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Wilkins v. Baldwin

United States District Court, S.D. Illinois

May 9, 2018

SEAN WILKINS, # R-21191, Plaintiff,
v.
JOHN BALDWIN, S.A. GODINEZ, GLADYSE C. TAYLOR, MICHAEL P. RANDLE, ROBERT MUELLER, SUSAN WALKER, DEBBIE KNAUER, and JOHN/JANE DOE (Superintendents of the Illinois Correctional Industry), Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          HERNDON, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Plaintiff, currently incarcerated at Centralia Correctional Center (“Centralia”), has brought this pro se civil rights action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. He claims that Defendants knowingly served beverages which were contaminated with unsafe levels of benzene, in Centralia and other prisons, with deliberate indifference to the risks to inmates' health. Plaintiff alleges that as a result, he has developed colitis and other physical symptoms.

         Plaintiff originally filed this action jointly with fellow inmate Mitchell Morrow. On April 11, 2018, Morrow's claims were severed into a separate action, Morrow v. Baldwin, No. 18-cv-908-DRH. (Doc. 6). Plaintiff has pointed out that the claims raised herein are largely duplicative of those raised in a 2017 case by another Centralia prisoner-plaintiff, Trainor v. Baldwin, No. 17-cv-369-DRH-DGW. (Doc. 7).

         This case is now before the Court for a preliminary review of the Complaint pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915A. Under § 1915A, the Court is required to screen prisoner complaints to filter out non-meritorious claims. See 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(a). The Court must 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). 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 Arnett v. Webster, 658 F.3d 742, 751 (7th Cir. 2011); Rodriguez v. Plymouth Ambulance Serv., 577 F.3d 816, 821 (7th Cir. 2009).

         Applying these standards, the Court finds that some of Plaintiff's claims survive threshold review under § 1915A.

         The Complaint

         Plaintiff brings his claims against current Director of the Illinois Department of Corrections (“IDOC”) Baldwin, as well as former IDOC Directors Godinez, Randle, and Taylor. (Doc. 1, pp. 1-2). Other Defendants include Centralia Warden Mueller, Grievance Officer Walker, Administrative Review Board official Knauer, and a No. of Jane/John Does. This group of Unknown Defendants encompasses Superintendents of the Illinois Correctional Industry (“ICI”) who distributed contaminated juices to IDOC prisons, dietary managers who served the juices, and wardens who supervised the prisons during the time the beverages were distributed. (Doc. 1, p. 2).

         According to Plaintiff, in 1991 the FDA reported that benzene had been found in products which contained sodium benzoate along with ascorbic acid, citric acid, or erthoribic acid. This combination of ingredients can produce benzene, so the FDA “called on manufacturers to take measures to impede the formation of benzene in their products.” (Doc. 1, p. 3). The Environmental Protection Agency reported that 5 parts per billion was the maximum acceptable level of benzene in drinking water. Id. Further, people exposed to higher levels of benzene, even for short periods of time, may develop anemia, nervous system disorders, and immune system depression. Id. A published CDC report states that exposure to benzene may cause dizziness, rapid or irregular heartbeat, vomiting, convulsions, sleepiness, and stomach irritation. (Doc. 1, pp. 4, 19-20).

         In 2008, union members working within the IDOC raised concern about benzene in drink products served to IDOC employees. (Doc. 1, p. 3). This concern was never investigated by Randle, Godinez, Baldwin, Mueller, or the John/Jane Doe Wardens and Dietary Managers. The John/Jane Doe ICI Superintendents continued to use the combination of ingredients listed above in beverages served to IDOC inmates. Id.

         Plaintiff consumed the allegedly contaminated juices for several years during his confinement at Big Muddy River Correctional Center and Centralia, where he worked in the dietary departments. (Doc. 1, pp. 5, 15). During these times, he experienced blood in his stool, chronic headaches, diarrhea, stomach irritation, and fatigue. Id. He sought medical treatment at both prisons, and was eventually diagnosed with colitis, for which he is receiving treatment. (Doc. 1, pp. 5-6).

         When Plaintiff learned about the risks from excessive consumption of benzene, he filed a grievance seeking an investigation. Walker (grievance officer) rejected the request, and Warden Mueller affirmed that denial. (Doc. 1, p. 6). Plaintiff appealed the grievance to Knauer, who also denied it, noting that Plaintiff is receiving medical treatment.[1] (Doc. 1, pp. 6, 18).

         At some unspecified time, Mueller and the John Doe Centralia Dietary Manager stopped serving the juices containing the benzene-producing ingredients, but then began to serve them to inmates again. (Doc. 1, p. 6).

         Plaintiff claims that Baldwin, Godinez, Taylor, Randle, and all John/Jane Does “have known since 1998 about the research on the formation of benzene through the combination of sodium benzoate and ascorbic acid, yet they failed to ensure that their products did not contain benzene.” (Doc. 1, p. 6). The John/Jane Does deliberately manufactured and distributed the juice products to prisoners, despite knowing that they “would tend to contain unsafe benzene levels, placing prisoners at risk.” Id. Baldwin, Godinez, Taylor, and Randle did nothing to address the health risks. Plaintiff was involuntarily exposed to benzene in the juices served with prison meals, without any warning of the hazard. The juice consumption created an unreasonable risk to his health, both present and future. He alleges that benzene can cause cancer. (Doc. 1, pp. 7-8).

         Plaintiff asserts that Defendants' actions violated the Eighth Amendment. He seeks declaratory relief, as well as compensatory and punitive damages. (Doc. 1, pp. 8-9).

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

         Based on the allegations of the Complaint, the Court finds it convenient to divide the pro se action into the following counts. The parties and the Court will use these designations in all future pleadings and orders, unless otherwise directed by a judicial officer of this Court. The designation of these counts does not constitute an opinion as to their merit. Any other claim that is mentioned in the Complaint but not addressed in this Order should be considered dismissed without prejudice.

Count 1: Eighth Amendment claim against the John/Jane Doe ICI Superintendents, for deliberate indifference to the present and future health risks to Plaintiff from consuming its juice drinks, which contain ingredients that may produce benzene;
Count 2: Eighth Amendment claim against Baldwin, Godinez, Taylor, and Randle, for deliberate indifference to the present and future health risks to Plaintiff from consuming ICI-produced juice drinks, which contain ingredients that may produce benzene;
Count 3: Eighth Amendment claim against Mueller, and the John/Jane Doe Wardens and John/Jane Doe Dietary Managers, for deliberate indifference to the present and future health risks to Plaintiff from consuming ICI-produced juice drinks, which contain ingredients that may produce benzene;
Count 4: Eighth Amendment claim against Walker and Knauer, for deliberate indifference to the present and future health risks to Plaintiff from consuming ICI-produced juice drinks, which contain ...

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