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McKay v. Dep't of Justice

May 6, 2010

ALEX T. MCKAY, PLAINTIFF,
v.
DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Jerome B. Simandle United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

This matter comes before the Court upon Plaintiff's filing of an amended complaint, see Docket Entry No. 2, and his submission of in forma pauperis application, see Docket Entry No. 1-1, it appearing that:

1. Plaintiff initially submitted his original civil complaint, which arrived accompanied by Plaintiff's duly executed in forma pauperis application. See Docket Entry No. 1. In its caption, the original complaint named, as Defendants in this matter, the following individual and/or entities: (a) "the United States Department of Justice"; (b) "Eric M. Holder"; (c) "the Federal Bureau of Prisons et al."; and (d) "H. Watt." Id. at 1. The body of the original complaint, however, indicated that Plaintiff wished to assert claims only against two Defendants, Eric M. Holder ("Holder") and H. Watts ("Watts"), and Plaintiff's references to the "Department of Justice et al.," and "Federal Bureau of Prisons et al." were made as designations of Messrs. Holder and Watts' employ. See id. at 3-4. The original complaint further clarified that Plaintiff believed Holder was liable to Plaintiff because "[Holder's] Office created policies of which all must be held accountable [since Holder was] the top manager of the Department of Justice, [so] he [was] responsible to ensure adherence to such policies." Id. at 4. As to Watts, Plaintiff asserted Watts' liability on the grounds that Watts was an "administrative policy coordinator," the title from which Plaintiff apparently deduced liability for "denial of adherences [sic] to policies which allow the violations [that were asserted] in this [original] complaint." Id. The "Statement of Claim" provided in the original complaint, however, did not assert a single fact and was limited to a string of rhetoric and generalities expressing Plaintiff's disappointment with lack of enforcement of certain policies that Plaintiff read as favorable to his cause. See id. at 5.

2. Plaintiff later submitted his amended pleading, see Docket Entry No. 2, an eighteen-page document, which this Court construes as a supplement to Plaintiff's original complaint. See id. This supplement, read liberally, alleges that Plaintiff, while being employed at his correctional facility, was initially qualified for a certain "PG-4" employment grade (and corresponding payment), but ---sometime in August 2009 -- was promised by unspecified officials that he would be promoted to a higher position (that corresponded to a higher pay rate). See generally, id. "On September 10, 2009, when [his] pay was posted to [his prison] account[, Plaintiff] discovered that this approved raise had not been monetary enumerated, as contracted." Id. at 2. It appears that Plaintiff now seeks the difference in pay that he actually received for his employment and the one he, allegedly, was promised.*fn1 See id. at 5, 11.

3. 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,*fn2 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. See 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. See Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 93-94 (2007) (following Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 106 (1976), and Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, 520-21 (1972)); see also United States v. Day, 969 F.2d 39, 42 (3d Cir. 1992). Thus, 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. Recently, the Supreme Court further clarified the standard for summary dismissal in Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. 1937 (2009). The issue before the Supreme Court was whether Iqbal's civil rights complaint adequately alleged defendants' personal involvement in discriminatory decisions regarding Iqbal's treatment during detention at the Metropolitan Detention Center. The Court examined Rule 8(a)(2) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure which provides that a complaint must contain "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief." Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a)(2). Citing Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007), for the proposition that "[a] pleading that offers 'labels and conclusions' or 'a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do,'" Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. at 1949 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555), the Supreme Court identified two working principles underlying the failure to state a claim standard:

First, the tenet that a court must accept as true all of the allegations contained in a complaint is inapplicable to legal conclusions. Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice . . . . Rule 8 . . . does not unlock the doors of discovery for a plaintiff armed with nothing more than conclusions. Second, only a complaint that states a plausible claim for relief survives a motion to dismiss. Determining whether a complaint states a plausible claim for relief will . . . be a context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense. But where the well-pleaded facts do not permit the court to infer more than the mere possibility of misconduct, the complaint has alleged-but it has not "show[n] that the pleader is entitled to relief." Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a)(2).

Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. at 1949-1950 (citations omitted).

The Court further explained that a court . . . can choose to begin by identifying pleadings that, because they are no more than conclusions, are not entitled to the assumption of truth. While legal conclusions can provide the framework of a complaint, they must be supported by factual allegations.

Id. at 1950.

Thus, to prevent a summary dismissal, civil complaints must now allege "sufficient factual matter" to show that a claim is facially plausible. This "allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Id. at 1948. The Supreme Court's ruling in Iqbal emphasizes that a plaintiff must demonstrate that the allegations of his complaint are plausible. See id. at 1949-50; see also Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555, & n.3; Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203 (3d Cir. 2009). Consequently, the Third Circuit observed that Iqbal provides the "final nail-in-the-coffin" for the "no set of facts" standard set forth in Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 45-46 (1957), that applied to federal complaints before Twombly.*fn3

See Fowler, 578 F.3d at 210.

First, the factual and legal elements of a claim should be separated. The District Court must accept all of the complaint's well-pleaded facts as true, but may disregard any legal conclusions. Second, a District Court must then determine whether the facts alleged in the complaint are sufficient to show that the plaintiff has a "plausible claim for relief." In other words, a complaint must do more than allege the plaintiff's entitlement to relief. A complaint has to "show" such an entitlement with its facts. As the Supreme Court instructed in Iqbal, "[w]here the well-pleaded facts do not permit the court to infer more than the mere possibility of misconduct, the complaint has alleged-but it has not 'show[n]'-'that the pleader is entitled to relief.'" This "plausibility" determination will be "a context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense."

Fowler, 578 F.3d at 210-211 (citations omitted).

Moreover, the Iqbal Court clarified that a government official sued in his/her individual capacity for alleged constitutionally tortious behavior cannot be held liable on a respondeat superior theory or on the basis of some general link to allegedly responsible individuals or actions. See Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. at 1948-49 ("Government officials may not be held liable for ...


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