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Grohs v. Santiago

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

September 17, 2014

STEPHEN GROHS, et al., Plaintiffs,
SANTIAGO, et al., Defendants.


KEVIN McNULTY, District Judge.


Plaintiffs, Stephen Grohs, Rayford L. Smith, Karl Siegle, Victor Acevedo, Richard Lockerson, James T. Howard and Edward Salerno, are civilly committed persons currently residing at the Special Treatment Unit Annex in Avenel, New Jersey ("STU-Annex"). They are proceeding pro se with a civil rights complaint pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. They have all filed applications to proceed in forma pauperis, which will be granted based on the information provided therein.

At this time, the Court must review the complaint pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B) 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 suit. For the reasons set forth below, the complaint is inadequate and will be dismissed, without prejudice to the filing of an amended complaint.


The allegations of the complaint will be considered true for purposes of this screening only. The plaintiffs are currently housed at the STU-Annex, not as prisoners serving sentences, but as civilly committed persons. The complaint names the following individuals as defendants: (1) Santiago - Administrator of the STU; (2) Bleekly - Associate Administrator of the STU; (3) Bruce Davis - Acting Assistant Administrator of the STU; (4) M. Rock-Asencio - Lieutenant at the STU; and (5) B. Westrich - Sergeant at the STU.

The STU-Annex consists of three dorms, each with 65 residents. Each dorm has three sinks, four toilets, and five showers. The STU-Annex is divided into cubicles which measure eight feet by eleven feet, each containing two bunk beds. The majority of cubicles house three residents, although some house four. In cubicles with three occupants, the fourth bed space is called a dead-bunk. Storage of the residents' personal property has been an issue. Former Assistant Administrator Johnson allowed each resident to purchase up to four twenty-seven gallon plastic storage bins for that purpose. Johnson also permitted residents to buy their own hooks to dry their bath towels and to construct shelves for storage of small items in their cubicles. Some residents have used dead-bunks to store property.

Beginning in May 2013, defendants Asencio and Westrich began ordering residents to remove all property from the dead bunks and to store their property in the storage bins and lockers. In June 2013, defendant Santiago told residents that he was aware of their complaints about the living conditions, and said that things would be changing. The promised changes have either not come or "are more geared towards a female pet peeve and by a whimsical nature." (Dkt. No. 1 at p. 9.)

Santiago, Bleekly, and Davis know or should know that Plaintiffs receive a lot of paperwork each year that they are responsible for keeping. But because space is limited, Plaintiffs often have to choose what to keep and what to dispose of. Plaintiffs have little or no maneuvering room within their cubicles.

Plaintiffs also allege that STU officials have removed storage cabinets so that they have no place to dry their towels after they have showered. The towels therefore do not dry properly, and emit a dank, musty odor. Plaintiffs also complain that the air conditioning system cannot effectively meet the required rate of clean air exchange, and that the bathroom has a foul stench as a result.

Plaintiffs allege that the number of sinks and toilets available to the residents of the STU-Annex is inadequate. They allege that human feces are sometimes found in the shower area.

Plaintiffs allege that, because of crowding, some residents have to wait for meals, or sometimes have to eat in their cubicles. The thirty minute limit on mealtimes is said to be inadequate.

Plaintiffs state that they have submitted forms to STU officials complaining about the conditions. Responses, they say, come too late or not at all.

In summary, plaintiffs allege that the defendants have violated their due process rights because of the overcrowded conditions at the STU-Annex. Defendants Santiago, Bleekly and Davis are allegedly aware that the plaintiffs have been exposed to an unreasonable risk of injury and disease and have acted with deliberate indifference. Defendants Ascencio and Westrich allegedly have exacerbated the effects of overcrowding and have acted with deliberate indifference in allowing the unhealthy, unsafe and unsanitary environment to persist at STU. Defendants Santiago, Bleekly, and Davis are allegedly unwilling or unable to restrain defendants Asencio and Westrich.

The complaint seeks declaratory, injunctive and monetary relief.


A. Standard for Sua Sponte Dismissal

District courts must review complaints in those civil actions in which a plaintiff is proceeding in forma pauperis, see 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B). The statute directs district courts to dismiss sua sponte any claim that is frivolous, is 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. That analysis is sometimes informally referred to as "screening."

"The legal standard for dismissing a complaint for failure to state a claim pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B)(ii) is the same as that for dismissing a complaint pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6)." Schreane v. Seana, 506 F.Appx. 120, 122 (3d Cir. 2012) (per curiam) (citing Allah v. Seiverling, 229 F.3d 220, 223 (3d Cir. 2000)). Under that standard, "a pleading that offers labels or conclusions' or a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.'" Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007)). To survive screening, the complaint must allege "sufficient factual matter" to show that the claim is facially plausible. Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 210 (3d Cir. 2009) (citation omitted). "A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Belmont v. MB Inv. Partners, Inc., 708 F.3d 470, 483 n.17 (3d Cir. 2012) (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678). While pro se pleadings are liberally construed, "pro se litigants still must allege sufficient facts in their complaints to support a claim." Mala v. Crown Bay Marina, Inc., 704 F.3d 239, 245 (3d Cir. 2013).

B. Section 1983 Actions

A plaintiff may have a cause of action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for certain violations of his constitutional rights. ...

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