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Nichols v. Phillips

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

January 4, 2018




         Plaintiff Ronell Nichols is a pro se inmate who suffers pain from a surgically-implanted femur rod and bullet fragments embedded in his thigh. In this § 1983 case, the second he has filed as a result of his condition, he claims that two prison physicians violated his constitutional rights when they chose to give him pain medication instead of surgically removing the bullet and femur rod. He also claims that a prison guard who was a defendant in the first lawsuit retaliated against him by repeated searches of his cell that culminated in verbal abuse and the guard throwing Nichols's personal property in the cell's toilet. Nichols also brings claims against various prison administrators and the entity that operates the prison for failing to respond to his grievances and properly train prison employees. Defendants move to dismiss all claims.

         Because Nichols's claim against the physician defendants expresses only his disagreement with their chosen treatment method, he alleges, at best, medical negligence, and has not stated a constitutional claim. However, Nichols has alleged that he suffered an adverse action because of his prior lawsuit, so Defendants' motion to dismiss the retaliation claim against the prison guard is denied. Because Nichols has not alleged that any of the prison administrators were personally involved in the alleged violations of his rights and has not alleged any policy or custom of unconstitutional conduct, this Court dismisses the failure to train claims against the administrative defendants.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Procedural Background

         On June 30, 2017, Nichols filed a pro se complaint under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging violations of his constitutional rights. ECF No. 6. He brings claims of negligence, retaliation, and deliberate indifference and alleges that Defendants Dr. Ronald Phillips and Dr. Bob Rawlins acted with deliberate indifference to his medical needs, that Defendant Sergeant Sabintino denied him grievance forms, yelled at him, repeatedly searched his cell, and threw his personal property in the toilet, and that Defendants Superintendent John Reilly, Warden David Byrne, Deputy Warden Mario Collucci, and Nurse Administrator Kristen Grady[1] failed to remedy the wrongs he suffered and respond to his grievances, .

         Defendants moved to dismiss the complaint on August 28, 2017. ECF No. 9. On October 2, 2017, Nichols filed a “Motion to Dismiss Defendants' Motion to Dismiss, ” ECF No. 13, which the Court construes as an opposition. In his opposition, Nichols clarifies that he brings a claim against Defendants Reilly, Byrne, Colucci, Grady, and the GEO Group, Inc., which operates the prison, based on failure to train, supervise, and discipline prison employees. Pl.'s Opp. Mot. Dismiss 4.

         B. Factual Background

         Plaintiff Ronell Nichols, while incarcerated at George W. Hill Correctional Facility, presented to two prison doctors, Defendant Dr. Phillips and Defendant Dr. Rawlins, complaining of pain in his leg caused by embedded bullet fragments and a surgically-implanted femur rod. Compl. 1, 4. Nichols alleges that the bullet is “moving throughout my thigh area” and the femur rod “is poking out my hip bone area, ” causing pain so severe that he cannot sleep on his right side. Compl. 4.

         Nichols had been scheduled for surgery to remove the femur rod on March 1, 2017, but was arrested on February 27, 2017. Compl. 13. On March 13, after examining Nichols, Dr. Rawlins concluded that the rod had not healed completely, even though prior to Nichols's incarceration, his orthopedist had said it had healed completely and was ready to be removed. Compl. 13. Dr. Phillips and Dr. Rawlins did not examine x-ray films that had been taken of Nichols's thigh on March 9. Compl. 13. Dr. Phillips felt the fragment in Nichols's thigh and said he would have the bullet surgically removed, but Dr. Rawlins convinced him not to. Compl. 12-13. The doctors provided Nichols with Advil for four days. Compl. 12.

         Nichols filed a previous lawsuit in 2015 against Defendant Byrne, Defendant Sabintino, and another prison official. Compl. 7. This lawsuit settled in January 2017. Compl. 8. Subsequently, Sabintino searched Nichols's cell every time Sabintino was on Nichols's cell block, made threats related to Nichols's lawsuit, and made other harassing comments, such as calling Nichols a “suing little bastard.” Pl.'s Opp. Mot. Dismiss 9.[2] He refused Nichols grievance forms and, on one occasion in particular, searched Nichols's cell for his legal paperwork, cursed at him, and threw Nichols's “towel-n-rag” in the cell's toilet. Compl. 4. Nichols had to hide his legal materials in his cellmate's belongings so that Sabintino would not find them. Pl.'s Opp. Mot. Dismiss 9.

         Nichols wrote numerous grievances, including to Defendant Reilly, Defendant Byrne, Defendant Colucci, and Defendant Grady, but did not receive any response. Compl. 12. He has not received mail, although his family informs him that they have sent it. Compl. 12.


         In rendering a decision on a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, this Court must “accept all factual allegations as true [and] construe the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff.” Phillips v. Cnty. of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 233 (3d Cir. 2008) (quoting Pinker v. Roche Holdings Ltd., 292 F.3d 361, 374 n.7 (3d Cir. 2002)) (internal quotation marks omitted). Only if “the ‘[f]actual allegations . . . raise a right to relief above the speculative level'” has the plaintiff stated a plausible claim. Id. at 234 (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 540, 555 (2007)). However, “the tenet that a court must accept as true all of the allegations contained in a complaint is inapplicable to legal conclusions.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (explaining that determining whether a complaint states a plausible claim for relief . . . [is] a context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense”). The defendant bears the burden of demonstrating that a plaintiff has failed to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. Hedges v. United States, 404 F.3d 744, 750 (3d Cir. 2005) (citing Kehr Packages, Inc. v. Fidelcor, Inc., 926 F.2d 1406, 1409 (3d Cir. 1991)).

         III. ANALYSIS

         A. Eighth Amendment Deliberate Indifference

         Nichols claims that his treating physicians were deliberately indifferent to his medical needs because they gave him pain medication instead of surgically removing the rod and bullet fragments in his leg. To state a § 1983 claim based on deliberate indifference, a plaintiff must allege (1) that he had a serious medical need and (2) acts or omissions of prison officials showing deliberate indifference to that need. Natale v. Camden Cty. Corr. Facility, 318 F.3d 575, 582 (3d Cir. 2003). “Deliberate indifference” requires highly culpable conduct-although prison systems have a duty to provide prisoners with adequate medical care, simple medical malpractice does not create a constitutional violation. Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 104-106 (1976); see also Monmouth County Correctional Institution Inmates v. Lanzaro, 834 F.2d 326, 346 (3d Cir. 1987). Indeed, prison authorities have considerable latitude in the diagnosis and treatment of prisoners, and courts defer to a physician's professional judgment. See Inmates of Allegheny County Jail v. Pierce,612 F.2d 754, 762 (3d Cir. 1979); see also White v. Napoleon,897 F.2d 103, 110 (3d Cir. 1990) (“Certainly, no claim is presented when a doctor disagrees with the professional judgment of another doctor. There may, for example, ...

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