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Grohs v. Holmes

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

September 26, 2014

STEVEN GROHS, Plaintiff,
v.
CHRISTOPHER HOLMES, et al., Defendants.

OPINION

KEVIN McNULTY. District Judge.

I. INTRODUCTION

Plaintiff, Steven Grohs, is a civilly committed person currently residing at the Special Treatment Unit Annex (hereinafter the "STU-Annex") in Avenel, New Jersey. He is proceeding pro se with a civil rights complaint under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 seeking declaratory, injunctive, and monetary relief. Mr. Grohs has filed an application to proceed in forma pauperis, which is granted.

The Court must now 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 will be permitted to proceed only in part, and only against defendant Fratalone.

II. BACKGROUND

The allegations of the complaint will be considered true for purposes of this screening. Mr. Grohs is housed at the STU-Annex, not as a prisoner serving a sentence, but as a civilly committed person. The complaint names the following individuals as defendants: (1) Christopher Holmes - Director of Operations for the STU; (2) Angel L. Santiago - Administrator for the STU; (3) Robert Buechele - Associate Administrator for the STU; (4) Sara Davis - Assistant Superintendent for the STU; (5) Bruce Davis - Assistant Administrator for the STU; (6) Deborah Maloney - Executive Assistant Administrator for the STU; (7) M. Rock-Asencio - Lieutenant for the STU ("Rock"); (8) Fratalone - Sergeant for the STU; and (9) B. Westrich - Sergeant for the STU. Mr. Grohs' allegations can be separated into two categories: (a) access to courts; and (b) First Amendment retaliation.

A. Access to Courts

i. Law Library Facilities

Mr. Grohs asserts that the STU-Annex's law library is inadequate. Defendants Santiago, Buechele, S. Davis, B. Davis and Maloney allegedly believe that, because civilly committed residents have the benefit of the public defender, they need not be afforded the same level of law library access and facilities as prison inmates.

Mr. Grohs alleges that the law library at the STU-Annex is confined to the Education Room, which measures eight feet by twelve feet. When educational testing is ongoing, the law library is closed. The law library has LEXIS/NEXIS access, but not on line; an external hard drive is plugged into the USB port of the computer. That system does not permit the user to review "(1) any practice guides & treatises; (2) any practice check lists; (3) any practice forms; and (4) any State of New Jersey Court forms." (Dkt. No. 1 at p. 9.)

According to Mr. Grohs, the only other legal research materials available in the law library are out of date. He alleges that he has been unable to research legal citations in pleadings filed by adversaries. At other times, he says, residents have been told by the courts that the necessary forms should be available from their facility library, but they are not in fact available at the STU-Annex. Residents who want to type rather than write their legal documents are forced to buy a Brother Desktop Publisher at a cost of $500.

ii. Paralegal to Other Residents

Mr. Grohs alleges that he is a paralegal[1] for the resident population at the STU-Annex. Certain policies and procedures at the STU-Annex, he says, have hampered him in that task. For example, Mr. Grohs has been attempting to assist another resident named Rayford Smith with proceedings in Illinois. In October, 2013, however, Mr. Smith was placed in Temporary Closed Custody, and Mr. Grohs was not able to meet with him. Legal documents he has been working on for other residents have been seized by STU officials, see infra.

iii. Photocopy Service

Mr. Grohs also complains about the photocopy service and procedure at the STU-Annex. Residents must submit their papers to another resident for copying by Sunday at 5:30 p.m. Copies are supposed to be made by the following Monday at 9:30 a.m. This strict policy, he states, can cause residents to run afoul of court deadlines. Sometimes other residents' copy jobs have been done incorrectly or not at all. Mr. Grohs, acting as paralegal to Brian Racy, knows of court filings being made out of time as a result. In general, this inadequate copying service has impaired residents' access to court,

iv. Space to Store Legal Materials

Mr. Grohs also complains about the limited amount of space he is given to store his personal and legal materials. Cubicles contain three or four inmates each, and each resident is permitted to possess up to four twentyseven gallon storage containers. Mr. Grohs states that he has an injury to his right elbow and lower spinal column. This makes it difficult or impossible, when containers are stacked, to move the top container and gain access to the bottom one.

B. First Amendment Retaliation

i. Confiscation of Legal Materials - Late May and December 18, 2013

Mr. Grohs alleges that, in late May, 2013, Defendant Rock confiscated the storage container in his cubicle. This storage container contained legal materials. Grohs complained, and his storage container was returned.

On December 18, 2013, Mr. Grohs' legal materials were again confiscated, this time by Defendant Westrich. The seized documents included Mr. Grohs's own documents as well as those of other residents whom he was assisting. Westrich also seized from Mr. Grohs nineteen paper clips and one plastic forty-five degree angle. Approximately one hour later, Mr. Grohs' personal legal papers were returned to him; the other residents' papers were apparently returned to them.

On the same date, he was taken to another building and placed in a holding cell for forty-five minutes. Defendant B. Davis informed Mr. Grohs that this was for the purpose of meeting with him about previous complaints that he had made. When Mr. Grohs informed B. Davis of the confiscation of his materials earlier that day, she handed him a letter authored by Santiago dated December 6, 2013, stating the institution's policies. According to Mr. Grohs, the letter could only have addressed the May 28, 2013 seizure of materials, but not the December 18, 2013 seizure, which occurred after the date of the letter.

ii. Partial Strip Search - June 2, 2013

Mr. Grohs alleges that on June 2, 2013, in the recreation yard, he was partially strip searched by Defendant Fratalone and other unnamed officers. The search consisted of an officer's placing his gloved hands inside Mr. Grohs's underwear and on his genitals. The officer also pulled down Mr. Grohs's pants and briefly exposed his buttocks. Mr. Grohs was surrounded by eight officers at the time. After this search, Mr. Grohs heard defendant Fratalone observe, "I hope that was worth his hot water." (Dkt. No. 1 at p. 22.) This, Mr. Grohs believes, was a reference to his pending case (Civ. No. 12-905) concerning allegedly inadequate hot water in the showers at the STU-Annex.

C. Counts Raised in the Complaint

Based on the above factual allegations, Mr. Grohs asserts three counts in his complaint. First, he alleges a violation of his First and Fourteenth Amendment right to access to the courts. Second, he alleges a violation of his First Amendment right to be free from retaliation for petitioning the government for a redress of grievances. Finally, Mr. Grohs raises state law claims under the New Jersey Constitution, the New Jersey Patients' Bill of Rights, and the New Jersey Conscientious Employee Protection Act ("NJCEPA").

III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

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; not precedential) (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. Twomhly, 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. Section 1983 provides in relevant part:

Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State or Territory or the District of Columbia, 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, except that in any action brought against a judicial officer for an act or omission taken in such officer's judicial capacity, injunctive relief shall not be granted unless a declaratory decree was violated or declaratory relief was unavailable.

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. See Harvey v. Plains Twp. Police Dep't, 635 F.3d 606, 609 ...


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