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Santais v. Corrections Corporation of America

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

January 30, 2017

YVES SANTAIS, Plaintiff,
v.
CORRECTIONS CORPORATION OF AMERICA, et al., Defendants.

          ORDER AND MAGISTRATE JUDGE'S REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

          R. STAN BAKER UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF GEORGIA

         Plaintiff, who is currently housed at Coffee Correctional Facility in Nicholls, Georgia, submitted a Complaint in the above-captioned action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. (Doc. 1.) I have conducted the requisite frivolity review of this Complaint. For the reasons which follow, I RECOMMEND that the Court DISMISS Plaintiff's claims against Defendants Corrections Corporation of America, (“CCA”), Coffee Correctional Facility, and Warden Hilton Hall. I also RECOMMEND that the Court DISMISS Plaintiff's claims for compensatory and punitive damages and deliberate indifference claims. I further RECOMMEND that the Court DENY Plaintiff's Motion for Preliminary Injunction, (doc. 14). The Court DENIES Plaintiff's Motion for Production, (doc. 12), and Plaintiff's Motion to Appoint a Translator, (doc. 13).

         However, Plaintiff has stated a viable Eighth Amendment excessive force claim and state law claims against Defendant Jones, and those claims shall proceed. Consequently, the Court hereby ORDERS that the Complaint and this Order be served on Defendant Jones. The Court provides additional instructions to Plaintiff and Defendant Jones pertaining to the future litigation of this action, which the parties are urged to read and follow.

         BACKGROUND[1]

         Plaintiff alleges that Defendant Officer Jones discharged “gaz” spray in the cafeteria of Coffee Correctional Facility and then blocked over 25 prisoners, including Plaintiff, from exiting the cafeteria. (Doc. 1, p. 6.) Plaintiff alleges that, as a result of his exposure to “gaz” spray, his immune system was “impacted”, and he suffered chest pain and coughed up blood. (Id.) After Plaintiff's symptoms manifested, a prison nurse examined Plaintiff and immediately treated him. (Id.)

         Plaintiff contends that Defendant Officer Jones “engaged in excessive force, misconduct and authority abuse against inmates” and that Defendant Warden Hall failed to investigate the alleged incident after Plaintiff filed an administrative grievance. (Id. at p. 8.)

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Plaintiff seeks to bring this action in forma pauperis under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Under 28 U.S.C. § 1915(a)(1), the Court may authorize the filing of a civil lawsuit without the prepayment of fees if the plaintiff submits an affidavit that includes a statement of all of his assets and shows an inability to pay the filing fee and also includes a statement of the nature of the action which shows that he is entitled to redress. Even if the plaintiff proves indigence, the Court must dismiss the action if it is frivolous or malicious, or fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. 28 U.S.C. §§ 1915(e)(2)(B)(i)-(ii). Additionally, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915A, the Court must review a complaint in which a prisoner seeks redress from a governmental entity. Upon such screening, the Court must dismiss a complaint, or any portion thereof, that is frivolous or malicious, or fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted or which seeks monetary relief from a defendant who is immune from such relief. 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(b).

         When reviewing a Complaint on an application to proceed in forma pauperis, the Court is guided by the instructions for pleading contained in the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 8 (“A pleading that states a claim for relief must contain [among other things] . . . a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.”); Fed.R.Civ.P. 10 (requiring that claims be set forth in numbered paragraphs, each limited to a single set of circumstances). Further, a claim is frivolous under Section 1915(e)(2)(B)(i) “if it is ‘without arguable merit either in law or fact.'” Napier v. Preslicka, 314 F.3d 528, 531 (11th Cir. 2002) (quoting Bilal v. Driver, 251 F.3d 1346, 1349 (11th Cir. 2001)).

         Whether a complaint fails to state a claim under Section 1915(e)(2)(B)(ii) is governed by the same standard applicable to motions to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). Thompson v. Rundle, 393 F. App'x 675, 678 (11th Cir. 2010). Under that standard, this Court must determine whether the complaint contains “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 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). A plaintiff must assert “more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not” suffice. Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555. Section 1915 also “accords judges not only the authority to dismiss a claim based on an indisputably meritless legal theory, but also the unusual power to pierce the veil of the complaint's factual allegations and dismiss those claims whose factual contentions are clearly baseless.” Bilal, 251 F.3d at 1349 (quoting Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319, 327 (1989)).

         In its analysis, the Court will abide by the long-standing principle that the pleadings of unrepresented parties are held to a less stringent standard than those drafted by attorneys, and therefore, must be liberally construed. Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, 520 (1972); Boxer X v. Harris, 437 F.3d 1107, 1110 (11th Cir. 2006) (“Pro se pleadings are held to a less stringent standard than pleadings drafted by attorneys.”) (emphasis omitted) (quoting Hughes v. Lott, 350 F.3d 1157, 1160 (11th Cir. 2003)). However, Plaintiff's unrepresented status will not excuse mistakes regarding procedural rules. McNeil v. United States, 508 U.S. 106, 113 (1993) (“We have never suggested that procedural rules in ordinary civil litigation should be interpreted so as to excuse mistakes by those who proceed without counsel.”).

         DISCUSSION

         I. Dismissal of Claims against Corrections Corporation of America

         Plaintiff names Corrections Corporation of America, (“CCA”), as a Defendant, apparently due to its role as employer of the other named Defendants. Though CCA is a private entity, prison contractors are considered state actors. Therefore, CCA is subject to suit under Section 1983. See Farrow v. West, 320 F.3d 1235, 1239 n.3 (11th Cir. 2003). However, supervisors, employers, and private contractors cannot be sued under Section 1983 simply on a theory of respondeat superior. Nesmith v. Corr. Corp. of Am., Civil Action No. CV507-043, 2007 WL 2453584, at *2 (S.D. Ga. Aug. 23, 2007) (holding that CCA, as private contractor who runs prison, cannot be held liable under Section 1983 on respondeat superior or vicarious liability basis). “Because vicarious liability is inapplicable to § 1983 actions, a plaintiff must plead that each Government-official defendant, through the official's own individual actions, violated the Constitution.” Rosa v. Fla. Dep't of Corr., 522 F. App'x 710, 714 (11th Cir. 2013) (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 676) (internal quotations omitted). Therefore, to hold an employer such as CCA liable, Plaintiff must demonstrate that either: (1) CCA actually participated in the alleged constitutional violation, or (2) there is a causal connection between the actions of CCA and the alleged constitutional violation. Hartley v. Parnell, 193 F.3d 1263, 1269 (11th Cir. 1999) (citing Brown v. Crawford, 906 F.2d 667, 671 (11th Cir. 1990)). Here, Plaintiff does not allege that Defendant CCA actually participated in any purported constitutional violation. Similarly, Plaintiff fails to allege a causal connection between Defendant CCA and the asserted constitutional violations. See Zatler v. Wainwright, 802 F.2d 397, 401 (11th Cir. 1986) (per curiam) (requiring an affirmative causal connection between a defendant and an alleged constitutional violation). Furthermore, Plaintiff has not alleged that CCA implemented an improper custom or policy, directed its subordinates to act unlawfully, or knew they would act unlawfully and failed to stop them from doing so. Thus, Plaintiff has failed to allege any facts that would result in liability for CCA, and the Court should DISMISS Plaintiff's claims against CCA.

         II. Dismissal of Claims against Coffee Correctional Facility

         In order to state a claim for relief under Section 1983, a plaintiff must satisfy two elements. First, a 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 Cty., 50 F.3d 1579, 1582 (11th Cir. 1995). Second, a plaintiff must allege that the act or omission was committed by “a person acting under color of state law.” Id. While local governments qualify as “persons” under Section 1983, state agencies and penal institutions are generally not considered legal entities subject to suit. See Grech v. Clayton Cty., 335 F.3d 1326, 1343 (11th Cir. 2003). Consequently, a prison is not a viable defendant under Section 1983. Williams v. Chatham Cty. Sherriff's Complex, Case No. 4:07-cv-68, 2007 WL 2345243 (S.D. Ga. Aug. 14, 2007) (“The county jail, however, has no independent legal identity and therefore is not an entity that is subject to suit under Section 1983.”). Accordingly, the Court should DISMISS Plaintiff's claims against Coffee Correctional Facility.

         III. Dismissal of Supervisory Liability Claims against Defendant Hall

         Section 1983 liability must be based on something more than a defendant's supervisory position or a theory of respondeat superior. Bryant v. Jones, 575 F.3d 1281, 1299 (11th Cir. 2009); Braddy v. Fla. Dep't of Labor & Emp't Sec., 133 F.3d 797, 801 (11th Cir. 1998). A supervisor may be liable only through personal participation in the alleged constitutional violation or when there is a causal connection between the supervisor's conduct and the alleged violations. Id. at 802. “To state a claim against a supervisory defendant, the plaintiff must allege (1) the supervisor's personal involvement in the violation of his constitutional rights, (2) the existence of a custom or policy that resulted in deliberate indifference to the plaintiff's constitutional rights, (3) facts supporting an inference that the supervisor directed the unlawful action or knowingly failed to prevent it, or (4) a history of widespread abuse that put the supervisor on notice of an alleged deprivation that he then failed to correct.” Barr v. Gee, 437 F. App'x 865, 875 (11th Cir. 2011).

         It appears Plaintiff wishes to hold Defendant Hall liable based solely on his supervisory position at Coffee Correctional Facility. He does not make any factual allegations that Defendant Hall directly participated in or was otherwise causally connected to the alleged deprivation of his constitutional rights. For example, he states that Defendant Hall is “legally responsible for the operation of [the prison] . . . [and] the protection and welfare of all inmates of that prison.” (Doc. 1, p. 8.) As set forth above, such supervisory allegations are an insufficient basis for Section 1983 liability. Therefore, the Court should DISMISS Plaintiff's claims against Defendant Hall.

         IV. Dismissal of Claims for Compensatory and Punitive Damages

         No Federal civil action may be brought by a prisoner confined in a jail, prison, or other correctional facility, for mental or emotional injury suffered while in custody without a prior showing of physical injury.” 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(e). The purpose of this statute is “to reduce the number of frivolous cases filed by imprisoned plaintiffs, who have little to lose and excessive amounts of free time with which to pursue their complaints.” Napier v. Preslicka, 314 F.3d 528, 531 (11th Cir. 2002) (citing Harris v. Garner, 216 F.3d 970, 976-79 (11th Cir. 2000)). “Tracking the language of [this] statute, § 1997e(e) applies only to lawsuits involving (1) Federal civil actions (2) brought by a prisoner (3) for mental or emotional injury (4) suffered while in custody.” Id. at 532.

         In Williams v. Brown, 347 F. App'x 429, 436 (11th Cir. 2009), the Eleventh Circuit stated that, “compensatory damages under § 1983 may be awarded only based on actual injuries caused by the defendant and cannot be presumed or based on the abstract value of the constitutional rights that the defendant violated. Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(e), in order to recover for mental or emotional injury suffered while in custody, a prisoner bringing a § 1983 action must demonstrate more than a de minim[i]s physical injury.” Id. (internal citations omitted) (alterations in original). Consequently, a prisoner that has not suffered more than de minimis physical injury cannot recover compensatory or punitive damages. Al-Amin v. Smith, 637 F.3d 1192, 1199 (11th Cir. 2011) (“In sum, our published precedents have affirmed district court dismissals of punitive damage claims under the PLRA because the plaintiffs failed to meet § 1997e(e)'s physical injury requirement.”); Smith v. Allen, 502 F.3d 1255, 1271 (11th Cir. 2007) (“Plaintiff seeks nominal, compensatory, and punitive damages. It is clear from our case law, however, that the latter two types of damages are precluded under the PLRA.”), abrogated on other grounds by Sossamon v. Texas, 563 U.S. 277 (2011). “In order to avoid dismissal under § 1997e(e), a prisoner's claims for emotional or mental injury must be accompanied by allegations of physical injuries that are greater than de minimis.” Mitchell v. Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., 294 F.3d 1309, 1312-13 (11th Cir.2002). “The meaning of the phrase ‘greater than de minimis, ' however, is far from clear.” Chatham v. Adcock, 334 F. App'x 281, 284 (11th Cir. 2009).

         In this case, Plaintiff has only alleged de minimis physical injury resulting from Defendants' alleged excessive use of force. Plaintiff claims that Defendant Jones sprayed him (presumably with pepper spray). However, he states only that he suffered a sore throat and pain in his lungs, that he coughed up blood twice, and that the pepper spray had an “impact” on his immune system. (Doc. 1, p. 6.) Several courts have held that the typical effects associated with pepper spray, such as temporary burning of the skin and difficulty breathing, are not sufficient to satisfy Section 1997(e)'s physical injury requirement. See, e.g., Jennings v. Mitchell, 93 F. App'x 723, 725 (6th Cir. 2004) (finding that prisoner who suffered the discomfort of pepper spray had shown only de minimis injury, insufficient to satisfy § 1997e(e)); Kirkland v. Everglades Corr. Inst., No. 12-22302-CIV, 2014 WL 1333212, at *6 (S.D. Fla. Mar. 31, 2014) (“If [plaintiff] experienced temporary chemical burns and minor respiratory problems from exposure to a chemical agent, he then sustained only minor, physical injuries from the chemical spray.”); Magwood v. Tucker, No. 3:12cv140/RV/CJK, 2012 WL 5944686, at *5 (N.D. Fla. Nov. 14, 2012) (prisoner failed to show more than a de minimis physical injury resulting from officer's use of chemical agent where he alleged he suffered bloody nose and bloody phlegm); Kornagay v. Burt, No. 3:09cv281/LAC/EMT, 2011 WL 839496 (N.D. Fla. Feb. 8, 2011) (prisoner failed to show more than a de minimis physical injury resulting from officer's use of chemical agent where prisoner alleged he suffered burning lungs and skin, congested breathing, tearing eyes, nasal discharge, dizziness, the sensation of respiratory distress, choking, and burns to his scalp); Beecher v. Jones, No. 3:08cv416/MCR/EMT, 2010 WL 5058555, at *5-6 (N.D. Fla. Oct. 29, 2010) (prisoner who alleged no physical injury arising from use of chemical agents failed to show requisite physical injury under § 1997e(e)); see also Osterback v. Ingram, No. 3:96cv580/LAC/SMN, 2000 WL 297840, at *10 (N.D. Fla. Jan.12, 2000) (plaintiff unable to recover compensatory or punitive damages with respect to injuries caused by ...


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