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Lee v. Estes

United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Northeastern Division

February 8, 2017

RASHAD C. LEE, Plaintiff,
WARDEN ESTES, Defendants.



         Plaintiff Rashad C. Lee, a pro se litigant incarcerated in Fountain Correctional Facility, (doc. 60), filed this action on or about July 13, 2013, seeking monetary damages and injunctive relief pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for violations of his civil rights. After several years of litigation, the sole remaining claim is an Eighth Amendment claim against Warden Estes, for which only nominal damages are available since the plaintiff is no longer incarcerated at the facility and does not allege any physical injury. (See docs. 51, 54, 57, 59). Specifically, the plaintiff contends Warden Estes violated the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment by allowing locked smoke cages to block emergency exits while he was incarcerated at Limestone Correctional Facility (“LCF”). (Doc. 1 at 63-64).

         On June 10, 2016, after the court dismissed all other claims at summary judgment, the undersigned held a phone conference to discuss the status of the case. Thereafter, the court set a discovery deadline for any additional discovery needed on the remaining claim and set deadlines for the parties to file dispositive motions and responses thereto. (Doc. 70). On August 26, 2016, Warden Estes filed a second motion for summary judgment.[2] (Doc. 79). The plaintiff has filed no response. (See doc. 78 setting deadline for the plaintiff s response). For the reasons stated below, the motion for summary judgment, (doc. 79), is GRANTED.

         I. Standard of Review

         Under Rule 56(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, summary judgment is proper if the pleadings, the discovery, and disclosure materials on file, and any affidavits “show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” “Rule 56[] mandates the entry of summary judgment, after adequate time for discovery and upon motion, against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 447 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). The moving party bears the initial burden of proving the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Id. at 323. The burden then shifts to the nonmoving party, who is required to “go beyond the pleadings” to establish there is a “genuine issue for trial.” Id. at 324 (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). A dispute about a material fact is genuine “if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986).

         The Court must construe the evidence and all reasonable inferences arising from it in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Adickes v. S.H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144, 157, (1970); see also Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255 (all justifiable inferences must be drawn in the non-moving party's favor). Any factual disputes will be resolved in Plaintiffs favor when sufficient competent evidence supports Plaintiffs version of the disputed facts. See Pace v. Capobianco, 283 F.3d 1275, 1276-78 (11th Cir. 2002) (a Court is not required to resolve disputes in the non-moving party's favor when that party's version of the events is supported by insufficient evidence). However, “mere conclusions and unsupported factual allegations are legally insufficient to defeat a summary judgment motion.” Ellis v. England, 432 F.3d 1321, 1326 (11th Cir. 2005) (per curiam) (citing Bald Mtn. Park, Ltd. V. Oliver, 836 F.2d 1560, 1563 (11th Cir. 1989)). Moreover, “[a] mere ‘scintilla' of evidence supporting the opposing party's position will not suffice; there must be enough of a showing that the jury could reasonably find for that party.” Walker v. Darby, 911 F.2d 1573, 1577 (11th Cir. 1990) (citing Anderson, 477 U.S. at 252).

         Where, as here, the adverse party does not respond, “summary judgment, if appropriate, shall be entered against the adverse party.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e). Even though the motion is unopposed, the court still must determine whether summary judgment is appropriate and must therefore consider the merits of the motion. See United States v. One Piece of Real Prop. Located at 5800 SW 74th Ave., Miami, Fla., 363 F.3d 1099, 1101 (11th Cir. 2004) (citing Dulap v. Transamerica Occidental Life Ins. Co., 858 F.2d 629, 632 (11th Cir. 1989) (per curiam)). At a minimum, the court must determine whether the motion is supported by the evidentiary materials filed in support; the court is, however, not obligated to sua sponte conduct a review of all evidentiary materials in the record. See id.

         II. Summary Judgment Facts

         On July 23, 2013, approximately eight months after he arrived at LCF in November 2012, the plaintiff filed a sixty-four-page lawsuit wherein on the last pages he included two paragraphs of allegations about the smoke cages at LCF. (Doc. 1 at 63-64). In the complaint, the plaintiff focuses on the alleged safety issues involved, when the riot doors malfunction, having to wait in the locked smoke cages that surround and block the emergency exits while an officer purportedly has to retrieve the key to the lock or bolt cutters to break the lock. (Id.).

         The plaintiff's former dorm at LCF has three exits: one primary exit (also referred to as riot doors) and two emergency exits. (Doc. 79-1 at 5 (14:12-23)). As of November 2012, when the plaintiff was last incarcerated at LCF, smoke cages were located outside the dorm's emergency fire exit doors. (Id. at 5-7, 60 (14:12-23, 21:1-17, 22:13-19, 102:1-3)). The perimeter of each cage was twenty feet by twelve feet. (Doc. 1 at 63-64). Barbed wire was placed across the top of the cage. (Id. at 64).

         The plaintiff claims inmates could smoke in the bathrooms at LCF. (Doc. 79-1 at 8-9 (32:21-23 to 33:1-6)). He became concerned about his safety and how he was supposed to get out if something caught fire in the bathroom while inmates were smoking and/or warming up food in there. (Id. at 10-11 (35:1-23 to 36:1-23)). The plaintiff testified he believed the gate keys to the smoke cages were kept in only two places - either in the shift office located some distance away from the smoke cages or with the maintenance man who has master keys to all prison locks. (Id. at 23-25 (51:15-53:16)). However, Christopher L. Gordy, a warden at LCF since March 1, 2015, attests that during normal business hours it would take less than ten minutes for tools to be retrieve to cut the locks on the smoke cages. (Doc. 79-4 at 2). He further attests that after normal business hours, it would probably take twice as long to retrieve tools to cut the locks. (Id.). The keys to the locked smoke cages are kept in the following locations: Dormitory Cubicles, Yard Rovers, and all Security Supervisors. (Id.). It would take less than five minutes for Security Personnel to unlock the smoke cages. (Id.). The dorm's riot doors, the primary means of ingress and egress, can be opened manually with a key even if they “malfunction” or could not be opened by the cube officer using the control panel. (Doc. 79-1 at 13 (38:15-23)).

         The plaintiff describes three incidents involving an issue with the smoke cage locks and riot doors. The first incident involved the malfunctioning of the riot doors when the inmates were lined up to go eat. The plaintiff testified that the cube officer, Officer Gilbreath, had to call Sergeant Griffin over the loud speaker to come manually open the riot doors so the inmates could exit the dorm to eat.[3] (Doc. 79-1 at 16-20, 27, 33, 54-55, 74-75 (41:1-7; 41:12-23 42:1-7;42:8-11; 43:1-11; 44:6-17; 55:23; 64:20-23; 94:1-23; 45:16-23 -46:1-23; 95:1-8; 132:17-23; 133:1-8)). During this time, the inmates did not attempt to exit the smoke cages; they were lined-up to go to lunch, and there was no emergency. (Id. at 28-29, 51 (56:1-57:7, 91:1-11)). The plaintiff also offers an affidavit from inmate Ronald Sutton, who attests that he has been housed in this dorm for six years, and appears to corroborate the plaintiff's description of this incident. (Doc. 39 at 5).

         The second incident, referenced in an affidavit from inmate Michael Perry, deals with an inmate in the dorm who had a heart attack. The plaintiff testified it was cold, and the locks on the smoke cages were frozen, so medical personnel had to cut the locks off the smoke cages with bolt cutters to take that inmate from the dorm to the healthcare unit. (Doc. 79-1 at 24, 43 (65:1-21; 74:1-11)). Inmate Perry's affidavit states that medical personnel had already restarted the inmate's heart and placed him on a backboard. (Doc. 39 at 4). But, medical personnel could not get out of the dorm through the emergency exit, where the infirmary's emergency cart was parked, because the lock on the smoke cage around the emergency exit had rusted and would not open. (Id.). The plaintiff later testified he does not know if the locks were frozen or rusted. (Doc. 79-10 at 43 (74:12-18)). The plaintiff further testified, after medical personnel left through the emergency exit with the inmate who had a heart attack, maintenance came through and unlocked the riot doors manually with a key. (Id. at 44-45 (75:1-22, 80:16-21)). In his affidavit, Inmate Sutton further attests that he has seen the smoke cage locks “malfunction several times during the winter months” and the maintenance department had to cut the locks off with bolt cutters during the yearly inspection. (Doc. 39 at 5).

         The third incident the plaintiff points to is when the riot doors malfunctioned because the electricity went out. (Doc. 79-1 at 76 (134:15-23)). The plaintiff explains the yard was locked down, and the inmates had to go to their beds until someone could come unlock the riot doors. (Id. at 56 (97:4-23)). Because there was no need for the inmates to exit the dorm at this time, the plaintiff was unable to say if there were or would ...

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