HOWELL et al v. LOUGY et al
OPINION. Signed by Judge Kevin McNulty on 1/17/2017. (ld, )
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
DISTRICT OF NEW JERSEY
CURTIS HOWELL, et al.,
Civ. No. 16-2603 (KM) (JBC)
ROBERT LOUGY, et al.,
KEVIN MCNULTY, U.S.D.J.
The plaintiffs, Curtis Howell, Jessie J. Pinckney, Anthony T. Dixon, Andre Barnes, and
Jhon Sanchez, are civilly committed persons.’ They are proceeding pro se with a civil rights
complaint filed pursuant to 42 U.S.C.
1983. Plaintiffs Howell, Pickney and Dixon have filed
applications to proceed informapauperis, Those applications will be granted and the Clerk will
be ordered to file the complaint.
At this time, this Court must screen the complaint pursuant to 28 U.S.C.
to determine whether it should be dismissed as frivolous or malicious, for failure to state a claim
upon which relief may be granted or because it seeks monetary relief from a defendant who is
immune from suit. Additionally, Mr. Howell has also separately and individually filed a
proposed amended complaint as well as an application for class certification. For the following
reasons, the proposed amended complaint will not be screened, and this Court will dismiss the
It appears that Mr. Howell is no longer in civil commitment.
Barnes and Sanchez failed to file an application to proceed injbrmapauperis. However,
for the reasons discussed infra, even if this Court were to consider the allegations they raise in
the complaint as it relates to them, they also each fail to state a claim upon which relief may be
original complaint without prejudice for failure to state a claim. The request for class
certification will also be denied.
The allegations of the complaint will be construed as true for purposes of this screening
opinion. The complaint names the following defendants: (1) Robert Lougy
of the State of New Jersey; (2) Tiny Spagnuola
Director of the Special Treatment Unit
(“STU”); (3) Department of Corrections; and (4) Department of Human Services.
The claims arise from the plaintiffs’ civil commitment. Each plaintiff alleges that he were
not given a hearing within twenty days of his civil confinement, a violation of due process
standards. Additionally, Mr. Howell, Mr. Dixon, and Mr. Barnes assert that they did not have
competent counsel at their civil commitment hearings. Mr. Pickney alleges that the Judge who
presided over his civil commitment hearing had a conflict of interest because he had previously
presided over Pinckney’s trial. Finally, Mr. Sanchez states that his civil commitment constitutes
an Eighth Amendment violation because his predicate offense occurred when he was a juvenile.
The plaintiffs seek monetary compensation.
Each of the five plaintiffs signed the original complaint. Thereafter, however, Mr. Howell
filed an amended complaint. The amended complaint, signed only by Howell, seeks to add
Robert L. Taylor
Prosecutor Cape May County as a defendant. The amended complaint asserts
that the Cape May Prosecutor’s Office arrested Mr. Howell and confined him to a psychiatric
facility. This allegedly caused Mr. Howell to lose personal property and monetary deposits. Mr.
Howell also individually filed a request for class certification.
District courts must review complaints in those civil actions in which a plaintiff is
proceeding in formapauperis. See 28 U.S.C.
1915(e)(2)(B). The relevant statute directs district
courts to 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.
“The legal standard for dismissing a complaint for failure to state a claim pursuant to 28
1915(e)(2)(B)(ii) is the same as that for dismissing a complaint pursuant to Federal
Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6).” Schreane v. Seana, 506 F. App’x 120, 122 (3d Cir. 2012)
(citing Allah v. Seiverling, 229 F.3d 220, 223 (3d Cir. 2000)). 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
his 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. Amended Complaint
All five plaintiffs signed the original complaint. However, only Mr. Howell signed the
amended complaint. A federal action proceeds on one complaint at a time. Where multiple
plaintiffs sue, any amended complaint must be signed by all of the plaintiffs. See FED. R. Civ. P.
11(a) (“The court must strike an unsigned paper unless the omission is promptly corrected after
being called to the attorney’s or party’s attention.”); see also Am.
Home Relention Servs. v.
Castle, Stawiarski, LLC, No. 12-1385, 2012 WL 2675264, at *2 (D. Cob. July 6, 2012) (“The
Amended complaint must be signed by all Plaintiffs.”). Because this amended complaint is not
signed by all of the plaintiffs, it will not be accepted for filing. Instead, this Court will screen the
original complaint, signed by all five plaintiffs.
B. Original Complaint
The original complaint seeks monetary damages from the defendants based upon their
civil commitment proceedings. The plaintiffs claim that their due process rights were violated
because they did not receive timely civil commitment hearings; some of them claim they
received ineffective assistance of counsel at their civil commitment hearings; and Mr. Sanchez
claims that his civil commitment violates the Eighth Amendment because it is based upon a
A claim for damages puts the cart before the horse. To be sure, a prisoner may sue for
damages on the basis of an unlawful criminal conviction or civil commitment. But first that
conviction or civil commitment must be overturned—i.e., found to be invalid. I have previously
explained why such claims are barred pursuant to Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994), as
Under the Heck doctrine, no civil claim that attacks the basis of a
criminal conviction can be brought unless and until the conviction
itself is successfully attacked. A convicted defendant cannot, for
example, sue the government witnesses on the theory that they
lied, or sue the police for seizing the evidence on which the
conviction was based. Thus Heck has often been applied to cut off
claims of persons who seek, in effect, to relitigate the merits of
currently valid convictions via a civil suit[.]
Piitman v. Metuchen Police Dep’t, No. 12-02044, 2016 WL 1122671, at *5 (D.N.J. Mar. 22,
2016). The Heck doctrine also applies to plaintiffs who are challenging their involuntary civil
commitments. See Banda v. Adams, No. 16-1582, 2017 WL 76943, at *2 (3d Cir. Jan. 9, 2017)
(citing Preiser v. Rodriguez, 411 U.S. 477, 500 (1994); Souder v. McGuire, 516 F.2d 820, 823
(3d Cir. 1975)).
The claimed injury here is essentially an invalid civil commitment. These violations, it is
alleged, violated plaintiffs’ “right to remain free.” (Cplt., Statement of Claim ¶ 3) A favorable
outcome in this litigation would necessarily imply the invalidity of the plaintiffs’ confinement as
civilly committed persons. The Heck bar therefore applies. The plaintiffs cannot maintain claims
for damages based on a civil commitment unless and until that commitment is found invalid. The
complaint does not allege that any plaintiff’s civil commitment has been vacated or overturned,
either by a challenge within the State system or via federal habeas corpus.
Mi’. Howell is no longer in custody at STU. Mere completion of a term of confinement,
however, does not qualify as a “favorable termination” under Heck. Thus the Third Circuit has
applied Heck to bar damages claims where the prisoner is no longer in custody. See Deemer v.
Beard, 557 F. App’x 162, 163-167 (3d Cir. Feb. 27, 2014); see also Williams v, Consovoy, 453
F.3d 173, 177-78 (3d Cir. 2006) (Heck’s favorable termination rule must apply to defendants
who are no longer in custody absent clear contrary direction from the Supreme Court).
Therefore, plaintiffs’ claims will be dismissed without prejudice as they are barred by Heck. See
Curry v. Yachera, 835 F.3d 373, 379 (3d Cir. 2016) (collecting cases that state that dismissal of
claims based on Heck should be without prejudice).
C. Request for Class Certification
Finally, this Court notes that Mr. Howell has filed an application for class certification.
However, as the complaint is being dismissed without prejudice as it is barred by Heck, the
request for class certification also will be denied.
For the foregoing reasons, the complaint will be dismissed without prejudice for failure to
state a claim upon which relief may be granted, as it is barred by Heck. Mr. Howell’s application
to amend the complaint will be denied, as will the application for class certification. An
appropriate order will be entered.
DATED: January 17,2017
United States District Judge
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