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Grohs v. Lanigan

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

April 5, 2019

STEVEN GROHS, Plaintiff,
GARY M. LANIGAN et al., Defendants.


          KEVIN McNULTY, U.S.D.J.


         The plaintiff, Steven Grohs, is committed under the New Jersey Sexually Violent Predator Act at the Special Treatment Unit ("STU"), in Avenel, New Jersey. He is proceeding pro se with a civil rights complaint. This Court previously granted Mr. Grohs leave to proceed in forma pauperis. (ECF No. 3.)

         This Court must now screen the complaint, under 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 following reasons, portions of the complaint will be dismissed without prejudice for failure to state a claim, and the remainder of the complaint will be permitted to proceed.


         The complaint lists as defendants, in their individual capacities, Gary M. Lanigan, commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Corrections ("NJDOC"), Sherry Yates, administrator of the STU, Major Colm D. Foley, institutional search plan coordinator for the STU, Sgt. Rivera, SCO Lee, SCO Calton, and John Doe, each of whom are corrections officers employed at the STU, SCO Lukaszewski, the STU mailroom officer, and Jane Doe, an NJDOC ombudsman. (DE 1, ¶¶ 5-34.) Mr. Grohs's complaint concerns two distinct incidents, one in October 2015 and one in June 2016.

         A. October 2015

         Mr. Grohs alleges that, on October 16, 2015, Mailroom Officer Lukaszewski left a food package addressed to Mr. Grohs outside of his cell during lockdown. Grohs was not expecting the package and did not want to accept it.[1] (Id. ¶ 36-39.) Accordingly, Lukaszewski returned the package to the sender. (Id. ¶¶ 40-41.)

         Just after midnight on October 27, 2015, Officers Lee and Calton placed Mr. Grohs into Temporary Close Custody ("TCC")[2] in a cell on the unit's third tier. (Id. ¶¶ 42-43.) Mr. Grohs contends that, due to a malfunctioning heating unit, the third tier was excessively hot, with temperatures exceeding 107 degrees. (Id. ¶¶ 44-45.) He alleges that, upon his admission to TCC, Lee and Calton subjected him to a strip search, forcing him to completely disrobe and remain nude for five minutes in an area visible to other STU residents. (Id. ¶¶ 46-50.)

         Mr. Grohs contends that the TCC cell was filthy, with fecal matter smeared on the toilet, floor, and bunk, and was infested with bedbugs. (Id. ¶* 55-58.) He alleges that water from the cell sink was discolored and hot and that his request for cool water was ignored. (Id. ¶¶ 56, 59.) He recounts that, when a leaking pipe began to flood the cell, he was moved to a different, but equally unpleasant, cell on the third tier. (Id. ¶¶ 60-63.)

         Meanwhile, Mr. Grohs explains, he learned that, on October 27, 2015, two other STU residents had received food packages containing contraband tobacco and that he had been placed in TCC because STU officers believed that the package he had rejected on October 16 also contained contraband. (Id. ¶¶ 66-67.) Mr. Grohs indicates that, after explaining that he had rejected the package as undesired, he was released from TCC and returned to his normal cell at about 3:30 p.m. on October 28, 2015. (Id. ¶¶ 67-69, 71.)

         Mr. Grohs alleges in Count I that Administrator Yates placed him in TCC as retaliation for prior lawsuits against her, and that the delivery of the unexpected food package and allegations of receiving contraband were merely pretextual justifications. (Id. ¶¶ 93-112.) Accordingly, he alleges that "Yates and Lukaszewski have violated Plaintiffs First Amendment rights to be free from retaliation when Defendant Yates arbitrarily used insufficient information from Defendant Lukaszewski to place Plaintiff in TCC." (Id. ¶ 111.)

         Mr. Grohs also alleges, in Count II, that the October 27, 2015, strip search violated his Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches. (Id. ¶¶ 113-127.) He argues that STU policy permits strip searches only with probable cause to believe that a resident is hiding a weapon or dangerous object and that non-invasive, electronic scans are also provided for. (Id. ¶¶ 114-120.) Accordingly, he alleges that Sergeant Rivera, Officer Lee, and Officer Calton violated his Fourth Amendment rights by conducting the search, and that Administrator Yates and Search Plan Coordinator Foley should bear supervisory liability, as they should have known officers were routinely performing strip searches without probable cause. (Id. ¶¶ 119-127.)

         In Count VI, asserted only against Administrator Yates, Mr. Grohs alleges that the conditions of his TCC detention, specifically the excessive heat, filth, and lack of potable water, amounted to cruel and unusual punishment, in violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. (Id. ¶¶ 165-173.) He alleges that Yates knew of these conditions, but "took no reasonable actions to minimize or timely resolve these problems." (Id. ¶ 170.) He adds that temperatures exceeded 109 degrees and that existing exhaust fans were not run. (Id. ¶ 171.)

         B. June 2016

         Mr. Grohs alleges that, during a "stand-up count" on June 9, 2016, Officer John Doe ordered him to remove all his clothes for a strip search. (Id. ¶¶ 72-79.) Mr. Grohs explains that he asked John Doe if probable cause existed for the search and John Doe responded by slapping him in the face and ordering him to comply. (Id. ¶¶ 77-78.) Mr. Grohs alleges that, during the search, John Doe, in response to an incident involving an STU resident several cells away, suddenly yelled at Mr. Grohs to get down on the floor and simultaneously shoved him to the ground, causing his face to strike the concrete floor. (Id. ¶¶ 80-85.) Mr. Grohs alleges that this incident subsequently caused a cyst to develop on his left cheek. (Id. ¶¶ 85-86.) He recounts that the strip search subsequently continued, involving inspection of his genitals and rectum, ultimately lasting about 45 minutes. (Id. ¶¶ 87-90.) Mr. Grohs alleges that Commissioner Lanigan, Ombudsman Jane Doe, and Search Plan Coordinator Foley were present in the housing unit during this incident and "were cognizant of the actions of Defendant John Doe, as all other SOG officers were acting in a similar way with other residents." (Id. ¶¶ 92, 137.)

         Mr. Grohs, in Count III, alleges that the June 9, 2016, strip search was improper and violated his Fourth Amendment rights. (Id. ¶¶ 128-141.) He argues that no probable cause existed to believe he was concealing contraband, that no contraband was found, and that John Doe was unjustified in ordering him to "repeatedly touch his genital areas." (Id. ¶¶ 131-132.) He argues that John Doe clearly did not distinguish between inmates serving criminal sentences and persons like Mr. Grohs, who are subject to civil commitment, that the search violated provisions of the New Jersey Administrative Code requiring that STU resident searches "be conducted in a professional and dignified manner, with maximum courtesy and respect for the resident's person, and under sanitary conditions," and that Lanigan, Foley, and Jane Doe did nothing to correct him. (W. ¶¶ 133-139.)

         In Count IV, Mr. Grohs alleges that John Doe employed excessive force when he slapped Mr. Grohs and subsequently shoved his face into the floor. (Id. ¶¶ 142-149.) Mr. Grohs urges that he obeyed all commands by John Doe and other officers and that John Doe could simply have ordered him to lie down on the floor without pushing him down. (Id. ¶¶ 145-147.)

         C. General Claims

         More broadly, Mr. Grohs asserts, in Count V, that all defendants other than Lukaszewski abused their power and violated Mr. Grohs's due-process rights by treating him as if he were serving a criminal sentence, when he is merely committed under the New Jersey Sexually Violent Predator Act. (Id. ¶¶ 150-164.) Mr. Grohs urges that, under that act, defendants had a duty to treat him better than a prisoner serving a criminal sentence and that they "wantonly ignored their duty and they were deliberately indifferent to the nonpunitive purpose for which Plaintiff is committed." (Id. ¶¶ 157-160.)

         In Count VII, Mr. Grohs alleges that Lanigan, Yates, Foley, Rivera, Jane Doe, and John Doe violated the Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment by performing and permitting both the October 2015 and June 2016 strip searches. (Id. ¶¶ 174-178.) Mr. Grohs claims that the conduct by those defendants amounted to deliberate indifference to his health or safety. (Id. ¶ 176.)

         Mr. Grohs further alleges, in Count VIII, that Lanigan, Yates, Foley, and Jane Doe are liable for his rights violations under a theory of supervisory liability. (Id. ¶¶ 179-189.) Specifically, he asserts that "Lanigan, Yates, and Foley were aware that residents were being subjected to unreasonable strip searches and these Defendants were indifferent to real or perceived constitutional violations." (Id. ¶ 186.) He reiterates that Lanigan, Foley, and Jane Doe were present for the June 2016 strip search, but "took no action to prevent Defendant John Doe from conducting a strip search that was inconsistent with the STU's search plan." (Id. ¶ 187.)

         Finally, in Count IX, Mr. Grohs alleges that Rivera and John Doe violated his right to privacy under the New Jersey Constitution. (Id. ¶¶ 190-197.) He contends that STU residents still have an expectation of privacy and a right to be free from "wrongful intrusion" into their lives. (Id. ¶¶ 191-192.) Accordingly, he argues that their strip searches of him, without probable cause, were unreasonable and violated this right. (Id. ¶¶ 195-196.)

         The complaint seeks declarations that defendants have violated Mr. Grohs's rights and compensatory damages. (Id. at pp. 44-47.)


         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 when the plaintiff is proceeding in forma pauperis. See 28 U.S.C. ยง 1915(e)(2)(B). The PLRA directs district courts to sua sponte dismiss claims that are frivolous or malicious, that fail to state a claim upon which ...

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