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Cole v. Pepper

United States District Court, D. Maryland

September 30, 2019

VINCENT COLE, Plaintiff,
v.
LT. HANCE PEPPER et al., [1] Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          GEORGE J. HAZEL UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiff Vincent Cole, an inmate housed at the Eastern Correctional Institution (“ECI”) in Westover, Maryland, brings this pro se prisoner civil rights action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Defendants Lieutenant Hance Pepper, Chief of Security Walter Holmes, and Assistant Warden Walter West. ECF No. 1. He alleges that Defendants filed “false” inmate rule violations against him, removed him from his prison job, and changed his security classification in violation of his rights under the Fifth, Sixth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments. Id. Presently pending before the Court is Defendants' Motion to Dismiss or, in the Alternative, Motion for Summary Judgment. ECF No. 16. Cole has filed an opposition with exhibits. ECF No. 20. No hearing is necessary. Loc. R. 105.6 (D. Md. 2018). For the following reasons, Defendants' Motion, which will be construed as a Motion for Summary Judgment, is granted.

         I. BACKGROUND[2]

         A. Factual Background

         On Thursday, June 21, 2018, Cole failed to report for his prison job at Maryland Correctional Enterprises (“MCE”) because he was feeling unwell and dizzy. Id. at 4. On that same day, all twenty-four inmates assigned to ECI's West MCE workshops also did not show up for work. Id. at 1. Cole explains it “[j]ust so happen[ed] the prison heard a rumor that inmates in E.C.I. were going to do a peaceful protest and not show up for work.” Id. at 5. Cole denies he had “knowledge of any protest nor would have been involved in any kind of protest.” Id. He states that the Division of Correction Inmate Employment Rules and Regulations Book provides an inmate may take up to four unexcused absences during any thirty-day period before an inmate is subject to security reclassification. Cole maintains that because he has been incarcerated for more than thirty-two years[3] and was to see the Parole Board any day, “you couldn't have forced me to get involved in anything to cause me to loose [sic] my only shot at parole.” Id. at 4, 5.

         Pepper interviewed all twenty-four inmates who were absent on June 21, 2018. ECF No. 1-1 at 1; see also ECF No. 16-2 at 2-33. On June 23, 2018, when Pepper asked Cole why he was absent from work, Cole replied that he was sick due to a reaction to his medication and was feeling dizzy. Cole informed Pepper that the information on the prescription states the medicine may cause dizziness. ECF No. 1 at 4, 5. Later that day, Cole gave Pepper a succinct written statement to explain his absence: “I was sick.” Id.; see also ECF No. 16-2 at 9.

         On July 6, 2017, Pepper wrote a Notice of Rule Violation, charging Cole with violating Rule 402 (absence from an assigned location without authorization) and Rule 403 (providing false information). ECF No. 1-1 at 1. In the Notice, Pepper stated that his investigation showed that of the twenty-four inmates at West MCE absent from work on June 21, 2018, twenty-three did not provide a valid reason for their absence. Pepper thus concluded the inmates had participated in an orchestrated, planned work stoppage that day to protest a change in their recreation schedule. Pepper identified Cole as one of the participants. Id.; see also ECF No. 16-2 at 2-33.

         On July 13, 2018, the Maryland Parole Commission deferred a recommendation on Cole's parole application pending the outcome of his disciplinary hearing related to his alleged participation in the work stoppage. ECF 1-1 at 7, 9-11.[4] At his disciplinary hearing on August 9, 2018, Cole pleaded not guilty to the rule violation charges. ECF 16-2 at 36. Cole told the Hearing Officer, “I have 2 blister packs that show I have been a chronic care patient. They have a warning on them that it may cause dizziness. I got up that day felt dizzy, laid back down and blacked out. I told Lt. Pepper I was sick.” ECF No. 16-2 at 36. The Institutional Representative at the hearing confirmed that the warning label on Cole's medication stated that it may cause dizziness. ECF No. 16-2 at 36.

         The Hearing Officer credited Cole's evidence and offered him an informal resolution. ECF No. 16-2 at 37. Cole accepted an informal resolution by which the Rule 402 charge was reduced to an incident report and the Rule 403 charge was dismissed. Importantly, Cole did not lose any diminution or good time credits. ECF 1-1 at 33; ECF No. 16-2 at 37, 44.

         On July 10, 2018, Cole was reclassified out of MCE, and on August 8, 2019, he was classified out of the job bank/wait list for Sanitation into the Lifer's Mental Health Group. ECF No. 1-1 at 2, 3; ECF No. 16-2 at 45. On December 3, 2018, he resumed working for MCE. ECF No. 16-2 at 45. On August 1, 2018, Cole was moved to a new housing unit. On September 14, 2018, he was moved to an honors incentives unit. Id. at 46.

         B. Procedural Background

         Cole filed his Complaint on October 4, 2018. ECF No. 1. In his Complaint, Cole alleges that Pepper wrote a “false” rule violation charge against him, which resulted in the denial of parole and loss of potential diminution credits. ECF No. 1 at 4-5.[5] As relief, Cole requests an investigation into his claims and the “false report” and monetary damages of an unstated sum. Id. at 6-7, 12; see also ECF No. 16-2 at 2-33. Cole also seeks to bring state criminal misdemeanor charges against Pepper. ECF No. 1 at 12.

         Defendants filed their Motion to Dismiss or, in the Alternative, Motion for Summary Judgment on December 31, 2018. ECF No. 16. Cole filed a response on February 19, 2019. ECF No. 20. Defendants did not file a reply.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The purpose of a motion to dismiss pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6) is to test the sufficiency of the plaintiff's complaint. See Edwards v. Goldsboro, 178 F.3d 231, 243 (4th Cir. 1999). The Supreme Court articulated the proper framework for analysis:

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a)(2) requires only “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief, ” in order to “give the defendant fair notice of what the . . . claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.” Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 47 (1957) (abrogated on other grounds). While a complaint attacked by a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss does not need detailed factual allegations, ibid.; Sanjuan v. American Bd. of Psychiatry and Neurology, Inc., 40 F.3d 247, 251 (7th Cir. 1994), a plaintiff's obligation to provide the “grounds” of his “entitle[ment] to relief” requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do, see Papasan v. Allain, 478 U.S. 265, 286 (1986) (on a motion to dismiss, courts “are not bound to accept as true a legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation”). Factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level, see 5 C. Wright & A. Miller, Federal Practice and Procedure § 1216, pp. 235-236 (3d ed. 2004) (hereinafter Wright & Miller) (“[T]he pleading must contain something more . . . than . . . a statement of facts that merely creates a suspicion [of] a legally cognizable right of action”), on the assumption that all the allegations in the complaint are true (even if doubtful in fact), see, e.g., Swierkiewicz v. Sorema N.A., 534 U.S. 506, 508, n.1 (2002); Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319, 327(1989) (“Rule 12(b)(6) does not countenance . . . dismissals based on a judge's disbelief of a complaint's factual allegations”); Scheuer v. Rhodes, 416 U.S. 232, 236 (1974) (a well-pleaded complaint may proceed even if it appears “that a recovery is very remote and unlikely”).

Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007) (footnotes omitted).

         This standard does not require defendant to establish “beyond doubt” that plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of his claim which would entitle him to relief. Id. at 561. Once a claim has been stated adequately, it may be supported by showing any set of facts consistent with the allegations in the complaint. Id. at 562. The court need not, however, accept unsupported legal allegations, see Revene v. Charles Cty. Comm'rs, 882 F.2d 870, 873 (4th Cir. 1989), legal conclusions couched as factual allegations, see Papasan v. Allain, 478 U.S. 265, 286 (1986), or conclusory factual allegations devoid of any reference to actual events, see United Black Firefighters v. Hirst, 604 F.2d 844, 847 (4th Cir. 1979).

         When, as here, matters outside the pleadings are presented to the Court, a 12(b)(6) motion “shall be treated as one for summary judgment and disposed of as provided in Rule 56.” Laughlin v. Metro. Washington Airports Auth., 149 F.3d 253, 260-61 (4th Cir. 1998) (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)). A motion for summary judgment will be granted only if there exists no genuine issue as to any material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c); Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 250 (1986); Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). The moving party bears the burden of showing that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact. However, no genuine issue of material fact exists if the nonmoving party fails to make a sufficient showing on an essential element of his or her case as to which he or she would have the burden of proof. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322-23. Therefore, on those issues on which the nonmoving party has the burden of proof, it is his or her responsibility to confront the summary judgment motion with an affidavit or other similar evidence showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.

         A motion for summary judgment will be granted only if there exists no genuine issue as to any material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c); Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 250 (1986); Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). The moving party bears the burden of showing that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact. However, no genuine issue of material fact exists if the nonmoving party fails to make a sufficient showing on an essential element of his or her case as to which he or she would have the burden of proof. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322-23. Therefore, on those issues on which the nonmoving party has the burden of proof, it is his or her responsibility to confront the summary judgment motion with an affidavit or other similar evidence showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.

         In Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., the Supreme Court explained that, in considering a motion for summary judgment, the “judge's function is not himself to weigh the evidence and determine the truth of the matter but to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial.” 477 U.S. at 249 (1986). A dispute about a material fact is genuine “if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Id. at 248. Thus, “the judge must ask himself not whether he thinks the evidence unmistakably favors one side or the other but whether a fair-minded jury could return a verdict for the [nonmoving party] on the evidence presented.” Id. at 252.

         In undertaking this inquiry, a court must view the facts and the reasonable inferences drawn therefrom “in a light most favorable to the party opposing the motion.” Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. Ltd. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986) (quoting United States v. Diebold, Inc., 369 U.S. 654, 655 (1962)); see also E.E.O.C. v. Navy Fed. Credit Union, 424 F.3d 397, 405 (4th Cir. 2005). The mere existence of a “scintilla” of evidence in ...


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