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Whitenight v. Elbel

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh.

December 13, 2019

SHAWN LEE WHITENIGHT, Plaintiff,
v.
THOMAS ELBEL, WARDEN JEFFERSON COUNTY JAIL; PRIME CARE MEDICAL, MEDICAL VENDER JEFFERSON COUNTY JAIL; SUSAN ROSSINO, M.D. JEFFERSON COUNTY JAIL; JILL CLARK, PA-C, SITE MANAGER JEFFERSON COUNTY JAIL; JENIPHER PURCE, L.P.N.; AND DR. TERRI CALVERT, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION [1]

          CYNTHIA REED EDDY CHIEF UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         This is a pro se civil rights action initiated by Plaintiff, Shawn Lee Whitenight, who was incarcerated at Jefferson County Jail initially as a pretrial detainee from approximately December 17, 2013, to May 19, 2014, and, as a result of his sentencing, as a convicted prisoner from May 19, 2014 to June 3, 2014. The defendants are individuals employed by Jefferson County, including the Warden, and the contract medical physicians and staff. Whitenight asserts that he was denied adequate medical treatment and that he was retaliated against for speaking out about this inadequate treatment. He also brings a due process claim stemming from his placement on suicide watch, and multiple state law claims.

         Currently, three motions for summary judgment are pending before the Court: (1) ECF No. 178 filed by Warden Thomas Elbel (ECF No. 178); (2) ECF No. 185 filed by Jill Clark, LPN; Jenipher Pierce, LPN; and Terri Calvert, a psychiatrist, employees of the jail's medical contractor, PrimeCare Medical, who treated Whitenight during the relevant time period (collectively referred to as the “PrimeCare Defendants”); and (3) ECF No. 181 filed by Susan Rossino, M.D., a medical doctor under contract to see prisoners at Jefferson County Jail. Whitenight directly responded to each of these motions (ECF Nos. 199, 200, 202, 203, 196, and 197) and Defendants each filed reply briefs (ECF Nos. 205, 206, and 210).

         The motions are fully brief and are ripe for disposition. After careful consideration of the motions, the voluminous material in support and opposition thereto, the memoranda of the parties in support and opposition thereto, the relevant case law, and the record as a whole, the Court will grant summary judgment as to all federal claims. The Court will not exercise supplemental jurisdiction over the state law claims and these claims will be dismissed without prejudice to refiling in an appropriate state forum.

         Background[2]

         The relevant background is well known to the parties and was fully discussed in the Court's Memorandum Opinion of December 5, 2017. (ECF No. 102). Whitenight was arrested on December 17, 2013, by the Pennsylvania State Police and he claims that during his arrest he suffered injuries to his back. In this case, Whitenight alleges that during his incarceration at Jefferson County Jail he was denied medical treatment for those injuries. He also alleges that he was placed in solitary confinement/ suicide protocol in retaliation for complaining about his perceived lack of appropriate medical treatment.

         Standard of Review

         The standard for assessing a Motion for Summary Judgment under Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure is well-settled. A court should grant summary judgment if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law. “Only 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). Furthermore, “summary judgment will not lie if the dispute about a material fact is ‘genuine,' that is, if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Id. at 250.

         On a motion for summary judgment, the facts and the inferences to be drawn therefrom should be viewed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. See Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co., Ltd. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986) (quoting United States v. Diebold, Inc., 369 U.S. 654, 655 (1962)). The moving party has the initial burden of identifying evidence which demonstrates the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. The party opposing the motion, however, cannot rely merely upon bare assertions, conclusory allegations, or suspicions to support its claim. The nonmoving party “must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts, ” Matsushita, 475 U.S. at 586, and must produce more than a “mere scintilla” of evidence to demonstrate a genuine issue of material fact. See Big Apple BMW, Inc. v. BMW of North America, Inc., 974 F.2d 1358, 1363 (3d Cir. 1992).

         This standard is somewhat relaxed with respect to pro se litigants. Where a party is representing himself pro se, the filings are to be construed liberally. Thus, if the Court can reasonably read Plaintiff's pleadings together with his summary judgment submissions to show an entitlement to relief, the Court should do so despite any failure to cite proper legal authority, confusion of legal theories, poor syntax and sentence construction, or the 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) (although a filing prepared by a prisoner may be inartfully drawn, it should be read “with a measure of tolerance”). Nonetheless, at the summary judgment stage of the proceedings, the Court is not required to credit any “bald assertions” or “legal conclusions” that are unaccompanied by evidentiary support. Jones v. UPS, 214 F.3d 402, 407 (3d Cir. 2000); see also Schoch v. First Fid. Bancorporation, 912 F.2d 654, 657 (3d Cir. 1990) (“[U]nsupported allegations . . . and pleadings are insufficient to repel summary judgment.”).

         Discussion

         The following claims remain following the Court's ruling on the Defendants' motions to dismiss: (1) claims against all Defendants alleging that Whitenight's due process rights were violated when he twice was placed on suicide watch protocol; (2) claims against all Defendants alleging he was placed on suicide watch in retaliation for complaining about his inadequate medical treatment; (3) claims against the PrimeCare Defendants and Dr. Rossino alleging deliberate indifference to Whitenight's serious medical needs; and (4) state law claims of intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligent infliction of emotional distress, conspiracy, and medical negligence/ medical malpractice. See Memorandum Opinion and Order granting in part and denying in part defendants' motions to dismiss. ECF Nos. 102, 103.

         Discovery has now closed and Defendants have each filed motions for summary judgment.

         A. Due Process/Retaliation Claims Arising from Whitenight's Placement on Suicide Watch.

         Whitenight was placed on suicide watch on two occasions: March 29, 2014, and April 17, 2014. He contends that his placement on suicide watch violated his Fourteenth Amendment right to due process and his First Amendment right as his placement on suicide watch was in retaliation for him complaining about his inadequate medical treatment.

         Before turning to the merits, two preliminary issues must be addressed. First, all Defendants argue that any claims arising from Whitenight's March 29, 2014, placement on suicide watch are barred by the statute of limitations.[3] It is well settled that claims brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 are subject to the statute of limitations for personal injury. Wilson v. Garcia, 471 U.S. 261, 266 (1985). In Pennsylvania, the statute of limitations for a personal injury action is two years. 42 Pa.C.S.A. § 5524. See Smith v. Holtz, 87 F.3d 108, 111 n.2 (3d Cir. 1996). As such, for § 1983 actions brought in federal courts located within the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the appropriate limitations period is two years. Id. See Sameric Corp. of Delaware, Inc. v. City of Philadelphia, 142 F.3d 582, 599 (3d Cir. 1998) (holding that federal courts apply the state statute of limitations for personal injury in Section 1983 cases which in Pennsylvania is two years).

         The statute of limitations requires that a complaint be filed within its time limits from the time a cause of action accrues. The date of accrual of claims brought under Section 1983 is governed by federal law. Wallace v. Keto, 549 U.S. 384, 388 (2007); Montgomery v. De Simone, 159 F.3d 120, 126 (3d Cir. 1998). Under federal law “ ‘the limitations period begins to run from the time when the plaintiff knows or has reason to know of the injury which is the basis of the section 1983 action'.” Montgomery v. De Simone, 159 F.3d at 126 (quoting Genty v. Resolution Trust Corp., 937 F.2d 899, 909 (3d Cir 1991)). See Wallace, 549 U.S. at 388 (“[I]t is the standard rule that [accrual occurs] when the plaintiff has a complete cause of action . . . that is, when the plaintiff can file suit and obtain relief) (internal quotations and citations omitted).

         It is undisputed that Whitenight was placed on suicide watch on March 29, 2014, after he threatened self-harm. Thus, Whitenight had a complete cause of action as of March 29, 2014. He was therefore required to file a complaint raising his claims by March 30, 2016. Because the original complaint in this matter has been deemed filed on April 22, 2016, [4] any claim arising out of Whitenight's placement on suicide watch on March 29, 2014, is time barred. In so holding, the Court has rejected Whitenight's arguments that this claim is rendered timely under the continuing violations doctrine. The continuing violations doctrine does not apply to discrete and independent acts. Here, each time Whitenight was placed on suicide watch, he had a cause of action available to him. As such, Whitenight's claims arising from his March 29, 2014, placement on suicide watch are barred by the statute of limitations.

         Even assuming arguendo that such claims were not time barred, for the reasons discussed below, Defendants are entitled to summary judgment as the record shows that Whitenight has presented no set of facts from which a fact finder could find that his constitutional rights were violated by his placement on suicide watch on March 29, 2014. Summary judgment will be granted to all defendants on this claim.

         Warden Elbel also argues that he is entitled to summary judgment on both of Whitenight's claims regarding his placement on suicide watch as such claims are barred procedurally by the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995, 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(a) (the “PLRA”), as he failed to exhaust his administrative remedies before filing this lawsuit. The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, in a recent unpublished opinion, reiterated the analytical structure for a failure-to-exhaust affirmative defense:

As formulated in this Circuit, the failure-to-exhaust affirmative defense has two distinct stages. The first inquiry is whether the prison-employee defendants can demonstrate that the inmate failed to exhaust the on-the-books remedies. See Williams v. Beard, 482 F.3d 637, 639 (3d Cir. 2007) (explaining that the prison's grievance policy supplies “ ‘the yardstick' for determining what steps are required for exhaustion” (quoting Spruill v. Gillis, 372 F.3d 218, 231 (3d Cir. 2004))); see also Ross v. Blake, 136 S.Ct. 1850, 1859 (2016); Rinaldi v. United States, 904 F.3d 257, 268 (3d Cir. 2018). If the defendants can make that showing, then at the second stage, the inmate plaintiff bears the onus of producing evidence that the on-the-books remedies were in fact unavailable to him or her.1 See Rinaldi, 904 F.3d at 268.
1 This order of evaluation is not absolute, and it is permissible to consider the second stage first, see, e.g., Small, 728 F.3d at 271-72, but this ordering is consistent with the prison-employee defendants bearing the burden of production at the first stage, before ...

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