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Olson v. McMillan

United States District Court, Third Circuit

January 8, 2014



MARTIN C. CARLSON, Magistrate Judge.

I. Statement of Facts and of the Case

A. Procedural History

This case comes before the court for resolution of the final disputed factual issues and contested legal claims advanced by the parties. This litigation, which draws to a close with this opinion, began on December 27, 2011, when the plaintiff, Jeffrey Olson, a federal prisoner, filed a pro se complaint against the individual defendants and the Lackawanna County Prison. (Doc. 1.)

Mr. Olson's complaint recited that the plaintiff was a federal pretrial detainee in the Lackawanna County Prison in 2011. According to Mr. Olson, during the time that he was held at the prison he suffered from a medical condition, a non-union fracture of his left tibia. Liberally construed, Mr. Olson's complaint alleged that prison officials displayed deliberate indifference to his medical needs, and held him under conditions of confinement which violated his constitutional due process rights as a pre-trial detainee. (Id.)

Over the ensuing years the parties have extensively litigated these claims. As a result of this process, by November 2013 the remaining parties, issues and claims in this litigation had been narrowed and focused substantially. By November 2013, the only remaining defendants in this lawsuit were Warden McMillan and Assistant Warden Langan. As to these two defendants, Mr. Olson's sole remaining claim was that the defendants had violated his due process right as a pretrial detainee by housing him under unconstitutionally severe conditions of confinement. Specifically, Mr. Olson alleged that these defendants had denied him access to crutches which he needed in order to move about the prison.

In November 2013, the parties waived a jury trial as to this claim, and consented to proceed to a non-jury trial before the undersigned. (Docs. 91 and 97.) We then scheduled a pretrial conference for November 13, 2013, and conducted a non-jury trial of this remaining claim on December 13, 2013. (Docs. 90, 92, 99.) Following this evidentiary presentation, this case is now ripe for resolution. Accordingly, the court makes the following findings of fact and conclusions of law in this case.

B. Factual Findings

With respect to the remaining issue in this litigation regarding the conditions of the plaintiff's confinement at the Lackawanna County Prison, and the plaintiff's access to crutches during his confinement at this facility, we make the following findings of fact:

In 2011, Jeffrey Olson was charged with federal felony offenses. United States v. Jeffrey Olson, 3:11-CR-55. Mr. Olson was held as a pretrial detainee on these charges at the Lackawanna County Prison (LCP) from February 24, 2011 until May 5, 2012. Prior to his incarceration at the Lackawanna County Prison, Mr. Olson had been involved in a motor vehicle accident, and had suffered injuries, including an injury which was described as a "[l]eft tibial non union" fracture. (Pl. Ex. B.) As a result of this injury Mr. Olson periodically used crutches to assist him in perambulating.

At the time of his arrest on these federal charges on February 24, 2011, Mr. Olson was ordered detained at the Lackawanna County Prison. When he was first housed at the prison, Mr. Olson underwent an intake medical evaluation by the prison's contract medical staff. (Def. Ex. 4, testimony of Kenneth McCawley.) During this initial evaluation, medical staff noted that Mr. Olson had suffered a trauma to his left leg from a prior motor vehicle accident. Accordingly, medical staff restricted Mr. Olson from participating in prison work details and recreation, and Mr. Olson was permitted the use of crutches. (Id.) Following this initial intake evaluation, Mr. Olson was housed in the Special Needs Unit (SNU) of the Lackawanna County Prison and remained in that unit for approximately six months. (Id.)

During this period of confinement Mr. Olson received medical care in the prison on a regular basis. The records of this on-going medical care revealed that Mr. Olson was able to walk short distances without the assistance of crutches. Thus, within a week of his intake at this facility, on February 27, 2011, prison medical staff reported that Mr. Olson was walking around the SNU without the use of his crutches. (Def, Ex. 5, testimony of Kenneth McCawley.) Mr. Olson also reportedly advised prison medical staff that "he doesn't need them [the crutches] unless he is going a far distance." (Id.) Mr. Olson continued to walk short distances without the assistance of crutches in the Spring of 2011, while housed in the SNU, and reported to medical staff that he could walk short distances without the assistance of crutches. (Id.) Indeed, at the trial of this case, Mr. Olson advised the court that he had initially been encouraged by his treating physician to endeavor to walk without crutches for brief periods. (Testimony of Jeffrey Olson.)

Mr. Olson remained in the SNU or Assessment Unit of the Lackawanna County Prison for approximately six months until September 2011, when he was transferred to the prison's general population housing units. This transfer to general population was approved by prison officials because by September 2011 medical staff had determined that there were no medical restrictions placed upon Mr. Olson which in any way indicated that a transfer to general population would be unsafe for him. However, the Defendants, Warden McMillan and Assistant Warden Langan, had no personal involvement in the decision to transfer Mr. Olson to a general population unit in September 2011. (Testimony of Warden McMillan, AW Langan.)

Mr. Olson remained in general housing at the Lackawanna County Prison until he was released from the facility to commence service of his federal sentence in May 2012. The housing units where Mr. Olson was confined were compact living spaces, consisting of two tiers of cells which opened onto a small common area. (Def. Ex. 10.) Immediately adjacent to the housing unit was a control, or security, office manned by prison staff. (Id.) Photographs of the housing units revealed that inmates needed to only walk a short distance to travel from their cells within the unit to the staff control office. (Id.) Moreover, within the prison meals were brought by correctional staff to the housing units. (Testimony of Warden McMillan.) Therefore, it was not necessary for Mr. Olson, or any other inmate, to walk long distances to obtain meals. (Id.)

While Mr. Olson was housed in general population, he was not permitted to keep his crutches within the housing area, where other inmates could gain access to the crutches and potentially use them as weapons. (Testimony Warden McMillan.) Instead, the crutches were kept for Mr. Olson at the housing unit control desk, where he could retrieve them from staff upon request to assist him in walking to appointments outside of his housing unit. (Testimony of AW Langan.) This security measure of keeping the crutches at the housing unit control office was consistent with Mr. Olson's reported physical limitations that "he doesn't need them [the crutches] unless he is going a far distance." (Def. Ex. 5.) While housed at the prison, Mr. Olson followed this procedure, and gained access to these crutches at the control unit on a number of occasions when he was walking outside the housing unit, a fact that was confirmed by Mr. Olson's criminal defense counsel, Ingrid Cronin, who testified that she observed him using crutches when he would meet with her at the prison to review his case. (Testimony of Ingrid Cronin.)

This limitation upon Mr. Olson's use of crutches in the prison forms the gravamen of the sole remaining claim in this lawsuit. Yet, while this claim is central to Mr. Olson's lawsuit, the evidence at trial revealed that the Plaintiff took only very limited and halting efforts to address this concern with the defendants. Thus, while Mr. Olson testified that he tried to bring this particular complaint to the attention of Warden McMillan in written grievances, there is no record of any such written grievances. Moreover, the only testimony that Mr. Olson elicited on this point, from Correctional Officer Johnson, actually contradicted his claim of submitting grievance notes directly to defendant McMillan since Officer Johnson simply testified to delivering some otherwise unidentified communication from Mr. Olson to the warden's office in the Spring of 2011, several months prior to Warden McMillan's appointment as warden. In short, there is no credible evidence that Mr. Olson directly communicated this concern to Warden McMillan in writing prior to instituting this lawsuit.

Furthermore, both Warden McMillan and Assistant Warden Langan testified without contradiction that it was their custom and practice to routinely walk through all of the prison housing units on a regular basis, in order to be available to address inmate concerns. Both defendants testified that at no time during the months that he was housed at the prison did Mr. Olson speak to either defendant as they made their rounds about access to his crutches. (Testimony of Warden McMillan, AW Langan.) At trial, Mr. Olson did not dispute this testimony that he never directly approached the defendants about this issue while they were in his housing unit making rounds.

Thus, there was no credible evidence that Warden McMillan played any role whatsoever in the decision to move Mr. Olson into general housing, or the decision to store his crutches at the control office in the housing unit. Further, there was no credible evidence which would permit a finding that Warden McMillan was on notice from Mr. Olson prior to the filing of this lawsuit that this arrangement was unsatisfactory.

As for Assistant Warden Langan, his sole involvement in any issues relating to Mr. Olson's access to crutches consisted of an e-mail exchange with Mr. Olson's counsel, Ingrid Cronin, in November, 2011. During this brief exchange, Assistant Warden Langan promptly addressed a concern voiced by Mr. Olson and related to him by Mr. Olson's counsel, Ms. Cronin. Specifically, on the afternoon of November 2, 2011, Ms. Cronin wrote to Assistant Warden Langan reporting that "My client, Jeffrey Olson, tells me that he was moved from SNU overflow to general population where he cannot have his crutches." (Def. Ex. 9.) Ms. Cronin further noted that Mr. Olson had voiced a concern about access to his crutches, because he had "poor balance and cannot defend himself should the need arise." (Id.) According to Ms. Cronin's message, Mr. Olson had claimed to have addressed this issue in a grievance to the warden. (Id.)

Within minutes of the transmission of this e-mail, Assistant Warden Langan responded, advising Ms. Cronin that he would look into Mr. Olson's claims that he was being denied use of his crutches. Assistant Warden Langan further stated that he could not see any reasons why Mr. Olson could not have access to the crutches, although he found it "bothersome" that Olson was linking access to crutches to a need to defend himself. (Id.) The next morning, November 3, 2011, Assistant Warden Langan followed up with Ms. Cronin regarding this matter, advising her that he: "spoke with the Sergeant that took [Olson's] crutches away. She explained to me that Mr. Olson only uses them for walking long distances and he never uses them in the dayroom of the block. They are available at the Officer's Station should he need them. He has been told that he only has to ask." (Id.) Following this prompt, and appropriate, response to Ms. Cronin's ...

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