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Watkins v. Lindamood

United States District Court, M.D. Tennessee, Columbia Division

March 27, 2018

LARRY WATKINS, Plaintiff,
v.
WARDEN CHERYL LINDAMOOD, et al., Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          WAVERLY D. CRENSHAW, JR. CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Larry Watkins alleges in this pro se prisoner civil rights action brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 that he suffered discrimination on the basis of his race in violation of the Equal Protection Clause and a violation of his due process rights in the prison disciplinary process. (Doc. No. 1.) Watkins's claims arise out of an incident that took place on September 22, 2016, in which a guard discovered a contraband cell phone in a cell shared by Watkins and his cellmate, inmate Lyles. (Id.) Watkins, who is African-American, received a disciplinary charge and loss of privileges as a result; Lyles, who is white and who was present during the incident, was not charged. Watkins claims this discrepancy is due to his race and is a violation of his equal protection rights. Watkins' due process claim arises out of the denial of his request for video footage taken on the date of the incident for his use in the resulting disciplinary hearing. (Id.)

         Now pending is a motion for summary judgment filed by Defendants Jimmy Letney, William Mark Hacker, Danny Casteel, and Brenda Pevahouse. (Doc. No. 49.) The motion is supported by the declarations of each defendant (Doc. Nos. 49-1, 49-2, 49-3, 49-4), a memorandum of law (Doc. No. 50), and a statement of undisputed material facts (Doc. No. 51). Watkins did not file a response to the summary judgment motion, nor did he respond to the statement of undisputed material facts. However, he filed a “motion to present facts of civil rights violation” after being served with the summary judgment motion. (Doc. No. 52.) The Court previously construed this filing as a response to the summary judgment motion (Doc. No. 60, PageID# 432), and it is considered as such for purposes of this order. The motion was previously referred to the Magistrate Judge (Doc. No. 8), and that order of referral is hereby revoked. For the reasons that follow, and in consideration of the record as a whole, Defendants' motion for summary judgment is granted.

         I. Background

         Larry Watkins was an inmate at the South Central Correctional Facility (SCCF) in Clifton, Tennessee, from the time that he filed this action until October 2017, when he was transferred to the Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville. (Doc. No. 58.) At all relevant times, Defendants Letney, Hacker, Casteel, and Pevahouse were employees of Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and worked at SCCF. (Doc. No. 49-1, PageID# 337, ¶ 2; Doc. No. 49-2, PageID# 341, ¶ 2; Doc. No. 49-3, PageID# 345, ¶ 2; Doc. No. 49-4, PageID# 352, ¶ 2.) Watkins and Lyles were housed in a unit at SCCF that was monitored by Defendant Letney. (Doc. No. 49-1, PageID# 337, ¶ 4.)

         A. Watkins' Complaint and Subsequent Filings

         In his verified complaint, Watkins states that, on September 22, 2016, Defendant Letney called him a “monkey.” (Doc. No. 1, PageID# 4.) When Watkins asked Letney for a grievance form to report the incident, Letney responded, “[A]in't none.” (Id.) Around 3:30 or 4:00 p.m., Letney “came around to [Watkins's] cell at the Annex at S.C.C.F., ” where Watkins's “cellmate [Lyles] had a phone [and was] showing it to [him].” (Id.) Watkins told Lyles, “to get the phone out [of] the cell [because] CO Letney [was] in the window looking.” (Id.) Letney then “busted into the cell saying give [the cell phone] to me.” (Id.) Watkins states that he told Letney, “I have nothing.” (Id.) Letney “kept looking and located [the phone] on [Lyles's] shelf.” (Id.) Letney then “got on his walkie talkie” and “called Sgt. Hacker.” (Id.) Hacker handcuffed Watkins and took him to the front office; then, joined by a counselor with a video camera, Hacker escorted Watkins to the clinic. (Id. at PageID# 5.)

         Watkins received a disciplinary charge for this incident. During the subsequent disciplinary hearing on October 4, 2016, Letney testified that he observed the cell phone in Watkins's hand and that Watkins put the phone in the “back pocket of [his] TDOC . . . blues.” (Id.) Watkins responded that Letney was lying and stated that he was wearing his “greys” on the date of the incident-TDOC-issued sweatpants that do not have a pocket-and not his blues. (Id.) Watkins asked Hearing Officer Brenda Pevahouse to review the videotape of Watkins being walked to the clinic to see what uniform Watkins had on. Pevahouse told Watkins that the video had been recorded over and was no longer available. (Id.)

         Watkins attached to his complaint Tennessee Department of Corrections Policy 502.05, which defines the offense of possession or use of a cellular telephone as follows:

Possession and/or use of a Cellular Telephone (PCT) (Class B): To have, own, gain, use or maintain control of a cellular telephone or any device which allows unauthorized/unmonitored two-way communication. Any such item found in a cell or room is presumed to be in the possession of all occupants of that housing space.

(Id. at PageID# 7.) Watkins also attached an inmate grievance filed on September 23, 2016, in which he argued that the phone had been found on Lyles's shelf and that, in accordance with TDOC policy, he and Lyles should have both been charged; instead, Watkins asserted, “the black man [was] the only one sent.” (Id. at PageID# 15.)

         Based on these allegations, the Court found in its initial screening order that Watkins stated “plausible claims against Defendants Letney, Hackner, Casteel and Pevahouse for race-based violations of the Fourteenth Amendment” because of their alleged dissimilar treatment of Watkins and Lyles. (Doc. No. 8, PageID# 56-57.) The Court also found that Watkins stated a procedural due process claim against Pevahouse based on her “den[ying Watkins] from presenting a video recording of the events at issue.” (Id. at PageID# 57.) The Court dismissed Watkins's claims against other defendants and additional claims regarding safety conditions at SCCF. (Id. at PageID# 59.)

         Shortly after the he filed his complaint, Watkins filed additional written statements detailing his allegations against each named Defendant. (Doc. No. 5.) In a statement concerning Defendant Letney, Watkins wrote that “[m]y cellmate w[as] showing me a phone when [Letney] came into the cell [and] told me to give him the phone[;] my cellmate had took it back and hid it on his shelf.” (Id. at PageID# 45.) In a subsequently filed discovery motion, Watkins attached his responses to Defendants' interrogatories, in which he stated that “Lyles thr[ew] a cell phone on the bottom bunk, as I [was] picking it up giving it to him CO Letney [was] in the door window by the time he got his keys to open the door Lyles had grab[bed] the phone and I guess put it on his shelf.” (Doc. No. 36, PageID# 177.) Watkins confirmed in the discovery responses that he physically held the phone for the “5 to 10 seconds” it took to pick the phone up off of his bunk and hand it back to Lyles. (Id. at PageID# 178.)

         B. ...


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