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Orozco v. Butler

United States District Court, S.D. Illinois

March 7, 2017

ROGELIO OROZCO, # R-26820, Plaintiff,


          MICHAEL J. REAGAN Chief Judge

         Plaintiff, currently incarcerated at Stateville Correctional Center (“Stateville”), has brought this pro se civil rights action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. His claims involve events that took place while he was confined at Menard and Pontiac Correctional Centers. He asserts that he was subjected to retaliation, cruel and unusual punishment, and denied due process of law when he was put in disciplinary segregation for a year, followed by another 8 months in administrative segregation. Plaintiff is serving a 38-year sentence for murder. 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 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).

         Applying these standards, the Court finds that Plaintiff's claims are subject to dismissal pursuant to § 1915A.

         The Complaint

         While Menard was on lockdown in April 2014, Plaintiff was questioned by investigators about prison gang activity and pressured to disclose names of inmates who were involved in Security Threat Groups (“STG's”). The investigator accused Plaintiff of holding a ranking position in a gang. (Doc. 5, p. 9). Plaintiff denied any involvement in an STG, and said he had no knowledge of others' gang activity, so could not provide any information. On April 22, 2014, Carter wrote Plaintiff a disciplinary ticket (charging him with gang or unauthorized organization activity), allegedly in retaliation for Plaintiff's refusal to divulge information on STG's. Id. Plaintiff's attached documents regarding the disciplinary charges state that confidential sources named him as an officer of the Latin Kings. (Doc. 5-1, pp. 6-7).

         On April 24, 2014, Plaintiff appeared before the adjustment committee (made up of Scott and Hart). Crediting three confidential informants, they found Plaintiff guilty and recommended punishment of 3 months in segregation, along with the loss of certain privileges. (Doc. 5, p. 9; Doc. 5-1, pp. 9-10). This recommendation, however, was remanded to the committee by Warden Butler. Plaintiff's ticket was rewritten, and a rehearing was held on May 9, 2014, conducted by Scott and Cowan.

         The May 9 hearing date fell outside the time limitations imposed by the Illinois Administrative Code. At the direction of Butler, Scott and Cowan increased Plaintiff's disciplinary segregation term from 3 months to 1 year (the maximum available punishment). (Doc. 5, pp. 10-11). Butler added the further sanction of a disciplinary transfer. Plaintiff claims that these actions violated the Illinois Administrative Code provision that prohibits increasing an original disciplinary sanction imposed by the adjustment committee. He also asserts that the longer punishment was imposed in retaliation for his refusal to provide information to the investigators. Plaintiff filed a grievance over the disciplinary action, but was transferred on May 28, 2014, to Pontiac before getting any response.

         Plaintiff served his segregation term in Pontiac, where Pfister was the warden at that time. On June 8, 2014, Plaintiff filed another grievance over the Menard officials' actions related to his disciplinary case. After this, unnamed Pontiac officers confiscated and destroyed Plaintiff's personal property, increased his commissary restriction from 1 month to 2 years, and lost/misplaced his legal documents. (Doc. 5, p. 12). According to Plaintiff, these actions were taken to assist Pfister in carrying out the Menard Administration's “retaliation-agenda” against Plaintiff. Id. Pfister further retaliated against Plaintiff by denying his numerous requests for cutting his segregation time, and shortening his C-grade and commissary restrictions, despite Plaintiff's good behavior during his segregation confinement. (Doc. 5, pp. 12-13).

         On October 20, 2014, Godinez (IDOC Director) and McCarty (Administrative Review Board), in response to Plaintiff's grievance(s), remanded the disciplinary matter back to Carter at Menard for further substantiation of the charges. (Doc. 5, p. 13). They disregarded the violations of the Illinois Administrative Code's time limits and prohibition on increasing a punishment upon rehearing.

         On November 11, 2014, Plaintiff received a copy of the rewritten disciplinary ticket. After a postponement, the hearing on this revised ticket was held at Pontiac on November 25, 2014, before Holte and Salinas. (Doc. 5, pp. 14-15). Plaintiff submitted a written statement, challenged the evidence, and pointed out the Administrative Code violations. His request to call Scott (Menard official) as a witness was denied. Holte, Salinas, and Pfister found Plaintiff guilty again, and reimposed the 1-year segregation term. Plaintiff claims this action was further retaliation against him for filing grievances against Menard and Pontiac officials. (Doc. 5, pp. 16-17).

         Plaintiff filed a grievance challenging the November 25, 2014 rehearing and disciplinary sanctions. He served the remainder of the 1-year segregation term, as Pfister denied him any relief. (Doc. 5, pp. 17-18).

         On April 27, 2015, Anderson (Administrative Review Board) and Stolworthy (IDOC Director) issued a final order, agreeing that the increase in Plaintiff's punishment from 3 months to 1 year had been improper under the Administrative Code, and reducing his punishment to the original 3-month duration. (Doc. 5, p. 18). Plaintiff complains, however, that he effectively got no relief, because he had already completed serving the full year in segregation, and other complaints he raised were not addressed (which he claims constituted retaliation on the part of Anderson and Stolworthy). Moreover, the disciplinary matter “paved the way” for Plaintiff to be held in administrative detention for another 8 months, under the supervision of Pfister, following his release from punitive segregation. Plaintiff was released from administrative detention on December 10, 2015. (Doc. 1, p. 19).

         Plaintiff argues that the 9 months he was required to serve in punitive segregation before the retroactive reduction in his punishment constituted an atypical and significant hardship. (Doc. 5, pp. 20-24). In support of this claim, he cites the privileges he lost after he was removed from Menard's general population (job opportunities, vocational classes, religious services, recreational opportunites, visitation privileges, and movement outside the cell). In contrast, he was confined to his cell in Pontiac's segregation unit for 24 hours per day (with the exception of 4 hours per week of recreation in an 8-by-15-foot cage), without access to the telephone, commissary, contact visits, or other various privileges. The limited food supply caused him to lose 50 pounds, and the noise level from nearby mentally ill inmates limited his sleep to 2-3 hours per night. (Doc. 5, p. 21). The segregation cells were infested with roaches and ants, and at times Plaintiff was placed in cells where feces had been “smeared in the cracks and crevices of the walls.” (Doc. 5, p. 22).

         He describes the additional 8 months in administrative detention as “restrictive in nature, ” without further explanation. (Doc. 5, p. 22).

         Plaintiff seeks compensatory and punitive damages for the 9 months of excessive segregation confinement and the 8 months of administrative detention, as well as for the retaliatory actions of the Defendants. (Doc. 5, p. 25).

         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 the following 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: Fourteenth Amendment claim against Carter, Scott, Butler, and Cowan, for deprivation of a liberty interest without due process, for imposing a 1-year term of punitive segregation on Plaintiff when he should have been required to serve only 3 months;
Count 2: First Amendment retaliation claim against Carter for issuing the April 22 disciplinary ticket, and against Butler for increasing Plaintiff's punishment, because Plaintiff refused to provide information about other prisoners' gang involvement;
Count 3: First Amendment retaliation claim against Pfister, for denying Plaintiff's requests for reduction of his punishment, lengthening Plaintiff's commissary restriction, and causing Plaintiff's property to be lost or destroyed, in furtherance of the “retaliation-agenda” begun by Menard officials;
Count 4: Fourteenth Amendment due process claim against Godinez and McCarty, for failing to address all of Plaintiff's complaints about violations of the Administrative Code in the disciplinary action, and allowing him to remain in segregation beyond the time he should have served;
Count 5: Fourteenth Amendment claim against Holte, Salinas, and Pfister for deprivation of a liberty interest without due process, for reimposing the 1-year segregation term after the rehearing on Plaintiff's STG charges;
Count 6: First Amendment retaliation claim against Holte, Salinas, and Pfister, for reimposing the 1-year segregation term, because Plaintiff filed grievances against Menard and Pontiac officials;
Count 7: Fourteenth Amendment due process claim against Anderson and Stolworthy, for failing to reduce Plaintiff's segregation punishment until he had fully served the 1-year term, and for failing to consider or respond to additional issues raised in Plaintiff's grievances;
Count 8: Fourteenth Amendment due process claim against Pfister, for holding Plaintiff in administrative detention for 8 months following the end of his punitive segregation confinement;
Count 9: Eighth Amendment claim against Pfister, for housing Plaintiff in cells infested with insects and contaminated with feces, subjecting him to intolerable noise, and failing to provide him with adequate nutrition during Plaintiff's segregation confinement.

         Each of these counts shall be dismissed for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. However, Plaintiff shall be allowed the opportunity to submit an amended complaint limited to the claim in Count 9, in order to correct the deficiencies in his pleading.

         Dismissal of Count 1 - Deprivation of a Liberty Interest Without Due Process - Menard Defendants

         Plaintiff focuses this claim on the last 9 months he spent in disciplinary segregation. As a result of Plaintiff's grievance(s), it was ultimately determined that he should have been required to serve only 3 months in segregation, but by the time that order was issued, Plaintiff had finished serving the entire year. In Plaintiff's case, the extra 9 months in segregation does not give rise to a Fourteenth Amendment claim.

         Under certain limited circumstances, an inmate punished with segregation may be able to pursue a claim for deprivation of a liberty interest without due process of law. See Marion v. Columbia Corr. Inst., 559 F.3d 693, 697-98 (7th Cir. 2009). However, those circumstances are not present in the instant case. First, the Complaint does not reveal any unconstitutional denial of procedural due process in the conduct of Plaintiff's disciplinary hearings over the April 22, 2014, STG charge. See Wolff v. McDonnell, 418 U.S. 539, 563-69 (1974) (to satisfy due process concerns, inmate must be given advance written notice of the charge, the right to appear before the hearing panel, the right to call witnesses if prison safety allows, and a written statement of the reasons for the discipline imposed); Black v. Lane, 22 F.3d 1395, 1402 (7th Cir. 1994) (disciplinary decision must be supported by “some evidence”); see also Scruggs v. Jordan, 485 F.3d 934, 941 (7th Cir. 2007) (“once the meager threshold has been crossed our inquiry ends”). Plaintiff was not denied any of the Wolff protections either in the original hearing on April 24, or in the rehearing on May 9. And despite Plaintiff's assertion of innocence, the committee had evidence before it, in the form of the statements of the confidential informants, to support the finding that Plaintiff had engaged in unauthorized gang activity. Although this evidence was contested, it was nevertheless sufficient to impose disciplinary sanctions on Plaintiff.

         Plaintiff includes much argument pointing to violations of the applicable Illinois Administrative Code provisions, both in the timing of the May 9 rehearing and in the decision to impose greater sanctions on him than he originally incurred. Indeed, it appears that these deficiencies were the reason why Anderson and Stolworthy ultimately ruled in Plaintiff's favor and rescinded the additional 9 months of segregation. (Doc. 5-1, p. 57). An administrative code violation, however, does not translate into a constitutional violation upon which a civil rights claim may rest. A federal court does not enforce state law and regulations. Archie v. City ofRacine, 847 F.2d 1211, 1217 (7th Cir. 1988) (en banc), cert. denied,489 U.S. 1065 (1989); Pasiewic ...

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