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Smith v. Walton

United States District Court, S.D. Illinois

December 3, 2014

THOMAS M. SMITH, # XXXXX-XXX, Plaintiff,
v.
JEFFREY S. WALTON, et al. Defendants.

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

J. PHIL GILBERT, District Judge.

This matter comes before the Court for consideration of Plaintiff Thomas Smith's second amended complaint (Doc. 24), which he filed pursuant to Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents, 403 U.S. 388 (1971), [1] the Federal Tort Claims Act ("FTCA"), 28 U.S.C. §§ 1346, 2671-2680, and 42 U.S.C. §§ 1985 and 1986. The second amended complaint is timely.[2] It is now subject to preliminary review under 28 U.S.C. § 1915A.

In the second amended complaint, Plaintiff raises seven claims against twenty-three defendants, all of whom are employed at the United States Penitentiary in Marion, Illinois ("USP-Marion"). Plaintiff alleges that one group of Defendants denied him adequate medical care, and another group of Defendants retaliated against him. He also claims that all Defendants conspired to deprive him of his constitutional rights under 42 U.S.C. §§ 1985 and 1986. He now seeks declaratory judgment, injunctive relief, and monetary damages.

Merits Review Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915A

Under Section 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). After carefully considering the allegations, the Court finds that the second amended complaint survives preliminary review under Section 1915A and shall be allowed to proceed at this time.

Discussion

In the second amended complaint, Plaintiff generally alleges that one group of officials at USP-Marion deprived him of adequate medical care, and another group subjected him to retaliation for filing this lawsuit. Plaintiff now sues all twenty-three officials in connection with these general claims. Plaintiff further claims that all Defendants violated 42 U.S.C. §§ 1985 and 1986 by conspiring to deprive him of his constitutional rights. A summary of the allegations offered in support of each claim is set forth herein, followed by an immediate discussion of each.

A. Medical Claims

In the second amended complaint, Plaintiff alleges that he is HIV positive (Doc. 24, p. 5). He is also a knife-wound survivor, who has limited mobility and severe nerve damage in his fingers. Plaintiff has a torn ligament in his knee and suffers from periodic seizures. Plaintiff allegedly lives with constant pain.

When Plaintiff arrived at USP-Marion in January 2013, Defendants Szoke, King, and Harvey "examined him [and] observed and diagnosed [his] existing needs, but refused to treat Smith or provide him with medicine" (Doc. 24, pp. 4-5). Plaintiff allegedly lived with excruciating pain and untreated conditions for twenty months. He directed numerous written and verbal requests for medical care for these conditions to Defendants Walton, Winklemeir, Bagwell, Leslee Duncan Brooks, Castillo, Cullers, and Cunningham (Doc. 24, p. 5). Defendants allegedly ignored him.

In connection with the alleged deprivation of medical care, Plaintiff sues the United States under the Federal Tort Claims Act ("FTCA"), 28 U.S.C. §§ 1346, 2671-2680, and Illinois negligence law (Count 1) (Doc. 24, p. 8). Plaintiff also asserts an Eighth Amendment claim for deliberate indifference to medical needs (Count 2), pursuant to Bivens, against Defendants Szoke, King, Harvey, Walton, Winklmeier, Bagwell, Leslee Duncan Brooks, Castillo, Cullers, and Cunningham (Count 2) (Doc. 24, pp. 8-9). Plaintiff shall be allowed to proceed with Counts 1 and 2 at this early stage in litigation.

However, Count 1 is limited to Plaintiff's FTCA claim against the United States and shall not include a separate, or additional, state law negligence claim. Federal prisoners may bring suit, pursuant to the Federal Torts Claim Act, for injuries sustained through the negligent acts of prison officials. Palay v. United States, 349 F.3d 418, 425 (7th Cir. 2003) (discussing United States v. Muniz, 374 U.S. 150 (1963)). The Seventh Circuit explained FTCA claims as follows:

The FTCA permits an individual to bring suit in federal court against the United States for injury or loss of property, or personal injury or death caused by the negligent or wrongful act or omission of any employee of the Government while acting within the scope of his office or employment, under circumstances where the United States, if a private person, would be liable to the claimant in accordance with the law of the place where the act or omission occurred. 28 U.S.C. § 1346(b)(1). Pursuant to this provision, federal inmates may bring suit for injuries they sustain while incarcerated as a consequence of the negligence of prison officials. United States v. Muniz, 374 U.S. 150, 83 S.Ct. 1850, 10 L.Ed.2d 805 (1963). However, the plaintiff may not bring such a suit unless he has first presented his claim to the appropriate federal agency and that agency has denied the claim. 28 U.S.C. § 2675(a).

Id. at 425. Accordingly, Plaintiff shall be allowed to proceed with Count 1 at this stage. However, he will be required to demonstrate that he first presented his claim to the appropriate federal agency, and the agency denied the claim. Failure to do so may result in dismissal of this claim.

B. Retaliation Claims

In the second amended complaint, Plaintiff also alleges that since filing this lawsuit, Defendant Walton "initiated... a retaliatory campaign and directed his staff to do the same, " including Defendants Walton, Smith, Huggins, David, C. Brooks, Leslee Duncan Brooks, Clark, Steimetz, Sproul, Garcia, Edmister, Daun, Bryson, and Webber (Doc. 24, p. 5). Plaintiff has allegedly been the "victim of numerous retaliatory assaults by... defendants." They have made "snide, hostile, [and] offensive remarks" about Smith's pending lawsuit (Doc. 24, p. 7). They have issued "frivolous tickets" and "accusatory incident reports" and punished Plaintiff without conducting disciplinary hearings (Doc. 24, p. 11).

Plaintiff goes on to allege that Defendants Smith, Huggins, David, Brooks, Clark, and Steimetz "target Smith on a daily basis" (Doc. 24, p. 5). They take "relevant evidence, " withhold him from "programming and recovery programs, " and "interfere with his access to the court" (Doc. 24, pp. 5-6). They "take Smith to segregation for no reasonable cause" (Doc. 24, p. 6). Plaintiff alleges that Defendants Edmister, Daun, and Bryson have direct control over Plaintiff's correspondence and withhold his mail (Doc. 24, p. 6). They "ravage and vandalize" his legal material. Defendants Edmister, Daun, and Bryson also use "threats and intimidation" to deter Plaintiff from pursuing his claims in Court, by refusing to provide him with grievance forms. As a result, he is unable to exhaust his administrative remedies (Doc. 1, pp. 6, 10).

In connection with these allegations, Plaintiff sues Defendants Walton, Smith, Huggins, David, C. Brooks, Edmister, Daun, Bryson, Garcia, Sproul, Clark, Steimetz, and Webber for retaliation in violation of the First Amendment (Count 3) and for denial of access to the courts (Count 4). In addition, he sues Defendants Walton, Edmister, Daun, Bryson, Garcia, Sproul, Clark, Steimetz, and Webber for violating his due process rights under the Fifth Amendment (Count 5). Plaintiff shall be allowed to proceed with Counts 3 and 5 at this time, but Count 4 shall be dismissed.

With regard to Count 4, prisoners have a fundamental right of meaningful access to the courts. Bounds v. Smith, 430 U.S. 817 (1977). Violations of that right may be vindicated in federal court. However, an inmate has no constitutional claim unless he can demonstrate that a non-frivolous legal claim has been frustrated or impeded. Lewis v. Casey, 518 U.S. 343, 352-53 (1996). In the instant case, Plaintiff does not make a single allegation which would describe an actual or potential limitation on his access to the courts. He merely alleges that Defendants have taken steps to discourage him from pursuing this action. Yet, he is pursuing this action, quite aggressively, and the allegations in his second amended complaint do not suggest otherwise. He provides no single example of a time when Defendants prevented him from filing a document in this action. Actual or threatened detriment is an essential element of a claim for denial ...


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