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Butler v. The Georgia Department of Corrections

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

December 21, 2018




         Plaintiff Alicia Butler filed this case in the Superior Court of Tattnall County, seeking damages for injuries she sustained while working as a nurse at Georgia State Prison.[1] (Doc. 1-1.) Defendants removed the case to this Court. (Doc. 1.) Presently before the Court are Defendants' Motions for Judgment on the Pleadings. (Docs. 4, 7.) The Georgia Department of Corrections, the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia, Georgia Correctional Healthcare, Georgia State Prison, and Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities filed the first motion, (doc. 4), and Marty Allen, individually and as the Warden of Georgia State Prison, Stanley Williams, and Timothy Ward, filed the second, (doc. 7). Plaintiff filed responses in opposition, (docs. 8, 11), and Defendants filed replies, (docs. 13, 16). For the reasons set forth herein, the Court GRANTS both Motions, (docs. 4, 7), and DIRECTS the Clerk of Court to enter the appropriate judgment of dismissal and to CLOSE this case.


         Plaintiff Alicia Butler (at times, “Ms. Butler”) filed this action in May of 2018 against the Georgia Department of Corrections, the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia, Georgia Correctional Healthcare, Georgia State Prison, and Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities (collectively, the “State Agency Defendants”), Stanley Williams, Timothy Ward, and Marty Allen, [2] requesting relief under Georgia law and 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for injuries sustained while she was working as a nurse at Georgia State Prison. (Doc. 1-1, p. 4.) On June 5, 2016, an unsupervised and unrestrained inmate entered the “pill room” where Ms. Butler was working by herself. (Doc. 11, pp. 1-2.) The inmate attacked Plaintiff, pulled down her tights, and urinated on her. (Id.) Ms. Butler was unconscious when she was eventually discovered by a corrections officer in the pill room. (Id.) Georgia Department of Corrections policy requires four nurses and five security officers to be on duty in the medical area, but on the day of the attack, the area was staffed by one security officer and two other nurses. (Doc. 1-1, pp. 9-10.)

         Ms. Butler seeks damages for the injuries caused by this attack. In Count I of her Complaint, she argues that Defendants are liable for negligence because they failed to provide adequate security, staffing, and supervision of inmates, resulting in her assault.[3] (Doc. 1-1, pp. 11-12.) In Count II of her Complaint, Plaintiff claims that Defendants Williams and Ward, “acting under color of law as officers of the Georgia Department of Corrections and Georgia State Prison, created the very danger that led to [her] injuries, by allowing [the inmate] access to [the] medical area without any supervision by a single correctional officer and without constraint of handcuffs, leg cuffs, or physically restrained in any way.” (Doc. 1-1, pp. 12-13.) She alleges that, as a result of this conduct by Defendants Williams and Ward, “Defendants[4] deprived [her] of her rights, privileges and immunities under the laws and the Constitution of the United States.” (Id. at pp. 13-14.) Plaintiff also asserts claims against all Defendants for punitive damages (Count III) and expenses of litigation pursuant to O.C.G.A. § 13-6-11 (Count IV).

         Defendants filed two separate motions for judgment on the pleadings. (Docs. 4, 7.) In the first motion, the State Agency Defendants argue Plaintiff's claims against them are barred by sovereign immunity. (Doc. 4-1, p. 3.) In the other motion, Defendants Williams, Ward and Allen (collectively, the “Employee Defendants”) aver the claims against them in their official capacities are prohibited by the 11th Amendment and that qualified immunity precludes suit against them as individuals. (Doc. 7-1, p. 4, 11.) They also maintain that Plaintiff has not alleged facts that would amount to a constitutional violation. (Id. at p. 11.) Additionally, Defendant Allen moves for judgment on the pleadings because there are no specific allegations against him in the body of the Complaint. (Id. at p. 2.)


         Pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(c), “[a]fter the pleadings are closed-but early enough not to delay trial-a party may move for judgment on the pleadings.” A judgment on the pleadings is appropriate only “where there are no material facts in dispute and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Cannon v. City of West Palm Beach, 250 F.3d 1299, 1300 (11th Cir. 2001). A fact is “material” if it “might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing [substantive] law.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). “If a comparison of the averments in the competing pleadings reveals a material dispute of fact, judgment on the pleadings must be denied.” Perez, 774 F.3d at 1335 (citation omitted).

         The legal standards governing Rule 12(c) are identical to those governing Rule 12(b)(6) motions to dismiss and require a court to assess the same question: whether the complaint has stated a claim for relief. Strategic Income Fund, L.L.C. v. Spear, Leeds & Kellogg Corp., 305 F.3d 1293, 1295 n.8 (11th Cir. 2002); Roma Outdoor Creations, Inc. v. City of Cumming, Ga., 558 F.Supp.2d 1283, 1284 (N.D.Ga. 2008). The Court “must accept the facts alleged in the complaint as true and view them in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party.” Cannon, 250 F.3d at 1301 (citing Mergens v. Dreyfoos, 166 F.3d 1114, 1116-17 (11th Cir. 1999)). However, “the tenet that a court must accept as true all of the allegations contained in a complaint is inapplicable to legal conclusions.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678-79 (2009).

         A complaint also must “contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, ‘to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Id. at 678 (citing Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). The plaintiff is required to plead “factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Id. “The plausibility standard is not akin to a ‘probability requirement,' but it asks for more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully.” Id. “The complaint's allegations must plausibly suggest that the [plaintiff] has a right to relief, raising that possibility above a ‘speculative level,' if they do not, the plaintiff's complaint should be dismissed.” See Boyd v. Peet, 249 Fed.Appx. 155, 157 (11th Cir. 2007) (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555, 569 n.14).


         I. Negligence

         Defendants seek judgment on the pleadings on Plaintiff's negligence claim, arguing they are entitled to sovereign immunity. (Doc. 4.) Plaintiff urges that Defendants' immunity has been waived by the Georgia Tort Claims Act (“GTCA”). (Doc. 8.) While it is not entirely clear whether Plaintiff intended to assert her claim for negligence against all Defendants or only the State Agency Defendants, the Court construes the Complaint in the light most favorable to Plaintiff and thus addresses the claim as if it was asserted against all Defendants. Accordingly, the Court must address the effect of immunity principles and the GTCA on each category of Defendants.

         A. The State Agency Defendants

         Under the Eleventh Amendment, states and arms of the state are immune from suit without their consent. Ga. Ports Auth. v. Lawyer, No. S17G1951, --- S.E.2d ---, 2018 WL 5668518, at *5 (Ga. 2018). “[A]bsent a waiver of Eleventh Amendment immunity by the state or a valid abrogation by Congress, the Court lacks subject-matter jurisdiction to entertain the claim . . . .” McCall v. Dep't of Human Res., 176 F.Supp.2d 1355, 1361 (M.D. Ga. 2001). The Georgia Constitution likewise extends sovereign immunity to the state's departments and agencies and explicitly provides that this immunity can only be waived by an act of legislation. Ga. Const. art. I, § II, para. IX(e). The Georgia Constitution allows the Georgia General Assembly to waive the state's sovereign immunity by enacting a State Tort Claims Act. Ga. Const. art. I, § II, para. IX(a).

         Pursuant to that power, the General Assembly enacted the Georgia Tort Claims Act (“GTCA”), O.C.G.A. §§ 50-21-20 to -37, which waives “sovereign immunity for the torts of state officers and employees while acting within the scope of their official duties or employment.” Notably, however, the GTCA includes statutorily-enumerated exceptions to this waiver. O.C.G.A. § 50-21-23(a). See also O.C.G.A. § 50-21-24 (providing 13 categories of exceptions). One such exception is the “assault and battery” exception, which retains immunity “for losses resulting from” assault or battery. O.C.G.A. § 50-21-24(7). The parties disagree over whether this exception applies to the case at hand. (Doc. 8 at pp. 5-8.)

         The assault and battery exception “is not limited in application to acts taken by a State officer or employee but covers all losses resulting from the torts enumerated therein.” Youngblood v. Gwinnett Rockdale Newton Cmty. Serv. Bd.. 545 S.E.2d 875, 878 (Ga. 2001). Therefore, in determining whether the assault and battery exception applies, “the focus is not on the government action taken or the duty allegedly breached by the government, but on the act causing the underlying loss, ” regardless of who committed the act. Chin Pak v. Ga. Dep't of Behavioral Health & Developmental Disabilities, 731 S.E.2d 384, 385 (Ga.Ct.App. 2012) (citation omitted) (finding the assault and battery exception applied to a state agency that was allegedly negligent in discharging a woman from its psychiatric facility who then lit her mother on fire).

         In Youngblood, the plaintiff sued a state entity for negligence after her mentally disabled daughter was assaulted while living in a residential home sponsored by the state entity. 545 S.E.2d at 876. The Supreme Court of Georgia found that because the act causing Plaintiff's loss-the beating of her daughter-constituted battery, “the exception in O.C.G.A. § 50-21-24(7) to the waiver of sovereign immunity applie[d], ” and the state entity was immune from suit for any alleged negligence that may have occurred prior to the loss. Id. at 878.

         Ms. Butler argues that the State Agency Defendants' negligent staffing was the “direct and proximate cause” of her injuries, (doc. 8, pp. 6-8), but this assertion misses the mark. Here, just as in Youngblood, the acts causing the underlying loss-the attack and attempted rape of Ms. Butler-constitute assault and battery, and the exception in O.C.G.A. § 50-21-24(7) necessarily applies.[5]See, e.g., Southerland v. Ga. Dep't of Corr., 666 S.E.2d 383, 385 (Ga.Ct.App. 2008) (finding a state agency was entitled to sovereign immunity where a prison failed to follow housing procedures and an inmate was murdered by his cell-mate). The Defendants' purported failure to properly staff the medical area “produced no loss to [Ms. Butler]; it was the [prisoner's] independent tort, one specific in O.C.G.A. § 50-21-24(7), that resulted in [Ms. Butler's] injury and damages.” Dept. of Human Resources v. Hutchinson, 456 S.E.2d 642, 72 (Ga.Ct.App. 1995); Strozier v. Butts, No. 6:15-CV-34, 2015 WL 9948813, at *5 (S.D. Ga. Dec. 16, 2015), report and recommendation adopted, No. 6:15-CV-34, 2016 WL 410034 (S.D. Ga. Feb. 2, 2016) (dismissing inmate's state law claims against prison officials base on attack by fellow inmate, “even though the assault and battery was inflicted by someone other than the state officer or employee, because the act causing the underlying loss constituted a battery (i.e., the beating of the decedent by a fellow inmate), O.C.G.A. § 50-21-24(7)'s ...

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