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Burbank v. Hein

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

January 22, 2019

JEFF HEIN, Jail Administrator, OFFICER LARAMIE, Defendants.


          Christopher L. Ray, United States Magistrate Judge Southern District of Georgia

         Proceeding pro se and in forma pauperis, Mason Burbank brings this 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action against an officer and a jailhouse administrator for the violation of his rights. Doc. 1. The Court granted plaintiff's request to pursue his case in forma pauperis (IFP), doc. 5, and he returned the necessary forms. Docs. 6 & 7. The Court now screens his Amended Complaint (doc. 8) pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915A, which requires the immediate dismissal of any pro se complaint that fails to state at least one actionable claim against a governmental entity or official.

         I. Background

         In September 2018 as Burbank was taking his seizure medication, Officer Laramie checked his mouth to verify that he swallowed his pills. Doc. 8 at 6. Laramie then flashed his flashlight into Burbank's eyes, and “purposefully hit the strobe function.” Id. A nurse intervened, chastising Laramie that he couldn't “play” like that. Id. Burbank filed a grievance, and Administrator Hein spoke with Laramie. Id. Laramie, however, seized his next opportunity and flashed the strobe light in Burbank's eyes at an October 2018 pill call. Id. The same nurse, and two other inmates, witnessed the incident. Id. Burbank filed another grievance, and this suit, seeking an injunction and restraining order to keep Laramie away from him as well as nominal and punitive damages. Id. After all, he alleges, “seizures can be fatal and Laramie knew [Burbank] could die by his actions.” Id.

         II. Analysis

         A. Officer Laramie

         Liberally construing his allegations, [1] Burbank alleges he was subjected to excessive force by Officer Laramie. Doc. 8 at 6. The “unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain” constitutes cruel and unusual punishment forbidden by the Constitution.[2] Whitley v. Albers, 475 U.S. 312, 319 (1986).

         The Eighth Amendment's proscription against cruel and unusual punishment governs the amount of force that prison officials are entitled to use against inmates. See Campbell v. Sikes, 169 F.3d 1353, 1374 (11th Cir. 1999). A prisoner must prove both that the prison official's conduct was objectively “sufficiently serious, ” Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825, 834 (1994), and that the force was used “maliciously and sadistically for the very purpose of causing harm” rather than “a good faith effort to maintain or restore discipline.” Whitley, 475 U.S. at 320-21; Hudson v. McMillian, 503 U.S. 1, 7 (1992) (the use of force does not violate the Constitution if it is applied “in a good-faith effort to maintain or restore discipline”).[3]

         A strobe light maliciously shined into a seizure-prone individual's eyes, intended to trigger an epileptic seizure that just happened not to do so, [4] provides a unique danger. See, e.g., Eichenwald v. Rivello, 318 F.Supp.3d 766, 775 (D. Md. 2018) (exposing the recipient to an image intended to cause an epileptic seizure constituted assault and battery under state law, and emphasizing that the strobe light itself, despite being “only” a “beam of light, ” was a physical tool causing harm within the meaning of Supreme Court jurisprudence). Though usually discussed in the context of punches, kicks, “rough rides” and other physical altercations, the Eighth Amendment generally “prohibits such malicious acts of violence or intentional endangerment.” Thompson v. Commonwealth of Virginia, 878 F.3d 89, 102 (4th Cir. 2017). A strobe light to the eyes, given Burbank's known vulnerability to such a gratuitous punishment, is “simply a different means of effectuating the same constitutional violation. To draw a line between these acts would encourage bad actors to invent creative and novel means of using unjustified force on prisoners.” Id. Particularly so, given that the second incident was (allegedly) made in retaliation for Burbank's complaint about the first incident. There is enough meat to this claim that a response from Officer Laramie is necessary.

         B. Administrator Hein

         Plaintiff also levels a failure-to-protect claim against Administrator Hein. The Eighth Amendment's proscription against cruel and unusual punishment imposes a constitutional duty upon prison officials to take reasonable measures to guarantee the safety of prison inmates. “To show a violation of [his] Eighth Amendment rights, [a p]laintiff must produce sufficient evidence of (1) a substantial risk of serious harm; (2) the defendants' deliberate indifference to that risk; and (3) causation.” Smith v. Reg'l Dir. of Fla. Dep't of Corr., 368 Fed.Appx. 9, 14 (11th Cir. 2010) (quote and cite omitted). “To be deliberately indifferent a prison official must know of and disregard an excessive risk to inmate health or safety; the official must both be aware of facts from which the inference could be drawn that a substantial risk of serious harm exists, and he must also draw the inference.” Id. (quote and cite omitted).

         Whether a substantial risk of serious harm exists so that the Eighth Amendment might be violated involves a legal rule that takes form through its application to facts. However, “simple negligence is not actionable under § 1983, and a plaintiff must allege a conscious or callous indifference to a prisoner's rights.” Smith, 368 Fed.Appx. at 14. In other words, “to find deliberate indifference on the part of a prison official, a plaintiff inmate must show: (1) subjective knowledge of a risk of serious harm; (2) disregard of that risk; (3) by conduct that is more than gross negligence.” Thomas v. Bryant, 614 F.3d 1288, 1312 (11th Cir. 2010).

         Like any deliberate indifference claim, a plaintiff must satisfy both an objective and a subjective inquiry. Chandler v. Crosby, 379 F.3d 1278, 1289-90 (11th Cir. 2004). Under the objective component, a plaintiff must prove the condition he complains of is sufficiently serious to violate the Eighth Amendment. Hudson v. McMillian, 503 U.S. 1, 8 (1992). As for the subjective component, “the prisoner must prove that the prison official acted with ‘deliberate indifference.'” Miller v. King, 384 F.3d 1248, 1260-61 (11th Cir. 2004) (quoting Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825, 837 (1994)). To prove deliberate indifference, the prisoner must show that prison officials “‘acted with a sufficiently culpable state of mind'” with regard to the serious prison condition at issue. Id. (quoting Chandler, 379 F.3d at 1289-90).

         Here, plaintiff alleges that after the first strobe light incident, he filed a grievance and Administrator Hein promptly responded by “talk[ing] to” Laramie. Doc. 8 at 6. The verbal reprimand from an administrator, however, proved insufficient to deter Laramie from doing it again. Id. Burbank does not allege that Hein intended for his words to fall on deaf ears, nor that Hein ignored his plight. As alleged, Hein merely assumed that Laramie would listen. See Id. These allegations, even assuming they could support a negligence claim, do not rise to the level of an Eighth Amendment violation. “It is obduracy and wantonness, not inadvertence or error in good faith, that characterize the conduct prohibited by the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause.” Whitley v. Albers, 475 U.S. 312, 319 (1986), quoted in McCoy v. Webster, 47 F.3d 404, 408 (11th Cir. 1995). Thus, to constitute cruel and unusual punishment, “conduct that does not purport to be punishment . . . must involve more than ordinary lack of due care for the prisoner's interests or safety.” Whitley, 475 U.S. at 319. In other words, “[m]erely negligent failure to protect an inmate from attack does not justify liability under [42 U.S.C.] § 1983.” Stuckey v. Thompson, 2007 WL ...

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