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Lane v. Philbin

United States District Court, M.D. Georgia, Valdosta Division

September 22, 2017

RODNEY M. LANE, Plaintiffs,
TED PHILBIN, et al., Defendants.



         Plaintiff Rodney Lane seeks redress for injuries he sustained as a result of the deliberate indifference of various officials at Valdosta State Prison. This Court previously dismissed Mr. Lane's pro se complaint for failure to state a viable Eighth Amendment claim of deliberate indifference, finding that Mr. Lane failed to allege that prison officials possessed the requisite subjective knowledge of the risk of serious harm faced by Mr. Lane. Mr. Lane appealed, and the Eleventh Circuit reversed the dismissal and remanded the case to this Court with instructions to permit Mr. Lane the opportunity to amend his complaint. Mr. Lane thereafter filed an amended complaint with the assistance of counsel. Now before the Court is Defendants' Motion to Dismiss (Doc. 69) Mr. Lane's Third Amended Complaint (Doc. 68) because Mr. Lane (1) failed to exhaust his administrative remedies; (2) failed to state a claim for deliberate indifference; and (3) because Defendants are entitled to qualified immunity. Following a review of the amended complaint, and with the benefit of oral argument, Defendants' motion is DENIED.


         Plaintiff Rodney Lane is a prisoner in the custody of the Georgia Department of Corrections. (Doc. 68, ¶ 5). At the time the events underlying this lawsuit transpired, Mr. Lane was housed at Valdosta State Prison (“VSP”). Upon arriving at VSP, Mr. Lane was assigned to the Annex Building, a lower security facility separated from the main prison. (Id. at ¶ 25). Mr. Lane was transferred from the Annex to E-Building in March 2012. (Id. at ¶ 27).

         E-Building is comprised of two dormitories, E-1 and E-2. (Id. at ¶ 17). Each dorm houses approximately 50 inmates. (Id.). E-Building is widely referred to by inmates and VSP staff alike as “gangland” because the majority of the inmates residing in E-Building are known gang members. (Id. at ¶¶ 19-20). Mr. Lane was one of six inmates in E-Building with no gang affiliation. (Id. at ¶¶ 20-21). Unaffiliated gang members in E-Building have no protection, leaving them vulnerable to inmate-on-inmate violence and theft of personal property. (Id. at ¶¶ 22-23).

         Inmate-on-inmate violence occurs at least every other week in E-Building. (Id. at ¶ 32). Weapon possession among the residents of E-Building is widespread and both known and encouraged by prison officials. (Id. at ¶¶ 35-37). Inmates procure weapons in various ways, including bringing back lightning rods and scrap metal found while working maintenance detail; removing light fixtures within their cells; removing parts from locker boxes in their cells. (Id. at ¶¶ 38-40). The inmates fashion these items into shanks. (Id.). Despite monthly “shakedowns” by prison officials, and despite prison officials having the authority to confiscate weapons and contraband, prison officials fail to do so. (Id. at ¶¶ 36-37, 42-45). Mr. Lane specifically alleges that Captain Sherman Maine routinely does not confiscate weapons during searches and, when he does remove weapons, he redistributes them to select inmates. (Id. at ¶¶ 43-46). Captain Maine also regularly cooperates with gang members, smuggling tobacco products and cell phones into the prison to assuage gang members who threaten violence in E-Building. (Id. at ¶¶ 49-50).

         While the level of gang violence in E-Building is well known to prison officials, who regularly threaten unruly inmates with transfer to E-Building, VSP officials permit the dormitories to remain understaffed. (Id. at ¶¶ 51-54). E-Building is supposed to be staffed by a minimum of three guards: one guard in the control booth; one floor guard to supervise E-1; and one floor guard to supervise E-2. (Id. at ¶ 67). The role of the guard in the control booth is strictly to control ingress and egress from E-Building. (Id. at ¶ 68). He is not to leave the control booth under any circumstances. (Id.). From March 2012 through June 17, 2012, all 100 inmates in E-1 and E-2 were supervised by a single floor guard. (Id. at ¶ 69). VSP officials were aware that E-Building was understaffed at that time. (Id. at ¶¶ 70-75).

         The outdoor sidewalk, commonly referred to as the “flat top, ” connects E-Building to the dining hall and has no guard staffing it, even as inmates traverse the walkway from the dormitory to the dining hall. (Id. at ¶¶ 76-77). As a result, attacks among E-Building inmates on the flat top are prevalent. (Id. at ¶ 81). When visibility is low, such as when there is fog, VSP staff will not dismiss E-Building residents to the dining hall. (Id.). Similar restrictions are not imposed on the other dormitories. (Id. at ¶ 82).

         On the morning of June 17, 2012, while walking from E-Building to the dining hall for breakfast, Mr. Lane was attacked from behind by at least four other E-Building inmates with known gang affiliations. (Id. at ¶¶ 85, 97, 90-93). One of Mr. Lane's assailants struck him in the eye with a lock. (Id. at ¶ 94). Another attacker stabbed him four times in the back with a shank. (Id. at ¶ 95). The attack left Mr. Lane unconscious. (Id. at ¶ 96). Because no guard was on duty on the flat top, it took up to two minutes for a guard to reach Mr. Lane. (Id. at ¶¶ 86, 97). Mr. Lane was transported to the medical unit, where he received 18 staples to close the stab wounds in his back and skin glue to address the laceration on his eye. (Id. at ¶¶ 98-100). Upon release from the medical unit, Mr. Lane was placed in “the hole” for his own safety. (Id. at ¶ 102). After a month in the hole, Mr. Lane was transferred to B-Building. (Id. at ¶ 104). However, once Mr. Lane filed a grievance based on the attack, he was transferred back to E-Building. (Id. at ¶ 105). This type of retaliatory conduct by VSP staff is a common method of controlling inmate behavior. (Id. at ¶ 106).

         Prior to the June 17, 2012 attack, Mr. Lane requested that he be transferred to another housing unit on at least two occasions. (Id. at ¶ 55). He informed Counselor Shunda Woods about the violence in E-Building and told her that he was being threatened by other inmates. (Id.). Ms. Woods told Mr. Lane that she had no authority to transfer inmates and took no further action. (Id. at ¶¶ 56-59). Mr. Lane also addressed his safety concerns and transfer request with Sergeant Riley, who told Mr. Lane, “Everybody is trying to get out of E-Building.” (Id. at ¶ 60). Mr. Lane additionally spoke with Deputy Warden Ted Philbin about the conditions in E-Building and the risk posed to his safety. (Id. at ¶ 61). Deputy Warden Philbin told Mr. Lane to sue him, that he had been sued before, and walked off with no further response to Mr. Lane's concerns. (Id. at ¶¶ 62-66).

         Mr. Lane filed an informal grievance pertaining to the June 17, 2012 attack on June 19, 2012, alleging that prison officials violated his constitutional rights by failing to house him in a safe environment, and that this violation resulted in the attack. (Doc. 69-6, p. 15). He requested an internal investigation and a transfer out of E-Building. (Id.). Captain Maine denied Mr. Lane's informal grievance, remarking only that the “dorms are regularly searched for safety issues.” (Id.).

         Mr. Lane submitted a formal grievance on a form provided by prison officials on July 2, 2012. (Id. at p. 5). On the form and also in the attachment he provided prison officials, Mr. Lane again complained that VSP officials had failed to protect his constitutional rights. (Id. at pp. 4-5). He described his attack and indicated that prior to the assault he requested a transfer to another dormitory from Counselor Shunda Woods and Deputy Warden Ted Philbin for safety reasons. (Id.). He also asserted that Captain Maine failed to investigate gang membership. (Id. at p. 5).

         Finding that appropriate action had been taken in response to the attack, VSP officials denied Mr. Lane's formal grievance. (Id.). He appealed. (Id. at p. 3). However, Mr. Lane's appeal was also denied because “[t]here [was] insufficient evidence to substantiate [his] allegation.” (Id. at p. 2).

         After the denial of his formal grievance appeal, Mr. Lane filed a pro se civil rights complaint pursuant to 42 U.S.C. ¶ 1983, alleging deliberate indifference by Counselor Woods and Deputy Warden Philbin to the serious risk of physical harm he faced. (Doc. 1). He later amended his complaint to include claims against Captain Maine and Deputy Warden Orr. (Doc. 8). Defendants moved to dismiss the complaint (Doc. 19), arguing that the claims against Captain Maine and Deputy Warden Orr should be dismissed for failure to exhaust administrative remedies, and that all of Mr. Lane's claims should be dismissed for failure to state a claim. United States Magistrate Judge Thomas Q. Langstaff issued a Recommendation (Doc. 39) on February 4, 2014, recommending that Mr. Lane's complaint be dismissed for failure to state an Eighth Amendment claim for deliberate indifference. This Court adopted the Recommendation and dismissed the complaint. (Doc. 41).

         Mr. Lane appealed the dismissal of his complaint to the Eleventh Circuit. Following oral argument, the Eleventh Circuit reversed the decision of this Court, holding that Mr. Lane's complaint alleged sufficient facts in support of his Eighth Amendment deliberate indifference claim to make it plausible that Defendants had knowledge of the substantial risk of serious harm he faced. The appellate court remanded the case with instructions to permit Mr. Lane to file a third amended complaint, which Mr. Lane did with the assistance of counsel.[2]Defendants now move the Court to dismiss Mr. Lane's third amended complaint, arguing again that Mr. Lane (1) failed to exhaust his administrative remedies; (2) has not sufficiently pled the elements of an Eighth Amendment deliberate indifference claim; and (3) that Defendants are entitled to qualified immunity.


         A. Motion to Dismiss Standard

         When reviewing a motion to dismiss, the court shall accept “all well-pleaded facts . . . as true, and the reasonable inferences therefrom are construed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff.” Bryant v. Avado Brands, Inc., 187 F.3d 1271, 1273 n. 1 (11th Cir. 1999). The court must dismiss the complaint if, “on the basis of a dispositive issue of law, no construction of the factual allegations will support the cause of action.” Marshall Cty. Bd. of Educ. v. Marshall Cty. Gas Dist., 992 F.2d 1171, 1174 (11th Cir. 1993) (citing Executive 100, Inc. v. Martin County, 992 F.2d 1536, 1539 (11th Cir. 1991) and Bell v. Hood, 327 U.S. 678, 682 (1946)). Accordingly, to avoid dismissal under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), “a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim for relief that is plausible on its face.'” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)).

         B. Exhaustion

         The Prison Litigation Reform Act (“PLRA”) requires an inmate to exhaust all available administrative remedies before filing federal claims. 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(a). This exhaustion requirement “applies to all inmate suits about prison life, whether they involve general circumstances or particular episodes, and whether they allege excessive force or some other wrong.” Porter v. Nussle, 534 U.S. 516, 532 (2002). When a prisoner fails to complete the administrative process or falls ...

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