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Palmer v. Franz

United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division

September 18, 2017

Leroy Palmer, Plaintiff,
Craig P. Franz, RN, Defendant.



         This is a § 1983 action brought by Leroy Palmer alleging negligence and deliberate indifference while an inmate at the Northern Reception and Classification Center (“NRC”) located at the Stateville Correctional Center (“Stateville”). The only defendant remaining in the case is Craig P. Franz, a registered nurse formerly employed by Wexford Health Sources (“Wexford”).[1] For the reasons that follow, Franz's motion for summary judgment is granted.


         Summary judgment is appropriate “if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); see also Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986). The Court considers the entire evidentiary record and must view all of the evidence and draw all reasonable inferences from that evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmovant. Ball v. Kotter, 723 F.3d 813, 821 (7th Cir. 2013). To defeat summary judgment, a nonmovant must produce more than “a mere scintilla of evidence” and come forward with “specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.” Harris N.A. v. Hershey, 711 F.3d 794, 798 (7th Cir. 2013). Ultimately, summary judgment is warranted only if a reasonable jury could not return a verdict for the nonmovant. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986).


         Palmer was an inmate in the IDOC during the relevant time period. On January 11, 2012, he was transferred from the Shawnee Correctional Center (“Shawnee”) to the NRC. The NRC is a facility located at Statesville where an inmate is temporarily housed when he needs to make a court appearance. See Verser v. Smith, 2017 WL 528381, at *9 (N.D. Ill. Feb. 9, 2017). An inmate temporarily assigned to the NRC does not have his complete medical records with him; they remain at his home or “parent” institution. Medical staff at the inmate's parent facility prepare a “transfer summary” to travel with the inmate to the NRC, which is supposed to contain information about the inmate's acute and chronic medical conditions, significant medical history, current medications and treatment, and active medical permits. The transfer summary is reviewed by an intake nurse upon the inmate's arrival at the NRC. The intake nurse observes the inmate for obvious signs of illness, asks questions about the inmate's health history, and then makes notations on the bottom portion of the transfer summary. The summary is then placed in the inmate's medical file at the NRC. Franz worked for Wexford at the Stateville facility from December 2011 through April 2012, and was the nurse who performed Palmer's intake screening when he arrived at the NRC. At the time of Palmer's screening, Franz was new to both performing intake screenings and to the practice of nursing in general, having obtained his nursing degree only months earlier. During the five months he worked at Stateville, he performed intake screenings on only one or two occasions.

         Palmer was born with a congenital deformity of the left arm. Essentially, he is missing most of his left hand.[2] Medical staff at Shawnee made note of Palmer's missing hand at the top part of his transfer summary, where on the line marked “Physical Disabilities/Limitations” it was written: “L arm not fully developed/low bunk, low gallery/slow eating pass.”[3] R. 161-6. Palmer testified he told Franz during the screening that Shawnee had given him a low bunk permit of indefinite duration, and he needed a low bunk permit for the NRC because of his missing hand. According to Palmer, Franz responded that he would need to see a doctor if he wanted to get a low bunk permit from Stateville. R. 161-2 at 13, 24 (Palmer Dep. 46-47, 90). The entire encounter between Palmer and Franz lasted no more than ten to fifteen minutes, and Franz testified at his deposition (which occurred more than four years later) he had no memory of Palmer. The transfer summary shows Franz made note at the bottom of the form on a line marked “Deformities: Acute/Chronic” that Palmer's left arm was “not fully developed, ” and that, under the heading “Plan: Disposition, ” Franz had marked the box next to “Sick Call: Routine.” Although the form also gave the option of choosing “Emergency Referral” or Sick Call: Urgent, ” Franz did not check the box next to either of those things. On the line next to the heading “Current Medications/Treatment, ” Franz wrote the words “see above, ” where Shawnee medical staff had listed Palmer's current medications and indicated that he had a low bunk permit. See R. 161-6.

         After the intake screening, Palmer was taken to his cell by correctional officers. The bottom bunk in his assigned cell was already occupied. Palmer testified he told a correctional officer about his low bunk permit from Shawnee, but the officer told Palmer there was nothing he could do because Palmer did not have the permit with him. R. 161-2 at 13 (Palmer Dep. 47). A correctional officer (either the same one or a different one who was a “lieutenant”) informed Palmer he needed to get a new permit from “medical, ” even though it was his (Palmer's) understanding that his “low bunk pass from Shawnee would apply.” Id. at 16-17 (Palmer Dep. 61-62). Palmer testified he never asked his cell mate to switch bunks with him because he believed it was the correctional officer's job to do so. Id. at 12 (Palmer Dep. 45). When asked about the possibility of putting his mattress temporarily on the floor of the cell until a new medical permit was issued to him, Palmer testified “Why would I?” Id. at 12-13 (Palmer Dep. 45-46).

         In the days following his arrival at the NRC, Palmer claims to have submitted two requests for medical treatment to obtain a low bunk permit to replace the Shawnee one that the correctional officers were not honoring. He placed the requests in the door for a correctional officer to pick up and turn in because “[a]t NRC, you're in the cell 24 hours a day.” Id. at 23 (Palmer Dep. 87). The record does not contain any additional information regarding what happened to Palmer's sick call requests, although it is undisputed that Palmer was not taken to see a doctor before the date of the incident, which occurred ten days after his arrival at the NRC. On the morning of January 22, 2012, Palmer was attempting to get out of his bunk when he fell trying to lower himself without the aid of a ladder, [4] causing injury to his right knee. IDOC medical records state that Palmer's knee showed no signs of trauma after the fall. Palmer, on the other hand, claims that the fall caused damage to his knee requiring knee replacement surgery, and he has submitted expert medical testimony to support that claim.


         A. Eighth Amendment

         Courts have “routinely dismissed” Eighth Amendment claims based on the lack of a ladder to access the top bunk, “finding that this condition does not pose a serious risk of harm.” Richard v. Ill. Dep't of Corr., 2016 WL 2941210, at *5 (S.D. Ill. May 20, 2016) (collecting cases); see also Blue v. Baenen, 2016 WL 8711729, at *9 (E.D. Wis. May 20, 2016) (same). But the issue here is different because Palmer has only one hand and had a permit from Shawnee indicating that he needed to be assigned a low bunk for medical reasons. Palmer argues that Franz violated his Eighth Amendment right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment by failing to take steps to ensure he was issued a low bunk permit during his stay at the NRC.

         “[D]eliberate indifference to serious medical needs of prisoners constitutes the ‘unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain, ' proscribed by the Eighth Amendment. This is true whether the indifference is manifested by prison doctors in their response to the prisoner's needs or by prison guards in intentionally denying or delaying access to medical.” Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 104-05 (1976) (internal citations and footnote omitted). A claim of deliberate indifference to a serious medical need contains both an objective and a subjective component. A prisoner first must establish that his medical condition is “objectively, ‘sufficiently serious.'” Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825, 834 (1994) (citation omitted). If he establishes the objective component, he then must establish that prison officials acted with “a ‘sufficiently culpable state of mind, ” i.e., that they both knew of and disregarded an excessive risk to inmate health. Id. at 834, 837; see Greeno v. Daley, 414 F.3d 645, 653 (7th Cir. 2005). Franz argues that neither component is met here.

         1. Serious Medical Need

         In the recent case of Estate of Simpson v. Gorbett, 863 F.3d 740 (7th Cir. 2017), the Seventh Circuit addressed the objective component of an Eighth Amendment claim in the context of an accident involving an inmate's assignment to a high bunk. The inmate in Simpson “was intoxicated when he reported to [a county] jail to serve his weekend stay, prompting officers initially to place him in a holding cell. After they thought he was sober, they assigned him to an upper bunk in a two-person cell, even though he was obviously obese. While sleeping, [the inmate] went into convulsions and fell off the bunk on to the hard concrete floor. He died from his injuries.” Id. at 742. The inmate's estate brought an Eighth Amendment claim against five officers and the sheriff. In affirming the district court's grant of summary judgment in favor of the defendants, the Seventh Circuit said that the question posed was not whether “top bunks[ ] are unconstitutional for all inmates, ” but whether “the assignment of a morbidly obese man to this narrow, upper bed” was. Id. at 746. Nevertheless, the court said, the “argument that the bunk was unreasonably dangerous to [the obese inmate] rest[ed] almost entirely on hindsight-that is, what happened after [the inmate] had been sleeping in apparent safety for several hours, when he suddenly had convulsions, tumbled off, and suffered his fatal injury.” Id. Because the inquiry was objective, the court said it could not “base [its] conclusion exclusively on what came to pass, ” and, given the record, could not “conclude that [the inmate's] bunk assignment objectively was so dangerous that it denied [the inmate] ‘the minimal civilized measure of life's necessities.'” Id. (citations omitted).

         This case is distinguishable from Simpson because of the fact that Palmer already had been issued a Shawnee medical permit requiring a low bunk.[5] See Greeno, 414 F.3d at 653 (a medical need is an objectively serious condition if it has “been diagnosed by a physician as mandating treatment”). Moreover, Palmer's physical disability warranting the Shawnee low bunk permit was obvious. The Simpson court “assume[d] that there are some circumstances where a small, elevated bed might pose a ‘substantial risk of serious harm' to an inmate's health or safety.” 863 F.3d at 745-46 (quoting Farmer, 511 U.S. at 834). A jury could conclude based on Palmer's missing left hand and the existence of a medical permit that this is one of them. See, e.g., Bolling v. Carter, 819 F.3d 1035, 1036 (7th Cir. 2016) (implicitly recognizing that an inmate who had been issued a low bunk permit has a serious medical need).

         Franz argues that Palmer's missing hand does not meet the definition of a serious medical condition because Palmer did not need treatment for his arm. See Gayton v. McCoy, 593 F.3d 610, 620 (7th Cir. 2010) (defining a serious medical condition as one “that would result in further significant injury or unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain if not treated.”) (emphasis added). But the Seventh Circuit did not intend to use the word “treated” in the limiting sense suggested by Franz, as the test is sometimes expressed as being a medical condition requiring a “doctor's attention.Greeno, 414 F.3d at 653 (emphasis added). Although Palmer's medical condition may not have required treatment per se, it did require accommodation. For Palmer to receive that accommodation, he needed to be examined by a physician or other authorized medical personnel, [6] who then would determine based on medical judgment whether to issue a permit for a low bunk assignment.[7] In short, a reasonable jury could find that an inmate who a doctor has recognized is in need of a medical permit meets the objective test of a serious medical condition. Franz's argument to the contrary is rejected.

         2. ...

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