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Neal v. Cowen

United States District Court, S.D. Illinois

November 24, 2014

CHRISTOPHER NEAL, # K-84358, Plaintiff,


J. PHIL GILBERT, District Judge.

Plaintiff Christopher Neal, an inmate who is currently incarcerated at Menard Correctional Center ("Menard"), brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (Doc. 1). Plaintiff claims that Menard's adjustment committee added a "dangerous disturbance" disciplinary charge to his record without his knowledge, following his admission of guilt to fighting. Plaintiff spent five additional months in segregation as punishment for the undisclosed charge, which was expunged after he served the time. In connection with these events, Plaintiff now sues three members of the adjustment committee, including Lieutenant Timothy Veath (chairman), Jason Hart (member), and Rebecca Cowen (investigator). Plaintiff seeks monetary damages (Doc. 1, p. 17). He also seeks a preliminary injunction in the form of a prison transfer, in order to avoid retaliation by Menard officials for filing this action (Doc. 2).

Merits Review Under 28 U.S.C. § 1915A

This case is now before the Court for a preliminary review of the complaint pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915A. Under Section 1915A, the Court is required to promptly screen prisoner complaints to filter out nonmeritorious claims. 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). The claim of entitlement to relief must cross "the line between possibility and plausibility." Id. at 557. 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). Additionally, Courts "should not accept as adequate abstract recitations of the elements of a cause of action or conclusory legal statements." Id. At the same time, however, the factual allegations of a pro se complaint are to be liberally construed. See Rodriguez v. Plymouth Ambulance Serv., 577 F.3d 816, 821 (7th Cir. 2009).

After considering the allegations in light of this standard, the Court finds that the complaint survives threshold review.

The Complaint

Plaintiff has allegedly been housed at Menard twice since 2005. He was first housed there from March 2005 until June 2009 (Doc. 1, p. 6). While working in the healthcare unit ("HCU"), he was placed under investigation and sent to segregation on May 23, 2009. During the investigation, Plaintiff was asked whether he had problems with any employees in the HCU. He was also asked whether he had ever been in a closed office with a female staff member. At the conclusion of the investigation, Plaintiff was released from segregation and allowed to return to work in the HCU.

When Plaintiff reported to work on June 19, 2009, Defendant Veath asked him what he was doing there. Plaintiff explained that he was returning to work. Defendant Veath allegedly responded by stating, "I[nternal affairs] don't run nothing. I run the healthcare and I sent you to seg where you should have stayed" (Doc. 1, p. 6). Defendant Veath then ordered an officer to escort Plaintiff to a shower, while he made several phone calls. On June 24, 2009, Plaintiff was transferred from Menard.

Plaintiff returned to Menard on January 2, 2013 (Doc. 1, p. 6). More than ten months later, Plaintiff was placed in segregation (Doc. 1, p. 7). He received a disciplinary ticket for 301-Fighting. At his disciplinary hearing, Defendant Veath said, "Mr. Neal[, ] I see you are back with us[.] [L]ong time no see[.] [W]hat are you here for?" (Doc. 1, p. 7). Defendant Cowen explained that Plaintiff was before the adjustment committee for a fighting charge. She handed Defendant Veath the ticket. After he read Plaintiff the charge for 301-Fighting, Plaintiff indicated that he was guilty. Defendant Veath then instructed him to return to his cell. At the time, Defendant Veath did not indicate what Plaintiff's punishment would be.

However, Plaintiff allegedly made the decision to plead guilty after reviewing Menard's Inmate Manual, which indicated that the rule violation carried with it a punishment of only thirty days in segregation. Plaintiff expected to be released from segregation around November 15, 2013 (Doc. 1, p. 7). Due to delays in receiving the hearing summary, Plaintiff was unaware of the exact terms of his punishment.

On October 30, 2013, Plaintiff asked an officer, C/O Davis, when he would be released from segregation (Doc. 1, p. 8). After looking into the issue, C/O Davis indicated that Plaintiff would not be released until April 17, 2014. Rather than one month in segregation, Plaintiff received six months of segregation, C-grade, and commissary restriction.

Plaintiff realized why when he saw a copy of the disciplinary ticket. It contained an additional handwritten charge for 105-Dangerous Disturbance (Doc. 1, p. 9). This additional charge was not included on the ticket that he received, and the charge was not mentioned at his disciplinary hearing. He claims that a member of the adjustment committee added the charge without his knowledge.

The Administrative Review Board ("A.R.B.") ultimately agreed that Plaintiff should not have been punished for the 105-Dangerous Disturbance charge (Doc. 1, p. 9). The A.R.B. recommended expunging the dangerous disturbance charge from Plaintiff's disciplinary record and reducing his punishment to one month of segregation, C-grade, and commissary restriction (Doc. 1, p. 20). Unfortunately for Plaintiff, this recommendation was made on July 7, 2014, nearly three months after he served six months in segregation.

While in segregation, Plaintiff was confined to his cell for twenty-four hours per day. He was denied contact visits, access to religious services, and all other privileges that an inmate in the general population enjoys. He lost the opportunity to work and earn state pay of $10.00 per month for five months (Doc. 1, p. 9). In January 2014, Plaintiff was also bitten by an insect, and the wound "still hasn't cleared up" after using an antibiotic ointment to treat it (Doc. 1, p. 11).

After his release from segregation, Plaintiff was placed in a cell house that is set aside for the most highly aggressive inmates (Doc. 1, p. 10). His cell was filthy. The toilet did not work, and human feces lined the wall. The light in the cell remained on at all times. When Plaintiff complained, he was moved to a cell that was allegedly worse, although the complaint provides no description of the conditions. Plaintiff's grievances were ignored.

He now sues Defendants Veath, Hart, and Cowen for retaliation for filing grievances in violation of the First Amendment, for cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment, and for the denial of due process in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment (Doc. 1, pp. 10-12). Although not named in the case caption, Plaintiff also names WardenHarrington and Sergeant Shultz in connection with the Eighth and Fourteenth ...

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