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TABRON v. GRACE

December 21, 1994

HARVEY TABRON, Plaintiff
v.
LT. GRACE, et al., Defendants



The opinion of the court was delivered by: SYLVIA H. RAMBO

 I. Introduction

 Before the court is the September 23, 1994, report and recommendation of the magistrate judge in this matter, and the Plaintiff's objections to the report. The magistrate judge recommended that Plaintiff's motions for appointment of counsel and to compel Defendants' responses to remaining discovery requests be denied, and that Defendants' motion for summary judgment be granted. Plaintiff filed objections to the report on October 11, 1994, and Defendants replied to the objections on October 24, 1994, making the matter ripe for the court's disposition.

 II. Background

 The background of this action is set forth in considerable detail in the decision of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, Tabron v. Grace, 6 F.3d 147 (3d Cir. 1993), and will be summarized herein only briefly. Plaintiff is an inmate at the State Correctional Institution at Huntingdon, Pennsylvania ("SCI- Huntingdon"). The captioned action arises out of an attack on Plaintiff by a fellow inmate at SCI-Huntingdon. Plaintiff alleges that prison officials witnessed and/or permitted the attack and failed to take appropriate action after the fellow inmate made threats that were overheard by them.

 Early in the course of this action, the magistrate judge to whom it had been assigned denied Plaintiff's motion for appointment of counsel. Subsequently, he recommended that certain of the Plaintiff's discovery motions be denied and that the Defendant's summary judgment motion be granted. This court substantially adopted the report and recommendation, ultimately granting summary judgment in favor of Defendants. Upon Plaintiff's appeal, the Third Circuit addressed the appointment of counsel issue, held that the magistrate judge had applied an inappropriate standard, and remanded the matter to this court for disposition in accordance with the appropriate standards, which it set forth for the first time. The Third Circuit declined to address the summary judgment ruling because if counsel were appointed upon remand, the record was likely to change. This court then remanded the matter back to the magistrate for disposition in accordance with the Third Circuit's directions.

 Following remand from this court to the magistrate, Plaintiff renewed his motion for appointment of counsel, and the matter was briefed by the parties. The magistrate judge reviewed the factors set forth by the Third Circuit in the appeal of this matter, supra, and, as noted, recommended that Plaintiff's motion for appointment of counsel be denied and that no further discovery was appropriate. Therefore, relying once again upon the record that had developed prior to remand, the magistrate judge recommended that summary judgment be granted in favor of Defendants.

 III. Discussion

 A district court reviews a magistrate's report and recommendations and any objections to it under the standards set forth in 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1). The court must conduct a de novo review of the report to the extent there are objections, and may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations made by the magistrate judge. Here, the court declines to adopt the magistrate's report and recommendation, primarily because the magistrate judge, in this court's opinion, confused the threshold inquiry into the merits of the claim in determining whether appointment of counsel is appropriate, and ignored the obvious inability of the plaintiff to litigate this claim without assistance of counsel. Furthermore, the course of discovery and resulting record have been so confused in this case that the court would be unable to grant summary judgment in Defendants' favor even if it decided against appointment of counsel.

 In the appellate decision in this matter, the Third Circuit for the first time instructed district courts as to the set of factors to consider in deciding whether to appoint counsel for an indigent plaintiff. The court emphasized that district courts must consider as a threshold matter whether there is some merit to the plaintiff's claim in fact and law. Tabron v. Grace, 6 F.3d at 155, 158 (citation omitted). Should the Plaintiff satisfy that threshold requirement, the court must go on to consider a variety of other factors. The Tabron Court advised that the plaintiff's ability to present his case is a significant factor, which, in turn, compels consideration of the plaintiff's education, literacy, prior work experience, and prior litigation experience. With respect to a prisoner claim, any restraints placed upon the prisoner by the conditions of his confinement must be considered as well, insofar as they would affect his ability to present his case. In conjunction with this, the court should consider the complexity of the underlying legal issues, and should lean in favor of appointment if the legal issues are complex. Tabron v. Grace, 6 F.3d at 156.

 Other important considerations are: (1) whether the case entails a need for factual investigation; (2) the plaintiff's ability to carry out such investigation; (3) the likelihood that a claim will involve substantial discovery and compliance with complex discovery rules; and (4) whether credibility determinations are involved that may require the experience of one trained in the presentation of evidence and cross-examination. Id. The district court also may consider any problems that confined individuals may face in litigating their claims. The court's consideration of all of these factors, however, must be tempered by the practical restraints imposed' by the scarce supply of attorneys willing to assume responsibility for representation of indigent parties, and the court's inability to require counsel to undertake such representation. Id. at 157.

 Here, in applying the Third Circuit's guidelines, the magistrate judge conducted the threshold inquiry as to the merits of the claim by reference to the Defendant's summary judgment motion. The summary judgment motion, however, was filed only after appointment of counsel had been denied and discovery and the record had deteriorated to its current state. It would appear that a more sound approach, at least in this particular case, would be to consider the merits of the claim as they existed when Plaintiff first requested appointment of counsel, which was prior to the commencement of any meaningful discovery.

 Turning to the merits, then, it is undisputed that Plaintiff suffered a severe injury at the hands of a fellow inmate. Plaintiff alleged that prior to the attack, one or more Defendants knew of and/or heard the threats against him and that he made known to prison authorities that he was in fear of and in danger from the inmate. Plaintiff further alleged that at least one or more prison officials witnessed the attack and deliberately failed to intervene on his behalf. The case law suggests that there is merit to Plaintiff's claim, whether it is premised upon the due process clause or the Eighth Amendment. The Supreme Court held in Davidson v. Cannon, 474 U.S. 344, 347-48, 88 L. Ed. 2d 677, 106 S. Ct. 668 (1986), that a prison official's conduct must be more than negligent to support a due process claim based on the failure to protect an inmate from the violence of another inmate. In so holding, however, the Court indicated that a due process violation is implicated where prison officials simply stand by and permit an attack by one prisoner on another. Furthermore, it is clear that the Eighth Amendment applies to conditions of confinement, which, in turn, includes the medical health as well as the physical safety of inmates. See, e.g., Smith v. Wade, 461 U.S. 30, 75 L. Ed. 2d 632, 103 S. Ct. 1625 (1982) (in § 1983 Eighth Amendment claim, Court approved award of punitive damages on theory of reckless or callous disregard of or indifference to the rights or safety of inmate, where prison officials placed known violent inmate in cell with victim inmate who sought protective custody); Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 104-105, 50 L. Ed. 2d 251, 97 S. Ct. 285 (1976) (deliberate indifference to seriously ill inmate's need for medical care, evidenced by intentional delay in providing care, constitutes violation of Eighth Amendment).

 In Wilson v. Seiter, 501 U.S. 294, 115 L. Ed. 2d 271, 111 S. Ct. 2321 (1991), the Supreme Court clarified the standard of proof that an inmate must meet to establish an Eighth Amendment violation suffered during imprisonment. The Court held that the inmate must prove an objective element--that there existed a sufficiently serious deprivation of the minimal civilized measure of life's necessities, and a subjective element--that a prison official acted with a sufficiently culpable state of mind. The state of mind required is deliberate indifference, a phrase that the Wilson Court indicated may acquire different meanings according ...


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