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Miller v. West Virginia Division of Corrections

United States District Court, S.D. West Virginia, Huntington Division

March 16, 2017



          Cheryl A. Eifert United States Magistrate Judge

         On May 5, 2016, Plaintiff, Teresa Miller, proceeding pro se and then incarcerated at the Lakin Correctional Center (“Lakin”) in West Columbia, West Virginia, filed a complaint pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 in the United States District Court for the Northern District of West Virginia. (ECF No. 1). The action was subsequently transferred to this court and is assigned to the Honorable Robert C. Chambers, United States District Judge. By standing order, the matter was referred the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge for findings of fact and recommendations for disposition. Having fully considered Plaintiff's claims and her requests for relief, the undersigned FINDS that portions of the amended complaint are moot, portions request compensation from individuals and entities that are not “persons” under § 1983, and the remaining portions fail to state a claim for which relief may be granted. Therefore, the undersigned respectfully RECOMMENDS that the presiding district judge DISMISS the amended complaint, with prejudice, and remove this action from the docket of the court. For the same reasons, the undersigned further RECOMMENDS that the presiding district judge DENY Plaintiff's motion to amend the amended complaint, which seeks to increase her prayer for monetary relief to one billion dollars. (ECF No. 34).

         I. Relevant Factual Background

         On November 14, 2013, Plaintiff entered a guilty plea to a drug trafficking charge brought in the Circuit Court of Monongalia County, West Virginia.[1] On January 6, 2014, Plaintiff was sentenced to a term of 1 to 15 years, to be served in the West Virginia State Penitentiary. However, in lieu of incarceration in the penitentiary, the Circuit Court allowed Plaintiff to serve her sentence on home confinement with the condition that she report to a probation officer as directed. Plaintiff did not appeal her conviction or sentence.

         On February 25, 2014, Plaintiff's home confinement was revoked when she tested positive for cocaine, and she was delivered to the West Virginia Division of Corrections. Plaintiff moved for reconsideration of the revocation order, and on June 9, 2014, the Circuit Court agreed to place her on home confinement again, contingent on the Preston County home confinement office accepting her, as well as her enrollment in either drug court or an in-patient treatment program. Arrangements for home confinement were not completed; therefore, Plaintiff was not released pursuant to this order and, instead, was taken to Lakin.

         On March 9, 2015, a hearing was held on a second motion for reconsideration. The Circuit Court agreed to place Plaintiff on six months of probation. Consequently, she was immediately released from Lakin.

         While on release, Plaintiff allegedly violated the terms of probation and was arrested on July 20, 2015. Following a hearing, the Circuit Court reimposed Plaintiff's original sentence. She was remanded to the Division of Corrections and returned to Lakin. Plaintiff filed a motion for reconsideration of the revocation order; however, the Circuit Court denied the motion based upon the number of Plaintiff's probation violations and the fact that she was under consideration for parole. Plaintiff appealed the Circuit Court's order to the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia (“WVSC”), and that appeal is still pending. Sometime between August 3 and August 12, 2016, Plaintiff was released from Lakin. (ECF Nos. 30, 31). She currently resides in Morgantown. (ECF No. 33).

         II. Procedural Background of § 1983 Action

         On May 5, 2016, Plaintiff filed a lengthy, rambling complaint pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 in the United States District Court for the Northern District of West Virginia. (ECF No. 1). The complaint included numerous criticisms levied against multiple individuals and institutions that Plaintiff had encountered during her journey through the state penal system. Altogether, counting continuations and attachments, the complaint was 187 pages long. (ECF Nos. 1, 1-1, 1-2, 1-3, 1-4). On May 5, 2016, the Clerk of Court sent Plaintiff a Notice of Deficient Pleading, indicating that Plaintiff needed to provide complete names, to the extent known, and addresses of the defendants in order for the action to proceed. Plaintiff was given twenty-one days to comply. (ECF No. 5). However, the following day, United States Magistrate Judge Robert W. Trumble, noting that the claims involved facilities and individuals located in the Southern District of West Virginia, transferred Plaintiff's case to this court. (ECF No. 6).

         On June 23, 2016, the undersigned issued an order denying seven pending motions filed by Plaintiff and identifying several deficiencies in the complaint and the in forma pauperis application. (ECF No. 22). Plaintiff was instructed to submit a completed Application to Proceed Without Prepayment of Fees & Costs and to file an amended complaint setting forth concise claims against the named defendants. (Id.). Plaintiff was further advised that some of her claims-those that challenged the fact or duration of her confinement-were not properly brought in a § 1983 complaint and needed to be asserted in a petition for a writ of habeas corpus. Plaintiff was given sixty days to comply with the order.

         On July 20, 2016, Plaintiff filed an amended complaint and an Application to Proceed Without Prepayment of Fees and Costs. (ECF Nos. 27, 28). On August 12, 2016, Plaintiff sent the Clerk of Court a Notice of Change of Address form, indicating that she was no longer housed at Lakin and was now residing in Kingwood, West Virginia. (ECF No. 31). On September 29, 2016, Plaintiff filed a second notice of change of address, indicating that she had moved to Morgantown, West Virginia. (ECF No. 33). Plaintiff no longer appears in the inmate locator of either the West Virginia Division of Corrections, or the West Virginia Regional Jail and Correctional Facility Authority. Her most recent filing indicates that she remains on release in Morgantown. (ECF No. 34 at 3).

         III. Amended Complaint

         In the amended complaint, Plaintiff names twenty (22) defendants, including the West Virginia Division of Corrections, Commissioner Jim Rubenstein, individuals employed at Lakin, individuals connected with the Charleston Correctional Center, and individuals associated with PSI Med, an entity that allegedly provided remote medical services to Plaintiff. (ECF No. 27). Plaintiff lists a number of grievances against the defendants, including lack of access to the law library; refusal to add courts to Plaintiff's call list; alleged retaliation for filing civil cases; loss of personal belongings during transport; problems with work release; violations of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (“HIPAA”); ineffective grievance procedure; the suspicious application of clear tape to her mail; letters not being delivered; religious discrimination; delays in granting her parole; refusal of daily access to the reading library; and suspected tampering with her kosher food. (Id.). With respect to relief, Plaintiff asks the Court to explain why she was brought to prison without a sentencing order; why she is unable to use the law library and have cases dismissed for lack of using it; why she does not have access to programs designed to help her integrate into society; why she is punished for filing legal papers; why the defendants are “trying to distance me between my friends and family”; and for any monetary relief owed to her for the alleged violations of her constitutional and civil rights. (ECF No. 27 at 6, 15). A short time ago, Plaintiff moved for leave to increase her demand for monetary relief to one billion dollars. (ECF No. 34).

         IV. Screening Standard

         Pursuant to the provisions of 28 U.S.C. § 1915, a court must screen each case in which a prisoner seeks to proceed in forma pauperis. The court must dismiss the case, or any part of it, if the complaint is frivolous, 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.” 28 U.S.C. § 1915. A “frivolous” case has been defined as one which is based upon an indisputably meritless legal theory, Anders v. California, 386 U.S. 738, 744 (1967), or lacks “an arguable basis either in law or fact.” Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319, 325 (1989); Denton v. Hernandez, 504 U.S. 25 (1992). Likewise, a complaint fails to state a compensable claim, and therefore should be dismissed, when viewing the well-pleaded factual allegations in the complaint as true and in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, the complaint does not contain “enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Bell Atlantic Corp v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007).

         The Supreme Court further clarified the “plausibility” standard in Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678-79 (2009), stating that the Court is required to accept as true the factual allegations asserted in the complaint, but is not required to accept the legitimacy of legal conclusions that are “couched as . . . factual allegation[s].” Id. at 678 (quoting Bell Atlantic Corp, 550 U.S. at 554). “Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice.” Id. “[W]here the well-pleaded facts do not permit the court to infer more than the mere possibility of misconduct, the complaint has alleged-but it has not ‘show[n]'-‘that the pleader is entitled to relief.'” Id. at 679.

         Plaintiff has filed her complaint pro se, and courts are required to liberally construe pro se complaints. Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007). However, even under this less stringent standard, the complaint still must contain sufficient factual allegations to support a valid legal cause of action. Bass v. E.I. Dupont de Nemours & Co., 324 F.3d 761, 765 (4th Cir. 2003). The court may not rewrite the pleading to include claims that were never presented, Parker v. Champion, 148 F.3d 1219, 1222 (10th Cir. 1998), construct the plaintiff's legal arguments for her, Small v. Endicott, 998 F.2d 411, 417-18 (7th Cir. 1993), or “conjure up questions never squarely presented” to the court. Beaudett v. City of Hampton, 775 F.2d 1274, 1278 (4th Cir. 1985).

         V. Discussion

         A. Mootness

         In the course of screening a prisoner's case, the court should also verify that it has judicial authority under Article III, Section 2 of the United States Constitution to consider the asserted claims. As a prerequisite to the exercise of judicial authority, the complaint before the court must present an actual case or justiciable controversy. “To be justiciable under Article III of the Constitution, the conflict between the litigants must present a ‘case or controversy' both at the time the lawsuit is filed and at the time it is decided. If intervening factual ... events effectively dispel the case or controversy during pendency of the suit, the federal courts are powerless to decide the questions presented.” Ross v. Reed, 719 F.2d. 689, 693-94 (4th Cir. 1983). “The requisite personal interest that must exist at the commencement of the litigation ... must continue throughout its existence. Arizonans for Official English v. Arizona, 520 U.S. 43, 68 n. 22 (1997) (citations omitted). “Simply stated, a case is moot when the issues presented are no longer ‘live' or the parties lack a legally cognizable interest in the outcome.” Powell v. McCormack, 395 U.S. 486, 496 (1969).

         “[A]s a general rule, a prisoner's transfer or release from a particular prison moots his claims for injunctive and declaratory relief with respect to his incarceration there.” Rendelman v. Rouse, 569 F.3d 182, 186 (4th Cir. 2009). “The reasons for finding mootness in such a context are clear. Once an inmate is removed from the environment in which he is subjected to the challenged policy or practice, absent a claim for damages, he no longer has a legally cognizable interest in a judicial decision on the merits of his claim.” Incumaa v. Ozmint, 507 F.3d 281, 287 (4th Cir. 2007). “Any declaratory or injunctive relief ordered in the inmate's favor in such situations would have no practical impact on the inmate's rights and would not redress in any way the injury he originally asserted.” Id.

         Nevertheless, a plaintiff's claim should not be dismissed as moot if there is sufficient evidence to conclude that the action is “capable of repetition, yet evading review.” Southern Pac. Terminal Co. v. ICC, 219 U.S. 498, 515 (1911). Under this exception, a claim that would otherwise be moot may be subject to judicial review if the facts of the case lead to a reasonable expectation that the “same complaining party would be subjected to the same action again.” Lane v. Williams, 455 U.S. 624, 634 (1982) (citing Weinstein v. Bradford, 423 U.S. 147, 149 (1975)); Federal Election Commission v. Wis. Right to Life, 551 U.S. 449, 463 (2007) (“capable of repetition” exception requires demonstrated probability that the same controversy will recur involving the same plaintiff). The plaintiff must make a reasonable showing “that he will again be subject to the alleged illegality.” Mere conjecture that the plaintiff may return to a prison facility and again face the alleged wrong is not sufficient to meet the mootness exception. Higgason v. Farley, 83 F.3d 807, 811 (7th Cir. 1996).

         Here, Plaintiff ‘s complaint is so unwieldy that it is difficult to separate her claims and requests for relief and assign them to the various defendants. However, to the extent that Plaintiff requests declaratory or injunctive relief, the undersigned FINDS that her complaint is moot. Plaintiff is no longer an inmate at Lakin, having been released from custody months ago. Moreover, Plaintiff has not made a reasonable showing that she will return to Lakin and be subjected to the same alleged wrongs. Therefore, all claims seeking non-monetary relief should be dismissed.

         B. Claims Subject to Money Damages

         Title 42 U.S.C. § 1983 provides a remedy to parties who are deprived of federally protected civil and constitutional rights by persons acting under color of any state “law, statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage.” Id. Congress enacted § 1983 “to enforce provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment against those who carry a badge of authority of a State and represent it in some capacity, whether they act in accordance with their authority or misuse it.” Monroe v. Pape, 365 U.S. 167, 171-172 (1961), overruled on other grounds by 436 U.S. 658. In order to state a cause of action under § 1983, a plaintiff must present facts showing that: (1) a person (the defendant) deprived him or her of a federally protected civil right, privilege or immunity and (2) that the defendant did so under color of State law. Perrin v. Nicholson, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 105121, * 4 (D.S.C. 2010); See American Mfr. Mut. Ins. Co. v. Sullivan, 526 U.S. 40, 49-50 (1999) (“To state a claim for relief in an action brought under § 1983, respondents must establish that they were deprived of a right secured by the Constitution or laws of the United States, and that the alleged deprivation was committed under color of state law.”). If either of these elements is missing, the complaint fails to state a claim for relief under § 1983. Id. at 50.

         Plaintiff asks the Court to award her the “monetary” relief that she is “entitled to for violating [her] constitutional and civil rights.” (ECF No. 27). Plaintiff does not identify which of the twenty-two defendants are responsible for paying the money damages, nor does she specify an amount of compensation that should be awarded against each defendant. Furthermore, Plaintiff fails to pinpoint the particular violations that she believes entitle her to monetary relief. For that reason, the undersigned will examine in turn each claim asserted by Plaintiff in her amended complaint to determine if she has alleged sufficient facts to state a plausible claim for money damages under § 1983.

         1. Individuals and Entities that are not Persons under § 1983

         Before examining Plaintiff's individual claims, the undersigned will consider whether there are any named defendants not subject to suit, because they are not “persons” under § 1983. In Will v. Mich. Dept. of State Police, the Supreme Court of the United States considered “the question whether a State, or an official of the State while acting in his or her official capacity, is a ‘person' within the meaning of Rev.Stat. § 1979, 42 U.S.C. § 1983.” Id., 491 U.S. 58, 60 (1989). Examining the language and purpose of the statute, the Supreme Court concluded that Congress never intended to subject States to liability for deprivations of civil liberties when such suits would have otherwise been barred by the States' sovereign immunity. Id. at 66. The Court further held that a State's officials “acting in their official capacities” likewise were not “persons” under § 1983. Id. at 71. The Court explained: “Obviously, state officials literally are persons. But a suit against a state official in his or her official capacity is not a suit against the official; rather, it is a suit against the official's office. As such, it is no different from a suit against the State itself.” Id. (citations omitted).

         The Court later clarified its holding in Will, making a distinction between officials acting in their official capacities and officials acting in their personal capacities under color of state law. Kentucky v. Graham, 473 U.S. 159, 165-66 (1985); see also Hafer v. Melo, 502 U.S. 21 (1991). The Court explained that because the real party in interest in an “official-capacity” suit is the governmental entity, rather than the named official, the target of such a claim is the entity's “policy or custom.” Hafer, 502 U.S. at 25 (citing Graham, 473 U.S. at 166). “Personal-capacity suits, on the other hand, seek to impose individual liability upon a government officer for actions taken under color of state law.” Id.

         The significance of this distinction is key to the viability of a § 1983 complaint against a state official. As a general proposition, the doctrine of sovereign immunity contained in the Eleventh Amendment to the United States Constitution bars suit against a State. Will, 491 U.S. at 67. By extension, sovereign immunity bars claims for money damages against state officials acting within their official capacities, including claims brought pursuant to § 1983. Id. at 71. In contrast, suits for money damages brought against state officials acting in their personal capacities are not barred by the doctrine of sovereign immunity. Hafer, 502 U.S. 30. Instead, a state official sued in his or her personal capacity under § 1983 must rely upon “personal immunities, ” such as qualified immunity, to bar suit. Id. at 31.

         The determination of whether a defendant has been named in his official or individual capacity is generally made by examining “the face of the complaint.” Amos v. Maryland Dep't of Pub. Safety & Corr. Servs., 126 F.3d 589, 609 (4th Cir. 1997), vacated on other grounds by 524 U.S. 935 (1998). “[A] plaintiff need not plead expressly the capacity in which he is suing a defendant in order to state a cause of action under § 1983.” Biggs v. Meadows, 66 F.3d 56, 60 (4th Cir. 1995). However, “[w]hen a plaintiff does not allege capacity specifically, the court must examine the nature of the plaintiff's claims, the relief sought, and the course of proceedings to determine whether a state official is being sued in a personal capacity.” Id. at 61. In Foreman v. Griffith, the Fourth Circuit discussed the significance of the factors outlined in Biggs:

With respect to assessing the nature of a plaintiff's claim or claims, the Biggs court stated that the plaintiff's failure to allege that the defendant acted in accordance with a governmental policy or custom or the lack of indicia of such a policy or custom on the face of the complaint indicates that a state actor has been sued in his individual capacity. With respect to the nature of the relief sought, the Biggs court also stated that the plaintiff's request for compensatory or punitive damages indicates an individual capacity suit since such relief is unavailable in official capacity suits. Finally, with respect to the course of proceedings, the Biggs court stated that the defendant's assertion of qualified immunity as a defense indicates an individual capacity suit, since such a defense is only available in individual capacity suits.

81 Fed.App'x 432, 435 (4th Cir. 2003). Ultimately, “the underlying inquiry remains whether the [p]laintiff's intention to hold a defendant personally liable can be ...

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