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Soto v. State

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

April 18, 2019

JUAN SOTO, Plaintiff,
v.
STATE OF NEW JERSEY et al., Defendants.

          OPINION

          Freda L. Wolfson, United States District Judge.

         I. INTRODUCTION

         Plaintiff pro se, Juan Soto (“Soto” or “Plaintiff”), a state prisoner incarcerated at New Jersey State Prison, in Trenton, New Jersey, filed this civil rights action against Defendants, the State of New Jersey (“the State”), the New Jersey Department of Correction (“the NJDOC”), D. Borg (“Borg”), and B. Patoe (“Patoe”) (collectively, “Defendants”), asserting various constitutional claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. (Compl., ECF No. 1-1.) Upon a motion by Defendants, the Court previously dismissed the Complaint for failure to state a claim under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). (See ECF Nos. 3, 6, 7, & 8.) Soto subsequently filed an Amended Complaint against the same defendants. (ECF No. 9.) Presently before the Court is Defendants' motion to dismiss the Amended Complaint with prejudice for failure to state a claim under Rule 12(b)(6). (ECF No. 12.) For the following reasons, the motion is GRANTED insofar as all claims against the State and the NJDOC and the damages claims against Borg and Patoe in their official capacities are dismissed with prejudice, and the remainder of Soto's claims are dismissed without prejudice.

         II. BACKGROUND AND ALLEGATIONS

         On November 1, 2017, Soto filed his original Complaint in the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Mercer County. (ECF No. 1-1.) The Complaint included a single claim, in which Soto alleged that, on April 28, 2016, he “was arbitrarily, capriciously and unlawfully removed from general population and locked up and placed on Temporary Close Custody (“TCC”) in the Institution's Detention Segregation Close Custody Unit until May 5, 2016 in clear violation of [his] United States Constitutional Rights under the 8th, 14th Amendment and N.J.A.C. 10A:5-7.1.”[1] (Id. ¶ 4.) On December 21, 2017, Defendants removed the action to this Court under 28 U.S.C. § 1331. (Notice of Removal, ECF No. 1.) Defendants thereafter filed a motion to dismiss the Complaint, which Soto opposed. (See ECF Nos. 3 & 6.)

         On August 23, 2018, I issued an Opinion and Order granting Defendants' dismissal motion. (See ECF Nos. 7 & 8.) Specifically, I noted that the State and its agencies, as well as State employees in their official capacities to the extent they are sued for money damages, are not subject to suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Accordingly, I dismissed such claims with prejudice. (See ECF No. 7 at 4-7.) I further noted that Soto had failed to alleged any personal involvement by Borg and Patoe in any purported wrongdoing. Thus, I dismissed the remaining claims without prejudice, for failure to state a claim. (Id. at 7-8.) I granted Soto leave to file an Amended Complaint within 30 days to address the deficiencies identified as the bases for dismissal. (ECF No. 7 at 8; ECF No. 8.)

         On September 19, 2018, Soto filed an Amended Complaint against the same defendants, including state entities that were previously dismissed.[2] (ECF No. 9.) As in the original Complaint, Soto asserts that his placement in temporary close custody from April 28 to May 5 of 2016 was arbitrary and capricious and violated his due-process and equal-protection rights. (Id. ¶¶ 14, 17-18, 21, 39-46.) He newly alleges that he was “illegally removed from general population on the orders of [Patoe]” and that the “illegal and unlawful placement was approved and authorized by [Borg].” (Id. ¶¶ 10-11.) Soto also now claims that his placement in TCC constituted retaliation for his constitutionally protected activity, namely “refusing to provide statements or talk to Defendants Patoe and Borg concerning gang activity.” (Id. ¶¶ 22-27, 47- 54.) Soto additionally alleges a pattern in the prison of similar retaliation and that “Borg and Patoe are part of a gang of corrupt and rogue correctional officers who engage in deceitful and unconstitutional practices and retaliatory conduct generally directed toward minorities.” (Id. ¶ 27.)

         Defendants now move to dismiss the Amended Complaint for failure to state a claim, under Rule 12(b)(6). (ECF No. 12.) They argue that the Court previously dismissed with prejudice Soto's claims against the State, the NJDOC, and Borg and Patoe in their official capacities, thus barring Soto from reasserting such claims. (Br. in Supp., ECF No. 12-1, at 5-6.) Defendants further contend that the Amended Complaint fails to state a due-process claim concerning Soto's placement in TCC, as prisoners have no liberty interest in their housing assignments. (Id. at 7-8.) They argue that Soto has similarly failed to plead the elements of a retaliation claim. (Id. at 8-10.) Defendants assert that it may be inferred from the Amended Complaint that Soto was placed in TCC for security reasons. (Id. at 2, 10.)

         In opposition, Soto argues generally that he has asserted sufficient facts to state a claim. (See ECF No. 13.) He further urges that “[o]nce discovery is completed and the record fully developed the evidence will be overwhelming and will demonstrate facts and evidence to support constitutional violations and in particular the fact that Defendants violated the constitutional rights of Plaintiff.” (See ECF No. 13 at 11.)

         III. LEGAL STANDARD

         In reviewing a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), “courts accept all factual allegations as true, construe the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, and determine whether, under any reasonable reading of the complaint, the plaintiff may be entitled to relief.” Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 210 (3d Cir. 2009) (internal quotation marks omitted). Although Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a) does not require that a complaint contain detailed factual allegations, “a plaintiff's obligation to provide the ‘grounds' of his ‘entitle[ment] to relief' requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007) (alteration in original). Thus, to survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient factual allegations to raise a plaintiff's right to relief above the speculative level, so that a claim is “plausible on its face.” Id. at 570; Phillips v. County of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 231 (3d Cir. 2008). “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.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). While the “plausibility standard is not akin to a ‘probability requirement,' . . . it asks for more than a sheer possibility that defendant had acted unlawfully.” Id.

         In applying the Twombly and Iqbal pleading standards, the Third Circuit has formulated “a three-step process for district courts to follow in reviewing the sufficiency of a complaint.” Robinson v. Family Dollar Inc, 679 Fed.Appx. 126, 131 (3d Cir. 2017); see also Connelly v. Lane Constr. Corp., 809 F.3d 780, 787 (3d Cir. 2016). First, the reviewing court “must take note of the elements the plaintiff must plead to state a claim.” Connelly, 809 F.3d at 787 (internal quotation marks and brackets omitted). Next, the court “should identify allegations that, because they are no more than conclusions, are not entitled to the assumption of truth.” Id. (internal quotation marks omitted). Lastly, “when there are well-pleaded factual allegations, the court should assume their veracity and then determine whether they plausibly give rise to an entitlement to relief.” Id. (internal quotation marks and brackets omitted). This final plausibility analysis is “a context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679.

         Here, Soto is proceeding pro se. “The obligation to liberally construe a pro se litigant's pleadings is well-established.” Higgs v. Att'y Gen. of U.S., 655 F.3d 333, 339 (3d Cir. 2011); see also Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 106 (1976); Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, 520-21 (1972). “Courts are to construe complaints so as to do substantial justice, keeping in mind that pro se complaints in particular should be construed liberally.” Alston v. Parker, 363 F.3d 229, 234 (3d Cir. 2004) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). “Liberal construction does not, however, require the Court to credit a pro se plaintiff's ‘bald assertions' or ‘legal conclusions.'” Grohs v. Yatauro, 984 F.Supp.2d 273, 282 (D.N.J. 2013) (quoting Morse v. Lower Merion Sch. Dist., 132 F.3d 902, 906 (3d Cir. 1997)). “[T]here are limits to [the court's] procedural flexibility. . . . [P]ro se litigants still must allege sufficient facts in their complaints to support a claim.” Mala v. Crown Bay Marina, Inc., 704 F.3d 239, 245 (3d Cir. 2013). “Even 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.” Grohs, 984 F.Supp.2d at 282.

         IV. ...


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