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Villanueva v. Coakley

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

May 7, 2018

JOE COAKLEY, Warden, et al., Defendants.



         On July 29, 2015, Plaintiff, acting pro se and formerly incarcerated at FCI Beckley located in Beaver, West Virginia, filed his Complaint claiming entitlement to relief pursuant to the Federal Tort Claims Act [FTCA], 28 U.S.C. §§ 1346(b) and 2671, et seq.[1] (Document No. 1.). Plaintiff names the following as Defendants: (1) Joe Coakley, Warden; and (2) J. James, Correctional Officer. (Id.) In his Complaint, Plaintiff alleges that Defendants are responsible for the loss of his personal property. (Id.) Plaintiff complains that on July 7, 2013, Defendant James confiscated Plaintiff's “religious necklace” during an upper body search following a disturbance in the recreation area. (Id., p. 3.) Plaintiff acknowledges that Defendant James contacted the Chaplain regarding the necklace. (Id.) Defendant James then informed Plaintiff that only the medicine bag attached to the necklace was acceptable religious property. (Id.) Plaintiff then requested permission to mail the necklace to his home, and Defendant James instructed Plaintiff to follow-up with him the next day. (Id.) Plaintiff, however, complains that on July 10, 2013, he received an Incident Report for gang affiliation, participating in gang related activities, possession of paraphernalia, and indicating gang affiliation. (Id., p. 4.) Plaintiff states that during disciplinary proceedings, he was exonerated of any gang affiliation that was related to the necklace. (Id.) Plaintiff, however, complains that the necklace was never returned to him nor was it ever mailed to his home. (Id.) Plaintiff alleges that Defendant James stated that “because the necklace is contraband, Plaintiff cannot have it.” (Id.) Plaintiff acknowledges that he filed a grievance with Warden Coakley regarding the foregoing and was informed as follows: “[T]he necklace did not meet the criteria of a religious necklace. It has been classified as gang related paraphernalia that is contraband. Contraband is to be destroyed, not mailed home.” (Id., p. 5.) Plaintiff contends that because he was exonerated of the Incident Report, he should have been allowed to mail his necklace home. (Id.) As relief, Plaintiff requests that he either be allowed to mail his necklace home or be compensated in the amount of $50, 000. (Id.)


         Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915A, the Court is required to screen each case in which a prisoner seeks redress from a governmental entity or officer or employee of a governmental entity. On screening, the Court must recommend dismissal of the case if the complaint is frivolous, malicious or fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. A “frivolous” complaint is one which is based upon an indisputably meritless legal theory. Denton v. Hernandez, 504 U.S. 25, 112 S.Ct. 1728, 118 L.Ed.2d 340 (1992). A “frivolous” claim lacks “an arguable basis either in law or in fact.” Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319, 325, 109 S.Ct. 1827, 1831 - 32, 104 L.Ed.2d 338 (1989). A claim lacks an arguable basis in law when it is “based on an indisputably meritless legal theory.” Id., 490 U.S. at 327, 109 S.Ct. at 1833. A claim lacks an arguable basis in fact when it describes “fantastic or delusional scenarios.” Id., 490 U.S. at 327 -328, 109 S.Ct. at 1833. A complaint therefore fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted factually when it appears beyond doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of his claim which would entitle him to relief. With these standards in mind, the Court will assess Plaintiff's allegations in view of applicable law.


         Plaintiff appears to assert a negligence claim under the Federal Tort Claims Act against Federal Bureau of Prisons. Such claims are appropriately raised against the United States under the Federal Tort Claims Act [FTCA], 28 U.S.C. §§ 2671-2680. An inmate “can sue under the FTCA to recover damages from the United States Government for personal injuries sustained during confinement in a federal prison, by reason of the negligence of a government employee.” United States v. Muniz, 374 U.S. 150, 83 S.Ct. 1850, 10 L.Ed.2d 805 (1963). The FTCA provides at Section 2674 as follows:

The United States shall be liable, respecting the provisions of this title relating to tort claims, in the same manner and to the same extent as a private individual under like circumstances, but shall not be liable for interest prior to judgment or for punitive damages.

         The FTCA does not create a new cause of action. Medina v. United States, 259 F.3d 220, 223 (4th Cir. 2001). The statute merely waives sovereign immunity and “permits the United States to be held liable in tort in the same respect as a private person would be liable under the law of the place where the act occurred.” Id. Section 2680, however, exempts from the waiver certain categories of claims. See 28 U.S.C. §§ 2680(a)-(n). Section 2680(c) provides that the waiver of immunity in Section 1346(b) shall not apply to “[a]ny claim arising in respect of the assessment or collection of any tax or customs duty, or the detention of any goods, merchandise, or other property by any officer of customs or excise or any other law enforcement officer.” In Ali v. Federal Bureau of Prisons, 552 U.S. 214, 228, 128 S.Ct. 831, 841, 169 L.Ed.2d 680 (2008), the United States Supreme Court held that “Section 2680(c) forecloses lawsuits against the United States for the unlawful detention of property by ‘any, ' not just ‘some, ' law enforcement officers.” Ali v. Federal Bureau of Prisons, 552 U.S. 214, 128 S.Ct. 831, 169 L.Ed.2d 680 (2008). Thus, FTCA actions involving the detention or mishandling of personal property by prison officials are subject to dismissal. See Perkins v. Deboo, 2009 WL 1650443 (N.D.W.Va. June 11, 2009)(plaintiff's FTCA claim seeking reimbursement for loss of personal property dismissed based upon Section 2680(c)); Mathis v. U.S., 2008 WL 2922798 (D.S.C. July 24, 2008)(plaintiff's FTCA claim that prison officials were negligent in transferring his personal property was dismissed based upon Section 2680(c)); Wadley v. Warden, 2008 WL 2455445 (W.D.Va. June 16, 2008)(FTCA claim that prison officials were negligent in seizing and destroying his tennis shoes was dismissed based upon Section 2680(c)). The undersigned finds that Plaintiff's claim that prison officials were negligent in the retention of his personal property falls squarely within the “detention exception” as set forth in Section 2680(c). Accordingly, Plaintiff's FTCA claim must be dismissed.[2]


         Based upon the foregoing, it is therefore respectfully PROPOSED that the District Court confirm and accept the foregoing factual findings and legal conclusions and RECOMMENDED that the District Court DISMISS Plaintiffs Complaint (Document No. 1) and remove this matter from the Court's docket.

         The Plaintiff is hereby notified that this “Proposed Findings and Recommendation” is hereby FILED, and a copy will be submitted to the Honorable United States District Judge Irene C. Berger. Pursuant to the provisions of Title 28, United States Code, Section 636(b)(1)(B), and Rule 6(d) and 72(b), Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, the Plaintiff shall have fourteen (14) days (filing of objections) and three (3) days (if received by mail) from the date of filing of this Findings and Recommendation within which to file with the Clerk of this Court specific written objections identifying the portions of the Findings and Recommendation to which objection is made and the basis of such objection. Extension of this time period may be granted for good cause.

         Failure to file written objections as set forth above shall constitute a waiver of de novo review by the District Court and a waiver of appellate review by the Circuit Court of Appeals. Snyder v. Ridenour, 889 F.2d 1363, 1366 (4th Cir. 1989); Thomas v. Arn, 474 U.S. 140, 155 (1985); Wright v. Collins, 766 F.2d 841, 846 (4th Cir. 1985); United States v. Schronce, 727 F.2d 91, 94 (4th Cir. 1984). Copies of such objections shall be served on opposing parties, District Judge Berger and this Magistrate Judge.

         The Clerk is requested to send a copy of this Proposed Findings and Recommendation to Plaintiff, who is acting pro ...

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