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Morrow v. Baldwin

United States District Court, S.D. Illinois

May 18, 2018

MITCHELL MORROW, #B76693, Plaintiff,
v.
JOHN BALDWIN, S. A. GODINEZ, MICHAEL P. RANDLE, ROBERT MUELLER, SUSAN WALKER, DEBBIE KNAUER, GLADYSE C. TAYLOR, and JOHN/JANE DOE Superintendents of the Illinois Correctional Industry, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          DAVID R. HERNDON, DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiff Mitchell Morrow, an inmate who is currently incarcerated at Centralia Correctional Center (“Centralia”), brings this civil rights action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. In the Complaint, Plaintiff claims that Defendants have been deliberately indifferent to the health risks posed by juice served to inmates in the Illinois Department of Corrections. (Doc. 3, pp. 3-7). Plaintiff claims that the juice contains high levels of benzene, a carcinogen that may also cause other health problems. Id.

         According to the allegations, Defendants knowingly served Plaintiff this juice for more than ten years. (Doc. 3, pp. 3-7). During this same time period, he experienced hypertension, dizziness, headaches, and an irregular heartbeat, all of which he attributes to his involuntary consumption of benzene. Id. Plaintiff now brings Eighth Amendment claims against the defendants. (Doc. 3, pp. 7-8). He seeks declaratory judgment and monetary damages against these individuals. (Doc. 3, pp. 8-9). Plaintiff originally filed this action with another inmate, Sean Wilkins. Wilkins, et al.Baldwin, et al., No. 18-cv-00471-DRH (S.D. Ill.) (“original case”). Plaintiff Morrow's claims were severed into the instant action at his request on April 11, 2018. (Doc. 1, instant case). Although Wilkins and Morrow opted to proceed in separate actions, they relied on the same Complaint in support of their Eighth Amendment claims against the defendants. (Doc. 1, original case; Doc. 3, instant case). In addition, both Plaintiffs filed motions to consolidate their cases with a 2017 case filed by another Centralia prisoner-plaintiff, TrainorBaldwin, No. 17-cv-00369-DRH-DGW. (Doc. 7, original case; Doc. 6, instant case). All three cases address virtually the same claims.

         This case is now before the Court for preliminary review of the Complaint (Doc. 3) pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915A, which provides:

(a) Screening - The court shall review, before docketing, if feasible or, in any event, as soon as practicable after docketing, a complaint in a civil action in which a prisoner seeks redress from a governmental entity or officer or employee of a governmental entity.
(b) Grounds for Dismissal - On review, the court shall identify cognizable claims or dismiss the complaint, or any portion of the complaint, if the complaint-
(1) is frivolous, malicious, or fails to state a claim on which relief may be granted; or
(2) seeks monetary relief from a defendant who is immune from such relief.

         An action or claim is frivolous if “it lacks an arguable basis either in law or in fact.” NeitzkeWilliams, 490 U.S. 319, 325 (1989). Frivolousness is an objective standard that refers to a claim that any reasonable person would find meritless. LeeClinton, 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.Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). The claim of entitlement to relief must cross “the line between possibility and plausibility.” Id. at 557. At this juncture, the factual allegations of the pro se complaint are to be liberally construed. See Rodriguez v. Plymouth Ambulance Serv., 577 F.3d 816, 821 (7th Cir. 2009). The Complaint survives screening under these standards.

         The Complaint

         In the Complaint, Plaintiff brings claims against the current and former Directors of the Illinois Department of Corrections (“IDOC”), including Director John Baldwin and former Directors S. A. Godinez, Michael P. Randle, and Gladyse C. Taylor. (Doc. 3, pp. 1-2). He also names Robert Mueller (Centralia's warden), Susan Walker (grievance officer), and Debbie Knauer (Administrative Review Board (“A.R.B.”) official), as well as a No. of unknown Superintendents of the Illinois Correctional Industry (“ICI”), dietary managers, and wardens (“John/Jane Doe”) who distributed contaminated juices to IDOC prisons. (Doc. 3, p. 2).

         According to the allegations in the Complaint, the Food and Drug Administration issued a report in 1991 which indicated that benzene had been found in products containing a combination of sodium benzoate, ascorbic acid, citric acid, and/or erythorbic acid. (Doc. 3, p. 3). Because this combination of ingredients can produce benzene, the FDA “called on manufacturers to take measures to impede the formation of benzene in their products.” Id. The Environmental Protection Agency reported that 5 parts per billion was the maximum acceptable level of benzene in drinking water. Id. Individuals exposed to higher levels of benzene, even for short periods of time, were at risk of developing anemia, nervous system disorders, and immune system depression. (Doc. 3, pp. 4-5). A report published by the Center for Disease Controls stated that exposure to benzene may cause dizziness, rapid or irregular heartbeat, vomiting, convulsions, sleepiness, and stomach irritation. (Doc. 3, pp. 4, 19-20).

         In 2008, union members working within the IDOC raised concerns about benzene in drink products served to IDOC employees. (Doc. 3, p. 3). Defendants Randle, Godinez, Baldwin, Mueller, or the John/Jane Doe (wardens and dietary managers) never investigated these concerns. Id. Defendants 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 more than ten years during his confinement at Menard, Lawrence, and Centralia Correctional Centers. (Doc. 3, p. 5). During this time period, he experienced hypertension, dizziness, headaches, and an irregular heartbeat, among other symptoms. (Doc. 3, pp. 5, 7). Plaintiff alleges that these symptoms may have resulted from his involuntary consumption of benzene. (Doc. 3, p. 5). He was diagnosed with and treated for several of these symptoms. Id. He still receives treatment for them. Id.

         When Plaintiff learned about the risks associated with the excessive consumption of benzene, he filed a grievance seeking an investigation. (Doc. 3, pp. 3-5). Plaintiff asked Grievance Officer Walker to discontinue these beverages because they contain benzene, which is a carcinogen. (Doc. 3, p. 4). Although the grievance officer acknowledged that the juices contain ascorbic acid and sodium benzoate, a combination that produces benzene, she nevertheless denied the grievance and stated that the juices are “not harmful.” Id. Warden Mueller affirmed her decision. Id. Plaintiff appealed the decision to Defendant Knauer, who denied the appeal. (Doc. 3, pp. 6).

         Around the same time, the prison temporarily stopped serving juices containing the benzene-producing ingredients. (Doc. 3, pp. 5-6). However, the change was short-lived. Id. Defendants Mueller and John/Jane Doe (dietary manager) soon resumed the practice of serving the juices to inmates. Id.

         Plaintiff claims that Defendants 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. 3, 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. Defendants Baldwin, Godinez, Taylor, and Randle did nothing to address the health risks. Id. Plaintiff maintains that he was involuntarily exposed to benzene in the juices served with prison meals without any warning of the hazard. (Doc. 3, p. 7). His juice consumption allegedly created an unreasonable risk to his present and future health. Id.

         Plaintiff asserts that Defendants' actions violated the Eighth Amendment. He seeks declaratory and monetary relief. (Doc. 3, 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:

Count 1: Eighth Amendment claim against the Defendants John/Jane Doe (ICI Superintendents) for deliberate indifference to the present and future health risks to Plaintiff from consuming its juice drinks, ...

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