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Stephenson v. Rojas

United States District Court, E.D. Virginia, Alexandria Division

December 31, 2014

Javon Marqus Stephenson, Plaintiff,
C. Rojas, et al., Defendants.


T.S. ELLIS, III, District Judge.

On March 27, 2014, Javon Marqus Stephenson, a Virginia inmate proceeding pro se, filed a civil rights action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging violations of his First and Fourteenth Amendment rights, as well as rights under the Contract Clause, U.S. Constitution Article I, § 10. Plaintiffs allegations arise out of his refusal to sign a refusal of treatment/hold harmless agreement at the time of refusing his prescribed medications, and resulting disciplinary infractions. See Compl. Att., "Facts" ¶¶ 1-43. By Order dated April 28, 2014, plaintiffs Contract Clause and First Amendment claims were dismissed with prejudice, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(b)(l), for failure to state a claim. Therefore, plaintiffs Due Process claim is the sole remaining claim in this action. Plaintiff was also directed to particularize and amend his Due Process claim, to sign and complete a Consent Form, and to sign and complete an exhaustion affidavit. Dkt. 4. In response, plaintiff filed a Motion for Reconsideration, pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59(e), which the Court construes as filed pursuant to Rule 60(b).[1] This motion must be granted in part and denied in part. Also pending before the Court is plaintiffs Motion for Appointment of Counsel, which must be denied, without prejudice.


Reconsideration under Rule 60(b) is available for the following reasons:

(1) mistake, inadvertence, surprise, or excusable neglect; (2) newly discovered evidence that, with reasonable diligence, could not have been discovered in time to move for a new trial under Rule 59(b); (3) fraud misrepresentation, or misconduct by an opposing party; (4) the judgment is void; (5) the judgment has been satisfied, released or discharged; it is based on an earlier judgment that has been reversed or vacated; or applying it prospectively is no longer equitable; or (6) any other reason that justifies relief.

Fed. R. Civ. P. 60(b).

Plaintiff argues that the Court erred in its April 28, 2014 Order by (1) wrongfully concluding that he did not have standing under the Contract Clause to challenge the "arbitrary implementation" of a Virginia Beach Correctional Center ("VBCC") policy; (2) dismissing his First Amendment claim; (3) misinterpreting his Fourteenth Amendment claim; and (4) declining to address his request to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over his state law tort claims. Plaintiffs motion must be denied on claims (1), (2), and (3). Plaintiff's motion will be granted for the limited purpose of addressing plaintiff's fourth allegation. After considering this issue, plaintiffs state-law tort claim must be denied.


In its April 28, 2014 Order, the Court held that plaintiff had failed to state a claim under the Contract Clause because plaintiff was challenging the implementation of a Virginia Department of Corrections ("VDOC") policy, rather than a state legislative act. The Contract Clause, Article I, § 10, provides "No State shall... pass any... Law impairing the Obligation of Contracts." The Contract Clause prohibits state legislatures from passing any law that retroactively impairs the obligations of pre-existing contractual rights. Allied Structural Steel Co. v. Spannaus, 438 U.S. 234, 243 (9178). To state a claim under the Contract Clause properly, a plaintiff must allege that a state legislative act retroactively impaired an existing contractual relationship.

In response, plaintiff argues that the policies he challenges come from the VBCC, not the VDOC. He also argues that the VBCC, as a government entity, can be held liable under the logic of Monell v. Dep't of Social Services of New York, 436 U.S. 658 (1978). The Court concedes that it incorrectly stated that plaintiffs challenges arose out of a VDOC, rather than a VBCC policy. This mistake was irrelevant to the ultimate decision to dismiss plaintiffs Contract Clause claim, however. Assuming without deciding that Monell applies to the Contract Clause, the VBCC is not liable under Monell. As plaintiff correctly points out, a governmental entity can only be sued in a § 1983 action if the entity "implements or executes [an unconstitutional] policy statement, ordinance, regulation or decision officially adopted and promulgated by that body's officers." Monell, 436 U.S. at 690. As the challenged policy does not actually impede any of plaintiffs constitutional rights, the VBCC cannot be held liable under Monell.

As stated above, a plaintiff only states a claim under the Contract Clause if he alleges that a state law impairs an existing contractual relationship. Determining whether a state law violates the Contract Clause requires a three-step inquiry: (1) determining whether a contractual relationship exists; (2) determining whether a change in state law impairs that relationship; and (3) determining whether the impairment in that relationship is "substantial." General Motors Corp. v. Romein, 503 U.S. 181, 186 (1992). Plaintiff cannot meet the first prong of the test. Plaintiff has no contractual relationship with the VBCC. A contract is a consensual agreement between two parties to submit to an agreed-upon course of dealing. See, e.g., Irving Trust Co. v. Day, 314 U.S. 556, 560-61 (1942) (describing mutuality of agreement and consideration as necessary elements of a contract). Plaintiff, as a state inmate, is, in his own words, a "ward of the state, " Compl. Att., "Facts" ¶ 11, and has therefore not entered into any kind of voluntary agreement with the VBCC. Thus, the VBCC policy requiring him to sign a form before refusing medication does not infringe on his contractual rights.

On April 28, 2014, plaintiffs First Amendment claim, holding that he had no constitutional right to use the prison grievance process, was also dismissed. Plaintiff argues that this dismissal was erroneous, stating that "because [he] was overtly retaliated against for exercising his constitutional right in deciding whether to sign a hold harmless agreement indemnifying the State and its officials, " the First Amendment claim is adequately alleged. Mot. for Reconsid., at Unnumbered Page 6.

This is incorrect; these allegations, taken as true, still do not state a claim for retaliation in violation of the First Amendment. An inmate's First Amendment rights are not absolute. Prison regulations can restrict free speech, if such a restriction is "reasonably related to legitimate penological interests." Turner v. Safley, 482 U.S. 78, 87 (1987). Therefore, even if plaintiff had a First Amendment right to refuse his medication, the First Amendment does not prohibit prison officials from imposing reasonable restrictions on this right. Officials do not violate the First Amendment by requiring plaintiff to sign a release of liability form, nor for disciplining him for his failure to follow such a policy.

Because plaintiff had no First Amendment right to disobey institutional policies, he has failed to state a claim for retaliation. In order to establish a claim for retaliation, a plaintiff must make a threshold showing that the allegedly "retaliatory act violated some constitutional right of an inmate or constituted punishment for the exercise of a constitutional right." Cochran v. Morris, 73 F.3d 1310, 1318 (4th Cir. 1996). The inmate must allege facts demonstrating that exercise of some constitutional right was a substantial factor motivating the retaliation. See Wagner v. Wheeler, 13 F.3d 86, 90-91 (4th Cir. 1993). Plaintiff has ...

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