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El-Massri v. New Haven Correctional Center

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

September 25, 2018





         Pro se plaintiff Andrew El-Massri, an inmate currently incarcerated at the Hartford Correctional Center[1] in Hartford, Connecticut, has filed a civil rights complaint pro se pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the New Haven Correctional Center ("NHCC"), where he was previously confined, and seven of the facility's employees in their individual and official capacities: Deputy Warden Marmora, Lieutenant Cacioli, Lieutenant Lewis, Lieutenant Williams, Officer Hebert, Officer McGivney, and Nurse Goode. El-Massri is suing the defendants for violating the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment and seeks monetary, injunctive, and declaratory relief. Doc. 1 (Complaint), at 8-9. On August 7, 2018, this Court granted El-Massri's motion to proceed in forma pauperis. See Doc. 6, 7. For the following reasons, his complaint is dismissed in part.


         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)).[2] "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


         On November 26, 2015, at approximately 4:10 p.m., while housed at NHCC, El-Massri was involved in a physical altercation with another inmate. Doc. 1, ¶ 7. Correction Officer Streat reacted by calling a "code blue," to which defendants Cacioli, Williams, Lewis, Hebert, McGivney, and Goode responded. Id., ¶ 8. Cacioli, Williams, and Lewis gave El-Massri several commands to stop fighting, and he allegedly complied. Id., ¶ 9. Nevertheless, Cacioli and Lewis sprayed "chemical agents directly into [El-Massri's] face and eyes at close range." Id. Contrary to what El-Massri refers to as prison "directives," the defendants failed to "sign on to a a hand-held camera" during this incident. Id.

         After El- Massri was sprayed with the chemical agent, Williams and Hebert "slammed [ El-Massri] onto his face," causing him to sustain "a superficial laceration under his right eye."[3] Id., ¶ 10. They then placed restraints on El-Massri. Id., ¶ 11. At that point, El-Massri requested "to be decontaminated." Id., ¶ 12. Although he was escorted to the "center corridors shower," Plaintiff was "not allowed to properly decontaminate" by showering; however, the other inmate who "was involved in this incident" was permitted to shower. Id., ¶ 11. Plaintiff was then escorted to the Foxtrot Unit Center #1, where his restraints were removed and he was strip searched. Id., ¶ 12. He again requested to shower to decontaminate, but his request was denied. Id.

         El-Massri spent the next three days and nights in the Foxtrot Unit without an opportunity to shower. Id., ¶ 13. In his words, he was "forced to burn in chemical agent" during this time period. Id. He asked "[a]ll officers and nurses he came into contact with to allow him to decontaminate" himself, but all such requests were "unreasonably denied." Id. He also did not receive any treatment for the superficial laceration under his right eye. Id. Nurse Goode was one of the nurses who failed to treat his laceration and/or to provide him with the opportunity to shower. Id., ¶ 14.

         After reviewing the November 26, 2015 incident, Deputy Warden Marmora wrote a report stating that she "approved [of] the conduct" of the defendant officers and their "use of force" on El-Massri. Id., ¶ 15. Plaintiff claims that the defendant officials' supervision and training led to the constitutional deprivations alleged in his complaint. Id. He also alleges that the incident reports prepared by the defendant officials regarding the events of November 26, 2015, were "falsified" in order to "cover up their wrongdoing." Id.

         IV. ANALYSIS

         In his Complaint, El-Massri asserts three claims. In Count I, he alleges that Cacioli, Lewis, Williams, and Hebert violated his Eighth Amendment right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment when they used "excessive force" in response to the physical altercation between Plaintiff and another inmate on November 26, 2015. Doc. 1, ¶¶ 8-13, 19. In Counts II and III, El-Massri alleges that all defendants subjected him to unconstitutional conditions of confinement and acted with deliberate indifference to his serious medical needs by refusing to allow him to shower to remove the sprayed chemical agent and by failing to treat the laceration under his eye. Id., ¶¶ 11-14, 21-22. In Count IV, Plaintiff alleges that Marmora violated his Eighth Amendment rights by failing to "properly train and supervise all defendants" and to "properly investigate this matter." Id., ¶¶ 15-16, 20. The Court will analyze these claims to determine whether El-Massri has stated plausible Eighth Amendment claims against the named defendants.

         A. NHCC - Correctional Institution as Defendant

         Section 1983 creates a cause of action against any person who, acting under color of state law, abridges "rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws" of the United States. 42 U.S.C. § 1983. "Section 1983 does not create substantive rights," but rather "provides a means to redress the deprivation of a federal right guaranteed elsewhere." Diggs v. Town of Manchester, 303 F.Supp.2d 163, 182 (D. Conn. 2004). Put simply, "[v]iolations of rights thus give rise to § 1983 actions." Shakhnes v. Berlin, 689 F.3d 244, 250 (2d Cir. 2012).

         In the caption of his complaint, El-Massri lists the NHCC as a defendant to this § 1983 action. However, "[n]either a Department of Correction nor a correctional institution is a 'person' within the meaning of § 1983." Santos v. Connecticut Dep't of Corr., No. 3:04CV1562(JCH)(HBF), 2005 WL 2123543, at *3 (D. Conn. Aug. 29, 2005) (gathering cases). That is because "[n]either a state nor one of its agencies . . . is a 'person' under § 1983." Spencer v. Doe, 139 F.3d 107, 111 (2d Cir. 1998) (citing Hafer v. Melo, 502 U.S. 21, 26 (1991)). See also Will v. Michigan Dep't of State Police, 491 U.S. 58, 71 (1989) ("[N]either a State nor its officials acting in their official capacities are 'persons' under § 1983."). Therefore, there is no arguable legal basis for a § 1983 action against NHCC. All claims against that defendant will be dismissed.

         B. Individual Defendants in their Official Capacities

         With respect to the named seven individual defendants, Plaintiff sues them in both their official and personal capacities. Doc. 1, ¶¶ 3-6 As to individual defendants acting in their official capacities, "the eleventh amendment immunity protects state officials sued for damages." Minotti v. Lensink, 798 F.2d 607, 609 (2d Cir. 1986) (citing Kentucky v. Graham, 473 U.S. 159, 169-70 (1985)) (emphasis added). See also Will v. Michigan Dep't of State Police, 491 U.S. 58, 71 (1989) ["[N]either a State nor its officials acting in their official capacities are 'persons' under § 1983."); Quern v. Jordan, 440 U.S. 332, 342 (1979) (claims for damages against defendants in their official capacities barred by Eleventh Amendment). To the extent that Plaintiff seeks damages from state officials in their official capacity, his § 1983 claims are barred by the Eleventh Amendment and will be dismissed.[4]

         However, Plaintiff also sues these individual defendants in their official capacities for declaratory and injunctive relief. In particular, El-Massri seeks a declaratory judgment that defendants violated his constitutional rights and "an injunction ordering the defendants to take [him] to an eye doctor for treatment." Doc. 1, at 15 ("Prayer for Relief," ¶¶ A.-B.). 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. Edelman v. Jordan, 415 U.S. 651, 664 (1974). See also Will v. Michigan Dep't of State Police, 491 U.S. 58, 71 (1989) ("Of course a state official in his or her official capacity, when sued for injunctive relief, would be a person under § 1983 because 'official-capacity actions for prospective relief are not treated as actions against the State.'") (quoting Kentucky v. Graham, 473 U.S. 159, 167 n. 14 (1985)); 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)).

         The events giving rise to Plaintiff's action occurred nearly three years ago, and El-Massri is no longer confined in NHCC, the facility where the defendants are employed. "It is settled in this Circuit that a transfer from a prison facility moots an action for injunctive relief against the transferring facility," including the officials employed therein. Prins v. Coughlin, 76 F.3d 504, 506 (2d Cir. 1996). See also Thompson v. Carter, 284 F.3d 411, 415 (2d Cir. 2002) ("A prisoner's transfer to a different correctional facility generally moots his request for injunctive relief against employees of the transferor facility."); Young v. Coughlin, 866 F.2d 567, 568 n.1 (2d Cir. 1989) ("Since Young is no longer incarcerated at Auburn, but was transferred to Attica Correctional Facility, his claim for declaratory and injunctive relief is moot."), cert. denied, 492 U.S. 909 (1989).

         A plaintiff may overcome this bar of a moot claim if he can show that the challenged action is capable of repetition. See City of Los Angeles v. Lyons, 461 U.S. 95, 109 (1983). "[T]he capable-of-repetition doctrine applies only in exceptional situations, and generally only where the named plaintiff can make a reasonable showing that he will again be subjected to the alleged illegality." Id. In this case, however, El-Massri has not alleged any facts which would support a reasonable inference that any of the alleged constitutional deprivations by defendants are capable of repetition, especially since these events occurred nearly three years ago at a facility where Plaintiff is no longer housed. The Court thus finds that Plaintiff's claims for declaratory and injunctive relief are moot.[5] These claims will be dismissed.

         C. Individual Defendants in their Personal Capacities

         With respect to claims for damages, the transfer to a different prison does not moot an action against state officials in their individual or personal capacities. Prins v. Coughlin, 76 F.3d 504, 506 (2d Cir. 1996). El-Massri may, therefore, pray for damages arising under any plausible Eighth Amendment claim he may bring against the defendant officials in their personal capacities.

         1. Count I - Excessive Force Against Williams, Cacioli, Lewis, and Hebert andFailure to ...

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