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Roberts v. Coffee County

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

January 16, 2020




         Coffee County, Tennessee, John Carroll, Chase Strange, and Dakota Liles (“Defendants”) have filed a motion for summary judgment in this prisoner's civil rights action for violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 [Doc. 49]. Philip Roberts (“Plaintiff”) has filed a response in opposition to the motion [Doc. 56], and Defendants have filed a reply thereto [Doc. 59]. Upon consideration of the parties' pleadings, the competent summary judgment evidence, and the applicable law, the Court finds that summary judgment should be GRANTED, and this action should be DISMISSED.


         Plaintiff was a pretrial detainee at the Coffee County Jail during all times relevant to this lawsuit [Doc. 1 p. 1]. On May 11, 2017, Plaintiff was attacked by three other inmates and asked jail officials, including Defendant Carroll, to render aid and move him to another part of the jail [Id. at 2]. Defendant Carroll refused to move Plaintiff, and on May 17, 2017, Plaintiff was attacked by five inmates, three of whom were involved in the earlier attack [Id.]. Plaintiff alleges that Defendant Strange observed this second attack from the watch tower but failed to intervene [Id. at 2-3]. After this attack, Plaintiff again requested to be moved to a different location and for jail officials to “deal with the offending inmates, ” but jail officials “ignored his pleas” [Id. at 3].

         Plaintiff was assaulted a third time on May 22, 2017, by several inmates, including the inmates from the previous attacks [Id.]. Plaintiff again requested that jail officials “render aid, [] move him to a safer location, and to deal with the offending inmates, ” but his pleas were ignored [Id.]. According to Plaintiff, all three attacks resulted in visible injuries and aggravated Plaintiff's pre-existing leg injury [Id. at 2-3].

         On June 9, 2017, Defendant Liles slammed Plaintiff's arm in a metal hatch, causing Plaintiff severe pain and suffering [Id. at 4]. Plaintiff had previously spoken with Defendant Liles about a food transfer with another inmate, and Defendant Liles slammed the hatch on Plaintiff's arm when he reached his arm out of his cell to collect his food [Id. at 5]. Defendant Liles leaned against the hatch for several moments, thereby trapping Plaintiff's arm in the hatch [Id.].


         Summary judgment is proper only when the pleadings and evidence, viewed in a light most favorable to the nonmoving party, illustrate that no genuine issue of material fact exists and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a), (c); Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986). A fact is deemed “material” if resolving that fact in favor of one party “might affect the outcome of the suit under governing law.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). To establish an entitlement to summary judgment, the moving party must demonstrate that the nonmoving party cannot establish an essential element of his case for which he bears the ultimate burden of proof at trial. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322; Moore v. Philip Morris Cos., Inc., 8 F.3d 335, 339 (6th Cir. 1993).

         Once the motion is properly supported with competent evidence, the nonmovant must show that summary judgment is inappropriate by setting forth specific facts showing there is a genuine issue for trial. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323; Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249. If the “evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party, ” then there is a genuine dispute as to a material fact. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. If no proof is presented, however, the Court does not presume that the nonmovant “could or would prove the necessary facts.” Little v. Liquid Air Corp., 37 F.3d 1069, 1075 (5th Cir. 1994) (citing Lujan v. Nat'l Wildlife Fed'n., 497 U.S. 871, 889 (1990)).

         The very purpose of summary judgment is to “pierce the pleadings and assess the proof in order to see whether there is a genuine issue for trial.” Advisory Committee Note to the 1963 Amendments to Rule 56. Indeed, “[t]he amendment is not intended to derogate from the solemnity of the pleadings[;] [r]ather, it recognizes that despite the best efforts of counsel to make his pleadings accurate, they may be overwhelmingly contradicted by the proof available to his adversary.” Id. The non-moving party (the plaintiff in this case), must come forward with proof to support each element of his claim. The plaintiff cannot meet this burden with “some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts, ” Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co., Ltd. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986), “conclusory allegations, ” Lujan, 497 U.S. at 888, or by a mere “scintilla” of evidence, Anderson, 477 U.S. at 252. It would undermine the purposes of summary judgment if a party could defeat such a motion simply by “replac[ing] conclusory allegations of the complaint or answer with conclusory allegations of an affidavit.” Lujan, 497 U.S. at 888. Therefore, in considering a motion for summary judgment, a court must determine whether the non-moving party's allegations are plausible. Matsushita, 475 U.S. at 586. (emphasis added). “[D]etermining whether a complaint states a plausible claim for relief. . . [is] context-specific[, ] . . . requir[ing] the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 679 (2009) (discussing plausibility of claim as a requirement to survive a motion to dismiss under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6)).

         In considering a motion for summary judgment, once the court has “determined the relevant set of facts and drawn all inferences in favor of the nonmoving party to the extent supportable by the record, . . . [the ultimate decision becomes]. . . a pure question of law.” Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 381 n.8 (2007) (emphasis in original). “When opposing parties tell two different stories, one of which is blatantly contradicted by the record, so that no reasonable jury could believe it, a court should not adopt that version of the facts for purposes of ruling on the motion for summary judgment.” Id. at 380.


         A. Alleged Inmate Assaults

         On May 11, 2017, Plaintiff was booked in the Coffee County Jail (“the jail”) and assigned to a cell in AD pod [Doc. 49-4 P. 5; Doc. 49-5 p. 2]. The AD pod, one of the few pods where inmates have an opportunity to work, typically houses nonviolent offenders and “is not known to have any pervasive issues with inmate on inmate assaults” [Doc. 49-4 p. 1 ¶ 5]. AD pod is also routinely monitored by deputies both on the floor and in the jail's watch tower [Id. at ¶ 4].

         Officer Jonathan Carroll was one of two classification workers at the Coffee County Jail at the time Plaintiff was booked [Doc. 49-1 ¶ 4]. Plaintiff's intake assessment did not reveal any indicators that would suggest the need for protective custody, nor did it reveal anything else that would indicate Plaintiff would be at a higher risk for assault [Id. at ¶ 7]. For example, Plaintiff was booked on nonaggressive charges, he was not suicidal, affiliated with a gang, or known to have physical altercations with other inmates [Id. at ¶ 8]. Officer Carroll testified that he had no knowledge of Plaintiff having an issue with any inmates prior to or during his stay in AD pod, and he had no reason to believe that Plaintiff was at risk for assault while housed in AD pod [Doc. 49-1 at ¶ 9, ¶ 14].

         Plaintiff, displeased with his cell assignment due to his belief that AD pod was the “snitch” pod, attempted to refuse his cell placement, telling Officer Carroll that he “wasn't going to a rat pod” [Doc. 49-5 p. 3]. Plaintiff told Officer Carroll that the pod contained informants that “have tried to set [Plaintiff] up” and that he did not “want to be around” [Id.]. Plaintiff advised Officer Carroll that Plaintiff would “have a problem” in AD pod [Id.]. Officer Carroll responded that he would “look into it” [Id.]. However, Plaintiff did not tell Officer Carroll the names of the individuals in the AD pod that he was concerned about, and Officers Carroll and Strange had no knowledge of any issues between Plaintiff and Steven Bostic, Kevin Smith, Nathaniel Farris, or Timothy Gifford, the inmates who would later allegedly assault Plaintiff [Doc. 49-1 ¶ 14; Doc. 49-2 ¶ 6].

         During lockdown on the evening of May 11, 2017, Plaintiff smoked cigarettes that he had sneaked into the jail [Doc. 49-5 p. 4]. The next day, Inmates Farris, Gifford, and Smith approached Plaintiff and demanded the tobacco [Id.]. Plaintiff had stored the tobacco in his anus “because he figured they were going to try to make [him] give them what [he had]” [Id.]. When Plaintiff refused, Farris hit and kicked Plaintiff in the face, head, side, ribs, and legs [Id. at 4-5]. Plaintiff states he suffered a busted lip, busted eye, and bruising [Id. at 5]. Plaintiff maintains that he reported the incident to Defendant Strange, stating, “Look at me, I need out this unit. . . . I need Carroll back here, look at me, get me out this unit” [Id. at 6]. Plaintiff avers that Defendant Strange responded that he would tell Defendant Carroll and get back to Plaintiff [Id. at 6]. Plaintiff claims after the assault on May 11, 2017, he made numerous reports of the assault on the kiosk grievance system and submitted medical requests, but he did not receive a response to any of his requests or grievances [Id. at 6].

         Plaintiff continued to smoke tobacco on lockdown, and on May 15, 2017, Plaintiff was again approached by the same inmates and again refused to turn over the tobacco [Id. at 6-7]. Plaintiff contends that inmates Farris and Gifford kicked and punched him multiple times for refusing to give them the tobacco [Id. at 7]. Plaintiff claims that Officer Strange was the guard in the tower on that date and asserts that Officer Strange had, by that time, been previously reprimanded for sleeping on duty, failing to attend work, insubordination, and failing to perform duties [Doc. 56-2 ¶ 7; Doc. 56-5]. On May 22, 2017, Plaintiff still had some tobacco and was assaulted for a third time by the same inmates [Doc. 49-5 p. 8].

         Officers Carroll and Strange testified that they had no knowledge of Plaintiff being assaulted by any inmate in May 2017, nor did they have knowledge of Plaintiff having issues with Inmates Farris, Bostic, Gifford, or Smith prior to or during Plaintiff's stay in AD pod [Doc. 49-1 ¶ 14; Doc. 49-2 ¶ 6]. Officers Carroll and Strange further state that they had no knowledge of any request made by Plaintiff to be moved out of AD pod due to a threat to his health or safety prior to any of the alleged inmate assaults occurring [Doc. 49-1 ¶ 18; Doc. 49-2 ¶ 10]. Such a request, if one had been made, would have been documented [Doc. 49-4 p. 3 ¶ 9]. Nevertheless, on May 25, 2017, Plaintiff was transferred out of AD Pod [Doc. 56-3 p. 2].

         On June 1, 2017, Plaintiff submitted both a kiosk grievance and a kiosk medical request regarding the alleged assaults [Doc. 49-4 p. 9, 17]. Plaintiff made additional grievances related to the purported attacks on June 2, 3, and 4, 2017, and he submitted additional medical requests on June 2 and 4, 2017 [See id.]. Plaintiff was evaluated by a medical provider for injuries related to the assaults on June 7, 2017 [Id. at 32, 35, 36]. At that time, Plaintiff reported that he had been “jumped 17 days ago” and complained that he could hardly walk, and that he had broken ribs, a broken pelvis, knee pain, and ear and back pain [Id. at 36]. The provider noted that Plaintiff's x-ray of his pelvis just days earlier showed no anatomic abnormality, that he had full range of motion in his knees, full range of motion in his back, no bruising or swelling deformity, and that his ears were clear with no redness [Id.]. The provider's impression was that Plaintiff suffered “no broken bones or bruising, ” and that Plaintiff was “malingering” [Id. at 36]. Plaintiff was prescribed Naproxen for 14 days, although the medical provider testified that Plaintiff had no swelling [Doc. 59-1 p. 6-7]. The medical provider further testified that even though her evaluation occurred approximately 17 days after the last alleged assault, Plaintiff's body would have borne some physical evidence of the injuries alleged by Plaintiff if they had, in fact, occurred [See, generally, Doc. 59-1].

         B. Alleged Assault by Officer Dakota Liles

         On June 9, 2017, Plaintiff and another inmate had an agreement to swap food [Doc. 49-5 p. 9-10]. Plaintiff communicated this to Officer Liles, who said that he did not have a problem with the agreement [Id. at 10]. However, according to Plaintiff, when Plaintiff reached to get the tray through the pie flap of his cell door to retrieve the tray, Officer Liles slammed the door on Plaintiff's arm and held it there for 15-20 seconds [Id.]. Conversely, Officer Liles denies that he used any force on Plaintiff, and he states that the incident alleged by Plaintiff never occurred [Doc. 49-3 ¶ 4-5].

         Plaintiff never received any medical treatment for his arm [Doc. 49-5 p. 11]. However, Plaintiff believes that he “ripped his rotator cuff” during the incident, as he gets a sharp pain in his shoulder if he moves his arm too fast or attempts to lift something too heavy [Id.]. Although the grievance is not in the kiosk reports, Plaintiff states that he filed a grievance about the alleged June 9, 2017, assault [Id.].

         C. Coffee County ...

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