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Bell v. Morales

United States District Court, S.D. Georgia, Savannah Division

January 12, 2017

JOSE MORALES, Warden, individually and in his official capacity, Defendant.


         Plaintiff Clayton Thomas Bell is an inmate at the Coffee County Correctional Facility. Doc. 7, ¶ 3. He brings this action, in forma pauperis, see doc. 3, against Jose Morales, Warden of Coastal State Prison, individually and in his official capacity, alleging that Morales disclosed his HIV-positive status to other inmates. See doc. 7, ¶¶ 4, 8. He seeks declaratory relief, nominal, compensatory, and punitive damages, and costs. Id., ¶¶ 26-31. Also before the Court are Bell's motion for additional law library access, his "affidavit for arrest" of a prison guard, and his petition to depose another prisoner. Docs. 6, 9, & 10.

         I. BACKGROUND[1]

         The underlying facts of this case are simple.[2] On July 12, 2016, Morales, who was in Bell's dorm for a routine inspection, "announc[ed] loudly and clearly to the entire population that [Bell] was HIV-positive, and issued a stern warning about participating in any sexual activity with him due to his HIV status." Doc. 7 ¶¶ 7-8. Because of Morales' revelation, other inmates "verbally, mentally, and emotionally assaulted [Bell] by taunting, harassing, intimidating, and making threats of physical violence." Id., ¶¶ 9-11. He was moved to "a solitary cell [that] was designated for administrative segregation, "[3] where he remained until he was transferred out of the prison. Id. ¶¶ 12, 16. He grieved the issue, but had not received any response when he filed his Amended Complaint.[4]Id. ¶¶ 15, 18. He alleges that Morales' disclosure violated his Eighth Amendment rights, HIPAA, Georgia state law, and Georgia Department of Corrections policy. Id. ¶¶ 21-25. He requests declaratory relief, $100, 000 in compensatory damages, $500 in nominal damages, $50, 000 in punitive damages, and costs. Id. ¶¶ 26-29, 31.

         II. ANALYSIS

         The Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) requires federal courts to screen all civil cases in which a prisoner seeks redress from a government entity or official. See 28 U.S.C. § 1915A. The Court must screen out any claims that: (1) are frivolous; (2) are malicious; (3) fail to state a claim upon which relief can be granted; or (4) seek monetary relief from a defendant immune from such relief. Id. Similarly, 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(c)(1) allows the Court to dismiss any prisoner suit brought "with respect to prison conditions, " for the reasons stated in § 1915A. The Court thus examines Bell's Amended Complaint to determine whether he has stated any viable claim for relief.

         A. HIPAA Claim

         Bell alleges that Morales' disclosure of his HIV status was "a violation of federal law under 42 U.S.C.A. § 1320d-6(a)(3)." Doc. 7 ¶ 23. The cited code section is part of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA), which protects the confidentiality of medical records. Acara v. Banks, 470 F.3d 569, 570-71 (5th Cir. 2006). Despite HIPPA's confidentiality protection, it provides no private right of action -- enforcement is reserved for the Secretary of Health and Human Services. Id. at 571-72; see also Sneed v. Pan Am. Hosp., 370 F.App'x 47, 50 (11th Cir. 2010) ("We decline to hold that HIPAA creates a private cause of action, [Cit.], or rights that are enforceable through § 1983." (citing Acara, 470 F.3d at 571-72)). Accordingly, Bell's HIPAA claim should be DISMISSED.

         B. Section 1983 Claim

         Bell also alleges that Morales' unauthorized disclosure of his HIV status was "deliberate indifference to [his] serious medical need . . .[, ]" constituting "cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution." Doc. 7 ¶ 22. Such a claim requires: "(1) a serious medical need; (2) the defendants' deliberate indifference to that need; and (3) causation between that indifference and the plaintiffs injury." Mann v. Taser Int'l, Inc., 588 F.3d 1291, 1306-07 (11th Cir. 2009). The medical need "must be one that, if left unattended, poses a substantial risk of serious harm, " id. at 1307 -- for example, a broken bone, a wound, or a serious illness, see, e.g. Farrow v. West, 320 F.3d 1235, 1243 n. 14 (11th Cir. 2003) (providing examples of "sufficiently serious" medical needs). While Bell's HIV may constitute a "serious medical need, " see Brown v. Johnson, 387 F.3d 1344, 1351 (11th Cir. 2004) (HIV and hepatitis are serious medical conditions), the confidentiality of his HIV status does not.[5] Accordingly his § 1983 claim should be DISMISSED.

         C. Remaining Claims

         Bell also asserts violations of Georgia law and Georgia Department of Corrections policy. See doc. 7 ¶¶ 24-25. However, since he has not stated a federal claim for relief, the Court should dismiss the remaining state-law claims pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1367(c)(3), which permits a district court to decline to exercise supplemental jurisdiction if it has dismissed all claims over which it has original jurisdiction. See Parker v. Scrap Metal Processors, Inc., 468 F.3d 733, 743 (11th Cir. 2006) ("Any one of the section 1367(c) factors is sufficient to give the district court discretion to dismiss a case's supplemental state law claims."); see also Estate of Owens v. GEO Grp., Inc., ___ F.App'x__, 2016 WL 4473219 at * 8 (11th Cir. Aug. 25, 2016) ("This Court has repeatedly said that, when all the federal claims have been dismissed pretrial, Supreme Court case law strongly encourages or even requires dismissal of the state claims.") (quotes and cites omitted). When supplemental jurisdiction is declined, the dismissal of the remaining claims is without prejudice. See, e.g., Carnegie-Mellon Univ. v. Cohill, 484 U.S. 343, 350 (1988) ("[W]hen the federal-law claims have dropped out of the lawsuit in its early stages and only state-law claims remain, the federal court should decline the exercise of jurisdiction by dismissing the case without prejudice.")- Accordingly, Bell's remaining state-law claims should be DISMISSED WITHOUT PREJUDICE.


         In summary, Bell's Amended Complaint should be dismissed. Where a pro se plaintiff has failed to state a claim through artless drafting, the Court may afford him a second chance. See Bank v. Pitt, 928 F.2d 1108, 1112 (11th Cir. 1991), overruled in part by Wagner v. Daewoo Heavy Indus. Am. Corp., 314 F.3d 541, 542 & n. 1 (11th Cir. 2002) (en banc); see also Jenkins v. Walker, 620 F.App'x 709, 711 (11th Cir. 2015). "However, a district court need not allow amendment if the amended complaint would still be subject to dismissal." Jenkins, 620 F.App'x at 711 (citing Cockrell v. Sparks, 510 F.3d 1307, 1310 (11th Cir. 2007)). Bell's HIPAA claim is not amendable, thus it should be DISMISSED WITH PREJUDICE. Despite the fact that Bell's articulation of his § 1983 claim is a dead-end, it is not clear that the alleged facts would not support any claim. See note 5 supra. Thus, it should be DISMISSED WITHOUT PREJUDICE.[6] The Court should also decline to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over his state-law claims, and those claims should be DISMISSED WITHOUT PREJUDICE. Since all of Bell's claims should be dismissed, his motions for additional library access to research his claims, doc. 6, and to depose another state prisoner, doc. 10, are DENIED as moot. Finally, Bell's request that the Court order the arrest of a prison employee, doc. 9, is DENIED.[7]

         Meanwhile, it is time for plaintiff to pay his $350 filing fee. His furnished account information shows that he has had a $108.98 average monthly balance and $108.98 in monthly deposits in his prison account during the past six months. Doc. 5. He therefore owes an initial partial filing fee of $21.80. See 28 U.S.C. ยง 1915(b)(1) (requiring an initial fee assessment "when funds exist, " under a specific 20 percent formula). Plaintiffs custodian (or designee) also shall set aside 20 percent of all future deposits to the account, then forward those funds ...

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