E-Alert Case Updates
Delaware Federal Court Examines Pleading Requirements for Civil Rights Claims Against Prison Staff and Vendors
Arson I. Gibbs, Sr. v. Robert Coupe, et al.
Arson I. Gibbs, Sr. v. Robert Coupe, et al. involved a civil rights lawsuit filed by an inmate against prison staff and vendors, alleging deliberate indifference to the inmate’s serious medical needs arising from refusal to grant the inmate’s request for prescription eyeglasses. Two (2) of the Defendants filed motions to dismiss. First, a prison grievance committee member moved for dismissal pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6). Second, the prison’s medical services provider moved for dismissal on the grounds that the inmate’s complaint was frivolous. The United States District Court for the District of Delaware concluded that the inmate’s claim against the grievance committee member failed because an inmate does not have a constitutional right to an effective grievance process, and thus, the Court granted the committee member’s motion to dismiss. The Court further found that the inmate had adequately alleged that, at the time of the filing of the complaint, he was under imminent danger of serious physical injury. Accordingly, the Court concluded that the inmate’s complaint was not frivolous, and thus, the Court denied the medical services provider’s motion to dismiss.
By way of factual background, on June 20, 2014, Plaintiff Arson I. Gibbs, Sr. (“Plaintiff”), an inmate at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center (“VCC”), filed a civil rights lawsuit against several VCC staff members and vendors, including Defendants, Rita Robinson (“Robinson”) and Correct Care Solutions (“Correct Care”). Plaintiff’s complaint raised medical needs claims pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Plaintiff who was pro se, had been granted leave to proceed in forma pauperis. Plaintiff filed an amended complaint on July 28, 2014. Robinson, a VCC grievance committee member, moved for dismissal pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6). Correct Care, VCC’s medical services provider, moved for dismissal on the grounds that Plaintiff’s complaint “abuses the judicial process as a frivolous action.”
Robinson was not mentioned in the original complaint. The amended complaint added Robinson, stating that she was a member of the VCC grievance committee and alleging that “all grievance members repudiated and refused to grant or support Plaintiff's request for prescription eyeglasses when they had the power to do so.” The amended complaint further alleged that the grievance committee members were deliberately indifferent to Plaintiff's serious medical needs and violated his constitutional rights under the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution. An exhibit to the amended complaint contained Robinson’s name as a grievance committee member. There were no other allegations directed towards Robinson. Robinson sought dismissal of the claim as not cognizable, arguing that Plaintiff could not maintain a constitutional claim against her based solely on her role as a grievance committee member. Plaintiff responded that he was not challenging the grievance procedure and alleged that Robinson repudiated and refused to grant, or support, his request for prescription eyeglasses.
Addressing Robinson’s motion to dismiss, the Court explained that, to the extent that Plaintiff's claim against Robinson was “based upon his dissatisfaction with the grievance procedure or denial of his grievance, the claim fails because an inmate does not have a ‘free-standing constitutional right to an effective grievance process.’” See Woods v. First Corr. Med., Inc., 446 F.App’x 400, 403 (3d Cir. 2011) (unpublished) (citing Flick v. Alba, 932 F.2d 728, 729 (8th Cir. 1991)). Although Plaintiff contended that he was not challenging the grievance procedure, according to the Court, Plaintiff’s allegations that Robinson repudiated and refused to grant or support his request for prescription eyeglasses (an issue raised in his grievance seeking eyeglasses), “in essence speak to the grievance process and the fact that his grievance was denied.” Accordingly, the Court concluded that Plaintiff could not “maintain a constitutional claim based upon his perception that his grievance was not properly processed, that it was denied, or that the grievance process is inadequate.” Therefore, the Court granted Robinson’s motion to dismiss.
Correct Care moved for dismissal on the grounds that Plaintiff had “three (3) strikes” under 28 U.S.C. § 1915(g) of the Prison Litigation Reform Act (“PLRA”), and that Plaintiff’s complaint was “frivolous and an abuse of the judicial process.” Correct Care argued that, at the time Plaintiff filed his complaint, he was not under imminent danger of serious physical injury.
The Court explained that the PLRA provides that a prisoner “cannot bring a new civil action or appeal a judgment in a civil action in forma pauperis if he has done so previously three (3) or more times, while incarcerated, and such claims were dismissed as frivolous, malicious, or for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted.” See 28 U.S.C. § 1915(g). The Court noted that Plaintiff had “three (3) strikes,” and that he may not file another civil action in forma pauperis while incarcerated unless he is in “imminent danger of serious physical injury” at the time of the filing of his complaint. See 28 U.S.C. § 1915(g); Abdul-Akbar v. McKelvie, 239 F.3d 307, 311 (3d Cir. 2001).
To support its position, Correct Care relied mainly on allegations in the amended complaint, and did not consider the allegations in the original complaint. The Court noted that the original complaint alleged that, because Plaintiff's eyeglasses were confiscated, he suffered from “eye strain, severe eye aches and headaches, and he felt as though sand was in his eyes.” The Court explained that, upon commencement of the case, the Court “reviewed the complaint and, on July 1, 2014, determined that Plaintiff had adequately alleged that, at the time of the filing of the complaint, he was under imminent danger of serious physical injury.” See Gibbs v. Cross, 160 F.3d 962 (3d Cir. 1998) (imminent danger alleged when prisoner suffered headaches and other symptoms as a result of exposure to dust and lint). The Court found that nothing had changed since that ruling, and thus, the Court denied Correct Care’s motion to dismiss.
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