BRONSON v. THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY OF THE STATE OF PENNSYLVANIA

Civil No. 3:16-CV-00472.

PURCELL BRONSON, Plaintiff, v. THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY OF THE STATE OF PENNSYLVANIA, PAST AND PRESENT MEMBERS, et al., Defendants.

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania.

Editors Note
Applicable Law: 42 U.S.C. § 1983
Cause: 42 U.S.C. § 1983 Prisoner Civil Rights
Nature of Suit: 550 Prisoner: Civil Rights
Source: PACER


Attorney(s) appearing for the Case

Purcell Bronson, Plaintiff, Pro Se.


REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

SUSAN E. SCHWAB, Magistrate Judge.

I. Introduction.

This case comes before the Court for a statutorily mandated screening review of the complaint. In accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 1915A, we have reviewed the complaint (doc. 1), and we conclude that the defendants are entitled to Eleventh Amendment immunity and that the complaint fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. Therefore, we recommend that the case be dismissed.

II. Factual Background and Procedural History.

On March 17, 2016, Bronson initiated this action by filing a complaint. Bronson filed his complaint pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, naming the General Assembly of the State of Pennsylvania, Past and Present Members ("General Assembly"), the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole ("Board"), and the Pennsylvania Court of Common Pleas ("Court of Common Pleas"). On June 21, 2016, the case was dismissed because Bronson failed to pay the statutory filing fee. On February 17, 2017, the case was reopened after Bronson paid the filing fee in full on November 14, 2016.

Bronson alleges that on November 26, 1979, the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas failed to sentence him according to 42 Pa. C.S. § 9756(b).1 He alleges that the General Assembly promulgated § 9756(b), requiring the imposition of a minimum sentence on a prisoner found guilty of a felony charge. He claims that this statute provides that a minimum sentence is available for "second degree life sentence." Doc. 1 at 1. Bronson claims that the Court of Common Pleas' failure to impose a minimum sentence deprived him of his due process right to a benefit and that the adverse effects from lack of a minimum sentence are ongoing.

Bronson also alleges that the General Assembly promulgated 61 Pa. C.S. § 101, et seq., establishing the Board, and 18 Pa. C.S. § 101, et seq., excluding homicide offenders from the benefit of parole. He contends that providing minimum sentences and a parole agency to non-homicide offenders is discriminatory because the same provisions are not provided by statute to those convicted of second degree homicide. Bronson claims this violates his right to equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment.

Bronson seeks a declaratory judgment declaring: (1) that he is eligible for parole; (2) that his sentence is a minimum sentence of one day and a maximum sentence of life; (3) that the defendants' practices and policies are unlawful and discriminatory; (4) that when the term "sentence" is used without the modifier maximum, it nevertheless means "maximum sentence"; (5) that a life sentence is not a mandatory minimum sentence under Pennsylvania's Mandatory Minimum Sentencing Act; and (6) that the defendants' acts, actions, practices and polices violate his rights under the First, the Eighth, and the Fourteenth Amendments as well as Pennsylvania law. Bronson also seeks a preliminary and a permanent injunction requiring the General Assembly to create, fund, and implement an agency to parole and oversee prisoners serving life sentences; in the alternative, Bronson seeks injunctive relief in the form of an order striking 61 Pa.C.S. § 6137(a)(1)2 as unlawful. Bronson further seeks compensatory and punitive damages.

III. Screening of In Forma Pauperis Complaints.

A. Standard of Review.

28 U.S.C. § 1915A provides:

(a) Screening.—The court shall review, before docketing, if feasible or, in any event, as soon as practicable after docketing, a complaint in a civil action in which a prisoner seeks redress from a governmental entity or officer or employee of a governmental entity. (b) Grounds for dismissal.—On review, the court shall identify cognizable claims or dismiss the complaint, or any portion of the complaint, if the complaint— (1) is frivolous, malicious, or fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted; or (2) seeks monetary relief from a defendant who is immune from such relief.

Under Section 1915A, the court must assess whether a pro se complaint "fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted." This statutory text mirrors the language of Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, which provides that a complaint should be dismissed for "failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted." Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6).

"Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a)(2), a pleading must contain a `short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.'" Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 677-78 (2009). The statement required by Rule 8(a)(2) must give the defendant fair notice of what the plaintiff's claim is and of the grounds upon which it rests. Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 93 (2007). Detailed factual allegations are not required, but more is required than labels, conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action. Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). "In other words, a complaint must do more than allege the plaintiff's entitlement to relief." Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 211 (3d Cir. 2009). "A complaint has to `show' such an entitlement with its facts." Id.

In considering whether a complaint fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, the court must accept as true all well-pleaded factual allegations in the complaint, and all reasonable inferences that can be drawn from the complaint must be construed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. Jordan v. Fox Rothschild, O'Brien & Frankel, Inc., 20 F.3d 1250, 1261 (3d Cir. 1994). A court, however, "need not credit a complaint's bald assertions or legal conclusions when deciding a motion to dismiss." Morse v. Lower Merion Sch. Dist., 132 F.3d 902, 906 (3d Cir. 1997). Additionally, a court need not "assume that a . . . plaintiff can prove facts that the . . . plaintiff has not alleged." Associated Gen. Contractors of Cal. v. California State Council of Carpenters, 459 U.S. 519, 526 (1983).

Following Twombly and Iqbal, a well-pleaded complaint must contain more than mere legal labels and conclusions. Rather, it must recite factual allegations sufficient to raise the plaintiff's claimed right to relief beyond the level of mere speculation. In practice, consideration of the legal sufficiency of a complaint entails a three-step analysis:

First, the court must `tak[e] note of the elements a plaintiff must plead to state a claim.' Second, the court should identify allegations that, `because they are no more than conclusions, are not entitled to the assumption of truth.' Finally, `where there are well-pleaded factual allegations, a court should assume their veracity and then determine whether they plausibly give rise to an entitlement for relief.'

Santiago v. Warminster Twp., 629 F.3d 121, 130 (3d Cir. 2010) (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 675 & 679).

A complaint filed by a pro se litigant is to be liberally construed and `"however inartfully pleaded, must be held to less stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers.'" Erickson, 551 U.S. at 94 (quoting Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 106 (1976)). Nevertheless, "pro se litigants still must allege sufficient facts in their complaints to support a claim." Mala v. Crown Bay Marina, Inc., 704 F.3d 239, 245 (3d Cir. 2013). Thus, a well-pleaded complaint must contain more than mere legal labels and conclusions. Rather, a pro se complaint must recite factual allegations that are sufficient to raise the plaintiff's claimed right to relief beyond the level of mere speculation, set forth in a "short and plain" statement of a cause of action.

B. The General Assembly, the Board, and the Courts of Common Pleas Are Entitled to Eleventh Amendment Immunity.

Bronson's complaint should be dismissed because General Assembly, the Board, and the Courts of Common Pleas enjoy Eleventh Amendment immunity and, thus, they are not proper defendants in a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 case, such as this case.

The Eleventh Amendment provides:

The Judicial power of the United States shall not be construed to extend to any suit in law or equity, commenced or prosecuted against one of the United States by Citizens of another State, or by Citizens or Subjects of any Foreign State.

U.S. CONST. amend. XI.

Although its text appears to restrict only the Article III diversity jurisdiction of the federal courts, the Eleventh Amendment has been interpreted "to stand not so much for what it says, but for the presupposition . . . which it confirms." Seminole Tribe of Fla. v. Florida, 517 U.S. 44, 54 (1996) (quoting Blatchford v. Native Village of Noatak, 501 U.S. 775, 779 (1991)). That presupposition is that each state is a sovereign entity in our federal system and that it is inherent in the nature of sovereignty that a sovereign is not amenable to suit unless it consents. Id. Thus, "the Constitution does not provide for federal jurisdiction over suits against nonconsenting States." Kimel v. Florida Bd. of Regents, 528 U.S. 62, 73 (2000).

In the absence of consent, a suit in federal court against the state or one of its agencies is barred by the Eleventh Amendment. Alabama v. Pugh, 438 U.S. 781, 782 (1978) (per curiam). A state, however, may waive its Eleventh Amendment immunity by consenting to suit, and Congress may abrogate the states' Eleventh Amendment immunity when it unequivocally intends to do so and it acts pursuant to a valid grant of constitutional authority. College Savings Bank v. Florida Prepaid Postsecondary Educ. Expense Bd., 527 U.S. 666, 670 (1999).

As to the General Assembly, the Board, and the Court of Common Pleas, Pennsylvania has specifically withheld consent to be sued in federal court: "Nothing contained in this subchapter shall be construed to waive the immunity of the Commonwealth from suit in Federal courts guaranteed by the Eleventh Amendment to the Constitution of the United States." 42 Pa. C.S. § 8251(b); see also Piskanin v. Commonwealth, 2010 WL 4362458 at *2 (M.D. Pa. 2010) (finding that the Legislature of Pennsylvania has expressly declined to waive its sovereign immunity by § 8521(b)); Ahmad v. Burke, 436 F.Supp. 1307, 1311 (E.D. Pa. 1977) ("[T]he [Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole] is immune from suit by virtue of the Eleventh Amendment"); Benn v. First Judicial Dist. of Pa., 426 F.3d 233 (3d Cir. 2005) (holding that Pennsylvania state courts have Eleventh Amendment immunity).3

C. The Complaint Fails to State a Due Process Claim or an Equal Protection Claim Upon Which Relief May be Granted.

Although Bronson's claims against the General Assembly, the Board, and the Court of Common Pleas are barred by Eleventh Amendment immunity, his request for injunctive relief against the members of the General Assembly must pass scrutiny under the Ex Parte Young exception to the Eleventh Amendment in order to move forward. Koslow v. Commonwealth, 302 F.3d 161, 179 (3d Cir. 2002) ("When the relief sought is prospective injunctive relief, the request is `ordinarily sufficient to invoke the Young fiction.'") (quoting Idaho v. Couer d'Alene Tribe, 521 U.S. 261, 281 (1997)). This exception is designed to preserve the constitutional structure by allowing private citizens to petition a federal court to enjoin State officials acting in their official capacities from engaging in future conduct violative of the Constitution or a federal statute. See Christ the King Manor, Inc. v. Secretary U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, 730 F.3d 291, 318 (3d Cir. 2013) (citing Ex Parte Young, 209 U.S. 123, 159 (1908)).

Bronson requests a preliminary and permanent injunction requiring the General Assembly to create, fund, and implement an agency to parole and oversee prisoners serving life sentences, or in the alternative, require the General Assembly to strike § 6137(a)(1) from 61 Pa. C.S. as unlawful. Doc. 1 at 2. Bronson's request for injunctive relief is based on his claims that he was treated differently from individuals who have been convicted of non-homicide felonious crimes as compared to those convicted of homicide. He complains that this amounts to a discriminatory practice of providing minimum sentences and a parole agency to the non-homicide defendants and that not providing these same benefits to homicide defendants constitutes a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. Further, he generally alleges that the General Assembly's practice and policy are unlawful and discriminatory.

To the extent that Bronson's request for injunctive relief is based on the Fourteenth Amendment, the complaint fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. Bronson argues that the Court of Common Pleas' failure to impose a minimum sentence deprived him of due process. A minimum sentence date establishes a date upon which an inmate becomes parole eligible, but only provides an inmate with the "right" to apply for parole and to have that application considered by the Board of Probation and Parole. Krantz v. Pa. Bd. Of Prob. & Parole, 482 A.2d 1044, 1047 (Pa. Commw. Ct. 1984). A constitutionally-protected interest for purposes of parole is not created simply by the existence of a state parole system. Bd. Of Pardons v. Allen, 482 U.S. 369, 373 (1987); see also Boyer v. Tritt, No. 14-0600, 2016 WL 1640060, at *2 (M.D. Pa. April 26, 2016) ("The Pennsylvania Probation and Parole Act does not grant Pennsylvania state prisoners any constitutionally-protected liberty interest in being released on parole or reparole prior to the expiration of their maximum terms . . . Although a prisoner is eligible for parole at the end of his minimum term, nothing in Pennsylvania law or the United States Constitution requires a prisoner to be released at such time."). Therefore, because Bronson does not have a due process right to parole, the complaint fails to state a due process claim.

Bronson further fails to state an equal protection claim against the General Assembly. The Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment directs that all similarly situated individuals be treated alike. City of Cleburne v. Cleburne Living Ctr., 473 U.S. 432, 439 (1985). Two independent legal theories exist upon which a plaintiff may predicate an equal protection claim: the traditional theory and the class-of-one theory.

The traditional theory protects a plaintiff from discriminatory treatment based on membership in a protected class such as race. See, e.g., id.; McLaughlin v. Florida, 379 U.S. 184, 192 (1964). To assert a protected-class claim, the plaintiff must demonstrate that (1) he or she is a member of a protected class and (2) the government treated similarly situated individuals outside of the protected class differently. See Oliveira v. Twp. of Irvington, 41 Fed. App'x. 555, 559 (3d Cir. 2005) (observing that a prima facie case under the Equal Protection Clause requires plaintiffs to prove membership in "a protected class and that they received different treatment than that received by other similarly-situated individuals"). Under this theory a plaintiff "must prove the existence of purposeful discrimination" by the defendants. Keenan v. City of Phila., 983 F.2d 459, 465 (3d Cir. 1992). This theory also allows an equal protection claim to be based on the denial of a fundamental right. See Plyer v. Doe, 457 U.S. 202, 218 (1982) ("The Equal Protection Clause was intended as a restriction on state legislative action inconsistent with elemental constitutional premises. Thus we have treated as presumptively invidious those classifications that . . . impinge upon the exercise of a fundamental right.")

Because prisoners do not constitute a protected class for Fourteenth Amendment purposes, McKeithan v. Kerestes, 2014 WL 3734569, at *10 (M.D. Pa. 2014), and because there is no fundamental right to parole under the Fourteenth Amendment, Allen, 482 U.S. at 373 (1987), Bronson's claim survives only if the classification between homicide and non-homicide offenders does not survive rational basis review. Romer v. Evans, 517 U.S. 620, 631 (1996) ("[I]f a law neither burdens a fundamental right nor targets a suspect class, [the court] will uphold the legislative classification so long as it bears a rational relation to some legitimate end"). Under rational basis review, the court seeks to ensure that the classification at issue bears some fair relationship to a legitimate public purpose. Doe, 457 U.S. at 216. Rational basis review affords to a classification a strong presumption of validity when it does not involve a suspect class or fundamental right. Heller v. Doe, 509 U.S. 312, 319 (1993). A classification passes an equal protection challenge under this level of scrutiny if there is any reasonably conceivable state of facts that could provide a rational basis for the legislature's decision. Id. at 320. The strong presumption of validity places the burden "on the one attacking the legislative arrangement to negative every conceivable basis which might support it." Id. (quoting Lehnhausen v. Lake Shore Auto Parts Co., 410 U.S. 356, 364 (1973)). Thus, Bronson must allege facts showing that he has been treated differently from similarly situated inmates, that the General Assembly did so intentionally, and that this difference in treatment bears no rational relation to any legitimate public interest. In his complaint, Bronson asserts that homicide offenders are treated differently from non-homicide offenders because non-homicide offenders may become eligible for parole and may be sentenced to serve a minimum sentence whereas homicide offenders may not.

Bronson's argument that because he is a homicide offender he has not been given the same opportunities for parole as non-homicide offenders fails because inmates convicted of homicide and those who are not so convicted are not similarly situated. See Urruita v. Pa. AG, No. 13-0577, 2014 WL 69829993, at *10-11 (M.D. Pa. Aug. 4, 2014) ("[N]o two prisoners, being different human beings, will possess identical backgrounds and characters. Indeed, it is difficult to believe that any two prisoners could ever be considered `similarly situated' for the purpose of judicial review on equal protection grounds of broadly discretionary decisions because such decisions may legitimately be informed by a broad variety of an individual's characteristics.") (quoting Rowe v. Cuyler, 524 F.Supp. 291, 301 (E.D. Pa. 1982), aff'd, 696 F.2d 985 (3d Cir. 1982)); see also Myers v. Ridge, 712 A.2d 791, 799 (Pa. Commw. Ct. 1998) ("The purpose behind the classification and the disparate treatment between the violent and nonviolent offenders is the protection of public safety. . . . This justification is neither arbitrary nor capricious, but grounded on reasonable policy. We, therefore, conclude that the classification and disparate treatment between violent and nonviolent offenders do not offend the concept of due process or equal protection of the law."). Further, Bronson fails to allege facts from which it can reasonably be inferred that the General Assembly's difference in treatment of homicide and non-homicide offenders bears no rational relation to any legitimate public interest. Cf. Commonwealth ex rel. Sullivan v. Ashe, 302 U.S. 51, 55 (1937) ("Save as limited by constitutional provisions safeguarding individual rights, a State may choose means to protect itself and its people against criminal violations of its laws. The comparative gravity of criminal offenses and whether their consequences are more or less injurious are matters for its determination.").

Moreover, while Bronson challenges the constitutionality of the imposition of a life sentence for second degree murder, the Supreme Court of the United States has held only that mandatory life imprisonment without parole for those under the age of 18 at the time the crime was committed is unconstitutional. See Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012). Bronson does not allege that he was under the age of 18 at the time he committed the crime for which he is serving time. Thus, the complaint fails to state an Equal Protection Claim upon which relief can be granted.

D. Leave to Amend.

Before dismissing a complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted under the screening provision of 28 U.S.C. § 1915A, the court must grant the plaintiff leave to amend his complaint unless amendment would be inequitable or futile. See Grayson v. Mayview State Hospital, 293 F.3d 103, 114 (3d Cir. 2002). Because Bronson brings his claims against defendants entitled to Eleventh Amendment immunity, these deficiencies would likely not be cured by granting Bronson leave to amend. Further, as Bronson has no due process right to parole and there is a rational basis for treating homicide and non-homicide offenders differently, he has not passed scrutiny under the Ex Parte Young exception. Thus, we will recommend that Bronson's claims be dismissed with prejudice.

IV. Recommendation.

Based on the foregoing, WE RECOMMEND that Bronson's complaint be dismissed. The Parties are further placed on notice that pursuant to Local Rule 72.3:

Any party may object to a magistrate judge's proposed findings, recommendations or report addressing a motion or matter described in 28 U.S.C. § 636 (b)(1)(B) or making a recommendation for the disposition of a prisoner case or a habeas corpus petition within fourteen (14) days after being served with a copy thereof. Such party shall file with the clerk of court, and serve on the magistrate judge and all parties, written objections which shall specifically identify the portions of the proposed findings, recommendations or report to which objection is made and the basis for such objections. The briefing requirements set forth in Local Rule 72.2 shall apply. A judge shall make a de novo determination of those portions of the report or specified proposed findings or recommendations to which objection is made and may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations made by the magistrate judge. The judge, however, need conduct a new hearing only in his or her discretion or where required by law, and may consider the record developed before the magistrate judge, making his or her own determination on the basis of that record. The judge may also receive further evidence, recall witnesses or recommit the matter to the magistrate judge with instructions.

FootNotes


1. Section 9756(b) provides in relevant part: (1) The court shall impose a minimum sentence of confinement which shall not exceed one-half of the maximum sentence imposed. (2) The minimum sentence imposed under this section may not be reduced through parole prior to the expiration of the minimum sentence unless otherwise authorized by this section or other law.
2. 61 Pa.C.S.A. § 6137(a)(1) provides: The board may parole subject to consideration of guidelines established under 42 Pa.C.S. § 2154.5 (relating to adoption of guidelines for parole) and may release on parole any inmate to whom the power to parole is granted to the board by this chapter, except an inmate condemned to death or serving life imprisonment, whenever in its opinion: (i) The best interests of the inmate justify or require that the inmate be paroled. (ii) It does not appear that the interests of the Commonwealth will be injured by the inmate's parole.
3. Further, Bronson does not state any facts whatsoever supporting his allegations that his First Amendment, Eighth Amendment, and state law rights have been violated. Thus, in addition to being barred by Eleventh Amendment Immunity, Bronson's claims for compensatory and punitive damages under the First, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments, as well as under Pennsylvania law, fail.

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