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Green v. Rusnak

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

March 11, 2015

MELVIN GREEN, Plaintiff,
J.F. RUSNAK, Defendant.



Plaintiff, currently a state prisoner, brought this civil rights action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Plaintiff alleges that Defendant J.F. Rusnak, a correctional officer at SCI Fayette, placed him in a cell with another inmate who Rusnak knew would assault him. On April 12, 2012, Plaintiff was assigned to cell with Inmate Eric Ferron, and four days later, Plaintiff was attacked by his cellmate while he slept. Plaintiff sustained injuries including lacerations to the face and neck, as well as a fractured right thumb or hand. Plaintiff required surgery to the injuries of his thumb and hand. Plaintiff claims that Defendant acted with deliberate indifference by failing to protect him from this attack.[2]

After a period of discovery, Defendant filed a motion for summary judgment. ECF No. 14. Plaintiff filed an opposition brief. ECF No. 19. Both parties have filed reply briefs. ECF Nos. 19, 21. This motion is fully briefed and is ripe for disposition by this Court.

A. Standards of Review

1) Pro Se Litigants

Pro se pleadings, "however inartfully pleaded, " must be held to "less stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers." Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, 520-521 (1972). If the court can reasonably read pleadings to state a valid claim on which the litigant could prevail, it should do so despite failure to cite proper legal authority, confusion of legal theories, poor syntax and sentence construction, or litigant's unfamiliarity with pleading requirements. Boag v. MacDougall, 454 U.S. 364 (1982); United States ex rel. Montgomery v. Bierley, 141 F.2d 552, 555 (3d Cir. 1969)(petition prepared by a prisoner may be inartfully drawn and should be read "with a measure of tolerance"); Smith v. U.S. District Court, 956 F.2d 295 (D.C.Cir. 1992); Freeman v. Dep't of Corrections, 949 F.2d 360 (10th Cir. 1991). Under our liberal pleading rules, during the initial stages of litigation, a district court should construe all allegations in a complaint in favor of the complainant. Gibbs v. Roman, 116 F.3d 83 (3d Cir. 1997). See, e.g., Nami v. Fauver, 82 F.3d 63, 65 (3d Cir. 1996)(discussing Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6) standard); Markowitz v. Northeast Land Co., 906 F.2d 100, 103 (3d Cir. 1990)(same). Because Plaintiff is a pro se litigant, this Court may consider facts and make inferences where it is appropriate.

2) Motion for summary judgment pursuant to Rule 56

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(a) provides that summary judgment shall be granted if the "movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." When applying this standard, the court must examine the factual record and reasonable inferences therefrom in the light most favorable to the party opposing summary judgment. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co., Ltd. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986).

The moving party has the initial burden of proving to the district court the absence of evidence supporting the non-moving party's claims. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 330 (1986); Andreoli v. Gates, 482 F.3d 641, 647 (3d Cir. 2007); UPMC Health System v. Metropolitan Life Ins. Co., 391 F.3d 497, 502 (3d Cir. 2004). The burden then shifts to the non-movant to come forward with specific facts showing a genuine issue for trial. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e); Williams v. Borough of West Chester, Pa., 891 F.2d 458, 460-461 (3d Cir. 1989)(the non-movant must present affirmative evidence - more than a scintilla but less than a preponderance - which supports each element of his claim to defeat a properly presented motion for summary judgment). The non-moving party must go beyond the pleadings and show specific facts by affidavit or by information contained in the filed documents (i.e., depositions, answers to interrogatories and admissions) to meet his burden of proving elements essential to his claim. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322. See also Saldana v. Kmart Corp., 260 F.3d 228, 232 (3d Cir. 2001). The non-moving party "must present more than just bare assertions, conclusory allegations or suspicions to show the existence of a genuine issue." Garcia v. Kimmell, 2010 WL 2089639, at * 1 (3d Cir. 2010) quoting Podobnik v. U.S. Postal Serv., 409 F.3d 584, 594 (3d Cir. 2005).

When considering a motion for summary judgment, the court is not permitted to weigh the evidence or to make credibility determinations, but is limited to deciding whether there are any disputed issues and, if there are, whether they are both genuine and material. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986).

B. The Prison Litigation Reform Act

1) The Exhaustion Requirement

Defendant moves to dismiss based upon Plaintiff's failure to exhaust his administrative remedies in accordance with the exhaustion requirements of the Prison Litigation Reform Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(a), which provides:

no action shall be brought with respect to prison conditions under section 1983 of this title... by a prisoner confined in any jail, prisons, or other correctional facility until such administrative remedies as are available are exhausted.

Id. The exhaustion requirement is not a technicality, rather it is federal law which federal district courts are required to follow. Nyhuis v. Reno, 204 F.3d 65, 73 (3d Cir. 2000) (by using language "no action shall be brought, " Congress has "clearly required exhaustion").

The PLRA's exhaustion requirement "is a non-jurisdictional prerequisite." Small v. Camden County, 728 F.3d 265, 270 n.3 (3d Cir. 2013).[3] The requirement that an inmate exhaust administrative remedies applies to all inmate suits regarding prison life, including those that involve general circumstances as well as particular episodes. Porter v. Nussle, 534 U.S. 516 (2002); Cutter v. Wilkinson, 544 U.S. 709, 723 n.12 (2005) (noting that the PLRA requires that "a prisoner may not sue under RLUIPA without first exhausting all available administrative remedies."); Concepcion v. Morton, 306 F.3d 1347 (3d Cir. 2002) (for history of exhaustion requirement).

The PLRA also requires "proper exhaustion" meaning that a prisoner must complete the administrative review process in accordance with the applicable procedural rules of that grievance system. Woodford v. Ngo, 548 U.S. 81, 87-91 (2006) ("Proper exhaustion demands compliance with an agency's deadlines and other critical procedural rules..."). Importantly, the exhaustion requirement may not be satisfied "by filing an untimely or otherwise procedurally defective... appeal." Id. at 83.[4]

2) The Administrative Process Available to State Inmates

So then, no analysis of exhaustion may be made absent an understanding of the administrative process available to state inmates. "Compliance with prison grievance procedures, therefore, is all that is required by the PLRA to properly exhaust.' The level of detail necessary in a grievance to comply with the grievance procedures will vary from system to system and claim to claim, but it is the prison's requirements, and not the PLRA, that define the boundaries of proper exhaustion." Jones v. Bock, 549 U.S. 199, 218 (2007). See also Spruill, 372 F.3d at 231 (having concluded that the PLRA includes a procedural default component, the Court then indicated that "prison grievance procedures supply the yardstick for measuring procedural default.").

The DC-ADM 804 grievance system, available to state prisoners in Pennsylvania, consists of three separate stages. First, the prisoner is required to timely submit a written grievance for review by the facility manager or the regional grievance coordinator within fifteen days of the incident, who responds in writing within ten business days. Second, the inmate must timely submit a written appeal to intermediate review within ten working days, and again the inmate receives a written response within ten working days. Finally, the inmate must submit a timely appeal to the Central Office Review Committee within fifteen working days, and the inmate will receive a final determination in writing within thirty days. See Booth v. Churner, 206 F.3d 289, 293 n.2 (3d Cir. 1997), aff'd. 532 U.S. 731 (2001). Furthermore, the Department of Corrections grievance policy requires responsible individuals to be named or identified in the grievance. Spruill, 372 F.3d at 234.

3) Analysis of Exhaustion

Defendant argues that Plaintiff has failed to exhaust in two separate ways. First, Plaintiff did not make any specific complaints against Rusnak, but only mentioned him as one of many corrections officers he had spoken with about his fear of L5 cellmates. Second, Plaintiff did not state anything in his grievance about a threat by Inmate Ferron, any communication to Rusnak by Inmate Ferron, that Ferron said anything about assaulting a cellmate, or even that Rusnak knew anything at all about Inmate Ferron. In support of this argument, Defendant provides a copy of Grievance No. 409398, dated April 24, 2012, in which Plaintiff complains that "SCI Fayette administration" failed to protect him from attack by his cellmate.[5] ECF No. 17-1.

In opposition, Plaintiff argues that he submitted a separate grievance dated April 26, 2012 in which he grieved the precise action of Defendant Rusnak complained of in this lawsuit. In support of that contention, Plaintiff has provided a copy of an Official Inmate Grievance form, dated April 26, 2012.[6] ECF No. 20-1, page 2. Plaintiff contends that he attempted to file this grievance but that the Grievance Coordinator refused to file and process this grievance. As further evidence of his attempts at exhaustion of the April 26th grievance, Plaintiff points to an Inmate Request to Staff Member dated May 17, 2012, in which Plaintiff seeks the overdue response to the grievance. ECF No. 20-3, page 2. See also ECF No. 3, Original Complaint, page 2; ECF No. 12, Proposed Amended Complaint, page 2. Plaintiff also provides his own Declaration swearing that neither the April 26th grievance or the May 17th request were ever responded to by prison officials. ECF No. 20-2, page 2.

Plaintiff's evidence alone creates a disputed issue of material fact as to whether Plaintiff exhausted all administrative remedies[7] sufficient to warrant the denial of summary judgment in this regard. In his Reply Brief, Defendant creates even more of a factual dispute by claiming that the evidence produced by Plaintiff is fabricated by him, is not worthy of belief, and should be disregarded by this Court. ECF No. 21. In support of this contention, Defendant provides more evidence by way of the Declaration of Grievance Coordinator Rhonda House, and handwriting samples dated just after the date of the altercation (at which time Plaintiff's thumb was broken and casted) and more recently.[8] In any regard, the contradictory evidence as to whether Plaintiff filed and exhausted the April 26th grievance precludes summary judgment. See Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Products, Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 150 (2000) quoting Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. at 254 ("credibility determinations [and] the weighing of the evidence [...] are jury functions, not those of a judge.'").

C. Eighth Amendment - Failure to Protect

Next, Defendant moves for summary judgment on the basis that Plaintiff has provided no evidence of Rusnak's deliberate indifference towards Plaintiff's safety.

The Eighth Amendment provides that "prison officials have a duty to protect prisoners from violence at the hands of other prisoners." Williams v. Bledsoe, 2013 WL 5522848, at *18 (M.D. Pa. Oct. 3, 2013). See also Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825, 832 (1994) (prison officials "must take reasonable measures to guarantee the safety of the inmates."). "Being violently assaulted in prison is simply not part of the penalty that criminal offenders pay for their offenses against society." Farmer, 511 U.S. at 834. "Still, not every injury suffered by one prisoner at the hands of another translates into constitutional liability for prison officials responsible for the victim's safety.'" Bistrian v. Levi, 696 F.3d 352, 367 (3d Cir. 2012) quoting Farmer, 511 U.S. at 834.

To establish a failure-to-protect claim under the Eighth Amendment, a plaintiff must show that:

(1) he was incarcerated under conditions posing a substantial risk of serious harm;
(2) the official was deliberately indifferent to that substantial risk to his health and safety; and
(3) the official's deliberate indifference caused him harm.

Id. In order to defeat a well-supported motion for summary judgment, the plaintiff "must present enough evidence to support the inference that the defendants knowingly and unreasonably disregarded an objectively intolerable risk of harm.'" Beers-Capitol v. Whetzel, 256 F.3d 120, 132 (3d Cir. 2001) quoting Farmer, 511 U.S. at 864. See also Barton v. Curtis, 497 F.3d 311, 334 (3d Cir. 2007) (in assessing a failure-to-protect claim on summary judgment, all inferences must be drawn in the light most favorable to the non-moving party.).

In his complaint, Plaintiff alleges that Defendant Rusnak had direct knowledge of Inmate Ferron's expressed verbal intent to physically attack any person with whom he was forced to share a cell. ECF No. 3, ¶ 3; ECF No. 12, ¶ 3. Defendant Rusnak moves for summary judgment explaining that Plaintiff has failed to provide any evidence in support of this contention, and provides his own Declaration swearing that Inmate Ferron never expressed to him any intention to harm a cellmate. ECF No. 17-1, page 24. However, in his Opposition, Plaintiff attaches the Declaration of Inmate Eric Ferron who swears that on April 9, 2012, he "advised Sgt. Rusnak that I would attack and severely hurt any inmate placed into my cell with me." ECF No. 20-4, page 2. The factual dispute as to whether Defendant knew of Ferron's express intent to harm a cellmate precludes summary judgment as it goes directly to whether Defendant acted with deliberate indifference.[9]

An appropriate Order follows.


AND NOW, this 11th day of March, 2015;

IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that Defendant's motion for summary judgment [ECF No. 14] is DENIED as genuine issues of material fact remain.

IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that Plaintiff's proposed amended complaint [ECF No. 12] is deemed filed.

IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that Defendant's pretrial narrative statement is due by April 10, 2015.

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