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White v. Hodge

United States District Court, S.D. Illinois

February 2, 2017

VANCE WHITE, Plaintiff,


          Michael J. Reagan United States District Judge

         I. Introduction

         Recently released from prison, Vance White (Plaintiff) filed the above-captioned suit in this Court under 42 U.S.C. 1983, while in the custody of the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC). The complaint alleged that the warden and the assistant warden of programs at Lawrence Correctional Center (Marc Hodge and Beth Tredway, respectively) violated Plaintiff's federally-secured constitutional right to equal protection. More specifically, Plaintiff alleged that his rights were violated by Lawrence's policy prohibiting jobs from being assigned to inmates classified as “vulnerable” and by denying him access to the courts. Only the first of these (the equal protection claim) survived threshold review under 28 U.S.C. 1915A.

         The case comes now before the Court on the joint motion for summary judgment and supporting brief filed by Defendants Hodge and Tredway (Docs. 42-43). Plaintiff filed a response in opposition to the motion (Doc. 46), and Defendants replied (Doc. 47). As described below, the Court grants Defendants' motion.

         II. Summary of Key Facts and Allegations

          Plaintiff's equal protection claim arises from events which occurred while he was confined at Lawrence Correctional Center. Plaintiff was housed at Lawrence from approximately March 2013 until July 2014 (Doc. 43-1, p. 2). Plaintiff's complaint alleges that his equal protection rights were violated because Defendants denied his job requests due to his “vulnerable” inmate status. In his deposition taken in connection with this case, Plaintiff testified that inmates with vulnerable status were those who prison authorities deemed needed special consideration regarding housing and interactions with other inmates, because they were susceptible to sexual violence and assault (Doc. 43-1, p. 4). Plaintiff testified that he was designated “vulnerable” in 2007 while incarcerated at Shawnee Correctional Center, after someone touched him inappropriately while he was sleeping, he reported that (and the fact he was gay) to prison authorities, and they moved him and classified him as “vulnerable” (Id. at p. 4, 6).

         Plaintiff concedes that not every gay inmate is classified as vulnerable, and that when an inmate was asked whether he had been sexually assaulted by another individual, the answer to that question could form the basis of a vulnerable status designation (Id. at p. 4-5). Plaintiff further testified that inmates who were openly gay, inmates who identified themselves as gay to the administration, and transgender inmates were classified as vulnerable (Id. at p. 5). In an affidavit submitted with his response to the pending motion, Plaintiff testified that the majority of inmates who are considered vulnerable are openly gay or transgender (Doc. 46, p. 13).

         While at Lawrence Correctional Center in 2013, Plaintiff applied for a job as a teacher's clerk (Doc. 43-1, p. 6, 7). He also applied for a job as a housing unit porter or janitor (Id. at p. 6; 43-1, p. 20). His job requests were denied, because he was not eligible based on his vulnerable designation (Doc. 43-1, p. 18, 19-20, 7). These positions required that Plaintiff not have a vulnerable status (Doc. 43-1, p. 29-31, 7-8). Plaintiff had jobs at other institutions, and “vulnerables” at other institutions could hold some jobs, whereas all of the jobs offered at Lawrence require that an inmate not be labeled as vulnerable (Id. at p. 8, 13, 29-31). Plaintiff asserts that he was denied jobs at Lawrence based on his vulnerable status. He testified that although his claim “stems from” his sexual orientation, it focuses on his classification as a vulnerable inmate, not his orientation (Doc. 43-1, p. 13). The record reflects that Defendants and other staff at Lawrence refused to approve Plaintiff for a job due to his vulnerable status (Id., p. 18).

         According to Russell Goins, Assistant Warden of Operations at Lawrence, mental health professionals make the determination whether an inmate receives a status of vulnerable (Doc. 43-1, p. 33). Inmates receive this status when they are deemed an increased risk for being physically or sexually assaulted (Id.). Inmate job assignments require that an inmate move more freely (sometimes out of sight of correctional staff) and have more contact with other inmates, so inmates holding jobs face an increased risk of assault from other inmates (Id. at p. 33-34). Because of this increased risk, says Goins, Lawrence prevents inmates with vulnerable status from receiving job assignments in order to protect them from possible assault (Id. at p. 34). Likewise, inmates with a predator status are prevented from receiving job assignments, to decrease the risk of a predator inmate from assaulting another inmate (Id.). Plaintiff argues, however, that not all inmate jobs allow free movement, and even inmates without jobs are out of the direct sight and supervision of staff at various times throughout the day (Doc. 46, p. 3).

         III. Applicable Legal Standards

         A. Summary Judgment Motions

         Summary judgment is proper only if the admissible evidence considered as a whole shows there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact, and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Dynegy Mktg. & Trade v. Multi Corp., 648 F.3d 506, 517 (7th Cir. 2011), citing Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a). The party seeking summary judgment bears the initial burden of showing -- based on the pleadings, affidavits, and/or information obtained via discovery -- the lack of any genuine issue of material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). After a properly supported motion for summary judgment is made, the adverse party “must set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 250 (1986), quoting Fed R. Civ. P. 56(e)(2).

         A fact is material if it is outcome determinative under applicable law. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248; Ballance v. City of Springfield, Ill. Police Dep't, 424 F.3d 614, 616 (7th Cir. 2005); Hottenroth v. Village of Slinger, 388 F.3d 1015, 1027 (7th Cir. 2004). A genuine issue of material fact exists if “the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. “A mere scintilla of evidence in support of the nonmoving party's position is not sufficient; there must be evidence on which the jury could reasonably find for the non-moving party.” Harris N.A. v. Hershey, 711 F.3d 794, 798 (7th Cir. 2013).

         On summary judgment, the district court construes the facts and draws the reasonable inferences in favor of the non-moving party - here, Plaintiff. Cole v. Board of Trustees of Northern Illinois University,838 F.3d 888, 895 (7th Cir. 2016). However, the court does not draw every conceivable inference from the record, “and mere speculation or conjecture will not defeat a summary judgment motion.” Rockwell Automation, Inc. v. National Union ...

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