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Armstrong v. Dart

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

September 2, 2019




         Ian Armstrong says that he was forced to spend 109 days in a Cook County Jail cell with a malfunctioning toilet that leaked feces and urine into his cell. He has sued Cook County Sheriff Thomas Dart; Cara Smith, the Sheriff's Chief of Policy; Bilqis Jacobs-El, the director of Cook County's Department of Facilities Management; and Michael Tylor, a correctional rehabilitation worker (CRW) at the Jail. The defendants have moved for summary judgment. For the reasons stated below, the Court grants summary judgment in favor of Jacobs-El and also partially in favor of Dart and Smith but otherwise denies defendants' motions.


         The relevant facts are as follows; the Court takes them in the light most favorable to Armstrong, the non-moving party. Armstrong was confined in a cell in Division 10 of the Jail starting on May 15, 2016. Even before that, this particular cell had a problem with leaks and with the toilet backing up. Whenever Armstrong or his cellmate Ardamis Sims flushed the toilet, or nearby inmates flushed theirs, the toilet in Armstrong's cell would back up and leak feces, urine, and toilet water. At times when Armstrong got out of his top bunk bed, he would step into feces and urine that was standing on the floor.

         Armstrong says he tried to file grievances about the unsanitary conditions in his cell on five separate occasions starting in early June 2016. He contends that Tylor, who was responsible for (among other things) processing grievances for Armstrong's tier, refused to accept them, saying that Armstrong's cellmate had already filed a grievance about the same conditions. Armstrong kept copies of the grievances he says Tylor refused to accept. See Pl.'s Exs. 3-7. They are dated June 6, June 12, June 18, July 1, and July 5, 2016. Armstrong also says that he told a number of correctional officers about the problems with the toilet and about Tylor's refusal to accept the grievances, and he says that they observed the back-up firsthand. Armstrong also says that he reported the problem to correctional sergeants and lieutenants, as well as the divisional superintendent. None of these personnel, he contends, did anything to move him to another cell or remedy the problem.

         Via discovery, Armstrong obtained records from the Sheriff and the Department of Facilities Management reflecting over a dozen reports of toilet or plumbing problems in the cell where Armstrong was housed. Records also would permit a finding that nine correctional officers, two sergeants, and two lieutenants saw or received reports about the broken toilet in Armstrong's cell over the relevant period.

         Armstrong contends that the Sheriff routinely ignores its own written grievance procedure, at least with regard to plumbing issues. There is evidence that would support a finding that under procedures established by the Sheriff, plumbing problems in a cell are considered a potential emergency and that emergency grievances are to be immediately delivered to the superintendent of the jail division in question or to a watch commander (another high-ranking officer). There is also evidence that under the Sheriff's established procedures, when a grievance covers an issue addressed by a prior grievance, the CRW must nonetheless respond to the later grievance in writing. But it does not appear that any of this happened in Armstrong's case. And Tylor's testimony would permit a finding that he simply doesn't follow the latter procedure.

         Despite Armstrong's attempts to get relief for the toilet backup as early as June 6, 2016, he remained in the cell for nearly three months after that. During this same period, Armstrong says, he repeatedly requested cleaning supplies, without success. There is evidence reflecting that a plumber with Facilities Management responded to eight work orders regarding the cell and marked each one complete but never actually solved the problem. Armstrong says that the plumber who came to his cell was also verbally abusive.

         Armstrong points to testimony from a Rule 30(b)(6) deposition witness for the Sheriff to the effect that a cell should be closed for repairs-which would result in moving prisoners out of the cell-whenever a toilet is clogged, overflowing, or not working. Armstrong also points to testimony that even the plumber who came to his cell thought the cell should have been closed before the end of June 2016. But despite the claimed widespread awareness of the backed-up toilet in Armstrong's cell, the cell was not closed until on or about September 1, more than three months after he or his cellmate first put Sheriff's personnel on notice of the problem. After that, there is evidence that it took a month to fix the plumbing and install a new toilet, and even then problems continued, Armstrong claims.


         During the relevant period of time, Armstrong was a pretrial detainee. This means that the Fourth Amendment and a standard of objective reasonableness governs his claims. See Miranda v. County of Lake, 900 F.3d 335, 351 (7th Cir. 2018); see also, McCann v. Ogle County, 909 F.3d 881, 886 (7th Cir. 2018). A pretrial detainee's claim regarding conditions of confinement differs from that of a convicted prisoner because "pretrial detainees (unlike convicted prisoners) cannot be punished at all." Kingsley v. Hendrickson, 135 S.Ct. 2466, 2475 (2015). In bringing a conditions-of-confinement claim, a pretrial detainee "can . . . prevail by showing that the actions are not 'rationally related to a legitimate nonpunitive governmental purpose' or that the actions 'appear excessive in relation to that purpose.'" Id. at 2473 (quoting Bell v. Wolfish, 441 U.S. 520, 561 (1979)). See Reed v. Bowen, 769 Fed.Appx. 365, 369 (7th Cir. 2019).

         1. Claim against Tylor

         A reasonable jury unquestionably could find that requiring Armstrong to live in a cell with a backed-up, non-working toilet for the extended period he claims was objectively unreasonable, as well as punitive. Cf. Vinning-El v. Long, 482 F.3d 923, 924-25 (7th Cir. 2007) (Eighth Amendment case). A reasonable jury could also find that Tylor was responsible for Armstrong's continued exposure to this condition. First, the evidence would permit a jury to find that Tylor ignored, refused to process, or refused to even accept grievances from Armstrong regarding the backed-up toilet. Second, taking the evidence in the light most favorable to Armstrong, a jury reasonably could find that Tylor's actions resulted in minimizing or concealing the fact that Armstrong remained exposed to feces and sewage in his cell for an unusually extended period.

         It is true, as Tylor notes, that the evidence shows that a plumber came to the cell on multiple occasions during the relevant period. From this, Tylor asks the Court to infer that his alleged inaction could not possibly have caused Armstrong's harm- suggesting, without saying, that any continued exposure that Armstrong suffered should be laid at the feet of the personnel who did not fix the problem or who failed to move him. But this would require the Court to draw inferences in favor of Tylor-which the Court cannot do on Tylor's summary judgment motion. A reasonable jury could find, given Armstrong's testimony and other evidence tending to show that he tried to file grievances something like every five days but was rebuffed, that if Tylor had processed those grievances, responsible personnel within the Sheriff's office would have taken the steps necessary to move ...

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