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Aaron v. Harris

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

February 22, 2019

JUSTIN AARON, Plaintiff,
v.
RICK HARRIS, Sheriff of Winston County, Alabama, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OF OPINION

          L. SCOTT COOGLER UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Justin Aaron (“Aaron”) brings claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Defendants Rick Harris (“Sheriff Harris”), the Town of Parrish, and Roderick McConico (“Police Chief McConico”), alleging that his constitutional rights were violated while he was incarcerated in both the Winston County and Town of Parrish Jails. Specifically, Aaron brings failure to protect, failure to provide adequate medical care, and supervisory liability claims against Sheriff Harris. Aaron brings failure to provide medical care and supervisory liability claims against Police Chief McConico. The sole claim against the Town of Parrish is a failure to fund claim. Presently before the Court are Sheriff Harris's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 78) and the Town of Parrish and Police Chief McConico's (collectively, “Parrish Defendants”) Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 81). The motions have been fully briefed and are ripe for review. For the reasons stated below, Sheriff Harris's motion (doc. 78) is due to be GRANTED, and the Parrish Defendants' motion (doc. 81) is due to be GRANTED in PART and DENIED in PART.

         I. Background[1]

         On May 6, 2014, Aaron was booked into the Winston County Jail on a failure to appear warrant and placed into the general population in the jail's B-Block. Ten days later, Aaron's wrist was injured during an altercation with an unidentified inmate who accused Aaron of being a snitch. Aaron reported this injury by pressing his cell's call button and telling corrections officers that he had slipped and fallen while jumping off his bunk bed. Later that evening, Aaron was sent to Walker Baptist Hospital for treatment. Aaron's wrist was placed in a splint, and he was discharged from the hospital with instructions to schedule a follow-up appointment with an orthopedist. On May 19th, Aaron went to an orthopedic group where he was told to continue wearing the wrist brace.

         At some point, Sheriff Harris, the Sheriff of Winston County, spoke with Aaron regarding his injury. When Sheriff Harris asked what happened, Aaron stated that he had slipped and fallen while climbing off his bunk bed. He then asked the Sheriff if he could be moved into a different cell. Sheriff Harris responded by asking Aaron if he was having any problems. Aaron told the Sheriff that he did not “want to say anything or [name] anybody” because he did not want to be referred to as a snitch. (See Doc. 80-1 at 38.) The Sheriff then explained to Aaron that if he could not tell him “who [was] doing what” to notify officers of any problems by using his cell's call button. (See id.)

         On May 24th, Aaron was attacked for a second time, by the same unidentified inmate, who this time hit Aaron in the face knocking him unconscious. When he woke up, Aaron went to the shower to rinse off the blood and then pressed the call button for a corrections officer. Aaron told the corrections officer that he had fallen in the shower, was bleeding from his eye and nose, and needed to see a doctor. The corrections officer asked whether Aaron ever had a nosebleed before and told him to stuff some tissue in his nose. Jail officials advised Aaron to see the jail nurse the following day. The jail nurse picked up Aaron's medical request slip at 1:30 PM on May 25th, and the next day, May 26, 2014, corrections officers took Aaron to medical for treatment. The nurse who assessed Aaron applied ice and gave him ibuprofen. Aaron received similar treatment on May 27, 2014.

         Captain James Whitman (“Captain Whitman”), the jail administrator, then met with Aaron at medical to investigate Aaron's injury. Because Aaron's left eye was bruised and nearly swollen shut, it appeared to Captain Whitman that Aaron had been punched in the eye. However, when questioned, Aaron stated that he had slipped in the shower and hit his face on part of a nearby door. Doubting the accuracy of Aaron's explanation and as a precaution against further injury, Captain Whitman transferred Aaron from B-Block into E-Block.

         On May 28, 2014, Aaron was released from the Winston County Jail for time served and transferred to the Parrish Jail. Aaron did not make any request for medical treatment during the transfer, but Aaron claims that he did when he was being booked into the Parrish Jail. The Parrish Defendants dispute Aaron's account. The parties agree that Aaron and Town of Parrish Police Chief McConico interacted at some point during Aaron's incarceration. However, they dispute the extent of McConico's knowledge of Aaron's facial injuries. During Aaron's approximately twenty-nine hour stay in the Parrish Jail, he did not receive any medical treatment. A little more than three hours after his release from the Parrish Jail, Aaron went to the emergency room at Walker Baptist Hospital where he was diagnosed with facial fractures consistent with being struck in the eye. Walker Baptist Hospital recommended that Aaron follow up with a facial surgeon, but he contends that he did not do so because he is uninsured.

         II. Motion to Strike

         As an initial matter, the Court will address the Parrish Defendants' objections to one of Aaron's evidentiary submissions. The Parrish Defendants argue that the Court should exclude from evidence an affidavit from former Parrish Police Officer Ken Marbury (“Marbury”) because Aaron failed to disclose Marbury as a potential witness. According to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 26(a)(1), a party must “without awaiting a discovery request” disclose:

the name and, if known, the address and telephone number of each individual likely to have discoverable informati--along with the subjects of that information-that the disclosing party may use to support its claims or defenses, . . .

Fed. R. Civ. P. 26(a)(1)(i). Rule 26(e) provides that parties must supplement their initial disclosures when they “learn[] that in some material respect the disclosure or response is incomplete or incorrect, and if the additional or corrective information has not otherwise been made known to the other parties during the discovery process or in writing . . . .” Fed.R.Civ.P. 26(e)(1)(A).

         Under Rule 37(c)(1), “[i]f a party fails to provide information or identify a witness as required by Rule 26(a) or (e), the party is not allowed to use that information or witness to supply evidence on a motion, at a hearing, or at a trial, unless the failure was substantially justified or is harmless.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 37(c)(1). “The burden of establishing that a failure to disclose was substantially justified or harmless rests on the nondisclosing party.” Mitchell v. Ford Motor Co., 318 Fed. App'x 821, 824 (11th Cir. 2009) (quoting Leathers v. Pfizer, Inc., 233 F.R.D. 687, 697 (N.D.Ga. 2006)). Factors to be considered include: (1) the importance of the testimony, (2) the reasons for the non-disclosing party's failure to disclose the witness earlier, and (3) the prejudice to the opposing party if the witness is allowed to testify. See Pete's Towing Co. v. City of Tampa, Fla., 378 Fed. App'x 917, 920 (11th Cir. 2010) (citing Bearint ex rel. Bearint v. Dorell Juvenile Group, Inc., 389 F.3d 1339, 1353 (11th Cir. 2004)).

         Aaron admits that prior to filing his Response in Opposition to the Parrish Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment he did not disclose Marbury as a potential fact witness. Moreover, Aaron does not dispute that he failed to provide any initial disclosures to the Parrish Defendants or mention Marbury as a potential witness in response to the Parrish Defendants' interrogatories. However, Aaron argues that this omission was completely harmless and that he would be unfairly prejudiced if the Court were to strike Marbury's affidavit from evidence.

         The Court agrees with Aaron that Marbury's testimony is important to his case against Police Chief McConico. Marbury, who was employed as the Assistant Chief of Police for the Town of Parrish, testified that based on his observations of Aaron it was “obvious [that Aaron] needed medical care from a doctor.” (See Doc. 86-4 at 3.) He also stated that he asked Police Chief McConico why someone in Aaron's condition was locked up in jail. (See id.) This testimony provides evidence that Aaron suffered from a serious medical need and that Police Chief McConico was aware of Aaron's injuries. Nonetheless, to determine whether Aaron is entitled to use this evidence, the Court must balance its importance with other relevant considerations.

         Aaron's excuse for failing to disclose Marbury as a witness is that he did not discover that he needed Marbury's testimony until after the Parrish Defendants filed their motion for summary judgment. According to Aaron, Police Chief McConico's affidavit, which was submitted in support of that summary judgment motion, is what caused him to reach out to Marbury. Specifically, Aaron states that he realized he needed to find a witness to rebut Police Chief McConico's testimony that Aaron said that he did not need medical treatment and that Aaron was not acting in a manner that would indicate he had a serious medical condition. The Court finds this excuse to be lacking. Although Aaron may not have known precisely what Police Chief McConico's testimony would be, it should not have come as a surprise that Police Chief McConico would minimize any injury suffered by Aaron. The crux of Aaron's claims against Police Chief McConico are that he denied Aaron medical treatment for serious injuries to his face. Thus, Aaron should have known from the outset of this case that Police Chief McConico would likely testify that Aaron's injuries did not appear serious to him.

         Additionally, the Parrish Defendants have been prejudiced by Aaron's failure to timely disclose Marbury. Aaron did not disclose Marbury until after discovery had closed, so the Parrish Defendants had no opportunity to depose Marbury regarding his statements. The timing of Marbury's disclosure also prevented the Parrish Defendants from being able to offer evidence to rebut his claims in their summary judgment motion. Nevertheless, the Court considers Aaron's failure to disclose Marbury to be harmless. The Advisory Committee notes to Rule 37(c) provides several examples of harmless failures to disclose. These include “the inadvertent omission from a Rule 26(a)(1)(A) disclosure of the name of a potential witness known to all parties” and “the failure to list as a trial witness a person so listed by another party.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 37 advisory committee notes (1993 Amendments, Subdivision (c)). As Aaron points out, the Parrish Defendants disclosed in their initial disclosures that “[a]ny and all employees of the Town of Parrish and/or the Parrish Police Department who had contact with the Plaintiff during his time in the Parrish jail” were likely to have discoverable information to support their defenses. (See Doc. 89-1 at 6.) Thus, Marbury, a Parrish Police Department employee, appears to have been a potential witness known to all of the parties.

         The Parrish Defendants' knowledge that their employees likely had discoverable information regarding Aaron's time in the Town of Parrish jail mitigates the prejudice caused by Aaron's failure to disclose. Although Police Chief McConico denies discussing Aaron with Marbury, he does not dispute that Marbury was working at the Town of Parrish Jail during Aaron's incarceration. (See Doc. 87-2.) Therefore, based on the Parrish Defendants' initial disclosures, it appears that they had adequate notice that Marbury was a potential witness. This knowledge, coupled with the importance of Marbury's testimony, favors allowing the Marbury affidavit to be submitted into evidence. Thus, although the better practice is to disclose the names of potential witnesses during the discovery process, the Court will not strike Marbury's affidavit due to Aaron's failure to disclose.

         III. Motions for ...


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