Felts v. Tritt et al
MEMORANDUM OPINION (Order to follow as separate docket entry)Signed by Honorable Matthew W. Brann on 10/19/17. (lg)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE MIDDLE DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA
BRENDA TRITT, ET AL.,
OCTOBER 19, 2017
Robert Felts, an inmate confined at the State Correctional Institution,
Frackville, Pennsylvania (SCI-Frackville) initiated this pro se civil rights action
pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Along with his complaint, Felts submitted an in
forma pauperis application. For the reasons set forth below, Plaintiff’s action will
be dismissed, without prejudice, as legally frivolous pursuant to the screening
provisions of 28 U.S.C. § 1915.
Named as Defendants are three SCI-Frackville employees, Superintendent
Brenda Tritt as well as Deputy Superintendents Anthony Kovalchik and George
Miller. The complaint solely contends that “[t]he defendants, each of them, made
a concerted decision to release a known dangerous prisoner, with a well
documented assaultive history, into general population resulting in Plaintiff being
assaulted.” Doc. 1, ¶ IV. As relief, Plaintiff seeks nominal, compensatory and
Title 28 U.S.C. § 1915 imposes obligations on prisoners who file civil
actions in federal court and wish to proceed in forma pauperis under 28 U.S.C.
§ 1915, e.g., that the full filing fee ultimately must be paid (at least in a nonhabeas suit) § 1915(e)(2)provides:
(2) Notwithstanding any filing fee, or any portion thereof, that may
have been paid, the court shall dismiss the case at any time if the court
determines that (A) the allegation of poverty is untrue; or (B) the
action or appeal (i) is frivolous or malicious; (ii) fails to state a claim
on which relief may be granted; or (iii) seeks monetary relief against a
defendant who is immune from such relief.
When considering a complaint accompanied by a motion to proceed in
forma pauperis, a district court may rule that process should not be issued if the
complaint is malicious, presents an indisputably meritless legal theory, or is
predicated on clearly baseless factual contentions. Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U.S.
319, 327-28 (1989); Wilson v. Rackmill, 878 F.2d 772, 774 (3d Cir. 1989).
Indisputably meritless legal theories are those “in which either it is readily apparent
that the plaintiff’s complaint lacks an arguable basis in law or that the defendants
are clearly entitled to immunity from suit ... .” Roman v. Jeffes, 904 F.2d 192, 194
(3d Cir. 1990) (quoting Sultenfuss v. Snow, 894 F.2d 1277, 1278 (11th Cir. 1990)).
The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has added that “the
plain meaning of ‘frivolous’ authorizes the dismissal of in forma pauperis claims
that . . . are of little or no weight, value, or importance, not worthy of serious
consideration, or trivial.” Deutsch v. United States, 67 F.3d 1080, 1083 (3d Cir.
1995). It also has been determined that “the frivolousness determination is a
discretionary one,” and trial courts “are in the best position” to determine when an
indigent litigant’s complaint is appropriate for summary dismissal. Denton v.
Hernandez, 504 U.S. 25, 33 (1992).
A plaintiff, in order to state an actionable civil rights claim, must plead two
essential elements: (1) that the conduct complained of was committed by a person
acting under color of law, and (2) that said conduct deprived the plaintiff of a
right, privilege, or immunity secured by the Constitution or laws of the United
States. Groman v. Township of Manalapan, 47 F.3d 628, 638 (3d Cir. 1995); Shaw
by Strain v. Strackhouse, 920 F.2d 1135, 1141-42 (3d Cir. 1990).
Civil rights claims cannot be premised on a theory of respondeat superior.
Rode v. Dellarciprete, 845 F.2d 1195, 1207 (3d Cir. 1988). Rather, each named
defendant must be shown, via the complaint’s allegations, to have been personally
involved in the events or occurrences which underlie a claim. See Rizzo v. Goode,
423 U.S. 362 (1976); Hampton v. Holmesburg Prison Officials, 546 F.2d 1077 (3d
Cir. 1976). As explained in Rode:
A defendant in a civil rights action must have personal
involvement in the alleged wrongs. . . . [P]ersonal involvement
can be shown through allegations of personal direction or of
actual knowledge and acquiescence. Allegations of
participation or actual knowledge and acquiescence, however,
must be made with appropriate particularity.
Rode, 845 F.2d at 1207.
Furthermore, prisoners have no constitutionally protected right to a
grievance procedure. See Jones v. North Carolina Prisoners’ Labor Union, Inc.,
433 U.S. 119, 137-38 (1977)(Burger, C.J., concurring) (“I do not suggest that the
[grievance] procedures are constitutionally mandated.”); Speight v. Sims, No. 082038, 2008 WL 2600723 at *1 (3d. Cir. Jun 30, 2008)(citing Massey v. Helman,
259 F.3d 641, 647 (7th Cir. 2001)(“[T]he existence of a prison grievance procedure
confers no liberty interest on a prisoner.”) . While prisoners do have a
constitutional right to seek redress of their grievances from the government, that
right is the right of access to the courts which is not compromised by the failure of
prison officials to address an inmate’s grievance. See Flick v. Alba, 932 F.2d 728,
729 (8th Cir. 1991) (federal grievance regulations providing for administrative
remedy procedure do not create liberty interest in access to that procedure).
Although the complaint here lists Superintendent Tritt and Deputy
Superintendents Kovalchik as Defendants, there are no other factual assertions set
forth regarding those officials except a vague assertion that they allowed a
dangerous inmate to enter the general population. As such, it appears that Plaintiff
is improperly attempting to establish liability against the Defendants based upon
their respective supervisory capacities. Likewise, any attempt by Felts to establish
liability against the Defendants based upon a failure to take action in response to a
post-incident grievance is insufficient.
Based upon an application of the standards set forth in Rode, the complaint
to the extent that it seeks to establish liability against Defendants under a theory of
respondeat superior is subject to dismissal. Furthermore, any attempt by Plaintiff
to pursue a claim against Defendants based upon the handling of an administrative
grievance or complaint does not support a constitutional claim. See Alexander v.
Gennarini, 144 Fed. Appx. 924, 925 (3d Cir. 2005)(involvement in post-incident
grievance process not a basis for § 1983 liability). Since there are no viable
assertions of personal involvement set forth in the complaint which could establish
that the Defendants were personally involved in constitutional misconduct, entry of
dismissal in their favor is appropriate.
Statute of Limitations
In reviewing the applicability of the statute of limitations to a civil rights
action, a federal court must apply the appropriate state statute of limitations which
governs personal injury actions. Wilson v. Garcia, 471 U.S. 261, 276 (1985). The
United States Supreme Court clarified its decision in Wilson when it held that
courts “should borrow the general or residual [state] statute for personal injury
actions.” Owens v. Okure, 488 U.S. 235, 250 (1989).
Pennsylvania’s applicable personal injury statute of limitations is two years.
See 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 5524(7) (Purdon Supp. 1996); Kost v. Kozakiewicz, 1
F.3d 176, 190 (3d Cir. 1993). Furthermore, the statute of limitations “begins to run
from the time when the plaintiff knows or has reason to know of the injury which
is the basis” of his civil rights claim. Gentry v. Resolution Trust Corp., 937 F.2d
899, 919 (3d Cir. 1991) (citations omitted).
The question of when a cause of action accrues is a question of federal law.
Smith v. Wambaugh, 887 F. Supp. 752, 755 (M.D. Pa. 1995). A civil rights claim
accrues when the facts which support the claim reasonably should have become
known to the plaintiff.
Felts’ pending Complaint is dated July 18, 2017, and will be deemed filed as
of that date. See Houston v Lack, 487 U.S. 266, 271 (1988)(a prisoner’s complaint
is deemed filed at the time it was given to prison officials for mailing to the Court).
However, the Complaint does not allege when the purported violation of his
constitutional rights occurred. In light of that failure, this Court cannot ascertain
whether Plaintiff’s action is timely filed.1
Failure to Protect
The United States Supreme Court in Leatherman v. Tarrant County
Narcotics Unit, 507 U.S. 163, 167 (1993), noted that a § 1983 complaint need only
to comply “with the liberal system of ‘notice pleading’ set up by the Federal
Rules.” Id. As noted above, Plaintiff vaguely claims only that he was assaulted
by a fellow unidentified prisoner at an unknown place and time because prison
officials allowed that inmate to be placed in the general population.
The Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment
imposes duties on prison officials to provide prisoners with the basic necessities of
life, such as food, clothing, shelter, sanitation, medical care and personal safety.
See Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825, 832 (1994). Under Farmer, an inmate must
surmount the high hurdle of showing that a prison official actually knew or was
aware of a substantial risk to inmate safety and deliberately disregarded that risk.
Beers-Capitol v. Whetzel, 256 F. 3d 120, 125 (3d Cir. 2001). This requirement of
actual knowledge means that “the official must both be aware of facts from which
the inference could be drawn that a substantial risk of serious harm exists, and he
must also draw the inference.” Farmer, 511 U.S. at 837.
1. Plaintiff indicates only that he filed a grievance regarding his pending claim which was
dismissed as being untimely.
In Davidson v. Cannon, 474 U.S. 344, 347-48 (1986), the United States
Supreme Court noted that although a lack of due care had resulted in serious injury
to an inmate plaintiff, “that lack of care simply does not approach the sort of
abusive government conduct” which would warrant recovery under § 1983.
Simply put, allegations of negligence “do not trigger constitutional protections.”
Whooten v. Bussanich, No. 07-1441, slip op. at 4 (3d Cir. Sept. 12, 2007)(citation
omitted).2 There is also no claim by Plaintiff that he advised any prison official
either verbally or in writing that the unidentified prisoner posed a threat to his
safety.3 The complaint also does not include any assertion that an institutional
policy or procedure led to Plaintiff’s purported assault. In fact, the complaint
provides no details at all regarding the assault itself or the circumstances preceding
the alleged attack. There are clearly no facts presented which could support a
claim that any of the Defendants were aware that the alleged assailant posed a
threat to Plaintiff’s safety prior to the incident.
As noted in Davidson, carelessness is not sufficient to warrant liability under
§ 1983. Since the complaint fails to set forth any factual allegations which could
show that any prison official was aware that Plaintiff was facing a substantial risk
of serious harm and deliberately failed to take appropriate action, a viable claim of
deliberate indifference has not been stated under Farmer.
2. There is no discernible request by Plaintiff that this Court exercise supplemental jurisdiction
over a state law negligence claim. See 28 U.S.C. § 1367
3. Clearly, the inmate population at a state correctional facility such as SCI-Frackville would
include dangerous inmates including individuals convicted of violent offenses.
Pursuant to the above discussion, the sparsely worded complaint simply does
not sufficiently allege personal involvement by the Defendants in any
unconstitutional acts or set forth any assertions which could support a viable timely
failure to protect claim. Since Felts’ complaint as stated is “based on an
indisputably meritless legal theory,” his pending claim will be dismissed, without
prejudice, as legally frivolous. Wilson, 878 F.2d at 774.
If Plaintiff believes that he can cure the deficiencies outlined herein through
submission of an amended complaint, he may file a motion for reconsideration
within fourteen (14) days of the date of this Memorandum Opinion. Any such
motion for reconsideration should be accompanied by a proposed amended
An appropriate Order follows.
BY THE COURT:
s/ Matthew W. Brann
Matthew W. Brann
United States District Judge
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