Powell v. Weiss et al
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE MIDDLE DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA
RALPH WEISS, et al.,
Hon. John E. Jones III
May 6, 2013
Presently pending before the court in the above-captioned action are the
motions to dismiss filed by Defendants Ralph Weiss, John E. Wetzel, and Diane
Yale (doc. 7) and Defendant Michael C. Potteiger (doc. 9). The motions have been
fully briefed (docs. 10, 12, 16, 17, 21) and are thus ripe for disposition. For the
reasons that follow, we will grant both motions in their respective entireties and
dismiss this action with prejudice.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
In considering a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6), courts “accept
all factual 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.” Phillips v. Cnty. of Allegheny,
515 F.3d 224, 231 (3d Cir. 2008) (quoting Pinker v. Roche Holdings, Ltd., 292
F.3d 361, 374 n.7 (3d Cir. 2002)). In resolving a motion to dismiss pursuant to
Rule 12(b)(6), a court generally should consider only the allegations in the
complaint, as well as “documents that are attached or submitted with the
complaint, . . . and any matters incorporated by reference or integral to the claim,
items subject to judicial notice, matters of public record, orders, [and] items
appearing in the record of the case.” Buck v. Hampton Twp. Sch. Dist., 452 F.3d
256, 260 (3d Cir. 2006).
A Rule 12(b)(6) motion tests the sufficiency of the complaint against the
pleading requirements of Rule 8(a). Rule 8(a)(2) requires that a complaint contain
a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to
relief, “in order to give the defendant fair notice of what the claim is and the
grounds upon which it rests.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007)
(quoting Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 47 (1957)). While a complaint attacked by
a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss need not contain detailed factual allegations, it
must contain “sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief
that is plausible on its face.’ ” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. ___, 129 S. Ct. 1937,
1949 (2009). To survive a motion to dismiss, a civil plaintiff must allege facts that
“raise a right to relief above the speculative level . . . .” Victaulic Co. v. Tieman,
499 F.3d 227, 235 (3d Cir. 2007) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555).
Accordingly, to satisfy the plausibility standard, the complaint must indicate that
defendant’s liability is more than a “sheer possibility.” Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. at 1949.
“Where a complaint pleads facts that are ‘merely consistent with’ a defendant’s
liability, it ‘stops short of the line between possibility and plausibility of
entitlement to relief.’ ” Id. (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 557).
Under the two-pronged approach articulated in Twombly and later
expounded upon and formalized in Iqbal, a district court must first identify all
factual allegations that constitute nothing more than “legal conclusions” or “naked
assertions.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555, 557. Such allegations are “not entitled to
the assumption of truth” and must be disregarded for purposes of resolving a Rule
12(b)(6) motion to dismiss. Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. at 1950. Next, the district court must
identify “the ‘nub’ of the . . . complaint – the well-pleaded, nonconclusory factual
allegation[s].” Id. Taking these allegations as true, the district judge must then
determine whether the complaint states a plausible claim for relief. See id.
However, “a complaint may not be dismissed merely because it appears
unlikely that the plaintiff can prove those facts or will ultimately prevail on the
merits.” Phillips, 515 F.3d at 231 (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556-57). Rule 8
“does not impose a probability requirement at the pleading stage, but instead
simply calls for enough facts to raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will
reveal evidence of the necessary element.” Id. at 234.
In accordance with the standard of review applicable to the instant motions,
the following facts are derived from the Plaintiff’s Complaint (doc. 1) and viewed
in a light most favorable to the Plaintiff.
Plaintiff Darryl Powell (“Plaintiff” or “Powell”) was formerly an inmate at
the Pennsylvania State Correctional Institution at Dallas (“SCI Dallas”). (Doc. 1, ¶
8). Defendant Michael C. Potteiger (“Potteiger”) is Chairman of the Pennsylvania
Board of Probation and Parole and Defendants Ralph Weiss, John Wetzel, and
Diane Yale (collectively, “Corrections Defendants”) are officials or employees of
the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections. (Id. ¶¶ 3-5). In the instant dispute,
Powell asserts that the Defendants are constitutionally liable to him under Section
1983 for the alleged miscalculation of his prison sentence and prerelease status.
The factual background underlying this dispute was best summarized by the
Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania, which addressed Powell’s first challenge to
the miscalculation of his sentence:
Powell, formerly incarcerated at the State Correctional
Institution at Dallas (SCI-Dallas), was paroled from the
Department’s custody on August 31, 2009. On July 1, 2002,
Powell was sentenced in three separate criminal actions in the
Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County: CP
0112-0367 (CP-367), CP 0203-0136 (CP-136), and CP
0009-0723 (CP-723). In CP-367, Powell was sentenced by
the Honorable Lillian Ransom (Judge Ransom) to a term of
one and one-half to three years incarceration, with two years
of probation to be served consecutively. In CP-136, Powell
was sentenced by Judge Ransom to a term of one and
one-half to three years incarceration, with two years of
probation to be served consecutively. Judge Ransom directed
that CP-136 be served concurrent with CP-367. In CP-723,
Powell was sentenced by the Honorable Genece Brinkley
(Judge Brinkley) to a term of five to ten years incarceration.
Judge Brinkley directed that CP-723 be served consecutively
to CP-367 and CP-136.
Powell appealed Judge Ransom’s sentences in CP-367 and
CP-136 to the Superior Court. By order filed April 6, 2004,
the Superior Court affirmed in part, vacated in part, and
remanded the matter to Judge Ransom for resentencing. On
June 16, 2004, Judge Ransom resentenced Powell in CP-367
to a term of one and one-half to three years incarceration, to
be served concurrently with “any other sentence.” In CP-136,
Judge Ransom resentenced Powell to a term of one and
one-half to three years incarceration, to be served
concurrently with CP-367. Based on Judge Ransom’s June
16, 2004 resentencing orders, the Department recalculated
Powell’s overall prison term; figuring Judge Ransom’s
concurrent sentences in CP-367 and CP-136 as consecutive
to Judge Brinkley’s sentence in CP-723.
On February 13, 2006, Powell filed a petition for review in
this Court seeking a writ of mandamus compelling the
Department to recalculate his overall prison term so that
Judge Brinkley’s sentence in CP-723 would run concurrent
with Judge Ransom’s concurrent sentences in CP-367 and
CP-136. Interestingly, on May 18, 2006, while Powell's
action was still pending, the Department, in an exercise of its
own volition, recalculated Powell’s overall prison term so
that all three sentences ran concurrently. Subsequently, on
May 22, 2006, the Department filed a motion suggesting that
this Court dismiss Powell's petition for mootness on the
grounds that Powell’s requested relief had been granted.
Powell opposed the Department’s suggestion of mootness.
By order dated June 20, 2006, this Court dismissed Powell's
Relying on the Department’s May 18, 2006 recalculation,
Powell applied for prerelease to a community corrections
center (CCC), which was approved. Pursuant to the
Department’s standard procedures relating to inmate records,
however, Powell’s sentence calculation was reviewed as part
of his processing for prerelease to the CCC. Performing this
review, the Department sought clarification from Judge
Ransom regarding her June 16, 2004 resentencing orders.
The Department inquired whether Judge Ransom intended all
three sentences to run concurrently, informing Judge Ransom
that Judge Brinkley’s July 1, 2002 sentencing order directed
Powell’s sentence in CP-723 to run consecutively to Powell’s
sentences in CP-367 and CP-136. Judge Ransom responded
to the Department’s inquiry on February 8, 2007, stating:
“Please run my sentence consecutive to Judge Brinkley’s
sentence.” Based on Judge Ransom’s response, the
Department again recalculated Powell’s overall prison term,
running Powell’s sentences in CP-367 and CP-136
consecutively to Powell’s sentence in CP-723. As a result,
Powell was denied prerelease to the CCC.
Commonwealth of Pennsylvania ex rel. Powell v. Pennsylvania Department of
Corrections, 14 A.3d 912, 913-14 (Pa. Commw. Ct. 2011). Powell then brought
the above-cited action in state court, seeking a writ of mandamus compelling the
Department to again recalculate his prison term so that Judge Ransom’s
sentences in CP-367 and CP-136 would run concurrently with Judge Brinkley’s
sentence in CP-723. A three-judge panel of the Commonwealth Court ultimately
concluded that Judge Ransom’s June 16, 2004 sentencing orders were final and
could not be modified by her February 8, 2007 clarification letter; the court thus
ordered the Department to again recalculate Powell’s prison term so that the
sentences in CP-367 and CP-136 ran concurrently with the sentence in CP-723.
Id. at 916-19.
While the Commonwealth Court matter was pending, on August 31, 2009,
Powell was paroled from the custody of the Department of Corrections. (Doc.
1, ¶ 23). Once the Commonwealth Court issued its January 12, 2011 decision,
the Department recalculated Powell’s prison sentence. (Id. ¶¶ 22-24). As a result
of that final calculation, Powell’s maximum sentence date was May 22, 2012.
(Id. ¶ 24). However, according to Powell, following his release from the
Department’s custody on August 31, 2009, the Defendants continued to
supervise him as a state parolee until December of 2012, resulting in his serving
seven (7) months of supervision in excess of his actual sentence. (Id. ¶¶ 25-26).
Powell asserts that the Defendants’ actions were “willful and outrageous in that
their motives and conduct . . . were malicious, wanton, reckless, oppressive, and
so egregious as to shock the contemporary conscience.” (Id. ¶ 32).
Powell commenced this action on January 10, 2013 with the filing of a
Complaint. The Corrections Defendants responded to the Complaint by filing a
Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss on March 12, 2013, and on March 22, 2013,
Defendant Potteiger also filed a Rule 12(b)(6) motion. The motions have been
fully briefed (docs. 10, 12, 16, 17, 21) and are thus ripe for our review.
The gist of the Plaintiff’s Complaint is that an incorrect calculation of his
sentence resulted in a loss of or delay in prerelease status, a period of wrongful
incarceration, and a period of parole supervision which endured beyond his
maximum sentence. The Corrections Defendants contend that the Eleventh
Amendment bars the Plaintiff’s official capacity claims and that the Plaintiff’s
allegations are insufficient to otherwise establish personal Section 1983 liability
against them. Defendant Potteiger asserts that there are no facts attributing the
Plaintiff’s harm to his conduct or otherwise establishing that he participated in or
contributed to the Plaintiff’s injury, thus warranting dismissal of the claims
against him pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6). We address the motions seriatim.1
We note that the Plaintiff in his opposition papers has conceded that (1) the Eleventh
Amendment bars his claims for monetary damages against the Defendants in their official
capacities and (2) the Complaint contains insufficient facts to support his Eight Amendment
excessive force claim against the various Defendants. (Doc. 17, pp. 2-3). Accordingly, we will
grant the motions to the extent they raise these concurred issues.
Defendant Potteiger’s Motion
As we have noted, the crux of the Plaintiff’s complaint relates to the
alleged miscalculation of his prison sentence. Defendant Potteiger asserts that
because the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole is not involved in the
calculation of sentences, he cannot be liable for whatever miscalculation may
have occurred and caused the Plaintiff’s harms. On the sparse facts provided in
the Complaint, we cannot but agree with Defendant Potteiger.
As Defendant Potteiger notes, it is the Department of Corrections, not the
Board of Probation and Parole, that calculates prison and parole sentences. See
Gillespie v. Dept. of Corrections, 527 A.2d 1061, 1065 (Pa. Commw. 1987)
(“The Department [of Corrections], not the Board [of Probation and Parole], is
responsible for calculating the minimum and maximum terms of prisoners
committed to its jurisdiction.”); see also Nickson v. Pa. Bd. of Probation and
Parole, 880 A.2d 21, 24 (Pa. Commw. 2005) (“This right and responsibility is
exclusive to the Department of Corrections.”). The Plaintiff offers a very brief
response to the Defendant’s arguments, broadly contending that despite the
exclusive delegation of this responsibility to the Department of Corrections,
Defendant Potteiger and the Board of Probation and Parole “must have” been
aware of the Commonwealth Court litigation brought by the Plaintiff against the
Department of Corrections. Nonetheless, the Plaintiff entirely fails to factually
and causally connect the miscalculation of his sentence to Defendant Potteiger,
either in his individual capacity or in his official capacity as a municipal liability
claim. Regardless of whether Defendant Potteiger was actually aware of the
litigation surrounding the miscalculation, the fact remains that nothing in the
Complaint attributes the miscalculation itself to him. For this reason, we must
grant Defendant Potteiger’s motion and dismiss the Plaintiff’s claims against
him with prejudice.
Corrections Defendants’ Motion
We turn next to the Corrections Defendants’ motion, which raises several
arguments in support of dismissal: first, the Corrections Defendants contend that
the Complaint fails to state a claim against Defendants Wetzel and Yale because
it does not allege any personal involvement by either individual and, second,
they assert that the due process claims must be dismissed because the Plaintiff
did not have a protected interest in prerelease status. We address both of these
arguments in turn.
As a threshold matter, we agree that the claims against Defendants Wetzel
and Yale must be dismissed. The Complaint identifies these Defendants in its
prefatory paragraphs but fails to make any other allegation regarding either of
these individuals. As the Corrections Defendants correctly observe, liability
under Section 1983 cannot be premised on a respondeat superior theory; rather,
liability can result only from a defendant’s personal involvement. See Rode v.
Dellarciprete, 845 F.2d 1195, 1207 (3d Cir. 1988). Importantly, “a defendant in
a civil rights case cannot be held responsible for a constitutional violation which
he or she neither participated in nor approved.” C.H. v. Oliva, 226 F.3d 198,
201-02 (3d Cir. 2000).
The Plaintiff responds that pursuant to Rode, actual knowledge or
acquiescence in the unconstitutional conduct is sufficient to find personal
involvement for purposes of Section 1983. We agree with this proposition.
However, there is a complete dearth of factual allegations regarding either of
these Defendants in the Complaint, and thus any inference that these Defendants
either knew or should have known of the allegedly unconstitutional conduct
would be entirely unreasonable and beyond the scope of the deferential Rule
12(b)(6) standard. Because the Complaint contains no facts which tend to
establish that Defendants Wetzel and Yale either participated in, approved, or
otherwise contributed to the Plaintiff’s injury, the claims against them must be
dismissed. We will thus grant the Defendants’ motion to the extent it seeks
dismissal of Defendants Wetzel and Yale.
This leaves only the Plaintiff’s due process claims against Defendant
Weiss, who is sued both in his individual capacity and his official capacity as a
supervisory official within the Department of Corrections. The Plaintiff alleges
that Defendant Weiss “conducted the recalculation” personally and has thus at
least alleged some personal involvement on his part. The question thus becomes
whether this recalculation, which apparently resulted in denial of prerelease
status and ultimately caused the Plaintiff to be under the supervision of the
Parole Board beyond the date of his maximum sentence, violated the Plaintiff’s
due process rights.
First, we turn to the allegation that Defendant Weiss’s recalculation
resulted in a denial of prerelease status and thus a violation of due process. It is
well-settled that “[t]here is no constitutional or inherent right of a convicted
person to be conditionally released before the expiration of a valid sentence.”
Greenholtz v. Inmates of Nebraska Penal and Correctional Complex, 442 U.S.
1,7, 99 S. Ct. 2100, 60 L. Ed. 2d 668 (1979). Courts in this Circuit have applied
this principle to hold that denial of or revocation of prerelease status does not
implicate or violate an inmate’s due process rights. See, e.g., Gonzalez v. Elliot,
2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 69132, *27 (M.D. Pa. Apr. 17, 2012) (“Convicted state
inmates can reasonably expect to be housed in state correctional institutions as
part of their criminal sentences, and thus removal from a pre-release list and
placement in a correctional institution does not violate an inmate’s [right to] due
process.”). While the Plaintiff argues that the denial or revocation of prerelease
status is more akin to revocation of parole or supervised release, both of which
have long been considered protected interests, there is no case law to support
that contention. Indeed, the decisional law as just cited weighs heavily against
that proposition. Thus, we cannot find that the removal from prerelease status
constitutes a due process violation and will thus grant the motion to dismiss to
Lastly, we consider the Plaintiff’s claim regarding the duration of his
sentence and supervision. According to the Complaint, Defendant Weiss
miscalculated the Plaintiff’s sentence, in contravention of the Commonwealth
Court’s order, which resulted in the Plaintiff being “wrongly incarcerated for a
minimum of approximately seventeen months” and under supervision for seven
months beyond his maximum supervision dated. (Doc. 1, ¶¶ 24-27). Assuming
these facts to be true as we must at this juncture, it appears to be plausible that
Defendant Weiss played a pivotal role in causing the Plaintiff to be incarcerated
and ultimately supervised beyond his maximum sentence date. (Id.). We thus
cannot agree with Defendant Weiss’s position that the Complaint does not
sufficiently allege a deprivation of liberty or personal involvement, and we
cannot grant his motion on that basis.
In arguing their positions, however, both parties have neglected a critical
doctrine announced by the Supreme Court in Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477
(1994), which provides that a Section 1983 action challenging any aspect of a
conviction or sentence cannot proceed unless the plaintiff has previously sought
and achieved invalidation of the conviction or sentence. In Heck, the Court held
that in order to recover damages for allegedly unconstitutional confinement, a
Section 1983 plaintiff must plead that “the conviction or sentence has been
reversed on direct appeal, expunged by executive order, declared invalid by a
state tribunal authorized to make such a determination, or called into question by
a federal court’s issuance of a writ of habeas corpus.” Id. at 486-87. The Court
has broadly interpreted Heck, holding that “a state prisoner’s Section 1983
action is barred (absent prior invalidation) - no matter the relief sought (damages
or equitable relief), no matter the target of the prisoner’s suit (state conduct
leading to conviction or internal prison proceedings) - if success in that action
would necessarily demonstrate the invalidity of the confinement or its duration.”
Wilkinson v. Dotson, 544 U.S. 74, 81-82 (2005) (emphasis added). The Third
Circuit has further held that the Heck rule bars Section 1983 actions even where
an inmate has been released from custody rendering habeas relief unavailable.
Williams v. Consovoy, 453 F.3d 173, 177 (3d Cir. 2006).
In the matter sub judice, the Plaintiff seeks to hold the Defendant liable
for the allegedly improper duration of his sentence, a situation contemplated by
and expressly included in Heck’s breadth by Wilkinson. Both of these cases have
been applied in this Circuit to dismiss similar Section 1983 claims. See, e.g.,
Royal v. Durison, 254 Fed. Appx. 163, 165 (3d Cir. 2007) (favorable termination
rule barred state inmate’s challenge to Department of Corrections’ sentencing
miscalculation which led to his being incarcerated more than six months beyond
statutory maximum); Early v. Ludwig, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 108350, *8-13
(W.D. Pa. Feb. 24, 2009) (state inmate’s claims against Board of Probation and
Parole and Department of Corrections officials arising from alleged sentence
miscalculation barred by Heck), adopted in Early v. Ludwig, 2009 U.S. Dist.
LEXIS 32551 (W.D. Pa. Mar. 23, 2009); Jones v. Yale, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS
48650, *2 (E.D. Pa. June 25, 2008) (sentencing miscalculation claim barred by
Heck for failure to challenge validity regardless of fact that inmate was no longer
incarcerated). As in each of those cases, if we were to ultimately hold that the
Defendants did incarcerate the Plaintiff beyond his maximum sentence, we
would necessarily be holding that his confinement or its duration were invalid.
Accordingly, because Heck bars this Court from hearing such a claim, we must
grant the Defendant’s motion and dismiss the Plaintiff’s due process claim.
For all of the reasons articulated herein, we will grant both motions to
dismiss in their respective entireties and dismiss the Plaintiff’s Complaint. An
appropriate Order shall issue.
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