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Eaves v. Ballard

United States District Court, E.D. Kentucky, Central Division, Lexington

December 17, 2018

MICHAEL EAVES, Plaintiff,
v.
RODNEY BALLARD, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          KAREN K. CALDWELL, CHIEF JUDGE

         This matter is before the Court to address several motions pending in this matter.

         Daniel Schulman, counsel for defendants Christian Toelke and Stefany Hughes, has filed a motion to withdraw as counsel of record because his employment with the Justice & Public Safety Cabinet concluded at the end of November 2018. He further indicates that Brenn Combs, the General Counsel for the Kentucky Department of Corrections, may be contacted if necessary until successor counsel files a notice of appearance in this case in the coming weeks. [R. 36] The motion is well taken and appropriate, and the Court will grant the motion as set forth below.

         Defendants Toelke and Hughes have filed a motion to dismiss the complaint of plaintiff Michael Eaves pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. [R. 35] In his Second Amended Complaint, Eaves alleged that these defendants discriminated against him by effectively delaying his transfer into Northpoint Training Center (“NTC”)'s “Honor Dorm” in violation of his rights under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments.[1] [R. 10, Page ID # 227-33]

         As grounds for dismissal, defendants first contend that Eaves's failure to specifically indicate in his complaint that they are being sued in their individual capacities necessitates the conclusion that he intended to sue them in their official capacities. [R. 35-1, Page ID #435-37] Because such official capacity claims would be barred by the Eleventh Amendment, the argument goes, the claims must be dismissed. Id. at Page ID #437-39. The Court disagrees.

         Had Eaves sued the defendants in their official capacities, such claims would plainly be barred. An “official capacity” claim against a state official is not a claim against the officer arising out of his or her conduct as an employee of the state, but is actually a claim directly against the state agency which employs them. Hopper v. Phil Plummer, 887 F.3d 744, 760 n.4 (6th Cir. 2018); Baar v. Jefferson Co. Bd. of Educ., 476 Fed.Appx. 621, 634 (6th Cir. 2012) (“Personal-capacity suits seek to impose personal liability upon a government official for actions he takes under color of law. Official-capacity suits, in contrast, ‘generally represent only another way of pleading an action against an entity of which an officer is an agent.'”) (quoting Monell v. New York City Dept. of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658, 690 n.55 (1978)). An official capacity claim against the defendants would therefore constitute civil rights claims against the Kentucky Department of Corrections (“KDOC”).

         However, the KDOC is not subject to suit under § 1983 in federal court. KDOC is an agency of the Commonwealth of Kentucky. See Ky. Rev. Stat. § 12.250; Gibbons v. Kentucky Dept. of Corrections, No. 3:07CV-P697-S, 2008 WL 4127847, at *2-3 (W.D. Ky. Sept. 4, 2008). Therefore, KDOC is not a “person” subject to liability under Section 1983. Puckett v. Lexington-Fayette Urban Co. Gov't., 833 F.3d 590, 598 (6th Cir. 2016) (citing Will v. Mich. Dep't of State Police, 491 U.S. 58, 71 (1989)). In addition, the Eleventh Amendment deprives federal district courts of subject matter jurisdiction over a claim for money damages against a state and its agencies. Ernst v. Rising, 427 F.3d 351, 358 (6th Cir. 2005) (citing Edelman v. Jordan, 415 U.S. 651, 662-63 (1974)). The question remaining is whether Eaves sued the defendants in their individual or official capacities.

         In Wells v. Brown, 891 F.2d 591 (6th Cir. 1989), the Sixth Circuit established the rule that “plaintiffs seeking damages under § 1983 [must] set forth clearly in their pleading that they are suing the state defendants in their individual capacity for damages, not simply in their capacity as state officials.” The Wells court relied in part upon Rule 9(a)'s requirement that a plaintiff plead capacity where necessary to establish jurisdiction, particularly in light of the sovereign immunity afforded by the Eleventh Amendment to state employees sued in their official capacity. Id. at 592-94. But in the years following, the Sixth Circuit tempered the rule of Wells in circumstances where the complaint does not state the capacity under which the defendants are sued. In such cases, the court looks to events transpiring after the filing of the complaint to determine whether the defendants had been adequately placed on notice of the plaintiff's intention to subject them to personal liability. E.g., Pelfrey v. Chambers, 43 F.3d 1034, 1038 (6th Cir.), cert. denied, 515 U.S. 1116 (1995); Abdur-Rahman v. Mich. Dep't of Corr., 65 F.3d 489, 491 (6th Cir. 1995).

         The Sixth Circuit, sitting en banc, subsequently clarified that Wells did not establish a per se rule that plaintiffs must affirmatively plead individual capacity claims in the complaint. The Supreme Court itself had stated that when “the complaint [does] not clearly specify whether officials are sued personally, in their official capacity, or both [] ‘[t]he course of proceedings' in such cases typically will indicate the nature of the liability sought to be imposed.” Kentucky v. Graham, 473 U.S. 159, 165 n.14 (1985). Consistent with that approach, the Sixth Circuit held that district courts should consider the “course of proceedings, ” including statements in the complaint and subsequent motions regarding the nature of the claims asserted, requests for monetary damages against the individual defendants, allegations that an individual defendant possessed supervisory authority over others, and assertions by the defendants of qualified immunity, to determine whether the complaint put the defendants on notice that an individual capacity claim was asserted against them. Moore v. City of Harriman, 272 F.3d 769, 772-74 (6th Cir. 2001) (en banc); see also Shepherd v. Wellman, 313 F.3d 963, 969 (6th Cir. 2002); Rodgers v. Banks, 344 F.3d 587, 594 (6th Cir. 2003); Garcia v. Dykstra, 260 Fed.Appx. 887, 894-95 (6th Cir. 2008).

         Eaves's complaint adequately put the defendants on notice that they were being sued in their individual capacity for their actions taken under color of state law, a prerequisite to establish the necessary state action to pursue a claim under Section 1983, rather than in their official capacities. First, Eaves complains of actions taken by Toelke and Hughes, but does not suggest that those actions were taken pursuant to any KDOC policy or custom. [R. 10, Page ID #233] Second, Eaves seeks monetary damages against each of the individual defendants. Id. at Page ID #234. Third, Eaves does seek injunctive relief against the Kentucky Department of Corrections, but not for alleged constitutional violations, only “to stop all its violations of the Americans Disabilities Act, the Rehabilitation Act in all Kentucky Prisons.” Id. The requested injunctive relief against KDOC therefore does not suggest an intent to assert an official capacity claim under Section 1983. On balance, the complaint adequately indicates a desire to assert claims against these defendants in their individual capacity.

         To be sure, Eaves's complaint could be clearer on this point. However, Eaves states that he is mentally and physically disabled, bipolar, blind in one eye, has significant hearing loss [R. 10 at 2; R. 18], suffers from a number of additional medical restrictions or disabilities, and has been reliant upon a jailhouse lawyer to assist him in his earlier filings [R. 24]. Eaves is also proceeding without the benefit of counsel. The cases relied upon by the defendants, like Shepherd v. Wellman, 313 F.3d 963 (6th Cir. 2002), involved plaintiffs who were represented by an attorney, and who therefore likely made a conscious and informed decision regarding the capacity in which the defendants were being sued. Here, giving the pro se plaintiff the liberal construction of his claims to which he is entitled, Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, 520-21 (1972), Eaves's complaint provided adequate notice to Toelke and Hughes that they were being sued in their individual capacities.

         The defendants also contend that Eaves failed to exhaust his administrative remedies as required by federal law because he did not identify them by name in his inmate grievance. [R. 35-1 at Page ID #438-41] Federal law requires a prisoner to fully utilize the prison's inmate grievance system before filing suit to assert a civil claim regarding the conditions of his confinement. 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(a). The defendants, relying upon Burton v. Jones, 321 F.3d 569, 575 (6th Cir. 2003) and other Sixth Circuit cases decided before 2007, assert that the federal exhaustion requirement itself requires the inmate to name in his grievance the officers he ultimately sues. [R. 35-1 at Page ID #440] But this is no longer true: Burton was directly overruled by the Supreme Court in Jones v. Bock, 549 U.S. 199, 217 (2007).

         Nonetheless, if the express terms of the prison's grievance procedure require the inmate to name in his grievance the officers involved, the inmate must comply with that requirement. Jones, 549 U.S. at 218; Woodford v. Ngo, 548 U.S. 81, 90 (2006). Here, KDOC's grievance system requires the inmate to “include all aspects of the issue and identify all individuals in the ‘Brief Statement of the Problem' section of the written grievance so that all problems concerning the issue or individuals may be dealt with...” Corrections Policies and Procedures 14.6(II)(J)(5)

         (emphasis added). This requirement is sufficiently clear that Eaves was required to name the officers involved, something he did not do in Grievance 16-601, the grievance he filed on October 5, 2016 to complain of the delay ...


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