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Wetzel v. Herauf

January 4, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Charles S. Miller, Jr. United States Magistrate Judge


Plaintiff Joel Henry Wetzel is being held at the Southwest Multi-County Correctional Center in Dickinson, North Dakota, on state charges, apparently as a pretrial detainee. He initiated the above action by filing a complaint and paying the filing fee. He seeks to sue seventeen defendants who are all governmental employees with the exception of his former court-appointed counsel.*fn1

The matter is now before the court for screening pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915A, which defines prisoners to include pretrial detainees. Lewers v. Pinellas County Jail, 2009 WL 3053702, *1 (M.D.Fla. Sept. 18, 2009). What follows is the undersigned's recommendation as to how the court should proceed.


On July 8, 2008, Wetzel entered an occupied residence and discharged a firearm. When he exited the residence, he was shot by City of Dickinson police who had responded to the incident.*fn2

In this action, Wetzel claims he was shot in the back without provocation by three of the responding officers--- defendants Brown, Koskovich, and Moser-- after they allegedly had conspired to killed him. Wetzel avers that the remaining defendants have all engaged in a conspiracy to cover up the attempt on his life, including instituting false criminal charges against him. Wetzel also complains about certain actions taken in connection with the prosecution of the criminal charges brought against him.

Named in the complaint as defendants are the state-court judge presiding over Wetzel's criminal prosecution, the county prosecutors, his former court-appointed counsel, and various law enforcement officials. In his prayer for relief, Wetzel requests damages for pain, suffering, and medical expenses; an order from the court freezing the defendants' assets; dismissal of the state criminal charges; criminal prosecution of the defendants; and termination of the defendants' employment.

The complaint states that the defendants are being sued in both their official and individual capacities, but also states that Wetzel does not want to make the taxpayers of the City of Dickinson, Stark County, or the State of North Dakota "pay for this mess" and that he wishes to pursue only the individual defendants for damages. Consequently, the official-capacity claims will be limited to Wetzel's requests for equitable relief.


Congress enacted the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995 ("PLRA") to address the burdens imposed by prisoner suits that too often are frivolous and without merit. Jones v. Bock, 549 U.S. 199, 202-203 (2007); Woodford v. Ngo, 548 U.S.81, 84 (2006). One of the reforms enacted as part of the PLRA for cases in which prisoners are seeking to sue a governmental entity, officer, or employee is the requirement that courts conduct an early screening to weed out claims that clearly lack merit. 28 U.S.C. § 1915A. In conducting the screening, the court is required to identify any cognizable claims and to dismiss the complaint, or any part of it, that is frivolous, malicious, fails to state a claim, or seeks monetary relief from an immune defendant. Id.

In enacting the PLRA, Congress chose not to impose a heightened pleading requirement for prisoner complaints, and, in this case, 42 U.S.C. § 1983 also does not impose any such requirement. Jones v. Bock, 549 U.S. at 212-217. Consequently, to state a cognizable claim, the complaint needs only to meet the minimal requirements of Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a), which are that it contains "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief." Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 93 (2007) (per curiam). In addition, when a prisoner is proceeding pro se, the court is obligated to construe the complaint liberally and hold it to a less stringent standard than what would be required of attorneys. Id.

But this does not mean, however, that the court must accept anything and everything that is filed by a pro se prisoner. In enacting the screening requirement, Congress expected it to be more than a ritualistic exercise and that the courts would be vigilant in allowing prisoners to proceed only with those claims that state a cognizable claim, that seek relief from a non-immune party, and that are not obviously baseless, frivolous, or malicious.

To meet the minimal requirements of Rule 8(a)(2) for pleading a cognizable claim, something more is required than simply expressing a desire for relief and declaring an entitlement to it. See Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 554, 555 n.3 (2007). The complaint must state enough to "give the defendant fair notice of what the... claim is and the grounds upon which it rests." Erickson v. Pardus, 551 US at 93 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555). Conclusory and formulaic allegations of the elements of a cause of action are not sufficient. The "complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to 'state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'" Ashcroft v. Iqbal, __ U.S. __, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 1949 (2009) (quoting Twombly, 550 US at 555-556).

In the case of an action for a violation of federal civil rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, this means a plaintiff must allege a violation of a right secured by the Constitution or the laws of the United States and that the violation was committed by a person acting under color of state law in order to state a cognizable claim. West v. Atkins, 487 U.S. 42, 48 (1988); Walker v. Reed, 104 F.3d 156, 157-158 (8th Cir. 1997). Also, the pleading must allege a sufficient causal link between the alleged violation and the basis upon which a particular defendant is to be held responsible, keeping in mind that persons sued in their individual capacities for damages must be ...

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