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Wilkerson v. Walrath

United States District Court, W.D. Virginia

January 17, 2019

DONTAZ LATRAY WELKERSON, Plaintiff,
v.
JOHN F. WALRATH, ET AL., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Hon. Glen E. Conrad Senior United States District Judge

         The plaintiff, Dontaz Latray Wilkerson, a Virginia inmate proceeding pro se, filed this civil rights action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that prison officials imposed a harsher visitation restriction on him than on other inmates, in violation of his constitutional rights. After review of the record, the court concludes that the defendants' motion to dismiss must be granted.

         I. Background

         Wilkerson is, and has been, confined at River North Correctional Center ("RNCC") for several years. On March 11, 2016, Warden Walrath notified Wilkerson that he had been placed on non-contact visitation restriction permanently after Wilkerson was accused of soliciting a visitor to bring drugs into RNCC. See V.S. Ex. 6, ECF No. 2. Wilkerson filed a regular grievance that the institutional ombudsman ruled unfounded. On appeal, Regional Administrator Elam upheld the visitation restriction, but reduced its duration to five years. After the restriction took effect, a disciplinary hearing officer found Wilkerson guilty of offense code 138/198a- conspiracy to breach the security perimeter with contraband. Evidence at the hearing came from an investigation of a letter Wilkerson had mailed to an outside visitor. The hearing officer imposed a disciplinary penalty of cell restriction for 30 days.

         In support of his amended complaint, Wilkerson submits affidavits from two other inmates who have had their visitation privileges restricted in the past at RNCC. After Kevin Small was found guilty of disciplinary offense code 122c-being under the influence of drugs, he lost thirty days of commissary privileges. Small was also "given an enhanced penalty pursuant to operating procedure of placement on non-contact visitation restriction for 6 months." Am. Compl. Ex. 1, ECF No. 15-1. Inmate Eugene Williams, Jr., was found guilty of offense code 122a/198a-conspiracy to possess unauthorized drugs. His penalties related to this offense included 60 days of telephone restriction and non-contact visitation for six months.

         Wilkerson sues Walrath and Elam under § 1983. He contends that Walrath imposed a more harsh visitation restriction on him than was imposed on inmates Small and Williams, in violation of equal protection; that this restriction far exceeded the visitation restriction penalties authorized under prison policy for Wilkerson's disciplinary offense; and that Elam knew of, but failed to correct, this equal protection violation. As relief, Wilkerson seeks compensatory and punitive damages[1] and injunctive relief enjoining the defendants from enforcing the five-year visitation restriction. The defendants have filed a motion to dismiss, and Wilkerson has responded, making the motion ripe for disposition.

         II. Discussion

         A district court should dismiss a complaint under Rule 12(b)(6) if, accepting all well-pleaded factual allegations in the complaint as true and drawing all reasonable factual inferences in the plaintiffs favor, the complaint does not allege "enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twomblv. 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). "[A] plaintiffs obligation to provide the grounds of his entitlement to relief requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do." IcL at 555.[2]

         To state a claim under § 1983, a plaintiff must allege "the violation of a right secured by the Constitution and laws of the United States, and must show that the alleged deprivation was committed by a person acting under color of state law." West v. Atkins. 487 U.S. 42, 48 (1988). Notably, a plaintiff must sufficiently allege a defendant's personal act or omission leading to a deprivation of a federal right. Vinnedge v. Gibbs. 550 F.2d 926, 928 (4th Cir. 1977) ("The doctrine of respondeat superior has no application" in § 1983 action). For supervisory prison officials to be held liable under § 1983 for constitutional injuries inflicted by their subordinates, an inmate must establish that: (1) the supervisor had actual or constructive knowledge that his subordinate was engaged in conduct that posed a "pervasive and unreasonable" risk of constitutional injury; (2) the supervisor's response to this knowledge was so inadequate as to show "deliberate indifference or tacit authorization" of the offensive practices; and (3) there was an "affirmative causal link" between the supervisor's inaction and the particular constitutional injury suffered. Shaw v. Stroud. 13 F.3d 791, 799 (4th Cir. 1994).

         The defendants argue that Wilkerson's amended complaint fails to state how either of them was personally involved in it. Liberally construing Wilkerson's submissions, the court cannot agree. Wilkerson's amended complaint clearly asserts that he was treated more harshly than other inmates who have possessed drugs or tried to bring them into the prison-a contention that must be construed as an attempted equal protection violation claim.[3] Moreover, taking Wilkerson's allegations as true, both Walrath as warden and Elam as a regional administrator are supervisory officials who imposed or knew about the visitation restriction imposed on him and had authority to eliminate or to make it consistent with other inmates' visitation restrictions. Thus, the court cannot dismiss the complaint for the defendants' asserted reasons. For other reasons, however, the court concludes that the motion to dismiss must be granted.

         As an initial matter, Wilkerson has no viable § 1983 claim based on his allegation that the permanent or five-year non-contact visitation restriction violated the prison disciplinary policy. See Riccio v. Ctv of Fairfax, 907 F.2d 1459, 1469 (4th Cir. 1990) (holding that state's failure to abide by its own procedural regulations is not a federal due process issue); Edwards v. Johnson, 209 F.3d 772, 779 (5th Cir. 2000) (holding that alleged violation of prison's visitation policy provides no basis for constitutional claim). Therefore, the court must dismiss any claim based on a violation of the disciplinary policy.[4]

         The Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment declares that "[n]o State shall . . . deny to any person . . . the equal protection of the laws." U.S. Const., amend. XIV, § 1. This provision does not altogether forbid states from classifying individuals; rather it "keeps governmental decisionmakers from treating differently persons who are in all relevant respects alike." Nordlinger v. Hahn. 505 U.S. 1, 10 (1992).

To succeed on an equal protection claim, a plaintiff must first demonstrate that he has been treated differently from others with whom he is similarly situated and that the unequal treatment was the result of intentional or purposeful discrimination. Once this showing is made, the court proceeds to determine whether the disparity in treatment can be justified under the requisite level of scrutiny.

Kerr v. Marshall Univ. Bd. of Governors. 824 F.3d 62, 82 (4th Cir. 2016). "The burden, moreover, is not on the State to prove the validity of prison regulations but on the prisoner to disprove it." Overton v. Bazzetta.539 U.S. 126, 132 (2003). The court cannot find that Wilkerson has ...


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