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Riley v. O'Brien

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

September 6, 2016

CLEON RILEY, Plaintiff,



         I. Introduction

         On June 6, 2016, plaintiff Cleon Riley (“Riley”), a prisoner formerly in custody at MCI Concord (a medium-security facility) and currently in custody at the Plymouth County Correctional Facility (“PCCF”) (a maximum-security facility), filed a civil rights Complaint against a number of prison officials and prison service providers, including: (1) Carol Higgins O'Brien (“Higgins O'Brien”), the Commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Correction (“DOC”); (2) Lois Russo (“Russo”), the Superintendent of MCI Concord; (3) William Devine (“Devine”), the Deputy Superintendent of Operations at MCI Concord; (4) Joseph D. McDonald, Jr. (“MacDonald”), the Sheriff of Plymouth County/PCCF; (5) Antone Moniz (“Moniz”), the Superintendent of PCCF; (6) Keefe Corporation (“Keefe Corp.”), the vendor of canteen items for prisoners; and (7) Global Tel Link (“GTL”), the telephone service provider for prisoners.

         Riley asserts federal claims pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 1981, 1983, 1985, and state claims under the Massachusetts Tort Claims Act (“MTCA”) and the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights (“MDOR”). All of his claims stem from and after his transfer in November, 2015 from MCI Concord to PCCF. He claims this transfer, without a prior classification hearing in violation of state regulations (103 C.M.R. § 120.120), [1] resulted in the loss of his personal property and has caused him to suffer severe restrictions or limitations with respect to his conditions of confinement at PCCF, compared with those at MCI Concord. He further contends that as a state prisoner, he should be allowed the same conditions at PCCF that he had at MCI Concord. Generally, his grievances include such matters as the limited access to canteen items and telephone calls, excessive charges for canteen items and telephone calls, limited access to gym and recreational activities, limited access to visitation from family and friends, the lack of immediate medical care, and the loss of his personal property.

         More specifically, Riley contends that: (1) he was entitled to request a transfer to a state facility of his choice and to appeal a classification board's placement decision to Higgins O'Brien or her designee, but was not provided this opportunity; (2) Keefe Corp. and GTL operate unlawful monopolies at PCCF by excessive mark-up of their products or services; (3) Keefe Corp. does not offer a variety of items (such as a certain brand of sneakers) in its canteen and items that are offered are sub-standard; (4) GTL imposes excessive charges on telephone calls and limits the number of calls to and from family and friends (since he is unable to send money to his children for telephone calls or to put money into his account); (5) he was not allowed to pack his property at MCI Concord (e.g., clothing, TV, hot pot, games, head phones, legal papers, canteen items, MP4 players) but was given only a few items of clothing and cosmetics at PCCF; (6) he lacks physical and recreational activities (such as ping pong, pool table, board games) that he had at MCI Concord, and, as a result, he has gained a lot of weight causing high blood pressure and arthritis; (7) he is not allowed contact visits with his family and cannot play games with his visitors or eat together with them as he did at MCI Concord; (8) the distance to PCCF is too far (as compared to MCI Concord) to make visitation feasible for certain family and friends; (9) he is not allowed to possess nail clippers and thus must wait a month to have his nails clipped by the foot doctor; and (10) he is not permitted to have non-narcotic medication on his person and must put in a slip to see the doctor to have his medication renewed, and this could take several days causing him to be without medication in the meantime.

         As relief, Riley seeks monetary damages and declaratory relief declaring that his transfer violated his constitutional rights and that his transfer was not based on disciplinary reasons. He also seeks injunctive relief in the form of an order that he is entitled to programs and benefits that state prisoners enjoy, and an order directing that he be transferred from PCCF to a state prison. Further, he seeks an order requiring a hearing and appeal process before being transferred again, as well as an order awarding him the good time credit that he was earning prior to his alleged unlawful transfer for each month he is held at PCCF. Finally, he seeks a 10-day bonus of good time credit for completing programs.

         Along with the Complaint, Riley submitted a Letter (Docket No. 2) containing a copy of a “demand letter” sent to Attorney General Maura Healy on May 30, 2016, pursuant to the presentment requirements of the MTCA, Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 258, § 4. Referenced in the letter is a state lawsuit in the Worcester Superior Court in which Riley asserts that he was not given his classification rights, that he was unlawfully transferred to PCCF, and that his personal property was lost. Riley v. Governor Baker, et al., Docket No. WORC 2011-00184. In his letter, Riley's request for relief is, inter alia, $1, 000.00 per day while confined at PCCF, $200.00 for his legal and personal property, and good time credit.

         On June 10, 2016, this Court issued a Procedural Order (Docket No. 5) directing Riley to pay the $400.00 filing and administrative fees of the Court, or file a Motion for Leave to Proceed in forma pauperis along with his certified prison account statement demonstrating his inability to pay the fees. On June 27, 2016, Riley filed a Motion for Leave to Proceed in forma pauperis (Docket No. 6). On June 30, 2016, an Order (Docket No. 7) entered denying the motion without prejudice because Riley failed to submit his certified prison account statement. He again was directed to pay the filing and administrative fees, or submit a renewed in forma pauperis request within 21 days.

         On July 21, 2016, Riley filed his certified prison account statement.

         II. Discussion

         A. The Renewed Motion for Leave to Proceed In Forma Pauperis

         Upon review of Riley's previously-filed financial affidavit and his prison account statement, this Court finds that he lacks sufficient funds to pay the $400.00 filing and administrative fees for this action up-front. Nevertheless, because he is a prisoner, he may not obtain a complete waiver of the filing fee and he is obligated to pay the fee in installments pursuant to the Prison Litigation Reform Act (“PLRA”), 28 U.S.C. § 1915 (the in forma pauperis statute).

         Accordingly, Riley's renewed Motion for Leave to Proceed in forma pauperis (Docket No. 9) is ALLOWED, and he is Ordered to pay the filing fee as follows.

1. Riley is assessed an initial partial filing fee of $142.23, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915(b)(1)(B);[2] and
2. The remainder of the fee $207.77 is to be assessed and collected in accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 1915(b)(2).

         The Clerk shall send the Treasurer's Office at PCCF a copy of this Memorandum and Order to facilitate payments to this Court.

         B. Screening of the Complaint

         Because Riley is a prisoner, the screening provisions of the PLRA come into play. The PLRA contains several provisions which grant this Court the authority to screen and dismiss prisoner complaints. See 28 U.S.C. § 1915 (proceedings in forma pauperis); 28 U.S.C. § 1915A (screening of suits against governmental officers and entities). Section 1915 authorizes federal courts to dismiss actions in which a plaintiff seeks to proceed without prepayment of fees if the action lacks an arguable basis either in law or in fact, Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319, 325 (1989), or if the action fails to state a claim on which relief may be granted or seeks monetary relief against a defendant who is immune from such relief. See 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B)(ii) and (iii). Section 1915A also authorizes the Court to review prisoner complaints in civil actions in which a prisoner seeks redress from a governmental entity, or officers or employees of a governmental entity, and to dismiss the action regardless of whether or not the plaintiff has paid the filing fee, if the complaint lacks an arguable basis in law or fact, fails to state a claim, or seeks relief from a defendant immune from such relief. 28 U.S.C. § 1915A.

         In addition to the statutory screening requirements under § 1915, this Court has an independent obligation to inquire, sua sponte, into its own subject matter jurisdiction.[3]McCulloch v. Velez, 364 F.3d 1, 5 (1st Cir. 2004). “If the court determines at any time that it lacks subject-matter jurisdiction, the court must dismiss the action.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(h)(3).

         In connection with this preliminary screening, Riley's pro se Complaint is construed generously. Hughes v. Rowe, 449 U.S. 5, 9 (1980); Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, 520 (1972); Instituto de Educacion Universal Corp. v. U.S. Dept. of Education, 209 F.3d 18, 23 (1st Cir. 2000). Even under a broad reading, however, the Complaint is substantially deficient.

         C. Abstention

         As an initial matter, the Court questions whether abstention principles would bar this Court from accepting jurisdiction over this matter because it appears that Riley already has a civil action in the Worcester Superior Court containing some of his claims that are asserted in this action. The federal courts have long recognized the “fundamental policy against federal interference with state criminal proceedings.” Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37, 46 (1971); In re Justices of the Superior Court Dept. of the Massachusetts Trial Court, 218 F.3d 11, 16 (1st Cir. 2000). See Hawaii Housing Authority v. Midkiff, 467 U.S. 229, 237-38 (1984) (federal court abstention from jurisdiction appropriate where “federal claims could have been or could be presented in ongoing state judicial proceedings that concern important state interests.”). The Younger abstention doctrine has been applied to other non-criminal proceedings.[4]

         In this case there is insufficient information on the record for this Court to make a determination whether abstention is warranted because of the pending state case. In light of this, the Court will address the numerous legal impediments presented by Riley's Complaint that subject it to dismissal pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 1915(e)(2)(B)(ii) and (iii) and 1915A, as set forth below.

         D. Failure to Comply With Fed.R.Civ.P. 8

         Riley's Complaint fails to comport with the pleading requirements of Rule 8 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Rule 8(a) requires a plaintiff to include in the complaint, inter alia, “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). This statement must “‘give the defendant fair notice of what the . . . claim is and the grounds upon which it rests, '” Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007) (alteration in original) (quoting Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 47 (1957)); see Rivera v. Rhode Island, 402 F.3d 27, 33 (1st Cir. 2005). It must afford the defendant(s) a “[‘]meaningful opportunity to mount a defense, '” Díaz-Rivera v. Rivera-Rodríguez, 377 F.3d 119, 123 (1st Cir. 2004) (quoting Rodríguez v. Doral Mortgage Corp., 57 F.3d 1168, 1172 (1st Cir. 1995)). See also Redondo-Borges v. U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Dev., 421 F.3d 1, 5 (1st Cir. 2005). “In a civil rights action as in any other action . . ., the complaint should at least set forth minimal facts as to who did what to whom, when, where, and why.” Educadores Puertorriqueños en Acción v. Hernandez, 367 F.3d 61, 68 (1st Cir. 2004). Although “the requirements of Rule 8(a)(2) are minimal . . .[, ] ‘minimal requirements are not tantamount to nonexistent requirements.'” Id. (quoting Gooley v. Mobil Oil Corp., 851 F.2d 513, 514 (1st Cir. 1988)). Moreover, as the United States Supreme Court has stated, under Rule 8, a plaintiff must plead more than a mere allegation that the defendants have harmed him. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (detailed factual allegations are not required under Rule 8, but a complaint “demands more than an unadorned, the defendant-unlawfully-harmed-me accusation.” quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555). See Chiang v. Skeirik, 582 F.3d 238, 244 (1st Cir. 2009) (“Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice.”) (internal citation and quotation marks omitted).

         Here, Riley combines all of his causes of action against all of the defendants. Thus, it is unclear what legal claims he asserts against which defendants, making it difficult for the defendants to file a meaningful response. Moreover, although Riley names Devine as a defendant in the caption of the case, he does not identify him as a defendant in the “parties” section of the Complaint, or in the body of the Complaint itself. Indeed, apart from the classification and transfer issues, Riley simply lists many of the adverse conditions of confinement at PCCF when compared to prison life at MCI Concord, without providing any factual connection to the defendants' actions. Moreover, he does not provide any underlying facts to set forth claims against the defendants Higgins O'Brien, Russo, Devine, MacDonald, or Moniz based on their actions or inactions. Thus, by asserting his claims collectively against the defendants, and by failing to provide underlying factual support for liability for each cause of action asserted, Riley fails to comply with Rule 8. See Bagheri v. Galligan, 160 Fed.Appx. 4, 5, 2005 WL 3536555, *1 (1st Cir. 2005) (unpublished decision finding complaint deficient because, inter alia, it failed to state clearly which defendant or defendants committed each of the alleged wrongful acts; “[the district court's requirement of an amended complaint] to remedy this deficiency did not demand more than the minimum necessary to satisfy notice pleading standards.”); see also Atuahene v. City of Hartford, 10 Fed.Appx. 33, *34, 2001 WL 604902, *1 (2d Cir. 2001) (unpublished decision, stating “[b]y lumping all the defendants together in each claim and providing no factual basis to distinguish their conduct, [plaintiff's] complaint failed to satisfy this minimum standard . . . . ”).

         E. Failure to State Plausible Claims Under 42 U.S.C. §§ 1981 and 1985

         Although Riley asserts claims under 42 U.S.C. §§ 1981, and 1985, he fails to set forth how these defendants violated those statutes. With respect to § 1985, Riley does not allege which subsection applies. Section 1985(1) deals with preventing an officer from performing his or her duties by force, intimidation or threats. There is no allegation in the Complaint that would invoke this provision. Section 1985(2) deals with obstructing justice to deter any party or witness from attending or testifying in a court proceeding. Again, there is no allegation in the Complaint that would invoke this provision. Section 1985(3) deals with conspiracies intended to deprive an individual or class of persons of protected rights based on “‘some racial, or perhaps otherwise class-based, invidiously discriminatory animus.'” Aulson v. Blanchard, 83 F.3d 1, 3 (1st Cir. 1996), quoting Griffin v. Breckenridge, 403 U.S. 88, 102 (1971). Here, Riley has not alleged a conspiracy for the purpose of depriving a person or class of persons equal protection of the laws. Indeed, there are no allegations from which this Court reasonably could infer that a conspiracy existed or that there was a conspiracy to deny equal protection, nor is there any factual support for an allegation of discriminatory animus.[5]

         Similarly, Riley's claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1981 (involving the right of all persons to be free from discrimination in specific activities, like making and enforcing contracts and bringing suits), also fail. There is simply no basis alleged for claims under this provision, and none reasonably can be inferred. Accordingly, Riley's claims under these provisions are subject to dismissal.

         Apart from these pleading deficiencies, there are a number of other legal ...

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