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Smith v. Oakley

United States District Court, Seventh Circuit

October 16, 2013

PAUL SMITH, # B-64568, Plaintiff,
v.
LORI OAKLEY, TIMOTHY VEATH, DAVID JOHNSON, MICHAEL ATCHISON, BARB MUELLER, SARAH JOHNSON, SHERRY BENTON, DANA OPOLKA, and SALVADORE GODINEZ, Defendants.

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

J. PHIL GILBERT, District Judge.

Plaintiff Paul Smith, an inmate currently incarcerated at Pontiac Correctional Center ("Pontiac"), brings this pro se civil rights action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (Doc. 1). Plaintiff claims that Defendants, who are all officials at Menard Correctional Center ("Menard") or the Illinois Department of Corrections ("IDOC"), failed to provide him with an impartial hearing on a disciplinary ticket and/or ignored his grievances regarding the same, in violation of his constitutional rights. He seeks compensatory and punitive damages (Doc. 1, p. 22).

Plaintiff is a frequent litigator in this Court. He has accumulated all three of his allotted "strikes" under 28 U.S.C. § 1915(g) for filing lawsuits that are legally frivolous, malicious, or fail to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. See, e.g., Smith v. Pender, No. 09-cv-00349-MJR (S.D. Ill.Dec. 11, 2009) (order dismissing case); Smith v. Conder, No. 09-cv-00304-GPM (S.D. Ill. Oct. 23, 2009) (same); and Smith v. Hulick, No. 08-cv-00871-JPG (S.D. Ill. June 15, 2009) (same). The Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit has issued an Order prohibiting Plaintiff from attempting to "proceed in forma pauperis without either disclosing that he has three strikes or establishing that he is in imminent danger...." Smith v. Pender, No. 09-4155 (7th Cir. Apr. 22, 2010). Plaintiff filed this action on August 26, 2013, without attempting to proceed in forma pauperis, but he also failed to pay a filing fee. Facing dismissal of his complaint if he did not do one or the other within thirty days, Plaintiff paid the $400 filing fee on September 23, 2013. This matter is now ripe for preliminary review of the complaint under 28 U.S.C. § 1915A.

The Complaint

Plaintiff's claims arise from a single disciplinary ticket that he received on October 13, 2012, for assaulting an inmate, causing a dangerous disturbance, fighting, and disobeying a direct order (Doc. 1, p. 6). He provides no explanation of the incident giving rise to the ticket, and he does not dispute that an incident occurred. Plaintiff alleges that he was placed in segregation on October 13, 2012, and ultimately found guilty of assault at an adjustment committee hearing on October 18, 2012 (Doc. 1, pp. 6-7).

Plaintiff now sues nine defendants for the role each of them played in this process. He appears to claim that each retaliated against him by violating his constitutional right to due process and equal protection under the law and to access the Court. In the 24-page complaint and 66-page exhibit, Plaintiff meticulously traces the meandering path of his disciplinary ticket and his ensuing appeals and grievances through the hands of each Defendant over the course of nearly ten months, moving backward and forward in time and space so quickly and unexpectedly that this Court finds the complaint dizzying. No doubt, Plaintiff's complaint flirts with a violation of Rule 8 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.

Plaintiff alleges that Defendants Timothy Veath and David Johnson, who are both members of Menard's adjustment committee ("AC"), conducted an improper hearing on his disciplinary ticket in violation of his right to due process of law (Doc. 1, pp. 6-7). At the hearing, Defendant Veath asked Plaintiff to explain how he could be charged with fighting and assault (Doc. 1, p. 6). While the question was pending, Defendant Veath took a phone call. Plaintiff speculates that the call came from internal affairs. Defendant Veath remained on the phone for five seconds before hanging up and listening to Plaintiff's answer, which happened to be: "I don't have a clue" (Doc. 1, p. 6). An officer, who is not named as a defendant in this action, spoke at the hearing. An internal affairs officer, who is also not named, entered the room afterwards but offered no testimony in Plaintiff's presence. Although Plaintiff requested permission to call a witness, he was not able to do so. At some point, Plaintiff was asked to leave the room. When he returned, Defendant Veath informed him that the adjustment committee found Plaintiff guilty of assault (Doc. 1, p. 7). When Plaintiff stated that he had not formally entered a plea or testified to his version of the events, Defendant Veath responded, "It really doesn't matter" (Doc. 1, p. 7). The summary of the proceedings indicates that Plaintiff entered a plea of "not guilty" and offered testimony of a witness; Plaintiff disputes both statements (Doc. 1, p. 6; Doc. 1-1, pp. 25-26). He received one year of C-grade, segregation, and commissary restriction (Doc. 1-1, p. 25).

Plaintiff went to great lengths to appeal this decision (Doc. 1, pp. 7-23; Doc. 1-1). He spares the Court no details in describing his efforts. In fact, he devotes seventeen pages of the complaint and virtually all of the 66-page exhibit to this description. When the allegations are distilled to their essence-as they should have been to begin with-they are as follows:

(1) Defendant Timothy Veath (Menard AC chairperson) denied Plaintiff an impartial hearing on his disciplinary ticket by refusing to allow Plaintiff to enter a plea, denying Plaintiff's request to call a witness, and refusing to hear Plaintiff's testimony (Doc. 1, pp. 6-7, 13, 17-18); (2) Defendant David Johnson (Menard AC member) did the same (Doc. 1, pp. 6-7, 13, 17-18); (3) Defendant Barb Mueller (Menard counselor) ignored Plaintiff's grievances and appeals (Doc. 1, pp. 10, 13, 19); (4) Defendant Dana Opolka (Menard counselor) also ignored Plaintiff's grievances and appeals challenging the hearing (Doc. 1, pp. 14, 19-20); (5) Defendant Lori Oakley (Menard grievance officer) delayed a response to Plaintiff's appeals and grievances for more than three months (Doc. 1, pp. 8-10, 13, 16, 19-20); (6) Defendants Michael Atchison (Menard warden) "failed to intervene" or even respond to Plaintiff's grievances (Doc. 1, p. 9); (7) Defendants Sarah Johnson (IDOC Administrative Review Board ("ARB") chairperson), Sherry Benton (IDOC ARB chairperson), and Salvador Godinez (IDOC director) "turned a blind eye" to the problem (Doc. 1, pp. 7-8, 16-20). Plaintiff claims that this conduct amounted to retaliation-for what, he did not say. In any event, Defendants' conduct allegedly deprived Plaintiff of his constitutional right to due process and equal protection under the law and to access the Court. He now seeks to have his disciplinary ticket expunged (Doc. 1, p. 22). He also seeks compensatory and punitive damages.

Merits Review Under § 1915A

This case is now before the Court for a preliminary review of the complaint pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915A. Under § 1915A, the Court is required to promptly screen prisoner complaints to filter out nonmeritorious claims. See 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(a). The Court is required to dismiss any portion of the complaint that is legally frivolous, malicious, fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, or asks for money damages from a defendant who by law is immune from such relief. 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(b).

An action or claim is frivolous if "it lacks an arguable basis either in law or in fact." Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319, 325 (1989). An action fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted if it does not plead "enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). Conversely, a complaint is plausible on its face "when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). Although the Court is obligated to accept factual allegations as true, see Smith v. Peters, 631 F.3d 418, 419 (7th Cir. 2011), some factual allegations may be so sketchy or implausible that they fail to provide sufficient notice of a plaintiff's claim. Brooks v. Ross, 578 F.3d 574, 581 (7th Cir. 2009). After fully considering the allegations in the complaint, the Court deems it appropriate to exercise its authority under § 1915A(b) and dismiss some of Plaintiff's claims as discussed herein.

Discussion

The Court finds it convenient to divide the complaint into five counts. The parties and the Court will use these designations in all future pleadings and orders, unless ...


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