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Bowens v. Sikes

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

February 13, 2017

SHERRIFF STEVE C. SIKES, et al., Defendants.


         The undersigned received a letter from pro se plaintiff Rosevelt Bowens objecting to an entry on the docket.[1] Doc. 7. Because he seeks judicial relief, the Court construes his letter as a Motion for Reconsideration. The Court granted his motion to proceed in forma pauperis (IFP) and ordered him to return the required Prison Litigation Reform Act ("PLRA") forms, 28 U.S.C. § 1915(a)(2). Doc. 3. He complied with that directive, docs. 4 & 5, and accordingly the Clerk "terminated" the deadline for returning the forms, and made a docket entry recording that event. Bowens thinks this terminated his lawsuit. It did not. Since Bowens' action remains pending, and the deadline for his return of the PLRA forms was properly cancelled, there is no action for the Court to take. Bowens' Motion for Reconsideration, therefore, is DENIED as moot.

         Since Bowens has completed his IFP filings, docs. 4-5, the Court now screens his complaint under 28 U.S.C. § 1915A.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff is a Liberty County Jail inmate. Doc 1 at 3; doc. 7 at 1, 3. He brings this § 1983 action against the Jail, Liberty County Sheriff Steve Sikes, and two jail administrators. Doc. 1 at 1, 4. Liberally construing his allegations[2], Bowens alleges violations arising out of unsafe or unsanitary conditions, problems with the jail's grievance procedure, excessive noise, the condition of the food served at the jail, and lack of access to legal materials. See Id. at 5, 7-13. He seeks injunctive relief and compensation for his "pain and suffering." Id. at 6.

         II. ANALYSIS

         The Prison Litigation Reform Act 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 Bowens' Complaint to determine whether he has stated any claim for relief under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.

         A. Claims against Sheriff Sikes

         The Complaint does not include any specific allegations concerning Sheriff Sikes, only the general conditions of Bowens' confinement. See doc. 1. Claims under § 1983, however, cannot be based on theories of vicarious liability or respondeat superior. Polk Cnty. v. Dodson, 454 U.S. 312, 325 (1981). A § 1983 plaintiff must demonstrate that an individual defendant participated in the alleged constitutional violation or show a causal connection between the official's acts or omissions and the constitutional violation. Brown v. Crawford, 906 F.2d 667, 671 (11th Cir. 1990). In the absence of any allegations against Sheriff Sikes, Bowens' claims against him should be DISMISSED.

         B. Claims against Liberty County Jail

         Liberty County Jail is not an entity subject to suit under § 1983. See Lovelace v. DeKalb Cent Prob., 144 F.App'x 793, 795 (11th Cir. 2005) (county police department not a legal entity subject to suit); Dean v. Barber, 951 F.2d 1210, 1214 (11th Cir. 1992) (sheriff and police departments not usually considered legal entities subject to suit); Bembry v. St. Lawrence, 2007 WL 4256984 at * 2 (S.D. Ga. Nov. 30, 2007) ("Chatham County Jail [] is not an entity subject to suit under § 1983"). Bowens' claims against Liberty County Jail, therefore, should be DISMISSED.

         C. Official Capacity Claims

         Bowens' remaining claims, now against only defendants Hein and Boyd, do not state clearly whether those defendants are sued in their official or individual capacities. See doc. 1 at 5, 7-11. To the extent that Bowens intends to sue the remaining defendants in their official capacities, he cannot recover money damages. "A state is immune from a suit for damages in federal court by one of its own citizens, Hans v. Louisiana, 134 U.S. 1, 14-17 . . . (1890), and this sovereign immunity extends to an official when he acts as an 'arm of the State, ' Manders v. Lee, 338 F.3d 1304, 1308 (11th Cir. 2003) (en banc) . . . ." Lake v. Skelton, 840 F.3d 1334, 1337 (11th Cir. 2016). Under Georgia law, county sheriffs and their deputies are often acting as "arms of the State" when managing county jails.[3] See Manders, 338 F.3d at 1328 (sheriff acts an as arm of the State when establishing and implementing use-of-force policy at county jail); Lake, 840 F.3d at 1344 (finding deputy sheriff acting as an arm of the State when making determinations about meals provided to inmates at a county jail). Since Bowens challenges actions taken in furtherance of state functions, see supra n. 3, to the extent that he intended to sue defendants in their official capacities, his request that the Court "make [defendants] pay me Ten-thousand dollars for my pain and suffering, " doc. 1 at 6, should be DISMISSED.

         For the reasons explained in detail below, Bowens fails to state any claim upon which relief might be granted. Accordingly, his claim for compensatory damages for his "pain and suffering" fails, even if he intended to sue defendants individually.

         D. Exhaustion

         Dismissal of Bowens' remaining conditions-of-confinement claims on exhaustion grounds is not proper at this stage, even though it appears that he has not exhausted available administrative remedies. Exhaustion of administrative remedies is a pre-condition to suit under § 1983. Ross v. Blake, U.S., 136 S.Ct. 1850, 1856-7 (2016) ("the PLRA's text suggests no limits on an inmate's obligation to exhaust" administrative remedies, thus "a court may not excuse a failure to exhaust"). Generally, failure to exhaust is an affirmative defense, but "[a] complaint may be dismissed for failure to exhaust if the lack of exhaustion appears on [its] face." Dollar v. Coweta Cnty. Sheriff Office, 446 F.App'x 248, 251-2 (11th Cir. 2011) (citing Bingham v. Thomas,654 F.3d 1171, 1175 (11th Cir. 2011)). The exhaustion requirement, however, is limited to "available" remedies. Ross, 136 S.Ct. at 1858 ("An inmate . . . must exhaust available remedies, but need not exhaust unavailable ones."). So even where a Complaint facially shows that administrative remedies were not exhausted, dismissal is improper if it also alleges that further remedies were unavailable. See Dollar, 446 F.App'x at 252 (reversing ยง 1915A dismissal for failure to exhaust, ...

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