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D'Costa v. Plaza

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

February 14, 2019

KEVIN D'COSTA, Plaintiff,
v.
J. PLAZA, et al., Defendants.

          OPINION

          Madeline Cox Arleo, U.S.D.J.

         I. INTRODUCTION

         This matter has been opened to the Court by a motion for summary judgment brought by Defendants Corrections Officer Recruit Jonathan Plaza and Senior Corrections Officer Cesar Maschang. For the reasons explained in this Opinion, the motion for summary judgment is denied without prejudice. Based on Plaintiff concession that he is not challenging any policies or regulations governing prayer at Northern State Prison, the Court dismisses that aspect of his free exercise claim. The Court, however, denies summary judgment as to whether Defendants intentionally interfered with Plaintiffs exercise of his religion.

         II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         a. The March L 2015 Assault

         On March 1, 2015, Plaintiff was nearing the end of a four-and-a-half-year period of incarceration at Northern State Prison.[1] Plaintiff, a Muslim, regularly engaged in individual prayer in the Day Room of the Charlie 1 East Unit of Northern State Prison ("C1E"), the housing unit to which he was assigned. (See Gibbons Cert., Ex. A, 39:2-4.)

         On March 1, 2015, Corrections Officer Recruit Plaza, was on duty in the Day Room. See Gibbons Cert., Ex. F.) From the beginning of his shift. Defendant Plaza was behaving in an "aggressive" manner, and "degrading" inmates. (Id., Ex. F, 13:24- 17:11.) He turned off all of the televisions on the unit and ordered inmates to remove their head coverings known as "wave caps," despite the fact that inmates were permitted to watch television and wear wave caps. (Id., 14:7 - 16:12; see also Gibbons Cert., Ex. A, 38:3-11.) When he was presented with paperwork showing that television and wave caps were permitted in C1E, he "didn't care." (See Duffy Cert., Ex. F, 16:13-19.)

         Defendant Plaza also apparently believed that DOC policy prohibited inmates from praying in the Day Room. (Id., Ex. A, 73:8 - 78:20.) Plaintiff disputes that DOC policy prohibits individual prayer in the Day Room. The Inmate Handbook for Northern State Prison (the "Inmate Handbook") explicitly prohibits unauthorized "religious gatherings" and "group prayer" in any area of the housing unit. (See Duffy Cert., Ex. D, DOC952, No. 29.) A DOC policy titled "Scheduling of Religious Activities and Use of Ritualistic Elements for Islam," (id., Ex. E), provides that Muslim inmates "should have an opportunity to pray five times daily," and that, "if necessary prayers can be made at work details sites [sic], school or units during break times." (Id., p. 5.) Dr. Malachia Brantley, Jr.. the Supervisor of Chaplains at Northern State Prison, believes that prayer is prohibited in certain areas of Northern State Prison, including the Day Room, but is not aware of a written policy to that effect, and is not aware of any instances in which a no-prayer policy has been enforced at Northern State Prison. (Id., Ex. C, 15:25 -16:6; see also Duffy Cert., Ex. C, 25:6-18.)

         On March 1, 2015, Defendant Plaza called Plaintiff to his podium and informed him that inmates are not permitted to pray in the Day Room. (See Gibbons Cert.. Ex. A, 37:13 - 42:10.) Plaintiff asked, "Since when?" (Id., 39:2-4.) Defendant Plaza told Plaintiff that he did not care what Plaintiff had previously been permitted to do, and that "today, you're not doing it." (Id., 39:5-7.) As the discussion continued. Defendant Plaza was "talking with his hands." (Id., 60:6-18; see also Duffy Cert., Ex. F, 20:20- 21:3.) Plaintiff stepped back out of concern that Defendant Plaza would inadvertently hit him. (Gibbons Cert., Ex. A, 60:6-18.) When Defendant Plaza asked Plaintiff why he was stepping back, and Plaintiff explained, and Defendant Plaza replied, "[I]f I hit you, you don't have to worry about that because you're not on my level." (Id.) Plaintiff expressed his intention to return to his cell and began walking in that direction. (Id., 39:8-16). Plaintiff briefly turned toward Defendant Plaza (see Ex. F), and Defendant Plaza came around from behind his podium and discharged his pepper spray onto Plaintiffs face. (Gibbons Cert., Ex. A, 39:13-21; aw also Ex. D, 21:1-3, 22:19-23:17; Ex. F.) Although Defendant Plaza later reported that he discharged his pepper spray in response to Plaintiff "lung[ing] forward," the video evidence does not show Plaintiff lunging forward, and eyewitnesses recounted that Plaintiff was facing away from Defendant Plaza when he discharged the pepper spray. (See Duffy Cert., Ex. M; Gibbons Cert., Ex. F; Duffy Cert., Ex. G; Duffy Cert., Ex. F, 22:6-23:8).

         As Plaintiff walked toward the shower to attempt to wash off his face, Defendant Plaza returned to his podium to call a Code 33, an emergency notification. (See Gibbons Cert., Ex. A, 40:2-11.) When Plaintiff walked back into the Day Room, Defendant Plaza tackled him from behind. (Id., 40:12-14.) Defendant Plaza does not recall giving Plaintiff an order before tackling him to the ground, or saying anything at all to Plaintiff, and does not allege that Plaintiff was making any threatening statements at the time that he tackled Plaintiff to the floor. (See Duffy Cert., Ex. A, 115:14 - 117:24.) Defendant Plaza told Plaintiff that he was going to show him that he "ain't tough." (See Gibbons Cert., Ex. A, 40:15-16.) While Plaintiff was pinned face-down to the floor, Defendant Plaza pulled out some of his dreadlocks, and punched him in his ribs. (See Duffy Cert., Ex. F, 25:17 -26:1.) As other corrections officers responded to the Code 33 and surrounded Plaintiff, his hands were restrained behind his back. (See Gibbons Cert., Ex. A, 40:17-22.) Plaintiff testified that Defendant Maschang punched Plaintiff multiple times in his right rib, and the vantage of the surveillance video does not clearly show the amount of force used to restrain Plaintiff (Id., 40:23-24; see also Gibbons Cert., Ex. F.)

         Plaintiff was then carried out through the Day Room to an adjoining hallway known as the Sally Port, where there are no surveillance cameras. (Id., 54:23-55:8, 69:23-70:24.) There, Plaintiff was again pinned face-down to the concrete floor while Defendants Plaza and Maschang, and the other corrections officers continued their assault against him. (Id., 63:1-19, 72:2-13.) Plaintiff, who was not resisting, was told repeatedly by the corrections officers surrounding him to stop resisting. (Id., 72:14-19.) He was kicked and punched. (Id., 72:20-25.) Although at least five corrections officers participated in the assault against Plaintiff in the Sally Port, Plaintiff was aware that Defendants Plaza and Maschang were among the participants because they both spoke to him: Defendant Plaza telling Plaintiff that he thought he was tough, and that Defendant Plaza would "show [him] who the tier was being operated by," and Defendant Maschang telling Plaintiff that he was going to "show [you] Muslims." (Id., 72:2-13, 75:19 - 76:4, 79:16-22; Ex. X (wherein Plaintiff clarified that statements regarding Muslims were made by Defendant Maschang).) Defendants Plaza and Maschang both conceded that they were present in the Sally Port immediately after the incident in the Day Room. (See Duffy Cert., Ex. A, 213:2-11 (wherein Defendant Plaza confirmed that he briefly left his post in the Day Room to enter the Sally Port, immediately after Plaintiff was led into the Sally Port); Id., Ex. V, 132:19-134:19 (wherein Defendant Maschang confirms that he was one of two corrections officers to escort Plaintiff from the Day Room into the Sally Port).) While pinned to the floor in the Sally Port, a plait of Plaintiffs dreadlocks was cut out. (See Gibbons Cert., Ex. A, 63:13 -64:5.) The assault against Plaintiff in the Sally Port continued for five to ten minutes. (Id., 71:13-16.)

         In accordance with DOC policy requiring a medical evaluation of inmates involved in altercations, Plaintiff was then escorted to the medical building by Defendant Maschang and another corrections officer. (Id., 95:23 - 96:8; see also Duffy Cert., Ex. FF). During the escort, immediately outside the exit of the Charlie Unit, Defendant Maschang again punched Plaintiff in his right rib, after which Defendant Maschang was reminded by the other corrections officer that they were in view of cameras. (Id.) Upon arrival to the medical building, Defendant Maschang accompanied Plaintiff into a nurse's station. (Id., 106:14-107:2.) When the nurse asked Plaintiff if he was okay, Officer Maschang responded before Plaintiff could, indicating that Plaintiff was okay. (Id.) Plaintiff said that his side hurt and that he wanted medical attention. (Id.) Plaintiff was not provided with any medical evaluation or treatment, but was instead rushed out of the medical building into a detention area. (Id.) Plaintiff was placed into a solitary unit, where he was stripped naked and searched. (Id., 122:3-123:16.) Plaintiff remained naked until he was provided with a "suicide blanket" to cover himself. (Id. 123:7-16.) The solitary unit was cold, but the half of Plaintiffs body that was still covered in pepper spray was hot. (Id., 124:3-15.) He was kept in the solitary unit until the next day. (Id., 132:8-24.)

         b. Exhaustion of Administrative Remedies

         Following the assault, Plaintiff followed the prescribed grievance reporting procedures to notify Northern State Prison of the assault against him. The Inmate Handbook sets forth an Inmate Remedy System, pursuant to which inmates are required to submit an Inmate Remedy Form in an attempt to resolve any complaints. (See Gibbons Cert., Ex. Q, DOC921). In March 2015, within days of the assault, Plaintiff submitted an Inmate Remedy Form regarding the March 1, 2015 assault by Defendants Plaza and Maschang. (Id., Ex. A, 201:19-202:1, 210:23 -211:7, 217:5-20; see also Ex. R (example of an Inmate Remedy Form, dated June 28, 2014); see also Duffy Cert. Ex. R, DOC34 (the same June 28, 2014 Inmate Remedy Form, appearing as the last page of Exhibit D-5, which Plaintiff confirmed to be the same type of form that he submitted regarding the March 1, 2015 assault).) When Plaintiff initially submitted the Inmate Remedy Form, it was returned to him with instructions to provide more information. (See Gibbons Cert., Ex. A, 218:3-10.) In response, Plaintiff prepared a typed statement titled "Inmate Grievance Complaint," and re-submitted the Inmate Remedy Form with the "Inmate Grievance Complaint" annexed thereto. (Id., 218:3-10, 222: 10-17; Ex. J.) Plaintiffs Inmate Remedy Form was returned to him in March 2015, with instructions to instead submit an Inmate Inquiry Form, which Plaintiff submitted. (See Gibbons Cert., Ex. A, 203:14-24 (wherein Plaintiff clarified that this second form is actually the form known as an Inmate Inquiry Form); see also Duffy Cert., Ex. R, DOC33 (the second-to-last-page of Exhibit D-5, which Plaintiff confirmed to be the same type of form that he submitted after the Inmate Remedy Form was returned to him).)

         An Inmate Contact Form maintained by the Office of the Corrections Ombudsman summarizes a telephone call from Plaintiff on April 16, 2015, stating, in relevant part: "Inmate claims that he was assaulted by custody staff on 3/1/15 on [Charlie 1 East]. Inmate submitted an Inmate Inquiry Form on 3727/15 and has not received a response and has not been interviewed by [the Special Investigations Division]." (See Duffy Cert., Ex. N.)

         In response to Plaintiffs April 16, 2015 communication to the Ombudsman, the Ombudsman referred the matter to Northern State Prison administrators for further review. (Id., Ex. N - 0). Chief Investigator Alfonso of the Special Investigations Division ("SID") assigned a subordinate to investigate. (Id., Ex. S.) The subordinate confirmed later that day that the SID would undertake an "administrative investigation into the allegations of assault." (Id., Ex. 0.) The subordinate also noted that "our files did not contain any record of [Inmate Remedy Forms] containing these current allegations." (Id.) On June 27, 2016, the Senior Investigator issued a report finding that there was no evidence to corroborate Plaintiffs allegations. (See Gibbons Cert., Ex. T, Doc766.)

         In connection with this summary judgment motion, the current Inmate Remedy Coordinator at Northern State Prison has submitted a certification stating that she conducted a search at Northern State Prison for Inmate Remedy System Forms and Inmate Inquiry Forms submitted by Plaintiff, and that there is no record at Northern State Prison of any Inmate Remedy System Forms or Inmate Inquiry Forms submitted by Plaintiff in connection with the assault. (See Gibbons Cert., Ex. O at ¶¶ 49.)

         III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Summary judgment is appropriate where the Court is satisfied that "there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c); Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). A factual dispute is genuine only if there is "a sufficient evidentiary basis on which a reasonable jury could find for the non-moving party," and it is material only if it has the ability to "affect the outcome of the suit under governing law." Kaucher v. County of Bucks, 455 F.3d 418, 423 (3d Cir. 2006); see also Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S.242, 248 (1986). Disputes over irrelevant or unnecessary facts will not preclude a grant of summary judgment. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. "In considering a motion for summary judgment, a district court may not make credibility determinations or engage in any weighing of the evidence; instead, the non-moving party's evidence 'is to be believed and all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in his favor."' Marino v. Indus. Crating Co., 358 F.3d 241, 247 (3d Cir. 2004) (quoting Anderson, 441 U.S. at 255)); see also Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986); Curley v. Klem, 298 F.3d 271, 276-77 (3d Cir. 2002).

         The burden of establishing that no "genuine issue" exists is on the party moving for summary judgment. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 330. "A nonmoving party has created a genuine issue of material fact if it has provided sufficient evidence to allow a jury to find in its favor at trial." Gleason v. Norwest Mortg., Inc., 243 F.3d 130, 138 (3d Cir. 2001). The non-moving party must present "more than a scintilla of evidence showing that there is a genuine issue for trial." Woloszyn v. County of Lawrence, 396 F.3d 314, 319 (3d Cir. 2005) (quotations omitted). Under Anderson, Plaintiffs' proffered evidence must be sufficient to meet the substantive evidentiary standard the jury would have to use at trial. 477 U.S. at 255. To do so, the non-moving party must "go beyond the pleadings and by her own affidavits, or by the depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, designate specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial." Celotex, 477 U.S. at 324 (quotations omitted); see also Matsushita, 475 U.S. at 586; Ridgewood Bd. of Ed. v. Stokley, 172 F.3d 238, 252 (3d Cir. 1999). In deciding the merits of a party's motion for summary judgment, the court's role is not to evaluate the evidence and decide the truth of the matter, but to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249. Credibility determinations are the province of the factfinder. Big Apple BMW, Inc. v. BMW of N. Am., Inc., 974 F.2d 1358, 1363 (3d Cir. 1992).

         IV. ANALYSIS

         Defendants make the following five arguments for summary judgment: Plaintiff failed to exhaust his administrative remedies; the "third episode of assault" against Defendant Maschang is barred by the statute of limitations; Plaintiff is unable to prove Defendant Plaza's and Defendant Maschang's personal involvement in the portion of the assault that occurred in the area known as the Sally Port; Plaintiff is unable to prove Defendant Maschang was personally involved in denying him medical care; and Defendants are entitled to qualified immunity with respect to Plaintiffs free exercise claim and the force used against Plaintiff in the Day Room. The Court addresses each argument below.

         a. Exhaustion of Administrative Remedies

         Defendants first argue that they are entitled to summary judgment because Plaintiff failed to exhaust his administrative remedies. At issue is whether Defendants have met their burden on this motion to show that Plaintiff failed to exhaust his administrative remedies.

         The PLRA requires inmates to exhaust prison grievance procedures before suing in court. 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(a). "[T]o properly exhaust administrative remedies prisoners must 'complete the administrative review process in accordance with the applicable procedural rules,' rules that are defined not by the PLRA, but by the prison grievance process itself" Jones v. Bock, 549 U.S. 199, 218 (2007) (quoting Woodford v. Ngo, 548 U.S. 81, 88 (2006)); see also Robinson v. Superintendent Rockview SCI, 831 F.3d 148, 153 (3d Cir. 2016).

         In Small v. Camden County, an inmate submitted two grievances "in compliance with [the prison's] procedures," but "no decision" was rendered on either of them and prison rules required inmates to wait for a decision before filing an appeal. 728 F.3d at 273. The Third Circuit reasoned that "[b]ecause [the prison's] procedures did not contemplate an appeal from a non-decision, when [the inmate] failed to receive even a response to the grievances ... much less a decision as to those grievances, the appeals process was unavailable to him." Id. In Robinson v. Superintendent, 831 F.3d 148, 153-54 (3d Cir. 2016), the Third Circuit similarly held that the exhaustion requirement is satisfied where prison officials fail to timely respond to an inmate's properly filed grievance. See also Martin v. Gearhart, 712 Fed.Appx. 179, 183-84 (3d Cir. 2017) (explaining same).

         To grant summary judgment in favor of Defendants, the Court would need to resolve a material factual dispute regarding whether Plaintiff submitted his grievances in compliance with prison procedures and the directions of prison officials but received no response. Although Defendants maintain that Northern State Prison has no record of any Inmate Remedy System forms or Inmate Inquiry forms submitted by Plaintiff in connection with the assault, (see Gibbons Cert., Ex. O at ΒΆΒΆ 4-9), Plaintiff asserts in sworn deposition testimony that he submitted two Inmate Remedy System Forms, which were returned to him, and subsequently, at the direction of prison officials, submitted a Prison Inquiry Form but received no response. Furthermore, an Inmate Contact Form maintained by the Office ...


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