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Johnson v. Stirling

United States District Court, D. South Carolina

March 19, 2019

Willie Johnson, Plaintiff,
Bryan P. Stirling, West Price, Sgt. A. Hudson, Sgt. Story, Sgt. Wright, Defendants.


          Bristow Marchant United States Magistrate Judge.

         The Plaintiff, Willie Johnson, proceeding pro se and in forma pauperis, brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. At the time Plaintiff filed this action he was an inmate at the Kirkland Correctional Institution (KCI), part of the South Carolina Department of Corrections (SCDC). It appears, however, that he is currently incarcerated at the Broad River Correctional Institution (BRCI) of the SCDC.[1]

         Under established local procedure in this judicial district, a careful review has been made of the pro se Complaint pursuant to the procedural provisions of 28 U.S.C. § 1915 and § 1915 A. the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), Pub.L. No. 104-134, 110 Stat. 1321 (1996), and in light of the following precedents: Denton v. Hernandez, 504 U.S. 25 (1992), Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319 (1989), Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519 (1972), Nasim v. Warden, Maryland House of Corr., 64 F.3d 951 (4th Cir. 1995), and Todd v. Baskerville, 712 F.2d 70 (4th Cir. 1983). Pro se complaints are held to a less stringent standard than those drafted by attorneys, Gordon v. Leeke, 574 F.2d 1147, 1151 (4th Cir. 1978), and a federal district court is charged with liberally construing a Em se complaint to allow for the development of a potentially meritorious case. Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 93 (2007) (citing Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555-56 (2007)); Hughes v. Rowe, 449 U.S. 5, 9 (1980).

         However, even when considered pursuant to this liberal standard, for the reasons set forth hereinbelow this case is subject to summary dismissal. The requirement of liberal construction does not mean that the court can ignore a clear failure in the pleading to allege facts which set forth a claim cognizable in a federal district court. See Weller v. Dep't of Soc. Servs., 901 F.2d 387 (4th Cir. 1990); see also Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662 (2009) [outlining pleading requirements under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure].


         In an order entered February 11, 2019, Plaintiff was given notice of pleading deficiencies and he was given an opportunity to amend his complaint. ECF No. 9. Plaintiff then filed an Amended Complaint in which he generally reiterates his same claims, adds claims concerning incidents that occurred after the filing of this lawsuit, and further adds various other vague complaints which are discussed below.

         First, Plaintiff requests that the Court "enforce" the ruling of the Supreme Court of the United States in Frew v. Hawkins, 540 U.S. 431, 440 (2004). Based on this, he appears to be seeking reinstatement of the so-called Nelson consent decree, which concerned prison conditions at SCDC and was entered in Plyler v. Leeke, No. 82-876, 1986 WL 84459 (D.S.C. Mar. 26, 1986), aff'd in part and dismissed in part. Plyler v. Leeke, 804 F.2d 1251 (4th Cir. Nov. 12, 1986) [Table]. The original representative for the class in Civil Action No. 82-876 was Gary Wayne Nelson, but Harry Plyler became the class representative upon Nelson's release from the SCDC. See Plyler v. Evatt, 846 F.2d 208 (4th Cir. 1988). However, the Nelson consent decree was terminated on June 4, 1996, pursuant to the defendants' motion under the PLRA, and the termination of the consent decree was thereafter affirmed on November 14, 1996, by the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Plyler v. Moore, 100 F.3d 365 (4th Cir. 1996). This court lacks the authority or jurisdiction to enforce a prison consent decree that has previously been terminated. See Hines v. Anderson, No. 03-2010, 2003 WL 22952185, * 1 (8th Cir. 2003) [court recognized that once motion to terminate consent decree was granted, inmates lost right to enforce the terms of consent decree]; Ward v. Ozmint No. 09-1594, 2010 WL 4638622 (D.S.C. Oct. 10, 2018). adopted by 2010 WL 4637991(D.S.C. Nov. 8, 2010).

         Further, contrary to Plaintiffs argument, the decision in Frew does not dictate that this Court must reinstate or enforce the Nelson consent decree. In Frew the Supreme Court found that the Eleventh Amendment did not bar the enforcement of a state's obligations under a valid consent decree that had been entered into in federal court. See Frew, 540 U.S. at 438; Hawkins v. Commissioner, NH Dept. of Health and Human Servs., No. 99-cv-143-JD, 2007 WL 1456214 (D.N.H. May 16, 2007)[noting that the Court in Frew was "presented with the issue of whether the Eleventh Amendment precludes enforcement of a consent decree by a federal court against state officials*' and that the "decision did not reach the standard of review applicable to enforcement actions."]. Here, there is not a current, valid consent decree to enforce. See, e.g., Porter v. Graves, No. 77-3045, 2015 WL 6807826 (D.Kan. Nov. 5, 2015)[denying motions to intervene in a closed case for purposes of ordering or enforcing consent decrees which were issued more than nineteen years previously].

         Further, the doctrine of res judicata precludes this Court from reopening or reinstating the Nelson consent decree. Res judicata bars litigation of all claims or defenses that were available to the parties in the previous litigation, regardless of whether they were asserted or determined in the prior proceeding. See Brown v. Felsen, 442 U.S. 127, 131 (1979)["Res judicata thus encourages reliance on judicial decisions, bars vexatious litigation, and frees the courts to resolve other disputes."]; Meekins v. United Transp. Union, 946 F.2d 1054, 1057 (4th Cir. 1991)["The preclusive affect of a prior judgment extends beyond claims or defenses actually presented in previous litigation, for '[n]ot only does res judicata bar claims that were raised and fully litigated, it prevents litigation of all grounds for, or defenses to, recovery that were previously available to the parties, regardless of whether they were asserted or determined in the prior proceeding.'"].

         Plaintiff also alleges claims in his Amended Complaint about prison conditions at SCDC institutions other than the facilities at which he was housed[2] (for example, Plaintiff complains extensively about alleged incidents, including a riot, at the Lee Correctional Institution) and claims pertaining to other inmates. However, such claims must be dismissed, as Plaintiff may not assert claims on behalf of other inmates. See Laird v. Tatum, 408 U.S. 1 (1972); see also Valley Forge Christian Coll. v. Americans United for Separation of Church & State, 454 U.S. 464, 482 (1982); Flast v. Cohen, 392 U.S. 83, 99 (1968)[a district court, when determining whether a plaintiff has standing to sue, must focus on the status of the party who has filed the complaint, such that the merits of the case are irrelevant]; Lake Carriers Ass'n v. MacMullan, 406 U.S. 498, 506 (1972); Hummer v. Dalton, 657 F.2d 621, 625-626 (4th Cir. 1981)[a prisoner cannot act as a "knight-errant" for others]. Cf. Oxendine v. Williams, 509 F.2d 1405, 1407 (4th Cir. 1975)[a prose prisoner cannot be an advocate for others in a class action].

         Plaintiff also alleges that Defendant Bryan P. Stirling, the Director of the SCDC, has violated his civil rights and SCDC procedures by accepting him as a inmate without having the proper commitment papers. This is a challenge to the fact or duration of Plaintiff s confinement, which may not be brought in a § 1983 action. See Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477, 481(1994)[stating that "habeas corpus is the exclusive remedy for a state prisoner who challenges the fact or duration of his confinement and seeks immediate or speedier release, even though such a claim may come within the literal terms of § 1983"]; Preiser v. Rodriguez, 411 U.S. 475, 487-88 (1973)[attacking the length of duration of confinement is within the core of habeas corpus]. Additionally, to the extent that Plaintiff is seeking monetary damages that implicitly question the validity of his conviction, such a claim is also barred by Heck, as Plaintiff has not alleged that his conviction has been previously invalidated. Heck, 512 U.S. at 486-487. Moreover, any violation of a policy of the SCDC does not constitute a violation of Plaintiff s constitutional rights, and is therefore not assertable in a § 1983 action. See Keeler v. Pea, 782 F.Supp. 42, 44 (D.S.C. 1992); cf. Johnson v. S.C. Dep't of Corrs., No. 06-2062, 2007 WL 904826, at * 12 (D.S.C. Mar. 21, 2007)[The plaintiffs allegation that defendants did not "follow their own policies or procedures, standing alone, does not amount to a constitutional violation."](citing Riccio v. County of Fairfax, Virginia, 907 F.2d 1459, 1469 (4th Cir. 1990)[if state law grants more procedural rights than the Constitution requires, a state's failure to abide by that law is not a federal due process issue]).

         Further, the undersigned is constrained to note that Plaintiff previously unsuccessfully tried to raise an issue relating to his commitment papers in a prior lawsuit. As this Court previously noted in Johnson v. Ozmint, 567 F.Supp.2d 806 (D.S.C. 2008):

[T]he court concludes Plaintiffs claim cannot proceed because there is simply no evidence, other than Plaintiffs say-so, that he is being improperly detained. The record contains a copy of Plaintiff s commitment order, which indicates Plaintiff was "committed to jail 10-03-84," and it states that Plaintiff is "confined under the jurisdiction and control of the South Carolina Department of Corrections for a period of his life." The order is dated April 18, 1985, and although it does not contain the handwritten signature of the judge, it is signed as "s/ T.L. Hughston, Jr." ...

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