CARSON et al v. NEW JERSEY DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS et al
OPINION. Signed by Judge Susan D. Wigenton on 1/12/2017. (ld, )
*NOT FOR PUBLICATION
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
DISTRICT OF NEW JERSEY
DAVID CARSON, et al.
NEW JERSEY DEPARTMENT OF :
CORRECTIONS, et al.,
Civil Action No. 16-5163 (SDW)
WIGENTON, District Judge:
Currently before the Court is Defendants’ motion to dismiss certain counts of Plaintiffs’
complaint brought pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) (ECF No. 2), to which
Plaintiffs have filed a response (ECF No.3). For the following reasons, this Court grants the
motion and dismisses the New Jersey Department of Corrections from this matter with prejudice,
dismisses Defendant Gary Lanigan without prejudice, and dismisses Plaintiff’s official capacity
claims only to the extent they seek retrospective declaratory relief.
Because Defendants seek only the dismissal of a few discrete counts of Plaintiffs’
complaint, only a brief recitation of the factual and procedural background of this matter is
necessary for the purposes of this Opinion. Plaintiffs, David Carson and Steven Grohs, are
currently civilly committed to the Special Treatment Unit (STU) in Avenel, New Jersey, as
Sexually Violent Predators (SVPs) pursuant to New Jersey’s Sexually Violent Predator Act, N.J.
Stat. Ann. § 30:4-27.24 et seq. In mid-June 2016, Plaintiffs filed a putative class action complaint
in which they essentially assert that the laundry facilities of the STU are inadequate to serve the
needs of the committed SVPS; that those facilities are frequently in disrepair and are slow to be
fixed; and that the facility does not permit SVPs to use alternative methods for cleaning their
laundry, such as drying wet laundry on hooks when dryers are inaccessible or out of order.
(Document 1 attached to ECF No. 1 at 9-17, 20-25). Plaintiffs likewise state that as a result of
these allegedly inadequate laundry facilities, Plaintiffs and their fellows in the STU have been
exposed to poor conditions including large piles of dirty laundry, having clean clothes returned
undried, and having to re-wear dirty clothing repeatedly, all of which Plaintiffs contend deny them
their rights to Due Process under the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution and
its analogue in the New Jersey Constitution. (Id.). Plaintiffs therefore request the following
relief: declaratory relief in the form of findings that the New Jersey Department of Corrections
(DOC) and its officers have willfully and wantonly denied Plaintiffs the minimal civilized measure
of life’s necessities through the poor laundry services at the STU 1 and misused certain funds
provided for residents of the facility, various forms of injunctive relief which essentially request
that the Court direct Defendants to supply better access and greater levels of laundry service
sufficient to remedy the alleged denial of Due Process, compensatory damages both for the alleged
Plaintiffs provide many statements of declaratory relief they are seeking, most of which are
restatements of this basic principle. (Document 1 attached to ECF No. 1 at 22-23). They also
seek several forms of declaratory relief which are essentially part and parcel of their requests for
injunctive relief, such as declaratory relief stating that the NJDOC must purchase more laundry
machines. (Id.). For the purposes of this opinion, this Court refers only to the request for a
declaration that Plaintiffs’ rights were violated and that certain funds were historically misused
when using the term “retrospective” declaratory relief, while Plaintiff’s remaining “declaratory”
claims will, where necessary, be referred to as part of Plaintiffs’ requests for prospective or
misuse of funds and for any damages and costs incurred by the putative class based on the laundry
issues and the filing and pursuit of this matter, and punitive damages as to Defendants Gary
Lanigan, the head of the DOC, and Sherry Yates, the former administrator of the STU. 2 (Id. at
22-25). Plaintiffs name Yates and Lanigan as Defendants in both their individual and official
capacities, with only declaratory and injunctive relief being sought in their official capacities. (Id.
While the DOC and Ms. Yates are sued based on the day to day operation of the STU and
its laundry facilities, Plaintiffs seek relief from Defendant Lanigan based on his supervisory role
as the Commissioner of the DOC. Plaintiffs connect Lanigan to their allegations by stating that
on June 9, 2016, Lanigan “was present [at the STU where] he has seen with his own eyes the
overflowing laundry cart, and he has smelled the foul odor emanating from the overflowing
laundry cart” and thereafter took “no meaningful actions . . . to ease or to abate the re[curring] and
prolonged problems” with the STU’s laundry services. (Id. at 12). Plaintiffs therefore argue that
Lanigan was “deliberately indifferent” to the laundry problems based on this single visit and
having taken no action in the few weeks between that visit to the STU and the filing of this
complaint. (Id. at 23).
A. Legal Standard
In deciding a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), the Court must “accept all factual
For the purposes of prospective relief, however, the State and Plaintiffs appear to agree that
Yates’s successor, Erica Stem, is the appropriate Defendant. (ECF No. 1 at 2; Document 1
attached to ECF No. 1 at 3).
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.”
Fair Wind Sailing, Inc. v. Dempster, 764 F.3d 303, 308 n. 3 (3d Cir. 2014) (quoting Phillips v.
Cnty. of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 233 (3d Cir. 2008)). According to the Supreme Court’s
decision in Ashcroft v. Iqbal, “a pleading that offers ‘labels or conclusions’ or ‘a formulaic
recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.’” 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting
Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007)). To survive a motion to dismiss for
failure to state a claim, a complaint must allege “sufficient factual matter” to show that its claims
are facially plausible. Fowler v. UPMS 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.”
Dempster, 764 F.3d at 308 (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678).
In their motions to dismiss, Defendants seek the following: the dismissal of Plaintiffs’
declaratory judgment requests against Defendants in their official capacities (and in turn the
dismissal of the DOC in all respects) as they are not seeking prospective relief and the dismissal
of Defendant Lanigan without prejudice for failure to state a cognizable claim for relief, each of
which this Court shall address in turn. Plaintiffs’ claims essentially arise out of their allegations
that the laundry systems in place at the STU deny them Due Process in violation of both the federal
and state constitutions. Plaintiffs’ claims therefore arise under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and its state court
analogue, the New Jersey Civil Rights Act. To establish a claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, a
plaintiff must demonstrate a violation of a right protected by the Constitution or laws of the United
States that was committed by a person acting under the color of state law.” Nicini v. Morra, 212
F.3d 798, 806 (3d Cir. 2000); see also Woodyard v. Cnty. of Essex, 514 F. App’x 177, 180 (3d Cir.
2013) (§ 1983 provides “private citizens with a means to redress violations of federal law
committed by state [actors]”). The New Jersey Civil Rights Act (NJCRA), which is a state
constitutional analogue to § 1983, in turn permits individuals to seek redress for violations of their
rights under the New Jersey State Constitution committed by persons acting under color of New
Jersey law. See Trafton v. City of Woodbury, 799 F. Supp. 2d 417, 443-44 (D.N.J. 2011); see also
N.J. Stat. Ann. § 10:6-2. The NJCRA is therefore generally interpreted nearly identically to §
1983 and claims under the NJCRA are generally coterminous with and subject to the same defenses
and immunities as those brought under § 1983. Trafton, 799 F. Supp. 2d at 443-44.
Both § 1983 and the NJCRA only permit actions against “persons” acting under color of
state law. See, e.g., Grohs v. Yatauro, 984 F. Supp. 2d 273, 280 (D.N.J. 2013); Brown v. State, 442
N.J. Super. 406; 426 (App. Div. 2015). Because a state, its prisons, and its executive agencies are
not “persons” for the purposes of § 1983 and the NJCRA, they are thus not subject to suit under
the statute. Grohs, 984 F. Supp. 2d at 280; Brown 442 N.J. Super. at 426; see also Grabow v. S.
State Corr. Facility, 726 F. Supp. 537, 538-39 (D.N.J. 1989) (State department of corrections and
state prison facilities are not “persons” under § 1983). Likewise, because a claim against a state
official in his official capacity is merely another means by which to bring a claim against his office
and in turn his employer, a state official employed by a prison or department named in his official
capacity is also not considered to be a “person” subject to suit under either statute. Grohs, 984 F.
Supp. 2d at 280-81; Brown, 442 N.J. Super. at 426; see also Will v. Mich. Dep’t of State Pol., 491
U.S. 58, 71, 71 n. 10 (1989). The sole exception to this rule arises where a plaintiff seeks only
prospective injunctive relief as “[o]fficial-capacity actions for prospective relief are not treated as
actions against the state.” Grohs, 984 F. Supp. 2d at 281 (quoting Will, 491 U.S. at 71 n. 10);
Brown, 442 N.J. Super. at 426.
This exception, however, “is narrow: [i]t applies only to
prospective relief, [and] does not permit judgments against state officers [in their official
capacities] declaring that they violated federal law in the past, . . . and has no application in suits
against the States and their agencies, which [may not be sued under § 1983] regardless of the relief
sought.” Puerto Rico Aqueduct & Sewer Auth. v. Metcalf & Eddy, Inc., 506 U.S. 139, 146 (1993).
In this matter, Plaintiffs seek both prospective injunctive and retrospective declaratory
relief against Defendants Lanigan and Yates in their official capacities. As both Defendants are
employees of the DOC, a state agency not subject to suit, Plaintiffs may only seek prospective
injunctive relief from them in their official capacities, and any claims for retrospective declaratory
relief against them in their official capacities are improperly brought. Plaintiffs’ claims against
Defendants Lanigan and Yates in their official capacities must therefore be dismissed with
prejudice only to the extent Plaintiffs seek retrospective declaratory relief. Id. Likewise, because
the DOC is a state agency not subject to suit under § 1983 regardless of the relief sought, all of
Plaintiffs’ claims against the DOC under both § 1983 and the NJCRA must be dismissed from this
matter with prejudice. Id.; Grohs, 984 F. Supp. 2d at 281; Brown, 442 N.J. Super. at 426.
Defendants’ final argument is that Plaintiffs have failed to plead a cognizable claim for
relief as to Defendant Lanigan insomuch as Plaintiffs have failed to plead his personal involvement
in the STU’s laundry issues. A defendant in a § 1983 or NJCRA case may not be held liable
solely on the basis of a respondeat superior theory of liability premised on his vicarious
responsibility for the actions of his subordinates. See Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 676; see also Rode v.
Dellarciprete, 845 F.2d 1195, 1207-08 (3d Cir. 1988). Rather, a “defendant in a civil rights action
must have personal involvement in the alleged wrongs.” Rode, 845 F.2d at 1207-08. Generally,
a plaintiff seeking to name supervisors as defendants must show each supervisor’s participation in
the alleged wrongs by pleading either that the supervisor’s “establishment of policies, practices or
customs . . . directly caused the constitutional violation[,] personal liability based on the supervisor
participating in the violation of [the p]laintiff’s right, [that the supervisor] direct[ed] others to
violate [the p]laintiff’s rights, or [that the supervisor had actual] knowledge of and acquiesc[ed] to
a subordinate’s conduct.” Doe v. New Jersey Dep’t of Corr., Civ. No. 14-5284, 2015 WL
3448233, at *9 (D.N.J. May 29, 2015) (quoting Barkes v. First Corr. Med., Inc., 766 F.3d 307,
316-20 (3d Cir. 2014), rev’d on other grounds, 135 S. Ct. 2042 (2015)); see also Tenon v.
Dreibelbis, 606 F. App’x 681, 688 (3d Cir. 2015) (§ 1983 Plaintiff pleading supervisory liability
must establish defendant’s “participation [in the alleged wrong], or actual knowledge and
acquiescence, to be liable”).
In this matter, Plaintiffs have pled very few facts as to Defendant Lanigan. Essentially,
Plaintiffs argue that Lanigan, shortly before the filing of the complaint, made a single visit to the
STU, and, while there, must have seen and smelled the large quantities of laundry piled up in the
facility. As a result, Plaintiffs argue, Lanigan must have known about the ongoing laundry woes,
and must in turn have turned a blind eye to them by doing nothing to correct the situation after his
visit. The inherent flaw in this argument is that, even taking as true Plaintiffs’ allegation that
Lanigan saw and smelled the piles of laundry during that one visit, that large quantities of dirty
laundry were present on a single day is insufficient to establish that Lanigan must have been aware
of the ongoing laundry issues. Indeed, that the laundry facilities were overrun on a single day is
not necessarily indicative that there is a general laundry issue at all, and would therefore be
insufficient to place a supervisory Defendant, such as Lanigan, who does not operate out of the
STU facility generally, on notice that there is an ongoing problem that needs to be addressed on a
policy level. Because Lanigan’s viewing of a laundry back up on a single day is not sufficient to
establish that Lanigan should have known about the ongoing laundry issues in the STU, Plaintiffs
have failed to plead facts which, if true, would show that he knew of and disregarded those issues,
and thus was sufficiently deliberately indifferent to them to be liable for the alleged Due Process
violations raised by Plaintiffs. See, e.g., Grohs v. Santiago, No. , 2014 WL 4657116 (D.N.J. Sept.
17, 2014) (Due Process conditions of confinement claim requires that a Defendant act with at least
deliberate indifference to conditions sufficiently severe to amount to punishment); Stokes v.
Lanigan, No. 12-1478, 2012 WL 4662487, at *3 (D.N.J. Oct. 2, 2012) (deliberate indifference is
“equivalent to a reckless disregard of a known risk of harm”). As Plaintiffs have not otherwise
pled a direct claim against Lanigan, the only basis they have pled to hold Lanigan accountable for
the STU’s laundry issues is an impermissible respondeat superior claim, and they have therefore
failed to plead a cognizable claim for relief against him under § 1983 or the NJCRA. All of
Plaintiffs’ remaining claims against Lanigan must therefore be dismissed without prejudice at this
For the reasons stated above, this court will grant Defendants’ motion to dismiss, will
dismiss the New Jersey Department of Corrections from this matter with prejudice, will dismiss
Plaintiff’s official capacity claims only to the extent Plaintiff’s seek retrospective declaratory
relief, and will dismiss all of Plaintiffs’ claims against Defendant Lanigan without prejudice for
failure to state a claim. An appropriate order follows.
_/s/ Susan D. Wigenton__
Hon. Susan D. Wigenton,
United States District Judge
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