WELLS v. NELSON et al
OPINION. Signed by Judge Anne E. Thompson on 6/16/2017. (seb)
NOT FOR PUBLICATION
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
DISTRICT OF NEW JERSEY
Civ. No. 13-6024
KENNETH NELSON, JIMMY BARNES,
VICTOR SIERRA, and DIBENEDETTI,
JUN 1 6 2017
WILLIAM T. WALSH
This matter comes before the Court upon the Motion by Plaintiff Tahaij Wells for a
Preliminary Injunction. (ECF No. 72). Jimmy Barnes, the sole remaining defendant,
("Defendant") opposes. (ECF No. 78). The Court has issued the Opinion below based upon the
written submissions, oral argument conducted on May 10, 2017, and testimony presented on
June 14, 2017. For the reasons stated herein, Plaintiff's motion will be granted.
Plaintiff seeks a preliminary injunction in order to be released from involuntary
protective custody ("IPC") and placed in general population for the remainder of his sentence,
until February 2018. In Plaintiff's underlying 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claim, he contests the conditions
of his current IPC confinement in New Jersey State Prison as a violation of his constitutional
rights under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments.
In short, Plaintiff was arrested in 2002 at the age of 17 and held at the Mercer County
Correction Center in general population for 19 months pending trial. In June 2004, he pleaded
guilty to aggravated manslaughter, was waived into adult status for prosecution, was sentenced
to 18 years, and entered the New Jersey Department of Corrections ("DOC" or "Department")
custody. At that time, Plaintiff was _almost immediately placed in involuntary protective custody
("IPC"). The Special Investigations Division ("SID") for the DOC received information from
Investigators Lieutenant Henry Loftin, Jr. and Phyllis Oliver of the Mercer County Correction
Center stating a belief that the killing for which Plaintiff was convicted was an unauthorized
killing of a fellow Bloods gang member and that there would be a "hit" on Plaintiffs life for that
offense. For the past twelve years and ten months, Plaintiff has been primarily in non- congregate IPC, in which he does everything alone---eat, sleep, and exercise. He was briefly on
congregate IPC in 2011, but was removed and placed again in non-congregate IPC after a fight at
the gym. (See ECF No. 88). Plaintiff testified the fight was a basketball tussle with no injuries.
Plaintiff argues that IPC status is unnecessary, and he did not receive hearings and thorough
review of his status in accordance with the Department's regulations.
Plaintiff alleges that there is no "current" threat to his safety and the DOC' s concern and
reports on the supposed threat are all based solely on unsubstantiated, stale information from
2004. Defendant argues that there is no evidence that the "hit" on Plaintiff's life has been
removed, and thus the threat is "current."
Plaintiff argues, in addition to the harm of being on non-congregate IPC status for almost
thirteen years, from ages eighteen through thirty-one, he is and will suffer particular harm
because he is due to be released in February 2018 and needs to attend re-entry courses and regain
social skills prior to exiting the prison system.
In order to obtain a preliminary injunction, the moving party must show: "(1) a
reasonable probability of eventual success in the litigation, and (2) that it will be irreparably
injured ... if relief is not granted ... 3) the possibility of harm to other interested persons from
the grant or denial of the injunction, and (4) the public interest." Reilly v. City ofHarrisburg,
No. 16-3722, Precedential Opinion at 5 (3d. Cir. May 25, 2017) 1 (citing Del. R. Port Auth. V.
Transamerican Trailer Transport, Inc., 501 F.2d 917, 919-20 (3d Cir. 1974)). Then, "a district
court-in its sound discretion-should balance those four factors so long as the party seeking the
injunction meets the threshold on the first two." Id. at 6 (citing Oburn v. Shapp, 521F.2d142,
147 (3d Cir. 1975)). The moving party must show a "significantly better than negligible but not
necessarily more likely than not" ability to win on the merits and that "it is more likely than not
to suffer irreparable harm in the absence of preliminary relief." Id. at 11 (collecting cases).
"How strong a claim on the merits is enough depends on the balance of the harms: the more net
harm an injunction can prevent, the weaker the plaintiffs claim on the merits can be while still
supporting some preliminary relief." Id. at 9 (citing Hoosier Energy Rural Elec. Coop. Inc. v.
John Hancock Life Ins. Co., 582 F.3d 721, 725 (7th Cir. 2009)). The Circuit upheld "the
traditional flexibility to granting interim equitable relief in which the district court has full
discretion to balance the four factors once gateway thresholds are met." Id. at 9 (citing Winter v.
Nat. Res. Def Council, Inc., 555 U.S. 7, 32 (2008)). "[N]o test for considering preliminary
equitable relief should be so rigid as to diminish, let alone disbar, discretion." Id. at 10.
Clearly, almost thirteen years in solitary confinement imposes extreme harm on an
individual, especially when the individual enters at a young age. Dr. Santina, the expert retained
by Plaintiff, testified that Plaintiff suffers significant emotional and social impairment as a result
of his IPC status, and those impairments persist. Plaintiff suffers from significant anxiety,
especially social anxiety, and his status exacerbated his existing depression. This Plaintiff knew
Clarifying the preliminary injunction analysis in the Third Circuit.
no father; his mother was a drug addict who was murdered when he was 10-years-old. He was
sent to special education as a youngster. Plaintiff's IPC status has impeded his ability to address
and ameliorate his Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, and his ADHD has limited his
ability to take advantage of the self-study educational opportunities available to those in IPC.
Additionally, his cognitive and social development has been impaired by his isolation. Dr.
Santina' s professional opinion is that ''placement in general population, with the concomitant
access to rehabilitative services and programming that are afforded, is necessary to remediate the
harm caused by prolonged isolation and enable [Plaintiff] to address his cognitive, attentional,
and social deficits prior to being released from prison." (Deel. Kraner Ex. 22, at 2, Dr. Santina's
Psychological Evaluation). Plaintiff is due to be released on February 8, 2018. The Court finds
that Plaintiff has and will continue to suffer irreparable harm ifhe remains on IPC status.
The Court recognizes the difficult job that DOC officials face and the concerns about risk
to Plaintiff, other inmates, and prison staff. However, Plaintiff is and has been involuntarily
placed in protective custody based on information from 2004. Investigator Koch testified that
they typically would not reinvestigate, and had not reinvestigated, the matter after the initial
information was given. They at SID rely on the facts provided to them from state or federal law
enforcement, prosecutors, or judges.
An inmate's placement in general population must pose a current safety or security risk.
Mims v. Shapp, 744 F.2d 946, 953 (3d Cir. 1984) (noting the justification for segregation "may
fluctuate with the passage of time and change of circumstances"); Proctor v. LeClaire, 846 F .3d
597, 609, 611 (2d Cir. 2017) (the purpose of periodic reviews "is to ensure that the state's
institutional interest justifying the deprivation of the confined inmate's liberty has not grown
stale and that prison officials are not using [administrative segregation] as a pretext for indefinite
confinement of an inmate"; thus, ''past events alone" should not be used ''to justify indefinite
confinement"). Defendant does not dispute that the threat must be current; rather, he argues that
because there is no evidence that the "hit" has been lifted, there is rio evidence that it is not
The DOC cannot rely upon stale information of a threat to keep Plaintiff involuntarily in
protective custody. Balancing the harm to Plaintiff of remaining in isolation with this stale
information, the Court finds that the factors weigh in favor of granting this preliminary
For the reasons above, Plaintiffs Motion for Preliminary Injunction will be granted.
Disclaimer: Justia Dockets & Filings provides public litigation records from the federal appellate and district courts. These filings and docket sheets should not be considered findings of fact or liability, nor do they necessarily reflect the view of Justia.
Why Is My Information Online?