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Scott v. O'Brien

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

November 8, 2019

SHAUN SCOTT, Plaintiff,
SHEILA E. O'BRIEN et al., Defendants.


          Paul L. Maloney United States District Judge.

         This is a civil rights action brought by a state prisoner under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. 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, the Court will dismiss Plaintiff's complaint for failure to state a claim.


         I. Factual allegations

         Plaintiff presently is incarcerated with the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) at the Chippewa Correctional Facility (URF) in Kincheloe, Chippewa County, Michigan. The events about which he complains occurred at that facility. Plaintiff sues MDOC Grievance and Appeals Section Manager Richard D. Russell, MDOC Hearing Officer Sheila E. O'Brien, and MDOC Hearings Investigator D. Durant, together with the following URF officials: Correctional Officer R. Benson; Sergeant E. Koskela; and Warden Connie Horton.

         Plaintiff alleges that, on February 23, 2019, Defendant Benson wrote a false Class-II misconduct ticket against Plaintiff. The ticket charged that, during a cell search, Defendant Benson found Plaintiff in possession of yellow highlighters, two pads of Post-It notes, and approximately 50 trifold brown paper towels. None of the items was available for purchase from the commissary. Defendant Benson therefore concluded that the items were stolen from state supplies. In addition, Defendant Benson found that Plaintiff possessed a spray bottle, which contained a liquid mixture that tested positive for bleach, a substance that prisoners were not allowed to possess unsupervised.

         Defendant Koskela reviewed Plaintiff on the charge later that day. Upon review, Defendant Koskela elevated the charge from a Class-II to a Class-I misconduct on the charge of possession of dangerous contraband. Plaintiff remained charged on the Class-II violation of possession of stolen property/theft. As a result of the change in designation, Plaintiff was immediately placed on top lock, which required him to remain in his cell until the administrative hearing.

         Plaintiff submitted a three-page sworn statement about the charges on February 27, 2019. (Prisoner Misconduct Statement, ECF No. 1-2, PageID.35-37.) In his statement, Plaintiff did not dispute his possession of the items listed in the misconduct charge. Instead, he raised 15 challenges to the procedures followed by Benson in issuing the misconduct charge and documenting the evidence. (Id.)

         Defendant Hearing Officer O'Brien conducted the disciplinary hearing on March 1, 2019. Defendant O'Brien concluded that, because there existed no verification by a supervisor of the presence of bleach, she could not find Plaintiff guilty of possession of dangerous contraband.[1]However, O'Brien found that, because Plaintiff admitted that he possessed two highlighters and Post-It notes and because he should have known they were stolen as they were not sold to prisoners, Plaintiff was guilty of possession of stolen property. (Compl., ECF No. 1, PageID.10-11; Class-I Misconduct Hr'g Rep., ECF No. 1-4, PageID.41.)

         Plaintiff filed a request for rehearing, contending that Defendant O'Brien violated prison policy by falsely claiming that Plaintiff had admitted possessing the highlighters and Post-It notes. He claimed that, rather than admitting conduct, he had exercised his Fifth Amendment right to remain silent. Plaintiff also complained that Defendant O'Brien falsely stated that Plaintiff had refused the assistance of Defendant Hearing Investigator Durant. Plaintiff argued that O'Brien's failure to follow policy violated Plaintiff's rights to due process and equal protection.

         On April 26, 2019, Defendant Russell responded to the request for rehearing. Russell concluded that a prisoner is presumed to possess property found in an area over which he has control and responsibility, and that the prisoner therefore has the burden of proof in rebutting the presumption at a misconduct hearing. Having reviewed the record, Russell found the hearing officer's determination to be based on competent, material, and substantial evidence. (Rehr'g Decision, ECF No. 1-6, PageID.49.)

         Plaintiff alleges that, after the hearing, Defendant Benson continued to harass him and threaten him with additional disciplinary tickets. Benson told Plaintiff, “Oh, so Scott, you must think you're big sh*t now huh because the bleach was thrown out. Just so you know the next thing that I do to you will stick!!! You'll soon learn that this is my house, you just live here, for now that is. You'd better stay the f*ck outta my way Scott. This is your only warning.” (Compl., ECF No. 1, PageID.15.) Plaintiff alleges that Defendant Benson made calls to other prison guards and instructed them to terminate Plaintiff from his job as prisoner observation assistant. Correctional Officer Olmstead (not a Defendant) purportedly listened to Defendant Benson and had Plaintiff terminated from his jobs as prisoner observation assistant and unit porter.

         In Count 1 of his complaint, Plaintiff contends that Defendants Durant, O'Brien and Russell deprived him of due process in the misconduct proceedings, through which he ostensibly was deprived of his right to equal protection. In Count 2, Plaintiff asserts that Defendants Horton, Koskela, O'Brien, and Russell failed to protect him from the conduct of their subordinates, resulting in deprivations that inflicted cruel and unusual punishment, in violation of the Eighth Amendment. In Count 3, Plaintiff argues that Defendants Koskela and Russell engaged in a cover-up of the actions of Defendant Benson, in violation of their fiduciary duties and the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. In Count 4, Plaintiff alleges that Defendants collectively retaliated against him for exercising his right to utilize the grievance procedure, resulting in Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment violations.

         For relief, Plaintiff seeks compensatory damages and permanent injunctive relief.

         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; Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (“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 not ‘show[n]'-that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679 (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2)); see also Hill v. Lappin, 630 F.3d 468, 470-71 (6th Cir. 2010) (holding that the Twombly/Iqbal plausibility standard applies to dismissals of prisoner cases on initial review under 28 U.S.C. §§ 1915A(b)(1) and 1915(e)(2)(B)(i)).

         To state a claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, a plaintiff must allege the violation of a right secured by the federal Constitution or laws and must show that the deprivation was committed by a person acting under color of state law. West v. Atkins, 487 U.S. 42, 48 (1988); Street v. Corr. Corp. of Am., 102 F.3d 810, 814 (6th Cir. 1996). Because § 1983 is a method for vindicating federal rights, not a source of substantive rights itself, the first step in an action under § 1983 is to identify the specific constitutional right allegedly infringed. Albright v. Oliver, 510 U.S. 266, 271 (1994).

         III. Judicial immunity

         Plaintiff sues Defendant Hearing Officer O'Brien, contending that O'Brien misrepresented facts and violated MDOC policy in finding Plaintiff guilty of possessing stolen property.

         The Sixth Circuit, recognizing that a Michigan hearings officer has adjudicatory functions spelled out by statute in the nature of an administrative law judge, has held that hearings officers are entitled to absolute judicial immunity from damages in relation to actions within the officer's authority. Shelly v. Johnson, 849 F.2d 228, 229 (6th Cir. 1988); Mich. Comp. Laws §§ 791.251-255. See also Williams v. McGinnis, Nos. 02-1336, 02-1837, 2003 WL 245352, at *2 (6th Cir. Jan. 31, 2003) (recognizing that Michigan's prison hearings officers are entitled to absolute immunity); Thompson v. Mich. Dep't of Corr., No. 01-1943, 2002 WL 22011, at *1 (6th Cir. Jan. 2, 2002) (same); Gribble v. Bass, No. 93-5413, 1993 WL 524022, at *2 (6th Cir. Dec. 16, 1993) (same). As a consequence, Defendant Hearing Officer O'Brien is absolutely immune from suit for damages for her findings and determinations at Plaintiff's misconduct hearing.

         Moreover, injunctive relief is not available under § 1983, because, under the 1996 amendments to that statute, injunctive relief “shall not be granted” in an action against “a judicial officer for an act or omission taken in such officer's judicial capacity . . . unless a declaratory decree was violated or declaratory relief was unavailable.” 42 U.S.C. § 1983; accord Savoie v. Martin, 673 F.3d 488, 496 (6th Cir. 2012). Plaintiff does not allege that a declaratory decree was violated or that declaratory relief was unavailable. Consequently, his claim for injunctive relief is barred. Montero v. Travis, 171 F.3d 757, 761 (2d Cir. 1999).

         Because Defendant O'Brien is immune from suit, Plaintiff's claims against ...

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