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Conner v. Allen

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

May 25, 2018




         Plaintiff, an inmate at Georgia State Prison in Reidsville, Georgia, filed the above-captioned action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. (Doc. 1.) Plaintiff also filed and was granted a Motion for Leave to Proceed in Forma Pauperis. (Docs. 2, 3.) After an initial review of Plaintiff's Complaint, the Court deferred formal frivolity review and directed Plaintiff to file an Amended Complaint. (Doc. 7.) Plaintiff has since filed his Amended Complaint. (Doc. 8.)

         For the reasons set forth below, I find Plaintiff plausibly states colorable: Eighth Amendment excessive force and failure to intervene claims against Defendant Herndon; First Amendment retaliation claims against Defendants Jackson, Hutcheson, Allen, and Toole; and Fourteenth Amendment procedural due process claims against Defendants Jackson, Hutcheson, Allen, and Toole. However, I RECOMMEND that the Court DISMISS Plaintiff's official capacity claims against all Defendants, as well as Plaintiff's access-to-courts and substantive due process claims against Defendants Jackson, Hutcheson, Allen, and Toole. The Court DIRECTS the United States Marshal to serve Defendants Herndon, Jackson, Hutcheson, Allen, and Toole with a copy of this Order and Plaintiff's Complaint.


         On September 30, 2016, Defendant Herndon excessively pepper sprayed Plaintiff while he was on his back protecting himself from the attack of another inmate, Tommy Best. (Doc. 8, pp. 6-7.) Plaintiff contends that Defendant Herndon should have tried to protect him from Best but instead made the situation worse by spraying Plaintiff. Defendant Herndon's pepper spray blinded Plaintiff and allowed Best to take unimpeded shots at Plaintiff's face, causing him exacerbated harm.

         Plaintiff was placed in administrative segregation and given a disciplinary report for allegedly fighting with Best. Defendant Allen later expunged Plaintiff's disciplinary report due to Defendant Herndon giving “false factual statements, ” but Plaintiff remained in segregation, under a behavioral modification program, because Defendants Jackson and Hutcheson wanted to “silence” him and also because of prior infractions. Plaintiff further alleges that Defendants Allen and Toole denied Plaintiff's challenge to his placement in Tier II segregation because they also wanted to silence Plaintiff and prevent him from reporting his claims against Defendant Herndon. (Id.)

         Plaintiff argues that Defendant Herndon's assault by pepper spray not only worsened the harm from Best's attack but also caused the onset of a mental health adjustment disorder because it triggered mental trauma from a prior prison attack. (Id. at p. 8.) Plaintiff alleges his food portions have been restricted while in Tier II, causing weight loss, and that his sentence duration could be lengthened due to his inability to meet parole requirements while on the behavioral modification program. (Id. at pp. 8, 10.) In addition to the mental trauma, Plaintiff alleges that the attack from Best and Defendant Herndon caused physical injuries to his eyes and face, and worsened his medical handicaps. (Id. at p. 10.) As relief, Plaintiff seeks compensatory damages in the amount of three million dollars. (Id. at p. 11.)


         Plaintiff brings this action in forma pauperis. (Docs. 2, 3.) 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 Fed.Appx. 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 . . . .”) (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.”).


         I. Dismissal of Official Capacity Claims

         Plaintiff cannot sustain a Section 1983 claim for monetary damages against Defendants in their official capacities. States are immune from private suits pursuant to the Eleventh Amendment and traditional principles of state sovereignty. Alden v. Maine, 527 U.S. 706, 712- 13 (1999). Section 1983 does not abrogate the well-established immunities of a state from suit without its consent. Will v. Mich. Dep't of State Police, 491 U.S. 58, 67 (1989). Because a lawsuit against a state officer in his official capacity is “no different from a suit against the [s]tate itself, ” such a defendant is immune from suit under Section 1983. Id. at 71. Here, the State of Georgia would be the real party in interest in a suit against Defendants in their official capacities as employees of the Georgia Department of Corrections. Accordingly, the Eleventh Amendment immunizes these actors from suit in their official capacities. See Free v. Granger, 887 F.2d 1552, 1557 (11th Cir. 1989). Without a waiver of that immunity, which is absent in this case, Plaintiff cannot sustain any constitutional claims against Defendants in their official capacities for monetary relief. Thus, the Court should DISMISS these claims.

         II. Excessive Force Claim against Defendant Herndon

         The Eighth Amendment's proscription against cruel and unusual punishment governs the amount of force that prison officials are entitled to use against inmates. Campbell v. Sikes, 169 F.3d 1353, 1374 (11th Cir. 1999). An excessive force claim has two requisite parts: an objective and a subjective component. Sims v. Mashburn, 25 F.3d 980, 983 (11th Cir. 1994). In order to satisfy the objective component, the inmate must show that the prison official's conduct was “sufficiently serious.” Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825, 834 (1994) (quoting Wilson v. Seiter, 501 U.S. 294, 298 (1991)). The subjective component requires a showing that the force used was “maliciously and sadistically for the very purpose of causing harm” rather than “a good faith effort to maintain or restore discipline.” Whitley v. Albers, 475 U.S. 312, 320-21 (1986). In order to determine whether the force was used for the malicious and sadistic purpose of causing harm or whether the force was applied in good faith, courts consider the following factors: (1) the need for the exercise of force, (2) the relationship between the need for force and the force applied, (3) the extent of injury that the inmate suffered, (4) the extent of the threat to the safety of staff and other inmates, (5) and any efforts taken to temper the severity of a forceful response. Skelly v. Okaloosa Cty. Bd. of Cty. Comm'rs, 456 Fed.Appx. 845, 848 (11th Cir. 2012) (per curiam) (quoting Fennell v. Gilstrap, 559 F.3d 1212, 1217 (11th Cir. 2009)).

         Plaintiff contends that Defendant Herndon used excessive force by spraying Plaintiff with pepper spray without justification. Plaintiff asserts that he was attacked by Best, “never threw one punch, ” and was on the ground shielding himself from Best when Defendant Herndon doused him in pepper spray. (Doc. 1, p. 6.) Defendant Herndon's actions allegedly exposed Plaintiff to more harm from Best, caused physical injuries to his eyes and face, and triggered mental trauma. (Id. at p. 10.) Although Defendant Herndon may very well have had a legitimate need to intervene in the altercation to eliminate a safety threat, at this early stage of the litigation, and construing the facts in Plaintiff's favor, Plaintiff has stated a plausible excessive force claim.

         Accordingly, Plaintiff's excessive force claim survives frivolity review and shall proceed against Defendant ...

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