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Gittens v. Scholtz

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

July 23, 2019

DARIUS GITTENS, Plaintiff,
v.
MILDRED SCHOLTZ, et al., Defendants.

          OPINION

          ROBERT B. KUGLER UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiff Darius Gittens, a prisoner confined at Northern State Prison, in Newark, New Jersey, is proceeding pro se with a civil rights complaint pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. For the reasons stated in this Opinion, the Court will allow the Complaint to proceed in part.

         I. BACKGROUND

         The Court will construe the factual allegations in the Complaint as true for the purpose of this Opinion. Plaintiff names Mildred Scholtz, Matthew Leith, Captain McDonnell, J. Larkins, T. Blango, P. Blango, Mary Anne O'Brien, Bruce Garganio, Aimee Beigard, Joseph Donelly, Joanne Schwartz, Gary M. Lanigan, Marcus Hicks, Darcella Sessomes, T. Case, and John Doe.

         This case arises from Plaintiffs time at the Burlington County Jail, as a pretrial detainee. On or about December 16, 2015, Plaintiff entered the Burlington County Jail and notified a nurse of his “destroyed knees and destroyed shoulders” which cause him “extreme chronic pain.” (ECF No. 1, at 11).

         Despite Plaintiff s chronic conditions, officials housed him in a cell with two other inmates, and assigned him the floor mattress, which caused Plaintiff a great deal of pain and discomfort. Moreover, Plaintiffs mattress was nine inches from the toilet bowl, which resulted in his cellmates carelessly urinating on Plaintiff and his mattress on a regular basis.

         Additionally, Plaintiff complained of a number of conditions, such as: inadequate showering facilities; low cell temperatures; unsanitary conditions, e.g., mice and roaches; subpar food, and the lack of grievance forms. (ECF No. 1, at 13). Plaintiff complained about these conditions orally and in writing, or both, to a large number of the Defendants. Generally, Plaintiff alleges that Defendants ignored his letters and grievances or explicitly refused to address their contents.

         In particular, on February 1, 2016, Plaintiff finally received some grievance forms, made over a hundred copies of the grievance form, and distributed them to other detainees. Over the next several days, Plaintiff filed six separate grievances regarding the conditions above, as well as with regard to the denial of access to the law library and a general lack of reading material.

         In response to Plaintiffs actions, Defendant McDonnel issued a “specious” disciplinary report on February 11, 2016, charging Plaintiff with obstructing a camera. Officials then transferred Plaintiff out of general population and into punitive segregation. At the hearing, officials did not provide Plaintiff with an advocate, allow him to interview witnesses, or otherwise collect or present evidence. Additionally, the officer presiding over the hearing was Defendant P. Blango, while the primary witness was Defendant T. Blango, his twin brother. It appears that Defendant P. Blango found Plaintiff guilty, and Plaintiff received a fifteen day sentence in punitive segregation.

         Plaintiff appealed that finding and on February 24, 2016, he received a denial of that appeal from Defendant Leith, dated February 20, 2016. Plaintiff then attempted to appeal that decision to the New Jersey Superior Court, Appellate Division, but received no response.

         While in punitive segregation, officials did not allow Plaintiff to exercise outside of his cell and did not provide him with any clean clothes, sheets, law library access, or general reading materials. Further, during that stay, an Officer Wells[1] ordered Plaintiff out of his cell and then intentionally set off the sprinkler system to destroy Plaintiff's legal papers. Although Officer Wells issued a disciplinary report, a different officer dismissed those charges.

         On or about February 26, 2016, officials transferred Plaintiff back to the general population unit, where Plaintiff lived under the same or similar conditions discussed above. Plaintiff continued to report and complain of these conditions, including to the Burlington County Board of Chosen Freeholders, who intentionally withheld funding and allowed the “decay of the jail.” (ECF No. 1, at 21). Plaintiff alleges, however, that the “jail was monitoring and probably diverting complaints attempting to expose the illegal conditions of confinement at the jail.” (Id. at 22).

         After receiving his sentence, officials transferred Plaintiff on November 16, 2016, to the Central Reception and Assignment Facility, but did not allow him to take any of his legal materials. At the time, Plaintiff was unaware that a state court judge ordered the jail, on November 22, 2016, to preserve Plaintiff's legal materials and forward them to Plaintiff's new location. Despite Plaintiff's complaints and grievances to a number of Defendants, it appears that officials refused to deliver the legal materials until June 6, 2017, when Plaintiff's attorneys retrieved the materials from the jail.

         On February 23, 2018, [2] Plaintiff filed the instant Complaint, alleging that Defendants violated his rights under the First, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments, as well as related state law claims. He also seeks to bring some of his claims as a class action, naming other detainees who complain of the conditions at the Burlington County Jail. (ECF No. 1, at 29).

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         District courts must review complaints in civil actions in which a plaintiff is proceeding in forma pauperis. See 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B). District courts may 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. See Id. According to the Supreme Court's decision in Ashcroft v. Iqbal, “a pleading that offers ‘labels or conclusions' or ‘a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.'” 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007)).

         To survive sua sponte screening for failure to state a claim, [3] the complaint must allege “sufficient factual matter” to show that the claim is facially plausible. See Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 210 (3d Cir. 2009). “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 [alleged] misconduct.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678. Moreover, while courts liberally construe pro se pleadings, “pro 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) (citation omitted).

         III. DISCUSSION

         Plaintiff brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging violations of his civil rights guaranteed under the United States Constitution, and related claims. To succeed on a § 1983 claim, a plaintiff must allege two things: first, a violation of a right under the Constitution, and second, that a “person” acting under color of state law committed the violation. West v. Atkins, 487 U.S. 42, 48 (1988); Piecknick v. Com. of Pa., 36 F.3d 1250, 1255-56 (3d. Cir. 1994)). Plaintiff sets forth approximately fifteen different counts, some with subheadings alleging state law claims.

         A. Claims Against Defendant Lanigan

         As an initial matter, to be liable within the meaning of 42 U.S.C. § 1983, a defendant must be a “person.” The Supreme Court held in Will v. Michigan Dep 't. of State Police, 491 U.S. 58 (1989), that a State or an official thereof acting in his or her official capacity is not a “person” within the meaning of § 1983.

         Further, under the Eleventh Amendment, “[t]he judicial power of the United States shall not be construed to extend to any suit in law or equity, commenced or prosecuted against one of the United States by citizens of another State, or by Citizens or Subjects of any Foreign State.” U.S. Const. amend. XI. This immunity is available to all States, as well as any entity that is “an arm of the state.” See Mt. Healthy City Bd. of Educ. v. Boyle, 429 U.S. 274, 280 (1977).

         In general, the Eleventh Amendment bars suits from private parties seeking to impose liabilities on public funds in a State's treasury, unless the State explicitly waives such immunity. Bell v. Holmes, No. 13-6955, 2015 WL 851804, at *3 (D.N.J. Feb. 23, 2015). Thus, in order for a State or one of its agencies to be subject to a suit for money damages, it must consent to such a suit.

         In this case, Plaintiff has filed suit against Defendant Lanigan, then commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Corrections (“NJDOC”). In the Third Circuit, courts have consistently held that the NJDOC and its subsidiaries are not “persons” subject to liability under § 1983 as they are immune from suit in federal court under the Eleventh Amendment. See Wilson v. Haas, No. 11-7001, 2012 WL 6761819, at *5 (D.N.J. Dec. 28, 2012); Grabow v. S. State Corr. Facility, 726 F.Supp. 537, 538-39 (D.N.J. 1989). Since Defendant Lanigan is an agent of such a state entity, he is not a “person” within the meaning of § 1983 when acting in his official capacity. See Betts v. New Castle Youth Development Center, 621 F.3d 249, 254 (3d Cir. 2010) (finding that “[i]ndividual state employees sued in their official capacity are also entitled to Eleventh Amendment immunity”). Because Defendant Lanigan, acting in his official capacity is not a “person” within the meaning of 42 U.S.C. § 1983, the Court will dismiss with prejudice all claims against Defendant Lanigan in his official capacity.

         Additionally, although Plaintiff may generally seek prospective injunctive and declaratory relief against Defendant Lanigan in his individual capacity, he may not seek retroactive declaratory relief. Courts construe lawsuits seeking retroactive relief, “usually in the form of monetary damages and declaratory judgment for past conduct[] against a state official . . . as suits against the State because a judgment for damages against an official would necessarily require payment from the government.” Doe v. Div. of Youth & Family Servs., 148 F.Supp.2d 462, 483 (D.N.J. 2001). Accordingly, the Court will dismiss with prejudice all claims against Defendant Lanigan in his individual capacity, as they only seek retroactive declaratory relief against Defendant Lanigan.

         B. Claims Regarding Grievances

         Next, the Court construes Counts L and N to claim that Defendants ignored or destroyed Plaintiffs letters and grievances, and at times refused to provide him with grievance forms, in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments. Plaintiff also appears to pepper, at least in part, similar claims throughout his Complaint.

         Generally, the First Amendment confers a “right to petition the Government for redress of grievances, ” which traditionally involves access to the courts. Jutrowski v. Twp. of Riverdale, 904 F.3d 280, 294 n.17 (3d Cir. 2018); Horsh v. Clark, No. 17-316, 2019 WL 1243009, at *5 (W.D. Pa. Mar. 18, 2019). The First Amendment, does not however, “impose any affirmative obligation on the government to listen, to respond or . . . to recognize” a grievance. E.g., Smith v. Arkansas State Highway Emp., Local 1315, 441 U.S. 463, 465 (1979); see also Minnesota State Bd. Community Colleges v. Knight, 465 U.S. 271, 285 (1984) (“Nothing in the First Amendment or in this Court's case law interpreting it suggests that the rights to speak, associate, and petition require government policymakers to listen or respond to individuals' communications.”).

         Similarly, there is no constitutional right to an “administrative grievance process or any particular relief . . . through such process.” Horsh, No., 2019 WL 1243009, at *5 (citing Jones v. N. C Prisoners' Labor Union, Inc., 433 U.S. 119, 137-38 (1977)); Bakhtiari v. Spaulding, No. 17-16, 2017 WL 2778524, at *14 (M.D. Pa. June 27, 2017) (“Even if the prison provides for a grievance procedure . . . violations of those procedures do not give rise to a civil rights cause of action.”).

         These claims are equally meritless as due process challenges under the Fourteenth Amendment. “Prisoners are not constitutionally entitled to a grievance procedure and the state creation of such a procedure does not create any federal constitutional rights.” Peterson v. Holmes, No. 12-865, 2012 WL 5451435, at *7 (D.N.J. Nov. 7, 2012) (quoting Wilson v. Horn,971 F.Supp. 943, 947 (E.D. Pa. 1997)). Consequently, although the failure to respond to Plaintiffs letters and grievances may implicate other rights, it did “not ...


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