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Johnson v. Maurer

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

December 6, 2018




         Plaintiff Carvaughn Johnson is currently incarcerated at MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution and has filed a pro se complaint pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against twelve of the facility's employees in their individual and official capacities: Kathleen Maurer, John Street, Connie Weikopf, Mary Ellen Castro, Rikel Lightner, Monica Farinella, Alexis Gendall, Colleen Gallagher, Lt. Collins, Syed Johar Naqvi, Captain Ogando, and Tim Bombard. Doc. 1. Plaintiff has now filed an amended complaint ("Amended Complaint"). Doc. 6. For the following reasons, his Amended 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) (2012). 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." Iqbal, 556 U.S. 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) (declaring that 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.


         These factual allegations, accepted as true only for the purposes of this Order, are taken from Plaintiff's Amended Complaint. Doc. 6 ("Am. Compl."). Plaintiff describes three separate incidents as the basis for his claims.

         The first concerns an injury sustained on June 6, 2017, when a cabinet door fell and struck Plaintiff on the shoulder while he was working in the laundry room of the correctional institution's infirmary. Am. Compl. ¶ 19. Plaintiff's maintenance supervisor, John Street, is allegedly the person responsible for ensuring cabinet doors are secure, but it is widely known that cabinet doors often fall because most cabinets are missing doors. Id. ¶¶ 19, 44. A nurse treated Plaintiff's bleeding wound and wrote an incident report on the same day. Id. Lt. Collins also took photos of the wound on the date of the injury, but never responded when Plaintiff asked him for a copy of the photograph on August 17, 2017. Id. ¶¶ 20, 30. This is despite Captain Ogando's verbal assurances on June 26, 2017, that the photo would be preserved, and Captain Ogando's failed efforts to find the photo and incident report on July 19, 2017. Id. ¶¶ 25, 27.

         Because Plaintiff was still experiencing pain in his shoulder, arm, and neck, as well as muscle spasms in his shoulder-which he continues to experience today-he asked for an MRI in writing on June 21, 2017, and in person with Naqvi on June 25, 2017. Id. ¶¶ 22, 24, 59. Naqvi told Plaintiff that he never received an answer from the board presumably responsible for granting permission for MRIs, but Plaintiff had reason to believe this was false because a nurse told him a request was never submitted to the board. Id. ¶ 24. Plaintiff wrote a grievance against Naqvi on August 17, 2017, appealing when it went unanswered despite administrative directive rules obligating the facility to respond within thirty days. Id. ¶¶ 29, 31-32. Plaintiff then separately wrote to health service administrators Rikel Lightner and Colleen Gallagher about the unanswered grievance in November 2017. Id. ¶¶ 32-33. When Plaintiff met with Lightner on November 30, 2017, Lightner advised Plaintiff to discuss his issues in his upcoming appointment with Naqvi. Id. ¶ 35. Gallagher wrote back on December 29, 2017, that an MRI may or may not be approved. Id. ¶ 43.

         From October 2017 to December 2017, Plaintiff wrote to various individuals in an effort to seek care for his injury. Id. ¶¶ 36-42. He received replies that seemed inadequate to him from Mary Ellen Castro and Tim Bombard, and never received responses from Monica Farinella, Connie Weikopf, Alexis Gendell, and Kathleen Maurer. Id. ¶¶ 38, 40, 42.

         Plaintiff received an x-ray on February 16, 2018, but he believes he should have received an MRI because he had already received an x-ray exam at MacDougall-Walker and an MRI would show issues with his muscles or nerve tissue. Id. ¶ 45. Plaintiff also wrote to Naqvi in February 2018 to inform him that his amitriptyline anxiety medication was not working;[2] he received a reply stating that he would have an appointment with Naqvi in March 2018. Id. ¶¶ 46, 61. However, Plaintiff was only able to meet with a nurse, who told him that Naqvi changed his medication to naproxen.[3] Id. ¶ 46. Plaintiff claims to experience bad side effects from naproxen and told the nurse he would like to talk to Naqvi. Id.

         The second incident stems from Plaintiff's injury from wearing sneakers sold by the Department of Corrections' commissary. Id. ¶¶ 63, 68. Plaintiff wrote to the medical unit on May 1, 2017, of his footwear-related injuries and June 13, 2017, that the prescribed foot cream was not working. Id. ¶¶ 63-64. He was able to meet with Naqvi on June 25. 2017. Id. ¶ 65. After explaining that his toenails were coming off and he had foot pain, Plaintiff was told to write to Lightner. Id. ¶¶ 65, 71. Plaintiff did so on June 26, 2017, and Lightner responded on July 12, 2017.[4]Id. ¶ 66.

         Plaintiff went to see Naqvi again on July 24, 2017, because his foot problem persisted, but the doctor only told him that he would need to speak with Lightner and that Deputy Warden Roach would not let the medical unit issue "Sneaker Passes." Id. ¶¶ 67-68, 70. He then denied Plaintiff's request to see a foot specialist. Id. ¶ 67. On August 17, 2017, Plaintiff met with Lightner to seek approval for a "Sneaker Pass," as per Naqvi's instructions, but Lightner told Plaintiff that the commissary sold a variety of footwear and that a Unit Counselor could handle the issue. Id. ¶ 68. Plaintiff believes these statements to be untrue based on his knowledge of commissary footwear offerings and of the Unit Counselor's role. Id. Plaintiff also wrote to Roach on March 25, 2018, but it is unclear whether he received a response. Id. ¶ 71.

         Barbara LaFrance, whose title and role is unknown, treated Plaintiff via Skype on an unspecified date, but Plaintiff asserts nothing was done as a result of the consultation. Id. ¶ 70. Naqvi then saw Plaintiff once more on March 29, 2018. Id. ¶ 71.

         The third incident concerns only Captain Ogando. Plaintiff asserts that on July 29, 2018, Plaintiff happened to walk near whether Ogando was conducting strip searches of kitchen workers. Id. ¶ 72. Although Plaintiff works in the infirmary, not the kitchen, Ogando instructed him to get against the wall for a strip search. Id. Ogando also allegedly said, "So what, you like to file lawsuits." Id. Plaintiff was consequently strip-searched, seemingly out of retaliation for his complaints and lawsuits against the correctional institution's employees. Id.


         In his Amended Complaint, Plaintiff asserts two counts for which he alleges a number of federal and state law violations.[5] Am. Compl. ¶ 1, 19-72. It is not entirely clear to which count or counts Plaintiff attributes this list of rights violations, [6] and so the Court will proceed by examining each right that has been allegedly violated and determine if it applies to all of the counts raised by Plaintiff, beginning with Plaintiff's federal claims.

         In Count I, he alleges that all Defendants violated his rights by acting with deliberate indifference to his serious medical needs caused by a falling cabinet door that was negligently maintained. Id. ¶¶ 19-62. In the first part of Count II, Plaintiff alleges Defendants again violated his rights by acting with deliberate indifference to his serious medical needs, this time caused by inadequate footwear sold by the commissary. Id. ¶¶ 63-72. Plaintiff's factual allegations in this part of Count II only mention Defendants Naqvi, Rikel Lightner, and Monica Farinella. Id. ¶¶ 63-72. In the second part of Count II-which the Court will refer to as Count III infra for purposes of clarity-Plaintiff alleges Captain Ogando strip-searched Plaintiff in retaliation for filing lawsuits against the correctional institution. Id. ¶ 72. Plaintiff seeks injunctive relief, [7] declaratory relief, and monetary damages. Id. ¶¶ 2, 74.

         A. Individual Defendants in their Official Capacities

         With respect to all Defendants, Plaintiff sues them in both their official and personal capacities. Id. at 1. 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)). 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) (holding that 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.[8]

         However, Plaintiff also sues these individual defendants in their official capacities for declaratory and injunctive relief. Am. Compl. at 1. In particular, Plaintiff seeks (1) a declaratory judgment that Defendants violated his constitutional and state statutory rights and (2) an injunction, presumably to receive medical treatment for his shoulder and feet. Id. ¶¶ 2, 74. 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)). Moreover, Plaintiff asserts an Eighth Amendment claim against some Defendants for disregarding his serious medical condition. A viable constitutional claim for deprivation of medical services may include demands for injunctive relief and monetary damages. See, e.g., Koehl v. Dalsheim, 85 F.3d 86, 89 (2d Cir. 1996) (remanding case to develop proof of his Eight Amendment claims for damages and for injunctive relief).

         B. Defendants Alexis Gendall, Connie Weikopf, Mary Ellen Castro, Tim Bombard, and Monica Farinella

         Plaintiff does not state a claim against Defendants Alexis Gendall, Connie Weikopf, Mary Ellen Castro, Tim Bombard, and Monica Farinella. Plaintiff alleges that he wrote to Gendall and Weikopf about his shoulder injury, but they never responded to him. Am. Compl. ¶¶ 33, 36. Plaintiff does not otherwise mention these Defendants in the Amended Complaint. Gendall and Weikopf are doctors within the University of Connecticut's Correctional Managed Health Care program. Id. ¶¶ 8, 9. Plaintiff declares that they are responsible for the overview of medical care for inmates, but offers no facts to support his allegations.[9] Id. Indeed, it seems apparent from the Amended Complaint that Syed Johar Naqvi was the doctor assigned to Plaintiff's care. See, e.g., id. ¶ 46. These allegations do not state a claim that Gendall and Weikopf were deliberately indifferent to his medical needs or were responsible for any other alleged violations. See Faber v. Metro. Life Ins. Co., 648 F.3d 98, 104 (2d Cir. 2011) (holding the Court is not bound to accept conclusory allegations).

         Plaintiff separately wrote to and received responses from Castro and Bombard about his shoulder injury. Am. Compl. ¶¶ 36, 38-39, 40-41. Castro directed Plaintiff to submit a "sick call request" and "write directly to [his] health services administrator." Id. ¶ 38. Bombard advised Plaintiff to write to Defendant Monica Farinella. Id. ¶ 40-41. Plaintiff does not otherwise mention Defendants Castro and Bombard in the Amended Complaint. Castro and Bombard are APRNs, or Advanced Practice Registered Nurses, but Plaintiff alleges they are responsible for the oversight of inmate care. Id. ¶¶ 13, 17. Because there are no facts supporting his assertion Castro and Bombard have supervisory roles and because they tried to help Plaintiff by directing him to others, the Court cannot credit Plaintiff's conclusory allegation that they "did nothing to ease his pain and suffering." Id. These allegations do not state a claim that Castro and Bombard were deliberately indifferent to his medical needs or were responsible for any other alleged violations. See Faber, 648 F.3d at 104.

         As for Farinella, Plaintiff also wrote to her but received no response regarding his shoulder injury. Am. Compl. ¶ 36. Plaintiff also alleges that Farinella knew or should have known about his footwear-related injury. Id. ¶ 72. Farinella is a doctor within University of Connecticut's Correctional Managed Health Care program but does not seem to have a supervisory role. Id. ¶ 12. Plaintiff asserts that Farinella is responsible for the oversight of inmate care and thus knew or should have known about Plaintiff's inadequate medical treatment. Id. ¶¶ 12, 72. Plaintiff offers the fact that Farinella serves as a private consultant and an expert witness as evidence for his conclusion, but the Court fails to see how such non-supervisory roles support his allegations. Id. ¶ 72. Again, the entirety of the Amended Complaint suggests that Defendant Naqvi was the doctor responsible for Plaintiff's care concerning both his shoulder injury and his footwear-related injury. See, e.g., id. ¶¶ 24, 65. These allegations do not state a claim that Farinella was deliberately indifferent to his medical needs or was responsible for any other alleged violations. See Faber, 648 F.3d at 104.

         Plaintiff's claims against Defendants Gendall, Weikopf, Castro, Bombard, and Farinella are dismissed. Accordingly, only Defendants Maurer, Collins, Ogando, Naqvi, Lightner, Gallagher, and Street remain implicated in Count I, Defendants Naqvi and Lightner in Count II, and Defendant Ogando in Count III.

         C. Eighth Amendment Claims of Deliberate Indifference

          The Eighth Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment protects against deliberate indifference to a prisoner's serious medical needs by prison officials. Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 104 (1976). To demonstrate deliberate indifference to medical needs, a plaintiff must allege harmful acts or omissions that deny or delay unreasonably access to needed medical care or wantonly cause infliction of unnecessary pain. Id. at 104-06. Accordingly, not all failures by prison staff to provide medical care rise to the level of a constitutional violation. Id.; see also Smith v. Carpenter, 316 F.3d 178, 184 (2d Cir. 2003) ("Because the Eighth Amendment is not a vehicle for bringing medical malpractice claims, nor a substitute for state tort law, not every lapse in prison medical care will rise to the level of a constitutional violation."). "[A] prisoner must demonstrate more than an inadvertent failure to provide adequate medical care by prison officials to successfully establish Eighth Amendment liability." Smith, 316 F.3d at 184.

         The deliberate indifference standard consists of two prongs: (1) the alleged deprivation must be, objectively, "sufficiently serious" to produce death, degeneration, or extreme pain; and (2) subjectively, the defendant must have been aware of a substantial risk that the inmate would suffer serious harm by defendant's act or omission. See Wilson v. Seiter, 501 U.S. 294, 298 (1991); Salahuddin v. Goord, 467 F.3d 263, 279-80 (2d Cir. 2006); Hathaway v. Coughlin, 37 F.3d 63, 66 (2d Cir. 1994).

         As to the first prong, "[a] 'serious medical need' exists where, objectively, the failure to treat a prisoner's condition could result in further significant injury or the unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain." Dotson v. Fischer, 613 Fed.Appx. 35, 38 (2d Cir. 2015) (internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting Harrison v. Barkly, 219 F.3d 132, 136 (2d Cir 2000)).

When the basis for a prisoner's Eighth Amendment claim is a temporary delay or interruption in the provision of otherwise adequate medical treatment, it is appropriate to focus on the challenged delay or interruption in treatment rather than the prisoner's underlying medical condition alone in analyzing whether the alleged deprivation is, in objective terms, sufficiently serious[] to support an Eighth Amendment claim.

Smith, 316 F.3d at 185 (internal quotation marks omitted).

         As to the second, subjective prong, the defendant must have been actually aware of a substantial risk that the inmate would suffer serious harm as a result of his or her actions or inactions:

To establish deliberate indifference, [the plaintiff] must show that [the defendant] harbored the requisite mental state while he denied . . . treatment. He must show that [the defendant] knew of and disregarded an excessive risk to [plaintiff]'s safety; that he not only was aware of facts from which a reasonable person would conclude [plaintiff] faced an excessive risk, but that he personally actually drew that inference.

Hilton v. Wright, 673 F.3d 120, 127 (2d Cir. 2012) (per curiam). See also Salahuddin, 467 F.3d at 279-80. Thus, an allegation of mere negligence is insufficient. Rather, the subjective element requires that an inmate allege that prison officials acted with "a mental state equivalent to subjective recklessness, as the term is used in criminal law." Salahuddin, 467 F.3d at 280.

         1. Count I - Shoulder Injury

          Plaintiff received immediate treatment to stop the bleeding after the cabinet door fell on his shoulder in June 2017, but he continued to experience pain months after the accident despite repeated requests for proper medical treatment. Am. Compl. ¶¶ 19, 26, 59. After the dismissal of various Defendants in Section III.B supra, the Court assumes that Plaintiff maintains a claim of deliberate indifference to medical needs against medical personnel Kathleen Maurer, Syed Johar Naqvi, Colleen Gallagher, and Rikel Lightner and correctional personnel John Street, Lieutenant Collins, and Captain Ogando.

         With respect to the first prong of his deliberate indifference claim, Plaintiff has adequately alleged the objective seriousness of the deprivation he suffered. He claims that he is still in chronic pain and continues to experience muscle spasms in his shoulder, arm, and hand when he filed his initial complaint in this Court in April 2018-more than ten months after his injury. Id. ¶ 59. This is sufficient to plead an objectively serious injury. See Joyner v. Greiner, 195 F.Supp.2d 500, 502-04 (S.D.N.Y. 2002) (finding prisoner's back pain, consisting of radiating pain and muscle spasms, was an objectively serious injury); Cole v. Artuz, No. 97 Civ 0977 (RWS), 2000 WL 760749 (S.D.N.Y. 2000) (finding that debilitating back injury that produced painful muscle spasms was not as dramatic as some other conditions that satisfy the deliberate indifference standard but it was not insufficient as a matter of law).

         As to the second prong of this claim-alleging that the defendant was subjectively aware of a substantial risk that the inmate would suffer serious harm-the facts presented in the Amended Complaint are inadequate against all but one Defendant. The Court will address the allegations against corrections personnel and medical personnel separately.

         The Amended Complaint fails to establish that Defendants Street, Collins, and Ogando, correctional personnel at MacDougall-Walker, were aware of Plaintiff's sustained injuries resulting from the cabinet door accident. The only mention of Street is that he was the maintenance supervisor responsible for securing cabinets and doors. Am. Compl. ¶ 44. Meanwhile, the thrust of the allegations against Collins and Ogando are that they were unresponsive to Plaintiff's request to produce the incident report and photograph that Collins took on the day of the accident. Id. ΒΆΒΆ 21, 23, 27, 30. The Court will revisit allegations against Street, Collins, and Ogando in its analysis on Plaintiff's negligence and recklessness claims, but such facts do not raise a deliberate indifference to medical needs claim. Plaintiff never establishes that Collins or Ogando knew about his muscle pains, and, in any case, the photograph was taken before Plaintiff raised any concerns about his muscle pains, making the photograph seemingly irrelevant to Plaintiff's deliberate indifference claim. The photograph ...

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