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Johnson v. Frain

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

May 4, 2018

ALLEN JOHNSON, SR., Plaintiff,


          Hon. Virginia M. Kendall United States District Judge

         Plaintiff Allen Johnson, Sr., an Illinois inmate incarcerated at Stateville Correctional Center (“Stateville”) brings this civil rights action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and Illinois state law alleging that six Illinois Department of Corrections employees, including the warden, assistant wardens, and a correctional officer; Wexford Health Sources, Inc. (“Wexford”); and Stateville's former medical director all were deliberately indifferent to a hazardous condition of confinement and then deliberately indifferent to Johnson's serious medical needs. See (Dkt. 34). Currently before the Court is Wexford's motion to dismiss. (Dkt. 38). For the reasons set forth below, the motion to dismiss is granted.

         BACKGROUND [1]

         This case involves a broken weight machine that sits alongside the basketball court in Stateville's inmate gymnasium. The machine's steel seat has “sharp and exposed” corners and “sharp exposed metal edges.” (Dkt. 34) at ¶¶ 2, 20-22. On May 19, 2016 at some time around noon, Plaintiff Allen Johnson, Sr. was playing basketball when he fell towards the weight machine and seriously cut his right knee and thigh on the steel seat. Id. at ¶ 24. The corrections officer at the scene made a non-emergency call to the health care unit (which is run by Defendant Wexford), and a medical technician and a nurse eventually arrived around 1:20 p.m. with a wheelchair. But the nature of Johnson's injuries meant that he needed to be transported by a stretcher, which was eventually brought and used to take him to the health care unit. Id. at ¶¶ 25-28. Around 2 p.m., Johnson was transported to St. Joseph Hospital in Joliet, Illinois, where he underwent surgery for his wound. Id. at ¶ 32.

         Following surgery, Johnson experienced severe pain under his kneecap. In July 2016, Johnson was sent back to St. Joseph Hospital for an evaluation with the surgeon; the surgeon recommended another follow-up visit if Johnson's sharp leg pain persisted. Id. at ¶ 34. Johnson received physical therapy at Stateville, and he complained to his therapist in August 2016 that he still had knee pain. The physical therapist told Johnson that he was suffering from meniscus damage and recommended that Johnson see an orthopedic specialist to assess the damage. In addition to this recommendation, Johnson was referred a number of times to see Defendant Dr. Saleh Obaisi, who was the medical director of the health care unit at the time. Dr. Obaisi eventually saw Johnson in October 2016, but he refused to send Johnson back to the surgeon at St. Joseph Hospital for further care. Id. at ¶¶ 35-37. Sometime around April 2017, Wexford approved an MRI for Johnson's knee to determine the correct treatment for his pain. Id. at ¶ 37. At present, Johnson does not have full range of motion of his knee, the knee buckles or is unstable when he is standing or going up and down stairs, and he is still in pain. Id. at ¶¶ 73-76.

         The amended complaint contains a few other allegations of note concerning Wexford. First, Johnson alleges that Wexford “has a practice of understaffing Stateville's medical healthcare unit, ” which prevented him from receiving “required” medical treatment. Id. at ¶ 69. Along these same lines, Johnson alleges that Wexford “lacks [both] an effective procedure” and competent medical personnel to evaluate and treat injuries like those to his thigh and knee. Id. at ¶ 70. Johnson further alleges that Wexford denies “required treatment” in order to cut costs. Id. Finally, Johnson alleges that Wexford failed to authorize a physical evaluation and corrective surgical repair-despite the recommendations of the physical therapist and surgeon-and ignored his condition as it continually worsened, and that these actions demonstrate a “continued, intentional policy and practice of recklessly and callously disregarding clear facts evidencing the severity of [Johnson's] injuries over the course of many months, while such injuries became worse, causing long-term damage to [Johnson's] leg.” Id. at ¶¶ 72-73, 87.

         Johnson's three-count amended complaint (Dkt. 34) asserts Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment claims for deliberate indifference against all Defendants except for Wexford (Count I); a Monell[2] claim against Wexford for “maintain[ing] an unconstitutional policy and adopt[ing] a custom of deliberate indifference to the known or obvious consequences of its practices” and “support[ing] a policy that sanctions the maintenance of [unconstitutional] prison conditions” (Count II); and state law “negligence or willful and wanton conduct” against all Defendants (Count III). As relief, Johnson seeks compensatory and punitive damages. Wexford has moved to dismiss the specific claims asserted against it in Count II and III. (Dkt. 38).


         Wexford seeks dismissal of Johnson's claims against them under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), which challenges the claims' legal sufficiency. For a claim to survive a motion to dismiss brought pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6), it must contain sufficient factual matter to state a claim for relief that is plausible on its face. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). A claim is plausible on its face when the complaint contains factual content that supports a reasonable inference that the defendants are liable for the harm. Id. In making the plausibility determination, the Court relies on its “judicial experience and common sense.” McCauley v. City of Chicago, 671 F.3d 611, 616 (7th Cir. 2011) (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679). The complaint should be dismissed only if the plaintiff would not be entitled to relief under any set of facts that could be proved consistent with the allegations. Christensen v. Cty. of Boone, 483 F.3d 454, 458 (7th Cir. 2007) (citations omitted). That being said, a “pleading that offers ‘labels and conclusions' or a ‘formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.'” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007)). For purposes of this motion, the Court accepts as true all well-pleaded allegations in the complaint and draws all reasonable inferences in Johnson's favor. See Williamson, 714 F.3d at 435.


         A. Monell Claim (Count II)

         Correctional officials and health care providers may not act with deliberate indifference to an inmate's serious medical needs. Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 104 (1976); Fields v. Smith, 653 F.3d 550, 554 (7th Cir. 2011). Deliberate indifference has both an objective and a subjective element: the inmate must have an objectively serious medical condition, and the defendant in question must be subjectively aware of and consciously disregard the inmate's medical need. Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825, 837 (1994); Estelle, 429 U.S. at 103-04; see also Roe v. Elyea, 631 F.3d 843, 862 (7th Cir. 2011). A private corporation, like Wexford, can be held liable for deliberate indifference to an inmate's serious medical needs under Monell, “if the unconstitutional act complained of is caused by: (1) an official policy adopted and promulgated by its officers; (2) a practice or custom that, although not officially authorized, is widespread and well settled; or (3) an official with final policy-making authority.” Thomas v. Cook County Sheriff's Dep't, 604 F.3d 293, 303 (7th Cir. 2009) (citing Monell, 436 U.S. at 690); see Glisson v. Ind. Dep't of Corr., 849 F.3d 372, 379 (7th Cir. 2017) (en banc) (“The critical question under Monell . . . is whether a municipal (or corporate) policy or custom gave rise to the harm (that is, caused it), or if instead the harm resulted from the acts of the entity's agents.”); see also Whiting v. Wexford Health Sources, Inc., 839 F.3d 658, 664 (7th Cir. 2016) (Monell applies to private corporation that provides medical care services to prison inmates; plaintiff must thus show entity's policy, practice, or custom caused constitutional violation); Chatham v. Davis, 839 F.3d 679, 685 (7th Cir. 2016) (same). To demonstrate that Wexford is liable for a harmful custom or practice, Johnson must allege that it was aware of the risk created by the custom or practice and failed to take appropriate steps to protect him. Thomas, 604 F.3d at 303.

         Wexford does not address at this time whether Johnson's thigh/knee injury is a serious medical condition, and the Court therefore will assume, at least for purposes of Wexford's motion, that Johnson's allegations satisfy the first prong of the deliberate-indifference test. Turning to the second prong, Wexford argues that Johnson's allegations are insufficient to support his Monell claim.

         Although Johnson is correct that Monell claims may proceed with conclusory allegations of a policy or practice (see (Dkt. 45) at 4), “some specific facts” must be pleaded to put the defendant on notice of the alleged wrongdoing. Armour v. Country Club Hills, 2014 WL 63850, at *6 (N.D. Ill. Jan. 8, 2014) (citing McCauley v. City of Chicago, 671 F.3d 611, 616 (7th Cir. 2011), and Riley v. County of Cook, 682 F.Supp.2d 856, 861 (N.D. Ill. 2010)). Here, Johnson complains of Wexford's “unconstitutional policy” and widespread practices and customs that caused his alleged constitutional deprivation. Notably, the amended complaint does not allege that any of Wexford's official or written policies violated Johnson's constitutional rights. Instead, Johnson's Monell theory assumes that his own experience is evidence that certain policies exist, because he would have received better care if Wexford had more staff, better qualified staff, or a different fiscal policy or if he had been sent to outside doctors on more occasions. Where the alleged constitutional deprivation resulted from an implicit policy, a plaintiff must present evidence of a widespread practice, not simply an isolated event. Grieveson v. Anderson, 538 F.3d 763, 774 (7th Cir. 2008). Although no “bright-line rules” defining a widespread practice or custom exist, generally one instance is, or in some cases even three instances are, insufficient to “demonstrate that there is a policy at issue.” Thomas, 604 F.3d at 303. That is, although ...

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