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Hammonds v. Allegheny County Bureau of Corrections

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

August 13, 2019




         Plaintiff, Richard Allen Hammonds II (“Plaintiff”), is currently incarcerated at the Allegheny County Jail (“ACJ”), and was incarcerated at ACJ at all times relevant to this lawsuit. He has initiated this action under 42 U.S.C.§§ 1983, 1985, and 1986, seeking damages against the Allegheny County Bureau of Corrections, County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, and the following ACJ officials and officers: Warden Orlando L. Harper, Deputy Warden Zeppo, Deputy Warden Wainwright, Maintenance Supervisor Joe Glaph, Maintenance Supervisor Amelia Bennett,[2] Sergeant Slaby, Corrections Officer Chisholm, Corrections Officer Younkins, Jr., Registered Nurse “Nurse Jim”, and John/Joan Doe, mailroom supervisor. The majority of the defendants are sued in their individual and official capacities, with the exception of the following: Rich Fitzgerald, who is sued only in his official capacity, and Sergeant Slaby, who is sued only in his individual capacity. Complaint, ¶¶ 6 and 10, respectively.

         Plaintiff asserts a potpourri of claims, complaints, and allegations stemming from a variety of alleged constitutional deprivations. For example, he asserts (i) mail tampering and conspiracy to tamper with his mail; (ii) failure to properly maintain ACJ elevators; (iii) retaliation and conspiracy to retaliate; (iv) failing to protect him from an inmate assault; and (v) failing to provide “proper” medical treatment.[3]

         Defendants filed the pending motion to dismiss (ECF No. 23), to which Plaintiff has responded in opposition. (ECF No. 38). For the reasons that follow, the motion will be granted in part and denied in part.

         I. Standard of Review

         A motion to dismiss pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) tests the legal sufficiency of the complaint. Kost v. Kozakiewicz, 1 F.3d 176, 183 (3d Cir. 1993). In deciding a motion to dismiss, the court is not opining on whether the plaintiff will be likely to prevail on the merits; rather, the plaintiff must only present factual allegations sufficient “to raise a right to relief above the speculative level.” Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 556 (2007) (citing 5 C. Wright & A. Miller, Federal Practice and Procedure § 1216, pp. 235-236 (3d ed. 2004)). See also Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662 (2009). A complaint should only be dismissed pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) if it fails to allege “enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570. In making this determination, the court must accept as true all well-pled factual allegations in the complaint and views them in a light most favorable to the plaintiff. U.S. Express Lines Ltd. v. Higgins, 281 F.3d 383, 388 (3d Cir. 2002).

         While a complaint does not need detailed factual allegations to survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must provide more than labels and conclusions. Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555. A “formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.” Id. (citing Papasan v. Allain, 478 U.S. 265, 286 (1986)). Moreover, a court need not accept inferences drawn by a plaintiff if they are unsupported by the facts as set forth in the complaint. See California Pub. Employee Ret. Sys. v. The Chubb Corp., 394 F.3d 126, 143 (3d Cir. 2004) (citing Morse v. Lower Merion Sch. Dist., 132 F.3d 902, 906 (3d Cir. 1997)). Nor must the Court accept legal conclusions disguised as factual allegations. Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555 (citing Papasan v. Allain, 478 U.S. 265, 286 (1986)). See also McTernan v. City of York, Pennsylvania, 577 F.3d 521, 531 (3d Cir. 2009) (“The tenet that a court must accept as true all of the allegations contained in a complaint is inapplicable to legal conclusions.”).

         Expounding on the Twombly/Iqbal line of cases, the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has articulated the following three-step approach:

First, the court must ‘tak[e] note of the elements a plaintiff must plead to state a claim.' Second, the court should identify allegations that, ‘because they are no more than conclusions, are not entitled to the assumption of truth.' Finally, ‘where there are well-pleaded factual allegations, a court should assume their veracity and then determine whether they plausibly give rise to an entitlement for relief.' Burtch v. Milberg Factors, Inc., 662 F.3d 212, 221 (3d Cir. 2011) (quoting Santiago v.

Warminster Twp., 629 F.3d 121, 130 (3d Cir. 2010)). This determination is “a context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679.

         II. Discussion

         A. Alleged Deprivations of Plaintiff's Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment Rights Several of Plaintiff's claims indicate that he believes he was subjected to cruel and unusual punishment. The record does not indicate whether at the time of the events giving rise to this lawsuit Plaintiff was a pretrial detainee or a post-conviction person. However, based on public records, specifically, Plaintiff's criminal docket at No. CP-02-CR-10480-2017, it appears that Plaintiff was, and continues to be, a pre-trial detainee. The docket reflects that he has been detained in ACJ since 08/08/2017 and is scheduled for a jury trial to commence on 10/21/2019, before Judge David R. Cashman. See Due to his pre-trial detainee status, Plaintiff's constitutional claims will be analyzed under the Due Process Clause of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments rather than the Eighth Amendment. Fuentes v. Wagner, 20 F.3d 335, 344 (3d Cir. 2000). With that said, however, when analyzing conditions of confinement claims for pre-trial detainees, courts utilize the jurisprudence developed under the Eighth Amendment. Hubbard v. Taylor, 339 F.3d 150, 165-66 (3d Cir. 2005).

         The cruel and unusual punishment clause of the Eighth Amendment proscribes punishments that “ ‘involve the unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain, or are grossly disproportionate to the severity of the crime.' ” Tillman v. Lebanon County Corr. Facility, 221 F.3d 410, 417 (3d Cir. 2000) (quoting Rhodes v. Chapman, 452 U.S. 337, 346 (1981)). In Rhodes, the Supreme Court stated that prison conditions amount to cruel and unusual punishment if they cause “unquestioned and serious deprivations of basic human needs . . . [that] deprive inmates of the minimal civilized measure of life's necessities.” Rhodes, 452 U.S. at 347. “To demonstrate a deprivation of [ ] basic human needs, a plaintiff must show a sufficiently serious objective deprivation, and that a prison official subjectively acted with a sufficiently culpable state of mind, i.e., deliberate indifference.” Tillman, 221 F.3d at 418. As the requirements of the Eighth Amendment set a “floor” for analysis of Fourteenth Amendment due process claims, it is worth noting that a pretrial detainee's “desire to be free from discomfort” is insufficient to establish a fundamental liberty interest protected by the constitution. See Bell, 441 U.S. at 534-35. Keeping these standards in mind, the Court will evaluate each alleged instance of cruel and unusual punishment to determine whether Plaintiff's allegations are sufficient to survive Defendants' Twombly/Iqbal challenge.[4]

         1. Failure to Properly Maintain ACJ Elevators

         Plaintiff alleges that the ACJ elevators routinely malfunction and Defendants Fitzgerald, Harper, Zeppo, Wainwright, Bennet, and Glaph violated Plaintiff's Eighth Amendment right to be free of cruel and unusual punishment when they refuse to “rectify the safety hazard.” Complaint, at ¶ 42. Specifically, Plaintiff contends that Defendants have failed to properly maintain one or more of the ACJ elevators, resulting in several breakdowns or other malfunctions, “creating an unreasonable risk of injury in living and can be the death of an inmate or staff member.” Resp. at 6.

         However, the Complaint is void of sufficient facts showing that Defendants were “deliberately indifferent” to the alleged danger posed by the elevator malfunctions or whether the majority of the Defendants were even aware of the elevator malfunctions. Allegations that the malfunctioning of the elevators “can be the death of an inmate or staff” are far too speculative and vague to survive a motion to dismiss. At best, Plaintiff alleges that he filed a grievance complaining about the elevators malfunctioning and that Defendant Glaph and Defendant Bennett informed him that ACJ did not have the budget for an entirely new elevator at that time. Complaint at ¶ 32. Without more, this allegation simply does not rise to the level of deliberate indifference.

         Thus, the motion to dismiss will be granted on this claim and Plaintiff's allegations regarding the malfunctioning of the ACJ elevators will be dismissed.

         2. Failure to Protect[5]

         According to the allegations of the Complaint, on 2/11/2018, as Defendant Younkins, Jr., was leaving the POD, he announced, “Anybody who fucks up Hammonds will be giving a package, he is a rat. . . . He is telling how the drugs get into the jail!” Complaint, at ¶ 21. Upon hearing this, Plaintiff asked Defendant Chisholm if he could immediately be placed in protective custody. Chisholm denied his request stating, “Snitches get stitches and thrown in ditches.” Id. at ¶ 22. Chisholm then commenced doing a security round and yelled, “now is the time to do it.” Id. at ¶ 23.

         Plaintiff alleges that he was then immediately tackled from behind and dragged into a cell and “unmercifully beaten and stabbed by six other inmates. Plaintiff was hit with batteries in a sock, stabbed in his face, ribs, back and head areas.” Id. at ¶ 24.

         In the most general sense, a prison official violates the Eighth Amendment when the following two elements are established: (1) the inmate alleges an objectively serious deprivation by a prison official of food, clothing, shelter, medical care, or safety; and (2) the prison official acted with a sufficiently culpable state of mind to deprive the inmate of his right to food, clothing, shelter, medical care, or safety. Of particular relevance to this case, the United States Supreme Court has addressed these two general elements as they apply to the failure to protect from assault by other inmates. Framer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825, 832 (1994). The Eighth Amendment also imposes a duty on prison officials to “ ‘ take reasonable measures to guarantee the safety of the inmates.'” Id. (quoting Hudson v. Palmer, 468 U.S. 517, 526-27 (1984)). Despite this general requirement to protect inmates, “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” Id. at 834.

         To state a cognizable failure to protect claim under § 1983, the inmate must demonstrate that two conditions are met. First, for a claim “based on failure to prevent harm, the inmate must show that he is incarcerated under conditions posing a substantial risk of harm.” Id. (citing Helling v. McKinney, 509 U.S. 25, 35 (1993)). Second, the inmate must show that prison officials acted with deliberate indifference to the safety of the inmate. The test for deliberate indifference is twofold: To act with deliberate indifference, “the official must both be aware of facts from which the inference could be drawn that a substantial risk of serious harm exists, and he must also draw the inference.” Farmer, 511 U.S. at 837. With these standards in mind, the Court will now examine plaintiff's failure to protect claims.

         a. Substantial Risk of Serious Harm

         The Court finds that Plaintiff has satisfied the first prong of the inquiry. In the Complaint, he alleges that Defendants Younkins, Jr., and Chisholm incited the assault against him. Plaintiff also alleges that after hearing Younkins, Jr., call him a “rat, ” his request to be placed in protective custody was denied by Chisholm. The allegations of the Complaint sufficiently plead Plaintiff was at substantial risk of serious harm.

         b. Deliberate Indifference

         Defendants argue that, with the exception of Defendants Younkins, Jr. and Chisholm, Plaintiff does not satisfy the deliberate indifference prong because he has failed to show particularized knowledge by the Defendants that there was a risk to Plaintiff. The Court agrees with this argument. Plaintiff has failed to plead any facts that would suggest that the remaining defendants were aware of the actions of Defendants Younkins, Jr., and Chisholm leading up to the assault on 2/11/2018.

         Only Plaintiff's allegations against Defendants Younkins, Jr., and Chisholm for failure to protect will be allowed to continue beyond the Defendants' motion to dismiss. Discovery may well reveal that the alleged conduct of each of these two defendants does not give rise to a deliberate indifference claim, but at this early stage of litigation, the allegations of the Complaint must be accepted as true and all reasonable inferences must be drawn in Plaintiff's favor.

         3. Failure to Provide Adequate Medical Treatment

         Plaintiff alleges that five days after his assault, on 2/16/2018, he was taken to the ACJ medical unit and “perfunctorily looked at” by Nurse Jim. He alleges that he told Nurse Jim of the multiple injuries he sustained in the assault on 2/11/2018, but because Defendant Slaby informed Nurse Jim that “plaintiff was an aggressive grievance filer and to let him ‘plaintiff' languish in physical pain, ” Nurse Jim refused to provide Plaintiff proper medical care treatment for non-medical reasons. Complaint at ¶¶ 28, 29.

         The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has indicated that a pretrial detainee's right to adequate medical care should be analyzed under the well-settled standard established in Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97 (1976), which provides that prison officials are required “to provide basic medical care to those whom it has incarcerated.” Rouse v. Plantier, 182 F.3d 192, 197 (3d Cir. 1999) (citing Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97 (1976)).

         “[D]eliberate indifference to serious medical needs of prisoners constitutes the ‘unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain' . . . proscribed by the Eighth Amendment.” Estelle, 429 U.S. at 103. “[W]hether the indifference is manifested by prison doctors in their response to the prisoner's needs or by prison guards in intentionally denying or delaying access to medical care or intentionally interfering with the treatment once prescribed . . . deliberate ...

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