United States District Court, S.D. Illinois
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER
MICHAEL J. REAGAN, District Judge.
Plaintiff Carl Whitehead, an inmate who is currently incarcerated at Menard Correctional Center ("Menard"), brings this action pro se for alleged violations of his constitutional rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (Doc. 1). Plaintiff claims that he was allowed only six sessions in Menard's yard between November 2012 and May 2013 (Doc. 1, p. 5). Plaintiff's denial of yard privileges resulted from numerous unit-wide lockdowns that were unrelated to his own conduct. Plaintiff claims that other inmates, who had the same security classification as him, were allowed significantly more exercise and work opportunities. Plaintiff now sues Defendant Richard Harrington, Menard's warden, for violating his rights under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. He seeks monetary damages and a prison transfer (Doc. 1, p. 6).
Merits Review Under 28 U.S.C. § 1915A
This case is now before the Court for a preliminary review of the complaint pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915A. Under § 1915A, the Court is required to promptly screen prisoner complaints to filter out nonmeritorious claims. 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(a). The Court is required to dismiss any portion of the complaint that is legally frivolous, malicious, fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, or asks for money damages from a defendant who by law is immune from such relief. 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(b).
An action or claim is frivolous if "it lacks an arguable basis either in law or in fact." Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319, 325 (1989). An action fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted if it does not plead "enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). The claim of entitlement to relief must cross "the line between possibility and plausibility." Id. at 557. Conversely, a complaint is plausible on its face "when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). Although the Court is obligated to accept factual allegations as true, see Smith v. Peters, 631 F.3d 418, 419 (7th Cir. 2011), some factual allegations may be so sketchy or implausible that they fail to provide sufficient notice of a plaintiff's claim. Brooks v. Ross, 578 F.3d 574, 581 (7th Cir. 2009). Additionally, Courts "should not accept as adequate abstract recitations of the elements of a cause of action or conclusory legal statements." Id. At the same time, however, the factual allegations of a pro se complaint are to be liberally construed. See Rodriguez v. Plymouth Ambulance Serv., 577 F.3d 816, 821 (7th Cir. 2009).
According to the complaint, Plaintiff was sent to segregation at Menard on November 8, 2012 (Doc. 1, p. 5). Menard allegedly has a policy or practice of placing inmates who are in segregation on lockdown whenever any other house in the facility is also on lockdown. While on lockdown, inmates in segregation do not receive their usual five hours of outdoor recreation each week. As a result, Plaintiff was allowed only six opportunities (i.e., a total of fifteen hours) to exercise in Menard's prison yard between November 2012 and May 2013. He had only three opportunities to exercise between November 14, 2012, and April 29, 2013, while at the same time living in a one-person cell with another inmate (Doc. 1, p. 9). Plaintiff suffered from pain in his left shoulder. When he sought treatment, Menard's medical staff told Plaintiff that he was showing early signs of arthritis "due to a lack of exercise."
On one occasion, Plaintiff asked Defendant Harrington to explain the policy. Defendant Harrington said, "This system is in place so that... inmates who fight or commit staff assaults cannot come to segr[e]gation and enjoy yard privileges. Maybe you guys should stop hitting my officers!" (Doc. 1, p. 5). Plaintiff was not placed in segregation for hitting an officer, and he was not denied yard privileges as punishment for his undisclosed offense. He was given six months of segregation and a six-month demotion in status to C-grade.
The complaint goes on to allege that Plaintiff's status has now been restored to A-grade. However, he receives fewer yard and work privileges than other inmates who have the same security classification (Doc. 1, p. 5). He claims that this disparity in yard and work privileges amounts to discrimination and a denial of equal protection under the law.
Plaintiff now sues Defendant Harrington for cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment and for the denial of equal protection of the law in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment (Doc. 1, p. 5). Plaintiff seeks monetary damages and a prison transfer.
At this early stage, Plaintiff shall be allowed to proceed with his Eighth Amendment claim (Count 1) against Defendant Harrington for the denial of yard access. Plaintiff equates the denial of yard access with the denial of meaningful exercise opportunities. He claims that he suffered from arthritis due to his lack of exercise. Opportunities to exercise were denied by Menard officials, not because of Plaintiff's conduct, but because of lockdowns in other units that systematically triggered lockdowns in Menard's segregation unit. Plaintiff spoke directly to Defendant Harrington about this issue.
Based on these allegations, the Court cannot conclude that the complaint fails to state a claim under the Eighth Amendment. The Seventh Circuit has observed that "an unjustified, lengthy deprivation of opportunity for out-of-cell exercise could reasonably be described as cruel and, by reference to the current norms of American prisons, unusual.'" Winger v. Pierce, 325 Fed.App'x 435, *1 (7th Cir. 2009) (quoting Pearson v. Ramos, 237 F.3d 881, 884 (7th Cir. 2001)); see also Turley v. Rednour, 729 F.3d 645, 652 (7th Cir. 2013) (finding that a "pattern of prison-wide lockdowns... occur[ing] for flimsy reasons or no reason at all" may support a claim for the deprivation of exercise). The Seventh Circuit has held that deprivations not unlike the one Plaintiff suffered violated the Constitution. See, e.g., Delaney v. DeTella, 256 F.3d 679, 684 (7th Cir. 2001) (inmate denied yard access for six months suffered sufficient constitutional deprivation); Pearson, 237 F.3d at 884-85 (7th Cir. 2001) (denial of yard privileges for more than 90 days may be cognizable under Eighth Amendment); see also Perkins v. Kan. Dep't of Corr., 165 F.3d 803, 810 (10th Cir. 1999) (nine-month denial of outdoor exercise states Eighth Amendment claim). Although the Court takes no position regarding the ultimate merits of this claim, Plaintiff shall be allowed to proceed with Count 1 against Defendant Harrington at this time.
However, Plaintiff's Fourteenth Amendment equal protection claim (Count 2) shall be dismissed. Plaintiff alleges that he was denied equal protection under the law because other A-grade inmates received additional exercise and work privileges (Doc. 1, p. 5). A "prison administrative decision may give rise to an equal protection claim only if the plaintiff can establish that state officials had purposefully and intentionally discriminated against him.'" Meriwether v. Faulkner, 821 F.2d ...