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Gonzalez v. Fenton

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

April 11, 2017

JOSE I. GONZALEZ, Plaintiff,
v.
FENTON, et al., Defendants.

          INITIAL REVIEW ORDER PURSUANT TO 28 U.S.C. § 1915A

          JEFFREY ALKER MEYER, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiff Jose I. Gonzalez is a prisoner in the custody of the Connecticut Department of Correction. He has filed a complaint pro se and in forma pauperis under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging claims for deliberate indifference to safety and denial of due process. After an initial review pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915A, the Court concludes that plaintiff's complaint should proceed and be served on two of the four defendants.

         Background

         The following allegations from plaintiff's complaint are accepted as true for purposes of this ruling. In 2016, plaintiff was incarcerated at MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution. Plaintiff's cellmate had a reputation as a “celly killer” because he was alleged to have killed someone in California. Doc. #1 at 2 (¶ 10). On March 27, 2016, plaintiff sent an Inmate Request Form to defendant Unit Manager Davis, informing Davis that he was not getting along with his cellmate and requesting that his cellmate be moved. Id. at 1 (¶ 7); Doc. #1-1. On April 5, 2016, the plaintiff sent a nearly identical request to defendant Unit Manager Blanchard. See Docs. #1 at 2 (¶ 8); #1-2.

         On April 8, 2016, defendant Correctional Officer Fenton responded to “verbal aggression” coming from plaintiff's cell. Doc. #1 at 2 (¶ 11). He observed that plaintiff was injured and his cellmate was holding a weapon. After five minutes, defendant Fenton called for assistance. Ibid. Plaintiff's cellmate later admitted to assaulting plaintiff and was placed in the restrictive housing unit. Medical staff treated plaintiff for his injuries, which included scratches on the side of his face and the top of his head. Doc. #1-4 at 11.

         On June 26, 2016, plaintiff wrote to defendant Warden Chaplain stating that he had seen his former cellmate loitering in the hallway of the correctional facility on April 29, 2016. Doc. #1-5. He questioned why the former cellmate had not been transferred to another facility. Ibid.

         Discussion

         Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(a), the Court must review prisoner civil complaints and dismiss any portion of the complaint that is frivolous or malicious, that fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, or that seeks monetary relief from a defendant who is immune from such relief. The Court must accept as true all factual matters alleged in a complaint, although a complaint may not survive unless its factual recitations state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face. See, e.g., Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009); Mastafa v. Chevron Corp., 770 F.3d 170, 177 (2d Cir. 2014) (same). Nevertheless, it is well-established that “pro se complaints ‘must be construed liberally and interpreted to raise the strongest arguments that they suggest.'” Sykes v. Bank of Am., 723 F.3d 399, 403 (2d Cir. 2013) (quoting Triestman v. Fed. Bureau of Prisons, 470 F.3d 471, 474 (2d Cir. 2006)); see also Tracy v. Freshwater, 623 F.3d 90, 101-02 (2d Cir. 2010) (discussing special rules of solicitude for pro se litigants).

         Plaintiff contends that all four defendants were deliberately indifferent to his safety. Specifically, he alleges that defendants Davis and Blanchard were aware of the problems between plaintiff and his cellmate but took no action to prevent the assault, that defendant Fenton waited for at least five minutes before summoning help, and that defendant Chaplain failed to keep plaintiff and his cellmate separated following the assault. Plaintiff also argues that he was denied due process because he cannot read or write in English and because administrative remedy procedures were not provided to him in Spanish.

         Deliberate indifference to safety

         Prison officials have a duty to make reasonable efforts to ensure inmate safety. To establish a constitutional violation, a plaintiff must show that the conditions of his incarceration posed a substantial risk of serious harm and that prison officials were deliberately indifferent to his safety. See Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825, 834 (1994). Where the claim is that defendants failed to protect plaintiff from harm at the hands of another inmate, the plaintiff must show that defendants knew of and disregarded an excessive risk to plaintiff's safety. See Id. at 837; Bridgewater v. Taylor, 698 F.Supp.2d 351, 358 (S.D.N.Y. 2010) (explaining that defendants must be aware of facts supporting an inference that harm would occur and must actually draw that inference).

         Courts have found that prison officials are on notice of a substantial risk of serious harm where, for example, “there has been prior hostility between inmates, or a prior assault by one inmate on another, and those inmates are not kept separated.” Roman v. Semple, 2013 WL 951728, at *1 (D. Conn. 2013). Courts have also found that correctional staff are on notice “when an inmate informs corrections officers about a specific fear of assault and is then assaulted.” Beckles v. Bennett, 2008 WL 821827, at *17 (S.D.N.Y. 2008). On the other hand, “communicating vague concerns of future assault by unknown individuals [is] not sufficient to impose liability on an officer who fails to protect an inmate.” Rivera v. New York, 1999 WL 13240, at *9 (S.D.N.Y. 1999).

         Plaintiff alleges that he informed defendants Davis and Blanchard that he was having problems with his cellmate, just days before the assault, and defendants allegedly failed to respond. Specifically, plaintiff wrote to Davis and Blanchard, “Me and my celly aren't getting along I don't want any trouble I'm trying to go home could you please move him before it becomes a problem.” Docs. #1-1, #1-2. Although this communication, taken on its own, is somewhat vague and does not explicitly indicate a fear of assault, the complaint also alleges that plaintiff's cellmate “was know[n] as a ‘celly killer' because he killed someone, allegedly, in California.” Doc. #1 at 2 (¶ 10). If Davis and Blanchard were aware of the cellmate's reputation, plaintiff's communications combined with defendants' background knowledge may have been enough to put defendants on notice that plaintiff was at risk. I conclude that the allegations in the complaint are sufficient to enable plaintiff to conduct discovery to obtain evidence (if any) to support his claim. The claim for deliberate indifference to safety will therefore proceed against defendants Davis and Blanchard.

         Plaintiff alleges that defendant Fenton responded to the sounds of an altercation but waited five minutes before summoning assistance. Plaintiff was not injured during this time. Plaintiff attached to his complaint a copy of the incident report which states that, upon arriving at the cell, defendant Fenton ordered the inmates to remain apart and then contacted his supervisor for assistance. Doc. #1-4 at 1, 5. Based on the facts alleged, the Court concludes that defendant has not alleged a ...


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