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Taylor v. Buckles

United States District Court, E.D. Tennessee, Greeneville

February 23, 2017

STEVEN M. TAYLOR, Plaintiff,
v.
NATHANIEL LOGAN BUCKLES, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          J. RONNIE GREER UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         This civil matter is before the Court on the joint motion for summary judgment of defendants Ron Street and Tom Smith (movants) [Doc. 61]. Plaintiff responded in opposition to summary judgment [Doc. 69], movants replied in turn [Doc. 72], and plaintiff submitted a sur-reply [Doc. 76]. The following motions by plaintiff are also before the Court: a motion to “show just cause” [Doc. 58]; a motion for an extension of time to reply to defendants' motion for summary judgment [Doc. 64]; a motion to compel discovery [Doc. 65]; a motion for the appointment of counsel [Doc. 66]; and a motion to “deem service of process” effective against a defendant who is not a party to the motion for summary judgment-Nathaniel Buckles [Doc. 74]. The Court will grant the motion for summary judgment, grant plaintiff's motion for an extension nunc pro tunc, and deny plaintiff's requests to “show just cause, ” to compel discovery, for counsel, and to “deem service of process” effective. All of plaintiff's causes of action will be dismissed with prejudice.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Procedural

         Plaintiff filed the instant action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against several defendants including Carter County Sheriff Chris Mathis (Sheriff Mathis), Chief Deputy Sheriff Ron Street (Chief Street); Captain Steven Taylor (Cpt. Taylor), and Correction Officer Nathanial Buckles (Officer Buckles) [Doc. 2]. In that complaint, plaintiff claimed that he complained to “state inspectors” about the jail policy of opening and closing the cell doors “every hour on the hour day and night” and that Officer Buckles retaliated against him by placing a member of a white supremacist gang into his cell on two seperate occasions despite the fact that doing so put plaintiff, a black man, at serious risk of physical injury. [Id.]. Plaintiff filed two amended complaints containing several novel theories of liability and identifying new defendants [Docs. 20, 31, 34]. In one of the new claims, plaintiff accused Deputy Street and Cpt. Smith of altering prison policy so that all cell inspections would occur between the hours of 10:00 p.m. and 3:00 a.m. as retaliation for plaintiff filing grievances about the retaliatory placement of “racist” gang members in his cell; in another, he clarified that Officer Buckles was only responsible for the first cell mate placement and that three unnamed defendants were responsible for the second incident [Id.]. This Court performed its screening obligations under 28 U.S.C. § 1915, sua sponte dismissing the causes of action and defendants for which plaintiff had failed to state a viable claim [Docs. 7, 26, 33]. At the conclusion of that process, this Court stated the following:

         To summarize, the only claims which remain in this case, and to which all defendants should file an answer or other response, are as follows:

(1) plaintiff's claim that defendant Corrections Officer Buckles retaliated against him for his act of speaking to jail inspectors about the jail doors being opened every hour by placing a racist gang member in plaintiff's cell;
(2) plaintiff's claim that the three John Doe jailers also retaliated against him for his act of speaking to jail inspectors about the jail doors being opened every hour by placing a racist gang member in plaintiff's cell; and
(3) plaintiff's claim that defendants Street and Smith retaliated against him for filing grievances and/or speaking to jail officials by making a policy that cell inspections would occur between 10 p.m. and 3 a.m.

[Doc. 33 pp. 9-10]. No additional claims or defendants have been added [Docs. 51, 56].[1]

         Chief Street and Cpt. Smith (movants) filed the instant motion for summary judgment on June 10, 2016 [Doc. 61]. In that motion, they claim the following: plaintiff has not exhausted administrative remedies for the claim asserted against them, i.e., retaliatory alteration of the prison inspection policy; and, regardless, they are entitled to qualified immunity under the “undisputed facts” of this case [Docs. 61, 63]. In support of the request, Chief Street and Cpt. Smith filed a memorandum and statement of facts [Docs. 41, 42]. Plaintiff has responded [Doc. 69], filed his own affidavits of fact [Docs. 69-1, 70], and filed a sur-reply to movants' reply [Docs. 72, 76].

         B. Factual[2]

         Plaintiff is an inmate in the custody of the Tennessee Department of Corrections (TDOC) who was incarcerated at Carter County Jail from September 14, 2013 until he was moved to Johnson County Jail on May 9, 2014 [Doc. 69-1 ¶ 2]. During that period of incarceration, Carter County Jail had a policy under which cell inspections were performed at the discretion of the correctional officers, i.e., could take place at any hour of the day or night based on when the correctional officers had time to complete the inspections [Doc. 61-1 ¶¶ 6-7; Doc. 61-2 ¶¶ 6-7; Exhibit B]. According to a General Order, inspections could occur “at any time, ” “without warning and irregularly, ” and that “inmates [should] be monitored continuously” [Id.]. At no point during plaintiff's term of incarceration did either Chief Street or Cpt. Smith change that policy to require that cell inspections take place at nighttime hours or between 10:00 p.m. and 3:00 a.m. [Id.].

         Carter County Jail had a grievance process available to inmates at all relevant times [Doc. 61-1 ¶ 3; Doc. 61-2 ¶ 3]. An inmate with a problem or issue could request a hard copy grievance form from any correction officer [Id.]. The inmate would fill out the form and return it to the officer, who would in turn take the grievance to their supervisor [Doc. 61-1 ¶ 4; Doc. 61-2 ¶ 4]. After the supervisor noted on the form whether or not the complained-of issue had been resolved, he would deliver that document to Cpt. Smith for evaluation and resolution [Id.]. After Cpt. Smith made his determination about whether, and to what extent, a resolution was needed, he would forward the completed grievance to Chief Street, who would “review [that decision] to ensure policy conformity, ” initial the completed grievance to show that he had done so, and send the initialed decision back to the inmate [Id.]. If the inmate disagreed with the decision, he had three days within which to appeal the grievance to the Sheriff [Id.]. In the case of appeal, an appeal form would be provided to the Sheriff for his assessment and final determination and the completed grievance appeal form would be returned to the inmate [Id.].

         Until the end of 2013, Carter County Jail used a single-purpose grievance form, meaning inmate requests were submitted through a different process and on a different form [Doc. 61-1 ¶ 2; 61-2 ¶ 2]. Beginning in 2014, however, Carter County Jail streamlined the process and switched to a multi-purpose form on which inmates checked a box indicating whether the filing was a “request” or “grievance” [Id.]. Plaintiff had experience using both types of form [Id.; Exhibit A].

         On April 15, 2014, plaintiff submitted a multi-purpose form with the “request” option selected in which he inquired about the status of a grievance that he had allegedly submitted ten days earlier but for which he had not yet received a response [Doc. 2-1 p. 1]. In the response section, Cpt. Smith explained that he had gotten a bit behind on responding to grievances because he had been out due to an illness and promised that he had begun working on that backlog [Id.].

         On April 25, 2014, plaintiff submitted another multi-purpose form with the “request” option selected explaining that he was still waiting on a reply to the grievance referenced in the request sent ten days earlier [Id. at 2]. In his response, Cpt. Smith noted that the backlog of grievances had been completed, agreed that plaintiff should have gotten a response by now, and asked another officer to “please check on [the matter]” [Id.]. An individual with the initials JP- presumably the individual tasked with finding plaintiff's grievance-explained that no record of the grievance could be found and asked plaintiff to “please resend the grievance again” [Id.].

         On April 30, 2014, plaintiff submitted a third multi-purpose form with the “request” option selected [Id. at 3]. Unlike his prior two requests, plaintiff did not mention the missing grievance and instead requested the “full name” and “domicile” of Chief Street and Cpt. Smith for “use in [his] civil rights complaint” [Id.]. Cpt. Smith declined to provide the information because plaintiff did not need that information to file a civil suit; Chief Street wrote plaintiff the following message: “[I]f you have a problem you should let us know what it is. It might be resolved” [Id.].

         On May 6, 2014, plaintiff submitted a fourth multi-purpose form with the “request” option selected complaining again that he had not received a reply to the missing grievance “about [the] violation of the Tenn[essee] Const[itution]” and his “civil rights” [Id. at 4]. He noted that he had received replies to all three of his requests about the grievance, but no response to the grievance itself [Id.]. In his response, Cpt. Smith explained that he had “responded to all [of] the grievances that [he] ha[d] received” [Id.]. In a separate notation on the same document, Capt. Smith noted that he went to speak with plaintiff about the matter and that plaintiff told him “they did not have to open the doors every hour” and that the Tennessee Constitution “mandates [that] he receive eight hours of uninterrupted sleep [a night]” [Id. at 3-4]. He also noted that plaintiff informed him that officers had placed members of “the [Aryan] Brotherhood” in his cell on at least one occasion [Id.], and inquired about the status of a § 1983 complaint which had been “sent to the commissary company” and returned without notarization [Id. at 4]. Cpt. Smith suggested that plaintiff “address a grievance to the Sheriff” if his “answers to the issues were not sufficient” [Id.].

         On February 11, 2015, Plaintiff filed an amended complaint claiming that Chief Street and Cpt. Smith had instituted a new cell inspection policy as retaliation against him for filing grievances, speaking to a state inspector about the cell doors being opened every hour, and suing several officers under § 1983 [Doc. 20]. Chief Street and Cpt. Smith deny that they ever changed Carter County Jail cell inspection policy, that they knew about conversations between plaintiff and state inspectors, or that they ordered any correctional officer to inspect plaintiff's cell at any time for any retaliatory purpose [Doc. 61-1 ¶¶ 6, 8-9; Doc. 61-2 ¶¶ 6, 8-9]. While both individuals acknowledge that plaintiff filed numerous grievance on a variety of issues, neither remembers plaintiff submitting a grievances alleging that they had altered the prison cell inspection policy in retaliation against him [Doc. 61-1 ¶ 5; Doc. 61-2 ¶ 5]. Further, neither individual has been able to locate such a grievance during their search of Carter County Jail grievance records [Id.]. Without contradicting their account of events, plaintiff claims that he “made it clear to [Chief Street and Cpt. Smith], while exhausting the grievance procedure on different issues, that [he] intended to file a . . . complaint for their violation of [his] civil rights” [Docs. 69-1, 70].

         II. MOTIONS REQUIRING RESOLUTION

         A. Motion for an Extension of Time to Reply

         On June 23, 2016, Plaintiff requested an extension of time to respond to movants' motion for summary judgment [Doc. 64]. Plaintiff cites his lack of legal experience and limited access to the law library as justification for the extension [Id.]. Before this Court could rule on that motion, however, Petitioner filed an initial response and a sur-reply [Docs. 69, 76]. In light of these developments and for good cause shown, the request will be GRANTED nunc pro tunc.

         B. Motion to “Compel Discovery”[3]

         In his motion to compel, plaintiff explains that defendants only responded to the first of two sets of discovery requests and asks the Court to compel a response to the second [Doc. 65 (explaining that the unanswered discovery included a request for specific documents, a set of interrogatories, and a request for production of a security video)]. In their response, Chief Street and Cpt. Smith admit that they initially failed to comply with the second set of discovery requests, explain that that failure was because they were unaware of the request, and claim that they responded after plaintiff's motion to compel brought the omission to their attention [Doc. 67]. In his reply, plaintiff appears to acknowledge that he has now received an answer to the second set of discovery requests, but maintains that the Court should grant his ...


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