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Robbins v. Toole

United States District Court, Southern District of Georgia, Statesboro Division

January 13, 2015

ROBERT TOOLE, Warden, and BRIAN OWENS, Commissioner, Defendants.



Plaintiff, who is currently incarcerated at Valdosta State Prison in Valdosta, Georgia (Doc. 8, p. 1), filed an action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 contesting certain conditions of his confinement while housed at Georgia State Prison in Reidsville, Georgia (Doc. 1, pp. 3-4). A prisoner proceeding against employees of government entities must comply with the mandates of the Prison Litigation Reform Act, 28 U.S.C. §§ 1915, 1915A (2014). In determining compliance, the undersigned is guided by the longstanding principle that pro se pleadings are entitled to liberal construction. Haines v. Kerner. 404 U.S. 519, 520 (1972); Walker v. Duaaer. 860 F.2d 1010, 1011 (11th Cir. 1988).

Section 1915A requires a district court to screen a prisoner's complaint for cognizable claims before, or as soon as possible after, docketing. 28 U.S.C § 1915A(a). The court must dismiss a complaint, or any portion thereof, that is frivolous or malicious, fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, or seeks monetary damages from a defendant who is immune. Id. § 1915A(b).

Section 1915, which governs a prisoner's payment of filing fees, states that a court must dismiss an action that "fails to state a claim on which relief may be granted." 14 § 1915(e)(2)(B)(ii). In Mitchell v. Farcass. the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals interpreted the language in section 1915(e)(2)(B)(ii). 112 F.3d 1483, 1490 (11th Cir. 1997). Noting that this language closely tracks the language of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), the court held that the same standards for deciding whether to dismiss under that rule for failure to state a claim apply equally in evaluating prisoner complaints filed pursuant to section 1915(e)(2)(B)(ii). Id. While the court in Mitchell interpreted section 1915, its interpretation guides this Court in applying the nearly identical language of the screening provisions in section 1915A.

Plaintiff asserts that upon arriving at Georgia State Prison on June 18, 2014, he was placed in a segregated housing unit based on threats of violence made by other inmates. (Doc. 1, p. 5). Plaintiff contends that he remained in the segregated housing unit for over ninety-six hours without receiving any formal hearing, in violation of Georgia prison policy. (Id. at pp. 5, 7, 13 (citing Ga. Dep't of Corr. Standard Operating Procedures IIB09-0001.VI(B), IIB09-0002)). Days later, Plaintiff was moved to a more isolated area of the segregated housing unit, where Plaintiff complains he was denied access to the amenities; religious services; educational, vocational, and rehabilitative programs; and mental health treatment afforded to the general prison population according to Georgia prison policy. (Id. at pp. 7-10, 13 (citing Ga. Gen. Stat. Ann. § 42-5-57(b) (2014); Ga. Dep't of Corr. Standard Operating Procedure IIB09-0001.VI(E)(9))). After unsuccessfully appealing his housing assignment, Plaintiff maintains that he wrote numerous unanswered letters to Warden Robert Toole ("Defendant Toole") concerning the conditions of his confinement. (Id. at pp. 1, 8-9, Ex. A). Plaintiff filed the instant action against Defendant Toole and the Commissioner of the Department of Corrections, Brian Owens ("Defendant Owens"), both individually and in their official capacities, seeking relief pursuant to the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments as well as various provisions of the Georgia Constitution, statutes, and Standard Operating Procedures. (Id. at pp. 11, 14).

A plaintiff must set forth "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that [he] is entitled to relief." Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). While the plaintiff need not provide detailed factual allegations, "a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (1937) (citations omitted) (internal quotation marks omitted). To state a claim for relief under section 1983, the plaintiff must satisfy two elements. First, the plaintiff must allege that an act or omission deprived him "of some right, privilege, or immunity secured by the Constitution or laws of the United States." Hale v. Tallapoosa Cntv., 50 F.3d 1579, 1582 (11th Cir. 1995). Second, the plaintiff must allege that the act or omission was committed by "a person acting under color of state law." Id.

Plaintiff cannot sustain a claim against Defendants in their official capacities. A lawsuit against a state agency or a state officer in his official capacity is no different from a suit against a state itself; such a defendant is immune. Will v. Mich. Dep't of State Police. 491 U.S. 58, 67, 71 (1989) (finding that section 1983 does not abrogate well-established immunities under the Eleventh Amendment). Because the State of Georgia would be the real party in interest in a suit against Defendant Toole and Defendant Owens in their official capacities, the Eleventh Amendment immunizes these actors from suit. See Free v. Granger, 887 F.2d 1552, 1557 (11th Cir. 1989). Plaintiffs claims against Defendants in their official capacities should be DISMISSED.

Plaintiff also fails to state a claim against Defendant Owens individually. In section 1983 actions, liability must be based on something more than a theory of respondeat superior. Braddy v. Fla. Dep't of Labor & Employment Sec, 133 F.3d 797, 801 (11th Cir. 1998). A supervisor may be liable only "when the supervisor personally participates in the alleged constitutional violation or when there is a causal connection between the actions of the supervising official and the alleged constitutional deprivation." Id. at 802 (quoting Brown v. Crawford. 906 F.2d 667, 671 (11th Cir. 1990)).

It appears that Plaintiff seeks to hold Defendant Owens liable solely based on his supervisory role as Commissioner of the Department of Corrections:

[Defendant] Owens is the only one in the [Department of Corrections] who has the authority and ability to provide a way for me to serve my sentence in another state ... [or] federal facility in Georgia .. . without being locked down. [Defendant] Owens has refused to consider my situation and compact with another state when he was specifically informed . . . and advi[s]ed about my substantial assistance . . . provided [to] the Atlanta District Attorney's office [in testifying against my co-defendant].

(Doc. 1, p. 9). Nothing in Plaintiff's Complaint indicates that Defendant Owens personally participated in, or engaged in conduct that caused, Plaintiffs assignment to the segregated housing unit and the conditions of his confinement. And Plaintiffs statement that Defendant Owens was "specifically informed" of Plaintiffs assistance during his criminal case—without any further factual content—fails to plausibly suggest that Defendant Owens had any involvement in Plaintiffs assignment and confinement. See Ashcroft. 556 U.S. at 678 (explaining that the plausibility standard requires pleading "factual content" (citations omitted) (internal quotation marks omitted)); see also Bell Atl. Corp. v. Tombly. 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007) (stating that factual content must nudge claims "across the line from conceivable to plausible"). Because Plaintiff fails to show that Defendant Owens personally participated in, and thus could be held liable as a supervisor for, a potential constitutional violation, Plaintiffs claims for relief against Defendant Owens in his individual capacity should be DISMISSED.

As to Defendant Toole, Plaintiffs allegations of Eighth Amendment violations are insufficient to support his section 1983 claim. The Eighth Amendment's proscription against cruel and unusual punishment imposes upon prison officials a constitutional duty to take reasonable measures to guarantee the safety and health of prisoners, including maintaining "humane conditions of confinement" by providing "adequate food, clothing, shelter, and medical care." Farmer v. Brennan. 511 U.S. 825, 832-33 (1994); see also U.S. Const, amend. VIII. "To show a violation of [his] Eighth Amendment rights, [a p]laintiff must produce sufficient evidence of (1) a substantial risk of serious harm; (2) the defendant's] deliberate indifference to that risk; and (3) causation." Smith v. Rea'l Dir. of Fla. Dep't of Corr.. 368 F.App'x 9, 14 (11th Cir. 2010) (quoting Purcell v. Toombs Cntv.. 400 F.3d 1313, 1319 (11th Cir. 2005)). As to the "substantial risk" element, a plaintiff "seeking to show unconstitutional conditions of confinement must clear a 'high bar' by demonstrating 'extreme deprivations."' Ellis v. Pierce Cntv.. 415 F.App'x215, 217 (11th Cir. 2011) (quoting Chandler v. Crosby. 379 F.3d 1278, 1298 (11th Cir. 2004)) (defining "extreme deprivations" as conditions constituting "the wanton and unnecessary infliction of pain" or creating a risk of "serious damage to [the prisoner's] future health or safety" (citations omitted) (internal quotation marks omitted)).

Plaintiffs allegations of being denied access to certain amenities, services, and programs do not rise to the level of "extreme deprivations" that would create a substantial risk of serious harm to Plaintiffs health or safety. And while the denial of mental health treatment could pose a substantial risk of harm to Plaintiffs future health, Rogers v. Evans. 792 F.2d 1052, 1058 (11th Cir. 1986), Plaintiffs Complaint is devoid of any facts suggesting that Defendant Toole was deliberately indifferent to—or even aware of—that risk. (See Doc. 1, p. 10 (stating only that Plaintiff directed his requests for treatment to the prison's mental health counselor)); cf Carter v. Galloway. 352 F.3d 1346, 1349 (11th Cir. 2003) ("To be deliberately indifferent, [defendants must have been subjectively aware of the substantial risk of serious harm in order to have had a sufficiently culpable state of mind." (internal quotation marks omitted) (citations omitted)). Because Plaintiff fails to plausibly plead any Eighth Amendment violation arising out of his conditions of confinement, Plaintiffs Eighth Amendment claim against Defendant Toole should be DISMISSED.

Relevant to Plaintiffs Fourteenth Amendment claim, the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment "protects against deprivations of 'life, liberty, or property without due process of law.'" Kirby v. Siegelman. 195 F.3d 1285, 1290 (11th Cir. 1999) (quoting U.S. Const, amend. XIV). The U.S. Supreme Court has identified two situations in which a prisoner can be deprived of liberty such that the protection of due process is required: (1) there is a change in the prisoner's conditions of confinement so severe that it essentially exceeds the sentence imposed by the court; and (2) the State has consistently given a benefit to prisoners, usually through a statute or administrative policy, and the deprivation of that benefit "imposes atypical and significant hardship on the inmate in relation to the ordinary incidents of prison life." Id. at 1290-91 (quoting Sandin v. Conner. 515 U.S. 472, 484 (1995)); see. e.g., Overton v. Bazzetta. 539 U.S. 126, 136-37 (2003) (stating that a state's temporary withdrawal of its visitation privileges ...

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