United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania
June 17, 2015
KANTIN GILL, Plaintiff,
C.O. DERRELL ELDER, Defendant.
REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION
MARTIN C. CARLSON, Magistrate Judge.
I. Statement of Facts and of the Case
This pro se civil rights action was initially brought by the plaintiff, a county prisoner, through the filing of a complaint on November 10, 2014, a complaint which alleged that the defendant correctional officer had used excessive force against Gill by spraying him in the face with OC spray, a chemical agent, "for a short period of time." (Doc. 1.) Gill's November 10, 2014, complaint is both the first, and the last, pleading we have received from the plaintiff. Thus, in the past six months the plaintiff has taken no further steps to litigate this case.
As a pro se litigant the plaintiff was advised by this court at this outset of this lawsuit of his responsibilities in this litigation. Thus, on November 13, 2014, the district court entered its Standing Practice Order in this case, an order which informed the plaintiff of his responsibility to reply to defense motions, and warned him in clear and precise terms of the consequences which would flow from a failure to comply with briefing schedules on motions, stating:
If the party opposing the motion does not file his or her brief and any evidentiary material within the 14-day time frame, Local Rule 7.6 provides that he or she shall be deemed not to oppose the moving party's motion. The motion may therefore be granted if: (1) the court finds it meritorious; or (2) the opposing party fails to comply with Local Rule 7.6 despite being ordered to do so by the court.
(Doc. 5, p.2.)
Gill was further informed that: "All parties to a summary judgment motion, either moving for it or opposing it, must comply with the filing requirements of Local Rules 7.1 through 7.8, .... If a party opposing a summary judgment motion does not support such opposition as required by Rule 56, the motion for summary judgment shall be considered solely upon the affidavits or other supporting evidentiary material filed by the moving party, if any, and the motion may be granted." (Id., pp. 3-4.)
On May 18, 2015, the defendant filed a motion for summary judgment in this case. (Doc. 15.) Along with this motion the defendant presented the court with affidavits and a statement of facts which revealed the following undisputed facts: On September 13, 2014, the plaintiff was incarcerated at the Lebanon County Correctional Facility. On September 13, 2014, at approximately 11:00 a.m., defendant Elder was stationed in the Outmate Upper Unit of the prison, where he was responsible for supervising lunch service to the inmates housed in that unit. Protocol during lunch service in the Outmate Upper Unit is that inmates retrieve their lunch trays from the food service cart in a cell by cell fashion, and inmates are not permitted to take juice from the service cart until every inmate has received his lunch tray.
While defendant Elder was supervising the inmates during lunch service on September 13, 2014, he observed Gill removing juice jugs from the service cart before other inmates had received their meal trays, in violation of lunch service protocol. Defendant Elder ordered Gill to return the juice jugs to the service cart, but the plaintiff refused this direct order. Defendant Elder then issued Gill a second direct order to return the juice jugs to the service cart. Following defendant Elder's second direct order, Gill sat the juice jugs down on a table and began to walk away from defendant Elder. While the incident involving Gill and defendant Elder escalated, other inmates housed on the cell block began to surround the plaintiff and defendant Elder.
Defendant Elder then gave Gill a third direct order to return the juice jugs back to the service cart. In response to defendant Elder's third direct verbal order to return the juice jugs back to the service cart, Gill turned toward defendant Elder, postured in an aggressive and confrontational manner, and verbally challenged defendant Elder's command. Gill was only one to two feet away from defendant Elder when he took an aggressive posture toward him and Elder reasonably feared that he would be attacked by the plaintiff or the crowd of inmates that surrounded him.
In an effort to avoid a violent confrontation, defendant Elder then deployed a one second burst of oleoresin capsicum (OC) spray in Gill's face. Following this one second use of OC spray on Gill, the plaintiff finally became compliant, and he was restrained and transported to the on duty nurse who decontaminated him and determined that he had no medical issues related to the use of the OC spray.
Presented with this summary judgment motion, and this accompanying statement of facts describing this incident, Gill has taken no action to litigate this case or contest this motion and the deadline for responding to this motion has now passed. In the face of this continuing, and on-going, inaction we will deem this motion ripe for resolution, and for the reasons set forth below, we recommend that the complaint be dismissed.
A. Under The Rules of This Court This Motion to Dismiss Should Be Deemed Unopposed and Granted
At the outset, under the Local Rules of this Court the plaintiff should be deemed to concur in this motion to dismiss, since the plaintiff has failed to timely oppose the motion, or otherwise litigate this case. This procedural default completely frustrates and impedes efforts to resolve this matter in a timely and fair fashion, and under the Rules of this Court warrants dismissal of the action, since Local Rule 7.6 of the Rules of this Court imposes an affirmative duty on the plaintiff to respond to motions and provides that
Any party opposing any motion, other than a motion for summary judgment, shall file a brief in opposition within fourteen (14) days after service of the movant's brief, or, if a brief in support of the motion is not required under these rules, within seven (7) days after service of the motion. Any party who fails to comply with this rule shall be deemed not to oppose such motion . Nothing in this rule shall be construed to limit the authority of the court to grant any motion before expiration of the prescribed period for filing a brief in opposition. A brief in opposition to a motion for summary judgment and LR 56.1 responsive statement, together with any transcripts, affidavits or other relevant documentation, shall be filed within twenty-one (21) days after service of the movant's brief.
Local Rule 7.6 (emphasis added).
It is now well-settled that "Local Rule 7.6 can be applied to grant a motion to dismiss without analysis of the complaint's sufficiency if a party fails to comply with the [R]ule after a specific direction to comply from the court.' Stackhouse v. Mazurkiewicz, 951 F.2d 29, 30 (1991)." Williams v. Lebanon Farms Disposal, Inc., No. 09-1704, 2010 WL 3703808, *1 (M.D. Pa. Aug.26, 2010). In this case the plaintiff has not complied with the Local Rules, or this Court's Standing Practice Order, by filing a timely response to this motion. Therefore, these procedural defaults by the plaintiff compel the court to consider:
[A] basic truth: we must remain mindful of the fact that "the Federal Rules are meant to be applied in such a way as to promote justice. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 1. Often that will mean that courts should strive to resolve cases on their merits whenever possible. However, justice also requires that the merits of a particular dispute be placed before the court in a timely fashion...." McCurdy v. American Bd. of Plastic Surgery, 157 F.3d 191, 197 (3d Cir.1998).
Lease v. Fishel, 712 F.Supp.2d 359, 371 (M.D.Pa. 2010).
With this basic truth in mind, we acknowledge a fundamental guiding tenet of our legal system. A failure on our part to enforce compliance with the rules, and impose the sanctions mandated by those rules when the rules are repeatedly breached, "would actually violate the dual mandate which guides this court and motivates our system of justice: that courts should strive to resolve cases on their merits whenever possible [but that] justice also requires that the merits of a particular dispute be placed before the court in a timely fashion'." Id. Therefore, we are obliged to ensure that one party's refusal to comply with the rules does not lead to an unjustified prejudice to those parties who follow the rules.
These basic tenets of fairness apply here. In this case, the plaintiff has failed to comply with Local Rule 7.6 by filing a timely response to this summary judgment motion. This failure now compels us to apply the sanction called for under Rule 7.6 and deem the plaintiff to not oppose this dispositive motion.
B. Dismissal of this Case Is Also Warranted Under Rule 41
Beyond the requirements imposed by the Local Rules of this Court, Rule 41(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure authorizes a court to dismiss a civil action for failure to prosecute, stating that: "If the plaintiff fails to prosecute or to comply with these rules or a court order, a defendant may move to dismiss the action or any claim against it." Fed.R.Civ.P. 41(b). Decisions regarding dismissal of actions for failure to prosecute rest in the sound discretion of the court, and will not be disturbed absent an abuse of that discretion. Emerson v. Thiel College, 296 F.3d 184, 190 (3d Cir. 2002)(citations omitted). That discretion, however, while broad is governed by certain factors, commonly referred to as Poulis factors. As the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has noted:
To determine whether the District Court abused its discretion [in dismissing a case for failure to prosecute], we evaluate its balancing of the following factors: (1) the extent of the party's personal responsibility; (2) the prejudice to the adversary caused by the failure to meet scheduling orders and respond to discovery; (3) a history of dilatoriness; (4) whether the conduct of the party or the attorney was willful or in bad faith; (5) the effectiveness of sanctions other than dismissal, which entails an analysis of alternative sanctions; and (6) the meritoriousness of the claim or defense. Poulis v. State Farm Fire and Cas. Co., 747 F.2d 863, 868 (3d Cir.1984).
Emerson, 296 F.3d at 190.
In exercising this discretion "there is no magic formula' that we apply to determine whether a district court has abused its discretion in dismissing for failure to prosecute." Lopez v. Cousins, 435 F.Appx. 113, 116 (3d Cir. 2011)(quoting Briscoe v. Klem, 538 F.3d 252 (3d Cir. 2008)) Therefore, "[i]n balancing the Poulis factors, [courts] do not [employ] a... mechanical calculation' to determine whether a district court abused its discretion in dismissing a plaintiff's case. Mindek v. Rigatti, 964 F.2d 1369, 1373 (3d Cir.1992)." Briscoe v. Klaus, 538 F.3d at 263. Consistent with this view, it is well-settled that "no single Poulis factor is dispositive, ' Ware, 322 F.3d at 222, [and it is] clear that not all of the Poulis factors need be satisfied in order to dismiss a complaint.' Mindek, 964 F.2d at 1373." Briscoe v. Klaus, 538 F.3d at 263. Moreover, recognizing the broad discretion conferred upon the district court in making judgments weighing these six factors, the court of appeals has frequently sustained such dismissal orders where there has been a pattern of dilatory conduct by a pro se litigant who is not amenable to any lesser sanction. See, e.g., Emerson v. Thiel College, supra; Tillio v. Mendelsohn, 256 F.Appx. 509 (3d Cir. 2007); Reshard v. Lankenau Hospital, 256 F.Appx. 506 (3d Cir. 2007); Azubuko v. Bell National Organization, 243 F.Appx. 728 (3d Cir. 2007).
In this case, a dispassionate assessment of the Poulis factors weighs heavily in favor of dismissing this action. At the outset, a consideration of the first Poulis factor, the extent of the party's personal responsibility, shows that the delays in this case are entirely attributable to the plaintiff, who has failed to abide by court orders, and has otherwise neglected to litigate this case, or respond to defense motions.
Similarly, the second Poulis factor-the prejudice to the adversary caused by the failure to abide by court orders-also calls for dismissal of this action. Indeed, this factor-the prejudice suffered by the party seeking sanctions-is entitled to great weight and careful consideration. As the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has observed:
"Evidence of prejudice to an adversary would bear substantial weight in support of a dismissal or default judgment." Adams v. Trustees of N.J. Brewery Employees' Pension Trust Fund, 29 F.3d 863, 873-74 (3d Cir.1994) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). Generally, prejudice includes "the irretrievable loss of evidence, the inevitable dimming of witnesses' memories, or the excessive and possibly irremediable burdens or costs imposed on the opposing party." Id. at 874 (internal quotation marks and citations omitted).... However, prejudice is not limited to "irremediable" or "irreparable" harm. Id.; see also Ware v. Rodale Press, Inc., 322 F.3d 218, 222 (3d Cir.2003); Curtis T. Bedwell & Sons, Inc. v. Int'l Fidelity Ins. Co., 843 F.2d 683, 693-94 (3d Cir.1988). It also includes "the burden imposed by impeding a party's ability to prepare effectively a full and complete trial strategy." Ware, 322 F.3d at 222.
Briscoe v. Klaus, 538 F.3d at 259-60.
In this case the plaintiff's failure to litigate this claim or comply with court orders now wholly frustrates and delays the resolution of this action. In such instances, the defendants are plainly prejudiced by the plaintiff's continuing inaction and dismissal of the case clearly rests in the discretion of the trial judge. Tillio v. Mendelsohn, 256 F.Appx. 509 (3d Cir. 2007) (failure to timely serve pleadings compels dismissal); Reshard v. Lankenau Hospital, 256 F.Appx. 506 (3d Cir. 2007) (failure to comply with discovery compels dismissal); Azubuko v. Bell National Organization, 243 F.Appx. 728 (3d Cir. 2007) (failure to file amended complaint prejudices defense and compels dismissal).
When one considers the third Poulis factor-the history of dilatoriness on the plaintiff's part-it becomes clear that dismissal of this action is now appropriate. In this regard, it is clear that "[e]xtensive or repeated delay or delinquency constitutes a history of dilatoriness, such as consistent non-response..., or consistent tardiness in complying with court orders.' Adams, 29 F.3d at 874." Briscoe v. Klaus, 538 F.3d at 260-61 (some citations omitted). Here, the plaintiff has ignored and failed to respond to a defense summary judgment motion. The plaintiff has also failed to timely file pleadings, and has not complied with the Standing Practice Order of the Court. Indeed, Gill has taken no discernible action to litigate this case since filing his complaint in November 2014. Thus, the plaintiff's conduct displays "[e]xtensive or repeated delay or delinquency [and conduct which] constitutes a history of dilatoriness, such as consistent non-response..., or consistent tardiness in complying with court orders." Adams, 29 F.3d at 874.
The fourth Poulis factor-whether the conduct of the party or the attorney was willful or in bad faith-also cuts against the plaintiff in this case. In this setting we must assess whether this conduct reflects mere inadvertence or willful conduct, in that it involved "strategic, " "intentional or self-serving behavior, " and not mere negligence. Adams v. Trs. of N.J. Brewery Emps.' Pension Trust Fund, 29 F.3d 863, 875 (3d Cir.1994). At this juncture, when the plaintiff has failed to comply with instructions of the court directing the plaintiff to take specific actions in this case, and has violated the local rules, the court is compelled to conclude that the plaintiff's actions are not accidental or inadvertent but instead reflect an intentional disregard for this case and the court's instructions.
While Poulis also enjoins us to consider a fifth factor, the effectiveness of sanctions other than dismissal, cases construing Poulis agree that in a situation such as this case, where we are confronted by a pro se litigant who will not comply with the rules or court orders, lesser sanctions may not be an effective alternative. See, e.g., Briscoe v. Klaus, 538 F.3d 252, 262-63 (3d Cir. 2008); Emerson, 296 F.3d at 191. This case presents such a situation where the plaintiff's status as a pro se litigant severely limits the ability of the court to utilize other lesser sanctions to ensure that this litigation progresses in an orderly fashion. In any event, by entering our prior orders, and counseling the plaintiff on his obligations in this case, we have endeavored to use lesser sanctions, but to no avail. The plaintiff still declines to obey court orders, and otherwise ignores his responsibilities as a litigant. Since lesser sanctions have been tried, and have failed, only the sanction of dismissal remains available to the court.
Finally, under Poulis we are cautioned to consider one other factor, the meritoriousness of the plaintiff's claims. In our view, however, consideration of this factor cannot save this particular plaintiff's claims, since the plaintiff is now wholly non-compliant with his obligations as a litigant. The plaintiff cannot refuse to address the merits of his claims, and then assert the untested merits of these claims as grounds for denying a motion to sanction him. Furthermore, it is well-settled that "no single Poulis factor is dispositive, ' Ware, 322 F.3d at 222, [and it is] clear that not all of the Poulis factors need be satisfied in order to dismiss a complaint.' Mindek, 964 F.2d at 1373." Briscoe v. Klaus, 538 F.3d at 263. Therefore, the untested merits of the non-compliant plaintiff's claims, standing alone, cannot prevent imposition of sanctions.
In any event, as discussed below, given the undisputed facts set forth in the defendant's summary judgment motion, the plaintiff's claims fail on their merits, yet another factor which favors dismissal of this action. The legal flaws inherent in these claims are discussed separately below.
C. The Plaintiff's Claims Fail as a Matter of Law
1. Summary Judgment Standard of Review
The defendant has moved for judgment pursuant to Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, which provides that the court shall grant summary judgment 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. Fed. R. Civ. P., Rule 56. Through summary adjudication a court is empowered to dispose of those claims that do not present a "genuine dispute as to any material fact, " Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a), and for which a trial would be "an empty and unnecessary formality." Univac Dental Co. v. Dentsply Int'l, Inc., No. 07-0493, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 31615, at *4 (M.D. Pa. Mar. 31, 2010). The substantive law identifies which facts are material, and "[o]nly disputes over facts that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law will properly preclude the entry of summary judgment." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A dispute about a material fact is genuine only if there is a sufficient evidentiary basis that would allow a reasonable fact finder to return a verdict for the non-moving party. Id. at 248-49.
The moving party has the initial burden of identifying evidence that it believes shows an absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Conoshenti v. Pub. Serv. Elec. & Gas Co., 364 F.3d 135, 145-46 (3d Cir. 2004). Once the moving party has shown that there is an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party's claims, "the non-moving party must rebut the motion with facts in the record and cannot rest solely on assertions made in the pleadings, legal memoranda, or oral argument." Berckeley Inv. Group. Ltd. v. Colkitt, 455 F.3d 195, 201 (3d Cir. 2006); accord Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 324 (1986). If the nonmoving party "fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden at trial, " summary judgment is appropriate. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322. Summary judgment is also appropriate if the non-moving party provides merely colorable, conclusory, or speculative evidence. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249. There must be more than a scintilla of evidence supporting the nonmoving party and more than some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts. Id. at 252; see also, Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986). In making this determination, the court must "consider all evidence in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion." A.W. v. Jersey City Pub. Schs., 486 F.3d 791, 794 (3d Cir. 2007).
Moreover, a party who seeks to resist a summary judgment motion by citing to disputed material issues of fact must show by competent evidence that such factual disputes exist. Further, "only evidence which is admissible at trial may be considered in ruling on a motion for summary judgment." Countryside Oil Co., Inc. v. Travelers Ins. Co., 928 F.Supp. 474, 482 (D.N.J.1995). Similarly, it is well-settled that: "[o]ne cannot create an issue of fact merely by... denying averments... without producing any supporting evidence of the denials." Thimons v. PNC Bank, NA, 254 F.Appx. 896, 899 (3d Cir. 2007)(citation omitted). Thus, "[w]hen a motion for summary judgment is made and supported..., an adverse party may not rest upon mere allegations or denial." Fireman's Ins. Co. Of Newark N.J. v. DuFresne, 676 F.2d 965, 968 (3d Cir. 1982), see Sunshine Books, Ltd. v. Temple University, 697 F.2d 90, 96 (3d Cir. 1982)." [A] mere denial is insufficient to raise a disputed issue of fact, and an unsubstantiated doubt as to the veracity of the opposing affidavit is also not sufficient." Lockhart v. Hoenstine, 411 F.2d 455, 458 (3d Cir. 1969). Furthermore, "a party resisting a [Rule 56] motion cannot expect to rely merely upon bare assertions, conclusory allegations or suspicions." Gans v. Mundy, 762 F.2d 338, 341 (3d Cir. 1985)(citing Ness v. Marshall, 660 F.2d 517, 519 (3d Cir. 1981)).
Finally, a party who seeks to resist a summary judgment motion must also comply with Local Rule 56.1, which specifically directs a party opposing a motion for summary judgment to submit a "statement of the material facts, responding to the numbered paragraphs set forth in the statement required [to be filed by the movant], as to which it is contended that there exists a genuine issue to be tried"; if the nonmovant fails to do so, "[a]ll material facts set forth in the statement required to be served by the moving party will be deemed to be admitted." L.R. 56.1. Under the local rules, the failure to follow these instructions and appropriately challenge the material facts tendered by the defendant means that those facts must be deemed, since:
A failure to file a counter-statement equates to an admission of all the facts set forth in the movant's statement. This Local Rule serves several purposes. First, it is designed to aid the Court in its determination of whether any genuine issue of material fact is in dispute. Second, it affixes the burden imposed by Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(e), as recognized in Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, on the nonmoving party to go beyond the pleadings and by her own affidavits, or by the depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, designated specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial .' 477 U.S. 317, 324 (1986) (internal quotations omitted) (emphasis added).
Doe v. Winter, No. 04-CV-2170, 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 25517, *2 n.2 (M.D. Pa. Apr. 5, 2007) (parallel citations omitted; court's emphasis). A party cannot evade these litigation responsibilities in this regard simply by citing the fact that he is a pro se litigant. These rules apply with equal force to all parties. See Sanders v. Beard, No. 09-CV-1384, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS, *15 (M.D. Pa. July 20, 2010) ( pro se parties "are not excused from complying with court orders and the local rules of court"); Thomas v. Norris, No. 02-CV-01854, 2006 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 64347, *11 (M.D. Pa. Sept. 8, 2006) ( pro se parties must follow the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure).
2. Gill's Eighth Amendment Claim Fails as a Matter of Law
In conducting this legal analysis we must also be mindful of the constitutional standards which govern Eighth Amendment claims, since Gill advances an Eighth Amendment claim against the defendant in his complaint alleging, that prison staff violated his Eighth Amendment rights by using excessive force against him by spraying him in the face with OC spray, a chemical agent, "for a short period of time." (Doc. 1.)
This Eighth Amendment claim is judged against settled legal principles, principles which set precise and exacting standards for asserting a constitutional infraction, but are governed by the same overarching and animating constitutional benchmarks. As the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has observed:
The Eighth Amendment protects against infliction of "cruel and unusual punishment." However, "not every governmental action affecting the interests or well-being of a prisoner is subject to Eighth Amendment scrutiny." Whitley v. Albers, 475 U.S. 312, 319, 106 S.Ct. 1078, 89 L.Ed.2d 251 (1986). "After incarceration, only the unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain constitutes cruel and unusual punishment forbidden by the Eighth Amendment." Id. (citation and internal quotations omitted). "It is obduracy and wantonness, not inadvertence or error in good faith, that characterize the conduct prohibited by the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause, whether that conduct occurs in connection with establishing conditions of confinement, supplying medical needs, or restoring official control over a tumultuous cellblock." Id.
Resolution of an Eighth Amendment claim therefore "mandate[s] an inquiry into a prison official's state of mind." Wilson v. Seiter, 501 U.S. 294, 299, 111 S.Ct. 2321, 115 L.Ed.2d 271 (1991). Two considerations define that inquiry. We must first determine if the deprivation was sufficiently serious to fall within the Eighth Amendment's zone of protections. Id. at 298, 111 S.Ct. 2321. If not, our inquiry is at an end. However, if the deprivation is sufficiently serious, we must determine if the officials acted with a sufficiently culpable state of mind. Id. In other words, we must determine if they were motivated by a desire to inflict unnecessary and wanton pain. "What is necessary to establish an unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain...' varies according to the nature of the alleged constitutional violation." Hudson v. McMillian, 503 U.S. 1, 5, 112 S.Ct. 995, 117 L.Ed.2d 156 (1992).
Fuentes v. Wagner, 206 F.3d 335, 344-45 (3d Cir. 2000)
With these tenets in mind we turn to a consideration of the Eighth Amendment claim advanced here by Gill. At the outset, Eighth Amendment excessive force claims entail a showing of some subjective intent to injure. In an excessive force case, where "prison officials stand accused of using excessive physical force in violation of the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause, the core judicial inquiry is that set out in Whitley[v. Albers, 475 U.S. 312 (1986)]: whether force was applied in a good-faith effort to maintain or restore discipline, or maliciously and sadistically to cause harm." Hudson v. McMillian, 503 U.S. 1, 6-7 (1992).
Thus, the keystone to analysis of an Eighth Amendment excessive force claim often entails issues of motivation-whether force was applied in a good-faith effort to maintain or restore discipline, or maliciously and sadistically to cause harm. Hudson v. McMillian, 503 U.S. 1, 6-7 (1992). However, the issue of whether excessive force was used is one which, in proper circumstances, can be determined as a matter of law. In such cases, summary judgment is appropriate when "it appears that the evidence, viewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, will [not] support a reliable inference of wantonness in the infliction of pain." Brooks v. Kyler, 204 F.3d 102, 106 (3d Cir. 2000) (quoting Whitley, 475 U.S. at 322). There are several factors that a court examines in determining whether a correctional officer has used excessive force in violation of the Eighth Amendment, including: "(1) the need for the application of force'; (2) the relationship between the need and the amount of force that was used'; (3) the extent of injury inflicted'; (4) the extent of the threat to the safety of staff and inmates, as reasonably perceived by responsible officials on the basis of the facts known to them'; and (5) any efforts made to temper the severity of a forceful response.'" Id. at 106.
When considering such claims, the reasonableness of a particular use of force is often dependent upon factual context and must be "judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight." Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 396-7 (1989). Moreover, in the context of prison excessive force claims, in determining "whether force was applied in a good-faith effort to maintain or restore discipline, or maliciously and sadistically to cause harm, " Hudson v. McMillian, 503 U.S. 1, 6-7 (1992), "even if we concede [that an inmate] has established at most that prison officials over-reacted to the disturbance that [s]he caused..., any such over-reaction would still fall short of supporting a finding that prison officials acted maliciously and sadistically to cause harm.'" Fuentes v. Wagner, 206 F.3d 335, 346 (3d Cir. 2000). Furthermore, courts have consistently found that an isolated, discrete use of pepper spray does not state an Eighth Amendment claim. See, e.g., Luciano v. Lindberg, 1:CV-09-01362, 2012 WL 1642466 (M.D. Pa. May 10, 2012) Picozzi v. Haulderman, Civ. No. 4:08-CV-0926, 2011 WL 830331, at *5 (M.D.Pa. Mar. 3, 2011) (plaintiff failed to establish an excessive use of force claim where record establishes that the force used, pepper spray, was necessary and the minimum amount needed to get the plaintiff to an area where she could be medically treated); Soto v. Dickey, 744 F.2d 1260, 1270 (4th Cir.1984) ("The use of mace, tear gas or other chemical agent of the like nature when reasonably necessary... to subdue recalcitrant prisoners does not constitute cruel and inhuman punishment, " even if the inmate is handcuffed).
In this case the evidence regarding this use-of-force incident, which forms the basis for the plaintiff's excessive force claim, simply does not support the plaintiff's Eighth Amendment claims. Rather, the unrebutted evidence reveals that the plaintiff's recalcitrant actions inspired the need to use force. The uncontested evidence further shows that this use-of-force incident was modest in scope, duration and intensity, as the responding officer did little more than administer a single short burst of OC spray in order to gain control of the plaintiff. The evidence also shows that the plaintiff was seen by medical staff after this incident, and was found not to have suffered any injuries resulting from this use of force. It is clear that this limited action by corrections staff, standing alone, does not state a constitutional claim since courts have consistently found that an isolated discrete use of pepper spray does not state an Eighth Amendment claim. See, e.g., Luciano v. Lindberg, 1:CV-09-01362, 2012 WL 1642466 (M.D. Pa. May 10, 2012) Picozzi v. Haulderman, Civ. No. 4:08-CV-0926, 2011 WL 830331, at *5 (M.D.Pa. Mar. 3, 2011) (plaintiff failed to establish an excessive use of force claim where record establishes that the force used, pepper spray, was necessary and the minimum amount needed to get the plaintiff to an area where she could be medically treated); Soto v. Dickey, 744 F.2d 1260, 1270 (4th Cir.1984) ("The use of mace, tear gas or other chemical agent of the like nature when reasonably necessary... to subdue recalcitrant prisoners does not constitute cruel and inhuman punishment, " even if the inmate is handcuffed). Therefore, summary judgment is appropriate here on behalf of the defendant as to this claim.
3. The Defendant is Entitled to Qualified Immunity
But even if Gill had stated a colorable constitutional claim, the defendant would still be entitled to qualified immunity from these claims for damages. In order to establish a civil rights claim Gill must show the deprivation of a right secured by the United States Constitution or the laws of the United States. Satisfying these elements alone, however, does not guarantee that Gill is entitled to recover damages from these public officials. Government officials performing "discretionary functions, " are insulated from suit if their conduct did not violate a "clearly established statutory or constitutional right of which a reasonable person would have known." Wilson v. Layne, 526 U.S. 603, 609 (1999); see also Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223 (2009). This doctrine, known as qualified immunity, provides officials performing discretionary functions not only defense to liability, but also "immunity from suit." Crouse v. S. Lebanon Twp., 668 F.Supp.2d 664, 671 (M.D. Pa. 2009) (Conner, J.) (citations omitted). Qualified immunity
balances two important interests - the need to hold public officials accountable when they exercise power irresponsibly and the need to shield officials from harassment, distraction, and liability when they perform their duties reasonably. The protection of qualified immunity applies regardless of whether the government official's error is "a mistake of law, a mistake of fact, or a mistake based on mixed questions of law and fact."
Pearson, 555 U.S. at 231.
Determinations regarding qualified immunity, and its application in a given case, require a court to undertake two distinct inquiries. First, the court must evaluate whether the defendant violated a constitutional right. Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194, 201-02 (2001), abrogated in part by Pearson, 555 U.S. 223; Curley v. Klem, 499 F.3d 199, 206 (3d Cir. 2007); Williams v. Bitner, 455 F.3d 186, 190 (3d Cir. 2006). If the defendant did not actually commit a constitutional violation, then the court must find in the defendant's favor. Saucier, 533 U.S. at 201. If the defendant is found to have committed a constitutional violation, the court must undertake a second, related inquiry to assess whether the constitutional right in question was "clearly established" at the time the defendant acted. Pearson, 555 U.S. at 232; Saucier, 533 U.S. at 201-02. The Supreme Court has instructed that a right is clearly established for purposes of qualified immunity if a reasonable state actor under the circumstances would understand that his conduct violates that right. Williams, 455 F.3d at 191 (citing Saucier, 533 U.S. at 202).
In order to find that a right is clearly established, "the right allegedly violated must be defined at the appropriate level of specificity." Wilson, 526 U.S. at 615. The Supreme Court has explained that, at least in some cases, "a general constitutional rule already identified in the decisional law may apply with obvious clarity to the specific conduct in question, even though the very action in question has [not] previously been held unlawful." Hope v. Pelzer, 536 U.S. 730, 741 (2002) (quoting United States v. Lanier, 520 U.S. 259, 271 (1997) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted)). In some cases, "officials can still be on notice that their conduct violates established law even in novel factual circumstances." Wilson, 455 F.3d at 191 (quoting Hope, 536 U.S. at 741).
The court is no longer required to conduct these two inquiries sequentially, Pearson, 555 U.S. at 239-40, and it may forego difficult constitutional issues and award qualified immunity to a defendant if it is apparent that the defendant did not violate rights that were clearly established at the time the defendant acted. Id. Where a court elects to address the alleged constitutional violations, however, the court's analysis of the merits for purposes of summary judgment merges with analysis of the deprivation of federal rights for purposes of qualified immunity. Gruenke v. Seip, 225 F.3d 290, 299-300 (3d Cir. 2000); Crouse, 668 F.Supp.2d at 671; see also Grant v. City of Pittsburgh, 98 F.3d 116, 122 (3d Cir. 1996) ("[C]rucial to the resolution of [the] assertion of qualified immunity is a careful examination of the record... to establish... a detailed factual description of the actions of each individual defendant (viewed in a light most favorable to the plaintiff).") Because qualified immunity entails a consideration of whether the law was clearly established at the time of a defendant's conduct, this defense, which focuses on the state of the law, presents a question of law for the court, and one which can often be resolved on summary judgment. See Montanez v. Thompson, 603 F.3d 243 (3d Cir. 2010).
In the specific factual context of excessive force claims based upon allegations relating to the use of OC spray, courts have consistently found that an isolated discrete use of OC spray does not state an Eighth Amendment claim. See, e.g., Luciano v. Lindberg, 1:CV-09-01362, 2012 WL 1642466 (M.D. Pa. May 10, 2012) Picozzi v. Haulderman, Civ. No. 4:08-CV-0926, 2011 WL 830331, at *5 (M.D.Pa. Mar. 3, 2011) (plaintiff failed to establish an excessive use of force claim where record establishes that the force used, pepper spray, was necessary and the minimum amount needed to get the plaintiff to an area where she could be medically treated); Soto v. Dickey, 744 F.2d 1260, 1270 (4th Cir.1984) ("The use of mace, tear gas or other chemical agent of the like nature when reasonably necessary... to subdue recalcitrant prisoners does not constitute cruel and inhuman punishment, " even if the inmate is handcuffed). Given this settled case law, we find that the defendant is entitled to qualified immunity in this case. The only force applied against Gill case was a single burst of OC spray. That use of OC spray was conducted in a fashion identical to other past uses which have been approved by the courts. Thus, nothing in the measured and restrained conduct of the defendant could have alerted this official that his actions violated "clearly established statutory or constitutional right of which a reasonable person would have known." Wilson v. Layne, 526 U.S. 603, 609 (1999). Therefore, the defendant should be entitled to qualified immunity from damages in this case.
Thus, a merits analysis reveals that the claims advanced by Gill in this case are subject to dismissal. Therefore, we find that all of the Poulis factors call for dismissal of this case, and recommend that this case be dismissed.
Accordingly, for the foregoing reasons, IT IS RECOMMENDED that the defendants' motion for summary judgment (Doc. 15.), which has not been opposed by the plaintiff, be GRANTED and the plaintiff's complaint be dismissed.
The Parties are further placed on notice that pursuant to Local Rule 72.3:
Any party may object to a magistrate judge's proposed findings, recommendations or report addressing a motion or matter described in 28 U.S.C. § 636 (b)(1)(B) or making a recommendation for the disposition of a prisoner case or a habeas corpus petition within fourteen (14) days after being served with a copy thereof. Such party shall file with the clerk of court, and serve on the magistrate judge and all parties, written objections which shall specifically identify the portions of the proposed findings, recommendations or report to which objection is made and the basis for such objections. The briefing requirements set forth in Local Rule 72.2 shall apply. A judge shall make a de novo determination of those portions of the report or specified proposed findings or recommendations to which objection is made and may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations made by the magistrate judge. The judge, however, need conduct a new hearing only in his or her discretion or where required by law, and may consider the record developed before the magistrate judge, making his or her own determination on the basis of that record. The judge may also receive further evidence, recall witnesses or recommit the matter to the magistrate judge with instructions.