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Taylor v. Stevens

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

December 20, 2019

TRENT TAYLOR, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
ROBERT STEVENS, Warden, Individually and in their Official Capacity; ROBERT RIOJAS, Sergeant of Corrections Officer, Individually and in their Official Capacity; RICARDO CORTEZ, Sergeant of Corrections Officer, Individually and in their Official Capacity; STEPHEN HUNTER, Correctional Officer, Individually and in their Official Capacity; LARRY DAVIDSON, Correctional Officer, Individually and in their Official Capacity; SHANE SWANEY, Sergeant of Corrections Officer, Individually and in their Official Capacity; FRANCO ORTIZ, Correctional Officer, Individually and in their Official Capacity; CREASTOR HENDERSON, L. V. N., Individually and in their Official Capacity; STEPHANIE ORR, L. V. N., Individually and in their Official Capacity; JOE MARTINEZ, Defendants-Appellees.

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas

          Before OWEN, Chief Judge, JONES and SMITH, Circuit Judges.

          JERRY E. SMITH, CIRCUIT JUDGE.

         Trent Taylor, a Texas inmate, sued Robert Stevens, Robert Riojas, [1]Ricardo Cortez, Stephen Hunter, Larry Davidson, Shane Swaney, Franco Ortiz, Joe Martinez, Creastor Henderson, and Stephanie Orr[2] under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for violating his Eighth Amendment rights. At the time of the events, the defendants were prison officials at the John T. Montford Unit of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice ("Montford Unit").

         Taylor contended generally that he was housed in unconstitutional conditions and that various defendants were deliberately indifferent to his health and safety. He sought compensatory and punitive damages, a declaratory judgment, and injunctive relief.

         Only Taylor's individual-capacity claims are relevant to this appeal. Specifically, Taylor appeals the summary judgment, on the basis of qualified immunity ("QI"), for

• Stevens, Riojas, Cortez, Hunter, Davidson, Swaney, Martinez, and Henderson, on Taylor's claim that they violated the Eighth Amendment in forcing Taylor to live in two filthy cells for six days.
• Riojas, Martinez, Ortiz, [3] and Henderson, [4] on Taylor's claim that they were deliberately indifferent to his health and safety in refusing to escort him to the restroom for a twenty-four-hour period.
• Riojas, Martinez, and Henderson, on Taylor's claim that they violated the Eighth Amendment in failing immediately to assess his chest pains.
• Orr, on Taylor's claim that Orr was deliberately indifferent to Taylor's health in failing immediately to examine Taylor upon his request to see a doctor.
• Warden Stevens, on Taylor's claim that Stevens created and implemented an unconstitutional policy that allowed the above violations.

         We affirm as to all claims, save one.

         I.

         Stevens, Riojas, Cortez, Hunter, Davidson, Swaney, and Martinez contend that Taylor filed his notice of appeal too late, [5] so we lack appellate jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1291. We disagree. The district court entered a final Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 54(b) judgment on the claims relevant to this appeal on January 5, 2017. On January 14, 2017, Taylor timely filed a Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59(e) motion to alter or amend that judgment. The district court denied the motion on January 30, 2017. Taylor had until thirty days after the Rule 59(e) denial to file his notice of appeal. See Fed. R. App. P. 4(a)(4)(A)(iv). Taylor did so on February 22, 2017, which is within the thirty-day limit. So, we have jurisdiction.

         II.

         A. Standard of Review

         "We review a summary judgment de novo, applying the same standards as the district court. We construe all facts and inferences in the light most favorable to the nonmovant." Arenas v. Calhoun, 922 F.3d 616, 620 (5th Cir. 2019) (citations omitted). When a defendant pleads QI, however, "the burden then shifts to the plaintiff, who must rebut the defense by establishing a genuine fact issue as to whether the official's allegedly wrongful conduct violated clearly established law." Brown v. Callahan, 623 F.3d 249, 253 (5th Cir. 2010). We still draw all inferences in the plaintiff's favor. Id.

         B. Qualified Immunity and Eighth Amendment Claims

         The district court granted summary judgment for each defendant on the basis of QI. "The [QI] defense has two prongs: whether an official's conduct violated a constitutional right of the plaintiff; and whether the right was clearly established at the time of the violation. A court may rely on either prong of the defense in its analysis." Id. (citations omitted). Thus, at the first prong, a prisoner bringing a § 1983 claim for violations of the Eighth Amendment must show that his Eighth Amendment rights were violated. See id.

         An inmate must establish two elements-one objective, one subjective- to prevail on a conditions-of-confinement claim. Arenas, 922 F.3d at 620. First, he must show that the relevant official denied him "the minimal civilized measure of life's necessities" and exposed him "to a substantial risk of serious harm." Id. (quotation marks omitted). The "alleged deprivation" must be "objectively serious." Id. Second, the prisoner must show "that the official possessed a subjectively culpable state of mind in that he exhibited deliberate indifference" to the risk of harm. Id. (citations and quotation marks omitted).

         Proving deliberate indifference is no small hurdle. See id. "A prison official displays deliberate indifference only if he (1) knows that inmates face a substantial risk of serious bodily harm and (2) disregards that risk by failing to take reasonable measures to abate it." Id. (quotation marks omitted). This is a fact-intensive inquiry "subject to demonstration in the usual ways, including inference from circumstantial evidence." Gates v. Cook, 376 F.3d 323, 333 (5th Cir. 2004). "[A] factfinder may conclude that a prison official knew of a substantial risk from the very fact that the risk was obvious." Id.

         III. Cell-Conditions Claim

         In his complaint, Taylor contended that he was forced to reside in two unconstitutionally filthy cells for six[6] days. The defendants for that claim (Stevens, Riojas, Cortez, Hunter, Davidson, Swaney, Martinez, and Henderson) asserted QI and moved for summary judgment, which the district court granted. We affirm, because though there are factual disputes as to a constitutional violation, the law wasn't clearly established.[7]

         A.

         Taylor stayed in the first cell starting September 6, 2013. He alleged that almost the entire surface-including the floor, ceiling, window, walls, and water faucet-was covered with "massive amounts" of feces that emitted a "strong fecal odor." Taylor had to stay in the cell naked. He said that he couldn't eat in the cell, because he feared contamination. And he couldn't drink water, because feces were "packed inside the water faucet." Taylor stated that the prison officials were aware that the cell was covered in feces, but instead of cleaning it, Cortez, Davison, and Hunter laughed at Taylor and remarked that he was "going to have a long weekend." Swaney criticized Taylor for complaining, stating "[d]ude, this is [M]ontford, there is shit in all these cells from years of psych patients."[8] On September 10, Taylor left the cell.

         A day later, September 11, Taylor was moved to a "seclusion cell," but its conditions were no better. It didn't have a toilet, water fountain, or bunk. There was a drain in the floor where Taylor was ordered to urinate. The cell was extremely cold because the air conditioning was always on.[9] And the cell was anything but clean.

         Taylor alleged that the floor drain was clogged, leaving raw sewage on the floor. The drain smelled strongly of ammonia, which made it hard for Taylor to breathe. Yet, he alleged, the defendants repeatedly told him that if he needed to urinate, he had to do so in the clogged drain instead of being escorted to the restroom. Taylor refused. He worried that, because the drain was clogged, his urine would spill onto the already-soiled floor, where he had to sleep because he lacked a bed. So, he held his urine for twenty-four hours before involuntarily urinating on himself.[10] He stayed in the seclusion cell until September 13. Prison officials then tried to return him to his first, feces-covered cell, but he objected and was permitted to stay in a different cell.

         Among other claims, Taylor sued Stevens, Riojas, Cortez, Hunter, Davidson, Swaney, Martinez, and Henderson under § 1983, complaining that the squalid conditions violated the Eighth Amendment. The defendants raised the defense of QI and moved for summary judgment in part on that basis. Taylor responded mainly with his verified pleadings and a declaration.

         The district court granted summary judgment on the basis of QI, noting that the defendants had "provided little in the way of specific summary judgment evidence to support their assertion that the cells were not, in fact, covered with feces." But the court found "merit in [d]efendants' general argument . . . that the alleged cell conditions [did] not rise to the level of a constitutional violation." The court held that (1) because Taylor was exposed to the paltry cell conditions "for only a matter of days," there was no constitutional violation under Davis v. Scott, 157 F.3d 1003 (5th Cir. 1998), and that (2) Taylor had not "show[n] that he suffered any injury." The court also found that the defendants had allowed Taylor to shower twice and had attempted to clean the first cell's walls. Taylor appeals, contesting the district court's application of Davis and averring that the court improperly resolved genuine factual disputes at summary judgment.

         B.

         The Eighth Amendment "does not mandate comfortable prisons, but neither does it permit inhumane ones." Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825, 832 (1994) (citation and quotation marks omitted). At a minimum, prison officials "must provide humane conditions of confinement" and "ensure that inmates receive adequate food, clothing, shelter, and medical care." Id. They cannot deprive prisoners of the "basic elements of hygiene" or the "minimal civilized measure of life's necessities." Palmer v. Johnson, 193 F.3d 346, 352-53 (5th Cir. 1999) (quotation marks omitted). Prison conditions cannot inflict "wanton and unnecessary" pain. Id. at 351.

         "[F]ilthy, unsanitary" cells can violate the Eighth Amendment. Harper v. Showers, 174 F.3d 716, 720 (5th Cir. 1999). In McCord v. Maggio, 927 F.2d 844, 848 (5th Cir. 1991), for example, we found a violation where a prisoner was forced, for a ten-month period, to sleep on a wet mattress "in filthy water contaminated with human waste." Such conditions were "unquestionably a health hazard" and were "so unhygienic as to amount to a clear violation of the Eighth Amendment." Id. The responsible official therefore did not "meet the threshold requirements for [QI]." Id.

         Similarly, in Gates, 376 F.3d at 338, we held that officials had violated the Eighth Amendment in forcing prisoners to live in cells covered with "crusted fecal matter, urine, dried ejaculate, peeling and chipping paint, and old food particles." The district court hadn't clearly erred in finding that "[l]iving in such conditions" presented "a substantial risk of serious harm to the inmates." Id. And because the officials could have "easily observed" those deplorable conditions, there was no clear error in finding them deliberately indifferent to the risk. Id.

         A dirty cell does not automatically violate the Constitution, however. A "filthy, overcrowded cell . . . might be tolerable for a few days and intolerably cruel for weeks or months." Hutto v. Finney, 437 U.S. 678, 686-87 (1978). Heeding that instruction, we have held that a prisoner's three-day stay in a cell smattered with blood and excrement did not offend the Eighth Amendment-at ...


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