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Jennings v. Bennett

United States District Court, W.D. Michigan, Southern Division

August 29, 2017

MARK COLIN JENNINGS II, Plaintiff,
v.
UNKNOWN BENNETT, et al. Defendants.

          OPINION

          ROBERT J. JONKER, CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This is a civil rights action brought by a state prisoner pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The Court has granted Plaintiff leave to proceed in forma pauperis. Under the Prison Litigation Reform Act, Pub. L. No. 104-134, 110 Stat. 1321 (1996) (PLRA), the Court is required to dismiss any prisoner action brought under federal law if the complaint is frivolous, malicious, fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted, or seeks monetary relief from a defendant immune from such relief. 28 U.S.C. §§ 1915(e)(2), 1915A; 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(c). The Court must read Plaintiff's pro se complaint indulgently, see Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, 520 (1972), and accept Plaintiff's allegations as true, unless they are clearly irrational or wholly incredible. Denton v. Hernandez, 504 U.S. 25, 33 (1992). Applying these standards, Plaintiff's action will be dismissed without prejudice for misjoinder with respect to Defendants Roy, Hall, and MacKay. Plaintiff's action will be dismissed for failure to state a claim with respect to Defendants Bennett, Britton, Rohrbacher, Trinity Food Service, and Dalton.

         Factual Allegations

         Plaintiff Mark Colin Jennings II is presently incarcerated with the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) at the Oaks Correctional Facility (ECF) in Manistee, Michigan. The events about which he complains occurred there during June of 2017. Plaintiff sues the following ECF personnel: Lieutenant Unknown MacKay, Corrections Officers Unknown Bennett, Unknown Britton, Unknown Roy, and Travis Hall; Nurse Jennifer Dalton; Food Service Supervisor Unknown Rohrbacher; and Trinity Food Service.

         The first incident about which Plaintiff complains occurred on June 4, 2017. On that date, Plaintiff examined his lunch and discovered he had been served one carrot slice, one 3/4 inch by 3/4 inch piece of turkey meat, and one raw biscuit. (Compl., ECF No. 1, PageID.7.) Plaintiff took his tray to Defendant Rohrbacher and asked for the correct portion. Rohrbacher instructed Plaintiff to eat it or throw it away, but Plaintiff would not receive another serving.

         Plaintiff alleges that he then suffered an involuntary muscle contraction spasm (he suffers from Huntingtons Chorea disorder) and dropped his tray. Rohrbacher, according to Plaintiff, saw things differently because she exclaimed: “He just threw the tray at me!”[1] At that point, Defendants Bennett and Britton intervened.

         Plaintiff contends that Defendants Bennett and Britton saw the incident and knew that Plaintiff had not thrown his tray. Defendants Bennett and Britton also saw things differently. Defendant Britton reported that Plaintiff threw his tray on the ground towards Defendant Rohrbacher. (Misconduct Report, ECF No. 1-1, PageID.29.) Defendant Bennett reported that Plaintiff intentionally dropped his tray at Defendant Rohrbacher's feet. (Memorandum, ECF No. 1-1, PageID.34.)

         Defendants Bennett and Britton handcuffed Plaintiff and brought him to segregation. Plaintiff contends they repeatedly used excessive force while cuffing and transporting him, causing Plaintiff severe and painful injuries. In response to Plaintiff's complaints regarding the excessive force, one of the officers stated: “You're a liar!” (Compl., ECF No. 1, PageID.8.) The other stated: “This is what you get for molesting children!” (Id.)

         The next day, Plaintiff saw Defendant Dalton to obtain treatment for the injuries sustained at the hands of Bennett and Britton. Plaintiff alleges that Dalton refused to treat him for his injuries and falsified the medical reports to cover-up the excessive use of force.

         Defendant Britton filed a misconduct report against Plaintiff relating to the June 4 incident. Britton accused Plaintiff of threatening behavior, a major misconduct, and creating a disturbance, a minor misconduct. (Misconduct Report, ECF No. 1-1, PageID.29.) On June 6, 2017, Hearing Officer Timothy Baywal conducted a hearing. Based on his review of witness statements and video of the incident, Hearing Officer Baywal concluded that, although Plaintiff intentionally dropped the tray thereby creating a disturbance, Plaintiff did not throw the tray in a threatening manner. (Misconduct Hearing Report, ECF No. 1-1, PageID.31-33.) Accordingly, Hearing Officer Baywal found Plaintiff not guilty of the major misconduct but guilty of the minor misconduct. (Id.) Plaintiff received a sanction of fifteen days loss of privileges.[2] In a June 15, 2017 letter to ECF Inspector Clouse, Plaintiff further reports that Defendants Britton and Bennett, upon submitting the allegedly falsified misconduct reports, told Plaintiff: “this is what you get for suing Hall and Stone.” (June 15, 2017 Correspondence, ECF No. 1-1, PageID.54.)

         Plaintiff then shifts to an entirely separate incident on June 10, 2017. (Compl., ECF No. 1, PageID.13.) On that date, Defendant Roy wrote a Class III, minor misconduct report for violation of posted rules against Plaintiff for passing legal supplies with inmate Michael Anthony Grabinski. Plaintiff does not deny that he and inmate Grabinski were exchanging legal supplies, but he explains that he required Grabinski's assistance to type the complaint in this case because of the injuries Plaintiff sustained on June 4. On June 12, 2017, Assistant Resident Unit Supervisor Brinkley found Plaintiff guilty of the charged offense and sanctioned Plaintiff with 8 days loss of privileges.

         Plaintiff then turns to an incident on June 14, 2017. On that date, Defendant Hall wrote an allegedly falsified misconduct for insolence against Plaintiff. According to Plaintiff, on May 31, 2017, while waiting in the medication line, he asked Defendant Hall whether he had answered Plaintiff's interrogatories in another pending case. Defendant Hall, however, claimed that Plaintiff insolently asked if Hall had a good attorney. (Compl., ECF No. 1, PageID.17; Misconduct Report, ECF No. 1-1, PageID.49; Statement of Defense, ECF No. 1-1, PageID.50; Declaration of James Cross, ECF No. 1-1, PageID.52; Grievance, ECF No. 1-1, PageID.68.) At the June 18, 2017 hearing, Plaintiff alleges that Defendant MacKay directly ordered Plaintiff to not practice any further litigation against Defendant Hall and threatened to punish Plaintiff for disobeying a direct order if Plaintiff failed to comply. (Compl., ECF No. 1, PageID.18.) Plaintiff does not provide information regarding the disposition of that misconduct.

         Plaintiff's complaint purports to state the following claims:

1. an Eighth Amendment claim against Defendants Bennett, Britton, Rohrbacher, and Trinity for conspiring to use and then using excessive force in cuffing and transporting him to segregation on June 4, 2017;
2. an Eighth Amendment claim against Defendants Bennett, Britton, Rohrbacher, and Trinity for conspiring to deny and then denying Plaintiff sufficient nutrition;
3. an Eighth Amendment claims against Defendant Dalton for deliberate indifference to Plaintiff's serious medical needs;
4. a First Amendment claim against Defendants Bennett, Britton, Rohrbacher, and Trinity for conspiring to use and then using force in retaliation for Plaintiff's request for more food;
5. a First Amendment claim against Defendants Bennett, Britton, Rohrbacher, and Trinity for conspiring to deny and then denying Plaintiff sufficient nutrition in retaliation for Plaintiff's request for more food;
6. a First Amendment claim against Defendants Bennett, Britton, Rohrbacher, and Trinity for conspiring to pursue and then pursuing the false threatening behavior/creating a disturbance misconducts in retaliation for Plaintiff's request for more food and Plaintiff's lawsuit against Defendants' colleagues;
7. a First Amendment claim against Defendant Roy for directly interfering with Plaintiff's access to the courts; 8. a First Amendment claim against Defendant Hall for writing a false misconduct against Plaintiff in retaliation for Plaintiff's lawsuit against Defendant Hall; and,
9. a First Amendment claim against Defendant MacKay for direct interference with Plaintiff's access to the courts by threatening to discipline Plaintiff for misconduct if Plaintiff pursued litigation against Defendant Hall.

(Compl., ECF No. 1.)

         Plaintiff asks the Court to enter a declaratory judgment stating that Defendants have violated his constitutional rights, to enter permanent injunctive relief directing Defendants to stop violating Plaintiff's constitutional rights, and to award compensatory and punitive damages against each Defendant. Plaintiff also asks the Court to grant several types of temporary injunctive relief (ECF No. 3). Most recently, Plaintiff has asked the Court to allow him to file an amended complaint to add additional claims against Defendant Hall and to add claims against corrections officer Joshua Stone. The claims Plaintiff seeks to add are claims that are presently pending in Jennings v. Crompton, No. 1:16-cv-921 (W.D. Mich.), but are on the verge of being dismissed without prejudice for failure to exhaust administrative remedies.

         Discussion

         I. Misjoinder

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 20(a) limits the joinder of parties in single lawsuit, whereas Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 18(a) limits the joinder of claims. Rule 20(a)(2) governs when multiple defendants may be joined in one action: “[p]ersons . . . may be joined in one action as defendants if: (A) any right to relief is asserted against them jointly, severally, or in the alternative with respect to or arising out of the same transaction, occurrence, or series of transactions or occurrences; and (B) any question of law or fact common to all defendants will arise in the action.” Rule 18(a) states: “A party asserting a claim . . . may join, as independent or alternative claims, as many claims as it has against an opposing party.”

         Courts have recognized that, where multiple parties are named, as in this case, the analysis under Rule 20 precedes that under Rule 18:

Rule 20 deals solely with joinder of parties and becomes relevant only when there is more than one party on one or both sides of the action. It is not concerned with joinder of claims, which is governed by Rule 18. Therefore, in actions involving multiple defendants Rule 20 operates independently of Rule 18. . . .
Despite the broad language of Rule 18(a), plaintiff may join multiple defendants in a single action only if plaintiff asserts at least one claim to relief against each of them that arises out of the same transaction or occurrence and presents questions of law or fact common to all.

         7 Charles Allen Wright, Arthur R. Miller, Mary Kay Kane, Federal Practice & Procedure Civil § 1655 (3d ed. 2001), quoted in Proctor v. Applegate, 661 F.Supp.2d 743, 778 (E.D. Mich. 2009), and Garcia v. Munoz, No. 08-1648, 2007 WL 2064476, at *3 (D.N.J. May 14, 2008); see also Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319, 328 (1989) (joinder of defendants is not permitted by Rule 20 unless both commonality and same transaction requirements are satisfied).

         Therefore, “a civil plaintiff may not name more than one defendant in his original or amended complaint unless one claim against each additional defendant is transactionally related to the claim against the first defendant and involves a common question of law or fact.” Proctor, 661 F.Supp.2d at 778. When determining if civil rights claims arise from the same transaction or occurrence, a court may consider a variety of factors, including, “the time period during which the alleged acts occurred; whether the acts . . . are related; whether more than one act . . . is alleged; whether the same supervisors were involved, and whether the defendants were at different geographical locations.” Id. (quoting Nali v. Michigan Dep't of Corrections, 2007 WL 4465247, *3 (E.D. Mich. December 18, 2007)).

         Permitting the improper joinder in a prisoner civil rights action also undermines the purpose of the PLRA, which was to reduce the large number of frivolous prisoner lawsuits that were being filed in the federal courts. See Riley v. Kurtz, 361 F.3d 906, 917 (6th Cir. 2004). Under the PLRA, a prisoner may not commence an action without prepayment of the filing fee in some form. See 28 U.S.C. § 1915(b)(1). These “new fee provisions of the PLRA were designed to deter frivolous prisoner litigation by making all prisoner litigants feel the deterrent effect created by liability for filing fees.” Williams v. Roberts, 116 F.3d 1126, 1127-28 (5th Cir. 1997). The PLRA also contains a “three-strikes” provision requiring the collection of the entire filing fee after the dismissal for frivolousness, etc., of three actions or appeals brought by a prisoner proceeding in forma pauperis, unless the statutory exception is satisfied. 28 U.S.C. § 1915(g). The “three strikes” provision was also an attempt by Congress to curb frivolous prisoner litigation. See Wilson v. Yaklich, 148 F.3d 596, 603 (6th Cir. 1998).

         The Seventh Circuit has explained that a prisoner like Plaintiff may not join in one complaint all of the defendants against whom he may have a claim, unless the prisoner satisfies the dual requirements of Rule 20(a)(2):

Thus multiple claims against a single party are fine, but Claim A against Defendant 1 should not be joined with unrelated Claim B against Defendant 2. Unrelated claims against different defendants belong in different suits, not only to prevent the sort of morass that [a multi]-claim, [multi]-defendant suit produce[s] but also to ensure that prisoners pay the required filing fees-for the Prison Litigation Reform Act limits to 3 the number of frivolous suits or appeals that any prisoner may file without prepayment of the required fees. 28 U.S.C. § 1915(g) . . . .
A buckshot complaint that would be rejected if filed by a free person -- say, a suit complaining that A defrauded the plaintiff, B defamed him, C punched him, D failed to pay a debt, and E infringed his copyright, all in different transactions -- should be rejected if filed by a prisoner.

George v. Smith, 507 F.3d 605, 607 (7th Cir. 2007); see also Brown v. Blaine, 185 F. App'x 166, 168-69 (3rd Cir. 2006) (allowing an inmate to assert unrelated claims against new defendants based on actions taken after the filing of his original complaint would have defeated the purpose of the three strikes provision of PLRA); Tuft v. Texas, 397 F. App'x 59, 61 (5th Cir. 2010) (“In addition, ‘the creative joinder of actions' by prisoner plaintiffs to avoid the strictures of the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995 . . . should be discouraged.”); Patton v. Jefferson Correctional Center, 136 F.3d 458, 464 (5th Cir. 1998) (“We doubt that Congress intended that § 1915(g) could be so facilely circumvented by the creative joinder of actions.”); Shephard v. Edwards, 2001 WL 1681145, *1 (S.D. Ohio Aug. 30, 2001) (declining to consolidate prisoner's unrelated various actions so as to allow him to pay one filing fee, because it “would improperly circumvent the express language and clear intent of the ‘three strikes' provision”); Scott v. Kelly, 107 F.Supp.2d 706, 711 (E.D. Va. 2000) (denying prisoner's request to add new, unrelated claims to an ongoing civil rights action as an improper attempt to circumvent the PLRA's filing fee requirements and an attempt to escape the possibility of obtaining a “strike” under the “three strikes” rule).

         Plaintiff's first allegations concern the actions of Defendants Bennett, Britton, Rohrbacher, and Trinity, with regard to denying Plaintiff adequate nutrition on June 4, 2017 (claims 2 and 5 as identified above). Plaintiff claims the Defendants are liable as conspirators as to that claim as well as claims 1, 4, and 6. Such liability would be joint. See, e.g., Non-Ferrous Metals Inc. v. Saramar Aluminum Co., 25 F.R.D. 102, 104 (N.D. Ohio, 1960) (“Conspirators are jointly and severally liable and all may be joined . . . .”). Thus, the parties and claims are properly joined under Rule 20 and Rule 18.

         For purposes of determining the propriety of joinder with respect to the remaining parties, the Court must determine whether Plaintiff's remaining claims against all of the other Defendants are part of the same series of transactions and occurrences as Plaintiff's first claims against the conspirators. With respect to Plaintiff's claim against Defendant Dalton, the claim arises from the failure to treat the very injuries caused by the excessive use of force at issue in claims 1 and 4. The claim is proximate in time and place, and facts relating to the nature and severity of Plaintiff's injuries are common to claims against all five Defendants. With respect to Defendants Roy, Hall, and MacKay, however, the claims are factually independent. They are distinct in time, place, and participants and, thus, are not properly joined to the claims against Defendants Bennett, Britton, Rohrbacher, Trinity, and Dalton.

         Under Rule 21 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, “[m]isjoinder of parties is not a ground for dismissing an action.” Instead, Rule 21 provides two remedial options: (1) misjoined parties may be dropped on such terms as are just; or (2) any claims against misjoined parties may be severed and proceeded with separately. See DirecTV, Inc. v. Leto, 467 F.3d 842, 845 (3d Cir. 2006); Carney v. Treadeau, No. 2:07-cv-83, 2008 WL 485204, at *2 (W.D. Mich. Feb. 19, 2008); Coal. to Defend Affirmative Action v. Regents of Univ. of Mich., 539 F.Supp.2d 924, 940 (E.D. Mich. 2008); see also Michaels Bldg. Co. v. Ameritrust Co., N.A., 848 F.2d 674, 682 (6th Cir. 1988) (“Parties may be dropped . . . by order of the court . . . of its own initiative at any stage of the action and on such terms as are just.”). “Because a district court's decision to remedy misjoinder by dropping and dismissing a party, rather than severing the relevant claim, may have important and potentially adverse statute-of-limitations consequences, the discretion delegated to the trial judge to dismiss under Rule 21 is restricted to what is ‘just.'” DirecTV, 467 F.3d at 845.

         At least three judicial circuits have interpreted “on such terms as are just” to mean without “gratuitous harm to the parties.” Strandlund v. Hawley, 532 F.3d 741, 745 (8th Cir. 2008) (quoting Elmore v. Henderson, 227 F.3d 1009, 1012 (7th Cir. 2000)); see also DirecTV, Inc., 467 F.3d at 845. Such gratuitous harm exists if the dismissed parties lose the ability to prosecute an otherwise timely claim, such as where the applicable statute of limitations has lapsed, or the dismissal is with prejudice. Strandlund, 532 F.3d at 746; DirecTV, 467 F.3d at 846-47; Michaels Building Co., 848 F.2d at 682.

         In this case, Plaintiff brings causes of action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. For civil rights suits filed in Michigan under § 1983, the statute of limitations is three years. See Mich. Comp. Laws § 600.5805(10); Carroll v. Wilkerson, 782 F.2d 44 (6th Cir. 1986) (per curiam); Stafford v. Vaughn, No. 97-2239, 1999 WL 96990, at *1 (6th Cir. Feb. 2, 1999). Furthermore, “Michigan law provides for tolling of the limitations period while an earlier action was pending which was later dismissed without prejudice.” Kalasho v. City of Eastpointe, 66 F. App'x 610, 611 (6th Cir. 2003).

         The actions about which Plaintiff complains occurred during June of 2017, well within the three-year period of limitations. Those claims are not at risk of being time-barred. Plaintiff therefore will not suffer gratuitous harm if the improperly joined Defendants are dismissed. Accordingly, the Court will exercise its discretion under Rule 21 and dismiss, for misjoinder, Plaintiff's claims against Defendants Roy, Hall, and MacKay, without prejudice to the institution of new, separate lawsuits by Plaintiff against those Defendants.[3] See Coughlin, 130 F.3d at 1350 (“‘In such a case, the court can generally dismiss all but the first named plaintiff without prejudice to the institution of new, separate lawsuits by the dropped plaintiffs'”); Carney, 2008 WL 485204, at *3 (same).

         II. Failure to state a claim

         A complaint may be dismissed for failure to state a claim if it fails “‘to give the defendant fair notice of what the . . . claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.'” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007) (quoting Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 47 (1957)). While a complaint need not contain detailed factual allegations, a plaintiff's allegations must include more than labels and conclusions. Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555; Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (“Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice.”). The court must determine whether the complaint contains “enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570. “A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679. Although the plausibility standard is not equivalent to a “‘probability requirement, ' . . . it asks for more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556). “[W]here the well-pleaded facts do not permit the court to infer more than the mere possibility of misconduct, the complaint has alleged - but it has ...


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