Rokita v. Pa. Dep't of Corr., 340 M.D. 2020

CourtCommonwealth Court of Pennsylvania
Writing for the CourtOPINION BY JUDGE McCULLOUGH
Parties Mark ROKITA, Jr., and All Others Similarly Situated, Petitioner v. The PENNSYLVANIA DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS, Respondent
Docket Number340 M.D. 2020
Decision Date12 April 2022

273 A.3d 1260

Mark ROKITA, Jr., and All Others Similarly Situated, Petitioner
v.
The PENNSYLVANIA DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS, Respondent

No. 340 M.D. 2020

Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania.

Submitted on Briefs November 17, 2021
Decided April 12, 2022


Mark Rokita, Jr., Pro Se.

Raymond W. Dorian, Assistant Counsel, Mechanicsburg, for Respondent.

BEFORE: HONORABLE RENÉE COHN JUBELIRER, Judge,1 HONORABLE PATRICIA A. McCULLOUGH, Judge, HONORABLE ANNE E. COVEY, Judge, HONORABLE MICHAEL H. WOJCIK, Judge, HONORABLE CHRISTINE FIZZANO CANNON, Judge

OPINION BY JUDGE McCULLOUGH

Before the Court is the preliminary objection of the Department of Corrections (Department) to the petition for review (Petition) filed by Mark Rokita, pro se , in our original jurisdiction. Rokita has sought an order compelling the Department to allow him to receive Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT) for his substance use disorder while incarcerated. The Department has filed a preliminary objection in the nature of a demurrer, contending that Rokita is unable to state a claim upon which relief can be granted because, in the Department's view, under no constitutional or statutory law may Rokita be found to be entitled to such medical treatment. Upon review, we overrule the Department's preliminary objection and conclude that Rokita's

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claim may proceed beyond this initial pleading stage of litigation.

Background

Rokita's Petition avers the following. Rokita is an inmate incarcerated at the State Correctional Institution at Houtzdale (SCI-Houtzdale). Petition ¶1. Rokita has been diagnosed with substance use disorder in connection with his use of opioids. Id. ¶¶1, 5, 11. Rokita asserts that he developed a dependence upon opioids after they were prescribed to him following an injury, but when he could no longer obtain them through proper channels, he eventually turned to the illegal opioid pill trade. Id. ¶11. Rokita was ultimately arrested and incarcerated for possession of narcotics. Id. ¶12.

During his incarceration, and due to his continuing addiction which began with medication prescribed for an injury, Rokita asserts that he has unlawfully obtained and used the medication "Suboxone" in order to treat his condition, which he has purchased through the prison black market. Id. ¶¶12-13. Rokita has sought to obtain such medications properly—under the supervision of medical professionals—through his request for MAT or the opportunity to see a doctor who could prescribe him MAT. Id. ¶¶1-2, 20. Rokita wrote to a social worker requesting that he be permitted to receive MAT for his disorder, specifically with the medication known as "Vivitrol." Id. ¶2. His request was refused because the Department's policies prohibit MAT except for prisoners whose release on parole is imminent. Id. ¶¶2-3; Exhibit B (response to Rokita's request for MAT).2

Rokita filed a grievance in which he requested the opportunity to be treated with MAT, but his grievance was denied. Petition ¶¶2-3; Exhibit D (Grievance Officer denying Rokita's grievance and explaining that "there are no [MAT] programs in place within general population institutions in the [Department] for which Rokita would qualify"). For an individual in Rokita's position, the Department offers only group counseling sessions. Petition ¶¶3, 20; Exhibit D.3

Rokita appealed the grievance determination to the Facility Manager, who denied

273 A.3d 1264

Rokita's appeal. Petition ¶3. The Facility Manager stated that Rokita had been properly informed of the option available to him, i.e. , group counseling. The Facility Manager further told Rokita that "[y]our own actions have led to the issue you grieved and your own failure to follow the proper process has led to your non-treatment." Id. ¶4; Exhibit F.4

Rokita then sought relief in this Court. Rokita asserts that the Department's refusal to allow him to receive MAT for his substance use disorder is a violation of the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution.5 Petition ¶¶10, 16. Rokita additionally contends that the Department's policy regarding MAT violates his rights under the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA).6 Id. ¶¶10, 17, 19. As relief, Rokita requests an order compelling the Department to allow him access to a doctor who specializes in substance abuse disorders and who is authorized to prescribe MAT. Id. ¶25.7

The Department filed a preliminary objection

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in the nature of a demurrer.8 Although the Department facially asserts a single demurrer, it advances several reasons as to why Rokita is unable to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. The Department has developed three such reasons in its brief in support of its preliminary objection: (1) that Rokita's averments do not satisfy the governing standard under the Eighth Amendment with respect to the denial of medical treatment; (2) that Rokita failed to state a medical malpractice claim against the Department and failed to file a certificate of merit in connection therewith; and (3) that Rokita is unable to state a claim under the ADA.

Discussion

As a preliminary objection, the Department's demurrer "admit[s] as true all well and clearly pleaded material, relevant factual averments, and all inferences fairly deducible therefrom." Winton v. Pennsylvania Department of Corrections , 263 A.3d 1240, 1243 n.4 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2021) (quoting Barndt v. Pennsylvania Department of Corrections , 902 A.2d 589, 592 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2006) ). "However, conclusions of law and unjustified inferences are not so admitted." Id. The "question presented by the demurrer is whether, on the facts averred, the law says with certainty that no recovery is possible." Chichester School District v. Chichester Education Association , 750 A.2d 400, 402 n.8 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2000) (citing MacElree v. Philadelphia Newspapers, Inc. , 544 Pa. 117, 674 A.2d 1050 (1996) ). Accordingly, Rokita receives the benefit of the doubt as to whether his averments are sufficient to state a claim. "Any doubt should be resolved in favor of overruling the demurrer." Id.

A. Eighth Amendment

Under the Eighth Amendment, the government has an "obligation to provide medical care for those whom it is punishing by incarceration." Estelle v. Gamble , 429 U.S. 97, 103, 97 S.Ct. 285, 50 L.Ed.2d 251 (1976). After all, a prison "inmate must rely on prison authorities to treat his medical needs; if the authorities fail to do so, those needs will not be met." Id. Plainly, the denial of medical treatment can pose serious risks; but even in "less serious cases," the "denial of medical care may result in pain and suffering which no one suggests would serve any penological purpose." Id. The Supreme Court of the United States has thus held that the denial of medical care to a prison inmate constitutes a violation of the Eighth Amendment where it amounts to "deliberate indifference to serious medical needs of prisoners." Id. at 104, 97 S.Ct. 285.

In his Eighth Amendment claim, Rokita asserts that, by refusing to provide him with the opportunity to receive MAT for his substance use disorder, the Department is denying him medical care. Rokita's claim is not wholly novel. Indeed, in recent years, the refusal of correctional institutions to provide MAT to prisoners with substance use disorders has been the subject of both litigation and legal scholarship.9

Underlying this developing area of the law is an unfortunate reality, which cannot

273 A.3d 1266

escape this Court's notice. The prevalence of opioid use and addiction has become a crisis in the United States, to the extent that it has been recognized as a public health emergency by both the federal government and this Commonwealth.10 As this crisis permeates all levels of society, it is no surprise that its effects are felt within prison walls, where many individuals who are addicted to controlled substances eventually find themselves.11 It is in the prison context that legal challenges similar to Rokita's have arisen, concerning the practices of correctional facilities that, like the Department, refuse to provide access to MAT in connection with opioid addiction, and offer instead only counseling services.

One such case is Pesce v. Coppinger , 355 F. Supp. 3d 35, 40 (D. Mass. 2018). Geoffrey Pesce had been prescribed a MAT program by his physician, pursuant to which he had been receiving daily doses of methadone at a clinic. Pesce , 355 F. Supp. 3d at 41-42. Pesce had a suspended driver's license, and, while driving himself to the methadone clinic one day, Pesce was pulled over and arrested for driving with a suspended license, which constituted both a violation of his parole and a new criminal offense. Id. at 41. Pesce faced a 60-day sentence for the parole violation, plus a mandatory minimum sentence of at least 60 days’ incarceration on the new charge. Id. Because the correctional institution in which Pesce would be housed did not provide methadone to its inmates, Pesce filed suit in the federal district court in Massachusetts, seeking a preliminary injunction and temporary restraining order...

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