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Nash v. Lanigan

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

January 5, 2018

RONALD NASH and THADDEUS THOMAS, Plaintiffs,
v.
GARY LANIGAN, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          ESTHER SALAS, U.S.D.J.

         It appearing that:

         1. This matter is before the Court upon Defendants Elizabeth Connolly, John Main, Jonathan Poag, Jennifer Velez, Valerie Mielke, Shantay Adams, Jackie Ottino and Gary Lanigan's (collectively, “Defendants”) respective Motions to Dismiss Plaintiffs Ronald Nash and Thaddeus Thomas's (“Plaintiffs”) Second Amended Complaint under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). (D.E. Nos. 54, 55, Defendants' Motions to Dismiss).[1] Plaintiffs filed Opposition (D.E. No. 59) and Defendants Connolly, Main, Poag, Velez, Mielke, Adams and Ottino filed a Reply (D.E. No. 60).

         2. This case has a lengthy history, with which the parties are familiar, and the Court will not recount it at length here. Suffice it to say, this case involves challenges to the transfer of civilly committed sexually violent predators (“SVPs”) confined under the New Jersey Sexually Violent Predator Act (“NJSVPA”), N.J. Stat. Ann.§ 30:4-27.24, from a facility in Kearny, New Jersey to the Special Treatment Unit (“STU”) of the East Jersey State Prison (“EJSP”). Plaintiffs, both SVPs, filed complaints challenging this transfer and the resulting changes to their treatment, as well as various other issues. In 2014, the Hon. Dickinson R. Debevoise, U.S.D.J., to whom these cases were originally assigned, entered an opinion and order granting in part and denying in part Defendants' Motion to Dismiss Plaintiffs' First Amended Complaint (“FAC”). (D.E. Nos. 35, 36, October 20, 2014 Opinion and Order).

         3. In his October 20th Opinion, Judge Debevoise dismissed “all Plaintiffs' claims asserting overall insufficiency of the mental treatment provided to all civilly committed sexually violent predators confined at the Special Treatment Unit of the East Jersey State Prison” with prejudice. (Id.). He dismissed all claims against then Attorney General Paula T. Dow with prejudice and the claims against Governor Chris Christie without prejudice. (Id.). He also dismissed “Plaintiffs' claims asserting that Plaintiffs' mental treatment at the Special Treatment Unit of the East Jersey State Prison is/was administered by social workers and/or recreation staff, rather than by psychiatrists/psychologists” without prejudice. (Id.). Lastly, Judge Debevoise denied Defendants' motion “as to Plaintiffs' claims against Defendants Gary M. Lanigan, Jennifer Velez, John Main, Jonathan Poag, Merrill Main, Shantay Braim Adams and Jackie Ottino to the extent Plaintiffs assert that these Defendants made systemwide decisions that produced the operational regime within at the Special Treatment Unit of the East Jersey State Prison, which caused the subordinate officers to deny and/or reduce and/or change Plaintiffs' prescribed mental treatment for non-medical reasons.” (Id.).

         4. Defendants Lanigan, Velez, Main, Poag, Main, Adams, and Ottino filed an appeal, challenging the district court's denial of qualified immunity. (D.E. No. 37). The Third Circuit affirmed Judge Debevoise's decision, finding that the District Court properly denied qualified immunity. Thomas v. Christie, 655 F. App'x 82 (3d Cir. 2016). Specifically, the court stated that:

Thomas and Nash have pleaded that each official's “own decisions and acts” causally connected Appellants to the reduction or elimination of prescribed treatment. Towards this end, they state each Appellant's job title within the Department of Corrections and Department of Human Services, and they specify the particular types of policy decision and rulemaking responsibilities each had that was relevant to the housing and care of Thomas and Nash. Moreover, the pleadings focus upon disruptions in treatment occurring after Thomas and Nash were transferred from the Kearney facility to the East Jersey State Prison, inextricably intertwining the constitutional violation claims about treatment disruptions with policy decisions concerning the transfer.
The District Court's review of the complaints highlights the rather unique alignment between the specific right at issue and the particular decision-making responsibilities of each Appellant that enabled it to reach a conclusion about whether the right was clearly established. The District Court noted that Thomas and Nash were pleading that a subset of the decisions these officials made were at issue-those related to the movement of the sexually violent predator program from Kearney to East Jersey State Prison. It said “the decisions and acts at issue, by their very nature, could not have possibly escaped the scope of the DOC defendants' personal responsibilities.” Given the alignment between the distinct scope of decisions at issue and Appellants' job responsibilities, this is a reasonable inference.

Id. at 85-86 (3d Cir. 2016) (citations to the record omitted). The Court of Appeals further agreed with the district court's determination that the vested liberty interest at issue was “well defined” and found that it was “reasonable for the District Court to conclude that Appellants had ‘fair warning' of the constitutional implications of any decision foreseeably resulting in ‘denying, reducing or changing Plaintiffs' prescribed mental treatment for non-medical reasons.'” Id. at 86.

         5. Upon return to the district court, this matter was reassigned to the Undersigned. (D.E. No. 45). The Hon. Michael A. Hammer, U.S.M.J., allowed Plaintiffs to file a second amended complaint (D.E. No. 46) and, on March 8, 2017, Plaintiffs filed the Second Amended Complaint (D.E. No. 49, Second Amended Complaint (“SAC”)).

         6. Defendants thereafter filed separate Motions to Dismiss. (D.E. Nos. 54, 55). In their Motion to Dismiss, Defendants Connolly, Main, Poag, Velez, Mielke, Adams and Ottino, who are current or former Department of Human Services employees, argue that the SAC fails to state a claim against them and must be dismissed. Specifically, Defendants Connolly, J. Main, Poag, and Velez argue that because they are sued in their capacity as policy-makers, and because the “Second Amended Complaint acknowledges that [the decision to transfer the STU from Kearny to East Jersey State Prison] was made by DOC, rather than DHS Defendants, ” Plaintiffs fail to state a claim against them. (D.E. No. 54-1, DHS Defendants' Brief in Support of Motion to Dismiss (“DHS Br.”) 7). Defendants Connolly, J. Main, Poag, and Velez further argue that the SAC does not allege that they were involved in any treatment decisions for Plaintiffs and therefore that claim must also be dismissed against them. (Id.).

         7. The Court will deny Defendants' Motion.[2] As stated by the Plaintiffs in Opposition, the SAC essentially re-states the facts alleged in the FAC, which has already been determined to sufficiently state a claim by both Judge Debevoise and the Third Circuit. Defendants Connolly, J. Main, Poag, and Velez argue that the inclusion of certain additional facts in the SAC make it clear that the Department of Corrections was responsible for the transfer, not DHS. However, the inclusion of facts from the state court's opinion in County of Hudson v. State Department of Corrections, No. A-2552-07T1, 2009 WL 1361546 ( N.J.Super.Ct.App.Div. May 18, 2009), which lays out the history leading to the decision to move the SVPs to EJSP, does not change the overall allegations against the Defendants. Looking at the facts as a whole, the SAC, as did the FAC, alleges that all Defendants were in some way involved in the transfer and resulting reduction in prescribed treatment. (See Oct. 20th Opinion, n. 34) (“The parties' focus on Defendants' decision to transfer the SVPs, not on the changes in Plaintiffs' prescribed medical care is unfortunate”) (emphasis in original). Judge Debevoise found the allegations sufficient and this Court does not find that the additional facts alter his conclusions.

         8. Similarly, Defendants Connolly, J. Main, Poag, and Velez's argument that the SAC does not allege that they played any role in the treatment decisions for Plaintiffs is also without merit. The descriptions of the roles of these Defendants in the SAC is nearly identical to ones contained in the FAC. (SAC ¶¶ 8; 9; 14; 15; FAC ¶¶ 11-13). As stated above, the Third Circuit referred to these descriptions when affirming Judge Debevoise. See Thomas, 655 F. App'x at 85- 86 (“Towards this end, they state each Appellant's job title within the Department of Corrections and Department of Human Services, and they specify the particular types of policy decision and rulemaking responsibilities each had that was relevant to the housing and care of Thomas and Nash”). Because the District Court and Third Circuit have previously found that Plaintiffs adequately pled that each of these Defendants' own actions causally connected them to the reduction or elimination of prescribed treatment, and those facts have remained virtually identical in the SAC, the Court will deny Defendants Connolly, J. Main, Poag, and Velez's motion on this ground.

         9. In their portion of the DHS Defendants' Motion to Dismiss, Defendants Mielke, Adams and Ottino argue that there is only one factual allegation against them and it does not state a constitutional violation.[3] However, there were also no specific allegations against these Defendants in the FAC, yet, as discussed at length above, Judge Debevoise concluded that looking at the allegations as a whole, and the roles of each of these Defendants, Plaintiffs had stated a claim based on ...


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