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Douglas v. Jin

United States District Court, Western District of Pennsylvania

March 20, 2014

LAMAR NELSON DOUGLAS, Plaintiff,
v.
DR. BYUNGHAK JIN, Medical Director, SCI GREENE, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM ORDER ON MOTIONS IN LIMINE

Cynthia Reed Eddy, United States Magistrate Judge

Plaintiff, Lamar Nelson Douglas, is a Pennsylvania inmate housed at the State Correctional Institution at Greene, located in Waynesburg, Pennsylvania. He commenced this action pursuant to the Civil Rights Act of 1871, 42 U.S.C. § 1983, against a number of Pennsylvania Department of Corrections officials and medical care providers at SCI-Greene, including a claim against its Medical Director, Dr. Byunghak Jin, the sole remaining defendant, for deliberate indifference to his medical needs in violation of the Eighth Amendment.

Before the Court are several Motions in Limine filed by Mr. Douglas, and several filed by Dr. Jin. The Court will address each Motion in order of filing. To place the motions in limine in proper context and set the framework for evaluating the motions, a plaintiff establishes a claim of deliberate indifference as follows.

To state a constitutional violation in the context of denial of necessary medical treatment, an inmate must prove two things: (1) plaintiff was suffering from a "serious medical need, " and (2) prison officials were deliberately indifferent to the serious medical need. Estelle v. Gamble, 427 U.S. 97, 107 (1976). The first showing requires the court to determine whether the medical need was, objectively, "sufficiently serious."[1] The second prong requires a court to determine whether the officials acted with a sufficiently culpable state of mind, a subjective inquiry. Deliberate indifference may be manifested by an intentional refusal to provide care, delayed medical treatment for non-medical reasons, a denial of prescribed medical treatment, or a denial of reasonable requests for treatment that results in suffering or risk of injury. Durmer v.

O'Carroll, 991 F.2d 64, 68 (3d Cir. 1993).

As summarized more fully by the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit:

This Court has concluded that the standard is met when prison officials 1) deny reasonable requests for medical treatment, and the denial exposes the inmate to undue suffering or the threat of tangible residual injury, 2) delay necessary medical treatment for non-medical reasons, or 3) prevent an inmate from receiving recommended treatment for serious medical needs, or deny access to a physician capable of evaluating the need for treatment. . . . We have also held that prison officials who continue a course of treatment they know is painful, ineffective, or entails a substantial risk of serious harm act with deliberate indifference . . .

Whooten v. Bussanich, 248 F.App'x 324, 326-27 (3d Cir. 2007) (citations omitted) (prison officials' delay in referring plaintiff to neurologist for cluster headaches and refusal to follow recommended treatment plan after plaintiff eventually saw neurologist was based upon prisoner's past drug addiction, of which neurologist was unaware; the delay and denial of requested treatment presented a question of negligence, not deliberate indifference).

Defendant's Motion in Limine to Preclude Punitive Damages (ECF No. 135)

Dr. Jin argues that there is no evidence upon which a jury could find the sort of egregious conduct or a sufficiently culpable state of mind that would expose him to punitive damages. The United States Supreme Court has explained the standard for punitive damages in a civil rights case as follows: "We hold that a jury may be permitted to assess punitive damages in an action under § 1983 when the defendant's conduct is shown to be motivated by evil motive or intent, or when it involves reckless or callous indifference to the federally protected rights of others." Smith v. Wade, 461 U.S. 30, 56 (1983).

Punitive damages are routinely permitted to proceed to a jury and routinely (though not frequently) awarded, in prisoner litigation. For example, in Jacobs v. Pennsylvania Dept. of Corr., 2011 WL 2295095, *26-*29 (W.D.Pa. 2011), District Judge (now Chief Judge) Joy Flowers Conti of the Western District of Pennsylvania upheld a substantial jury award of punitive damages in favor of the prisoner-plaintiff against DOC officials. Chief Judge Conti held that the "ratio between the awards for compensatory and nominal damages and the award for punitive damages, considered in the aggregate ... is less than one-to-two and is not excessive. This ratio is clearly less than a double-digit ratio. The awards against the individual defendants . . . are not excessive, particularly in this case, where Jacobs is precluded by law from recovering damages for mental or emotional harm due to his status as a prisoner. Therefore, the court will not strike or remit the awards for punitive damages." Id. at *29. Mr. Jacobs "status as a prisoner" was no impediment to his eligibility for an award of punitive damages.

In order "to qualify for a punitive damages award, 'the defendant's conduct must be, at a minimum, reckless or callous. Punitive damages might also be allowed if the conduct is intentional or motivated by evil motive, but the defendant's action need not necessarily meet this higher standard.'" Consonery v. Pelzer, 20\3 WL 593982, *7 (W.D.Pa. 2013) (allowing claim for punitive damages against most defendants to proceed to the jury in prisoner litigation claiming deliberate indifference to medical needs) (quoting Savarese v. Agriss, 883 F.2d 1194, 1204 (3d Cir. 1989). In the context of a "deliberate indifference" Estelle claim, a "jury may assess punitive damages in a civil rights action when the defendant's conduct is shown to be motivated by evil motive or intent, or when it involves reckless or callous indifference to the federally protected rights of others." Walker v. Brooks, 2009 WL 3183051, *9 (W.D.Pa. 2009) (allowing punitive damages claim to proceed in prisoner litigation: "If Plaintiff succeeds in proving his claim of deliberate indifference, which has been adequately alleged, then he may be entitled to recover punitive damages based on Defendants' 'reckless or callous indifference to his federally protected rights.'") (quoting Alexander v. Riga, 208 F.3d 419, 430-31 (3d Cir. 2000)).

For section 1983 purposes, "deliberate indifference to a substantial risk of serious harm to a prisoner is the equivalent of recklessly disregarding that risk." Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825, 836-37 (1994). "Under the law of this Circuit, " punitive damages may be awarded in civil rights action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 '"when the defendant's conduct is shown to be motivated by evil motive or intent, or when it involves reckless or callous indifference to the federally protected rights of others.' Because the Court concludes that [prisoner] Bermudez has stated facts which, if proven, could demonstrate that the Defendants were deliberately indifferent to his serious medical needs, it follows logically that 'reckless or callous indifference' has been noticed. Hence, there is a proper basis for a request for punitive damages." Bermudez v. City of Philadelphia, 2007 WL 1816469, *3 (E.D.Pa. 2007) (footnote omitted).

This Court is quite familiar with the claim and the defense in this case, has already considered Dr. Jin's motion for summary judgment and his motion for reconsideration, and has found that Plaintiff has adduced sufficient evidence to allow his deliberate indifference claim to go to the jury. Because deliberate indifference to a substantial risk of serious harm to a prisoner is the equivalent of recklessly disregarding that risk, which can sustain an ...


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