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Marbury v. Warden

United States Court of Appeals, Eleventh Circuit

August 29, 2019

MITCHELL MARBURY, Plaintiff-Appellant,
WARDEN, et al., Defendants-Appellees.

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Alabama D.C. Docket No. 4:16-cv-01152-AKK-JHE

          Before ROSENBAUM, BRANCH, and HIGGINBOTHAM, [*] Circuit Judges.

          PER CURIAM.

         Mitchell Marbury, a prisoner at Alabama's St. Clair Correctional Facility, was attacked by a fellow prisoner after making multiple requests to be transferred to a different dormitory or put in protective lock-up. He sued an officer in his cell block and warden of the prison under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, arguing that both were deliberately indifferent to a substantial risk to his safety. Marbury appeals the district court's grant of summary judgment to both defendants. We affirm.


         The following reflects the facts as contained in the limited summary judgment record in this case. Between February and April 2016, Marbury repeatedly attempted to be transferred to another dormitory. He sent a written request to Warden Dewayne Estes on February 12, 2016, stating that he had witnessed over fifteen inmate-on-inmate stabbing incidents that appeared to be gang related and asking to be assigned to a "more sociable" living area with inmates closer to his own age. Estes did not act on this request.[1] Marbury's sworn complaint avers that around the same time, he made several in-person transfer requests to Officer Beverly Warren and that Warren told him that if he continued to make transfer requests, she "would personally see to it, that it be fixed, where she'll have a legal reason to deny [the] requests." The complaint also alleges that Warren made other comments like "[Y]ou don't enjoy hanging out with the 'thugs,' afraid you might get shanked!" and "I got the keys to the city baby, you[] locked in."

         On April 5, Marbury sent another letter to Estes asking why he had not heard back regarding his February 12 letter.[2] He said that he had seen prisoners disrespect and attack security staff and felt "nothing is being done to correct the problem," and requested to be moved "from a[n] over-rated gang affiliated block to a program block or one where [he could] feel safe and secure[ ]."

         On April 18, Marbury asked Warren to have the captain put him in lock-up until he could be transferred because he had heard from a friend that another inmate wanted to hurt him. He avers that Warren responded, "[D]o you really think I'ma act upon your requests, after you've filed complaints and requests against me," started laughing, then said, "You don't have a shank, . . . you need to get one, [because you aren't] going to lock-up, there's no cells available, so seem[s] like to me you've got a problem." One day later, Marbury again wrote to Estes saying, "I was told by a friend to watch my back, because he got word someone was out to do harm to me." He requested that Estes place him in lock-up as soon as he received the complaint because he was "in fear of [being] hurt or possibl[y] killed." He also reported to Estes that Warren had laughed at him when he told her about his concerns and told him to get a knife. The captain in charge of placing inmates in lock-up says that she did not receive any information about Marbury's request to be locked up.

         On April 23, 2016, Marbury was stabbed and hit in the face in the prison's dayroom. He was treated for multiple stab wounds and a broken nose. Prison staff stated that they were unable to identify who attacked him, though they learned from other inmates that he was stabbed because he had called another inmate's girlfriend.

         Marbury filed a pro se § 1983 complaint against Estes and Warren in the Northern District of Alabama, alleging that they failed to protect him from unsafe conditions, were deliberately indifferent to those conditions, and retaliated against him for exercising his constitutionally protected rights. The magistrate judge construed the defendants' special report as a motion for summary judgment and issued a report and recommendation to grant them summary judgment on all claims. Marbury objected on the deliberate-indifference issue. The district court overruled Marbury's objections, adopted the report, and accepted its recommendation. Marbury now appeals the grant of summary judgment to the defendants.


         We review the district court's grant of summary judgment de novo, "view[ing] all the evidence and draw[ing] all reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the non-moving party."[3] Summary judgment is warranted where the evidence in the record "presents no genuine issue of material fact and compels judgment as a matter of law in favor of the moving party."[4] Where, as here, an inmate proceeded pro se in the district court, his summary judgment pleadings are construed liberally and "specific facts" alleged in his sworn complaint can suffice to generate a genuine dispute of fact.[5]


         "The defense of qualified immunity completely protects government officials performing discretionary functions from suit in their individual capacities unless their conduct violates 'clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.'' Gonzalez v. Reno, 325 F.3d 1228, 1233 (11th Cir. 2003) (quoting Hope v. Pelzer, 536 U.S. 730, 739 (2002)). Marbury concedes that the defendants were performing their discretionary duties at all times relevant to this appeal. Once it has been determined that the official was acting within his discretionary duties, the burden shifts to the plaintiff to show (1) that the official violated a constitutional right and (2) that the right was clearly established at the time of the alleged violation. Caldwell, 748 F.3d at 1099. Our inquiry "can begin with either prong." Morris v. Town of Lexington, 748 F.3d 1316, 1322 (11th Cir. 2014).

         It is well settled that prison officials must "take reasonable measures to guarantee the safety of the inmates, "[6] and "[a] prison official violates the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment if [the official] is deliberately indifferent to a substantial risk of serious harm to an inmate who suffers injury."[7] Not "every injury suffered by one inmate at the hands of another," however, "translates into a constitutional liability for prison officials responsible for the victim's safety."[8] To establish a § 1983 claim for deliberate indifference, a plaintiff must show "(1) a substantial risk of serious harm; (2) the defendants' deliberate indifference to that risk; and (3) causation."[9]

         The first element of deliberate indifference-whether there was a substantial risk of serious harm-is assessed objectively and requires the plaintiff to show "conditions that were extreme and posed an unreasonable risk of serious injury to his future health or safety."[10] The second element-whether the defendant was deliberately indifferent to that risk-has both a subjective and an objective component. Subjectively, the "official must both be aware of facts from which the inference could be drawn that a substantial risk of serious harm exists, and . . . also draw the inference."[11] Objectively, the official must have responded to the known risk in an unreasonable manner, in that he or she "knew of ways to reduce the harm" but knowingly or recklessly declined to act.[12] Finally, the plaintiff must show a "necessary causal link" between the officer's failure to act reasonably and the plaintiff's injury.[13]

         Marbury argues that the defendants were subjectively aware of two distinct types of risk. The first is the general threat posed by inmate-on-inmate violence in Marbury's cell block based on his statement that he had witnessed fifteen stabbings at the prison. The second is the threat Marbury identified in April 2016, when he told the defendants that he had heard from a friend that someone intended to harm him. He also argues that the defendants were deliberately indifferent in failing to further investigate his claims before the attack.

         As we explain, Marbury's deliberate-indifference claim fails because he has not demonstrated a genuine factual issue as to whether the defendants were deliberately indifferent to a substantial risk of serious harm to Marbury. Since Marbury has not met his burden to show the violation of a constitutional right, we need not proceed past step one of the qualified-immunity analysis.


         Marbury repeatedly asked to be transferred because he was concerned about a general lack of safety in his cell block. In his letters to Estes and the verbal requests he says he made to Warren, he told them that he had witnessed fifteen inmate-on-inmate stabbings that he attributed to gang affiliations, expressing fear for his own safety. Granting Marbury the resolution of all disputed facts in his favor, our caselaw nevertheless establishes that this evidence was insufficient to establish deliberate indifference to a substantial risk of serious harm.

         In general, a plaintiff must show "more than a generalized awareness of risk" to make out a deliberate-indifference claim.[14] While "occasional, isolated attacks by one prisoner on another may not constitute cruel and unusual punishment, . . . . confinement in a prison where violence and terror reign is actionable."[15] To establish deliberate indifference based on a generalized risk, the plaintiff must show "that serious inmate-on-inmate violence was the norm or something close to it."[16]

         Turning to this case, we look to only those facts contained in the summary judgment record. While Marbury's sworn allegation may support the inference that Marbury faced some generalized risk of attack, such evidence does not support the conclusion that serious inmate-on-inmate violence was so pervasive that it constitutes a substantial risk of serious harm to which defendants were deliberately indifferent. The only allegation Marbury makes about inmate-on-inmate violence is his statement that he personally witnessed fifteen inmate-on-inmate stabbings during his time at St. Clair.[17] There is no evidence in the record of the total prison population or the sections of the prison in which the attacks occurred that would place Marbury's statement in context. Also, it is not precisely clear from the record over what period of time these incidents occurred. But we can tell from the record that Marbury was at St. Clair between 2002 and 2007, went to a different correctional facility, and then returned in 2015. So, the fifteen stabbings may have occurred over the course of 6 years, for a rate of 2.5 per year.

         Marbury's allegation stands in sharp contrast to those at issue in Harrison v. Culliver, for example, where we held that even though a prison warden was on notice that inmate-on-inmate assaults occurred throughout the prison and in a particular location where a prisoner was attacked, "the evidence of inmate-on-inmate assault involving weapons [did] not . . . indicate that inmates were 'exposed to something even approaching the constant threat of violence.'"[18] We emphasized that the institution in Harrison was large, housing between 830 and 990 inmates between 2005 and 2008, and the fact that there had been thirty-three incidents involving weapons during the same time period was "hardly sufficient to demonstrate that [the institution] was a prison 'where violence and terror reign.'"[19]And Marbury has presented far less evidence about the level of violence than the evidence presented in Harrison that we found "hardly sufficient" to establish deliberate indifference to a substantial risk of serious harm.

         Moreover, when we have held that a generalized risk of violence from a prison population could support a claim of deliberate indifference to a substantial risk of serious harm, the plaintiff has pointed to specific features of a facility or its population rendering it particularly violent. This evidence has included pervasive staffing and logistical issues rendering prison officials unable to address near-constant violence, [20] tensions between different subsets of a prison population, [21]and unique risks posed by individual prisoners or groups of prisoners due to characteristics like mental illness.[22] Even if Marbury had shown a risk of generalized prison violence, he has made no allegations regarding the specific features of the prison that would make it particularly violent.

         We emphasize that the record before the district court was limited.[23] While we are sensitive to Marbury's pro se status before the district court, the evidence Marbury has presented regarding a general risk of inmate-on-inmate violence does not rise to the level necessary to show deliberate indifference to a substantial risk of serious harm required by our caselaw. This sparse record at most shows that inmates at St. Clair faced some risk of assaults by fellow prisoners, but we have said that some risk of harm is insufficient. Marbury has thus failed to produce evidence that he was in an environment so beset by violence that confinement, by its nature, threatened him with the substantial risk of serious harm.


         Marbury also argues that even if the defendants were not deliberately indifferent to a general lack of safety in his cell block, they were at least deliberately indifferent to the more specific threat he warned them about in April 2016-that he had heard from a friend that someone intended to harm him. As we have explained, Marbury's sworn complaint alleges that when he told Warren about this threat she laughed at him, told him she was not going to act on his request because he had filed internal complaints against her, and told him to get a knife or a shank if he did not already have one. Marbury then wrote another letter to Estes telling Estes about the threat and Warren's response, requesting to be placed in lock-up, and stating that he was afraid of being hurt or possibly killed. On the summary judgment record, Marbury appears to have provided no further information to either defendant about the nature of the threat.

         We must therefore decide whether a reasonable jury could find Marbury's statement that he had heard from a friend that an unnamed prisoner intended to hurt him, and that he was afraid of being hurt or killed, without any further details, sufficient to make the defendants aware of a substantial risk of serious harm. While this question is a close one, we conclude that our precedent does not allow Marbury's deliberate-indifference claim to proceed.

         On the one hand, it is settled that "a prison official [cannot] escape liability for deliberate indifference by showing that . . . he did not know that the complainant was especially likely to be assaulted by the specific prisoner who eventually committed the assault," as long as the official was otherwise aware that the victim faced a substantial risk of serious harm.[24] Our caselaw also establishes, however, that officials must possess enough details about a threat to enable them to conclude that it presents a "strong likelihood" of injury, not a "mere possibility."[25]The unfortunate reality is that "threats between inmates are common and do not, under all circumstances, serve to impute actual knowledge of a substantial risk of harm."[26]

         We have therefore upheld dismissal of or summary judgment against deliberate-indifference claims where, although a plaintiff told prison officials about a threat by another inmate or inmates, the prison officials were not deliberately indifferent to a substantial risk of harm. For example, we held that a plaintiff had failed to allege plausibly that prison officials were deliberately indifferent to a strong likelihood of serious harm where he was attacked by an inmate in the next cell when all of the cell doors opened and a riot began.[27] We noted that even though the plaintiff alleged that the attacker had threatened him previously and that an attack was possible, he had not alleged any information showing a strong likelihood that he and his attacker would be released at the same time in a chaotic environment.[28] Successful deliberate-indifference claims will generally require some further reason-beyond the plaintiff having informed the defendant officers of the threat-that a prison official could have concluded that a particular threat evidenced a substantial threat, rather than the mere possibility, of serious harm.

         For example, a plaintiff can establish deliberate indifference to a substantial risk of serious harm where he has given prison officials further information enabling them to conclude that the risk was substantial and not merely possible. In Rodriguez v. Secretary for Department of Corrections, a prisoner informed prison staff that members of his former gang had threatened to kill him upon release into the general prison population.[29] We concluded that if true, this allegation was enough to place the defendants on notice of a substantial risk of serious harm-so we allowed the case to proceed.[30] The key distinction between Rodriguez and Marbury's case is that Rodriguez involved a series of threats that contained enough specific information-the threats came from members of the plaintiff's former gang-that prison officials could have reasonably inferred that there was a substantial, not merely possible, risk of harm. In fact, Rodriguez observed that a vague statement like "I have a problem with another inmate in this compound," absent some information "about the nature of the anticipated risk," would not have created a genuine issue of fact regarding deliberate indifference to a substantial risk of serious harm.[31] Marbury's statement that an another inmate told him another inmate intended to harm him is precisely this type of vague statement that conveys nothing about the nature of the anticipated risk that we cautioned in Rodriguez would not rise to the level of deliberate indifference to a substantial risk.

         Marbury's argument is essentially that every prisoner who tells prison officials about an unspecified threat from an unspecified inmate without more is entitled to protective custody or a transfer. But, as already explained, our caselaw establishes a higher standard for deliberate indifference. To be clear, Marbury was not required to identify the person who was threatening him by name, [32] or even necessarily to give the defendants advance notice of a potential attack, [33] so long as other facts put the defendants on notice that he faced a substantial risk of serious harm. It may be possible for a general threat of inmate-on-inmate violence in a prison to bolster an otherwise insufficient unspecified threat of harm. But, as already discussed, Marbury has not shown anything close to such a substantial threat from the generally violent nature of the prison environment. And because Marbury has not presented anything else that would bolster the unspecified threat, he has not met the requirement of showing deliberate indifference to a substantial risk of serious harm.

         Marbury further emphasizes that when he told Warren about the threat from an unidentified inmate, she laughed at him, told him she was not going to act on his request because he had filed complaints against her, and advised him to get a knife or a shank because it seemed as though he had a "problem." He suggests that this reaction demonstrated her awareness that he faced a substantial risk. The district court did not explicitly address Marbury's argument, noting that "[a]ccording to defendant Warren, she never said this and asserts that she did not know the plaintiff was in danger of being attacked by another inmate on April 23, 2016." Again, "specific facts" alleged in a pro se plaintiff's sworn complaint can suffice to generate a genuine factual issue.[34] We must therefore accept as true, for the purposes of summary judgment, that Warren made these statements.

         But the statements ultimately do not affect Warren's entitlement to summary judgment. The Supreme Court has made clear that "[w]hether a prison official had the requisite knowledge of a substantial risk is a question of fact subject to demonstration in the usual ways, including inference from circumstantial evidence."[35] While Marbury can establish Warren's subjective knowledge through circumstantial proof, he must nevertheless present evidence sufficient to "support a reasonable jury's finding that [Warren] harbored a subjective awareness that [Marbury] was in serious danger."[36] Viewed in the light most favorable to Marbury, the summary judgment record allows one to conclude that Warren was aware of the potential for inmate-on-inmate violence at the prison, Marbury told her that another inmate was looking to harm him, and she responded by laughing at Marbury and telling him to get a knife because he had a "problem." A reasonable jury could not extrapolate from such statements that Warren was subjectively aware of a substantial risk of serious harm to Marbury at the time. Indeed, Marbury concedes in his briefing that Warren's statements were callous jokes.

         Again, it bears mention that subjective awareness of only some risk of harm to a prisoner is insufficient for a deliberate-indifference claim.[37] At most, the evidence Marbury has put forward would allow a jury to conclude that Warren was put on notice that Marbury faced some unspecified risk of harm to his well-being-not that she was aware he faced the type of substantial risk of serious harm necessary to establish deliberate indifference. Marbury has not marshaled enough evidence to establish a genuine issue of fact on this necessary element of his case.


         Finally, we turn to Marbury's suggestion that the defendants were deliberately indifferent in failing to investigate his report that someone was out to harm him or in otherwise failing to abide by prison policy. We have explained that "merely negligent failure to protect an inmate from attack does not justify liability under section 1983."[38] To allow Marbury's deliberate-indifference claim to proceed absent sufficient evidence that the defendants were subjectively aware that he faced a substantial risk of serious harm would elide the "subtle distinction" between deliberate indifference and mere negligence.[39] We cannot condone the failure to investigate inmates' allegations of threats or to follow policy in reporting potential threats up the chain of command. But our caselaw does not allow these failures, without corresponding subjective awareness of a serious risk of harm, to establish deliberate indifference.


         We affirm the judgment of the district court.

          ROSENBAUM, Circuit Judge, dissenting:

         We do not sentence people to be stabbed and beaten. But we might as well, if the Majority Opinion is correct.

         Time and again, Mitchell Marbury pleaded with Warden Dewayne Estes and Officer Beverly Warren to be transferred to safety; he had witnessed abject lawlessness and unmitigated violence-even against the guards-in his less-than-seven months at St. Clair prison, and he had been warned by a friend that he was the target of an imminent attack. Estes ignored Marbury's pleas. Warren was even worse: she gloated about Marbury's predicament and told him to find a "shank"- a makeshift knife-to fend for himself. Just a few days later, an inmate blocked Marbury's path. Then Marbury was repeatedly stabbed from behind. The attack left Marbury in the infirmary with a puncture wound to the base of his skull, multiple stab wounds to his shoulder area, a broken nose, and a gash two centimeters deep in his back.

         Yet somehow, the Majority Opinion concludes that no reasonable juror could ever find that Estes and Warren were deliberately indifferent to a substantial risk of serious harm to Marbury. This misguided decision allows corrections officers, with impunity, to refuse to take any action whatsoever to protect a prisoner in the face of a known threat. Just as bad, today's decision also gives corrections officers license to perpetuate prison violence by advising a prisoner who reports a threat that "get[ting]" a "shank" is his only protection option.

         Lord of the Flies is supposed to be a work of fiction; it should not describe the environment in our prisons. Indeed, the Eighth Amendment strictly prohibits prison officials from allowing such treacherous environments to exist. As the Supreme Court has explained, "[h]aving incarcerated persons with demonstrated proclivities for antisocial criminal, and often violent, conduct, having stripped them of virtually every means of self-protection and foreclosed their access to outside aid, the government and its officials are not free to let the state of nature take its course" and allow inmates to hurt one another. Farmer v. Brennan, 51 U.S. 825, 833 (1994) (alterations adopted) (citation and quotation marks omitted).

         "[G]ratuitously allowing the beating [and stabbing] of one prisoner by another serves no legitimate penological objective." Id. (alteration adopted) (quotation marks omitted). It also does not square with society's "evolving standards of decency." Id. (quotation marks omitted). Rather, under the Eighth Amendment, prison officials must "provide humane conditions of confinement." Id. at 832. And they must "take reasonable measures to guarantee the safety of the inmates." Id. (quoting Hudson v. Palmer, 468 U.S. 517, 526-27 (1984)). This means prison officials cannot be deliberately indifferent to a known risk to inmate safety. Id. at 833-34.

         When we look at the record in the light most favorable to Marbury, as we must on Estes and Warren's motion for summary judgment, Estes and Warren were, at best, deliberately indifferent to the known threat posed to Marbury.[1] The Majority Opinion mistakenly reaches the opposite conclusion because of three errors it makes. First, the Majority Opinion fails to view the facts in the light most favorable to Marbury and to draw all reasonable inferences in his favor. Second, the Majority Opinion does not account for important facts in its analysis. And third, the Majority Opinion evaluates the evidentiary components of Marbury's claim separately, rather than considering them as a whole. As a result, the Majority Opinion misses the forest for the trees. When these errors are corrected, the record here yields only one possible answer under the Eighth Amendment: Estes and Warren must be denied summary judgment. I therefore respectfully dissent from the Majority Opinion.

         I divide my discussion into two substantive parts. Section I demonstrates that Marbury provided sufficient evidence to establish Warren and Estes violated his Eighth Amendment right to be free from deliberate indifference. And Section II explains why Warren ...

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