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Smith v. Coleman

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

December 18, 2019




         Plaintiff, who is presently incarcerated at Hancock State Prison in Sparta, Georgia, brings this action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 to challenge certain conditions of his confinement while at Rogers State Prison in Reidsville, Georgia. Doc. 10.[1] After the requisite frivolity review under 28 U.S.C. § 1915A, I RECOMMEND the Court DISMISS Plaintiff's claims against Defendants Stankowitz and Rogers State Prison. I also RECOMMEND the Court DISMISS any claims for monetary damages against Defendants in their official capacities. Further, I RECOMMEND the Court DISMISS Plaintiff's claims of racial and religious hate crimes against Defendants Robinson, Copeland, and Hartmeyer, and I RECOMMEND the Court DISMISS Plaintiff's retaliation claim against Defendant McCumber. As to any dismissed claims, I RECOMMEND the Court DENY Plaintiff in forma pauperis status on appeal.

         However, I FIND Plaintiff sets forth non-frivolous Eighth Amendment claims against Defendants McFarlane, Coleman, Williams, Robinson, Copeland, and Hartmeyer in their individual capacities based on the outdoor cage incident. I further FIND Plaintiff's retaliation claims may proceed against Defendants McFarlane, Coleman, Williams, Robinson, Copeland, and Hartmeyer in their individual capacities. Finally, I FIND Plaintiff may proceed with his prison conditions claims against Defendants Coleman, McCumber, and McFarlane in their individual capacities based on the lack of nighttime emergency assistance at Rogers State Prison.

         The Court hereby DIRECTS the United States Marshal to serve a copy of Plaintiff's Amended Complaint and attachments, docs. 10, 10-1, 10-2, and a copy of this Order upon Defendants McFarlane, McCumber, Coleman, Williams, Robinson, Copeland, and Hartmeyer without prepayment of cost.


         Plaintiff alleges that at approximately 4:30 p.m. on December 12, 2017, while praying, he was ordered to lockdown by Defendant Coleman, the Warden of Rogers State Prison. Doc. 10 at 2. Defendant Coleman then had Defendant McFarlane, the Deputy Warden of Security, place Plaintiff in handcuffs, and together they escorted Plaintiff to the segregation unit. Id. Upon arriving at the segregation unit, Defendant Coleman ordered Defendant Williams to put Plaintiff in the outdoor segregation yard cage. Id. At that time, the outside temperature was 30 degrees. Id.

         Plaintiff alleges that at 5:45 p.m., he asked Defendant Robinson to bring him in from the cold, and Defendant Robinson responded by laughing. Id. at 3. At 7:45 p.m., Plaintiff asked Defendant McFarlane to bring him in from the cold, and Defendant McFarlane told Plaintiff he was not supposed to be out there but failed to do anything to alleviate the situation. Id. at 2. At 8:45 p.m., Plaintiff asked Defendant Copeland about coming in from the segregation yard cage, and she responded by laughing and saying, “Fuck you, you Muslim n****.” Id. at 3. Plaintiff alleges that at that point, the outside temperature had dropped to 25 degrees. Id. At 9:45 p.m., Plaintiff asked Defendant Hartmeyer to bring him in from the cold, and Defendant Hartmeyer responded by saying, “Hell no you black ass n****, you need to freeze your Muslim ass off some more.” Id. Plaintiff was left outside for over eight hours, during which time the outdoor temperature dropped below 28 degrees, with minus 10 degrees wind chill. Id. at 2-3.

         Plaintiff claims this event was in retaliation for a grievance he filed on October 12, 2017 concerning an October 8, 2017 incident where he suffered an asthma attack in the middle of the night and was unable to get emergency assistance. Id. at 3. Plaintiff alleges he had no panic button in his room and no way to alert the correctional officer on duty about his emergency situation, and Plaintiff ultimately feared he would die. Id. In addition to filing a grievance, Plaintiff alerted Defendant McCumber about this issue on October 23, 2017 but never heard back from her. Id. Plaintiff then hand-delivered a letter to Defendant Coleman on November 13, 2017 about the incident but received no response. Id. Finally, on December 4, 2017, Plaintiff sent a request to Defendant Stankowitz about the incident. Id. The outdoor cage incident occurred on December 12, 2017. Id. at 2.

         Plaintiff seeks compensatory damages in the amount of $15, 000.00 from each of the named Defendants and punitive damages in the amount of $300, 000.00. Id. at 12-13.


         Plaintiff is bringing this action in forma pauperis. 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, 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, malicious, or if it fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. 28 U.S.C. §§ 1915(e)(2)(B)(i)-(ii). Additionally, under 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, malicious, 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).

         The Court looks to the instructions for pleadings contained in the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure when reviewing a complaint on an application to proceed in forma pauperis. 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 § 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 § 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. Claim Against Rogers State Prison

         Plaintiff has included Rogers State Prison as a Defendant in one of his Amended Complaint's counts. See Doc. 10 at 11. Rule 17(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure governs which individuals and entities are capable of being sued in federal court, and it specifically directs this Court to look to the law of this state in determining whether a defendant such as Rogers State Prison can be sued. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 17(b)(3).[3] Under Georgia law, “in every suit there must be a legal entity as the real plaintiff and the real defendant. [Georgia] recognizes only three classes as legal entities, namely: (1) natural persons; (2) an artificial person (a corporation); and (3) such quasi-artificial persons as the law recognizes as being capable to sue.” Lawal v. Fowler, 196 Fed.Appx. 765, 768 (11th Cir. 2006) (citing Ga. Insurers Insolvency Pool v. Elbert County, 368 S.E.2d 500, 502 (Ga. 1988) (finding sheriff's department not a legal entity subject to suit)). This Court, in considering Georgia law, has previously concluded that a “State Prison, as a division of the Georgia Department of Corrections, is not a separate legal entity capable of being sued.” See Jamelson v. Unnamed Defendant, Civil Action No. 6:17-cv-103, 2017 WL 6503630, at *2 (S.D. Ga. Dec. 19, 2017), adopted by 2018 WL 616142 (S.D. Ga. Jan. 29, 2018).

         Further, because the State of Georgia would be the real party in interest in a claim against Rogers State Prison, Eleventh Amendment immunity also bars Plaintiff's claim. In Will v. Michigan Department of State Police, the United States Supreme Court, citing to longstanding principles of state immunity, concluded that “a State is not a person within the meaning of § 1983” and applied this holding to “governmental entities that are considered ‘arms of the State' for Eleventh Amendment purposes.” 491 U.S. 58, 64, 70 (1989). Based on the foregoing, Rogers State Prison is not a proper party Defendant, and I RECOMMEND the Court DISMISS Plaintiff's claim against Rogers State Prison.

         II. Claims for Monetary Damages Against Defendants in Their Official Capacities

         Plaintiff also cannot bring a § 1983 claim for monetary damages against the Defendants in their official capacities. See Will, 491 U.S. at 71 (“[A] suit against a state official in his or her official capacity is not a suit against the official but rather is a suit against the official's office”); see also Free v. Granger, 887 F.2d 1552, 1557 (11th Cir. 1989) (“Such an action is barred, because any damage award would be paid out of the state treasury, an impermissible occurrence under our constitutional scheme.”). Therefore, I RECOMMEND the Court DISMISS Plaintiff's § 1983 claim to the extent it seeks monetary relief against Defendants in their official capacities.

         III. Claims of Cruel and Unusual Punishment and Deliberate Indifference Based on Exposure to Cold “It is unquestioned that ‘[c]onfinement in a prison . . . is a form of punishment subject to scrutiny under the Eighth Amendment standards.'” Rhodes v. Chapman, 452 U.S. 337, 345 (1981) (citation omitted). “The Eighth Amendment, in only three words, imposes the constitutional limitation upon punishments: they cannot be ‘cruel and unusual.'” Id. “When conditions of confinement amount to cruel and unusual punishment, ‘federal courts will discharge their duty to protect constitutional rights.'” Id. at 352 (citation omitted).

         “A plaintiff seeking to show unconstitutional conditions of confinement must clear a ‘high bar' by demonstrating ‘extreme deprivations.'” Ellis v. Pierce County, 415 Fed.Appx. 215, 217 (11th Cir. 2011) (citing Chandler v. Crosby, 379 F.3d 1278, 1298 (11th Cir. 2004)). Moreover, he must demonstrate the prison officials were deliberately indifferent, specifically alleging the defendants subjectively knew that the plaintiff faced a substantial risk of serious harm, and that defendants “disregarded that known risk by failing to respond to it in an objectively reasonable manner.” See Johnson v. Boyd, 568 Fed.Appx. 719, 721 (11th Cir. 2014); see also Wilson v. Seiter, 501 U.S. 294, 303 (1991) (“Whether one characterizes the treatment received by [the prisoner] as inhumane conditions of confinement, failure to attend to his medical needs, or a combination of both, it is appropriate to apply the ‘deliberate indifference' standard . . . .”) (citation and quotation omitted).

         According to Plaintiff, Defendant Williams, at the direction of Defendant Coleman, placed Plaintiff in an outdoor cage in the segregation yard during freezing weather in only a T-shirt and state issued pants. Doc. 10 at 4. Plaintiff alleges he was left in the outdoor cage for over eight hours, during which time the temperature dropped to 25 degrees. Id. at 2-3. While outside, Defendant Williams rejected Plaintiff's request for a coat, cap, socks, and boots. Id. at 5. Plaintiff further alleges Defendants Robinson, McFarlane, Copeland, and Hartmeyer, at various points in the evening, all declined Plaintiff's requests to be brought in from the cold. Id. at 2-3. In response to Plaintiff's requests, Defendant Robinson is alleged to have laughed at him and said, “Are you cold enough yet you dumb Muslim, ” Defendant Copeland is alleged to have laughed and said, “Fuck you, you Muslim n****, ” and Defendant Hartmeyer is alleged to have said, “Hell ...

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