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Crawford v. Wheeler

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

August 9, 2019

THOMAS CRAWFORD, Plaintiff,
v.
SCO B. WHEELER et al., Defendants.

          OPINION

          FREDA L. WOLFSON U.S. CHIEF DISTRICT JUDGE.

         I. INTRODUCTION

         Plaintiff Thomas Crawford (“Crawford” or “Plaintiff”) is a state prisoner incarcerated at New Jersey State Prison, in Trenton, New Jersey. He is proceeding pro se with this civil rights action filed under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Presently before the Court is a motion by defendants SCO B. Wheeler (“Wheeler”), Lt. Bundy, SCO E. Perez (“Perez”), SCO G. Christmas, COR J. Leek (“Leek”), COR Patrick Jenson (“Jenson”), Sgt. S. Patterson (“Patterson”), Sgt. DeFazio (“DeFazio”), the State of New Jersey, and the New Jersey Department of Corrections (collectively, “Movants”) for judgment on the pleadings, under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(c). For the following reasons, the motion is granted insofar as described herein.

         II. BACKGROUND AND MOTION

         The facts underlying this action are straight forward. Crawford alleges that, on November 25, 2016, Leek, Jenson, and Perez, searched the cell of another prisoner, Michael Martin (“Martin”), and placed legal materials, among other items found therein, in the garbage.[1](Compl., ECF No. 1-3, ¶¶ 7-11.) Crawford explains that Martin is a prison paralegal and that some of Crawford's legal documents were among those in Martin's cell that the officers threw away. (Id. ¶¶ 5, 11, 19, 23.) He alleges that Patterson and DeFazio had ordered the other officers to search Martin's cell and destroy legal material, and he contends that the search was an act of retaliation for Martin's filing of grievances regarding Wheeler. (Id. ¶¶ 5-6, 18.)

         On September 19, 2017, Crawford filed a Complaint in the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Mercer County. (See id.) His single-count Complaint alleged that Movants, as well as non-appearing defendants Major Steve Alaimo, SCO S. Clifton, and SCO Amato, destroyed his legal materials as an act of retaliation. (Id. ¶¶ 19 & 21.) Crawford also alleged the destruction of his legal materials would cause him to “be unable to pursue [his] litigation and lose [his] case.” (Id. ¶¶ 20 & 31.) I construe the Complaint as asserting civil rights claims for retaliation and denial of access to the courts, under the First Amendment, as well as supervisory liability. (See id.) Crawford also seems to invoke state tort law. (See Id. at ECF p. 11.)

         Movants removed the action to this Court on February 7, 2018, and subsequently field an Answer to the Complaint. (See ECF Nos. 1 & 2.) Magistrate Judge Douglas E. Arpert issued a Discovery Scheduling Order, and he subsequently granted Movants leave to file a motion for judgment on the pleadings. (ECF Nos. 3 & 9.)

         Movants thereafter filed the present motion for judgment on the pleadings under Rule 12(c). (ECF No. 10.) They argue that damages claims against them in their official capacities must be dismissed, that Crawford's claims are barred by qualified immunity, that Crawford has failed to adequately plead constitutional claims, and that Crawford cannot recover damages because he has not established physical injury. (Br. on Behalf of Defs.' Mot., ECF No. 10-3, at 8-26.) They additionally ask that discovery be stayed pending resolution of the motion. (Id. at 14.) Crawford timely filed an opposition to the motion, (ECF No. 17), but Movants have filed no reply brief. I note that Judge Arpert subsequently stayed all discovery in this action pending decision on the motion. (See ECF No. 14.)

         III. ANALYSIS

         “‘A motion for judgment on the pleadings based on the defense that the plaintiff has failed to state a claim is analyzed under the same standards that apply to a Rule 12(b)(6) motion.'” Zimmerman v. Corbett, 873 F.3d 414, 417 (3d Cir. 2017) (quoting Revell v. Port Auth. of N.Y. & N.J., 598 F.3d 128, 134 (3d Cir. 2010)), cert. denied 138 S.Ct. 2623 (2018); see also Hoffman v. Nordic Naturals, Inc., 837 F.3d 272, 279 n.47 (3d Cir. 2016), cert. denied 137 S.Ct. 2296 (2017); Turbe v. Gov't of V.I., 938 F.2d 427, 428 (3d Cir. 1991). 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 (or a Rule 12(c) motion asserting that Plaintiff has failed to plead a claim), 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.

         Pro se pleadings must be liberally construed. Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, 520 (1972). Nonetheless, “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).

         As noted above, I construed the Complaint as asserting civil rights claims for retaliation, denial of access to the courts, and supervisory liability, under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, as well as invoking state tort law. Section 1983 states, in relevant part,

Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State or Territory or the District of Columbia, subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress, except that in any action brought against a judicial officer for an act or omission taken in such officer's judicial capacity, injunctive relief shall not be granted unless a declaratory decree was violated or declaratory relief was unavailable.

42 U.S.C. § 1983. To state a claim under § 1983, a plaintiff must allege the violation of a right secured by the Constitution or laws of the United States and that the alleged deprivation was committed or caused by a person acting under color of state law. See Harvey v. Plains Twp. Police Dep't, 635 ...


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