for purposes of this review.
Woodson brings this § 1983 action against defendants, Dr. Glenn
Ferguson and Dr. Merrill Mean. Dr. Ferguson is the Clinical
Director at the Special Treatment Unit ("STU") in the NRU in
Kearny, New Jersey. Dr. Mean is a psychologist and a member of
plaintiff's treatment team at the STU.
Woodson alleges that, on November 19, 2002, Dr. Ferguson
violated plaintiff's Fourteenth Amendment rights by failing to protect Woodson from harm. Specifically, Woodson was assaulted on
that date by three residents as Woodson lay in bed watching
television. He was taken to St. Francis Hospital for treatment of
his injuries. Woodson alleges that Dr. Ferguson was aware of the
residents' violent behavior from past disciplinary proceedings,
but failed to take the appropriate safety and preventative
measures to keep such conduct from happening again. Thereafter,
Woodson was placed on involuntary protective custody and sent to
a lock-up cage. (Complaint, ¶¶ 4b, 6).
Woodson also relates that he came to the STU in 1999. At that
time, he had participated in a treatment orientation with Dr.
Ferguson in which Dr. Ferguson handed out lessons to the
residents. Woodson looked at the lesson and attempted to hand it
back to Dr. Ferguson. Dr. Ferguson gave a forceful push of his
hand, as a show of force to plaintiff. (Compl., ¶ 4b).
Next, Woodson alleges that Dr. Mean unlawfully restrained
plaintiff and placed him in a stripped room in the lock-up area
on November 24, 2003. Woodson contends that Dr. Mean's actions
were done with deliberate indifference to plaintiff's civil
rights, and for the purpose of punishment without reason.
(Compl., ¶¶ 4c, 6).
Woodson seeks monetary damages in the amount of $50,000.00. He
also asserts supplemental state law claims under New Jersey's
civil rights act for civilly committed persons, N.J.S.A. 30:4-24; New Jersey's Patients Bill of Rights, N.J.S.A. 30:4-24.2; medical
negligence; and violations of New Jersey's constitutional right
to adequate mental health treatment. Finally, Woodson asserts a
general claim under the American with Disabilities Act ("ADA")
and Rehabilitation Act based on defendant's failure to reasonably
accommodate plaintiff's handicap and denying treatment for health
and mental illnesses.
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.
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, 48
(1988); Piecknick v. Pennsylvania, 36 F.3d 1250, 1255-56 (3d
A. Denial of Due Process Claim
Woodson is an involuntarily committed sexually violent
predator. The New Jersey Sexually Violent Predator Act, N.J.S.A.
30:4-27.24 et seq., establishes an involuntary civil commitment
procedure for a sexually violent predator, defined by the act as
"a person who has been convicted, adjudicated delinquent or found
not guilty by reason of insanity for commission of a sexually
violent offense, or has been charged with a sexually violent
offense but found to be incompetent to stand trial, and suffers
from a mental abnormality or personality disorder that makes the
person likely to engage in acts of sexual violence if not confined in a secure facility for control, care and treatment,"
N.J.S.A. 30:4-27.26. Further, pursuant to the act, the Department
of Corrections bears responsibility for the operation of any
facility designated for the custody, care, and treatment of
sexually violent predators, and the Department is required, with
certain exceptions, to house such committed sexually violent
predators separately from offenders in the custody of the
Department of Corrections. N.J.S.A. 30:4-27.34(a). The Division
of Mental Health Services in the Department of Human Services is
required to provide or arrange for treatment appropriately
tailored to address the specific needs of sexually violent
predators. N.J.S.A. 30:4-27.34(b).
Persons committed under the Sexually Violent Predator Act are
"patients at a secure treatment facility, not inmates." In re
Commitments of M.G. and D.C., 331 N.J. Super. 365,
751 A.2d 1101, 1105 (N.J.Super. App. Div. 2000).
The treatment program is designed to provide
comprehensive treatment services and is staffed by
psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers,
substance abuse counselors and other staff members
with specialized training in the assessment and
treatment of sexual deviance and personality
According to the State, the Kearny facility is
designed to provide a non-judgmental, non-punitive
therapeutic treatment program in a setting that is
controlled, safe, and conducive to the treatment
process. There are, however, some marked differences
between the facility and other therapeutic placement
facilities. Persons committed to Kearny are housed in
locked rooms and monitored by uniformed correctional
officers, some carrying weapons, who are employed by the Department of Corrections. Residents leaving the
facility are shackled with handcuffs to waist chains
and also with ankle cuffs.
751 A.2d at 1105. See also N.J.S.A. 30:4-27.34(b) (persons
committed under the Sexually Violent Predator Act are entitled to
"treatment appropriately tailored to address the specific needs
of sexually violent predators").
"Due process requires that the nature of commitment bear some
reasonable relation to the purpose for which the individual is
committed." Foucha v. Louisiana, 504 U.S. 71, 79 (1992) (citing
Jones v. United States, 463 U.S. 354, 368 (1983); Jackson v.
Indiana, 406 U.S. 715, 738 (1972)). In addition, "due process
requires that the conditions and duration of confinement under [a
sexual predator commitment act] bear some reasonable relation to
the purpose for which persons are committed." Seling v. Young,
531 U.S. 250, 265 (2001) (citing Foucha v. Louisiana,
504 U.S. 71 at 79; Youngberg v. Romeo, 457 U.S. 307, 324 (1982); and
Jackson v. Indiana, 406 U.S. 715, 738 (1972)).
Thus, involuntarily committed mentally retarded persons retain
substantive liberty interests in adequate food, shelter,
clothing, and medical care, Youngberg, 457 U.S. at 315, as well
as in safety, freedom of movement, and minimally adequate or
reasonable training to ensure safety and freedom from undue
restraint, id. at 317-19. These interests, however, are not
absolute. Id. at 319-20. "In determining whether a substantive right protected by the Due Process Clause has been violated, it
is necessary to balance "the liberty of the individual" and "the
demands of an organized society." Id. at 320 (quoting Poe v.
Ullman, 367 U.S. 497, 542 (1961) (Harlan, J., dissenting)). In
seeking this balance, a court must weigh "the individual's
interest in liberty against the State's asserted reasons for
restraining individual liberty." Id. In Youngberg, balancing
the interests of the State against the rights of involuntarily
committed mentally retarded persons to reasonable conditions of
safety and freedom from unreasonable restraints, the Court
adopted the standard advocated by a concurring judge, below, that
"the Constitution only requires that the courts make certain that
professional judgment in fact was exercised. It is not
appropriate for the courts to specify which of several
professionally acceptable choices should have been made."
487 U.S. at 321 (quoting 644 F.2d 147, 178 (3d Cir. 1980) (Seitz,
C.J., concurring)). Thus, even when treatment decisions violate a
protected liberty interest, such decisions made by a qualified
professional are presumptively valid;
liability may be imposed only when the decision by
the professional is such a substantial departure from
accepted professional judgment, practice, or
standards as to demonstrate that the person
responsible actually did not base the decision on
such a judgment. In an action for damages against a
professional in his individual capacity, however, the
professional will not be liable if he was unable to
satisfy his normal professional standards because of
budgetary constraints; in such a situation, good-faith immunity
would bar liability.
457 U.S. at 323 (footnote omitted). This standard is applicable
to the decision to forcibly administer psychotropic drugs against
the will of an involuntarily committed mental patient. See
Rennie v. Klein, 720 F.2d 266
(3d Cir. 1983).
Taking account of the provisions of the New Jersey Sexually
Violent Predator Act, as interpreted by the New Jersey Superior
Court, Appellate Division, that persons committed under the act
are patients, not inmates, the Youngberg "professional
judgment" standard should apply to treatment decisions that
allegedly violate such persons' constitutional rights. But see
Martyr v. Mazur-Hart, 789 F. Supp. 1081 (D. Oregon 1992)
(holding that confinement of person committed to the custody of
state hospital after being found "not guilty by reason of
insanity" is analogous to the confinement of a felon in prison,
and analyzing First Amendment and substantive due process claims
arising out of mail censorship under standards applicable to
Here, Woodson's violation of due process claim involves several
allegations.*fn4 Woodson takes issue with his restraint and lock-up on November 24, 2003, which allegedly imposed "punitive
prison like conditions of confinement . . . in a regiman [sic]
which is identical to that imposed on felons in prison."
(Complaint, ¶ 6). Woodson does not allege that excessive force
was used, that he sustained any injuries as a result of the
restraint, or that the restraint lasted more than a single day.
The Complaint further lacks any allegations that such restraint
and lock-up incidents are recurrent with Woodson.
It is not clear whether Woodson's lock-up on November 23, 2003
was a treatment decision or a disciplinary action. However, it is
clear that plaintiff is alleging that the defendant's action in
restraining him in this manner was meant as "punishment". For
detainees asserting a due process claim under the Fourteenth
Amendment, which is analogous here, there exists a minimum degree
of "punishment" which must be exceeded before a constitutional
violation may be found; "de minimis" punishment does not offend
the Constitution. Bell v. Wolfish, 441 U.S. 520, 539 n. 21
(1979). In Wolfish, the Supreme Court set forth the standard to
be applied in analyzing whether a detainee has been deprived of
liberty without due process:
In evaluating the constitutionality of conditions or
restrictions of pretrial detention that implicate
only the protection against deprivation of liberty
without due process of law, we think that the proper
inquiry is whether those conditions amount to punishment of the
detainee. For under the Due Process Clause, a
detainee may not be punished prior to an adjudication
of guilt in accordance with due process of law. . . .
Not every disability imposed during pretrial
detention amounts to "punishment" in the
constitutional sense, however. Once the government
has exercised its conceded authority to detain a
person pending trial, it obviously is entitled to
employ devices that are calculated to effectuate this
detention. . . .
A court must decide whether the disability is imposed
for the purpose of punishment or whether it is but an
incident of some other legitimate governmental
purpose. Absent a showing of an expressed intent to
punish on the part of detention facility officials,
that determination generally will turn on "whether an
alternative purpose to which [the restriction] may
rationally be connected is assignable for it, and
whether it appears excessive in relation to the
alternative purpose assigned [to it]." Thus, if a
particular condition or restriction of pretrial
detention is reasonably related to a legitimate
governmental objective, it does not, without more,
amount to "punishment." Conversely, if a restriction
or condition is not reasonably related to a
legitimate goal if it is arbitrary or purposeless
a court permissibly may infer that the purpose of the
governmental action is punishment that may not
constitutionally be inflicted upon detainees qua
detainees. . . .
Wolfish, 441 U.S. at 535-39 (citations omitted); see also
Fuentes v. Wagner, 206 F.3d 335
, 341-42 (3d Cir.), cert.
denied, 531 U.S. 821 (2000). The Supreme Court further
explained that the government has legitimate interests that stem
from its need to maintain security and order at the detention
facility. "Restraints that are reasonably related to the
institution's interest in maintaining jail security do not,
without more, constitute unconstitutional punishment, even if
they are discomforting and are restrictions that the detainee would not
have experienced had he been released while awaiting trial."
Wolfish, 441 U.S. at 540. Retribution and deterrence, however,
are not legitimate nonpunitive governmental objectives. Id. at
539 n. 20. Nor are grossly exaggerated responses to genuine
security considerations. Id. at 539 n. 20, 561-62.
As mentioned above, persons committed under the Sexually
Violent Predator Act are confined in a secure treatment facility,
in locked rooms monitored by uniformed corrections officers. See
In re Commitments of M.G. and D.C., 751 A.2d at 1105.
Consequently, while specialized training and therapeutic
treatment programs are provided, the facility is a controlled
environment with legitimate security concerns. Thus, even if
Woodson's lock-up on November 24, 2003 was punitive as alleged,
plaintiff's allegations fail to state a claim of constitutional
magnitude under the due process clause of the Fourteenth
Amendment. Woodson alleges no force or prolonged detention. He
alleges no injury or harm sustained as a result of the
defendant's action in restraining him for one day. The Complaint
does not demonstrate that the defendants' action on November 24,
2003, in restraining and locking up plaintiff without use of
force for a single day, was a grossly exaggerated response.
Therefore, Woodson's Fourteenth Amendment due process claim will
be dismissed for failure to state a claim. B. Failure to Protect Claim is Time-Barred
Next, Woodson recounts that, on November 19, 2002, he was
assaulted by other residents. Woodson states that defendants knew
or should have known of the violent behavior of the person who
attacked plaintiff, but the defendants failed to protect
plaintiff from harm. These allegations, if true, may be
sufficient to allow the claim to proceed; however, it appears on
the face of the Complaint that this claim is time-barred.
A court may dismiss a complaint for failure to state a claim,
based on a time-bar, where "the time alleged in the statement of
a claim shows that the cause of action has not been brought
within the statute of limitations." Bethel v. Jendoco
Construction Corp., 570 F.2d 1168, 1174 (3d Cir. 1978) (citation
omitted). Although the statute of limitations is an affirmative
defense which may be waived by the defendant, it is appropriate
to dismiss sua sponte under § 1915(e)(2) a pro se civil
rights claim whose untimeliness is apparent from the face of the
Complaint. See, e.g., Pino v. Ryan, 49 F.3d 51, 53 (2d Cir.
1995) (holding, under former § 1915(d) in forma pauperis
provisions, that sua sponte dismissal prior to service of an
untimely claim is appropriate since such a claim "is based on an
indisputably meritless legal theory"); Hall v. Geary County Bd.
of County Comm'rs, 12 Fed. Appx. 855 (10th Cir. 2001) (unpub.)
(applying Pino to current § 1915(e)); Rounds v. Baker,
141 F.3d 1170 (8th Cir. 1998) (unpub.) (same); Johnstone v. United
States, 980 F.Supp. 148 (E.D. Pa. 1997) (same).
Civil rights claims are best characterized as personal injury
actions and are governed by the applicable state's statute of
limitations for personal injury actions. Accordingly, New
Jersey's two-year limitations period on personal injury actions,
N.J. STAT. ANN. § 2A:14-2, governs plaintiff's claims. See
Montgomery v. DeSimone, 159 F.3d 120, 126 & n. 4 (3d Cir. 1998);
Cito v. Bridgewater Township Police Dept., 892 F.2d 23, 25 (3d
Here, the statute of limitations began to run, at the latest,
when the incident occurred on November 19, 2002. See Sameric
Corp. of Delaware v. City of Philadelphia, 142 F.3d 582, 599 (3d
Cir. 1998) (a section 1983 cause of action accrues when the
plaintiff knew or should have known of the injury upon which the
action is based). This Complaint was received by the Court on or
about July 1, 2005, more than nine months after Woodson's the
two-year statute of limitations had expired. Therefore, any
potential § 1983 claim based on this event is time-barred.
Moreover, Woodson has not asserted facts suggesting any basis
for statutory tolling. See, e.g., N.J. STAT. ANN. § 2A:14-21
(detailing tolling because of minority or insanity); N.J.S.A. §
2A 14-22 (detailing tolling because of nonresidency of persons
liable). New Jersey law also permits "equitable tolling" where "the complainant has been induced or tricked by his adversary's
misconduct into allowing the filing deadline to pass," or where a
plaintiff has "in some extraordinary way" been prevented from
asserting his rights, or where a plaintiff has timely asserted
his rights mistakenly by either defective pleading or in the
wrong forum. See Freeman v. State, 347 N.J. Super. 11, 31
(N.J. Super. App. Div.) (citations omitted), certif. denied,
172 N.J. 178 (2002). "However, absent a showing of intentional
inducement or trickery by a defendant, the doctrine of equitable
tolling should be applied sparingly and only in the rare
situation where it is demanded by sound legal principles as well
as the interests of justice." Id.
When state tolling rules contradict federal law or policy, in
certain limited circumstances, federal courts can turn to federal
tolling doctrine. See Lake v. Arnold, 232 F.3d 360, 370 (3d
Cir. 2000). Under federal law, equitable tolling is appropriate
in three general scenarios:
(1) where a defendant actively misleads a plaintiff
with respect to her cause of action; (2) where the
plaintiff has been prevented from asserting her claim
as a result of other extraordinary circumstances; or
(3) where the plaintiff asserts her claims in a
timely manner but has done so in the wrong forum.
Id. n. 9.
Here, the Complaint alleges no extraordinary circumstances that
would permit equitable tolling under either New Jersey or federal
law. There are no allegations that Woodson was unaware of his rights in 2002, nor are there any allegations that
defendants prevented Woodson in any way from timely filing his
Complaint. Therefore, because it is clear on the face of the
Complaint that the failure to protect claim based on an incident
occurring on November 19, 2002 is time-barred, and no
extraordinary circumstances are alleged to warrant equitable
tolling, this claim must be dismissed with prejudice as
C. ADA and Rehabilitation Act Claims
Title II of the ADA provides that qualified disabled persons
shall not "by reason of such disability, be excluded from
participation in or be denied the benefits of the services,
programs, or activities of a public entity, or be subjected to
discrimination by any such entity." 42 U.S.C. § 12132. This
provision of the ADA applies to services, programs, and
activities provided within correctional institutions.
Pennsylvania Dep't of Corrections v. Yeskey, 524 U.S. 206
To state a claim under Title II of the ADA, Woodson must show
that: "(1) he is a qualified person with a disability; (2) he was
either excluded from participation in or denied the benefits of a public entity's services, programs, or activities,
or was otherwise discriminated against by the public entity; and
(3) such exclusion, denial of benefits, or discrimination was by
reason of his disability." Calloway v. Boro of Glassboro Dep't
of Police, 89 F. Supp. 2d 543, 551 (D.N.J. 2000). Applying the
above factors, the Court concludes that Woodson has not alleged
facts sufficient to state a claim under the ADA.*fn6
Woodson's civil confinement under the SVPA does not ipso facto
render him a qualified individual with a disability under the
ADA. Disability means a "physical or mental impairment that
substantially limits one or more of the major life activities of
an individual." 28 C.F.R. § 35.104. The term disability does not
include "[t]ransvestism, transexualism, pedophilia,
exhibitionism, voyeurism, gender identity disorders not resulting
from physical impairments, or other sexual behavior disorders."
28 C.F.R. § 35.104, "Disability" at ¶ 5 (I). See also Bay
Area Addiction Research and Treatment, Inc. V. City of Antioch,
179 F.3d 725, 735 (9th Cir. 1999) (persons who pose a significant risk to
the health or safety of others that cannot be ameliorated by
means of a reasonable modification are not qualified individuals
under § 12131).
Likewise, plaintiff cannot establish a claim under Section 504
of the Rehabilitation Act. Under the Rehabilitation Act, Woodson
must prove that (1) he is a "individual with a disability" under
the Act; (2) he is otherwise qualified for the services sought;
(3) he is denied from the services sought solely by reason of his
disability; and (4) the program or activity in question receives
federal financial assistance. See 29 U.S.C. § 794(a). As with
the ADA, the term "individual with a disability", under the
Rehabilitation Act, does not include a person on the basis of
"transvestism, transexualism, pedophilia, exhibitionism,
voyeurism, gender identity disorders not resulting from physical
impairments, or other sexual behavior disorders." 29 U.S.C. § 705
(20) (E) (I).
Consequently, Woodson is unable to assert a claim under either
the ADA or Rehabilitation Act because he cannot show that he is
an individual with a disability covered under these acts.
D. The Remaining State Law Claims
Woodson also alleges various supplemental state law claims in
his Complaint. As the federal claims will be dismissed for
failure to state a claim, this Court declines to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over plaintiff's remaining state law
claims, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1367(c)(3). The Court does not
purport to make any ruling or opinion as to the viability of
plaintiff's claims sounding in state law.
For the reasons set forth above, the Complaint will be
dismissed in its entirety as against all defendants for failure
to state a claim. Woodson's application for appointment of
counsel is denied as moot. An appropriate Order accompanies this
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