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Daniel v. Harper

United States District Court, W.D. Kentucky, Paducah

December 19, 2017

GEORGE DANIEL, PLAINTIFF
v.
LINDSAY HARPER, et. al., DEFENDANTS

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Thomas B. Russell, Senior Judge.

         This matter comes before the Court upon four separate motions. First, Plaintiff George Daniel (“Plaintiff”) has filed two Motions for Summary Judgment: one against Defendants Matthew Johnston (“Johnston”) and Lindsay Harper (“Harper”), [DN 30], and a second one against Defendant Bradley Boyd (“Boyd”). [DN 31.] Next, Johnston and Harper have filed a Motion for Summary Judgment. [DN 32.] Lastly, Boyd has filed a Motion for Summary Judgment. [DN 35.] These matters are ripe for adjudication. For the following reasons, Harper and Johnston's Motion is GRANTED, Boyd's Motion is GRANTED, and Plaintiff's Motions are DISMISSED AS MOOT.

         I. Background

         Johnston is a nurse practitioner, employed by Advanced Correctional Healthcare, Inc. [DN 32-1, at 1 n. 1.] Harper is a nurse, employed by the same company. [Id.] Advanced Correctional Healthcare, Inc. has a contract with Christian County to provide medical services to inmates at the Christian County Jail. [Id.] Defendant Boyd is the Christian County Jailer. Plaintiff is an inmate at the Christian County Jail. [DN 1, at 1.] Prior to his incarceration there, Plaintiff apparently had a long history of back problems. [Id. at 4.] In his Verified Complaint, Plaintiff avers that he suffers from “severe degenerative disc disease, ” as well as disc herniation. [Id.] According to Plaintiff, he has had four screws, a rod, and a metal plate surgically implanted into his back. [Id.]

         The impetus of Plaintiff's case is that Defendants (1) have failed to provide him with adequate medical care, (2) have failed to provide him with adequate shelter, and (3) have acted negligently in treating or otherwise responding to his back problems. Specifically, Plaintiff avers that his Eighth Amendment right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment was violated in two separate ways.[1] First, Plaintiff avers that Defendants repeatedly failed to see Plaintiff, prescribe him appropriate medication, refer him to a back specialist, take x-rays of his back, or recommend that he get surgery. [Id. at 4-5.] He further avers that they acted negligently in failing to do the same. [Id. at 5.] Second, Plaintiff avers that all three Defendants are liable under the Eighth Amendment for failing to provide him with adequate shelter during his time at the Christian County Jail. To that end, Plaintiff avers that upon his intake at the Jail, he was only given a thin mat and was assigned to a top bunk, despite his back problems. Plaintiff has moved for summary judgment in two separate Motions: one seeks summary judgment as against Boyd, and the other as against both Harper and Johnston. Likewise, Boyd has independently filed a Motion for Summary Judgment, and Harper and Johnston have moved jointly.

         II. Legal Standard

         Summary Judgment is appropriate where the pleadings, the discovery and disclosure materials on file, and any affidavits show “that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). Importantly, “not every issue of fact or conflicting inference presents a genuine issue of material fact.” Street v. J.C. Bradford & Co., 886 F.2d 1472, 1477 (6th Cir. 1989). Rather, the test is whether the party bearing the proof has presented a jury question as to each element in the case. Hartsel v. Keys, 87 F.3d 796, 799 (6th Cir. 1996). This means that the plaintiff must present more than a mere scintilla of evidence in support of his position; the plaintiff must present evidence on which the trier of fact could reasonably find for plaintiff. Id. Mere speculation will not suffice, because “the mere existence of a colorable factual dispute will not defeat a properly supported motion for summary judgment.” Moinette v. Elec. Data Sys. Corp., 90 F.3d 1173, 1177 (6th Cir. 1996). In determining whether summary judgment is warranted, the court must resolve all ambiguities and draw all reasonable inferences against the moving party. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986).

         III. Defendants' Motions for Summary Judgment

         All three Defendants have moved for summary judgment: Johnston and Harper jointly, and Boyd separately. Both Motions put forth the primary argument that Plaintiff's claims are barred by the Prison Litigation Reform Act, on the basis that he failed to exhaust his administrative remedies and failed to show an actual injury.[2] Defendants argue further that, even if Plaintiff exhausted his administrative remedies and can show actual injury, he still cannot show a serious medical need or deliberate indifference on the part of Defendants. Boyd further argues that he is entitled to immunity. Finally, all three Defendants argue that Plaintiff cannot establish a prima facie case of common law negligence. Due to the fact that the arguments advanced by all Defendants track each other very closely, the Court will address the Motions together by issue.

         A. Prison Litigation Reform Act

         The Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995 (“PLRA”) mandates that “[n]o action shall be brought with respect to prison conditions under section 1983 of this title, or any other Federal law, by a prisoner confined by any jail, prison, or other correctional facility until such administrative remedies as are available are exhausted.” 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(a). This means that, before prisoners may seek legal redress for alleged violations of their Federal rights in court, it is mandatory that they exhaust all administrative remedies first. See Porter v. Nussle, 534 U.S. 516, 524 (2002). Importantly, “the PLRA exhaustion requirement requires proper exhaustion, ” meaning “compliance with an agency's deadlines and other critical procedural rules because no adjudicative system can function effectively without imposing some orderly structure on the course of its proceedings.” Woodford v. Ngo, 548 U.S. 81, 91-93 (2006). Lastly, complete exhaustion of administrative remedies is required even where the administrative process available to the prisoner cannot provide him with the precise relief he seeks. Booth v. Churner, 532 U.S. 731, 741 (2001).

         According to Defendants, the Christian County Jail grievance policy is as follows:

Any prisoner shall be allowed to file a grievance at such time as the prisoner believes he or she has been subject to abuse, harassment, abridgment of civil rights or denied privileges specified in the posted rules. (Grievances must be restricted to incidents which occur while the prisoner is in custody of the center.) No prisoner shall fear against reprisal for initiating grievance procedure in an attempt to resolve legitimate complaints.

501 KAR 3:140, § 7. [See DN 40-1, at 1.] In addition to this general description of the Jail's grievance policy, there are also detailed procedures, which lay out the manner in which prisoners should go about filing such grievances. This includes how to fill out grievance forms, what they should contain and, of particular importance to the instant Motions, the appeals process.

         Specifically, the Jail's grievance policy provides the following: “If not satisfied with the disposition of the grievance by the Jailer, the inmate shall be furnished paper, pencil, and an envelope in order to set forth his grievance in writing and his objection to the disposition of the grievance. The inmate's appeal letter will then be forwarded to the Department of Corrections.” [Id. at 2.]

         The primary contention laid out in the Motions submitted by Harper and Johnston and by Boyd is that Plaintiff failed to exhaust his administrative remedies within the Christian County Jail and, as a result, the Court must dismiss Plaintiff's claims. There is some disagreement as to when Plaintiff filed his first grievance, and how many grievances he has filed to date. Boyd claims in his Motion for Summary Judgment that “[t]he first grievance [Plaintiff] provided to Jailer Boyd was on February 21, 2017…[and] was filed after [Plaintiff] filed his Complaint on February 17, 2017. [DN 35-1, at 7.] Conversely, Plaintiff contends that his first grievance was filed on February 2, 2017. [See DN 23-1, at 20.] Johnston and Harper appear to agree with Plaintiff's timeline. [See DN 32-1, at 5.] This would place the filing of his first grievance before the filing of his Verified Complaint, making it relevant.

         However, the crucial issue is not the precise date on which Plaintiff filed his grievance, nor is it how many grievances he has filed. Rather, the dispositive question in the PLRA exhaustion analysis is whether, upon filing such a grievance or grievances, Plaintiff exhausted the avenues of relief within the administrative system available to him in the Jail, or whether he failed to do so. As described above in the Jail's policy and procedure for filing and appealing grievances, an inmate's avenues are not exhausted unless and until the inmate appeals an adverse decision from the initial grievance. Assuming that Plaintiff's first grievance is correctly dated, and was therefore submitted on February 2, 2017, this is the only relevant grievance. This is because all remaining grievances that have been filed with Court by Plaintiff and Defendants were dated after the commencement of this lawsuit, and so do not apply towards the exhaustion requirement here. See 42 U.S.C. § 1997e (explaining that administrative remedies must be exhausted before an inmate may file a lawsuit in federal court).

         Plaintiff filed the February 2 grievance with the Court, which is addressed to a “Cpl. Howard, ” as well as to Boyd. [DN 23-1, at 16.] In it, Plaintiff details what he perceives to be the inadequate medical care he was receiving at the time. Boyd claims that he “never received a grievance from [Plaintiff] dated February 2, 2017, as indicated by [Plaintiff] and provided during the course of discovery.” [DN 35-1, at 7.] Boyd goes on to argue, though, that even assuming that this February 2 grievance was properly filed, Plaintiff never received Boyd's response and never inquired after it, nor did he file an appeal, as required by Jail policy. [Id. at 7-8.] Likewise, Johnston and Harper argue that Plaintiff “did not file an appeal to any of the grievances he submitted. He has not produced any evidence that he filed appeals.” [DN 32-1, at 8.] In his Response, Plaintiff argues that he wrote out grievances, placed them in an envelope, properly addressed them, and placed them “on [the] outside window ledge for deputies to pick up and take to the persons addressed….” [DN 37, at 2.] However, Plaintiff goes on to state that “[n]o grievance that was filed was answered!” [Id.] Plaintiff does not dispute Defendants' argument that he did not actually appeal this or any other grievance. As explained in Boyd's reply, “[d]espite his admitted familiarity with the [grievance] procedure, [Plaintiff] does not dispute his failure to appeal any grievance, or lack of response as he alleges, to the Department of Corrections.” [DN 38, at 1-2.]

         In response to Defendants' argument, Plaintiff's principle retort regarding the grievance policies and procedures is that the exact process by which inmates at the Jail are to file and appeal grievances is not adequately posted throughout the Jail. [See DN 37, at 2, Plaintiff explaining that “[t]here are no grievance procedures posted in all ‘cell' or living area, ” and that “no inmate is given a paper about grievance procedures.”] Notwithstanding this, “[s]ection 1997e(a) says nothing about a prisoner's subjective beliefs, logical or otherwise, about the administrative remedies that might be available to him. The statute's requirements are clear: If administrative remedies are available, the prisoner must exhaust them.” Brock v. Kenton County, Kentucky, 93 Fed.Appx. 793, 798 (6th Cir. 2004). Moreover, “[a] plaintiff's failure to exhaust cannot be excused by his ignorance of the law or the grievance policy.” Napier v. Laurel County, Kentucky, 636 F.3d 218, 221n.2 (6th Cir. 2011) (citing Molina-Crespo v. United States Merit Sys. Prot. Bd., 547 F.3d 651, 662 (6th Cir. 2008)) (“[E]ven in civil suits, ignorance of the law does not excuse the failure to follow it.”). Thus, any lack of subjective knowledge on the part of Plaintiff as to how or when to go about filing an appeal with respect to the February 2 grievance is immaterial, in and of itself, with respect to the exhaustion question.

         Plaintiff's final argument with respect to his lack of knowledge regarding the appeals process revolves around the Christian County Jail's inmate handbook. Specifically, while Boyd, Johnston and Harper cite to one written policy as controlling the grievance process in the Jail, [see DN 32-33, DN 35-23], Plaintiff cites to different language that he contends is in the inmate handbook. [See DN 40-1, at 4.] The photocopied exhibit to which Plaintiff cites provides as follows:

1. Any inmate will be allowed to file a grievance if he/she believes he/she has been subjected to abuse, harassment, a violation of civil rights or has been denied privileges without justification.
2. Such grievances shall be in written form on any type of paper, addressed to the Jailer and sealed in an unstamped envelope or handed [to] jail staff.
3. An inmate shall not fear against reprisal from initiating grievance procedures in an attempt to resolve legitimate complaints.

[Id.] Noticeably absent from this language is information regarding the appeals process for grievances. As the Supreme Court has noted, an inmate “must exhaust available remedies, but need not exhaust unavailable ones.” Ross v. Blake, 136 S.Ct. 1850, 1858 (2016). “Unavailability” exists in three situations: first, when the grievance procedure “operates as a simple dead end - with officers unable or consistently unwilling to provide any relief to aggrieved inmates.” Id. at 1859. Second, unavailability exists where the “administrative scheme…[is] so opaque that it becomes, practically speaking, incapable of use. In this situation, some mechanism exists to provide relief, but no ordinary prisoner can discern or navigate it.” Id. Third, ...


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