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Hunter v. Passaic County Jail

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

November 14, 2018

KEITH HUNTER, Plaintiff,


          Madeline Cox Arleo, District Judge.

         Plaintiff is a pretrial detainee incarcerated at Passaic County Jail. He has sued the Passaic County Jail, Gourmet Dining, LLC, Lieutenant J. Aturl, Officer M. Biokua, and Officer G. Francis for violations of his civil rights arising from alleged inadequate nutrition and the repetitive nature of his meal options at the jail. At this time, the Court will grant Plaintiffs IFP application and screen the Complaint for dismissal. For the reasons explained below, the Court will dismiss Plaintiffs claims for relief, as described in this Memorandum Opinion, as to all Defendants pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B). Unless otherwise stated, the dismissal is without prejudice. and Plaintiff may file an amended complaint within 30 days to the extent he can cure the deficiencies in his claims.

         The Complaint contains few facts. Plaintiff has been incarcerated at Passaic County Jail since August 2017, and alleges that he is "consistently receiving non-nutritious meal options that are repetitive and not heat to its [sic] proper temperature." (ECF No. 1, Complaint at 5.) Plaintiff further alleges that Gourmet Dining, LLC claims a dietician approves of the meals and that the officers constantly lie about [Plaintiffs] complaints. (Id.) Plaintiff contends that he arrived in prison "100% healthy and ha[s] been a vegan for 10 years." (Id.) For the past 6-7 months, he has had low blood pressure. (Id.) Elsewhere in the Complaint, Plaintiff also states that he has filed grievances regarding a lack of nourishment and drinking water, but provides no additional facts about the lack of drinking water. (Id. at 6.) Plaintiff also states that he has filed grievances regarding defamatory comments, but has not provided additional facts about the nature of the defamatory comments.[1]

         Plaintiff has attached inmate grievances submitted in connection with his dissatisfaction with the meals at Passaic County Jail; the photocopies are of poor quality, and the majority the grievances are illegible. (See ECF No. 1-1, at 2-22.) The grievances that are legible complain that Plaintiff has received repetitive meals, such as a three-bean salad. (See e.g., ECF No. 1-1, at 8.) Plaintiff has also attached what appears to be a copy of the Vegan/No Soy diet menu for the period from September 23, 2017 - September 2017. The menu lists options such as spinach with carrots, beans, noodles, applesauce, and bread. (Id. at 23.)

         With respect to his grievances, Plaintiff alleges that the kitchen staff and the "Lt." often deem his complaints "false" and make no changes to the menu. Plaintiff also states that he appeals his grievances, and has asked to speak to the Warden about this issue.[2] (Id. at 7.) Finally, Plaintiff alleges that Officers M. Biokua, and Officer G. Francis produced a "false menu that was never followed." (ECF No. 1-1, at 1.)

         Under the PLRA, district courts must review complaints in those civil actions in which a person is proceeding in for ma pauperis, See 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B). 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. Id. "The legal standard for dismissing a complaint for failure to state a claim pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § l9l5(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 Fed.Appx. 120, 122 (3d Cir. 2012) (citing Allah v. Seiverling, 229 F.3d 220, 223 (3d Cir. 2000)); Mitchell v. Beard, 492 Fed.Appx. 230, 232 (3d Cir. 2012) (discussing 28 U.S.C. § l997e(c)(1)); Courteau v. United States, 287 Fed.Appx. 159, 162 (3d Cir. 2008) (discussing 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(b)).

         Here, Plaintiffs Complaint is subject to screening under 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B). When reviewing a motion to dismiss under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6), courts first separate the factual and legal elements of the claims, and accept all of the well-pleaded facts as true. See Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 210-11 (3d Cir. 2009). All reasonable inferences must be made in the plaintiffs favor. See In re Ins. Brokerage Antitrust Litig., 618 F.3d 300, 314 (3d Cir. 2010). The Complaint must also allege "sufficient factual matter" to show that the claim is facially plausible. Fowler v. UP MS 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." Fair Wind Sailing, Inc. v. Dempster, 764 F.3d 303, 308 n.3 (3d Cir. 2014) (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678).

         Courts are required to liberally construe pleadings drafted by pro se parties. Tucker v. Hewlett Packard, Inc., No. 14-4699 (RBK/KMW), 2015 WL 6560645, at *2 (D.N.J. Oct. 29, 2015) (citing Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, 520 (1972)). Such pleadings are "held to less strict standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers." Id. Nevertheless, pro se litigants must still allege facts, which if taken as true, will suggest the required elements of any claim that is asserted. Id. (citing Mala v. Crown Bay Marina, Inc., 704 F.3d 239, 245 (3d Cir. 2013)). To do so, [a plaintiff] must plead enough facts, accepted as true, to plausibly suggest entitlement to relief." Gibney v. Fitzgibbon, 547 Fed.Appx. 111, 113 (3d Cir. 2013) (citing Bistrian v. Levi, 696 F.3d 352, 365 (3d Cir. 2012)). Furthermore, "[l]iberal construction does not, however, require the Court to credit a pro se plaintiffs 'bald assertions' or 'legal conclusions.' Id. (citing Morse v. Lower Merion Sck Dist., 132 F.3d 902, 906 (3d Cir. 1997)). That is, "[e]ven a pro se complaint may be dismissed for failure to state a claim if the allegations set forth by the plaintiff cannot be construed as supplying facts to support a claim entitling the plaintiff to relief. Id. (citing Milhouse v. Carlson, 652 F.2d 371, 373 (3d Cir. 1981)).

         The Court construes Plaintiff to allege claims for relief under Section 1983, which 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....

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

         From the outset, the Court will dismiss the claims against the Passaic County Jail. Although a county may be liable under § 1983 for creating policies or customs that violate the Constitution, see Monell v. Dept. of Social Services of City of New York, 436 U.S. 658 (1978), a county jail is not a proper defendant under § 1983. See Barrett v. Essex Cty. Corr. Facility, No. CIV.A. 15-595 SDW, 2015 WL 1808523, at *3 (D.N.J. Apr. 16, 2OI5)("A county jail, such as the Essex County facility, is not a person subject to suit under § 1983."); Ingram v. Atl. Cnty. Justice Fac, Civ. No. 10-1375, 2011 WL 65915, *3 (D.N.J. Jan. 7, 2011) (citations omitted) (county jail is not a person under section 1983). As such, the Court will dismiss the claims against the Passaic County Jail with prejudice.[3]

         Plaintiffs conditions of confinement claims against the remaining defendants regarding the inadequacy of the food at Passaic County Jail also fail to state a claim for relief. As a pretrial detainee, the Fourteenth Amendment's Due Process Clause applies with respect to Plaintiffs conditions of confinement claim. See Bell v. Wolfish, 441 U.S. 520, 535 (1979); Hubbard v. Taylor, 399 F.3d 150, 166 (3d Cir. 2005). [U]nder the Due Process Clause, a detainee may not be punished prior to an adjudication of guilt in accordance with due process of law." Id. at 535. The Constitution requires that inmates be provided with basic human needs, including food, and that an inmate's diet must provide them with "adequate nutrition." Duran v. Merline, 923 F.Supp.2d 702, 719-20 (D.N.J. 2013). A prison diet violates the Constitution where it "immediate danger to the health and wellbeing of the inmates who consume it," or there is a "substantial deprivation of food" to the inmate. Alpheaus v. Camden Cty. Corr. Facility, No. 17-0180, 2017 WL 2363001 (D.N.J. May 31, 2017) (quoting Duran, 923 F.Supp.2d at 720). "Objectively, '[w]hether the deprivation of food falls below this [constitutional] threshold depends on the amount and duration of the deprivation.'" Duran, 932 F.Supp.2d at 720 (quoting Berry v, Brady, 192 F.3d 504, 507 (5th Cir. 1999)). "[I]solated instances of contaminated or spoiled food, while certainly unpleasant, are not unconstitutional." Duran, 923 F.Supp.2d at 720. Cold meals and meals lacking in variety are similarly not considered a constitutional violation. See Nickles v. Taylor, No. 09-557, 2010 WL 1949447, at *5 (D.N.J. May 14, 2010).

         Here, Plaintiff has not provided facts showing that prison officials at the Passaic County Jail provided him with food that was so inadequate or insufficient that it amounted to "punishment" in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment's Due Process Clause. See Bell, 441 U.S. at 535. Plaintiff asserts in a conclusory manner that his diet is non-nutritious, repetitive, and not heated to temperature. But food that is cold and/or lacking in variety does not violate the Constitution. Plaintiff's bald assertions alone regarding non-nutritious food and a lack of nourishment and are also insufficient to state a claim for relief. Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a)(2) requires that plaintiffs set forth "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that a pleader is entitled to relief." While this standard does not require detailed factual allegations, it does require more than "an unadorned, the-defendant-unlawfully-harmed-me accusation." Ashcroft v. Iqbal,556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). At the very least, the complaint must "give the defendants fair notice of what the ... claim is and the grounds upon which it rests." Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 545 (2007) (internal citation omitted). ...

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