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Belt v. Northeast Regional Health Services Administrator

United States District Court, E.D. Kentucky, Northern Division

April 29, 2019

JERRY RAY BELT, Plaintiff,
v.
NORTHEAST REGIONAL HEALTH SERVICES ADMINISTRATOR, et al, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          HENRY R. WILHOIT JR. UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Jerry Ray Belt is an individual confined at the Federal Medical Center ("FMC")-Lexington in Lexington, Kentucky. Belt was previously incarcerated at Federal Correctional Institution ("FCI")-Fort Dix in Fort Dix, New Jersey and FCI-Ashland in Ashland, Kentucky. Proceeding without an attorney, Belt filed a complaint asserting claims against various prison officials at FCI-Fort Dix and FCI-Ashland pursuant to Bivens v. Six Unknown Federal Narcotics Agents, 403 U.S. 388 (1971).

         Belt originally filed his complaint in the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey, Belt v. Federal Bureau of Prisons, et al., No. 1:17-cv-13582-RBK-AMD. However, after concluding that it did not have personal jurisdiction over the FCI-Ashland Defendants, that Court transferred the claims against those defendants to this judicial district pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1406(a), as venue and jurisdiction are appropriate in this district. [D.E. No. 8] The New Jersey District Court then conducted the initial screening of the claims against the remaining FCI-Fort Dix Defendants pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 1915(e)(2), 1915A, but did not screen the claims against the FCI-Ashland Defendants. [Id.]

         Belt's claims transferred to this Court are alleged against the following defendants: 1) Northeast Regional Health Services Administrator; 2) Jose A. Santana (Northeast Regional Administrative Remedy Coordinator); 3) Thomas Smith (Warden, FCI-Ashland); 4) Janisse Bishop (Associate Warden, FCI-Ashland); 4) Mr. Fazenbaker (Unit Manager, FCC/FPC/FCI (Low)); 5) Federal Prison Camp Administrator-Ashland, KY (Unknown); 6) Health Services Administrator, FCC/FPC/FCI-Ashland, KY (Unknown); 7) Chief Psychologist, FCC/FPC/FCI-Ashland, KY (Unknown); 8) Ms. Williams (Staff Psychologist, FCC-Ashland, KY); 9) Staff Psychologist, FCC/FCI-Ashland, KY (Unknown); 10) Tony Dean (Case Manager, FPC-Ashland); 11) S. Reed (Counselor, FCI-Ashland Low); 12) Mr. Patton (Case Manager, FCI-Ashland Low); 13) J. Boggs (Counselor, FCI-Ashland Low); 14) Captain, FCC-Ashland (Unknown); 15) Ms. Boyd (Primary Care Provider, FCI-Ashland Low); 16) Dr. Gomez (Health Services Director, FCC-Ashland); 17) Special Agent-In-Charge, FCC-Ashland (Unknown); 18) Special Investigations Services, FCC-Ashland, Ky., Lieutenant (Unknown).

         Thus, this Court must conduct a preliminary review of Belt's complaint against these defendants because Belt asserts claims against government officials. 28 U.S.C. §§ 1915(e)(2), 1915A. A district court must dismiss any claim that is frivolous or malicious, fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, or seeks monetary relief from a defendant who is immune from such relief. McGore v. Wrigglesworth, 114 F.3d 601, 607-08 (6th Cir. 1997). A complaint is subject to dismissal as "frivolous" where "it lacks an arguable basis in either law or fact." Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319, 325 (1989).

         The Court evaluates Belt's complaint under a more lenient standard because he is not represented by an attorney. Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007); Burton v. Jones, 321 F.3d 569, 573 (6th Cir. 2003). At this stage, the Court accepts the plaintiffs factual allegations as true, and his legal claims are liberally construed in his favor. Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555-56 (2007). However, the principles requiring generous construction of pro se pleadings are not without limits. Wells v. Brown, 891 F.2d 591, 594 (6th Cir. 1989); Wilson v. Lexington Fayette Urban County Government, No. 07-cv-95-KSF, 2007 WL 1136743 (E.D. Ky. April 16, 2007). A complaint must set forth claims in a clear and concise manner, and 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. 662, 678 (2009); Hill v. Lappin, 630 F.3d 468, 470 (6th Cir. 2010). See also Fed. R. Civ. P. 8. In addition, "a plaintiffs obligation to provide the 'grounds' of his 'entitle[ment] to relief requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of a cause of action's elements will not do." Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555.

         Moreover, although the Court has an obligation to liberally construe a complaint filed by a person proceeding without counsel, that obligation does not extend so far as to require or permit it to create arguments or claims that the plaintiff has not made. Coleman v. Shoney's, Inc., 79 Fed.Appx. 155, 157 (6th Cir. 2003) ("Pro se parties must still brief the issues advanced with some effort at developed argumentation."). Thus, vague allegations that one or more of the defendants acted wrongfully or violated the plaintiffs constitutional rights are not sufficient. Laster v. Pramstaller, No. 08-CV-10898, 2008 WL 1901250, at *2 (E.D. Mich. April 25, 2008) ("Neither the Court nor Defendants are obligated to search through the Complaint and its voluminous exhibits in order to glean a clear and succinct statement of each claim for relief. It is Plaintiffs' responsibility to edit and organize their claims and supporting allegations into a manageable format."). The Court is not required to create a claim for the plaintiff, nor to "conjure up unpled allegations." Moorman v. Herrington, No. CIV A 4:08-CV-P127-M, 2009 WL 2020669, at *1 (W.D. Ky. July 9, 2009)(citations omitted).

         Before addressing the specifics of Belt's allegations, the Court first notes a few general principals applicable to Belt's claims. First, Belt seeks to pursue his claims pursuant to Bivens, which held that an individual may "recover money damages for any injuries...suffered as a result of [federal] agents' violation of his constitutional rights." Bivens 403 U.S. at 397. However, to the extent that Belt seeks to sue the defendants in their official capacities, his claims fail. A suit against a government employee in his or her "official capacity" is not a suit against the employee for his or her conduct while performing job duties for the government but is instead a suit against the government agency that employs the individual. Thus, an official capacity suit against an employee of the Bureau of Prisons ("BOP") is a suit against the BOP, which is a federal agency. While Bivens authorizes suits against federal employees for violations of civil rights, it does not waive the sovereign immunity enjoyed by the United States and its agencies. Ctr. for Bio-Ethical Reform, Inc. v. Napolitano, 648 F.3d 365, 370 (6th Cir. 2011) (Bivens claims may be asserted against federal officials only in their individual capacities); Okoro v. Scibana, 63 Fed.Appx. 182, 184 (6th Cir. 2003).

         Moreover, while Bivens expressly validated the availability of a claim for damages against a federal official in his or her individual capacity, an officer is only responsible for his or her own conduct. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 676-677. See also Ziglar v. Abbasi, 137 S.Ct. 1843, 1860 (2017). Thus, in order to recover against a given defendant in a Bivens action, the plaintiff "must allege that the defendant [was] personally involved in the alleged deprivation of federal rights." Nwaebo v. Hawk- Sawyer, 83 Fed.Appx. 85, 86 (6th Cir. 2003) (citing Rizzo v. Goode, 423 U.S. 362, 373-77 (1976)). Indeed, "[e]ven a pro se prisoner must link his allegations to material facts...and indicate what each defendant did to violate his rights..." Sampson v. Garrett, 917 F.3d 880, 882 (6th Cir. 2019) (citing Hill v. Lappin, 630 F.3d 468, 471 (6th Cir. 2010); Lanman v. Hinson, 529 F.3d 673, 684 (6th Cir. 2008)).

         Thus, to proceed with each of his Bivens claims against each defendant, Belt must: 1) allege the violation of a constitutional right; 2) link his allegations to material facts; and 3) indicate what each individual defendant against whom he asserts a particular claim did to violate his constitutional rights.

         I.

         Belt's complaint is rambling, disjointed, repetitive and, as originally filed, brings claims against 38 different officials from two BOP facilities in different states. In addition, many of the claims are against unknown defendants and consist of formulaic legal conclusions rather than specific factual allegations giving rise to a legal claim. Thus, ascertaining the claims Belt seeks to bring in this Court, the defendants against whom he seeks to bring those claims, and the factual allegations supporting each claim, presents a challenge.

         However, Belt's complaint is essentially broken up into two sections. The first section provides the general factual background giving rise to his complaint, including Belt's alleged history of trauma (including sexual, mental, and physical abuses "from infancy through puberty" [D.E. No. 1 at p. 12]), his allegations of sexual assault by counselor G. Ruffin while Belt was incarcerated at FCI-Fort Dix, [1]and his claims that, since being transferred to FCC-Ashland, the assignment of his security-level designation is improper. [D.E. No. 1 at p. 11-12] The remainder of his complaint lists each individual defendant against whom he seeks to assert a claim and alleges (generally in broad, conclusory language) the claims he seeks to assert against each defendant. [Id. at p. 12-19]

         From what the Court is able to ascertain, with respect to the claims transferred to this Court by the District Court in New Jersey, Belt alleges the following claims against the following defendants: 1) Defendant Jose A. Santana, identified as the Chief of the Designation, Sentencing and Computation Center ("DSCC") has "neglected his obligations of oversight regarding reviewing Belt's current custody security classification status," resulting in Belt being housed "at a mismatched and inappropriate custody-level with inmates who are convicted sexual predators, causing mental and physical anguish," and has also neglected his obligations "to investigate unwarrantly malicious fabrications to approve current increased custody level," and has remained indifferent to appeals of family members to investigate FCC-Ashland's Unit Team's malfeasance regarding the mismatched custody assignment [D.E. No. 1 at p. 13]; 2) authorities at FCC-Ashland, in complicity with Santana, have violated 18 U.S.C. §§ 3621, 4042, and 4081, and the Central and Regional BOP authorities' oversight and enforcement obligations are being neglected [Id. at p. 12]; 3) Belt has been inappropriately assigned a security-level custody increase and housed in the Special Housing Unit ("SHU") due to his legitimate health complaints [Id. at p. 12]; 4) FCC-Ashland Health Services have been indifferent and neglected to provide treatment required as a result of previous sexual abuse of Belt, as well as Belt's "current serious health complications which are abnormal" [Id. at p. 13, 17-18]; 5) Warden Thomas Smith has inadequately responded to reports that Belt has been retaliated against by subordinate staff at FCC-Ashland [Id. at p. 16]; 6) Belt has been exposed to second-hand tobacco smoke in an institution "infested with vermin, roaches and other known and unknown pests," as well as "infestations of black-mold, lead paint-based, asbestos contaminated areas" [Id. at p. 19-20]; 7) health services employees have "knowingly, intentionally, deliberately, and willfully, denied Belt warranted treatment for both mental and physical conditions" [Id. at p. 17, 18]; 8) an unknown lieutenant at FCC-Ashland "implicitly threatened" Belt during his investigation of Belt's claim that he was sexually assaulted by an employee at FCI-Fort Dix [Id. at p. 19]; 9) Belt has been denied access to the administrative remedy process by Counselors S. Reed and J. Boggs [Id. at p. 18]; and 10) Belt has been denied access to uncontaminated drinking water [Mat p. 19-20].

         Thus, Belt's claims may broadly be grouped into the following categories: 1) claims based on Belt's prisoner security classification, including his claim that he was classified improperly in retaliation for filing grievances; 2) claims of deliberate indifference to Belt's serious medical needs; 3) claims of hazardous prison conditions; 4) claims of denial of access to the administrative remedy process; and 5) a claim of "implicit threats" during the investigation of his sexual assault claim.

         A. Claims Regarding Belt's Security Classification at FCI-Ashland

         In his complaint, Belt alleges claims based upon his security classification at FCI-Ashland (which he claims was improper) against a variety of prison officials.[2]Specifically, Belt alleges that he has been inappropriately assigned a "Greater Security - Management Variable," which represents a security-level custody increase, based upon officials' "mendaciously manufacturing false pretense in documentation," and has resulted in Belt's being housed "at a mismatched and inappropriate custody-level with inmates who are convicted sexual predators, causing mental and physical anguish." [Id. at p. 12-13, 17-18] He further alleges that authorities at FCC-Ashland, in complicity with Santana (Chief of the DSCC), have violated 18U.S.C. §§ 3621, 4042, and 40 81 and have been generally indifferent to the requests made by Belt and his family members to investigate. [Id. at p. 12-13] He also alleges that he has been inappropriately housed in the Special Housing Unit ("SHU") due to his legitimate health complaints, suggesting a retaliation claim. [Id. at p. 12]

         However, although Belt cites to several statutes regarding the general authority of the BOP with respect to prisoner classification and/or management of federal prisons, [3] Belt does not cite to any particular provision of these statutes that he claims have been violated, nor does he allege facts to explain how his security classification violates any of these statutes.

         In addition, although Belt broadly claims that his security classification and/or placement in the SHU violates his rights under the Fifth and Eighth Amendments [D.E. No. 1 at p. 11], he fails to allege any facts explaining how any individual defendant violated these rights. Rather, Belt's complaint consists of repeated conclusory allegations of "indifference," "negligence," "malfeasance" and the like, which is insufficient to adequately articulate a claim for relief. Grinter v. Knight, 532 F.3d 567, 577 (6th Cir. 2008); Scheid v. Fanny Farmer Candy Shops, Inc., 859 F.2d 434, 436 (6th Cir. 1988) ("More than bare assertions of legal conclusions is ordinarily required to satisfy federal notice pleading requirements.").

         Even so, "[w]hen a court sentences a federal offender, the BOP has plenary control, subject to statutory constraints, over 'the place of the prisoner's imprisonment,' and the treatment programs (if any) in which he may participate." Tapia v. United States, 564 U.S. 319, 331 (2011)(citing 18 U.S.C. §§ 3621(b), (e), (f); 3624(f); 28 C.F.R. pt. 544 (2010)). An inmate has no liberty interest in being placed in any particular penal institution, Olim v. Wakinekona, 461 U.S. 238, 247 (1983), or classified at any particular security level, Hewitt v. Helms, 459 U.S. 460, 468 (1983), overruled in part on other grounds by Sandin v. Conner, 515 U.S. 472 (1995), and hence no rights protected by the Due Process Clause in that regard. Sandin, 515 U.S. at 484-86. See also Wilkinson v. Austin, 545 U.S. 209, 221 (2005) ("... the Constitution itself does not give rise to a liberty interest in avoiding transfer to more adverse conditions of confinement.") (citing Meachum v. Fano, 427 U.S. 215, 225 (1976)); Moody v. Daggett, 429 U.S. 78, 88 n.9 (1976) ("Congress has given federal prison officials full discretion to control [prisoner classification and eligibility for rehabilitative programs in the federal system], 18 U.S.C. § 4081, and petitioner has no legitimate statutory or constitutional entitlement sufficient to invoke due process."); Harris v. Truesdell, 79 Fed.Appx. 756, 759 (6th Cir. 2003). Indeed, the BOP's decisions regarding where to house a particular inmate pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 3621(b) are expressly insulated from judicial review under the Administrative Procedure Act ("APA"). 18 U.S.C. § 3625.

         Nor does Belt allege facts sufficient to state a claim that his placement in the SHU amounts to cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment. The Eighth Amendment "does not mandate comfortable prisons," but only requires prison officials to provide inmates with "the minimal civilized measure of life's necessities." Rhodes v. Chapman, 452 U.S. 337, 347, 349(1981). Belt fails to allege facts suggesting that his placement in administrative segregation, and the resulting minimal intrusion upon the broader freedoms he enjoyed in the general population, deprived him of any of life's necessities sufficient to state a viable claim under the Eighth Amendment. Cf. Harden-Bey v. Rutter, 524 F.3d 789, 795-96 (6th Cir. 2008); Colgrove v. Williams, 105 Fed.Appx. 537, 538 (5th Cir. 2004).

         Similarly, to the extent that Belt alleges that his placement in the SHU was retaliatory in violation of the First Amendment, he alleges no facts that lend any support to this conclusion whatsoever. To ...


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