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Steele v. Ayotte

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

February 6, 2018

JEREMY A. STEELE, Plaintiff,



         Pro se plaintiff Jeremey A. Steele, currently incarcerated at MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution ("MacDougall-Walker"), has commenced this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Correctional Officers Ayotte and Olsen, alleging violations of his Eighth Amendment rights. He has also brought a state law claim for negligence against John Doe, a truck driver employed by UCONN Hospital. The Court has conducted its statutorily mandated initial review of the case. For the reasons set forth below, the Complaint will be dismissed in part.


         Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(b), the Court must review a prisoner's civil complaint against governmental actors and "dismiss . . . any portion of the complaint [that] is frivolous, malicious, or 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." See 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(b)(1)-(2). This requirement applies whether the inmate has paid the filing fee or is proceeding in forma pauperis. See Carr v. Dvorin, 171 F.3d 115 (2d Cir. 1999) (per curiam).

         In order to proceed, 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). See also Harris v. Mills, 572 F.3d 66, 72 (2d Cir. 2009) ("[O]nly a complaint that states a plausible claim for relief survives a motion to dismiss . . . .")(citation and internal quotation marks omitted).

         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 pled." Id.


         Plaintiff alleges that on October 28, 2016, he had a scheduled appointment to be examined by a physician at UCONN Hospital. See Doc. 1 ("Complaint"), at 3, ¶ 1. On that date, Plaintiff was incarcerated at Corrigan Correctional Institution ("Corrigan"). Id. at 6, ¶¶ 34-35. Correctional Officers Ayotte and Olsen placed physical restraints upon Plaintiff in preparation for his transport to UCONN Hospital. Id., at 3, ¶ 2.

         After Officers Ayotte and Olsen loaded Plaintiff into the prison van, Plaintiff asked the officers to buckle his seatbelt for him because he was unable to do so while wearing restraints. Id., ¶ 3. Ayotte allegedly replied that Plaintiff "really didn't need a seatbelt" in view of the fact that the hospital was only "a short distance" from the prison. Id., ¶ 4. Moreover, Ayotte added, perhaps in jest, "Why would you need a seatbelt; you don't believe in my driving." Id., ¶ 5. Neither Ayotte, nor Olsen buckled Plaintiff's seatbelt.

         At approximately 7:00 a.m., Officers Ayotte and Olsen began the drive to UCONN Hospital. Id., at 4, ¶ 6. During the trip, Plaintiff observed that the two officers were allegedly "constantly sharing, and showing each other video clips on their personal cell phones. Id., at 4, ¶ 7. Concerned for his safety, Plaintiff requested that they cease this distracting activity while driving the van, but Ayotte and Olsen "simply ignored" these requests. Id., ¶¶ 8-9.

         Plaintiff and the two officers arrived in the van at UCONN Hospital at approximately 8:00 a.m. Id., ¶ 10. Ayotte and Olsen escorted Plaintiff into the hospital for his appointment. Id., ¶ 11. After the appointment concluded, at approximately 11:15 a.m., Ayotte escorted Plaintiff back to the prison van. Id., ¶ 12. Ayotte once again did not buckle Plaintiff's seatbelt after placing him in the back of the van. Id., at 5, ¶ 21. Ayotte then started up the van and "continue[d] to ingauge [sic] in his personal cell phone [use]" while waiting for Olsen to return to the van. Id., at 4, ¶¶ 13-14.

         As Ayotte and Plaintiff waited in the prison van, John Doe, who was allegedly working "first shift" as a truck driver for UCONN Hospital, drove a UCONN truck into the area of the loading dock where the prison van was parked. Id., at 2; at 4, ¶ 15. Plaintiff noticed that John Doe began to back his truck up toward the loading dock where the prison van was parked. Id., at 4, ¶ 16. Meanwhile Ayotte continued to use his cell phone so failed to see Doe backing the truck towards the van. Id., ¶ 18. Plaintiff yelled a warning to the "distracted" Ayotte, informing him that the prison van was "going to [be] hit" by the truck. Id., at 5, ¶ 19.

         Before Ayotte could take any evasive action, Doe ran the truck into the right side of the prison van. Id., at 5, ¶ 20. Plaintiff was unable to brace himself for the impact due to his physical restraints and lack of a seatbelt. Id., ¶ 21. Consequently, he bounced "uncontrollably" around the van, thereby causing injury to his lower back. Id., ¶¶ 21-22, and at 6-7, ¶¶ 40-43.

         John Doe parked the truck and exited from it. Id., at 5, ¶ 24. Someone called the Farmington Police Department. Id., ¶ 25. Officer Olsen then arrived at the van and was informed about the collision. Id., ¶ 26. Olsen then asked Plaintiff if he needed medical attention, and Plaintiff indicated that he did. Id., ¶¶ 27-28. Although Olsen noted at that time that he saw "nothing wrong with the Plaintiff, " he and Ayotte escorted Plaintiff to the emergency room at UCONN Hospital. Id., ¶¶ 28-29. Both officers blamed Plaintiff for making them late in returning to Corrigan. Id., ¶ 31. At about 12:40 p.m., the two officers decided not to wait any longer for Plaintiff to be seen by a physician in the emergency room. Id., at 6, ¶ 32. They loaded him into the prison van and once again refused to buckle his seatbelt for the ride back to Corrigan, "in violation" of the Department of Corrections ("DOC") "Administrative Directive 6.4."[2] Id., at 6, ¶¶ 33-34.

         Upon returning to Corrigan at around 2:30 p.m., Plaintiff was taken to the medical unit for examination. Id., ¶ 35. Plaintiff explained to medical personnel that he felt discomfort in his lower back and neck. Id., ¶ 37. Staff instructed Plaintiff to submit a request to return to the medical unit if he felt "more discomfort" in the next several days. Id., ¶ 38.

         Four days later, on November 1, 2016, Corrigan prison officials transferred Plaintiff to MacDougall-Walker. Id., ¶ 39. Plaintiff immediately submitted a request to be seen in the medical department due to "discomfort in his lower back and neck." Id., ¶ 40. A medical staff member met with Plaintiff and referred him to be seen by a physician. Id., ¶¶ 41-42.

         At his appointment with the physician at MacDougall-Walker, Plaintiff stated that he felt pain in his lower back and neck ever since the accident in the prison van on October 28, 2016. Id., at 7, ¶ 43. The doctor prescribed Tylenol, Baclofen and a muscle rub. Id., ¶ 44. Plaintiff states that he has been taking and/or utilizing these prescribed medications since November 2016. Id., ¶ 45. The physician did not prescribe physical therapy, but a nurse instructed Plaintiff to do exercises in the gym and "outside recreation therapy exercises." Id., ¶¶ 46-47. Plaintiff alleges that the exercises have not relieved his pain. Id., ¶47.


         Plaintiff sues all defendants in their individual capacities only. For relief, he seeks monetary damages. In his Complaint, he attempts to state the claims described below.

         A. Section 1983 Claims

         1. Claims Against Ayotte and Olsen

         a. Deliberate Indifference to Safety

         Under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, an injured party may bring an action to impose liability against "[e]very person" who, acting under color of state law, violates another person's federally protected rights.[3] Plaintiff brings his § 1983 claims against Officers Ayotte and Olsen, asserting that his constitutional rights have been violated by these two state actors "under color of state law." State officials are "persons" under § 1983 who may be held personally liable when sued as individuals for actions they take under "color of state law."[4]

         In the case at bar, Plaintiff alleges that Officers Ayotte and Olsen violated his Eighth Amendment right to protection "from cruel and unusual punishment." Doc. 1, at 3, ¶ D. The Eighth Amendment imposes constitutional boundaries on conditions of imprisonment so that the "unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain" upon a prisoner constitutes "cruel and unusual punishment."[5] Boddie v. Schnieder, 105 F.3d 857, 861 (2d Cir. 1997) (citing Whitley v. Albers, 475 U.S. 312, 319 (1986)). A prison official violates the Eighth Amendment when the following two requirements are met: (1) the alleged conditions or "punishment" are "objectively, sufficiently serious, " and (2) the official possesses a "sufficiently culpable state of mind." Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825, 834 (1994).

         In particular, with respect to health and safety, "[t]o succeed on an Eighth Amendment deliberate indifference claim, a plaintiff must satisfy two requirements[:] [h]e must show both that the danger posed by the indifference he alleges is 'sufficiently serious' and that the defendant has acted with 'deliberate indifference to inmate health or safety' in failing to address this danger." Smith v. Fischer, 500 Fed.Appx. 59, 61 (2d Cir.2012) (citing Phelps v. Kapnolas, 308 F.3d 180, 185 (2d Cir.2002)). See also Young v. Choinski, 15 F.Supp.3d 172, 182 (D. Conn. 2014). The question under the Eighth Amendment is thus "whether prison officials, acting with deliberate indifference, exposed a prisoner to a sufficiently substantial risk of serious damage to his future health." Farmer, 511 U.S. at 843 (quoting Helling v. McKinney, 509 U.S. 25, 35 (1993).

         As to the subjective element of the claim - a prison official's subjective intent - "a plaintiff must show something more than mere negligence." Cuoco v. Moritsugu, 222 F.3d 99, 106 (2d Cir.2000) (quotations omitted). "An official acts with the requisite deliberate indifference when that official knows of and disregards an excessive risk to inmate health or safety; the official must both be aware of facts from which the inference could be drawn that a substantial risk of serious harm exists, and he must also draw the inference." Cuoco, 222 F.3d at 107 (quotations and citations omitted).

         In general, the prisoner is not required to have suffered actual physical injury before obtaining court-ordered correction of objectively inhumane conditions. Farmer, 511 U.S. at 845. As the Supreme Court stated, it would be "odd" to deny relief to inmates "who plainly proved an unsafe, life-threatening condition in their prison on the ground that nothing yet had happened to them." Id. (citing Helling v. McKinney, 509 U.S. 25, 33 (1993)). The deliberate indifference standard in a "failure to protect" context does not include an actual injury requirement, regardless of whether the complaining prisoner is seeking injunctive relief or damages. See, e.g., Jackson v. Goord, 664 F.Supp.2d 307, 316 (S.D.N.Y. 2009) ("A prisoner need not show actual injury, as 'the Eighth Amendment protects against sufficiently imminent dangers as well as current unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain and suffering.'") (quoting Helling, 509 U.S. at 34); Smolen v. Fischer, No. 12 CIV. 1856 PAC AJP, 2012 WL 3609089, at *4 (S.D.N.Y. Aug. 23, 2012) (same). See also Altayeb v. Chapdelaine, No. 3:16-CV-00067 (CSH), 2016 WL 7331551, at *3 (D. Conn. Dec. 16, 2016) ("In assessing whether [inmate] Altayeb faced an excessive risk of serious harm, this Court must look at the facts and circumstances of which the official was aware at the time he acted or failed to act. The focus is on the existence of a substantial risk of serious harm, rather than the actual injuries suffered in an attack.") (citations and internal quotation marks omitted); Medina v. Black, No. 3:15-CV-1371 (VLB), 2016 WL 386030, at *5 (D. Conn. Feb. 1, 2016) ("[A] prisoner seeking 'a remedy for unsafe conditions [need not] await a tragic event [such as an] actua[l] assaul[t] before obtaining relief.' ") (quoting Farmer, 511 U.S. at 845).[6]

         Although Eighth Amendment claims do not have an explicit injury component, in a § 1983 action, '[i]t is well-settled that '[a]bsent a showing of causation [of the plaintiffs' injuries by the defendants' unconstitutional acts] and actual injury, a plaintiff is entitled only to nominal damages.'" Warren v. Pataki, 823 F.3d 125, 141 (2d Cir. 2016) (quoting Miner v. City of Glens Falls, 999 F.2d 655, 660 (2d Cir.1993)), cert. denied sub nom. Brooks v. Pataki, 137 S.Ct. 380, 196 L.Ed.2d 300 (2016); Jackson v. Goord, 664 F.Supp.2d 307, 317 (S.D.N.Y. 2009) (in context of inmate's claim of deliberate indifference to inmate health or safety, court "note[d] that plaintiffs in section 1983 actions are 'entitled to an award of nominal damages upon proof of a violation of a substantive constitutional right even in the absence of actual compensable injury.'") (quoting Amato v. City of Saratoga Springs, 170 F.3d 311, 317 (2d Cir.1999) and collecting cases).

         In the case at bar, Plaintiff contends that Officers Ayotte and Olsen neglected to buckle his seatbelt prior to driving him in the prison van to and from UCONN Hospital. In addition, Plaintiff was not buckled up when the UCONN Hospital truck hit the side of the prison van as it idled in the loading dock at the hospital. Plaintiff states that the failure to buckle his seatbelt in these situations constituted deliberate indifference to his safety in violation of the Eighth Amendment. He also alleges that Officers Olsen and Ayotte "denied the Plaintiff [a] seatbelt" in violation of State of Connecticut Administrative Directive 6.4." Id., at 6, ¶ 33.

         The Supreme Court has held that prisoners have no right to be housed in comfortable surroundings. See Rhodes v. Chapman, 452 U.S. 337, 347 (1980) (harsh or restrictive conditions are part of the penalty criminal offenders pay for their crimes). A prisoner's conditions of confinement, however, must meet "minimal civilized measures of life's necessities." Wilson v. Seiter, 501 U.S. 294, 298 (1991). This means that prison officials are required to provide for inmates' basic human needs - e.g., food, clothing, shelter, ...

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