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Phillips v. Jones

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

February 5, 2019

BYRON RAY PHILLIPS, #231723, Plaintiff,
v.
KARLA JONES, et al., Defendants. BYRON RAY PHILLIPS, #231723, Plaintiff,
v.
KARLA JONES, et al., Defendants.

          RECOMMENDATION OF THE MAGISTRATE JUDGE

          Susan Russ Walker, United States Magistrate Judge.

         I. INTRODUCTION [1]

         This consolidated 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action is pending before the court on complaints filed by Byron Ray Phillips (“Phillips”), an indigent state inmate.[2] Phillips challenges separate actions which occurred at the Ventress Correctional Facility on or about August 22, 2015, September 17, 2015 and September 26, 2015.[3] Although the pleadings filed by Phillips are far from models of clarity, the court interprets the complaints to contain the following claims for relief: (i) deliberate indifference to plaintiff's safety - i.e., failure to protect him from altercations with other inmates on August 22, 2015, September 17, 2015 and September 26, 2015, and (ii) unnecessary use of mace to quell the altercation on September 26, 2015. Phillips names Karla Jones, Capt. Pamela Harris, Lt. Bradley Walker, Lt. Althea Townsend, Sgt. Curtis Simmons, Officer Jimmy Rumph and Capt. Jimmy Thomas, all correctional officials employed at Ventress at the time relevant to the complaint, as defendants.[4] Phillips seeks monetary damages for the alleged violations of his constitutional rights.

         The defendants filed a special report, supplements thereto and supporting evidentiary materials addressing the claims for relief presented by Phillips. In these documents, the defendants deny violating Phillips' constitutional rights. The court issued orders directing Phillips to file responses to the defendants' reports, to include affidavits, sworn statements or other evidentiary materials. Doc. 12 at 2 & Doc. 41 at 2. These orders specifically cautioned Phillips that unless “sufficient legal cause” is shown within fifteen days of entry of either order “why such action should not be undertaken, … the court may at any time [after expiration of the time for his filing a response to this 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.” Doc. 41 at 3. Phillips filed an unsworn response to the defendants' initial special report, Doc. 15, but filed no response to the defendants' supplemental special reports.

         Pursuant to the orders entered in this case, the court deems it appropriate to treat the defendants' reports as a motion for summary judgment. Thus, this case is now pending on the defendants' motion for summary judgment. Upon consideration of the defendants' motion for summary judgment, the evidentiary materials filed in support thereof, the complaints and the response filed by Phillips, 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) (internal quotation marks omitted); Rule 56(a), Fed.R.Civ.P. (“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.”).[5] 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 issue [dispute] of material fact.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986); Jeffery v. Sarasota White Sox, Inc., 64 F.3d 590, 593 (11th Cir. 1995) (holding that moving party has initial burden of showing there is no genuine dispute of material fact for trial). The movant may meet this burden by presenting evidence indicating there is no dispute of material fact or by showing 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) (holding that moving party discharges his burden by showing the record lacks evidence to support the nonmoving party's case or the nonmoving party would be unable to prove his case at trial).

         When the defendants meet their evidentiary burden, as they have in this case, the burden shifts to the plaintiff 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); Jeffery, 64 F.3d at 593-94 (holding that, once a moving party meets its burden, “the non-moving party must then go beyond the pleadings, and by its own affidavits [or statements made under penalty of perjury], or by depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, ” demonstrate that there is a genuine dispute of material fact). 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). 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). 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). 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 such that summary judgment is not warranted. Greenberg, 498 F.3d at 1263; Allen v. Bd. of Pub. Educ. for Bibb Cnty., 495 F.3d 1306, 1313 (11th Cir. 2007). “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) (citation omitted). “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); Feliciano v. City of Miami Beach, 707 F.3d 1244, 1253-54 (11th Cir. 2013) (same).

         Although factual inferences must be viewed in a light most favorable to the plaintiff 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. See Beard, 548 U.S. at 525; Brown v. Crawford, 906 F.2d 667, 670 (11th Cir. 1990). Thus, the plaintiff's pro se status alone does not compel this court to disregard elementary principles of production and proof in a civil case.

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

         III. ABSOLUTE IMMUNITY

         To the extent Phillips requests monetary damages from the defendants in their official capacities, they 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). As the Eleventh Circuit has held,

the Eleventh Amendment prohibits federal courts from entertaining suits by private parties against States and their agencies [or employees]. There are two exceptions to this prohibition: where the state has waived its immunity or where Congress has abrogated that immunity. A State's consent to suit must be unequivocally expressed in the text of [a] relevant statute. Waiver may not be implied. Id. Likewise, Congress' intent to abrogate the States' immunity from suit must be obvious from a clear legislative statement.

Selensky v. Alabama, 619 Fed.Appx. 846, 848-49 (11th Cir. 2015) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). Thus, 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 (1984), or Congress has abrogated the State's immunity, see Seminole Tribe v. Florida, 517 U.S. 44, 59 (1996).

Neither waiver nor abrogation applies here. The Alabama Constitution states that “the State of Alabama shall never be made a defendant in any court of law or equity.” Ala. Const. Art. I, § 14. The Supreme Court has recognized that this prohibits Alabama from waiving its immunity from suit.

Selensky, 619 Fed.Appx. at 849 (citing Alabama v. Pugh, 438 U.S. 781, 782 (1978) (consent is prohibited by the Alabama Constitution). “Alabama has not waived its Eleventh Amendment immunity in § 1983 cases, nor has Congress abated it.” Holmes v. Hale, 701 Fed.Appx. 751, 753 (11th Cir. 2017) (citing Carr v. City of Florence, Ala., 916 F.2d 1521, 1525 (11th Cir.1990)). 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. Selensky, 619 Fed.Appx. at 849; 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 under the Eleventh Amendment from suit for damages); 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).

         IV. DISCUSSION OF CLAIMS FOR RELIEF [6]

         A. Deliberate Indifference

         1. Failure to Protect from Other Inmates.

         “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 inmates may be held liable under the Eighth Amendment for acting with “deliberate indifference” to an inmate's safety when the official knows 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. Jean, 326 F.3d 1352, 1358 (11th Cir. 2003). “It is not, however, every injury suffered by one prisoner at the hands of another that translates into constitutional liability for prison officials responsible for the victim's safety.” Farmer, 511 at 834. “Within [a prison's] volatile ‘community,' prison administrators are to take all necessary steps to ensure the safety of … the prison staff 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.” Purcell ex rel. Estate of Morgan v. Toombs County, Ga., 400 F.3d 1313 (11th Cir. 2005), citing Popham v. City of Talladega, 908 F.2d 1561, 1564 (11th Cir. 1990). “Only ‘[a] prison official's deliberate indifference to a known, substantial risk of serious harm to an inmate violates the Eighth Amendment.'” Harrison v. Culliver, 746 F.3d 1288, 1298 (11th Cir. 2014); citing Marsh v. Butler Cnty., Ala., 268 F.3d 1014, 1028 (11th Cir. 2001), abrogated on other grounds by Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007). “In order to state a § 1983 cause of action against prison officials based on a constitutional deprivation resulting from cruel and unusual punishment, 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 requires both objective and subjective elements to demonstrate an Eighth Amendment violation. Caldwell v. Warden, FCI Talladega, 748 F.3d 1090, 1099 (11th Cir. 2014). An inmate must first show that “an objectively substantial risk of serious harm … exist[ed]. Second, once it is established that the official is aware of this substantial risk, the official must react 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 serious harm exists - and the prison official must also “draw that inference.” Farmer, 511 U.S. at 837, 114 S.Ct. at 1979.

Carter v. Galloway, 352 F.3d 1346, 1349 (11th Cir. 2003). A defendant's subjective knowledge of the risk must be specific to that defendant because “imputed or collective knowledge cannot serve as the basis for a claim of deliberate indifference… . Each individual Defendant must be judged separately and on the basis of what that person knew at the time of the incident.” Burnette v. Taylor, 533 F.3d 1325, 1331 (11th Cir. 2008). “The known risk of injury must be a strong likelihood, rather than a mere possibility before a [state official's] failure to act can constitute deliberate indifference.” Brown v. Hughes, 894 F.2d 1533, 1537 (11th Cir. 1990) (citations and internal quotation marks omitted). Moreover, “[m]erely negligent failure to protect an inmate from attack does not justify liability under section 1983.” Id.

         “Prison correctional officers may be held directly liable under § 1983 if they fail or refuse to intervene when a constitutional violation occurs in their presence… . However, in order for liability to attach, the officer must have been in a position to intervene.” Terry v. Bailey, 376 Fed.Appx. 894, 896 (11th Cir.2010) (citing Ensley v. Soper, 142 F.3d 1402, 1407 (11th Cir. 1998)). The plaintiff has the burden of showing that the defendant was in a position to intervene but failed to ...


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