United States District Court, W.D. Tennessee, Eastern Division
April 21, 2015
MICHAEL EUGENE WIX, Plaintiff,
MEDICAL STAFF BCCX, ET AL., Defendants.
ORDER DISMISSING COMPLAINT, CERTIFYING AN APPEAL WOULD NOT BE TAKEN IN GOOD FAITH AND NOTIFYING PLAINTIFF OF APPELLATE FILING FEE
JAMES D. TODD, District Judge.
On January 5, 2015, Plaintiff, Michael Eugene Wix, Tennessee Department of Correction ("TDOC") prisoner number 120387, who is currently incarcerated at the West Tennessee State Penitentiary ("WTSP") in Henning, Tennessee, filed a pro se complaint pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. (ECF No. 1.) After Plaintiff filed the required documentation (ECF No. 6), the Court issued an order on February 20, 2015, granting leave to proceed in forma pauperis and assessing the civil filing fee pursuant to the Prison Litigation Reform Act ("PLRA"), 28 U.S.C. §§ 1915(a)-(b) (ECF No. 7). The Clerk shall record the Defendants as the medical staffs at the Bledsoe County Correctional Complex ("BCCX") in Pikeville, Tennessee and at the WTSP.
Plaintiff suffers from vasculitis. When he arrived at the BCCX in August 2014, Plaintiff asked the medical staff for medication for his condition. Plaintiff was told that the medication, called prednisone, would need to be approved by "Nashville." (ECF No. 1 at 5.) "A few weeks passed with wounds getting worse and in constant pain." ( Id. ) A nurse referred Plaintiff to see the on-site doctor, who gave him the required medication immediately. Once Plaintiff began to use the medicine, his wounds healed. The medication was discontinued after ten days, and the wounds reappeared. ( Id. )
Plaintiff was subsequently transferred to the WTSP, where the "process started all over again." ( Id. ) Plaintiff has never received prednisone while at the WTSP but, "after much pain and suffering for months one nurse without approval from superiors started using uuma boots on legs and they are finally starting to heal!" ( Id. ) Plaintiff seeks money damages. ( Id. at 6.)
The Court is required to screen prisoner complaints and to dismiss any complaint, or any portion thereof, if the complaint -
(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.
28 U.S.C. § 1915A(b); see also 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B).
In assessing whether the complaint in this case states a claim on which relief may be granted, the standards under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6), as stated in Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 677-79 (2009), and in Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555-57 (2007), are applied. Hill v. Lappin, 630 F.3d 468, 470-71 (6th Cir. 2010). "Accepting all well-pleaded allegations in the complaint as true, the Court consider[s] the factual allegations in [the] complaint to determine if they plausibly suggest an entitlement to relief.'" Williams v. Curtin, 631 F.3d 380, 383 (6th Cir. 2011) (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 681). "[P]leadings that... are no more than conclusions, are not entitled to the assumption of truth. While legal conclusions can provide the framework of a complaint, they must be supported by factual allegations." Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679; see also Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555 n.3 ("Rule 8(a)(2) still requires a showing, ' rather than a blanket assertion, of entitlement to relief. Without some factual allegation in the complaint, it is hard to see how a claimant could satisfy the requirement of providing not only fair notice' of the nature of the claim, but also grounds' on which the claim rests.").
"A complaint can be frivolous either factually or legally." Hill, 630 F.3d at 470 (citing Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319, 325 (1989)). "Any complaint that is legally frivolous would ipso facto fail to state a claim upon which relief can be granted." Id. (citing Neitzke, 490 U.S. at 328-29).
Whether a complaint is factually frivolous under §§ 1915A(b)(1) and 1915(e)(2)(B)(i) is a separate issue from whether it fails to state a claim for relief. Statutes allowing a complaint to be dismissed as frivolous give judges not only the authority to dismiss a claim based on an indisputably meritless legal theory, but also the unusual power to pierce the veil of the complaint's factual allegations and dismiss those claims whose factual contentions are clearly baseless. Unlike a dismissal for failure to state a claim, where a judge must accept all factual allegations as true, a judge does not have to accept "fantastic or delusional" factual allegations as true in prisoner complaints that are reviewed for frivolousness.
Id. at 471 (citations and internal quotation marks omitted).
" Pro se complaints are to be held to less stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers, ' and should therefore be liberally construed." Williams, 631 F.3d at 383 (quoting Martin v. Overton, 391 F.3d 710, 712 (6th Cir. 2004)). Pro se litigants, however, are not exempt from the requirements of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Wells v. Brown, 891 F.2d 591, 594 (6th Cir. 1989); see also Brown v. Matauszak, 415 F.Appx. 608, 612, 613 (6th Cir. Jan. 31, 2011) (affirming dismissal of pro se complaint for failure to comply with "unique pleading requirements" and stating "a court cannot create a claim which [a plaintiff] has not spelled out in his pleading'" (quoting Clark v. Nat'l Travelers Life Ins. Co., 518 F.2d 1167, 1169 (6th Cir. 1975))); Payne v. Sec'y of Treas., 73 F.Appx. 836, 837 (6th Cir. 2003) (affirming sua sponte dismissal of complaint pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2) and stating, "[n]either this court nor the district court is required to create Payne's claim for her"); cf. Pliler v. Ford, 542 U.S. 225, 231 (2004) ("District judges have no obligation to act as counsel or paralegal to pro se litigants."); Young Bok Song v. Gipson, 423 F.Appx. 506, 510 (6th Cir. 2011) ("[W]e decline to affirmatively require courts to ferret out the strongest cause of action on behalf of pro se litigants. Not only would that duty be overly burdensome, it would transform the courts from neutral arbiters of disputes into advocates for a particular party. While courts are properly charged with protecting the rights of all who come before it, that responsibility does not encompass advising litigants as to what legal theories they should pursue.").
To state a claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983,  a plaintiff must allege two elements: (1) a deprivation of rights secured by the "Constitution and laws" of the United States (2) committed by a defendant acting under color of state law. Adickes v. S.H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144, 150 (1970).
Plaintiff's complaint is deficient because it does not name any individual member of the medical staff at the BCCX or the WTSP as a party. Service of process cannot be made on an unidentified party. The filing of a complaint against such "John Doe" defendants does not toll the running of the statute of limitation against those parties. See Cox v. Treadway, 75 F.3d 230, 240 (6th Cir. 1996); Bufalino v. Mich. Bell Tel. Co., 404 F.2d 1023, 1028 (6th Cir. 1968). Thus, the case can proceed only if Plaintiff identifies a defendant prior to the expiration of the one-year limitation period applicable to § 1983 actions in Tennessee.
The failure to identify any defendant also means that the complaint does not state a claim for a violation of Plaintiff's constitutional rights. "The right to adequate medical care is guaranteed to convicted federal prisoners by the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause of the Eighth Amendment, and is made applicable to convicted state prisoners and to pretrial detainees (both federal and state) by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment." Johnson v. Karnes, 398 F.3d 868, 873 (6th Cir. 2005). "A prisoner's right to adequate medical care is violated when prison doctors or officials are deliberately indifferent to the prisoner's serious medical needs.'" Id. at 874 (quoting Comstock v. McCrary, 273 F.3d 693, 702 (6th Cir. 2001)); see also Santiago v. Ringle, 734 F.3d 585, 590 (6th Cir. 2013) (same). "Although the right to adequate medical care does not encompass the right to be diagnosed correctly, [the Sixth Circuit] has long held that prison officials who have been alerted to a prisoner's serious medical needs are under an obligation to offer medical care to such a prisoner." Johnson, 398 F.3d at 874 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).
The objective component of an Eighth Amendment claim requires that a prisoner have a serious medical need. Blackmore v. Kalamazoo Cnty., 390 F.3d 890, 895 (6th Cir. 2004); Brooks v. Celeste, 39 F.3d 125, 128 (6th Cir. 1994). "[A] medical need is objectively serious if it is one that has been diagnosed by a physician as mandating treatment or one that is so obvious that even a lay person would readily recognize the necessity for a doctor's attention." Blackmore, 390 F.3d at 897 (internal quotation marks and citations omitted); see also Santiago, 734 F.3d at 590 (same); Johnson, 398 F.3d at 874 (same). Alternatively, where a prisoner complains about a delay in medical treatment, the Court will "examine the seriousness of a deprivation by examining the effect of the delay in treatment." Napier v. Madison Cnty., Ky., 238 F.3d 739, 742 (6th Cir. 2001). "An inmate who complains that delay in medical treatment rose to a constitutional violation must place verifying medical evidence in the record to establish the detrimental effect of the delay in medical treatment to succeed." Id. (internal quotation marks and alteration omitted); see also Santiago, 734 F.3d at 591 ("In a case like this, involving a claim based on the prison's failure to treat a condition adequately, medical proof is necessary to assess whether the delay caused a serious medical injury." (internal quotation marks omitted)). "The verifying medical evidence' requirement is relevant [only] to those claims involving minor maladies or non-obvious complaints of a serious need for medical care." Blackmore, 390 F.3d at 898. The Court will assume, for purposes of this order, that Plaintiff's vasculitis constituted a serious medical need.
To establish the subjective component of an Eighth Amendment violation, a prisoner must demonstrate that the official acted with the requisite intent, that is, that he or she had a "sufficiently culpable state of mind." Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825, 834 (1994); Wilson v. Seiter, 501 U.S. 294, 302-03 (1991). The plaintiff must show that the prison officials acted with "deliberate indifference" to a substantial risk that the prisoner would suffer serious harm. Farmer, 511 U.S. at 834; Wilson, 501 U.S. at 303; Helling v. McKinney, 509 U.S. 25, 32 (1993); Woods v. Lecureux, 110 F.3d 1215, 1222 (6th Cir. 1997); Street v. Corr. Corp. of Am., 102 F.3d 810, 814 (6th Cir. 1996); Taylor v. Mich. Dep't of Corr., 69 F.3d 76, 79 (6th Cir. 1995). "[D]eliberate indifference describes a state of mind more blameworthy than negligence." Farmer, 511 U.S. at 835. Thus,
[a] prison official cannot be found liable under the Eighth Amendment for denying an inmate humane conditions of confinement unless the official knows of and disregards an excessive risk to inmate health or safety; the official must both be aware of facts from which the inference could be drawn that a substantial risk of serious harm exists, and he must also draw the inference. This approach comports best with the text of the Eighth Amendment as our cases have interpreted it. The Eighth Amendment does not outlaw cruel and unusual "conditions"; it outlaws cruel and unusual "punishments." An act or omission unaccompanied by knowledge of a significant risk of harm might well be something society wishes to discourage, and if harm does result society might well wish to assure compensation. The common law reflects such concerns when it imposes tort liability on a purely objective basis.... But an official's failure to alleviate a significant risk that he should have perceived but did not, while no cause for commendation, cannot under our cases be condemned as the infliction of punishment.
Id. at 837-38 (emphasis added; citations omitted); see also Garretson v. City of Madison Heights, 407 F.3d 789, 796 (6th Cir. 2005) ("If the officers failed to act in the face of an obvious risk of which they should have known but did not, then they did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment."). Each defendant's subjective knowledge must be assessed separately, Rouster v. Cnty. of Saginaw, 749 F.3d 437, 447 (6th Cir. 2014), and information available to one defendant may not automatically be imputed to other defendants, Gray v. City of Detroit, 399 F.3d 612, 616 (6th Cir. 2005).
"[T]hat a [medical professional] has been negligent in diagnosing or treating a medical condition does not state a valid claim... under the Eighth Amendment.'" Dominguez v. Corr. Med. Servs., 555 F.3d 543, 550 (6th Cir. 2009) (quoting Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 106 (1976)). "The requirement that the official have subjectively perceived a risk of harm and then disregarded it is meant to prevent the constitutionalization of medical malpractice claims; thus, a plaintiff alleging deliberate indifference must show more than negligence or the misdiagnosis of an ailment." Comstock, 273 F.3d at 703. "When a doctor provides treatment, albeit carelessly or inefficaciously, to a prisoner, he has not displayed a deliberate indifference to the prisoner's needs, but merely a degree of incompetence which does not rise to the level of a constitutional violation." Id. ; see also Johnson, 398 F.3d at 875 (same). "[D]eliberate indifference to a substantial risk of serious harm to a prisoner is the equivalent of recklessly disregarding that risk.'" Comstock, 273 F.3d at 703 (quoting Farmer, 511 U.S. at 836). "A medical decision not to order an X-ray, or like measures, does not represent cruel or unusual punishment. At most it is medical malpractice, and as such the proper forum is the state court." Estelle, 429 U.S. at 107.
The complaint does not adequately allege that any individual member of the medical staff at the BCCX or the WTSP actually perceived that Plaintiff had a serious medical need that required immediate and continuing treatment and recklessly disregarded that risk. Therefore, the complaint fails to state an Eighth Amendment claim because the subjective component has not been satisfied.
Plaintiff cannot avoid this result by suing the TDOC, which operates the BCCX and the WTSP. The Eleventh Amendment to the United States Constitution provides that "[t]he Judicial power of the United States shall not be construed to extend to any suit in law or equity, commenced or prosecuted against one of the United States by Citizens of another State, or by Citizens or Subjects of any Foreign State." U.S. Const. amend. XI. The Eleventh Amendment has been construed to prohibit citizens from suing their own states in federal court. Welch v. Tex. Dep't of Highways & Pub. Transp., 483 U.S. 468, 472 (1987); Pennhurst State Sch. & Hosp. v. Halderman, 465 U.S. 89, 100 (1984); Employees of Dep't of Pub. Health & Welfare v. Mo. Dep't of Pub. Health & Welfare, 411 U.S. 279, 280 (1973); see also Va. Office for Protection & Advocacy v. Stewart, 131 S.Ct. 1632, 1638 (2011) ("A State may waive its sovereign immunity at its pleasure, and in some circumstances Congress may abrogate it by appropriate legislation. But absent waiver or valid abrogation, federal courts may not entertain a private person's suit against a State." (citations omitted)). By its terms, the Eleventh Amendment bars all suits, regardless of the relief sought. Pennhurst, 465 U.S. at 100-01. Tennessee has not waived its sovereign immunity. Tenn. Code Ann. § 20-13-102(a). Moreover, a state is not a person within the meaning of 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Lapides v. Bd. of Regents of the Univ. Sys. of Ga., 535 U.S. 613, 617 (2002); Will v. Mich. Dep't of State Police, 491 U.S. 58, 71 (1989).
Plaintiff also may not sue any corporation that has contracted with the TDOC to offer medical care to prisoners at the BCCX or the WTSP. "A private corporation that performs the traditional state function of operating a prison acts under color of state law for purposes of § 1983." Thomas v. Coble, 55 F.Appx. 748, 748 (6th Cir. 2003) (citing Street, 102 F.3d at 814); see also Parsons v. Caruso, 491 F.Appx. 597, 609 (6th Cir. 2012) (corporation that provides medical care to prisoners can be sued under § 1983). The Sixth Circuit has applied the standards for assessing municipal liability to claims against private corporations that operate prisons or provide medical care to prisoners. Thomas, 55 F.Appx. at 748-49; Street, 102 F.3d at 817-18; Johnson v. Corr. Corp. of Am., 26 F.Appx. 386, 388 (6th Cir. 2001). When a § 1983 claim is made against a municipality, the court must analyze two distinct issues: (1) whether the plaintiff's harm was caused by a constitutional violation; and (2) if so, whether the municipality is responsible for that violation. Collins v. City of Harker Heights, Tex., 503 U.S. 115, 120 (1992). Any corporate defendant "cannot be held liable under a theory of respondeat superior." Braswell v. Corr. Corp. of Am., 419 F.Appx. 622, 627 (6th Cir. 2011). Instead, to prevail on a § 1983 claim against a corporate defendant, Plaintiff "must show that a policy or well-settled custom of the company was the moving force' behind the alleged deprivation" of his rights. Id. Because the subjective component of an Eighth Amendment claim has not been established, Plaintiff has no constitutional claim for which any corporate health care provider can be liable. S.L. ex rel. K.L. v. Pierce Twp. Bd. of Trs., 771 F.3d 956, 963 (6th Cir. 2014).
The Sixth Circuit has held that a district court may allow a prisoner to amend his complaint to avoid a sua sponte dismissal under the PLRA. LaFountain v. Harry, 716 F.3d 944, 951 (6th Cir. 2013); see also Brown v. Rhode Island, 511 F.Appx. 4, 5 (1st Cir. Feb. 22, 2013) (per curiam) ("Ordinarily, before dismissal for failure to state a claim is ordered, some form of notice and an opportunity to cure the deficiencies in the complaint must be afforded."). Leave to amend is not required where a deficiency cannot be cured. Brown, 511 F.Appx. at 5; Gonzalez-Gonzalez v. United States, 257 F.3d 31, 37 (1st Cir. 2001) ("This does not mean, of course, that every sua sponte dismissal entered without prior notice to the plaintiff automatically must be reversed. If it is crystal clear that the plaintiff cannot prevail and that amending the complaint would be futile, then a sua sponte dismissal may stand."); Grayson v. Mayview State Hosp., 293 F.3d 103, 114 (3d Cir. 2002) (" in forma pauperis plaintiffs who file complaints subject to dismissal under Rule 12(b)(6) should receive leave to amend unless amendment would be inequitable or futile"); Curley v. Perry, 246 F.3d 1278, 1284 (10th Cir. 2001) ("We agree with the majority view that sua sponte dismissal of a meritless complaint that cannot be salvaged by amendment comports with due process and does not infringe the right of access to the courts."). Because the deficiencies in Plaintiff's complaint cannot be cured, leave to amend is DENIED.
Therefore, the Court DISMISSES Plaintiff's complaint for failure to state a claim on which relief may be granted, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 1915(e)(2)(B)(ii) and 1915A(b)(1).
Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915(a)(3), the Court must also consider whether an appeal by Plaintiff in this case would be taken in good faith. The good faith standard is an objective one. Coppedge v. United States, 369 U.S. 438, 445 (1962). The test for whether an appeal is taken in good faith is whether the litigant seeks appellate review of any issue that is not frivolous. Id. It would be inconsistent for a district court to determine that a complaint should be dismissed prior to service on the Defendants, but has sufficient merit to support an appeal in forma pauperis. See Williams v. Kullman, 722 F.2d 1048, 1050 n.1 (2d Cir. 1983). The same considerations that lead the Court to dismiss this case for failure to state a claim also compel the conclusion that an appeal would not be taken in good faith.
Therefore, it is CERTIFIED, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915(a)(3), that any appeal in this matter by Plaintiff would not be taken in good faith.
The Court must also address the assessment of the $505 appellate filing fee if Plaintiff nevertheless appeals the dismissal of this case. A certification that an appeal is not taken in good faith does not affect an indigent prisoner plaintiff's ability to take advantage of the installment procedures contained in § 1915(b). See McGore v. Wrigglesworth, 114 F.3d 601, 610-11 (6th Cir. 1997), partially overruled on other grounds by LaFountain v. Harry, 716 F.3d 944, 951 (6th Cir. 2013). McGore sets out specific procedures for implementing the PLRA, 28 U.S.C. § 1915(a)-(b). Therefore, the Plaintiff is instructed that if he wishes to take advantage of the installment procedures for paying the appellate filing fee, he must comply with the procedures set out in McGore and § 1915(a)(2) by filing an updated in forma pauperis affidavit and a current, certified copy of his inmate trust account for the six months immediately preceding the filing of the notice of appeal.
For analysis under 28 U.S.C. § 1915(g) of future filings, if any, by Plaintiff, this is the first dismissal of one of his cases as frivolous or for failure to state a claim. This "strike" shall take effect when judgment is entered. Coleman v. Tollefson, 733 F.3d 175, 177-78 (6th Cir. 2013), cert. granted, 135 S.Ct. 43 (2014) (Nos. 13-1333, 13A985).
The Clerk is directed to prepare a judgment.
IT IS SO ORDERED.