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Merritte v. Baldwin

United States District Court, S.D. Illinois

January 6, 2017

CALVIN L. MERRITTE, # R-53322, Plaintiff,


          NANCY J. ROSENSTENGEL United States District Judge

         Plaintiff, currently incarcerated at Western Illinois Correctional Center (“Western”), has brought this pro se civil rights action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. His claims arose in September 2014, during his previous confinement at Lawrence Correctional Center (“Lawrence”). He also includes one defendant (Jeff Korte) who is employed at Western, and he names the Director of the Illinois Department of Corrections (“IDOC”), John Baldwin. The claims include retaliation, failure to protect, and deprivation of a liberty interest without due process. The complaint is now before the Court for a preliminary review pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915A.

         Under § 1915A, the Court is required to screen prisoner complaints to filter out non-meritorious claims. See 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(a). The Court must 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). Frivolousness is an objective standard that refers to a claim that “no reasonable person could suppose to have any merit.” Lee v. Clinton, 209 F.3d 1025, 1026-27 (7th Cir. 2000). 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 Arnett v. Webster, 658 F.3d 742, 751 (7th Cir. 2011); Rodriguez v. Plymouth Ambulance Serv., 577 F.3d 816, 821 (7th Cir. 2009).

         The Complaint

         Plaintiff introduces his complaint with the assertion that the IDOC “maintain[s] a policy, custom, or practice of retaliating” against him and other prisoners who have brought complaints, lawsuits, or grievances. (Doc. 1, p. 12). He makes a broad claim that from August 2011 through September 2016, “countless” correctional officers have taken a variety of adverse actions against him and other prisoners in response to complaints, calculated to deter him and other prisoners from continuing to file grievances or lawsuits. Id. He has informed Baldwin and Korte about the retaliatory acts, but they failed to take corrective action or create a policy to prevent the retaliation from recurring. (Doc. 1, p. 13). Plaintiff also claims to have informed a number of other officials (who are not named as defendants in this action) about the retaliation, including former IDOC Directors, Wardens, and Administrative Review Board members, but these individuals likewise failed to take any remedial action. Id.

         Plaintiff then describes several specific incidents. On September 8, 2014, he told Ochs that he knew that Ochs destroyed or disposed of Plaintiff's federal habeas corpus petition instead of delivering it to the law library so that Plaintiff could obtain copies of the document. Ochs responded with a verbal threat, and then ordered Plaintiff to pack his belongings. (Doc. 1, p. 13). Soon, Ray and Johnson took Plaintiff to a cell with another inmate (Cole), who was known for engaging in sexual misconduct and whom Plaintiff believed to be infected with HIV. (Doc. 1, p. 14). Cole had previously threatened Plaintiff, and Plaintiff informed Ray and Johnson of that history. Nonetheless, Ray and Johnson assigned Plaintiff to the cell with Cole, where he feared he would be attacked.

         Between September 8 and 10, 2014, Ochs boasted about his retaliatory action of moving Plaintiff to Cole's cell. Hundley, Selby, Brake, Dean, Ray, and other unnamed staff knew that Plaintiff was at risk of harm from Cole, however, they refused to move him to a different cell despite his requests. Plaintiff went on a hunger strike and threatened suicide in order to be reassigned, to no avail. (Doc. 1, p. 15).

         Cole learned from correctional officers that Plaintiff was trying to change cells. On September 10, 2014, he threatened to attack Plaintiff and infect him with HIV if Plaintiff continued to report their conflict. When Plaintiff told him, “you ain't going to do s**t to me, ” Cole punched and choked Plaintiff. (Doc. 1, p. 16). Later, Plaintiff reported this attack to C/O DeWeese (who is not a defendant). DeWeese then retaliated against Plaintiff by placing tight restraints on him, which pierced his skin, and put him in a filthy cell contaminated with feces, vomit, and biting insects. DeWeese also filed a false disciplinary report against Plaintiff, charging him with intimidation and threats.[1] (Doc. 1, pp. 16-17).

         Plaintiff's disciplinary ticket was heard by a committee chaired by Ray; Plaintiff was unsuccessful in seeking to substitute another official to hear the matter. Ray and committee member Cooper (who is not named as a defendant) refused to call Plaintiff's witnesses or to document his full statement regarding the matter. He was found guilty and punished with sanctions that, according to Plaintiff, will affect his ability to receive supplemental sentence credit. He claims this will effectively lengthen his sentence by an additional six months, unless the disciplinary matter is expunged. (Doc. 1, p. 17).

         Plaintiff raises three claims based on these events: Retaliation, Eighth Amendment failure to protect, and violation of due process rights. (Doc. 1, pp. 17-18). He seeks compensatory and punitive damages, as well as unspecified injunctive relief.

         Merits Review Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915A

         Based on the allegations of the complaint, the Court finds it convenient to divide the pro se action into four counts. The parties and the Court will use these designations in all future pleadings and orders, unless otherwise directed by a judicial officer of this Court. The designation of these counts does not constitute an opinion as to their merit. Any other claim that is mentioned in the complaint but not addressed in this Order should be considered dismissed without prejudice.

Count 1: First Amendment retaliation claim against Ochs, for having Plaintiff placed in a cell with a dangerous cellmate in September 2014 after Plaintiff complained that Ochs destroyed his federal habeas corpus petition;
Count 2: Eighth Amendment claims for cruel and unusual punishment and failure to protect, against Ochs, Ray, Johnson, Hundley, Selby, Brake, and Dean, for placing and keeping Plaintiff in a cell with a dangerous cellmate who threatened and attacked him in September 2014;
Count 3: Fourteenth Amendment claim for deprivation of a liberty interest without due process, against Ray, for failing to call Plaintiff's witnesses or document his defense at his disciplinary hearing in September 2014, resulting in Plaintiff losing eligibility for supplemental sentence credit;
Count 4: Claim against Baldwin and Korte for maintaining a policy, custom, or practice allowing prison officials to retaliate against Plaintiff for bringing complaints and lawsuits, and/or failing to implement a policy ...

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