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Stansell v. Grafton Correctional Institution

United States District Court, N.D. Ohio

December 5, 2019




         Plaintiff Michael Stansell is a state prisoner at Grafton Correctional Institution (“Grafton”). In May 2017, Grafton replaced most of its visitation-room tables with shorter tables. Thereafter, Plaintiff sought formal permission from Grafton to continue using the remaining taller tables due to his medical conditions. Grafton denied the request, and Plaintiff sued Grafton under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”)[1] and § 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (“RA”).[2]

         On September 5, 2019, Defendant moved to dismiss.[3] Plaintiff opposed.[4] For the reasons stated below, the Court will GRANT Defendant's motion to dismiss.

         I. Background[5]

         Plaintiff Michael Stansell is a prisoner at Grafton.[6] Since December 2013, Stansell has had “two major abdominal surgeries with complications that, inter alia, [have left him] with extreme abdominal pain, difficulty bending over and picking up heavy objects, and completing everyday tasks.”[7]

         Plaintiff's family members visit him two to three times per month in Grafton's visitation room.[8] Before May 2017, the visitation room contained tables that were about 36” tall.[9] The 36” tall tables allowed seated people to reach objects on the tables “at approximately waste-to-chest high.”[10] In May 2017, Grafton replaced the 36” tall tables with 16” tall tables for security reasons.[11] The 16” tall tables “requir[e] people to bend over almost to the floor, doubling over, in order to reach things on the tables.”[12] Despite the replacement, Grafton's visitation room retained at least one 36” tall table.[13]

         “Plaintiff, due to his medical condition . . . was permitted to continue using [the] taller table, due to the severe pain and discomfort caused by bending over to almost floor level [over] the course [of] eight hours in the visit[ing] room.”[14] Despite providing this accommodation informally, Grafton officials informed Plaintiff that “he would need to get an order from the ADA [coordinator] to continue to [use the taller table] long term.”[15]

         On May 12, 2017, Plaintiff requested “formalized permission for the continuing use of a taller table.”[16] In his request, he said that he merely sought “to formalize what is already being provided.”[17]

         On June 12, 2017, Grafton's ADA coordinator recommended that the warden deny Plaintiff's request.[18] In this recommendation, the coordinator noted that Plaintiff's doctor said that Plaintiff should be allowed to use the tall tables.[19] However, the coordinator nonetheless recommended denial of Plaintiff's request because (1) the doctor's “recommendation for the tall table is not listed in general medical needs order” and (2) Grafton's security chief believes that “taller tables compromise the safety and security of the visiting room visitor[s] and staff.”[20] The warden concurred with the ADA coordinator's recommendation and denied Plaintiff's request for a formal accommodation order.[21]Plaintiff unsuccessfully administratively appealed this denial.[22]

         On April 26, 2018, Plaintiff sued Grafton for this accommodation-request denial.[23]He asserted claims[24] under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), [25] § 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (“RA”), [26] and the Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution.[27]

         On July 25, 2018, the Court screened Plaintiff's complaint under 28 U.S.C. §1915(e) and dismissed all claims.[28] The Court dismissed the ADA and RA claims on the basis that “[f]acilities and design features of a room do not qualify as ‘services' or ‘activities' under the ADA.”[29]

         The Sixth Circuit rejected this conclusion and vacated the Court's screening order.[30]The Sixth Circuit explained, “While we have not expressly determined that a prison's visitation program is a service, program, or activity, we have concluded ‘that the phrase ‘services, programs, or activities' encompasses virtually everything that a public entity does.'”[31]

         On remand, the Court effected service of Plaintiff's complaint.[32] On September 5, 2019, Defendant moved to dismiss Plaintiff's ADA and RA claims for failure to state claims upon which relief may be granted.[33] Plaintiff opposed;[34] Defendant replied.[35]

         II. Motion to Dismiss Standard

         A complaint is subject to dismissal under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) if it fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. To survive a dismissal, a complaint “must present ‘enough facts to state claim to relief that is plausible on its face'” when its factual allegations are presumed true and all reasonable inferences are drawn in favor of the non-moving party.[36] Although pleadings and documents filed by pro se litigants are “liberally construed” and held to less stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers, [37] pro se plaintiffs must still meet basic pleading requirements, and courts are not required to conjure allegations on their behalf.[38]

         III. Discussion

         As an initial matter, the Court considers Plaintiff's arguments that Defendant's motion to dismiss is barred on procedural grounds.[39]

         A. Procedural Grounds

         1. Law-of-the-Case Doctrine

         Plaintiff contends that the Sixth Circuit opinion vacating the July 25, 2018 screening order is the law of the case.[40] He characterizes the opinion as holding that he has stated ADA and RA claims upon which relief can be granted, so Defendant is now precluded from arguing otherwise.[41]

         The law-of-the-case doctrine says that “when a court decides upon a rule of law, that decision should continue to govern the same issues in subsequent stages in the same case.”[42] ”The doctrine precludes a court from reconsideration of issues decided at an early stage of litigation, either explicitly or by necessary inference from the disposition.”[43] Application of this doctrine is “limited to those questions necessarily decided in the earlier appeal.”[44] “[T]he phrase ‘necessarily decided' . . . describes all issues that were ‘fully briefed and squarely decided' in an earlier appeal.”[45] “Where there is substantial doubt as to whether a prior panel actually decided an issue, the district court should not be foreclosed from considering the issue on remand.”[46]

         Here, the law of the case doctrine does not preclude Defendant from moving to dismiss for failure to state a claim. The issue squarely decided by the Sixth Circuit was a single aspect of Plaintiff's RA/ADA claims-whether a visitation program can constitute a service, program, or activity.[47] In its motion to dismiss, Grafton does not ask the Court to disturb this conclusion.[48]

         To be sure, the Sixth Circuit concluded its remand order with broad language: “Because Stansell's allegations, taken as true, are sufficient to show interference with a service, program, or activity, the district court erred in dismissing his ADA and RA claims.”[49] However, read in context, the Sixth Circuit was opining on what could constitute a service, program, or activity-not that Plaintiff's claims were immune from any further challenge in a motion to dismiss.

         This conclusion is bolstered by the cursory length of the analysis: the appeals court analyzed no aspect of Plaintiff's claims aside from whether a visitation program could be a service, program, or activity under the RA/ADA. Moreover, there is at least substantial doubt whether the appeals court actually decided that Plaintiff's allegations satisfy each of the requisite legal elements of RA and ADA claims. Therefore, the Court may consider this question on remand.[50]

         2. Res Judicata Doctrine

         Plaintiff also contends that res judicata “prohibits re-litigation of this argument.”[51]“The doctrine of res judicata encompasses two distinct concepts: claim preclusion and issue preclusion.”[52] The Court determined above that issue preclusion does not apply in this case; thus, the Court is left to consider claim preclusion.

         “Under the doctrine of claim preclusion, ‘[a] final judgment on the merits of an action precludes the parties or their privies from relitigating issues that were or could have been raised in that action.'”[53] Claim preclusion has four elements:

(1) a final decision on the merits by a court of competent jurisdiction; (2) a subsequent action between the same parties or their privies; (3) an issue in the subsequent action which was litigated or which should have been litigated in the prior action; and (4) an identity of the causes of action.[54]

         Here, claim preclusion is inapplicable because there has been no final judgment on the merits.

         3. The Effect of Prior § 1915(e) Review

         For Plaintiff's final procedural argument, he posits that the 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e) review standard is the same as the motion to dismiss standard.[55] Accordingly, since the Sixth Circuit has already determined that his complaint could proceed past the § 1915(e) screening stage, he argues that Defendant's motion to dismiss must be denied.[56]

         The Court agrees with the premise of Plaintiff's argument-the § 1915(e) standard is indeed “virtually identical” to the standard applied to a Rule 12(b)(6) motion.[57]However, Plaintiff's conclusion-that the Court cannot revisit this ruling-does not follow.

         A § 1915(e) screening determination is a preliminary and interlocutory holding, [58]subject to revision at any time prior to entry of final judgment.[59] Accordingly, the Court is not precluded from considering Defendant's motion on this ground.

         A. ADA/RA Merits

         The Court now considers Defendant's motion on the merits. Defendant argues that Plaintiff fails to state ADA and RA claims because he “provides no facts whatsoever suggesting that Plaintiff was denied the ability to visit with his visitors while at [Grafton].”[60]

         Title II of the ADA provides that “no qualified individual with a disability shall, by reason of such disability, be excluded from participation in or be denied the benefits of the services, programs, or activities of a public entity, or be subjected to discrimination by any such entity.”[61] The RA applies a nearly identical prohibition to entities receiving federal funds, [62] so the Court will address the ADA Title II and RA § 504 claims as one.[63]

         To bring a discrimination claim under the ADA or the RA, “a plaintiff must prove that: ‘(1) he has a disability; (2) he is otherwise qualified; and (3) he is being excluded from participation in, being denied the benefits of, or being subjected to discrimination under the program . . . because of his disability.'”[64] The plaintiff also ...

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