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Williams v. Kentucky Association Of Counties Insurance Agency, Inc.

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

June 28, 2018

GERALD WILLIAMS, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
KENTUCKY ASSOCIATION OF COUNTIES INSURANCE AGENCY, INC., et al., Defendants.

          OPINION & ORDER

          Robert E. Wier United States District Judge

         Plaintiffs Gerald Williams and Chad Ludwick, former Leslie County Detention Center (LCDC) inmates, initiated this 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action against Defendants, LCDC employees[1] and its insurer, alleging state law negligence and Eighth Amendment[2]violations. DE 1, at 3-4 (Complaint). The suit stems from a fire at LCDC. Plaintiffs claim injuries resulting from facility personnel's alleged failure to evacuate male inmates from a smoke-filled room. Named Defendants moved to dismiss. DE 5 (Motion). After full briefing (DE 9 - Response; DE 11 - Reply), Magistrate Judge Atkins recommended wholesale dismissal. DE 12 (Report and Recommendation). Specifically, the R&R endorsed dismissing Defendant Kentucky Association of Counties Insurance Agency, Inc. (KACo) as an improper party and dismissing the remaining claims for failure to state a § 1983-cognizable claim. Id. at 3, 6.

         Judge Atkins explicitly notified the parties of the waiver implications of any failure to object. Id. at 6. Nonetheless, Plaintiffs did not substantively object to the recommendation. See DE 13 (Response). Instead, Plaintiffs moved for leave to amend the Complaint. See id.; DE 15 (Motion for Leave to Amend). The amendment motion is fully briefed. DE 16 (Defendants' Response), DE 18 (Plaintiffs' Reply).[3] The motions and R&R are ripe for review.[4]

         I. GOVERNING STANDARDS

         A. Dismissal

         To survive a motion to dismiss, “a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 1949 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 1974 (2007)). “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.” Id. However, “a formulaic recitation of a cause of action's elements will not do[.]” Twombly, 127 S.Ct. at 1965. Courts “must construe the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff and accept all allegations as true.” Keys v. Humana, Inc., 684 F.3d 605, 608 (6th Cir. 2012). Yet, courts need not accept “legal conclusion[s] couched as [ ] factual allegation[s].” Papasan v. Allain, 106 S.Ct. 2932, 2944 (1986). Finally, “[m]atters outside of the pleadings are not to be considered by a court in ruling on a . . . motion to dismiss.” Weiner v. Klais and Co., Inc., 108 F.3d. 86, 88 (6th Cir. 1997).

         Hinging on Rule 8's minimal standards, Twombly and Iqbal require a plaintiff to “plead facts sufficient to show that her claim has substantive plausibility.” Johnson v. City of Shelby, 135 S.Ct. 346, 347 (2014). Where plaintiffs state “simply, concisely, and directly events that . . . entitled them to damages, ” the rules require “no more to stave off threshold dismissal for want of an adequate statement[.]” Id.; El-Hallani v. Huntington Nat. Bank, 623 Fed.Appx. 730, 739 (6th Cir. 2015) (“Although Twombly and Iqbal have raised the bar for pleading, it is still low.”).

         B. Amendment

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 15(a)(2) provides that a party may amend its pleadings with the court's leave, which “[t]he court should freely give . . . when justice so requires.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 15(a)(2). Nonetheless, courts may deny amendment for a variety of reasons-“such as undue delay, bad faith or dilatory motive on the part of the movant, repeated failure to cure deficiencies by amendments previously allowed, undue prejudice to the opposing party by virtue of allowance of the amendment, futility of amendment, etc.” Foman v. Davis, 83 S.Ct. 227, 230 (1962). “Amendment of a complaint is futile when the proposed amendment would not permit the complaint to survive a motion to dismiss.” Miller v. Calhoun Cnty., 408 F.3d 803, 807 (6th Cir. 2005) (citing Neighborhood Dev. Corp. v. Advisory Council on Historic Pres., 632 F.2d 21, 23 (6th Cir. 1980)). Ultimately, “the grant or denial of an opportunity to amend is within the discretion of the District Court.” Foman, 83 S.Ct. at 230.[5]

         C. Deliberate Indifference

         To survive a motion to dismiss Eighth Amendment conditions of confinement claims, such as Plaintiffs now bring, prisoners must allege “facts that, if proven, would show that prison officials acted with ‘deliberate indifference' towards conditions at the prison that created a substantial risk of serious harm. . . . This test involves both an objective and subjective component.” Brown v. Bargery, 207 F.3d 863, 867 (6th Cir. 2000) (internal citations omitted). To satisfy the objective component, “[f]or a claim (like the one here) based on a failure to prevent harm, the inmate must show that he [was] incarcerated under conditions posing a substantial risk of serious harm.” Farmer v. Brennan, 114 S.Ct. 1970, 1977 (1994). To satisfy the subjective component, the inmate must show that prison officials acted (or failed to act) with “deliberate indifference to inmate health or safety[.]” Id. (internal citations and quotation marks omitted).

         Per the cases, deliberate indifference, in turn, has subjective and objective components. Perez v. Oakland Cnty., 466 F.3d 416, 423 (6th Cir. 2006).[6] “[T]he deliberate indifference standard ‘describes a state of mind more blameworthy than negligence[.]” Brown, 207 F.3d at 867. Plaintiffs must show that prison officials knew of and disregarded conditions objectively posing “an excessive risk to inmate health or safety[, ]” and that the officials did so with a sufficiently culpable state of mind. Id.; see also Youngberg v. Romeo, 102 S.Ct. 2452, 2458 (1982) (“[I]t is cruel and unusual punishment to hold convicted criminals in unsafe conditions.”).

         “In considering the subjective component, [the Sixth C]ircuit has emphasized that a plaintiff must produce evidence showing that the official being sued subjectively perceived facts from which to infer substantial risk to the prisoner, that he did in fact draw the inference, and that he then disregarded that risk.” Perez, 466 F.3d at 424; Rouster, 749 F.3d at 446 (setting out test). Deliberate indifference is “a stringent standard of fault, requiring proof that a municipal actor disregarded a known or obvious consequence of his action.” Connick v. Thompson, 131 S.Ct. 1350, 1360 (2011) (quoting Bd. of Cnty. Comm'rs of Bryan Cnty., Okla. v. Brown, 117 S.Ct. 1382, 1391 (1997)); see also Farmer, 114 S.Ct. at 1980 (adopting “subjective recklessness” as the test for deliberate indifference).[7]

         “[T]he subjective intentions of prison authorities must be demonstrated by objective manifestations of such intent, and cannot be proved by factually unsupported, conclusory opinions of the court or of the prisoners or their representatives.” United States v. Michigan, 940 F.2d 143, 154 n.7 (6th Cir. 1991). However, “courts may infer the existence of this subjective state of mind from the fact that the risk of harm is obvious[, ]” Warren, 576 Fed.Appx. at 553 (internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting Hope v. Pelzer, 122 S.Ct. 2508, 2514 (2002)), or in other “usual ways, including inference from circumstantial evidence.” Id. (quoting Farmer, 114 S.Ct. at 1981).

         II. RECOMMENDED DISMISSAL

         Plaintiffs pursue recovery based on a relatively straightforward factual scenario: Certain female inmates, on August 13, 2016, started a mattress fire in the “female communal room” at LCDC. During-and for three hours after-the conflagration, LCDC staff allegedly refused to evacuate the male prisoners, including Plaintiffs, from the adjacent, smoke-filled, male communal room. Defendants moved for Rule 12(b)(6) dismissal. DE 5. Upon full briefing, Judge Atkins recommended dismissing Defendant KACo “because it is not a real party in interest” and dismissing the balance of the Complaint as alleging only negligent conduct, which is not actionable under § 1983. DE 12, at 3-6.

         The Court must conduct a de novo review of “those portions of the report or specified proposed findings or recommendations to which objection is made.” 28 U.S.C § 636(b). However, “[i]t does not appear that Congress intended to require district court review of a magistrate's factual or legal conclusions, under a de novo or any other standard, when neither party objects to those findings.” Thomas v. Arn, 106 S.Ct. 466, 472 (1985). A party that fails to “file objections with the district court . . . waive[s] [the] right to appeal.” United States v. Walters, 638 F.2d 947, 950 (6th Cir. 1981). Despite Plaintiffs' non-objection, the Court has examined the recommendation in full. The Court agrees that all claims against KACo should be dismissed. Indeed, the Complaint contains not a single factual allegation against KACo. Plaintiffs agree that KACo dismissal is appropriate. DE 9, at 1. [The proposed Amended Complaint (DE 15-1) seeks to substitute LCDC for KACo.] Accordingly, the Court adopts Judge Atkins's recommendation in part and dismisses KACo from this action.

         On the other hand, the Court finds dismissal as to Clark and the Doe Defendants unwarranted. The Court reads the original Complaint as alleging distinct state law negligence and § 1983 deliberate indifference claims that satisfy the 12(b)(6) standard and, thus, rejects the dismissal recommendations as to Clark and the Unknown Defendants. See DE 1, at ¶¶ 8-14 (“Count I - Negligence”), at ¶¶ 15-17 (“Count II - Violation of the Eighth Amendment”). As Judge Atkins noted, stressing the Kentucky law references in the Complaint, “negligence claims may arise under state law negligence theories.” DE 12, at 4 (citing Woodrum v. City of Frankfort, No. Civ.A.05-CV-32-KKC, 2005 WL 1514309, at *2 (E.D. Ky. June 24, 2005)). The Court also agrees that “the factual allegations solely found in Plaintiffs' Eighth Amendment claim, [ ] construed in Plaintiffs' favor, . . . [plausibly state a claim] that Defendant Clark, in his individual capacity, and the Unknown Corrections Officers exhibited deliberate indifference toward Plaintiffs' health sufficient to constitute cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment.” DE 12, at 5. Judge Atkins saw plausible negligence and a plausible deliberate indifference claim but then melded the allegations to find that Plaintiffs were alleging only a negligent level of culpability. In the Court's view, the Complaint adequately stated each claim.

         The Complaint, construed in Plaintiffs' favor, alleges[8] that Clark and the Unknown Defendants[9] violated the Eighth Amendment “by refusing to remove Plaintiffs from [a] smoke filled cell for approximately three (3) hours following the inception of the fire, despite their knowledge of such.” DE 1, at ¶ 17. Plaintiffs further allege that “Defendants' acts or omissions . . . were grossly negligent, reckless, wanton, or willful.” Id. at ¶ 19 (emphasis added). The law equates deliberate indifference with recklessness. See Farmer, 114 S.Ct. at 1978 (“It is, indeed, fair to say that acting or failing to act with deliberate indifference to a substantial risk of serious harm to a prisoner is the equivalent of recklessly disregarding that risk.”). Here, Plaintiffs claim that Defendants, during and in the aftermath of a jail fire, recklessly (or willfully) refused to evacuate them from a ...


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