United States District Court, D. New Jersey
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
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.
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.
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. (Id.
¶ 36-39.) Accordingly, Lukaszewski returned the package
to the sender. (Id. ¶¶ 40-41.)
after midnight on October 27, 2015, Officers Lee and Calton
placed Mr. Grohs into Temporary Close Custody
("TCC") 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.)
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.)
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.)
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.)
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.)
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. ¶
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.)
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.)
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.
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.)
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.)
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.)
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.)
complaint seeks declarations that defendants have violated
Mr. Grohs's rights and compensatory damages.
(Id. at pp. 44-47.)
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. § 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