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Oliver v. Pfister

United States District Court, Seventh Circuit

November 5, 2013

WINFRED OLIVER, Plaintiff,
v.
RANDY PFISTER, JEFFREY GABOR, DONALD GISH, ANGELICA JOYNER, PATRICK HASTINGS, LIEUTENANT BLACKARD, LIEUTENANT SCROGUM, SHERRY BENTON, SALVADOR A. GODINEZ, and SERGEANT JOHN DOE, Defendants.

MERIT REVIEW OPINION

JAMES E. SHADID, Chief District Judge.

This cause is before the Court for a merit review, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915A, of Plaintiff Winfred Oliver's claims.

I.

MERIT REVIEW UNDER 28 U.S.C. § 1915(A)

Under 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2) and § 1915A, the Court is required to carefully screen a complaint filed by a plaintiff who seeks to proceed in forma pauperis. The Court must dismiss a complaint, or a portion thereof, if the plaintiff has raised claims that are legally "frivolous or malicious, " that fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, or that seeks monetary relief from a defendant who is immune from such relief. Id. The test for determining if an action is frivolous or without merit is whether the plaintiff can make a rational argument on the law or facts in support of the claim. Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319, 325 (1989). A complaint fails to state a claim for relief if the complaint does not allege "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); Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678-79 (2009).

In reviewing the complaint, the Court accepts the factual allegations as true and liberally construes them in plaintiff's favor. Turley v. Rednour, 729 F.3d 645, 651 (7th Cir. 2013). Conclusory statements and labels are insufficient. Fed.R.Civ.P. 8; Schatz v. Republican State Leadership Comm., 669 F.3d 50, 55 (1st Cir. 2012)(holding that, in order to determine if a complaint states a plausible claim, the court must take non-conclusory, non-speculative facts as true, draw all reasonable inferences in the pleader's favor, and isolate and ignore statements that simply rehash claim elements or offer only legal labels and conclusions). Instead, sufficient facts must be provided to "state a claim for relief that is plausible on its face." Alexander v. United States, 721 F.3d 418, 422 (7th Cir. 2013)(internal quotation omitted).

II.

ANALYSIS

Oliver alleges three causes of action in his Complaint. His first cause of action is based upon the Fourteenth Amendment's due process clause. Oliver avers that, on April 5, 2011, during a "shakedown" of all of the protective custody units at the Pontiac Correctional Center, correctional officers confiscated certain items from his cell. Specifically, correctional officers confiscated two adult magazines, a brown photo album, and a catalogue sheet of thumb-nailed sized images of nude, adult male models. The officials believed that the catalogue contained images of child pornography because they had been altered by placing children's faces on the adult nude bodies, and therefore, they immediately took Oliver to the North Cell House segregation unit ("NCH").

According to Oliver, Pontiac is divided into three cell houses: East, West, and NCH. Oliver claims that NCH is where IDOC sends the "worst-of-the-worst" in the Illinois penal system. In fact, Oliver states that Pontiac uses NCH has a means of controlling inmates housed at Pontiac because no one wants to be housed there. At NCH, the cells are smaller; one person is housed in each cell; the inmates continuously yell, bang, and scream for hours; inmates flood the galley by clogging the toilets; and inmates fight by hurling human waste at one another.

Oliver alleges that Defendants violated his due process rights in that he had a liberty interest in avoiding placement in NCH. Oliver also claims that the disciplinary hearing that led to his placement in NCH was so defective that it violated his due process rights. Oliver alleges that his hearing was constitutionally defective in four ways. First, Oliver asserts that the hearing officers failed to consider relevant evidence regarding his guilt and that they relied upon an inapplicable statute to find him guilty of possessing child pornography. Second, Oliver avers that the hearing officers refused to allow him to call a correctional officer either as a live witness at the hearing or by written interrogatories. Third, Oliver contends that the hearing officers also violated his rights by refusing to allow him to present documentary evidence at the hearing, i.e. the items that the correctional officers confiscated from his cell. Fourth, Oliver states that the hearing officers failed to follow the Illinois Administrative Code in conducting the hearing and reaching its decision. Oliver alleges that these violations-either individually or collectively- deprived him of his liberty interest protected by the Fourteenth Amendment.

Oliver's second claim focuses upon the conditions of his confinement at NCH. Although he acknowledges that the officials have tried and cannot totally stop the inmates from throwing containers of feces and urine at one another as a manner of fighting, Oliver states that they have a responsibility to prohibit the constant noise at NCH that results from the inmates' yelling, banging on objects, and kicking the mesh cell doors. Oliver alleges that the noise is so constant and prevalent that it prohibited him from sleeping, from his working on his legal correspondence, and from performing other tasks such as reading. Oliver also claims that, after the inmates would flood the galley, the water would back up into his cell but that the officers would not help mop or clean the unsanitary water in his cell. In fact, Oliver avers that, when the officers would clean the galley, they would often times push the water back into his cell. Oliver claims that the conditions of his confinement in NCH were constitutionally defective and constituted cruel and unusual punishment in violation of his Eighth Amendment rights.

For his third cause of action, Oliver contends that the correctional officers and prison officials violated his Equal Protection rights protected by the Fourteenth Amendment in that the officers wrote noise disciplinary tickets to inmates housed in the East and West cell houses at Pontiac but not to inmates housed in NCH. According to Oliver, officers did not believe that issuing a disciplinary ticket to an inmate housed at NCH would have any effect, and therefore, they did not issue such tickets. Oliver claims that the refusal to issue such noise tickets violated his Equal Protection rights.

A. DUE PROCESS

"When a plaintiff brings an action under § 1983 for procedural due process violations, he must show that the state deprived him of a constitutionally protected interest in life, liberty, or property' without due process of law." Williams v. Ramos, 71 F.3d 1246, 1248 (7th Cir. 1995) (quoting Zinermon v. Burch, 494 U.S. 113, 125 (1990)); Kentucky Dept. of Corrections v. Thompson, 490 U.S. 454, 459-60 (1989). "Decisions and actions by prison authorities which do not deprive an inmate of a protected liberty interest may be made for any reason or for no reason." Richardson v. Brown, 2013 WL 5093801, * 5 (S.D. Ind. Sept. 11, 2013)(citing Montgomery v. Anderson, 262 F.3d 641, 644 (7th Cir. 2001)).

Oliver is incorrect that he has a liberty interest in staying out of NCH. On the contrary, an inmate has "no liberty interest in remaining in the general prison population." Williams, 71 F.3d at 1248. "In fact, absent a constitutional, statutory, or regulatory bar, a prisoner may be transferred for any reason, or for no reason at all.'" Id. at 1249 (quoting Williams v. Faulkner, 837 F.2d 304, 309 (7th Cir. 1988)). "An inmate has a due process liberty interest in being in the general prison population only if the conditions of his or her confinement impose atypical and significant hardship... in relation to the ordinary incidents of prison life.'" Richardson, 2013 WL 5093801, at * 5 (quoting Sandin v. Conner, 515 U.S. 472, 484 (1995)). In the Seventh Circuit, "a prisoner in disciplinary segregation at a state prison has a liberty interest in remaining in the general prison population only if the conditions under which he or she is confined are substantially more restrictive than administrative segregation at the most secure prison in that state." Id. "Merely being placed in a disciplinary unit, or being confined under conditions more onerous than conditions in other housing units of the jail does not violate the guarantee of due process." Id.

In the instant case, Oliver complains more about the procedures that led to his one-year placement in NCH than he does about being placed in NCH itself. To the extent that he is challenging the procedure that he received that led to his segregation, Oliver has failed to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. Although Oliver possessed a right to call witnesses at his discipline hearing, "there is no right to call a witness whose testimony would be irrelevant, repetitive, or unnecessary." Piggie v. Cotton, 344 F.3d 647, 677 (7th Cir. 2003). Indeed, "[a] violation of the right to call witnesses will be considered harmless unless there is evidence that the testimony could have aided the prisoner's defense." Wilson v. McBride, 2004 WL 635222, * 2 (7th Cir. Mar. 26, 2004). Oliver has failed to allege how Defendant Gabor's testimony would have been relevant or how it would have aided his defense. The Court has reviewed the interrogatories provided by Oliver that he wanted Defendant Gabor to answer, but it can divine no possibility that Gabor's responses thereto would have assisted Oliver in his defense.

Nor is the Court persuaded that the disciplinary officers' failure to produce the documentary evidence or to follow what Oliver believes to be the "relevant" evidence constituted a constitutional violation. The United States Supreme Court held in Wolff v. McDonnell, 418 U.S. 539 (1974), that due process in a prison disciplinary hearing requires four procedures: advance written notice of the charges; (2) an opportunity, when consistent with institutional safety and correctional goals, to call witnesses and present evidence; (3) a written statement ...


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