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Third Circuit: District Court Erred in Ruling Against Pennsylvania Prisoner’s Civil Rights Complaint

Prisoner Casey Dooley, pro se, filed a civil rights action in state court that the defendants removed to federal court. His complaint alleged an Eighth Amendment violation resulted from the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections’ (PDOC) refusal to assign him the mental health classification associated with the greatest mental health resources.

Dooley argued that because the jury found him guilty but mentally ill (GBMI), he should be designated as a D Stability Code under PDOC’s regulations. Under that regulation, prisoners who have been found GBMI are to be assigned the D Stability Code. During the grievance process, PDOC officials denied relief because the trial court documents allegedly no longer identified him as GMBI. They argued the judge determined after an evaluation that Dooley was not GMBI. Dooley countered that the sentencing court noted he “needs some psychiatric assistance.”

In his complaint, Dooley alleged the failure to designate him as D Stability Code caused him to “suffer” agonizing mental health pain and trauma and serious depression, lack of sleep, paranoia throughout the day, nightmares, and physical abuse because of his mental illness. The district court dismissed the complaint for failure to state a cause of action and held the action was frivolous, counting as a strike under Section 1915.

The Third Circuit agreed that Dooley’s complaint, as pleaded, failed to state a cause of action. It found that he failed to “specifically allege personal involvement by any of the defendants.” Yet, a complaint is “not automatically frivolous . . . because it fails to state a claim.”

The court found Dooley “advanced a valid legal theory, particularly given our liberal pro se pleading standards.” If he can plead that the defendants “were actually aware or knew of a substantial risk of serious harm” in failing to designate as a D Stability Code or failed to take action to treat his serious medical need, a claim could be stated.

The Third Circuit noted that it has previously held that “outright refusal to grant the leave without any justifying reason [i.e., inequity or futility] . . . is not an exercise of discretion; it is merely an abuse of discretion.” It found an amendment would not have been clearly futile and leave to amend should have been granted.

The court turned to the strike question. It noted that 28 U.S.C. § 1915(g) prohibits a prisoner who has on three or more occasions brought an action or appeal in federal court that was dismissed as “frivolous, malicious, or fails to state a claim” cannot proceed informa pauperis unless the prisoner is under imminent danger of serious physical injury. Such dismissals are deemed strikes.

The Third Circuit held that the designation of a dismissal counting a strike is for a future court, not the dismissing court, to make. The issue was not ripe for adjudication. As such, the district court lacked determination to declare the dismissal as a strike.

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Related legal case

Dooley v. Wetzel