NIBLACK v. GOULD et al
OPINION. Signed by Judge Robert B. Kugler on 3/23/2017. (TH, )
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
DISTRICT OF NEW JERSEY
STANLEY L. NIBLACK,
Civ. No. 16-0494 (RBK) (JS)
SCO WILLIAM GOULD, et al.,
ROBERT B. KUGLER, U.S.D.J.
The plaintiff, Stanley L. Niblack, is a state prisoner currently incarcerated at the South
Woods State Prison in Bridgeton, New Jersey. In November, 2015, Mr. Niblack filed a pro se
civil rights complaint in the Superior Court of New Jersey, County of Hudson Law Division.
Subsequently, that matter was removed to this Court in January, 2016. Thereafter, the two
defendants who had been served with the complaint at that time, William Gould and Charles Ray
Hughes, filed a motion to dismiss the complaint. That motion to dismiss was granted in part. Mr.
Niblack’s access to courts claim against Gould and Hughes was dismissed. Furthermore, this
Court conducted a sua sponte screening of the remaining complaint pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §
1915A. This Court determined that Mr. Niblack failed to state a federal claim on the remainder
of his complaint. Furthermore, this Court declined to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over any
state law claims that Mr. Niblack was attempting to bring. Mr. Niblack was given the
opportunity to file an amended complaint and has done so. That amended complaint is again
subject to this Court’s screening pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(b) to determine whether it
should be dismissed as frivolous, malicious, or fails to state a claim upon which relief may be
granted or because it seeks monetary relief from a defendant who is immune from suit. For the
following reasons, the amended complaint will be dismissed for failure to state a federal claim
and this Court will decline to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over Mr. Niblack’s state law
claims. Mr. Niblack shall be given one final opportunity to file a second amended complaint
should he elect to do so that will also be subject to this Courts sua sponte screening pursuant to §
The allegations of the amended complaint will be construed as true for purposes of this
screening opinion. Mr. Niblack names five defendants in his amended complaint: (1) SCO
William Gould; (2) Sergeant Moore; (3) Lieutenant Caliski; (4) SCO Mutcherson; and (5)
Charles Ray Hughes.
The allegations of the amended complaint concern the time Mr. Niblack was incarcerated
at the Southern State Correctional Facility (“SSCF”). In late 2014 and early 2015, Mr. Niblack
was having problems obtaining sufficient law library time at SSCF. Eventually, Mr. Niblack
received permission to obtain a word processor.
In May, 2015, his word processor was sent out for repairs. It was returned to him on June
21, 2015, after being repaired.
Around this time, it appears that Mr. Niblack had a pending state matter pending. That
matter involved a claim by Mr. Niblack for the destruction, stealing, losing or giving away of his
property that included his food, radio, watch, sneakers, designer eyewear and headphones on or
about April 3, 2014. A motion to dismiss was filed by the defendants in Mr. Niblack’s state case
on June 19, 2015. Mr. Niblack was informed about this motion on June 22, 2015.
On June 22, 2015, Mr. Niblack sought to use his word processor to respond to the motion
to dismiss. Mr. Niblack then alleges the following:
The plaintiff thereafter sought to use his word processor when
SCO Mutcherson was on and she denied the plaintiff usage of his
word processor as well in order to seek the filing of my opposition
of defendants motion to dismiss in retaliation of my complaints
The plaintiff spoke to Lieutenant Caliski, in regards to him
granting plaintiff or confirming my use of my word processor to
address my legal matters and store legal information on it who then
stated that he was not going against his officers. Although, he had
acknowledged that it was the administration who had approved the
use of a word processor for legal access.
On June 24, 2015, the plaintiff forwarded an inquiry form that was
intercepted by Sergeant Moore who denied me usage and the
ability to retrieve relevant and pertinent information regarding the
dismis[s]al of my underlying claims. But, Sergeant Moore never
sent a written response to the inquiry/grievance.
(Dkt. No. 16 at p.3-4) Mr. Niblack then states that he was unable to submit a timely opposition to
the motion to dismiss in the state matter. Accordingly, his complaint was dismissed.
Mr. Niblack states that the defendants frustrated, impaired and impeded his access to the
courts. Furthermore, he asserts that the defendants retaliated against him for exercising his right
of access to the courts. He seeks monetary damages.
Under the Prison Litigation Reform Act, Pub.L. 104-134, §§ 801-810, 110 Stat. 1321-66
to 1321-77 (Apr. 26, 1996) (“PLRA”), district courts must review complaints in those civil
actions in which a prisoner is proceeding in forma pauperis, see 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B),
seeks redress against a governmental employee or entity, see 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(b), or brings a
claim with respect to prison conditions, see 42 U.S.C. § 1997e. 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 28
U.S.C. § 1915A(b)
The legal standard for dismissing a complaint for failure to state a claim pursuant to 28
U.S.C. § 1915A(b)(1) is the same as that for dismissing a complaint pursuant to Federal Rule of
Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). See Courteau v. United States, 287 F. App’x 159, 162 (3d Cir. 2008)
(discussing 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(b)). That standard is set forth in Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662
(2009) and Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007), as explicated by the United
States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. To survive the court's screening for failure to state
a claim, 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) (citation omitted).
“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.” Fair Wind
Sailing, Inc. v. Dempster, 764 F.3d 303, 308 n.3 (3d Cir. 2014) (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678).
“[A] pleading that offers ‘labels or conclusions' or ‘a formulaic recitation of the elements of a
cause of action will not do.’ ” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555).
Pro se pleadings, as always, will be liberally construed. See Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S.
519 (1972). Nevertheless, “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
A plaintiff may have a cause of action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for certain violations of
constitutional rights. Section 1983 provides 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
Thus, to state a claim for relief under § 1983, a plaintiff must allege first, the violation of
a right secured by the Constitution or laws of the United States, and second, 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 F.3d 606, 609 (3d Cir. 2011) (citations omitted); see also West v.
Atkins, 487 U.S. 42, 48 (1988).
A. Access to Court
This Court explained what Mr. Niblack needs to allege to properly assert an access to
courts claim in its previous opinion. This Court will reiterate what is needed to sufficiently state
such a claim. “Under the First and Fourteenth Amendments, prisoners retain a right of access to
the courts.” Monroe v. Beard, 536 F.3d 198, 205 (3d Cir.2008) (citing Lewis v. Casey, 518 U.S.
343 (1996)). “Where prisoners assert that defendants' actions have inhibited their opportunity to
present a past legal claim, they must show (1) that they suffered an ‘actual injury’—that they lost
a chance to pursue a ‘nonfrivolous' or ‘arguable’ underlying claim; and (2) that they have no
other “remedy that may be awarded as recompense” for the lost claim other than in the present
denial of access suit.” Id. (citing Christopher v. Harbury, 536 U.S. 403, 415, (2002)). Thus, to
satisfy the requisite pleading requirements, “[t]he complaint must describe the underlying
arguable claim well enough to show that it is ‘more than mere hope,’ and it must describe the
‘lost remedy.’” Id. at 205–06 (citing Christopher, 536 U.S. at 416–17) (footnote omitted).
Indeed, the United States Supreme Court has explained that in the context of alleging the
underlying claim that the plaintiff was prevented from pursuing, “the complaint should state the
underlying claim in accordance with Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a), just as if it were being
independently pursued[.]” Christopher, 536 U.S. at 417 (footnote omitted).
While the amended complaint provides more detail than his original complaint with
respect to the underlying claim he was pursuing in the state courts, the allegations in the
amended complaint remain insufficient to properly state an access to courts claim against the
defendants. Indeed, while the amended complaint explains that his claim related to the
destruction or giving away of his property, this allegation, as in the original complaint, is
insufficient to state a claim under Rule 8(a). Therefore, Mr. Niblack fails to state an access to
courts claim as he fails to show actual injury.
Mr. Niblack also attempts to raise a retaliation claim against for defendants exercising his First
Amendment rights by withholding the use of his word processor.
“A prisoner alleging retaliation must show (1) constitutionally
protected conduct, (2) an adverse action by prison officials
sufficient to deter a person of ordinary firmness from exercising
his constitutional rights, and (3) a causal connection between the
exercise of his constitutional rights and the adverse action taken
Mack v. Yost, 427 F. App’x 70, 72 (3d Cir. 2011) (quoting Mitchell v. Horn, 318 F.3d 523, 530
(3d Cir. 2003)). With respect to the third element, the plaintiff must allege that the
constitutionally protected conduct was a substantial or motivating factor for the adverse action.
See Velasquez v. Diguglielmo, 516 F. App’x 91, 95 (3d Cir. 2013) (citing Cater v. McGrady, 292
F.3d 152, 157, 158 (3d Cir. 2002)); Rauser [v. Horn, 241 F.3d [330,] 333 [(3d Cir. 2001)])).
To establish the requisite causal connection for a retaliation claim
predicated on the First Amendment, the plaintiff (here, a prisoner)
usually has to prove one of two things: (1) an unusually suggestive
time proximity between the protected activity and the allegedly
retaliatory action; or (2) a pattern of antagonism coupled with
timing to establish a causal link. Lauren W. ex rel. Jean W. v.
DeFlaminis, 480 F.3d 259, 267 (3d Cir. 2007). If neither of these
showings is made, then the plaintiff must show that, from the
evidence in the record as a whole, the trier of fact should infer
DeFranco v. Wolfe, 387 F. App’x 147, 154 (3d Cir. 2010). While temporal proximity is relevant
in First Amendment retaliation cases, see Ambrose v. Twp. of Robinson, Pa., 303 F.3d 488, 494
(3d Cir. 2002) (citing Rauser, 241 F.3d at 334), “‘[t]he mere passage of time is not legally
conclusive proof against retaliation.’” Marra v. Phila. Housing Auth., 497 F.3d 286, 302 (3d Cir,
2007) (quoting Robinson v. Southeastern Pa. Transp. Auth, 982 F.2d 892, 894 (3d Cir. 1993))
(other citation omitted).
The purported adverse action in this case is that Mr. Niblack was prevented from using
his word processor to respond to the motion to dismiss in the state action. At the outset, even if
this Court were to presume that such an action constituted an adverse action, the amended
complaint is completely devoid of any allegations that personally involve defendants Hughes and
Gould in the deprivation of his word processor. See Solan v. Ranck, 326 F. App’x 97, 100-01 (3d
Cir. 2009) (“A defendant in a civil rights action must have personal involvement in the alleged
wrongs; liability cannot predicated solely on the operation of respondeat superior.”) (quoting
Rode v. Dellaciprete, 845 F.2d 1195, 1207 (3d Cir. 1988)). Therefore, Mr. Niblack fails to state a
retaliation claim against Hughes and Gould.
Mr. Niblack does allege at least some personal involvement with respect to defendants
Mutcherson, Caliski and Moore. Indeed, Mr. Niblack states that Mutcherson denied him use of
his word processor, that Caliski told Mr. Niblack that he would not go against one of his officers,
and that Moore “denied [him] usage.” (See Dkt. No. 16 at p.3-4) However, similar to the original
complaint, Mr. Niblack does not allege that any of these three officers had personal knowledge
that he had filed suit against correctional officers in state court. Accordingly, the amended
complaint again fails to state a retaliation claim against these three officers because his amended
complaint lacks allegations of a causal connection between his protected activity and the
purported adverse action. Accord Jordan v. Hastings, No. 12–7932, 2013 WL 3810577, at *4
(D.N.J. July 22, 2013) (finding that plaintiff failed to allege causal connection to sustain
retaliation claim where he failed to allege that defendants had knowledge of his constitutionally
protected activity); Griffin–El v. Beard, No. 06–2719, 2013 WL 228098, at *5 (E.D. Pa. Jan. 22,
2013) (“[A] defendant may not be held liable for retaliation absent evidence sufficient to show
that the defendant knew of the plaintiff's protected activity.”) (citing Laskaris v. Thornburgh,
733 F.2d 260, 265 (3d Cir. 1984); Booth v. King, 228 F. App'x 167, 172 (3d Cir. 2007); Jacobs v.
Pa. DOC, No. 04–1366, 2009 WL 3055324, at *5 (W.D. Pa. Sept.21, 2009)).
Additionally, Mr. Niblack’s allegation that Mutcherson denied him use of his word
processor in retaliation for his complaints against officers is conclusory and does not satisfy the
Rule 12(b)(6) facial plausibility standard to state a claim. Thus, the retaliation claim against these
three officers will also be dismissed without prejudice.
C. State Law Claims
There are no more federal claims remaining. Thus, the remaining potential basis for Mr.
Niblack’s state law claims is supplemental jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1367. However,
when a court has dismissed all claims over which it had federal question jurisdiction, it has the
discretion to decline to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over the remaining state law claims.
See id. § 1367(c)(3). Because the federal claims against the defendants no longer remain, this
Court will exercise its discretion to decline supplemental jurisdiction over Mr. Niblack’s state
For the foregoing reasons, Mr. Niblack’s federal claims will be dismissed without
prejudice for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. This Court will decline to
exercise supplemental jurisdiction over Mr. Niblack’s state law claims. Mr. Niblack has now had
two opportunities before this Court to sufficiently allege a federal access to courts claim and/or a
federal retaliation claim to no avail. He shall be given one final opportunity to submit a proposed
second amended complaint that corrects the deficiencies of the amended complaint as stated in
this opinion if he elects to do so.
DATED: March 23, 2017
s/Robert B. Kugler
ROBERT B. KUGLER
United States District Judge
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