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Davis v. New Jersey Department of Corrections

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

August 22, 2018

ANDREW DAVIS, Plaintiff,
v.
NEW JERSEY DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS, et al., Defendants.

          OPINION

          ROBERT B. KUGLER UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         I. INTRODUCTION

         Plaintiff, Andrew Davis, is a state prisoner currently incarcerated at East Jersey State Prison in Rahway, New Jersey. He is proceeding pro se with a civil rights complaint filed pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Plaintiff submitted for filing his complaint, together with a motion for the appointment of pro bono counsel. For the reasons set forth below, the complaint will be permitted to proceed in part. In addition, the motion for pro bono counsel will be denied without prejudice.

         II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         The allegations of this complaint will be construed as true for purposes of this screening opinion. Plaintiff seeks to bring a civil rights complaint pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the following Defendants: (1) New Jersey Department of Corrections (“NJDOC”); (2) NJDOC Commissioner Gary Lanigan; (3) Corrections Officer Victor Tapia; (4) Sergeant J. Kuhlen; (5) Sergeant S. Hunter; (6) Sergeant R. Dunns; (7) Nurse Kyrsten Pierce; (8) Lieutenant J. Sprenger; (9) Corrections Officer M. Mackeprang; (10) Corrections Officer M. Garcia; (11) Corrections Officer A. Dooley; (12) Corrections Officer J. Hawk; (13) Corrections Officer S. Lopez; (14) Corrections Officer J. Elbeuf; (15) Corrections Officer V. Spinelli; (16) Corrections Officer D. West; (17) Corrections Officer L. Toro; (18) Corrections Officer Dennis Mercado; (19) Special Investigation Division (“SID”) Investigator Donna Alexander; (20) SID Investigator Elizabeth Adams; (21) SID Investigator Eleazar Spratley; (22) Courtline Hearing Officer Norma Morales-Pitre; (23) Assistant Superintendent Lisa Swift; and (24) Administrator R. Riggins. (See ECF No. 1 at pp. 3-12).

         Plaintiff's allegations arise from conduct that occurred while he was incarcerated at South Woods State Prison (“SWSP”). Plaintiff alleges that on July 26, 2016 at approximately 6:43 p.m., he approached the officer podium to speak with Officer Tapia about his mail when Officer Tapia verbally harassed him and pointed a can of OC chemical spray in Plaintiff's face. (See Id. at p. 14). Plaintiff claims he raised his hands in the air, backed away from Officer Tapia, and returned to his cell. (See id.). Later that night at approximately 7:55 p.m., Officer Tapia came to Plaintiff's cell and ordered Plaintiff out of the cell. (See id. at p. 15). Plaintiff stood up from his bunk and exited the cell, at which time Officer Tapia punched and pushed Plaintiff from behind. (See id.).

         Plaintiff alleges that Officer Tapia began swinging punches and Plaintiff was left with no other choice but to defend himself against the attack. (See id.). When additional staff responded, Plaintiff backed away from Officer Tapia with his hands in the air. (See id.). Plaintiff claims he surrendered and got onto the ground. (See id.). While on the ground, Plaintiff was placed in handcuffs and was assaulted by Officer Tapia and the responding corrections officers. (See id.). Plaintiff claims that Officer Tapia sprayed him in the face with OC chemical spray while the other officers repeatedly struck, punched, and kicked him. (See Id. at pp. 15-16).

         Following the assault, Plaintiff claims that the SWSP medical department denied him medical care and treatment for his injuries. (See Id. at p. 16). Specifically, Plaintiff alleges that Nurse Pierce refused to conduct a medical examination or render any medical treatment to him. (See id.). Additionally, Plaintiff claims that Nurse Pierce falsified medical documents to state that he did not sustain any injuries as a result of the assault. (See id.).

         Plaintiff further alleges that he was interviewed by the Special Investigation Division (“SID”) regarding the incident, but that the SID investigators refused to accept and file his criminal complaint against Officer Tapia. (See Id. at pp. 16-17). Following the investigation, Plaintiff was charged with assaulting Officer Tapia. (See Id. at p. 17). Additionally, Plaintiff claims that videotape evidence of the assault has been altered to cover up the assault. (See id.).

         Plaintiff seeks compensatory, consequential, and punitive damages from each Defendant. (See Id. at p. 28). Additionally, Plaintiff has filed a motion seeking the appointment of pro bono counsel. (See ECF No. 3).

         III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Under the Prison Litigation Reform Act, Pub. L. 104-134, §§ 801-810, 110 Stat. 1321-66 to 1321-77 (Apr. 26, 1996) (“PLRA”), district courts must review complaints in those civil actions in which a prisoner is proceeding in forma pauperis, see 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B), seeks redress against a governmental employee or entity, see 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(b), or brings a claim with respect to prison conditions, see 42 U.S.C. § 1997e. The PLRA directs district courts to sua sponte dismiss 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. See 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B).

         In determining the sufficiency of a complaint, the court must be mindful to construe it liberally in favor of the plaintiff. See United States v. Day, 969 F.2d 39, 42 (3d Cir. 1992). The court should “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). Thus, “[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.'” Milhouse v. Carlson, 652 F.2d 371, 373 (3d Cir. 1981) (quoting Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, 520-21 (1972)).

         IV. DISCUSSION

         Plaintiff brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging violations of his civil rights guaranteed under the United States Constitution. 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 party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress ....

         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 West v. Atkins, 487 U.S. 42, 48 (1988); Piecknick v. Pennsylvania, 36 F.3d 1250, 1255-56 (3d Cir. 1994).

         A. Claims against Defendants in their Official Capacities and the NJDOC

         As an initial matter, Plaintiff brings claims against the Defendants in their “official capacities” as employees of the NJDOC. Additionally, Plaintiff brings claims against the NJDOC. States and state agencies are not “persons” subject to suit under § 1983. See Will v. Michigan Dep't of State Police, 491 U.S. 58, 71 (1989); see also Pettaway v. SCI Albion, 487 Fed.Appx. 766, 768 (3d Cir. 2012) (holding that a state department of corrections is not a “person” under the statute and cannot be sued under § 1983). Additionally, for purposes of § 1983, “a lawsuit against public officers in their official capacities is functionally a suit against the public entity that employs them.” Cuvo v. De Biasi, 169 Fed.Appx. 688, 693 (3d Cir. 2006) (citing McMillian v. Monroe Cnty., 520 U.S. 781, 785 n.2 (1997)). Accordingly, Plaintiff's claims against the Defendants in their official capacities and against the NJDOC are dismissed with prejudice.

         B. Claims against Commissioner Lanigan and Administrator Riggins

         Plaintiff alleges that Commissioner Lanigan and Administrator Riggins are liable under a respondeat superior theory of liability as they are responsible for the oversight of SWSP and the safety of prisoners. (See ECF No. 1 at pp. 3-4, 12). “A defendant in a civil rights action must have personal involvement in the alleged wrongs; liability cannot be predicated solely on the operation of respondeat superior.” Rode v. Dellarciprete, 845 F.2d 1195, 1207 (3d Cir. 1988). “Personal involvement can be shown through allegations of personal direction or of actual knowledge and acquiescence.” Id.

         Plaintiff has not alleged any facts indicating that Commissioner Lanigan and Administrator Riggins were personally involved in any alleged violations of Plaintiff's constitutional rights. Additionally, Plaintiff has not alleged any facts demonstrating that Commissioner Lanigan and Administrator Riggins had knowledge of the alleged violations of Plaintiff's constitutional rights. Accordingly, Plaintiff has failed to state viable § 1983 claims ...


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