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Spencer v. Fails

United States District Court, S.D. Alabama, Southern Division

July 26, 2018

CAPTAIN D. FAILS, et. al ., Defendants.



         Plaintiff Antonio R. Spencer, an Alabama prison inmate proceeding pro se and in forma pauperis, filed a complaint under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. This action was referred to the undersigned pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B) and Local Rule 72(a)(2)(R), and is now before the undersigned on Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 53). After careful review of the pleadings, and for the reasons set forth below, it is ordered that the motion be GRANTED in part and DENIED in part.

         Spencer asserts claims against Captain D. Fails, Correctional Officer E. Duren, Officer Ezell, and Officer Madison for excessive force and failure to intervene; and against Drs. George Kouns and Hugh Hood for denial of medical treatment, in violation of the Eighth Amendment. In his complaint, Spencer alleges that while housed at Holman Correctional Facility (“Holman”), on the morning of September 8, 2015, Defendants removed him from his dormitory bed, secured him in handcuffs behind his back, and escorted him to the main hall for questioning about an inmate-on-inmate attack. (Doc. 8 at 4-5). Spencer avers he had no knowledge of the inmate attack and was compliant. (Id. at 5). Following the inquiries, Captain Fails ordered that Spencer be taken to the healthcare unit for a body chart and then to the segregation unit for holding until an investigation regarding the inmate attack could be conducted. (Id.).

         According to Spencer, he “immediately start[ed] protesting asking as to why [he] was being placed in segregation . . . and as to what charges because [he] didn't do anything to be place[d] in lock-up.” (Id.). Spencer avers that Captain Fails replied, “I am the Captain I can do anything that I please to do, now take his ass to the infirmary to get a body-chart.” (Id.). Spencer further alleges that he asked to speak to the warden, and that in response, Captain Fails and Officer Duren “slammed” him to the floor while he was restrained with handcuffs to the rear. (Id.). Spencer contends that Officer Duren proceeded to bend his left pinky finger backwards and ordered him to “shut the fuck-up” when he yelled out in pain. (Id. at 6). Spencer also alleges that Officer Duren then dragged him to the infirmary despite his protests that he “[could] walk if given the opportunity.” (Id. at 7).

         Spencer avers that after receiving a body chart, he was charged with assault on an inmate and informed that he would be held in segregation for seventy-two (72) hours while the investigation of the inmate attack was completed.[1](Id.). Spencer further alleges that he was escorted to the segregation shift office, where leg irons were placed on him in addition to the rear facing handcuffs, and that Captain Fails ordered that photographs be taken of him. (Id.). According to Spencer, he continued to protest that he “didn't assault nobody”[2] and Captain Fails threatened to use pepper spray on him if he continued to refuse to be photographed. (Id. at 7-8). Spencer asserts that when he again insisted on speaking with the warden about Captain Fails' “[u]njust[] mistreatment” and claims, Captain Fails got angry, became enraged, pulled out a chemical agency mace spray and “deliberately sprayed several burst[s] into my mouth and nostrils while I was in restraints handcuffed to the rear with leg irons restraints shackles on and I could not resist.” (Id. at 8). Spencer further contends that “[Captain Fails then] snatched my leg iron restraint shackles with such great force it cause[d] me to hit my head on the edge of the desk table busting my head on the floor where I was bleeding, Captain Fails and Officer E. Duren start[ed] choking and kicking me” and Captain Fails yelled, “when I tell you myself to do something you need to do it. Now go tell Warden Myers that mother-fucker.” (Id. at 9). Spencer also claims that during the assault, Officers Madison and Ezell “looked on” and failed to intervene. (Id. at 8).

         Following the assault, Spencer returned to the medical unit and was again examined by a nurse. (Doc. 42-2 at 14). The nurse noted a two-centimeter laceration on Spencer's head, cleaned the blood, and ordered daily wound cleaning until the laceration was healed. (Id.; Doc. 8 at 9; Doc. 30-1 at 11). Spencer was then released to the care of the officers and escorted to segregation. (Doc. 30-1 at 11).

         Following the incident, Spencer submitted multiple sick call requests complaining of pain and damage to the pinky finger on his left hand, which he claims is from Officer Duren bending his finger backwards on September 8, 2015. (Doc. 30-1 at 12, 14, 21-22, 28, 35). The medical records reflect that Spencer was examined by the nursing staff and doctors at Holman, received x-ray scans, and consulted with specialists regarding his finger. (Id. at 8, 15-20, 23, 24-32, 36-45). Spencer alleges that he cannot straighten his pinky finger; “it just sticks out straight” and that despite numerous requests, he has been denied surgical treatment to repair the damage and continues to suffer pain from the injury. (Doc. 12 at 4-8).

         In this suit against Defendants Fails, Duren, Ezell, Madison, Kouns, and Hood, Spencer seeks injunctive[3] and monetary relief. (Doc. 8 at 14-15; Doc. 12 at 11). Defendants have answered and provided special reports, which include affidavits, medical records, incident reports, and photographs. (See Docs. 27, 30, 37, 41, 42). Spencer filed responses to Defendants' submissions. (Docs. 34, 43, 51). Upon review of Spencer's complaint, Defendants' answers and special reports, and Spencer's responses, the Court notified the parties' that Defendants' answers and special reports were being converted into a motion for summary judgment, and afforded the parties an opportunity to file any response and materials in support of or in opposition to the motion. (Doc. 53). Spencer filed a response in opposition to the motion. (Docs. 54). This motion is now ripe for consideration.

         I. Summary Judgment Standard.

         In analyzing the propriety of a motion for summary judgment, the Court begins with these basic principles. The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure grant this Court authority under Rule 56 to render "judgment as a matter of law" to a party who moves for summary judgment. Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(a) provides that "[t]he 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." The party moving for summary judgment bears the "initial responsibility of informing the district court of the basis for [their] motion, and identifying those portions of 'the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any,' which [they] believe[] demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact." Clark v. Coats & Clark, Inc., 929 F.2d 604, 608 (11th Cir. 1991) (bracketed text added) (quoting Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986)).

         If the moving party does not have the burden of proof at trial, they may show that "there is an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party's case." United States v. Four Parcels of Real Property, 941 F.2d 1428, 1437 (11th Cir. 1991) (citations omitted). Alternatively, the moving party may support its "motion for summary judgment with affirmative evidence demonstrating that the nonmoving party will be unable to prove its case at trial." Id. If the moving party meets this burden, the non-movant, as the party bearing the burden of proof at trial, must set forth specific facts, supported by citation to the evidence, to support the elements of the case at trial, and therefore, establish that there is a genuine issue for trial. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 252, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986).

         Overall, the Court must "resolve all issues of material fact in favor of the [non-movant], and then determine the legal question of whether the [movant] is entitled to judgment as a matter of law under that version of the facts." McDowell v. Brown, 392 F.3d 1283, 1288 (11th Cir. 2004) (citing Durruthy v. Pastor, 351 F.3d 1080, 1084 (11th Cir. 2003)). "[A]ll reasonable doubts about the facts and all justifiable inferences are resolved in favor of the non-movant." Citizens Trust Bank v. Lett, 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 90849, 2015 WL 4254561 at *1 (N.D. Ala. 2015). The Court is obligated to construe the record, including all evidence and factual inferences, in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. See Skop v. City of Atlanta, 485 F.3d 1130, 1136 (11th Cir. 2007).

         However, the mere existence of any factual dispute will not automatically necessitate denial of a motion for summary judgment; rather, only factual disputes that are material preclude entry of summary judgment. Lofton v. Secretary of Dep't of Children and Family Services, 358 F.3d 804, 809 (11th Cir. 2004). "An issue of fact is material if it is a legal element of the claim under the applicable substantive law which might affect the outcome of the case. It is genuine if the record taken as a whole could lead a rational trier of fact to find for the nonmoving party." Reeves v. C.H. Robinson Worldwide, Inc., 594 F.3d 798, 807 (11th Cir. 2010) (citation omitted). A genuine dispute of material fact exists "if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Allen v. Bd. of Public Education for Bibb County, 495 F.3d 1306, 1313 (11th Cir. 2007).

         II. Immunity Defenses.

         Spencer is proceeding against Defendants in their official and individual capacities, and Defendants have asserted applicable immunity defenses. (Docs. 27, 37, 42). With respect to Spencer's claims against the correctional officers in their official capacities, Defendants Fails, Duren, Ezell, and Madison are entitled to absolute immunity. The Eleventh Amendment, which specifically prohibits suits against "the United States by Citizens of another State, or by Citizens or Subjects of any Foreign State," has long been held to apply "equally to suits against a state brought in federal court by citizens of that state." Harbert Int'l, Inc. v. James, 157 F.3d 1271, 1277 (11th Cir. 1998). "The state need not be formally named as a defendant for the amendment to apply; state officials sued in their official capacity are also protected by the amendment." Id. (citing Kentucky v. Graham, 473 U.S. 159, 166-67, 105 S.Ct. 3099, 87 L.Ed.2d 114 (1985)). "Section 1983 provides a federal forum to remedy many deprivations of civil liberties, but it does not provide a federal forum for litigants who seek a remedy against a State for alleged deprivations of civil liberties." Will v. Mich. Dep't of State Police, 491 U.S. 58, 66, 109 S.Ct. 2304, 105 L.Ed.2d 45 (1989).

         Spencer alleges that Defendants Fails, Duren, Ezell and Madison, all of whom were employed by the State of Alabama Department of Corrections as officers at Holman at the time of the incident alleged in the complaint, violated his constitutional rights. It is well settled in this circuit that suits seeking monetary relief against state correctional officers in their official capacities are generally barred by the Eleventh Amendment. See Taylor v. Adams, 221 F.3d 1254, 1256 (11th Cir. 2000); Lancaster v. Monroe Cnty., 116 F.3d 1419, 1429 (11th Cir. 1997); Dean v. Barber, 951 F.2d 1210, 1215 n.5 (11th Cir.1992); Free, 887 F.2d at 1557.

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, 105 S.Ct. 3099, 87 L.Ed.2d 114 (1985). "A state official may not be sued in his official capacity unless the state has waived its Eleventh Amendment immunity, see Pennhurst State Sch. & Hosp. v. Halderman, 465 U.S. 89, 100, 104 S.Ct. 900, 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, 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 Cnty., 116 F.3d 1419, 1429 (11th Cir. 1997); Powell v. Barrett, 496 F.3d 1288, 1304, 1308 (11th Cir. 2007) (state defendants sued in their official capacity for monetary damages are immune from suit under the Eleventh Amendment).

Johnson v. Folks, 2014 WL 524602 at *3-4, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 16027, 7-9 (S.D. Ala. Feb. 7, 2014) (quoting Johnson v. Keaton, 2008 WL 4493242 at *6, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 75356 (M.D. Ala. Sept. 29, 2008)).

         No one disputes that the correctional Defendants were state officials at the time the action arose. As such, they are entitled to sovereign immunity under the Eleventh Amendment for claims seeking monetary damages from them in their official capacities. Therefore, Defendants Fails, Duren, Ezell, and Madison are entitled to absolute immunity from Plaintiff's claims asserted against them in their official capacities.

         As to the defense of qualified immunity, which is applicable to defendants acting within their discretionary authority, see Johnson v. Boyd, 701 Fed.Appx. 841, 847 (11th Cir. 2017), “officers [are protected] from liability in § 1983 actions as long ‘as their conduct does not violate clearly established or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.'” Wells v. Talton, 695 Fed.Appx. 439, 443 (11th Cir. 2017) (citing Lewis v. City of W. Palm Beach, 561 F.3d 1288, 1291 (11th Cir. 2009) (quoting Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818, 102 S.Ct. 2727, 2738, 73 L.Ed.2d 396 (1982)). A plaintiff may "show that a constitutional right was clearly established in three different ways: '(1) case law with indistinguishable facts clearly establishing the constitutional right; (2) a broad statement of principle within the Constitution, statute, or case law that clearly establishes a constitutional right; or (3) conduct so egregious that a constitutional right was clearly violated, even in the total absence of case law.'" Hill v. Orange Cty. Sheriff, 666 Fed.Appx. 836, 839 (11th Cir. 2016) (quoting Lewis v. City of W. Palm Beach, 561 F.3d at 1291-1292)).

         In this Eighth Amendment excessive force case, "'the subjective element required to establish [the constitutional violation] is so extreme that every conceivable set of circumstances in which this constitutional violation occurs is clearly established to be a violation of the Constitution." Bowden v. Stokely, 576 Fed.Appx. 951, 954-955 (11th Cir. 2014) (quoting Johnson v. Breeden, 280 F.3d 1308, 1321-22 (11th Cir.2002)). Therefore, if Spencer is able to establish his claim as laid out in his complaint, Defendants Fails, Duren, Ezell, and Madison cannot avail themselves of the protection of qualified immunity to defeat this action.

         The Court also observes that, as private actors, medical Defendants Drs. Hood and Kouns are not entitled to either qualified or absolute immunity. See Swann v. Southern Health Partners, Inc., 388 F.3d 834, 837 (11th Cir. 2004) ("The parties agree that as a private entity, SHP [a private corporation employed by the County to provide medical care to inmates at the county jail] is not entitled to assert a qualified immunity defense."); Hinson v. Edmond, 205 F.3d 1264, 1265 (11th Cir. 2000) (a "privately employed prison physician is ineligible to advance the defense of qualified immunity"); Edwards v. Alabama Dep't of Corrs., 81 F.Supp.2d 1242, 1254 (M.D. Ala. 2000) (a private entity contracting with a state to provide medical services to state inmates "is not entitled to qualified immunity...."). “With respect to absolute immunity, Defendants have cited no case, and the Court is aware of no case, extending absolute immunity to private actors providing medical services to state inmates.” Walker-El v. Naphcare Med. Servs., 432 F.Supp.2d 1264, n. 3 (S.D. Ala. 2006).

         III. Discussion.

         "In order for a plaintiff to establish a claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, he must prove (1) a violation of a constitutional right, and (2) that the alleged violation was committed by a person acting under the color of state law." Martinez v. Burns, 459 Fed.Appx. 849, 850-851 (11th Cir. 2012) (citing Holmes v. Crosby, 418 F.3d 1256, 1258 (11th Cir. 2005)). The parties do not dispute that Defendants, employed as correctional officers for the State of Alabama or as contract employees for the State of Alabama, were acting under the color of state law at the time of the complained of incident. Thus, the Court must determine if Defendants have established that there are no genuine facts with respect to Spencer's Eighth Amendment claims.

         1. Excessive Force Claims.

         "The Eighth Amendment, applicable to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment, governs the conditions under which convicted prisoners are confined and the treatment they receive while in prison." Id. (citing Farrow v. West, 320 F.3d 1235, 1242 (11th Cir. 2003); Bass v. Perrin, 170 F.3d 1312, 1316 (11th Cir. 1999)). The Amendment states that "[e]xcessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted." U.S. Const. Amend. VIII. "'[T]he unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain ... constitutes cruel and unusual punishment forbidden by the Eighth Amendment.'" Whitley v. Albers, 475 U.S. 312, 319, 106 S.Ct. 1078, 89 L.Ed.2d 251 (1986) (some internal quotation marks omitted). "Among 'unnecessary and wanton' inflictions of pain are those that are 'totally without penological justification.'" Rhodes v. Chapman, 452 U.S. 337, 346, 101 S.Ct. 2392, 2399, 69 L.Ed.2d 59 (1981); Hudson v. McMillian, 112 S.Ct. 995, 998, 503 U.S. 1, 5, 117 L.Ed.2d 156 (1992) ('[T]he unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain ... constitutes cruel and unusual punishment forbidden by the Eighth Amendment.'") (citations omitted). "Therefore, the "Eighth Amendment prohibits prison officers from using excessive force against prisoners." Pearson v. Taylor, 665 Fed.Appx. 858, 863 (11th Cir. 2016) (citing Thomas v. Bryant, 614 F.3d 1288, 1303-04 (11th Cir. 2010)). Thus, "[t]he 'core judicial inquiry' for an excessive-force claim is 'whether force was applied in a good-faith effort to maintain or restore discipline, or maliciously and sadistically to cause harm.'" Pearson, 665 Fed.Appx. at 863 (quoting Wilkins v. Gaddy, 559 U.S. 34, 37, 130 S.Ct. 1175, 175 L.Ed.2d 995 (2010) (quoting Hudson, 503 U.S. at 7).

         The Eleventh Circuit has "identified five factors to help evaluate whether force was applied maliciously or sadistically." Pearson, 665 Fed.Appx. at 863 (citing Danley v. Allen, 540 F.3d 1298, 1307 (11th Cir. 2008), overruled on other grounds as recognized by Randall v. Scott, 610 F.3d 701, 709 (11th Cir. 2010)): "(1) the need for force; (2) the relationship between that need and the amount of force used; (3) the extent of the resulting injury; (4) the extent of the threat to the safety of staff and inmates, as reasonably perceived by the responsible official on the basis of facts known to that official; and (5) any efforts made to temper the severity of the use of force."[4] Pearson, 665 Fed.Appx. at 863 (citations omitted).

         In the present action, Defendants do not dispute that force was used against Spencer. Rather, they submit that the force used was “minimal, justified, and necessary” due to Spencer's “insubordinate” and “aggressive” behavior. (Doc. 42 at 1). In support of their assertions, Defendants submitted sworn affidavits giving a different version of the facts. On September 8, 2015, Spencer was placed in handcuffs and escorted from his dormitory to the main hall. (Doc. 42-3). Spencer was informed that he was going to be placed in segregation pending an investigation for an assault on an inmate with a weapon. Spencer responded, “I didn't do nothing and I am not going to lock up.” (Id.). He refused to be escorted to the healthcare unit and segregation, and started “pulling away from the officers.” (Id.). According to Defendants, Spencer resisted the placement of leg irons by kicking the officers, and he refused to take photographs prior to his placement in segregation. (Id.). He “sat on the table and refused to move.” (Id. at 2). As a result, Captain Fails administered a one second burst of a chemical agent, Sabre Red, to Spencer's facial area to gain compliance. (Id.).

         Captain Fails denies choking, kicking, or using excessive force against Spencer. (Id.). Officer Duren avers that Spencer resisted having leg irons placed on him by kicking Officer Duren. (Doc. 42-4 at 1-2). Officer Duren further avers that he did not bend Spencer's finger backwards nor did he “do anything else to inmate Spencer that he is alleging.” (Id. at 2). Officers Ezell and Madison affirm by affidavits that they did not witness any excessive force used in restraining Spencer on September 8, 2015. (Docs. 42-5; 42-6).

         The formal prison reports prepared in response to the incident corroborate Defendants' version of the events and provide slightly more details regarding the unfolding of the incident. (Doc. 42-2 at 2-4, 18). The Incident Report states that:

On September 8, 2015, at approximately 4:50 AM, Correctional Lieutenant Victor Nieves received information that inmates Luther Glenn B/148373 and Antonio Spencer B/244156 were involved in a physical altercation around noon on September 7, 2015 and inmate Glenn was possibly injured. At approximately 5:00 AM, inmate Glenn was . . . treated for a small laceration on the left shoulder and superficial injuries to his back. Lieutenant Nieves questioned inmate Glenn about the incident and inmate Glenn state that “Tim” stabbed him in the back after a verbal altercation about a cellular phone. At approximately 5:10 AM, Lieutenant Nieves notified the On Call Duty Officer, Correctional Captain Darryl Fails, and reported the incident. At approximately 6:00 AM, inmate Spencer was located in C-Dorm. Inmate Spencer was placed in handcuffs restraints and escorted to the Main Hall. Captain Fails observed several blood stains on inmate Spencer white short pants. Captain Fails questioned inmate Spencer about the blood stains. Inmate Spencer stated, “I cut my finger on my left hand”. Inmate Spencer state I didn't do anything and I am not going to lock up for nothing. Inmate Spencer began to struggle and kick at the officers on the main hall. Inmate Spencer was placed on the floor of the main hall and secured in leg irons restraints. Inmate Spencer was escorted to the Health Care Unit where he received a medical assessment and was escorted to Segregation. Inmate Spencer refused to take pictures and again refused to be escorted to a segregation cell. Captain Fails retrieved his canister of “Sabre Red” from his utility belt and administered a one second burst to inmate Spencer'[s] facial area. Inmate Spencer was placed in the shower in segregation for decontamination. Inmate Spencer remains in segregation pending investigation and Failure to Obey. Officer Duren received a small laceration to his right wrist from the leg iron due to inmate Spencer struggling on the floor. . . .

(Doc. 42-2 at 2). The Duty Officer Report prepared following the incident provides the same facts contained in the Incident Report. (Doc. 42-2 at 3). The statement taken of Correctional Officer Lieutenant Victor Nieves, a non-party ...

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