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Comage v. White

United States District Court, S.D. Illinois

June 5, 2015

RONALD L. COMAGE, # S-03145, Plaintiff,


MICHAEL J. REAGAN, Chief District Judge.

Plaintiff, currently incarcerated at Menard Correctional Center ("Menard"), has brought this pro se civil rights action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. He claims that Defendant Washington, his cellmate, attacked and injured him. The other Defendants (all corrections officials) allegedly failed to protect him from this attack. The complaint is now before the Court for a merits review under 28 U.S.C. § 1915A.

According to the complaint, on February 2, 2015, Defendant Officer White completed his "count check" on Plaintiff's gallery at 11:00 p.m. (Doc. 1, p. 12). Some time after this, Defendant Washington told Plaintiff that he had to use the toilet. Plaintiff turned his back to his cellmate to allow him some privacy. Defendant Washington then attacked Plaintiff by beating him in the head, face, and body with a sock filled with bars of soap. Plaintiff attempted to defend himself, and Defendant Washington pulled out a metal ice pick knife and stabbed Plaintiff in the eye and cut his ear. Defendant White did not return to the gallery until 2:30 a.m. Plaintiff contends that this "poor supervision" violated his constitutional rights, because Defendant White is "responsible for the supervision, security, and protection of all offenders" (Doc. 1, p. 13).

Plaintiff attaches a final summary report of the prison adjustment committee, which states that at 2:45 a.m. on February 3, 2015, Plaintiff and his cellmate were observed in their cell fighting (Doc. 1, p. 19). Defendant Demond wrote the incident report.

Plaintiff's theory of liability against the other Defendant officers is stated in similar language as the claim against Defendant White. Defendant Demond violated Plaintiff's rights because he has the same responsibility as Defendant White to protect inmates. Id. Defendant Monje supervises the security staff who failed to protect Plaintiff. Defendant Butler (warden) and Defendants Lashbrook and Watson (assistant wardens of operations) are likewise responsible for supervision of other officers and protection of inmates. Defendant Godinez (IDOC Director) is responsible because he is over all the staff and wardens. Id.

Because of the assault by Defendant Washington, Plaintiff has impaired vision in his left eye. He also suffers from post-traumatic stress, depression, and other psychological trauma, for which he is on medication (Doc. 1, pp. 12, 18). He seeks compensatory and punitive damages.

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

Under § 1915A, the Court is required to conduct a prompt threshold review of the complaint, and to dismiss any claims that are frivolous, malicious, fail to state a claim on which relief may be granted, or seek monetary relief from an immune defendant.

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). Frivolousness is an objective standard that refers to a claim that "no reasonable person could suppose to have any merit." Lee v. Clinton, 209 F.3d 1025, 1026-27 (7th Cir. 2000). 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 fully considering the factual allegations in Plaintiff's complaint, the Court concludes that it fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, and is subject to dismissal. However, Plaintiff shall be allowed one opportunity to submit an amended complaint, if he believes that facts exist to support a failure to protect claim against those Defendants who were personally involved in the events surrounding the attack. If the amended complaint still fails to state a claim, or if Plaintiff does not submit an amended complaint, the entire case shall be dismissed with prejudice, and the dismissal shall count as a strike pursuant to § 1915(g). The amended complaint shall be subject to review pursuant to § 1915A.

In Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825 (1994), the Supreme Court held that "prison officials have a duty... to protect prisoners from violence at the hands of other prisoners." Id. at 833 (internal citations omitted); see also Pinkston v. Madry, 440 F.3d 879, 889 (7th Cir. 2006). However, not every harm caused by another inmate translates into constitutional liability for the corrections officers responsible for the prisoner's safety. Farmer, 511 U.S. at 834. In order for a plaintiff to succeed on a claim for failure to protect, he must show that he is incarcerated under conditions posing a substantial risk of serious harm, and that the defendants acted with "deliberate indifference" to that danger. Id.; Pinkston, 440 F.3d at 889. A plaintiff also must prove that prison officials were aware of a specific, impending, and substantial threat to his safety, often by showing that he complained to prison officials about a specific threat to his safety. Pope v. Shafer, 86 F.3d 90, 92 (7th Cir. 1996). In other words, Defendants had to know that there was a substantial risk that the person who attacked Plaintiff would do so, yet failed to take any action. See Sanville v. McCaughtry, 266 F.3d 724, 733-34 (7th Cir. 2001). Conduct on the part of an official that amounts only to negligence or inadvertence, however, is not enough to state a constitutional claim. Pinkston, 440 F.3d at 889 (discussing Watts v. Laurent, 774 F.2d 168, 172 (7th Cir. 1985)).

Plaintiff's complaint contains no facts to suggest that any of the prison officials had been made aware that his cellmate (Defendant Washington) posed a threat to Plaintiff's safety. Nor does he include factual allegations to describe the conduct of any of the Defendants (other than Defendant White's failure to return to the gallery for several hours) in relation to the assault. Instead, he relies on conclusory statements regarding each Defendant official's general responsibility to protect inmates. As such, the pleading does not support a constitutional claim against any of the Defendant officials for failing to protect Plaintiff from the attack.

According to the complaint and exhibit, Defendants White and Demond were on duty in Plaintiff's housing area when Plaintiff was attacked. However, there is no indication that Defendants Monje, Watson, Butler, Lashbrook or Godinez were present near the time of the assault, or had any personal involvement in any action or inaction that failed to prevent the attack. Plaintiff seeks to hold each of these individuals liable only on the basis that they held supervisory authority over Defendants White and/or Demond. However, the doctrine of respondeat superior (supervisory liability) is not applicable to § 1983 actions. Sanville v. McCaughtry, 266 F.3d 724, 740 (7th Cir. 2001) (citations omitted). The complaint does not suggest that any of these Defendants was "personally responsible for the deprivation of a constitutional right." Id. Accordingly, Defendants Monje, Watson, Butler, Lashbrook and Godinez shall be dismissed from this action without prejudice.

Finally, Defendant Washington, who is a fellow prisoner, shall be dismissed from the action with prejudice. A plaintiff cannot proceed with a federal claim under § 1983 against a non-state actor. See Am. Mfrs. Mut. Ins. Co. v. Sullivan, 526 U.S. 40, 50 (1999); Gayman v. Principal Fin. Servs., Inc., 311 F.3d 851, 852-53 (7th Cir. 2003). A civil rights claim may only proceed against a person who was "acting under color of state law." West v. Atkins, 487 U.S. 42, 48-49 (1988) ("The traditional definition of acting under color of state law requires that the defendant in a § 1983 action have exercised power possessed by virtue of state law and made possible only because the wrongdoer is clothed with the authority of state law.'") (citing ...

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