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Wright v. Smith

United States District Court, M.D. Louisiana

July 11, 2019




         This matter comes before the Court on the defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment (R. Doc. 46).[1] The Motion is opposed. See R. Docs. 47 and 59-3.

         The pro se plaintiff, an inmate incarcerated at the Louisiana State Penitentiary (“LSP”), Angola, Louisiana, filed this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Lt. William Smith, Capt. Gary Aymond, Nurse Supervisor Katherine Bell and an unidentified “Jane Doe” medical technician employed at LSP, complaining that the defendants violated his constitutional rights in several respects. Specifically, the plaintiff alleges that on April 20, 2012, defendant Aymond charged the plaintiff with a retaliatory disciplinary report in response to the plaintiff's exercise of his First Amendment right to seek redress of grievances and that on June 30, 2012, defendant Aymond and the remaining defendants variously subjected the plaintiff to an improper search, charged him with false and retaliatory disciplinary reports, subjected him to excessive force, and exhibited deliberate indifference to his serious medical needs. Pursuant to a previous Report by the Magistrate Judge (R. Doc. 32), adopted by the District Judge on February 11, 2015 (R. Doc. 33), defendants “Jane Doe” and Katherine Bell were dismissed for failure of the plaintiff to serve these defendants in accordance with Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 4(m). Pursuant to the same Report and Recommendation, the plaintiff's claims relating to the events of April of 2012 were dismissed as time-barred.

         The defendants move for summary judgment relying upon the pleadings, a Statement of Undisputed Facts, the affidavits of Lt. Joshua Barett, Katherine Bell, Dr. Randy Lavespere, defendant Lt. William Smith, and defendant Gary Aymond, and certified copies of disciplinary reports dated June 30, 2012 for contraband, an aggravated sex offense, and aggravated disobedience and defiance, portions of the plaintiff's medical records, Department Regulation No. C-02-003 pertaining to searches of offenders, and the Camp D Raven 3 and 4 Logbook for June 30, 2012.[2] The plaintiff opposes the defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment relying upon the pleadings, a Statement of Disputed Factual Issues, and his own Declaration.

         Pursuant to well-established legal principles, summary judgment is appropriate where there is no genuine disputed issue as to any material fact, and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Rule 56, Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317 (1986); Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242 (1986). A party moving for summary judgment must inform the Court of the basis for the motion and identify those portions of the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories and admissions on file, together with affidavits, if any, that show that there is no such genuine issue of material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, supra, 477 U.S. at 323. If the moving party carries its burden of proof under Rule 56, the opposing party must direct the Court's attention to specific evidence in the record which demonstrates that the non-moving party can satisfy a reasonable jury that it is entitled to a verdict in its favor. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., supra, 477 U.S. at 248. This burden is not satisfied by some metaphysical doubt as to alleged material facts, by unsworn and unsubstantiated assertions, by conclusory allegations, or by a mere scintilla of evidence. Little v. Liquid Air Corp., 37 F.3d 1069, 1075 (5th Cir. 1994). Rather, Rule 56 mandates that summary judgment be entered against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, supra, 477 U.S. at 323. Summary judgment is appropriate in any case where the evidence is so weak or tenuous on essential facts that the evidence could not support a judgment in favor of the non-moving party. Little v. Liquid Air Corp., supra, 37 F.3d at 1075. In resolving a motion for summary judgment, the Court must review the facts and inferences in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, and the Court may not evaluate the credibility of witnesses, weigh the evidence, or resolve factual disputes. International Shortstop, Inc. v. Rally's, Inc., 939 F.2d 1257, 1263 (5th Cir. 1991).

         In his Complaint, the plaintiff alleges that during a ten-day period preceding April 20, 2012, he learned from several sources that defendant Aymond was planning to retaliate against the plaintiff if the plaintiff did not voluntarily withdraw an administrative grievance that the plaintiff had filed against the defendant. After the plaintiff advised defendant Aymond that the plaintiff would not withdraw the referenced grievance, the defendant allegedly approached the plaintiff on April 20, 2012, stated “what did I tell you, ” and escorted the plaintiff to administrative segregation in connection with an allegedly falsified disciplinary report. The plaintiff complains that he was thereafter found guilty in connection with that report and was sentenced to segregated confinement and to a loss of fifty-two weeks of incentive pay.[3]

         Approximately two months later, on June 27, 2012, the plaintiff was transferred from segregated confinement to a working cellblock at LSP. Three days later, on June 30, 2012, defendant Aymond allegedly visited the plaintiff's cell with another officer and conducted a search of the plaintiff's belongings. According to the plaintiff, defendant Aymond falsely purported to discover “contraband” in the plaintiff's cell and instructed the other officer to issue the plaintiff a disciplinary report (omitting any reference to defendant Aymond's presence during the search), causing the plaintiff to again be escorted to administrative segregation. Upon arrival in segregated confinement, the plaintiff was allegedly placed in the shower cell at that location while awaiting assignment to a cell. While he was waiting, defendant Katherine Bell[4] allegedly arrived on the cell tier to dispense medications and, without justification, falsely accused the plaintiff of masturbating in the shower cell. Several hours later on the same date, defendants Aymond and Smith approached the plaintiff in the shower cell and proceeded to spray him with irritant spray without justification or provocation, and one of these officers threw a food tray and some dirty cleaning water on the plaintiff during the incident. According to the plaintiff, the unprovoked use of chemical agent was not unusual inasmuch as there is an alleged “customary practice” at LSP, pursuant to which supervisory security officers routinely “use chemical agent on inmates whenever a female security guard accuses an inmate of masturbating.” In addition to the foregoing, the plaintiff asserts that defendants Bell and Smith issued two additional disciplinary reports against the plaintiff in connection with the above-referenced incidents of June 30, 2012, falsely accusing the plaintiff, respectively, of engaging in a “sex offense” and of “aggravated disobedience, ” the latter for allegedly causing a disturbance in his cell that required the application of irritant spray. The plaintiff asserts that defendant Smith's disciplinary report of that date again omitted any reference to the presence of defendant Aymond.

         Finally, the plaintiff complains that immediately after the application of irritant spray by defendants Smith and Aymond on June 30, 2012, defendant Aymond instructed the plaintiff to take a shower and change into a fresh jumpsuit. The plaintiff refused, however, believing that the shower water was too hot and believing, from past experience, that the hot water would aggravate the effects of the chemical agent. Ultimately, however, after assistance was provided by another security officer, Sgt. Frye (not named as a defendant herein), the plaintiff agreed to change into a clean jumpsuit, and a medical officer arrived on the tier, identified as defendant “Jane Doe, ”[5] who attended to the plaintiff's complaints. The plaintiff complains, however, that defendant “Doe” refused to assist the plaintiff in obtaining access to cold water to rinse away the residual chemical agent and, as a result, the plaintiff suffered chemical burns to his head. The plaintiff also complains that he was ultimately found guilty of the three (3) disciplinary reports issued against him by security officers on that date and was sentenced to a loss of fifty-two (52) weeks of incentive pay and eight (8) weeks of canteen privileges in connection with the “contraband” charge issued at the instruction of defendant Aymond, to a loss of fifty-two (52) weeks of incentive pay and eight (8) weeks of canteen privileges in connection with the “sex offense” charge issued by defendant Bell, and to monetary restitution in the amount of $ 2.00 and a transfer to punitive segregated confinement at Camp J at LSP in connection with the “aggravated disobedience” charge issued by defendant Smith. According to the plaintiff, all of the events of June 30, 2012, were part of a continuing plan by defendant Aymond to retaliate against the plaintiff.

         The defendants assert that they are entitled to qualified immunity in connection with the plaintiff's claims. Specifically, the defendants contend that the plaintiff's allegations and evidentiary showing fail to show the existence of a genuine issue of disputed fact relative to any alleged violation of the plaintiff's constitutional rights.

         The qualified immunity defense is a familiar one and, employing a two-step process, operates to protect public officials who are performing discretionary tasks. Huff v. Crites, 473 Fed.Appx. 398 (5th Cir. 2012). As enunciated in Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194 (2001), the first step in the analysis is to consider whether, taking the facts as alleged in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, the defendant's conduct violated the plaintiff's constitutional rights. Id. at 201. Second, the district court looks to whether the rights allegedly violated were clearly established. Id. This inquiry, the Court stated, is undertaken in light of the specific context of the case, not as a broad, general proposition. Id. The relevant, dispositive inquiry in determining whether a constitutional right was clearly established is whether it would have been clear to a reasonable state official that his conduct was unlawful in the situation which he confronted. Id. at 202. The assertion of the qualified immunity defense alters the summary judgment burden of proof. Michalik v. Hermann, 422 F.3d 252, 262 (5th Cir. 2005). Once a defendant pleads qualified immunity, the burden shifts to the plaintiff, who “must rebut the defense by establishing that the official's allegedly wrongful conduct violated clearly established law and that genuine issues of material fact exist regarding the reasonableness of the official's conduct.” Gates v. Texas Department of Protective and Regulatory Services, 537 F.3d 404, 419 (5th Cir. 2008), citing Michalik v. Hermann, supra, 422 F.3d at 262.[6]

         Undertaking the qualified immunity analysis with respect to the plaintiff's remaining claims of a violation of his Fourth Amendment rights, retaliation, and use of excessive force, the Court finds that the defendants' motion for summary judgment should be granted in part with respect to the plaintiff's Fourth Amendment claim. As to the plaintiff claims of retaliation and the use of excessive force, the Court finds that there are genuine disputed issues of material fact in this case relative to these claims.

         First, with regards to the plaintiff's claim that defendant Aymond violated his Fourth Amendment rights by searching his cell on June 30, 2012 with another correctional officer, the Court notes that while imprisoned persons enjoy many protections of the Constitution, it is clear that imprisonment carries with it the circumscription or loss of many significant rights. See Bell v. Wolfish, 441 U.S. 520, 545 (1979). Loss of freedom of choice and privacy are inherent incidents of confinement. The Fourth Amendment proscription against unreasonable searches and seizures does not apply within the confines of the prison cell. The recognition of privacy rights for prisoners in their individual cells simply cannot be reconciled with the concept of incarceration and the needs and objectives of penal institutions. Hudson v. Palmer, 468 U.S. 517, 526 (1984); United States v. Ward, 561 F.3d 414, 419 (5th Cir. 2009) (stating that “as a per se rule a prisoner cannot invoke the Fourth Amendment because society is not prepared to recognize a prisoner's expectation of privacy in his prison cell”).

         Notwithstanding, the plaintiff also asserts that the referenced search, the subsequent disciplinary reports for contraband, an aggravated sex offense, and aggravated disobedience and defiance, and the use of excessive force were orchestrated by defendant Aymond in retaliation for the plaintiff refusing to withdraw the grievance filed against defendant Aymond. The defendants assert that defendant Aymond was not personally involved in the search of the plaintiff's cell, with the subsequently issued disciplinary reports, or the use of chemical agent on the plaintiff. The defendants further assert that the plaintiff cannot establish “but for” causation.

         Although the Court acknowledges that prison officials are not permitted to retaliate against an inmate due to that inmate's use of the grievance process, claims of retaliation by prison inmates are regarded with skepticism, lest the federal courts potentially embroil themselves in every adverse action that occurs within a penal institution. Id. at 1166. Accordingly, to prevail on a claim of retaliation, a prisoner must be able to establish (1) that he was exercising or attempting to exercise a specific constitutional right, (2) that the defendants intentionally retaliated against the prisoner for the exercise of that right, (3) that an adverse retaliatory action, greater than de minimis, was undertaken against the prisoner by the defendants, and (4) that there is causation, i.e., that but for the retaliatory motive, the adverse action would not have occurred. Morris v. Powell,449 F.3d 682, 684 (5th Cir. 2006). See also Hart v. Hairston,343 F.3d 762, 764 (5th Cir. 2003); Jones v. Greninger,188 F.3d 322, 324-25 (5th Cir. 1999). If an inmate is unable to point to the exercise of a specific constitutional right, his claim will fail as a matter of law. See Tighe v. Wall,100 F.3d 41 (5th Cir. 1996) (dismissing an inmate's claim for failure to demonstrate the exercise of a specific constitutional right); Woods v. Smith, supra, 60 F.3d at 1166 (observing that, “[t]o state a claim of retaliation an inmate must allege the violation of a specific constitutional right”). Further, the inmate must allege more than a mere personal belief that he ...

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