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Holder v. Saunders

United States District Court, E.D. Kentucky, Southern Division, Pikeville

December 16, 2014

STACY M. SAUNDERS, et al., Defendants.


AMUL R. THAPAR, District Judge.

Plaintiff Christopher Holder, previously an inmate[1] at the United States Penitentiary-Big Sandy, alleges that the defendant, staff psychologist Stacy Saunders, failed to protect him from an attack by A.T., a fellow inmate with a mental illness and history of violence. See R. 1 at 1-7. In its previous opinion, the Court identified Holder as a white male. Relying in part on that fact, the Court denied Saunders' motion for summary judgment on Holder's deliberate-indifference claim. See R. 33 at 4-8. Saunders now asks the Court to reconsider its previous order under Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 59(e) and/or 60(b). See R. 40-1. According to Saunders, Holder is in fact a black male. Id. The Court agrees that the evidence from the Bureau of Prisons identifies Holder as a black male, but the Court concludes that a reasonable jury could still find that Saunders was deliberately indifferent to the substantial risk of harm posed by A.T.

I. The Court Grants the Motion to Reconsider as to Holder's Race.

Saunders' motion to reconsider focuses on Rule 59(e) and Rule 60(b) as the possible avenues for the Court to revisit its previous order. Rule 59(e) allows a party to file "[a] motion to alter or amend a judgment" within 28 days of the entry of judgment. Fed.R.Civ.P. 59(e). Rule 60(b), as is relevant here, states that a court "may relieve a party... from a final judgment, order, or proceeding" for reasons including "mistake, inadvertence, surprise, or excusable neglect." Fed.R.Civ.P. 60(b). Saunders' motion also mentions Rule 54(b) as another route for reconsideration. See R. 40-1 at 1. That Rule lets the district court "revise[] at any time" its order before it adjudicates all the claims in the case. Fed.R.Civ.P. 54(b). For the reasons discussed below, Rule 54(b) and Rule 59(e), not Rule 60(b), are the appropriate Rules for the Court to use in this case.

Rule 60(b) is not the proper procedural vehicle for Saunders' motion because it applies only to a "final judgment, order, or proceeding." The denial of summary judgment is not a final judgment or order, even though denials of qualified immunity may be appealed as an interlocutory order. See Mitchell v. Forsyth, 472 U.S. 511, 530 (1985) (holding that a district court's denial of qualified immunity on summary judgment "is an appealable final decision'... notwithstanding the absence of a final judgment"); Alkire v. Irving, 330 F.3d 802, 809 n.5 (6th Cir. 2003).

Rule 59(e)'s scope is a little more ambiguous. It applies to "a judgment, " which Rule 54(a) defines as "a decree and any order from which an appeal lies." It is true that the denial of qualified immunity is an appealable interlocutory order. See Mitchell, 472 U.S. at 530. While not a final judgment, the denial of qualified immunity could constitute "a judgment" under Rule 54(a) because a party may appeal from that order. Id. Under that view, the Court's previous order would be subject to Rule 59(e). But courts have interpreted Rule 59(e) as encompassing reconsideration of only final judgments. See Cockrel v. Shelby Cnty. School Dist., 270 F.3d 1036, 1047 (6th Cir. 2001) ("Motions for reconsideration filed within ten days of the district court's final judgment... are generally treated as a motion to alter or amend the judgment pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 59(e)."); Russell v. GTE Gov't Sys. Corp., 141 F.Appx. 429, 436 (6th Cir. 2005) ("[T]here was no final judgment when the court entertained GTE's motion for reconsideration, so the strictures of Rule 59(e) did not apply.").

Even if Rule 59(e) were not the appropriate method for reconsideration, "district courts have inherent power to reconsider interlocutory orders and reopen any part of a case before entry of a final judgment." In re Saffady, 524 F.3d 799, 803 (6th Cir. 2008) (internal quotation marks omitted). Rule 54(b) further clarifies that an order "that adjudicates fewer than all the claims or the rights and liabilities of fewer than all the parties does not end the action as to any of the claims or parties." Fed.R.Civ.P. 54(b). This type of order "may be revised at any time before the entry of a judgment adjudicating all the claims and all the parties' rights and liabilities." Id. Because the Court has not entered a judgment adjudicating all the claims in this case, it may still revisit its earlier order pursuant to its inherent powers.

The Court need not determine which course best serves this case. Whether the Court proceeds under Rule 59(e) or under its inherent powers through Rule 54(b), the Court may reconsider its prior order if there is a clear error or a need to prevent a manifest injustice. Louisville/Jefferson Cnty. Metro Gov't v., L.P., 590 F.3d 381, 389 (6th Cir. 2009) (inherent powers); Leisure Caviar, LLC v. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Serv., 616 F.3d 612, 615 (6th Cir. 2010) (Rule 59(e)); see also Doe v. Patton, 381 F.Supp.2d 595, 605 (E.D. Ky. 2005).

Saunders contends that the Court must revisit its denial of summary judgment and enter judgment for Saunders because the Court misconstrued Holder's race. Holder, according to Saunders, is black, not white. Saunders points to several prison records listing Holder's race as black. See R. 25-3 (Public Information Inmate Data); R. 25-5 (Bureau of Prisons Health Services Clinical Encounter); R. 25-6 (Memorandum Regarding Inmate Assault In C-4 Unit). The Bureau of Prisons' website also lists Holder as a black male. See Federal Bureau of Prisons, "Find an inmate, " (last visited Dec. 8, 2014). Holder's response is that "[g]overnment records clearly describe Holder as biracial." R. 44 at 2. Holder, however, does not cite to any specific records, and no Bureau of Prison documents filed in this case list him as biracial. Nor does Holder elaborate on what races make up his allegedly biracial listing. Holder has also not presented evidence of his race in his declaration. See R. 30-1.[2] Accordingly, the Court will proceed with the constitutional inquiry assuming that Holder is black.

II. Holder's Claim Against Saunders Survives Summary Judgment.

To succeed on his failure-to-protect claim, Holder must satisfy two elements: (1) that Holder was incarcerated under conditions posing an objectively substantial risk of serious harm, and (2) that Saunders acted with "deliberate indifference" to the risk of that harm. Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825, 834 (1994). At summary judgment, the Court views the evidence in the light most favorable to Holder as the nonmoving party. Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 378 (2007). If, after viewing the evidence from that perspective, the Court determines that a reasonable jury could find for Holder, the Court must deny the motion for summary judgment. Cordell v. McKinney, 759 F.3d 573, 579-80 (6th Cir. 2014). While the Court's previous order focused on Holder's race in deciding the failure-to-protect claim, removing race from the equation is not fatal to his claim.

Both prongs of the inquiry turn on the mental-health condition of Holder's attacker, A.T. Almost all the relevant information regarding A.T.'s mental health comes from Saunders' notes of her appointments with A.T. See also R. 33 at 4-5 (Court's previous order).

Saunders' notes and the other record evidence demonstrate that A.T. had a history of mental health problems and susceptibility to violence. See, e.g., R. 27-1 at 1, 3-4. When A.T. arrived at Big Sandy, officials labeled him a "psych alert" inmate, [3] in part because of a previous violent assault and its "relation to his paranoia and evidence of a delusional belief system." Id. at 1, 25. While Big Sandy's chief psychologist Terry King concluded in the initial screening evaluation that A.T. had no significant mental health problems, id. at 1, A.T.'s later appointments would reveal a different story.

According to Saunders' notes from her first appointment with A.T., on September 26, 2011, A.T. told Saunders that he had "special abilities" to "detect the world around me better than the next guy." Id. at 3 (quoting A.T.). Those "abilities" allowed A.T. "to pre-emptively strike out against others who might seek to harm him." Id. And A.T. was fond of those special powers: He had resisted requests from other psychologists to take ...

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