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Martin v. Bennett

United States District Court, M.D. Alabama, Northern Division

November 21, 2017

SILAS MARTIN, #145609, Plaintiff,
v.
LT. COREY L. BENNETT, et al., Defendants.

          RECOMMENDATION OF THE MAGISTRATE JUDGE

          Susan Russ Walker United States Magistrate Judge

         I. INTRODUCTION[1]

         This 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action is pending before the court on a complaint filed by Silas Martin, an indigent state inmate, challenging actions which occurred during a prior term of incarceration at the Ventress Correctional Facility.[2] Martin names Lt. Corey L. Bennett and Officer Joseph Wright as defendants in this cause of action. Specifically, Martin asserts that the defendants acted with deliberate indifference to his safety when they failed to protect him from an unprovoked and random attack by inmate Tremaine Burford on February 18, 2015. Complaint - Doc. No. 1 at 5. Martin also alleges that defendant Bennett denied him due process by placing him in the Restricted Privilege Dorm without notification of the reason for placement in this dorm. Id. Finally, Martin complains that while housed in the Restricted Privilege Dorm he was “denied exercise times.” Id. at 6. Martin seeks a declaratory judgment, injunctive relief and monetary damages for the alleged violations of his constitutional rights. Id. at 7.

         The defendants filed a special report, supplemental special report and relevant evidentiary materials in support of their reports, including affidavits and prison records, addressing the claims presented by Martin. In these filings, the defendants deny they acted in violation of Martin's constitutional rights.

         The court issued an order directing Martin to file a response, supported by affidavits or statements made under penalty of perjury and other evidentiary materials, to the arguments set forth by the defendants in their report. Order of December 2, 2015 - Doc. No. 31 at 2. This order specifically cautioned the parties that “unless within fifteen (15) days from the date of this order a party files a response in opposition which presents sufficient legal cause why such action should not be undertaken … the court may at any time [after expiration of the time for the plaintiff filing a response to the order] and without further notice to the parties (1) treat the special reports and any supporting evidentiary materials as a motion for summary judgment and (2) after considering any response as allowed by this order, rule on the motion for summary judgment in accordance with the law.” Id. at 3. Martin filed a response and supporting affidavit in opposition to the defendants' reports. Docs. No. 33 and 33-1.

         Pursuant to the December 2, 2015 order, the court deems it appropriate to treat the defendants' reports as a motion for summary judgment. Upon consideration of the defendants' motion for summary judgment, the evidentiary materials filed in support thereof, the sworn complaint and the plaintiffs response in opposition, the court concludes that summary judgment is due to be granted in favor of the defendants.

         II. SUMMARY JUDGMENT STANDARD

         “Summary judgment is appropriate ‘if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show there is no genuine [dispute] as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.'” Greenberg v. BellSouth Telecomm., Inc., 498 F.3d 1258, 1263 (11th Cir. 2007) (per curiam) (citation to former rule omitted); Fed.R.Civ.P. Rule 56(a) (“The court shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.).[3] The party moving for summary judgment always bears the initial responsibility of informing the district court of the basis for its motion, and identifying those portions of the [record, including pleadings, discovery materials and affidavits], which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine [now dispute] of material fact.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986); Williamson Oil Company, Inc. v. Phillip Morris USA, 346 F.3d 1287, 1298 (11th Cir. 2003) (moving party bears the initial burden of establishing there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact); Jeffery v. Sarasota White Sox, Inc., 64 F.3d 590, 593 (11th Cir. 1995) (same). The movant may meet this burden by presenting evidence indicating there is no dispute of material fact or by demonstrating that the nonmoving party has failed to present appropriate evidence in support of some element of its case on which it bears the ultimate burden of proof. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322-24; Moton v. Cowart, 631 F.3d 1337, 1341 (11th Cir. 2011) (explaining that summary judgment is appropriate when non-moving party fails to present appropriate evidence in support of a requisite element of the case on which the non-moving party bears the burden of proof at trial).

         The defendants have met their evidentiary burden. The burden therefore shifts to Martin to establish, with appropriate evidence beyond the pleadings, that a genuine dispute material to his case exists. Clark v. Coats & Clark, Inc., 929 F.2d 604, 608 (11th Cir. 1991); Celotex, 477 U.S. at 324; Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e)(3) (“If a party fails to properly support an assertion of fact or fails to properly address another party's assertion of fact by [citing to materials in the record including affidavits, relevant documents or other materials] the court may … grant summary judgment if the motion and supporting materials -- including the facts considered undisputed -- show that the movant is entitled to it.”); Jeffery, 64 F.3d at 593-594 (internal quotation marks omitted) (Once the moving party meets its burden, “the non-moving party must then go beyond the pleadings, and by its own affidavits [or sworn statements], or by depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, ” demonstrate that there is a genuine dispute of material fact.). This court will also consider “specific facts” pled in a plaintiff's sworn complaint when considering his opposition to summary judgment. Caldwell v. Warden, FCI Talladega, 748 F.3d 1090, 1098 (11th Cir. 2014). A genuine dispute of material fact exists when the nonmoving party produces evidence that would allow a reasonable fact-finder to return a verdict in its favor. Greenberg, 498 F.3d at 1263; Allen v. Bd. of Public Education for Bibb County, 495 F.3d 1306, 1313 (11th Cir. 2007). In civil actions filed by inmates, federal courts “must distinguish between evidence of disputed facts and disputed matters of professional judgment. In respect to the latter, our inferences must accord deference to the views of prison authorities. Unless a prisoner can point to sufficient evidence regarding such issues of judgment to allow him to prevail on the merits, he cannot prevail at the summary judgment stage.” Beard v. Banks, 548 U.S. 521, 530 (2006) (internal citation omitted).

         To proceed beyond the summary judgment stage, an inmate-plaintiff is required to produce “sufficient [favorable] evidence” which would be admissible at trial supporting his claims of constitutional violations. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249 (1986); Rule 56(e), Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. “If the evidence [on which the nonmoving party relies] is merely colorable … or is not significantly probative … summary judgment may be granted.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249-50. “A mere ‘scintilla' of evidence supporting the opposing party's position will not suffice; there must be enough of a showing that the [trier of fact] could reasonably find for that party. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. 242, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 2512, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986).” Walker v. Darby, 911 F.2d 1573, 1576-77 (11th Cir. 1990). Conclusory allegations based on subjective beliefs are likewise insufficient to create a genuine dispute of material fact and, therefore, do not suffice to oppose a motion for summary judgment. Holifield v. Reno, 115 F.3d 1555, 1564 n.6 (11th Cir. 1997) (A plaintiff's “conclusory assertions …, in the absence of [admissible] supporting evidence, are insufficient to withstand summary judgment.”); Harris v. Ostrout, 65 F.3d 912, 916 (11th Cir. 1995) (grant of summary judgment appropriate where inmate produces nothing beyond “his own conclusory allegations” challenging actions of the defendants); Fullman v. Graddick, 739 F.2d 553, 557 (11th Cir. 1984) (“Mere verification of party's own conclusory allegations is not sufficient to oppose summary judgment.”); Evers v. General Motors Corp., 770 F.2d 984, 986 (11th Cir. 1985) (“[C]onclusory allegations without specific supporting facts have no probative value.”). Hence, when a plaintiff fails to set forth specific facts supported by requisite evidence sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to his case and on which the plaintiff will bear the burden of proof at trial, summary judgment is due to be granted in favor of the moving party. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322 (“[F]ailure of proof concerning an essential element of the nonmoving party's case necessarily renders all other facts immaterial.”); Barnes v. Southwest Forest Industries, Inc., 814 F.2d 607, 609 (11th Cir. 1987) (If on any part of the prima facie case the plaintiff presents insufficient evidence to require submission of the case to the trier of fact, granting of summary judgment is appropriate.); Chapman v. AI Transport, 229 F.3d 1012, 1023 (11th Cir. 2000) (summary judgment appropriate where no genuine dispute of material fact exists). At the summary judgment stage, this court must “consider all evidence in the record … [including] pleadings, depositions, interrogatories, affidavits, etc. -- and can only grant summary judgment if everything in the record demonstrates that no genuine [dispute] of material fact exists.” Strickland v. Norfolk Southern Railway Co., 692 F.3d 1151, 1154 (11th Cir. 2012).

         For summary judgment purposes, only disputes involving material facts are relevant. United States v. One Piece of Real Property Located at 5800 SW 74th Avenue, Miami, Florida, 363 F.3d 1099, 1101 (11th Cir. 2004). What is material is determined by the substantive law applicable to the case. Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. at 248; Lofton v. Secretary of the Department of Children and Family Services, 358 F.3d 804, 809 (11th Cir. 2004) (“Only factual disputes that are material under the substantive law governing the case will preclude entry of summary judgment.”). “The mere existence of some factual dispute will not defeat summary judgment unless that factual dispute is material to an issue affecting the outcome of the case.” McCormick v. City of Fort Lauderdale, 333 F.3d 1234, 1243 (11th Cir. 2003) (citation omitted). “[T]here must exist a conflict in substantial evidence to pose a jury question.” Hall v. Sunjoy Indus. Group, Inc., 764 F.Supp.2d 1297, 1301 (M.D. Fla. 2011) (citing Liberty Lobby, supra).

         To demonstrate a genuine dispute of material fact, the party opposing summary judgment “must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts… . Where the record taken as a whole could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the nonmoving party, there is no ‘genuine [dispute] for trial.'” Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986). In cases where the evidence before the court which is admissible on its face or which can be reduced to admissible form indicates there is no genuine dispute of material fact and the party moving for summary judgment is entitled to it as a matter of law, summary judgment is proper. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323-24 (summary judgment appropriate where pleadings, evidentiary materials and affidavits before the court show no genuine dispute as to a requisite material fact); Waddell v. Valley Forge Dental Associates, Inc., 276 F.3d 1275, 1279 (11th Cir. 2001) (To establish a genuine dispute of material fact, the nonmoving party must produce evidence such that a reasonable trier of fact could return a verdict in his favor.). “When opposing parties tell two different stories, one of which is blatantly contradicted by the record, so that no reasonable jury could believe it, a court should not adopt that version of the facts for purposes of ruling on a motion for summary judgment.” Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 380 (2007).

         Although factual inferences must be viewed in a light most favorable to the nonmoving party and pro se complaints are entitled to liberal interpretation, a pro se litigant does not escape the burden of establishing by sufficient evidence a genuine dispute of material fact. Beard, 548 U.S. at 525; Martin v. Crawford, 906 F.2d 667, 670 (11th Cir. 1990). Thus, the plaintiffs pro se status alone does not mandate this court's disregard of elementary principles of production and proof in a civil case.

         The court has undertaken a thorough and exhaustive review of all the evidence contained in the record. After such review, the court finds that Martin has failed to demonstrate a genuine dispute of material fact in order to preclude entry of summary judgment in favor of the defendants.

         III. DISCUSSION[4]

         A. Absolute Immunity

         To the extent that Martin seeks monetary damages from the defendants in their official capacities, the defendants are entitled to absolute immunity. Official capacity lawsuits are “in all respects other than name, … treated as a suit against the entity.” Kentucky v. Graham, 473 U.S. 159, 166 (1985).

A state official may not be sued in his official capacity unless the state has waived its Eleventh Amendment immunity, see Pennhurst State School & Hospital v. Halderman, 465 U.S. 89, 100, 104 S.Ct. 900, 908, 79 L.Ed.2d 67 (1984), or Congress has abrogated the state's immunity, see Seminole Tribe v. Florida, [517 U.S. 44, 59], 116 S.Ct. 1114, 1125, 134 L.Ed.2d 252 (1996). Alabama has not waived its Eleventh Amendment immunity, see Carr v. City of Florence, 916 F.2d 1521, 1525 (11th Cir. 1990) (citations omitted), and Congress has not abrogated Alabama's immunity. Therefore, Alabama state officials are immune from claims brought against them in their official capacities.

Lancaster v. Monroe County, 116 F.3d 1419, 1429 (11th Cir. 1997).

         In light of the foregoing, the defendants are entitled to sovereign immunity under the Eleventh Amendment for claims seeking monetary damages from them in their official capacities. Lancaster, 116 F.3d at 1429; Harbert Int'l, Inc. v. James, 157 F.3d 1271, 1277 (11th Cir. 1998) (holding that state officials sued in their official capacities are protected from suit for damages under the Eleventh Amendment); Edwards v. Wallace Community College, 49 F.3d 1517, 1524 (11th Cir. 1995) (holding that damages are unavailable from state official sued in his official capacity).

         B. Deliberate Indifference to Safety

         1. Legal Standard. “A prison official's duty under the Eighth Amendment is to ensure reasonable safety, a standard that incorporates due regard for prison officials' unenviable task of keeping dangerous men in safe custody under humane conditions.” Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825, 844-45 (1994) (internal quotations and citations omitted). Officials responsible for prison inmates may be held liable under the Eighth Amendment for acting with “deliberate indifference” to an inmate's safety when the official knows that the inmate faces “a substantial risk of serious harm” and with such knowledge disregards the risk by failing to take reasonable measures to abate it. Id. at 828. A constitutional violation occurs only “when a substantial risk of serious harm, of which the official is subjectively aware, exists and the official does not respond reasonably to the risk.” Cottone v. Jenne, 326 F.3d 1352, 1358 (11th Cir. 2003). Thus, “not … every injury suffered by one prisoner at the hands of another … translates into constitutional liability for prison officials responsible for the victim's safety.” Id. at 834. “Within [a prison's] volatile ‘community, ' prison administrators are to take all necessary steps to ensure the safety of … the prison staffs and administrative personnel. ... They are [also] under an obligation to take reasonable measures to guarantee the safety of the inmates themselves.” Hudson v. Palmer, 468 U.S. 517, 526-27 (1984). The Eleventh Circuit has, however, “stress[ed] that a ‘prison custodian is not the guarantor of a prisoner's safety.' Popham v. City of Talladega, 908 F.2d 1561, 1564 (11th Cir. 1990)[.]” Purcell ex rel. Estate of Morgan v. Toombs County, Ga., 400 F.3d 1313 (11th Cir. 2005). “Only ‘[a] prison official's deliberate indifference to a known, substantial risk of serious harm to an inmate violates the Eighth Amendment.' Marsh v. Butler Cnty., Ala., 268 F.3d 1014, 1028 (11th Cir. 2001) (en banc) [abrogated on other grounds by Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007)].” Harrison v. Culliver, 746 F.3d 1288, 1298 (11th Cir. 2014). “In order to state a § 1983 cause of action against prison officials based on a constitutional deprivation [under the Eighth Amendment], there must be at least some allegation of a conscious or callous indifference to a prisoner's rights, thus raising the tort to a constitutional stature.” Williams v. Bennett, 689 F.2d 1370, 1380 (11th Cir. 1982).

         The law is well settled that establishment of both objective and subjective elements are necessary to demonstrate an Eighth Amendment violation. Caldwell v. Warden, FCI Talladega, 748 F.3d 1090, 1099 (11th Cir. 2014). With respect to the requisite objective elements of a deliberate indifference claim, an inmate must first show “an objectively substantial risk of serious harm … exist[ed]. Second, once it is established that the official [was] aware of this substantial risk, the official must [have] react[ed] to this risk in an objectively unreasonable manner.” Marsh, 268 F.3d at 1028-29. As to the subjective elements, “the official must both be aware of facts from which the inference could be drawn that a substantial risk of serious harm exists, and he must also draw the inference… . The Eighth Amendment does not outlaw cruel and unusual ‘conditions'; it outlaws cruel and unusual ‘punishments.' … [A]n official's failure to alleviate a significant risk that he should have perceived but did not, while no cause for commendation, cannot under our cases be condemned as the infliction of punishment.” Farmer, 511 U.S. at 837-38; Campbell v. Sikes, 169 F.3d 1353, 1364 (11th Cir. 1999) (citing Farmer, 511 U.S. at 838) (“Proof that the defendant should have perceived the risk, but did not, is insufficient.”); Cottrell v. Caldwell, 85 F.3d 1480, 1491 (11th Cir. 1996) (same). The conduct at issue “must involve more than ordinary lack of due care for the prisoner's interests or safety… . It is obduracy and wantonness, not inadvertence or error in good faith, that characterize the conduct prohibited by the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause[.]” Whitley v. Albers, 475 U.S. 312, 319 (1986).

To be deliberately indifferent, Defendants must have been “subjectively aware of the substantial risk of serious harm in order to have had a ‘“sufficiently culpable state of mind.”'” Farmer, 511 U.S. at 834-38, 114 S.Ct. at 1977-80; Wilson v. Seiter, 501 U.S. 294, 299, 111 S.Ct. 2321, 2324-25, 115 L.Ed.2d 271 (1991)… . Even assuming the existence of a serious risk of harm and legal causation, the prison official must be aware of specific facts from which an inference could be drawn that a substantial risk of ...

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