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Keith v. Naglich

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

January 23, 2018

ROSEMARY KEITH, as Personal Representative of the Estate of Dwight Hammonds, Plaintiff,
v.
RUTH NAGLICH, ET AL., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          ABDUL K. KALLON, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Rosemary Keith brings this lawsuit via 42 U.S.C. § 1983 on behalf of her deceased son, Dwight Hammonds, alleging that the Defendants, individuals employed by the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) and by MHM Correctional Services, Inc. (MHM), a private contractor used by the ADOC to provide mental health care to prisoners, violated her son's rights under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment. Ms. Keith also brings a parasitic state law claim under Alabama's wrongful death statute, Ala. Code § 6-5-410. The Defendants have now filed two motions to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, docs. 7 and 17, primarily arguing that the complaint fails to plausibly allege the existence of a constitutional violation. After carefully reviewing the parties' briefs, docs. 7; 9; and 17, [1] and the complaint, doc. 1, the court finds that the Defendants' motions are due to be granted.

         I. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a)(2), a pleading must contain “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” “[T]he pleading standard Rule 8 announces does not require ‘detailed factual allegations, ' but it demands more than an unadorned, the-defendant-unlawfully-harmed-me accusation.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007)). Mere “‘labels and conclusions' or ‘a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action'” are insufficient. Id. (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555). “Nor does a complaint suffice if it tenders ‘naked assertion[s]' devoid of ‘further factual enhancement.'” Id. (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 557).

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) permits dismissal when a complaint fails to comply with Rule 8(a)(2) or does not otherwise state a claim upon which relief can be granted. When evaluating a motion under Rule 12(b)(6), the court accepts “the allegations in the complaint as true and constru[es] them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff.” Hunt v. Aimco Props., L.P., 814 F.3d 1213, 1221 (11th Cir. 2016). However, “[t]o survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must . . . ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570). A complaint states a facially plausible claim for relief “when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Id. While the plausibility standard does not impose a “probability requirement, ” the allegations in a plaintiff's complaint must establish “more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully.” Id.; see also Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555 (emphasizing that the “[f]actual allegations [included in the complaint] must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level”). Ultimately, the line between possibility and plausibility is a thin one, and making this determination is a “context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679.

         II. FACTS

         Dwight Hammonds was a troubled young man with an extensive history of mental health problems including: (1) “a history of outpatient mental health treatment;” (2) at least one period of inpatient treatment following a suicide attempt; and (3) several experiences involving repetitive suicidal ideation. Doc. 1 at 5. In 2001, Mr. Hammonds was sentenced to forty years in prison and, as part of the ADOC prisoner intake process, underwent a psychiatric evaluation which showed he was suffering from “a serious mental illness.” Id. at 5-6. The examining psychiatrist recommended that the ADOC provide Mr. Hammonds with medication and refer him to a counselor for further treatment. Id. at 6. While in prison, Mr. Hammonds was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, and, at least as of May 2005, his medical records indicate that he still suffered from a serious mental illness. Id.

         In 2006, however, the ADOC adopted a new coding system for monitoring the mental health of prisoners. Id. In April 2008, pursuant to the new mental health criteria, Mr. Hammonds received a classification of MH-0 indicating that he had “no need for mental-health care.” Id. While the ADOC did briefly assign a mental health code of MH-1 to Mr. Hammonds, a classification showing a mild psychological impairment, he was soon returned to his prior MH-0 classification. Id. at 6-7. The complaint does not allege that Mr. Hammonds experienced any other mental health issues until 2015 when he was placed on suicide watch for an unspecified period of time. Id. at 7, 13. Shortly after Mr. Hammonds' release from suicide watch, prison officials assigned him to administrative segregation after an incident involving a confrontation with guards in his dormitory. Id. at 7. Mr. Hammonds did not receive mental health treatment or counseling before being placed in isolation, id., and roughly a day later he committed suicide in his segregation cell. Id. at 8. His death occurred approximately ten days after the ADOC released him from suicide watch. Id. at 13.

         III. ARGUMENT

         The four individual Defendants in this case have filed two separate motions to dismiss. Docs. 7 and 17. The two Defendants employed by MHM, Dr. Robert Hunter and Nakeetsha Dryer (collectively the MHM Defendants), argue that Ms. Keith's complaint is a “shotgun pleading” subject to summary dismissal, and that, in any event, the complaint fails to plausibly allege that they violated Mr. Hammonds' constitutional rights. The other two Defendants, Christopher Gordy and Ruth Naglich (collectively the ADOC Defendants), are employed by the ADOC and raise a largely duplicative argument claiming qualified immunity on the basis that Ms. Keith has failed to plausibly allege a violation of her son's constitutional rights. The court will address each motion separately.

         A. The MHM Defendants Motion to Dismiss

         1. Ms. Keith's Complaint is not a Shotgun Pleading

         The MHM Defendants' primary argument for dismissal is that Ms. Keith's complaint is a quintessential “shotgun pleading.” A shotgun pleading is typically defined as “a complaint containing multiple counts where each count adopts the allegations of all preceding counts, causing each successive count to carry all that came before and the last count to be a combination of the entire complaint.” Weiland v. Palm Beach Cty. Sheriff's Office, 792 F.3d 1313, 1321 (11th Cir. 2015). These types of pleadings are generally flawed because they fail “to give the defendants adequate notice of the claims against them and the grounds upon which each claim rests.” Id. at 1323. However, dismissal based on this failing requires a complaint so deficient that “‘it is virtually impossible to know which allegations of fact are intended to support which claim(s) for relief.'” Id. at 1326 (quoting Anderson v. Dist. Bd. of Trs. of Cent. Fla. Cmty. Coll., 77 F.3d 364, 366 (11th Cir. 1996)).

         While Ms. Keith's complaint is not as clear as it might be, it does include specific factual allegations supporting each of her claims and providing enough substance to enable the MHM Defendants to “‘discern what [Ms. Keith] is claiming and [to] frame a responsive pleading.'” Id. (quoting T.D.S. Inc. v. Shelby Mut. Ins. Co., 760 F.2d 1520, 1544 n.14 (11th Cir. 1985) (Tjoflat, J., dissenting)). Indeed, the MHM Defendants' motion to dismiss accurately identifies the basis for the various claims Ms. Keith asserts against them. See Doc. 7 at 3. Moreover, the complaint specifically identifies each of the claims it asserts along with particularized supporting facts. This is simply not a situation where the complaint “‘presents scores of allegations regardless of their relevance and incorporates them in their entirety into several counts asserting discrete claims for relief.'” Kyle K. v. Chapman, 208 F.3d 940, 944 (11th Cir. 2000) (GJR Invs., Inc. v. Cty. of Escambia, 132 F.3d 1359, 1368 (11th Cir. 1998)). Nor does the fact that a single claim is asserted against multiple defendants “render the complaint [fatally] deficient.” Id. Where, as here, a complaint consists of identifiable claims brought against specific defendants and supported by particularized facts, the court declines to classify it as a shotgun pleading subject to summary dismissal.

         2. The Complaint Fails to Plausibly Allege that the MHM Defendants Violated Mr. Hammonds' Constitutional Rights

         The MHM Defendants also aver that Ms. Keith failed to adequately allege that they violated the constitution. This is a prisoner suicide case brought via § 1983 alleging the violation of Mr. Hammonds' constitutional rights secured via the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. It is by now well established that the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment also proscribes deliberate indifference to a prisoner's serious medical needs. See, e.g., Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 104 (1976).[2] In this circuit, an inmate at risk of committing suicide is considered to have a serious medical need and accordingly suicide ...


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