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Ely Cooper v. Kenneth Sharp

March 23, 2011

ELY COOPER, PLAINTIFF,
v.
KENNETH SHARP, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hochberg, District Judge

NOT FOR PUBLICATION

OPINION

Plaintiff, Ely Cooper, an involuntarily committed person pursuant to the Sexually Violent Predator Act ("SVPA"), N.J.S.A. 30:4-27.24, et seq., seeks to bring this action in forma pauperis. Based on his affidavit of indigence, the Court will grant plaintiff's application to proceed in forma pauperis ("IFP") pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915(a) (1998) and order the Clerk of the Court to file the Complaint.

At this time, the Court must review the Complaint, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2), to determine whether the action 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 this action should be dismissed for failure to state a claim at this time. In addition, plaintiff's motion for a preliminary injunction will be denied as moot.

I. BACKGROUND

Plaintiff, Ely Cooper ("Cooper"), brings this civil rights action, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, against the following defendants: Kenneth Sharp, Assistant Attorney General for the State of New Jersey; Debbie Hasting, Superintendent at the East Jersey State Prison, Special Treatment Unit ("EJSP-STU"); Dr. Merril Main, Clinical Director at EJSP-STU; Steve Johnson, Assistant Superintendent at EJSP-STU; John Main, Chief Director of the New Jersey Department of Human Services ("NJDHS") at the Ann Klein Forensic Center in Trenton, New Jersey; and Jennifer Velez, Commissioner of the NJDHS. (Complaint, Caption and ¶¶ 4b-4g). The following factual allegations are taken from the Complaint, and are accepted for purposes of this screening only. The Court has made no findings as to the veracity of plaintiff's allegations.

In his Complaint, Cooper alleges that defendants have either authorized or condoned the New Jersey Department of Corrections to place plaintiff, a civilly committed resident, on prison grounds and under prison policy and guidelines in violation of his constitutional rights and his patients' bill of rights. (Compl., ¶¶ 4b-4g). In addition, Cooper complains that defendants Merril Main and John Main have allowed correctional officers at EJSP-STU to dictate how therapy groups are run, in particular, giving plaintiff only five-minute movement option to get to group knowing that the doors are controlled by the NJDOC staff. (Compl., ¶¶ 4d and 4f).

Specifically, Cooper alleges that, on May 18, 2010, defendant Johnson was made aware that the residents at EJSP-STU were being treated like prisoners by the EJSP correctional officers. (Compl., ¶ 6). Also on that day, it had rained and water dripped from the ceiling leaving a white foam substance on the ceiling and water spots on the floor where it had puddled. (Id.).

On May 19, 2010, Cooper observed the NJDHS staff psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers moving their office supplies off grounds to a location in Edison, New Jersey, leaving plaintiff with no on-site psychiatrist after 4:00 p.m. (Id.). On May 21, 2010, Assistant Administrator Conway allegedly came on plaintiff's unit at EJSP-STU and told Cooper and other residents how therapy groups would be run and that plaintiff might be taken out of some therapy sessions. (Id.).

On May 27, 2010, as Cooper was returning from the yard, he was pat searched and finger scanned (Ion scan) by Internal Affairs for the STU. Cooper states that the pat search and finger scan was watched and conducted by first shift correctional officer, Lt. Morrison. (Id.).

Cooper next alleges that residents are banned from going to the law library at the EJSP. (Id.). Further, Cooper states that he was placed on treatment probation on July 16, 2010, for not attending groups due to the correctional officers dictating how therapy groups will be run. Cooper complains that he has been told to talk about his feelings about this at group, which he contends hinders his mental actions in group. On July 26, 2010, he was approached by Sgt. Vessell who told plaintiff that plaintiff had to move to group on the NJDOC's call. (Id.).

Cooper also states that, on May 12, 2010, he was informed that mail and packages are to be sent and/or received at the Avenel facility and not at EJSP-STU in Rahway where he is confined. He provides a copy of a May 14, 2010 memo advising residents that First Class mail and packages from home will be mailed to STU CN 905 at Avenel, and that packages from UPS or Fed Ex will be mailed to STU 8 Production Way at Avenel, New Jersey. (Id.).

On August 25, 2010, Cooper filed numerous grievances with defendants Merril Main and Steve Johnson, as well as with Unit Director Shantay Brame Adams and Chief Cathy Buchannan. Cooper complains that he has not received responses to these grievances. (Id.).

Also, on August 25, 2010, Cooper alleges that he was verbally harassed by correctional officers, causing him to feel "mentally degraded' and humiliated. Cooper complains that since his arrival at the EJSP-STU, his therapy group movements have been run by the NJDOC correctional staff, causing plaintiff to be taken out of groups, and having to attend groups in a caged and boarded-up, fenced area. Cooper states that he feels like he is being treated as a "problem prisoner" instead of a civilly committed resident. (Id.).

Cooper asks to be placed in a federally funded treatment facility. He also seeks monetary compensation for being placed in a prison environment where he has suffered mental anguish, harassment, and discrimination. (Compl., ¶ 7).

On October 20, 2010, the Court received a motion filed by Cooper seeking a temporary restraining order directing defendants not to retaliate against plaintiff by confiscating his court papers or placing plaintiff on "MAP" (modified activities program) status. (See Docket entry no. 2). Cooper alleges that he has been banned from law library materials and has been placed under prison policy guidelines and procedures even though he is not a prisoner. He also alleges that he has been threatened with MAP status if he does not follow the NJDHS "way." He also complains that he has been separated from his "mental support." (Id.).

II. STANDARDS FOR A SUA SPONTE DISMISSAL

A district court is required to review a complaint in a civil action where the litigant is proceeding in forma pauperis. Specifically, 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, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B). Accordingly, because Cooper is proceeding in forma pauperis in this matter, this action is subject to sua sponte screening for dismissal under 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B).

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). 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)). See also Erickson, 551 U.S. at 93-94 (In a pro se prisoner civil rights complaint, the Court reviewed whether the complaint complied with the pleading requirements of Rule 8(a)(2)).

However, recently, the Supreme Court revised this standard for summary dismissal of a Complaint that fails to state a claim 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 which, if true, violated his constitutional rights. Id. 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).*fn1 Citing its recent opinion in 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. Rule Civ. Proc. 8(a)(2).Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. at 1949-1950 (citations omitted).

The Court further explained that a court considering a motion to dismiss 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. When there are well-pleaded factual allegations, a court should assume their veracity and then determine whether they plausibly give rise to an entitlement to relief. Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. 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 then "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. Id. at 1949-50; see also Twombly, 505 U.S. at 555, & n.3; Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 210(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),*fn2 that applied to federal complaints before Twombly. Fowler, 578 F.3d at 210. The Third Circuit now requires that a district court must conduct the two-part analysis set forth in Iqbal when presented with a motion to dismiss:

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. [Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. at 1949-50]. 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." [Id.] 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. See Phillips, 515 F.3d at 234-35. 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.'" Iqbal, [129 S.Ct. at 1949-50]. This "plausibility" determination will be "a context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense." Id. Fowler, 578 F.3d at 210-211.

This Court is mindful, however, that the sufficiency of this pro se pleading must be construed liberally in favor of Plaintiff, even after Iqbal. See Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89 (2007). Moreover, a court should not dismiss a complaint with prejudice for failure to state a claim without granting leave to amend, unless it finds bad faith, undue delay, prejudice or futility. See Grayson v. Mayview State Hosp., 293 F.3d 103, 110-111 (3d Cir. 2002); Shane v. Fauver, 213 F.3d 113, 117 (3d Cir. 2000).

III. SECTION 1983 ACTIONS

Cooper brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. 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 ...


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