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Lionell G. Miller v. Michelle R. Ricci

April 28, 2011

LIONELL G. MILLER, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHELLE R. RICCI, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



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

NOT FOR PUBLICATION

OPINION

Plaintiff, who appears to be a convicted prisoner currently confined at the New Jersey State Prison, Trenton, New Jersey, seeks to bring this action in forma pauperis, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging violations of his constitutional rights. Based on his affidavit of indigence and the absence of three qualifying dismissals within 28 U.S.C. § 1915(g), the Court will grant Plaintiff's application to proceed in forma pauperis, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915(a), and will order the Clerk 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.

I. BACKGROUND

A. Allegations Stated in the Complaint

The facts of Plaintiff's Complaint are presented in a narrative detailing the events that took place for a number of years before they culminated in an altercation of February 24, 2009. See Docket Entry No. 1.

According to the Complaint, Plaintiff was involved, at one point in time, with a certain woman who eventually entered in a relationship with a correctional officer. See id. at 12. Upon learning of that relationship, Plaintiff ceased his contacts with this woman. See id. The Complaint alleges that Plaintiff's election to cease his contacts with this woman caused animosity between Plaintiff and the correctional officers employed at the New Jersey State Prison. See id. According to the Complaint, the correctional officers began harassing Plaintiff; such harassment started, seemingly, years before the events of February 2009. See id.

The Complaint asserts that, as part of their harassment campaign, correctional officers tried to recruit inmates to assault Plaintiff. See id. However, since the Complaint is silent as to any such attacks, the Court presumes that these officers' efforts were unsuccessful, and so Plaintiff was not harmed by any inmate recruited by the officers. See generally, Docket Entry No. 1.

Plaintiff also asserts that, during this alleged multi-year harassment campaign, Plaintiff's personal property was stolen or destroyed by correctional officers, and he was wrongly designated as a member of the "Bloods Gang," as a result of which his mail was systemically detoured to a Newark office in charge of monitoring gang activities. See id. at 12.

Plaintiff alleges that he submitted an inmate remedy form to the warden of the New Jersey State Prison, Defendant Ricci, informing her about the aforesaid acts of harassment, and Plaintiff's sister sent numerous letters to Defendant Ricci and other officials at the New Jersey Department of Corrections expressing her concern. See id. at 12-13. According to the Complaint, Plaintiff's grievance and his sister's letters did not produce a response. See id. The Complaint is silent as to when Plaintiff submitted his grievance and Plaintiff's sister sent her letters, but the context of Plaintiff's narrative unambiguously indicates that these events took place long before February 24, 2009.

Plaintiff alleges that, on February 24, 2009, Plaintiff was first asked to go through the metal detector twice and, later that day, stopped for a pat-search on his way to the mess hall. See id. at 5. According to the Complaint, during this pat-search, Defendant Officer Nagy made a verbal statement, which Plaintiff found disrespectful and to which Plaintiff replied that he did not wish to be talked to by correctional officers. See id. Plaintiff maintains that his response caused another Officer, Defendant Fry, to twist Plaintiff's wrist, and --- right thereafter --- Plaintiff was pushed to the floor and assaulted by Officers Fry, Nagy, Perez, Tyson and Wojciechowski, each of whom was kicking and beating Plaintiff. See id. at 5-8. According to the Complaint, as a result of such altercation, Plaintiff's forehead and left eye suffered substantial swelling, and his mouth was "burst open."*fn1 See id. at 8.

On February 25, 2009, that is, the day following the altercation, Plaintiff received five disciplinary charges; Plaintiff asserts that he was charged with assaulting the Officers, refusing to submit to a pat-search and acting in a disruptive manner. See id. at 9. According to the Complaint, Plaintiff's disciplinary hearing was initially scheduled for February 27, 2009, but then was postponed. See id. During this postponement period, Plaintiff requested to view the surveillance tape, which request was granted. See id. at 9-10.

Plaintiff further asserts that, on March 5, 2009, he was transferred from the New Jersey State Prison to the East Jersey State prison, where he was housed in a segregated unit. See id. at 10. On March 10, 2009, Plaintiff was, allegedly, informed that he was sanctioned without any disciplinary hearing; the sanctions imposed included a brief loss of recreational time, prolonged housing in an administrative segregation unit and loss of good-conduct credits. See id.

The Complaint further asserts that a paralegal at the New Jersey State Prison submitted, without Plaintiff's permission or knowledge, an appeal as to Plaintiff's sanctions. See id. at 11. That appeal was denied by Superintendent Drumm, who affirmed both the charges and sanctions imposed. See id. According to the Complaint, Plaintiff too submitted an appeal; that appeal was not responded to. See id. at 10-11.

Plaintiff seeks monetary damages from: (a) the Officers involved in the February 24, 2009, altercation; (b) the officers who imposed sanctions against Plaintiff; (c) the warden and Superintendent Drumm. See id. at 14. Plaintiff also requests transfer to the prison's general population, restoration of lost good-conduct credits and declaratory relief. See id. at 14-16. As part of his challenges, Plaintiff asserts that administrative due process was denied to him because he was sanctioned without a hearing.

B. State Court's Determination

Plaintiff appealed the alleged denial of administrative due process to the state courts. His claims were denied at both the Law Division and Appellate Division levels, and the Supreme Court of New Jersey denied him certification. See Miller v. NJ Dep't of Corrections, 203 N.J. 606 (2010).

Describing Plaintiff's challenges, the Appellate Division also listed the following facts revealed during Plaintiff's state proceedings:

[Plaintiff] appeals . . . a hearing officer's finding that he committed . . . two acts of assault, . . . refusal to submit to a search, . . . and conduct which disrupts or interferes with security or orderly running of the correctional facility . . . . [Plaintiff] argues he was denied his rights of due process. . . . On February 24, 2009, [Plaintiff] was housed at Trenton State Prison. While moving from the prison's rotunda area to the mess hall, . . . Officer . . . Perez pulled [Plaintiff] from the line and requested him to produce his identification card. According to [Plaintiff], Perez had pulled him from line earlier that same morning. [Plaintiff] was then told to keep his hands raised while Perez performed a pat search. When Perez started the pat down, [Plaintiff] dropped his hands and began arguing with him. [Officer] Fry came to Perez's assistance. When Fry observed [Plaintiff]'s hands going into his pockets, he grabbed [Plaintiff's] left hand and ordered him to place his hands behind his back. [Plaintiff] refused, said "fuck you," and stood in a fighting position. [Plaintiff] then punched Fry in the head and struck Perez. [Plaintiff] resisted the efforts of several [Officers] to subdue him. During this struggle, [Plaintiff] also punched [Officer] Nagy in the face. Finally, [Plaintiff] was pushed to the ground and placed in handcuffs and leg irons. [Plaintiff's] conduct caused the initiation of an emergency, Code *33. All institutional personnel were required to stop until [Plaintiff] was subdued. Once order was restored, [Officers] Perez, Nagy and Fry reported to the medical department to assess their injuries. All three were taken to Robert Wood Johnson Hospital for evaluation and treatment. The disciplinary review hearing began on February 27, 2009. [Plaintiff] pled not guilty. His request for counsel substitute was granted. He was then granted an adjournment to review the surveillance video, provided to him that day. [Plaintiff] objected, as the video did not include "Perez harassing him" earlier that morning. A different hearing officer resumed the hearing on March 2, 2009. After considering all the testimonial and documentary evidence submitted, the hearing officer found [Plaintiff] guilty of all infractions and recommended [such] sanctions [as] fifteen days detention, . . . 365 days loss of commutation time, 365 days of administrative segregation and thirty-eight days loss of recreation privileges [etc.] On March 5, 2009, [Plaintiff] was transferred to the administrative segregation unit of East Jersey State prison. He maintains he was never informed of the March 2 hearing. [Plaintiff] filed an institutional appeal from the hearing officer's adverse decision. On March 13, 2009, Assistant Superintendent J. Drumm upheld the hearing officer's determination and sanctions. . . . [Plaintiff's] multifaceted argument suggests he was not provided a written statement of the charges against him, was not permitted to attend the hearing, and did not request the counsel substitute who appeared on his behalf at the final hearing. Further, he suggests his review of the video was inconclusive as to the charges as it does not show him dropping his hands or placing them in his pockets, and that there is no evidence of assault, yet he was found guilty of assaulting two [Officers] although three submitted reports. [Plaintiff] asserts he has been a target of harassment and retaliation by the [Officers] since 2006. We reject [Plaintiff's] suggestion that documents obtained following the hearing, if considered, would have proven he was a victim of harassment. This issue may not be raised for the first time on appeal, and otherwise, the claim lacks merit. . . . Regarding [Plaintiff's] procedural due process challenges, we agree these proceedings must afford prisoners certain procedural due process rights, including written notice of the charges twenty-four hours before the hearing, an impartial tribunal, a limited right to call witnesses, present documentary evidence and to confront and cross-examine witnesses where necessary for an adequate presentation of the evidence, and a written statement of the evidence relied upon and the reasons for the sanctions imposed. However, contrary to [Plaintiff's] suggestion, prison disciplinary proceedings are not part of a criminal prosecution and thus the full panoply of rights due a defendant in such a proceeding does not apply. The record reflects [Plaintiff] received notice of the charges, was granted counsel substitute and provided a review of the evidence, including the various reports and the videotape. In fact, the final report concurs with counsel substitute's position that the video alone is inconclusive of the assault charges. Together, [Plaintiff] and his counsel substitute reviewed the videotape. During the final hearing, counsel substitute appeared and offered [Plaintiff's] defense. No witnesses were called and [Plaintiff] declined to confront the DOC's witnesses. Contrary to [Plaintiff's] contention, his counsel substitute prepared and presented his defense after consultation and review of all the records considered by the hearing officer. Finally, the hearing officer provided a detailed statement of reasons based upon the evidence reviewed. Following our review of the record, we conclude the adjudication of the infractions was supported by substantial credible evidence. We also conclude that the disciplinary proceedings were conducted in accordance with all applicable due process requirements. [Plaintiff's] argument that he was deprived of his due process rights are belied by the record, and the DOC's decision was not arbitrary, capricious, or unreasonable.

Miller v. NJ Dep't of Corrections, 2010 WL 1929827 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div., May 07, 2010) (citations and quotation marks omitted).

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

In determining the sufficiency of a complaint, the Court must be mindful to construe the facts stated in the complaint liberally in favor of the plaintiff. See Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89 (2007); Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519 (1972); United States v. Day, 969 F.2d 39, 42 (3d Cir. 1992). Indeed, it is long established that a court should "accept as true all of the [factual] allegations in the complaint and 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). However, while a court will accept well-pled allegations as true, it will not accept bald assertions, unsupported conclusions, unwarranted inferences, or sweeping legal conclusions cast in the form of factual allegations. See id.

Addressing the clarifications as to the litigant's pleading requirement stated in the United States Supreme Court in Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007), the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit provided the courts in this Circuit with detailed and careful guidance as to what kind of allegations qualify as pleadings sufficient to pass muster under the Rule 8 standard. See Phillips v. County of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 230-34 (3d Cir. 2008). Specifically, the Court of Appeals observed as follows:

"While a complaint . . . does not need detailed factual allegations, a plaintiff's obligation [is] to provide the 'grounds' of his 'entitle[ment] to relief' [by stating] more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action . . . ." Twombly, 127 S. Ct. at 1964-65 . . . Rule 8 "requires a 'showing,' rather than a blanket assertion, of entitlement to relief." Id. at 1965 n.3. . . . "[T]he threshold requirement of Rule 8(a)(2) [is] that the 'plain statement [must] possess enough heft to 'sho[w] that the pleader is entitled to relief.'" Id. at 1966. [Hence] "factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level." Id. ...


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