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Abrams v. Waters

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

February 2, 2018

DAVID A. ABRAMS, No. 241224, a/k/a ABRAHAMS, Plaintiff,
v.
CORRECTIONS OFFICER WATERS AND CAPT. NUNEZ, sued in their individual capacities; CORRECTIONS OFFICER PHILLIPS; DISCIPLINARY REPORT INVESTIGATOR KELLY; CAPT. JOHN WATSON; WARDEN SCOTT ERFE; MAINTENANCE SUPERVISOR JOHN DOE; and MAILROOM HANDLER CORRECTIONS OFFICER RAMIREZ, sued in their individual and official capacity, Defendants.

          INITIAL REVIEW ORDER

          CHARLES S. HAIGHT, JR. SENIOR UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Pro se plaintiff David A. Abrams, currently incarcerated at the Corrigan-Radgowski Correctional Institution ("Corrigan") in Uncasville, Connecticut, has brought this civil rights action against various prison officials and employees of Cheshire Correctional Institution ("Cheshire C.I."), the prison where he was formerly housed, in Cheshire, Connecticut. The defendants include Corrections Officer Waters, Captain Nunez, Corrections Officer Phillips, Investigator Kelly, Captain Watson, Warden Erfe, Supervisor John Doe, and Corrections Officer Ramirez (herein collectively "Defendants"). Abrams is suing Waters and Nunez in their individual capacities and all other defendants in their individual and official capacities. He is seeking monetary damages and declaratory relief.

         With respect to procedural history, Magistrate Judge Garfinkel granted Abrams's motion to proceed in forma pauperis on October 13, 2017. See Doc. 5. The Court now reviews Abrams's Complaint to determine whether his claims are "frivolous" or may proceed under 28 U.S.C. § 1915A. For the following reasons, the Court dismisses his complaint in part.

         I. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Under 28 U.S.C. § 1915A, the Court must review a prisoner's civil complaint and dismiss any portion that "(1) is frivolous, malicious, or fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted; or (2) seeks monetary relief from a defendant who is immune from such relief." See 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(b)(1)-(2). Although highly detailed allegations are not required, the complaint "must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to 'state a claim that is plausible on its face.'" Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S 544, 570 (2007)).[1] "A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678. The complaint must provide "more than the unadorned, the-defendant-unlawfully-harmed-me accusation." Id. "A pleading that offers 'labels and conclusions' or 'a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.'" Id. (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555).

         "[W]hether a complaint states a plausible claim for relief will [ultimately] . . . be a context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense." Id. at 663-64. When "well-pleaded factual allegations" are present, "a court should assume their veracity and then determine whether they plausibly give rise to an entitlement to relief." Id. at 679. Factual disputes do not factor into a plausibility analysis under Iqbal and its progeny.

         "Although all allegations contained in the complaint are assumed to be true, this tenet is `inapplicable to legal conclusions.'" LaMagna v. Brown, 474 Fed.Appx. 788, 789 (2d Cir. 2012) (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678). See also Amaker v. New York State Dept. of Corr. Servs., 435 Fed.Appx. 52, 54 (2d Cir. 2011) (same). Accordingly, the Court is not "bound to accept conclusory allegations or legal conclusions masquerading as factual conclusions." Faber v. Metro. Life Ins. Co., 648 F.3d 98, 104 (2d Cir. 2011) (quoting Rolon v. Henneman, 517 F.3d 140, 149 (2d Cir. 2008) (internal quotation marks omitted)). Consequently, "[t]hreadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice." Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555).

         With respect to pro se litigants, it is well-established that "[p]ro se submissions are reviewed with special solicitude, and 'must be construed liberally and interpreted to raise the strongest arguments that they suggest.'" Matheson v. Deutsche Bank Nat'l Tr. Co., 706 Fed.Appx. 24, 26 (2d Cir. 2017) (quoting Triestman v. Fed. Bureau of Prisons, 470 F.3d 471, 474 (2d Cir. 2006)(per curiam)). See also Sykes v. Bank of Am., 723 F.3d 399, 403 (2d Cir. 2013) (same); Tracy v. Freshwater, 623 F.3d 90, 101-02 (2d Cir. 2010) (discussing special rules of solicitude for pro se litigants); Boykin v. KeyCorp., 521 F.3d 202, 214 (2d Cir. 2008) ("A document filed pro se is to be liberally construed and a pro se complaint, however inartfully pleaded, must be held to less stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers.") (quoting Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007)); Sealed Plaintiff v. Sealed Defendant, 537 F.3d 185, 191 (2d Cir. 2008) (Where the plaintiff proceeds pro se, a court is "obliged to construe his pleadings liberally.") (quoting McEachin v. McGuinnis, 357 F.3d 197, 200 (2d Cir. 2004)); Abbas v. Dixon, 480 F.3d 636, 639 (2d Cir. 2007) ("In reviewing a pro se complaint, the court must assume the truth of the allegations, and interpret them liberally to "raise the strongest arguments [they] suggest[].").

         Despite being subject to liberal interpretation, a pro se plaintiff's complaint still must "state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Mancuso v. Hynes, 379 Fed.Appx. 60, 61 (2d Cir. 2010) (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678). Therefore, even in a pro se case, "threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice." Chavis v. Chappius, 618 F.3d 162, 170 (2d Cir. 2010) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). Nor may the Court "invent factual allegations" that the plaintiff has not pleaded. Id.

         II. FACTUAL ALLEGATIONS

         In April and May of 2017, while incarcerated at Cheshire C.I., Abrams wrote to his Unit Manager, Captain Nunez, requesting that he be moved out of the cell he shared with "high security" inmate William Carrilli, who was "well known for his racist views." Doc. 1 ("Complaint"), ¶ 57. Nunez did not act on Abrams's request. Id. On July 6, 2017, after Carrilli complained to Nunez that he and Abrams were not getting along, Nunez promptly moved Abrams to an empty cell. Id., ¶ 58. During the move, Abrams explained to Nunez that he only had one disciplinary ticket in his file in 16 years and asked Nunez not to place another "high security" inmate in his new cell. Id. Later that day, Kashawn Brown, another "high security" inmate, was placed in Abrams's cell. Id., ¶ 60. Abrams protested to the cell-block correction officer, but the officer told him that there was "nothing he could do about it and that [Abrams] would have to talk to Nunez about the situation." Id.

         Brown had just been transferred from Corrigan to Cheshire C.I. after spending nearly a month in segregation for assaulting his cellmate. Id., ¶¶ 61-62. He had been involved in two previous fights with his cellmates over the previous year. Id., ¶ 63.

         On August 4, 2017, at approximately 12:15 p.m., Brown attacked Abrams while Abrams was sitting on his bed watching television. Id., ¶ 16. Brown punched Abrams multiple times on the side of his face. Id., ¶ 17. Abrams became "slightly dazed" and tried to "shake . . . off" the attack. Id. After punching Abrams several times, Brown banged on the cell door and screamed for an officer. Id., ¶ 18. The officer's station was located approximately twenty feet from Abrams's cell. Id., ¶ 19.

         Correction Officer Waters came to Abrams's cell to identify the problem. Id., ¶ 20. Brown told Waters to "call the code blue ([the] code for inmates fighting) because he [was] done." Id. When Waters asked Brown what he meant, Brown charged at Abrams again and hit him several times in front of Waters. Id. Waters yelled, "Code Blue! Code Blue! Stop fighting! Stop fighting!" Id., ¶ 21. After enduring multiple punches, Abrams stood up to defend himself, which prompted Brown to retreat to the cell door. Id., at ¶ 22. Immediately thereafter, the cell door opened, and officers handcuffed Brown on the floor of the unit. Id., at ¶ 23. They did not use mace spray on Brown. Id.

         As Corrections Officers Johnson and Phillips entered the cell, Abrams stumbled forward and collided with a chair. Id., ¶ 24. At that moment, Correction Officer Phillips sprayed him with mace. Id. When Abrams bent forward to cover his eyes and gasp for air, Phillips picked him up and "slamm[ed] him to the floor causing his face to hit the floor." Id., ¶ 25. Phillips then proceeded to handcuff Abrams and told him to "stop resisting, " even though Abrams was lying on the floor coughing. Id., ¶ 26. Johnson then helped Abrams to his feet. Id., ¶ 27. The officers transported Abrams to the medical unit to treat his injuries and then placed him in a segregation unit. Id., ¶ 28.

         As a result of the attack, Abrams was breathing heavily, had "an extremely elevated blood pressure, " had "knots on the side of his face and on his forehead, " and "severe swelling" around his eyes. Id., ¶ 29. Captain Dimitrix and Lieutenant Marquis witnessed the incident and questioned Abrams about it. Id., ¶ 30. The entire incident was recorded on camera, and the footage was preserved via request to Correction Officer McMahon on August 6, 2017. Id.

         Due to the swelling near Plaintiff's both eyes, the nurse in the medical unit suggested that Plaintiff's eye socket might be fractured. Id., ¶ 31. Abrams was therefore taken to the UCONN Health Center to be examined. Id.

         When he arrived at the UCONN Health Center, a nurse named Lisa informed Abrams that he might indeed have a fractured eye socket due to the swelling without bruising. Id., ¶ 32. Nurse Lisa arranged for Abrams to undergo a CAT scan. Id., ¶ 33. One hour later, she informed Abrams that he did not have a fractured eye socket but that he had suffered a hairline fracture to his nose, causing the swelling around his eyes.. Id., ¶ 34. Abrams told the nurse that Brown never punched him in his nose. Id., ¶ 35. The nurse responded that he most likely sustained the fracture when Officer Phillips slammed him to the floor. Id., ¶¶ 35-37. She recommended that Abrams apply ice to his face for a few days, placed him on a soft diet, and advised him to sleep with his head elevated. Id., ¶ 39. She also advised Plaintiff that he might have a concussion. Id.

         When he arrived back at Cheshire from the UCONN Health Center, Abrams was escorted to segregation. Id., ¶ 40. Before placing him in the segregation unit, officers strip searched Abrams in accordance with Cheshire C.I. policy. Id. When asked about the strip search by another inmate in segregation, Correction Officer Watson stated that it was "facility policy." Id., ¶ 82.

         On August 7, 2017, three days after the incident, Investigator Kelly called Abrams to his office to hear his version of the facts and ascertain whether Abrams was going to plead guilty to the disciplinary report for fighting. Id., ¶ 41. Abrams told Kelly that the fact that a disciplinary report had been issued against him was "crazy" and "bogus." Id., ¶ 42. He also asked Kelly why Officer Waters, who had been the person to witness the attack and who had called the "code blue, " was not the officer who wrote up the report.. Id. Abrams also told Kelly that he "didn't fight back" and that Waters and the camera footage would corroborate his version. Id., ¶ 43. Kelly responded by telling Abrams, "It doesn't work like that around here . . . ." Id., ¶ 44. Abrams then replied, "Cut the bullshit! I've been around for a long time. . . . The ticket is bogus." Id.

         After spending a week in the segregation unit, Abrams notice what appeared to be black mold on the vent in his cell and informed Captain Watson about it. Id., ¶ 45. Abrams had observed such mold on the segregation cell vents when he had been housed there five months earlier. Id. Watson said to Abrams, "Stay out of seg[regation] and you won't have to worry about it." Id., ¶ 46.

         On August 16, 2017, while in segregation, Abrams mailed correspondence to a referral service in an attempt to obtain legal counsel for his civil and criminal cases. Id., ¶ 85. The correspondence contained a brief description of each case, including two civil cases against Cheshire correctional staff. Id., ¶ 86. The words "legal mail" were printed in two different places on the envelope. Id., ¶ 87. One week later, Abrams learned that his correspondence was returned to Cheshire because the "post office was unable to forward [it]'" after Plaintiff had been transferred to Corrigan on August 23, 2017. Id., ¶ 89. A month later, on September 13, 2017, Abrams received the correspondence at Corrigan and discovered that the envelope had been opened out of his presence and forwarded to him. Id., ¶ 90.

         During his disciplinary hearing on August 22, 2017, Officer King dismissed the charge against Plaintiff for fighting with Brown. Id., ¶ 47. He based his decision on the facts that Brown had pled guilty to assaulting Abrams and had no injuries; Abrams had sustained injuries; and in the absence of video footage, no one could refute Abrams's version of the case. Id. On August 23, after spending twenty days in segregation, Abrams was transferred from Cheshire C.I. to Corrigan. Id., ¶ 48.

         III. DISCUSSION

         The Court will assess each of Abrams's claims to determine whether any claim "is frivolous, malicious, or fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, " or a claim that "seeks monetary relief from a defendant who is immune from such relief." 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(b)(1)- (2).

         A. Claims Against Defendants in their Official Capacities

         Abrams seeks monetary relief against all defendants in their individual and official capacities, with the exception of Waters and Nunez, whom he is suing only in their individual capacities. To the extent that Abrams seeks money damages from the defendants in their official capacities, the claims are barred by the Eleventh Amendment. See Kentucky v. Graham, 473 U.S. 159 (1985); Quern v. Jordan, 440 U.S. 332, 342 (1979). "The Eleventh Amendment precludes suits against states unless the state expressly waives its immunity or Congress abrogates that immunity." Li v. Lorenzo, No. 16-3530, 2017 WL 4410586, at *1 (2d Cir. Oct. 4, 2017) (citing CSX Transp., Inc. v. N.Y. State Office of Real Prop. Servs., 306 F.3d 87, 94-95 (2d Cir. 2002)). "This includes suits against state officials in their official capacities." Li, 2017 WL 4410586, at *1 (citing Davis v. New York, 316 F.3d 93, 101-02 (2d Cir. 2002)). See also Pennhurst State Sch. & Hosp. v. Halderman, 465 U.S. 89, 101 (1984) ("The Eleventh Amendment bars a suit against state officials when the state is the real, substantial party in interest.") (citation and internal quotation marks omitted); Santiago v. New York State Dep't of Corr. Servs., 945 F.2d 25, 28 n. 1 (2d Cir.1991) ("When the action is in essence one for the recovery of money from the state, the state is the real, substantial party in interest and is entitled to invoke its sovereign immunity from suit even though individual officials are nominal defendants.") (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). Accordingly, claims brought against corrections officer defendants in their official capacities are properly dismissed for lack of jurisdiction.

         In contrast, as to injunctive relief, the United States Supreme Court stated in Edelman v. Jordan, 415 U.S. at 664 (1974), that the Eleventh Amendment does not bar an action against a state official for violation of federal law if the plaintiff seeks an injunction regarding that official's future conduct. See also Feng Li v. Rabner, 643 Fed.Appx. 57, 57-59 (2d Cir. 2016) ("As to the individual defendants, generally, state officials are not immune under the Eleventh Amendment if the "complaint alleges an ongoing violation of federal law and seeks relief properly characterized as prospective.") (quoting Verizon Maryland, Inc. v. Pub. Serv. Comm'n of Maryland, 535 U.S. 635, 645 (2002)) (internal quotation marks omitted). However, Plaintiff does not request injunctive relief against any of the state official defendants. Accordingly, all of Plaintiff's claims against the defendants in their official capacities are hereby DISMISSED pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(b)(2).

         B. Claims Against Erfe, Doe, and Ramirez

         In his Complaint, Abrams names Warden Erfe, Supervisor Doe, and Officer Ramirez as defendants with respect to his alleged constitutional deprivations. Plaintiff does not, however, allege that any of these three supervisory defendants was personally involved in the acts giving rise to these claims. Rather, he appears to sue them based merely on their positions as supervisors at Cheshire C.I.

         "It is well settled . . . that personal involvement of defendants in alleged constitutional deprivations is a prerequisite to an award of damages under § 1983.” Wright v. Smith, 21 F.3d 496, 501 (2d Cir. 1994) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted); see also Johnson v. Glick, 481 F.2d 1028, 1034 (2d Cir. 1973) (doctrine of respondeat superior does not suffice for claim of monetary damages under § 1983). A plaintiff who sues a supervisory official in his individual capacity for monetary damages must allege that the official was "personally involved" in the constitutional deprivation in one of four ways: (1) the official directly participated in the deprivation; (2) the official learned about the deprivation through a report or appeal and failed to remedy the wrong; (3) the official created or perpetuated a policy or custom under which unconstitutional practices occurred; or (4) the official was grossly negligent in managing subordinates who caused the unlawful condition or event. Wright, 21 F.3d at 501; Hernandez v. Keane, 341 F.3d 137, 145 (2d Cir. 2003). "In addition, supervisory liability may be imposed where an official demonstrates gross negligence or deliberate indifference to the constitutional rights of inmates by failing to act on information indicating that unconstitutional practices are taking place." Wright, 21 F.3d at 501 (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). Therefore, in order to state plausible claims against these three supervisory officials, Abrams must allege a causal link between the conduct of the supervisory officials, or lack thereof, and his injury. See Poe v. Leonard, 282 F.3d 123, 140 (2d Cir. 2002).

         In the case at bar, Abrams fails to allege that Erfe, Doe, and Ramirez were involved in, or even knew about, the constitutional violations for which he seeks to hold them liable. See Meriwether v. Coughlin, 879 F.2d 1037, 1048 (2d Cir. 1989) (to impose supervisory liability prisoner must allege that official had "actual or constructive notice of unconstitutional practices and demonstrate[d] 'gross negligence' or 'deliberate indifference' by failing to act") (quoting McCann v. Coughlin, 698 F.2d 112, 125 (2d Cir.1983)). Abrams simply alleges that Erfe, as the warden at Cheshire C.I., failed to correct what Abrams views as an unconstitutional policy of strip searching inmates upon entry to segregation. Id., ¶ 107. However, he fails to allege that Erfe was responsible for this policy or was negligent in managing his subordinates in implementing it.[2]

         Similarly, Abrams alleges that Doe and Erfe, as supervisors, failed "to maintain a hazard free condition of confinement" regarding the mold on Abrams's cell vent in the segregation unit. Id., ¶¶ 94, 110. However, Plaintiff does not allege that either of these defendants was aware of the mold or of any conditions in the segregation unit which may have caused the mold to be present.

         In addition, Abrams seeks to hold Ramirez liable for interfering with his legal mail because he "is the facility's mail handler [and] is responsible for incoming [and] outgoing mail." Id., ¶ 91. Plaintiff does not, however, allege that Ramirez knew about the situation regarding his legal correspondence.

         In sum, based on the allegations in the Complaint, Abrams has attempted to sue Erfe, Doe, and Ramirez based solely on each of their supervisory roles at Cheshire C.I., which is insufficient to allege personal involvement in any constitutional deprivation. See Ayers v. Coughlin, 780 F.2d 205, 210 (2d Cir. 1985) (dismissing claims for lack of defendants' "personal involvement" where "plaintiff's claim for monetary damages against these [supervisory official] defendants requires a showing of more than the linkage in the prison chain of command; the doctrine of respondeat superior does not apply"); McKinnon v. Patterson, 568 F.2d 930, 934 (2d Cir. 1977) ("In this Circuit personal involvement of defendants in alleged constitutional deprivations is a prerequisite to an award of damages under §1983;" so the fact that Commissioner was in high position of authority was an insufficient basis for personal liability). Accordingly, Plaintiff's claims against Erfe, Doe, and Ramirez are hereby DISMISSED.

         C. Eighth Amendment Excessive Force Claim

         "[T]he use of excessive physical force against a prisoner may constitute cruel and unusual punishment [even] when the inmate does not suffer serious injury." Wilkins v. Gaddy, 559 U.S. 34, 34 (2010) (quoting Hudson v. McMillian, 503 US. 1, 4 (1992)). However, "not 'every malevolent touch by a prison guard gives rise to a federal cause of action.'" Wilkins, 559 U.S. at 37 (quoting Hudson, 503 U.S. at 9); see also Sims v. Artuz, 230 F.3d 14, 22 (2d Cir. 2000) (not every push or shove violates prisoner's constitutional rights); Romano v. ...


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