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Aucoin v. Ellis

United States District Court, M.D. Louisiana

September 6, 2017




         Before the Court is the Motion to Dismiss (Doc. 18), and the Motion for Partial Summary Judgment for Failure to Exhaust Administrative Remedies (Doc. 19) filed by Lieutenant Emanuel Ellis and Sergeant Jesse Dunn ("Defendants"). In the Motion to Dismiss, Defendants seek to dismiss any claims brought against them in their official capacities under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(1). (Doc. 18-1 at p. 2). In the Partial Motion for Summary Judgment, Defendants seek to dismiss several claims because Plaintiff has not exhausted his administrative remedies and on the basis that verbal threats alone do not give rise to a constitutional violation. (Doc. 19-2 at pp. 2, 6-7). Plaintiff filed oppositions, (Docs. 20, 32), Defendant filed a reply, (Doc. 34), and Plaintiff filed a sur-opposition, (Doc. 29), where applicable. For reasons explained fully herein, the Motion to Dismiss (Doc. 18) is DENIED, and the Motion for Partial Summary Judgment (Doc. 19) is GRANTED IN PART AND DENIED IN PART.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Layne Aucoin ("Plaintiff") is an inmate at the Dixon Correctional Institute in Jackson, Louisiana. (Doc. 1 at p. 2). He alleges that on February 26, 2015, Lieutenant Ellis placed him in restraints, removed him from his cell, and then beat him. Id. at ¶¶ 7-9. Plaintiff further alleges that Sergeant Dunn stood by and watched and praised Lieutenant Ellis for beating him. Id. Plaintiff claims that he suffered a black eye, busted lip, marks on his neck and stomach, and bruised ribs from the beating. Id. at ¶ 9. He further alleges that he has permanent damage to his right eye, and that he continues to spit up blood as a result of being beaten. Id. at ¶ 13.

         The Dixon Correctional Institute, like all Louisiana prisons, has a two-step administrative grievance process to address prisoner complaints. La. Admin. Code. Tit. 22, § 325(F)(3)(a)(iii). At step one, a prisoner must file a request for an administrative remedy or write a letter to the warden, setting out the basis for the claim, and the relief sought. § 325(G)(1)(a)(i). These letters "should be as brief as possible, " but "should present as many facts as possible to answer all questions (who, what, when, where and how) concerning the incident." § 325(G)(1)(a)(iii).

         A screening officer then notifies the prisoner about whether the grievance will be processed, or rejected as a result of a procedural rule violation. § 325(I)(1). Once accepted, the warden must reply to the grievance within forty days. § 325(J)(1)(a). If a prisoner is not satisfied with the response, they may proceed to step two and appeal the warden's decision to the Secretary of the Department of Public Safety and Corrections. § 325(J)(1)(b)(i). A final decision must be made by the Secretary within forty-five days. § 325(J)(1)(b)(ii).

         Plaintiff alleges that after filing a grievance about the alleged beating, Lieutenant Ellis made racist statements toward him on April 17, 2015. (Doc. 1 at ¶ 14). In response to the alleged racist statements, Plaintiff alleges that he filed another grievance."[1] Id. Plaintiff also claims that on June 23, 2015, in further retaliation for filing grievances, Sergeant Dunn told him that he "could turn his six months into 7 years by putting false charges on him" and Lieutenant Ellis threatened to knock the rest of his teeth out. Id. at ¶ 15. Plaintiff avers that he filed another grievance based on these threats. Id.

         On February 1, 2016, Plaintiff brought suit against Lieutenant Ellis and Sergeant Dunn under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging that Defendants used corporal punishment and excessive force in violation of the Fourth and Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, and that Defendants retaliated against him for filing prison grievances in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. (Doc. 1 at ¶ 35). Plaintiff also seeks attorney's fees and costs under § 1988 and punitive damages under § 1983. Id.


         A. Legal Standard

         A motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(1) is analyzed under the same standard as a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6). Benton v. United States, 960 F.2d 19, 21 (5th Cir. 1992) (per curiam). "A claim may not be dismissed unless it appears certain that the plaintiff cannot prove any set of facts that would entitle him to legal relief." In re Supreme Beef Processors, Inc., 468 F.3d 248, 251 (5th Cir. 2006) (en banc). This Court "take[s] the well-pled factual allegations of the complaint as true and view[s] them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff." Lane v. Halliburton, 529 F.3d 548, 557 (5th Cir. 2008).

         The party asserting federal jurisdiction bears the burden of proof on a motion to dismiss for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction under Rule 12(b)(1). Ramming v. United States, 281 F.3d 158, 161 (5th Cir. 2001). When a district court finds that it lacks subject-matter jurisdiction, its determination is not on the merits of the case, and does not bar the plaintiff from pursuing the claim in a proper jurisdiction. Hitt v. City of Pasadena, 561 F.2d 606, 608 (5th Cir. 1977) (per curiam); Aucoin v. Cupil, No. 16-CV-00373, 2017 WL 3633449, at *1 (M.D. La. Aug. 22, 2017).

         B. Discussion

         Defendants argue that they are entitled to Eleventh Amendment sovereign immunity insofar as Plaintiff sued them in their official, as opposed to individual, capacity. (Doc. 18-1 at pp. 1-2). Plaintiff maintains that he has only sued Defendants in an individual capacity, and not in an official capacity. (Doc. 20 at p. 1). "Eleventh Amendment sovereign immunity deprives a federal court of jurisdiction to hear a suit against a state." Warnock v. Pecos Cnty., Tex.,88 F.3d 341, 343 (5th Cir. 1996). A § 1983 suit against a state official in his official capacity is treated as a suit against the state. See Hafer v. Melo, 502 U.S. 21, 25 (1991). Therefore, if Plaintiff sued Defendants in their official capacity, the suit would be barred by sovereign immunity, and dismissal would be proper. Where it is unclear in which capacity a defendant is sued, courts may look to the "course of proceedings" for clarification. United States ex rel. Adrian v. Regents of Univ. of Cal.,363 F.3d 398, 402-03 (5th Cir. 2004); see also Graham, 473 U.S. at 167 n.14 ("In many ...

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