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Harris v. Belford

United States District Court, S.D. Illinois

June 22, 2018

JOSEPH HARRIS, # B-89999, Plaintiff,



         Plaintiff Joseph Harris, currently incarcerated at Pinckneyville Correctional Center (“Pinckneyville”), brings this pro se civil rights action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. He raises claims of excessive force, denial of medical care, and retaliation. The Complaint is now before the Court for a preliminary review 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). 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 must be dismissed. 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 Joseph Harris makes the following allegations in the Complaint: On August 17, 2017, Plaintiff was locked inside his cell when Lt. Belford arrived and ordered him to “cuff up.” (Doc. 6, p. 6). Plaintiff characterizes this as an “impossible and confusing order.” Id. Plaintiff responded by pointing to the locked door and stating, “I'm riding it out with my homie on cuffing-up. We do not have keys or cuffs.” Id. Without giving Plaintiff any further orders or instructions, Belford opened the cell's chuckhole and sprayed Plaintiff with mace in his face, nose, and eyes. Plaintiff claims that this action violated IDOC policy which requires an officer to notify a shift commander, the Health Care department, obtain security staff support, and give 3 warnings before using mace on an inmate. (Doc. 6, p. 6).

         The mace spray caused Plaintiff to suffer pain, partial blindness, difficulty breathing, and fear. (Doc. 6, p. 7). He stumbled to the door and stuck his hands through the chuckhole “to comply with the second order to cuff-up.” Id. Plaintiff then went to face the back of the cell as ordered. While Plaintiff stood with his back to Belford, Belford sprayed more mace on the back of Plaintiff's head, neck, ears, hands, and arms. Id.

         Immediately after these events, Plaintiff was “engaged in the protected conduct of meaningfully accessing the court, ” when Belford forced Plaintiff's cuffed arms far above his head. Belford jerked Plaintiff's hands and continued to hold them high in the air while moving Plaintiff from his cell in 4 House to 5 House, which was a long distance away. (Doc. 6, p. 7). When they arrived at 5 House, Plaintiff asked Belford for a grievance form. Belford threatened that if Plaintiff filed a grievance, he would “falsely accuse Plaintiff of refusing a direct order to ‘cuff-up' and of grabbing [Belford's] arm through the chuck-hole.” (Doc. 6, pp. 7-8). Belford further threatened to have other officers “drown Plaintiff in mace and stomp his brains out.” Id.

         In 5 House, Mendez[1] directed Belford to place Plaintiff into a “make-shift” holding cell, where Plaintiff spent the next hour. (Doc. 6, p. 8). The cell lacked a sink, toilet, towels, and soap, making it impossible for Plaintiff to clean the mace off his body. The odor of mace, in addition to his gasping for air, the flow of tears and mucous from his eyes and nose, and his bruised and swollen wrists alerted the officers to his need for medical attention.

         The Jane Doe Nurse briefly attended to Plaintiff while he was in the holding cell. She saw his condition but only gave him 2 gauze pads, and did not refer him to a doctor. (Doc. 6, p. 8).

         Major Ackers reviewed the disciplinary report filed against Plaintiff after the mace incident noticed that it failed to comply with IDOC policy (Plaintiff does not explain the flaw). (Doc. 6, p. 8). Ackers gave Belford approval to place Plaintiff in disciplinary segregation.

         Later in the evening of August 17, 2017, Belford wrote a disciplinary report charging Plaintiff with disobeying a direct order. (Doc. 6, pp. 8, 11). This report did not include any charge that Plaintiff grabbed Belford's arm.

         Plaintiff filed a grievance against Belford over the mace incident. (Doc. 6, pp. 11-12). When Belford responded to the grievance on October 12, 2017, he accused Plaintiff of having grabbed his arm, as he earlier threatened to do. (Doc. 6, p. 9). Belford's threats deterred Plaintiff from accurately reporting the full details of the incident, hindering his ability to use the grievance process. Id.

         Defendants took the adverse actions against Plaintiff “in direct response to Plaintiff's protected conduct.” (Doc. 6, p. 9). He raises constitutional claims as well as statutory claims of assault and battery pursuant to 720 ILCS 5/12-1 and 5/12-3. He seeks compensatory, punitive, and nominal damages, as well as unspecified injunctive relief. (Doc. 6, p. 10).

         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 excessive force claim against Belford, for spraying Plaintiff with mace, and forcing Plaintiff's cuffed arms into a painful position;
Count 2: First Amendment retaliation claim against Belford for physically injuring Plaintiff because Plaintiff attempted to access the courts, and for falsely claiming that Plaintiff grabbed his arm because Plaintiff filed a grievance over Belford's conduct;
Count 3: Eighth Amendment deliberate indifference claim against Belford and Ackers for placing Plaintiff in a holding cell where he was unable to clean the mace from his body, and for failing to obtain ...

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