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Steele v. Ayotte

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

June 14, 2018

JEREMY A. STEELE, Plaintiff,
v.
CORRECTIONAL OFFICERS: C.O. AYOTTE, C.O. OLSEN, CORRIGAN CORRECTIONAL CENTER; and JOHN DOE, UCONN HOSPITAL EMPLOYEE, Defendants.

          RULING ON MOTION TO AMEND COMPLAINT [DOC. 9] AND MOTION TO APPOINT COUNSEL [DOC. 14]

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

         I. BACKGROUND

         On August 11, 2017, pro se plaintiff Jeremy A. Steele, currently incarcerated at MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution ("MacDougall-Walker") in Suffield, Connecticut, commenced a civil action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Correction Officers Ayotte and Olsen, alleging violations of his Eighth Amendment rights. He also brought a state law claim for negligence against John Doe, a truck driver employed at UCONN Hospital.

         This Court issued its Initial Review Order ("IRO") [Doc.6] on February 6, 2018, permitting Steele's Eighth Amendment claim for deliberate indifference to safety to proceed against Ayotte and Olsen in their individual capacities for damages. The Court ruled that Steele stated a plausible claim that the two officers failed to secure him with a seatbelt, despite his repeated requests, and also engaged in reckless conduct (sharing videos on their cell phones) as they drove Steele in a prison van to the UCONN Hospital. The Court clarified that this claim was "plausible only as to the drive to the hospital, and not to the period while the van was parked in the loading dock [at the hospital]." Steele v. Ayotte, No. 3: 17-CV-1370 (CSH), 2018 WL 731796, at *15 (D. Conn. Feb. 6, 2018). Plaintiff thus "may not recover compensatory damages resulting from the collision with the truck under this claim" because he "does not allege that he suffered any injury as the result of his seatbelt being unfastened during the earlier drive to the hospital."[1] Id. It was during that drive that the defendants allegedly engaged in their reckless conduct of viewing cell phone videos as Ayotte drove. Viewing a cell phone while the van was parked was negligent at best.

         However, Plaintiff may recover "nominal damages, in the amount of $1.00" from the two officers for the trip to UCONN Hospital because a § 1983 litigant "is 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." Id. (quoting Amato v. City of Saratoga Springs, N.Y., 170 F.3d 311, 317 (2d Cir. 1999)). Plaintiff was not injured on the way to the hospital (during the officers' allegedly reckless conduct) so only nominal damages may be awarded.

         The Court dismissed Steele's Eighth Amendment claim for deliberate indifference to medical needs against Ayotte and Olsen based on their refusal to permit him to remain in the emergency room at UCONN until he received medical treatment following the transport van's collision with the truck. Ayotte and Olsen had waited "for over an hour for an emergency room doctor to become available" before deciding "to return to Corrigan, where Plaintiff could also be examined by medical personnel." Id., at *11. Plaintiff's self-described symptoms included "discomfort in his lower back and neck;" and "[c]omplaints of discomfort do not rise to the level of a serious medical need." Id., at *11-12 (gathering cases)

         Finally, the Court dismissed Plaintiff's state law negligence claim against Doe, the truck driver, for failing to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. No. facts alleged that the conduct of the truck driver, in backing up too fast and hitting the prison van at the loading dock, was anything more than negligent. "A negligent motor vehicle accident, in and of itself, is not actionable under 42 U.S.C. § 1983." Id., at *13 (citing Carrasquillo v. City of New York, 324 F.Supp.2d 428, 436 (S.D.N.Y. 2004)).

         On March 16, 2018, Steele filed a motion to amend his complaint [Doc.9] "in light of [his] injuries, due to the accident caused by the defendants." In support of his motion, Steele reminded the Court that he is an inmate in state prison with no litigation experience, no law library, and no "inmate legal assistance." Doc. 9, at 2. He then proceeded to argue that he "suffered neck and lower back injuries" due to the two officers' refusal "to strap him in with a seatbelt for his safety." Id. Plaintiff concluded by stating that his injuries are "ongoing." Id., at 3. Steele attached no amended complaint to his motion. The two officer defendants filed their answer [Doc.12] to the initial complaint on April 10, 2018.

         In addition to his motion to amend, Plaintiff has filed a "Motion for Appointment of Counsel" [Doc. 14], requesting that the Court appoint pro bono counsel to represent him. The Court resolves both the motion to amend and the motion to appoint counsel herein.

         II. DISCUSSION

         A. Motion to Amend

         Pursuant to Rule 15(a), Fed. R. Civ. P., a plaintiff may amend his complaint once as a matter of course within twenty-one days after service of the complaint or within twenty-one days after service of a responsive pleading (i.e., answer or motion to dismiss) or of a Rule 12(b), (e), or (f) motion, whichever is earlier. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 15(a)(1)(A) and (B). See also, e.g., Baines v. Pillai, No. 3:16-CV-01374 (CSH), 2017 WL 1375168, at *1 (D. Conn. Apr. 10, 2017); Taurus B, LLC v. Esserman, No. 3:14-CV-715 CSH, 2014 WL 4494398, at *1 (D. Conn. Sept. 12, 2014); O'dell v. Bill, 13 Civ. 1275 (FJS/TWD), 2015 WL 710544, *44 (N.D.N.Y. Feb. 18, 2015). In all other cases, the plaintiff may amend his complaint only with "the opposing party's written consent or the court's leave, " which should be "freely give[n] when justice so requires." Fed.R.Civ.P. 15(a)(2).

         In the present case, the IRO was filed on February 6, 2018, ordering service of the complaint on defendants within twenty-one days of entry of that order. 2018 WL 731796, at *16. Ayotte's waiver of service was filed on February 20, 2018, and Olsen's waiver on March 2, 2018. Doc. 7, 8. Steele signed his motion to amend on March 15, 2018, and the Clerk filed it the following day. Doc. 9. The motion to amend was thus filed within 21 days after the second defendant waived service. Furthermore, a complaint is a pleading "to which a responsive pleading is required, " so that under Rule 15(a)(1)(B), Plaintiff could amend as a matter of course within 21 days after the defendants answered his complaint. They did not answer till April 10, 2018, Doc. 12, twenty-five days after Plaintiff filed his motion to amend. Under these circumstances, Steele is entitled to amend his complaint once as a matter of course under Rule 15(a)(1).

         However, Plaintiff has failed to present an amended complaint for filing. He has only filed a motion to amend. Unless and until he files his proposed amended complaint, the Court cannot carry out its duty under 28 U.S.C. § 1915A to screen any amended claim to determine whether it may proceed. Specifically, the Court must perform a sua sponte initial review of a prisoner's claims against governmental entities or their officers. If any claim is "frivolous, malicious, or fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted" or "seeks monetary ...


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