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Jackson v. Phelps

United States District Court, Third Circuit

November 15, 2013

PERRY PHELPS, et al., Defendants.


SUE L. ROBINSON, District Judge.

At Wilmington this 15th day of November, 2013, having reviewed the papers submitted in connection with the pending motions for summary judgment;

IT IS ORDERED that said motions (D.I. 107, 109) are denied for all defendants except defendant Jesse Martin, for the reasons that follow:

1. Background. The incident at issue started on March 18, 2010, when plaintiff Nathaniel L. Jackson was a pretrial detainee housed in the Secured Housing Unit ("SHU") at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center ("VCC") in Smyrna, Delaware. On that day, the SHU was in lockdown. The inmates were given bagged lunches in their cells; when plaintiff attempted to flush his lunch bag down the toilet, the toilet flooded. In response to the toilet flooding, plaintiff was placed in handcuffs and escorted to another building[1] by defendants Vincent L. Lewis, Jr. and Keith T. Burns. Thereafter, defendant Michael Trader informed plaintiff that he was being placed in 24-hour restraints for flooding his cell. Although plaintiff tried to explain that he did not flood his cell on purpose, he was taken to a room where he was directed to kneel, face the wall, and remove all of his clothing except for his boxers. Defendants Trader, Lewis, Burns, and Brandon W. Richardson then placed plaintiff in 24-hour restraints, which included handcuffs secured to a waist chain, leg shackles, and a black box with a padlock that bound his wrists together.[2] Plaintiff was cooperative at this time.

2. In full restraints, plaintiff complained that his handcuffs were too tight. A nurse came in, checked the cuffs, and indicated that they were fine. Plaintiff continued to complain about the tight cuffs after the nurse left and, when no one responded, he tried to get someone's attention by alternating between kicking and shaking the door to the room. It is not altogether clear from the record why defendants determined to place a foam rubber helmet on plaintiff[3] but, when they attempted to do so, plaintiff refused to cooperate and was taken to the ground by several correctional officers, including defendants Miguel Figueroa, Steven R. Floyd, Sr., Jesse Martin, and Paul Gauthier. Plaintiff continued to struggle and resist the attempts to place the foam helmet on him. Although defendants' efforts ultimately were successful, plaintiff (still cuffed) later managed to nudge the helmet off and recommence banging on the door.

3. Defendants Lewis and Burns returned to plaintiff's location and instructed plaintiff to turn around, kneel down, and face the wall.[4] As soon as plaintiff complied with these instructions, defendants Lewis, Burns, Richardson, Figueroa, Floyd and Sean Endicott tackled plaintiff to the ground and pulled his boxers down so that a nurse could give him a shot[5] on each of his buttocks. According to plaintiff, defendants left him with his boxers down, and mocked him as a result. Plaintiff eventually fell asleep on a foam mattress that had been left in the room by defendants. The next morning, plaintiff could not eat breakfast and only managed to consume lunch by eating with just his mouth, like a dog. When plaintiff's 24-hour restraint period expired, [6] defendant Richardson and another correctional officer removed plaintiff's restraints and escorted him back to SHU, barefoot and clothed only in his boxers. Plaintiff claims that the events that occurred during the 24-hour restraint period left him with imprints and welts on his wrists, scratches to his head, and mental and emotional distress.

4. Standard of review. "The court shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). The moving party bears the burden of proving that no genuine issue of material fact exists. See Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 n. 10 (1986). "Facts that could alter the outcome are material, ' and disputes are genuine' if evidence exists from which a rational person could conclude that the position of the person with the burden of proof on the disputed issue is correct." Horowitz v. Federal Kemper Life Assurance Co., 57 F.3d 300, 302 n.1 (3d Cir. 1995) (internal citations omitted). If the moving party has demonstrated an absence of material fact, the nonmoving party then "must come forward with specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.'" Matsushita, 475 U.S. at 587 (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e)). The court will "view the underlying facts and all reasonable inferences therefrom in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion." Pennsylvania Coal Ass'n v. Babbitt, 63 F.3d 231, 236 (3d Cir. 1995). The mere existence of some evidence in support of the nonmoving party, however, will not be sufficient for denial of a motion for summary judgment; there must be enough evidence to enable a jury reasonably to find for the nonmoving party on that issue. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249 (1986). If the nonmoving party fails to make a sufficient showing on an essential element of its case with respect to which it has the burden of proof, the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. See Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986).

5. Service. Defendants Figueroa, Lewis and Ricardson argue in support of their motion for summary judgment that the court lacks personal jurisdiction over them because they were never served. In this regard, the record reflects that counsel for these defendants properly executed a waiver of service on behalf of each such defendant on March 8, 2012, and returned them to plaintiff's counsel. (D.I. 115, ex. P) There is no indication, however, that plaintiff's counsel ever filed with the court such forms, as contemplated under Fed.R.Civ.P. 4(d)(4).[7] Said defendants have maintained their defense of improper service of process in their answers to plaintiffs various amended complaints. ( See, e.g., D.I. 40, 90) Nevertheless, the form of waiver itself (AO Form 399) is less than clear about the effect of obtaining a waiver, stating that, "[i]f the waiver is signed and returned, " a defendant "will keep all defenses or objections to the lawsuit, the court's jurisdiction, and the venue of the action, but that [the defendant] waive[s] any objections to the absence of a summons or of service." (D.I. 115, ex. P) Under these circumstances, the court agrees with the analysis in Weathers v. Lanier, Civ. No. 4:05 C11 RLV, 2006 WL 3709560, at *2 (N.D.Ga. Nov. 6, 2006), that the "filing of [a Rule 4(d) waiver] is merely a ministerial act and that the failure to timely file that waiver does not operate to extinguish a cause of action." The court in Weathers relied in part on Rule 4(1)(3), which provides (consistent with Form AO 399) that ""[f]ailure to prove service does not affect the validity of service. The court may permit proof of service to be amended." Fed.R.Civ.P. 4(1). The court found further support in Rule 5(d), which provides that papers required to be served must thereafter with the court "within a reasonable time after service." Fed.R.Civ.P. 5(d)(1). Therefore, the court rejects the notion that it lacks personal jurisdiction over defendants based on the ministerial act of filing the waivers with the court, but will require plaintiff's counsel to file the waivers on or before November 22, 2013.

6. Statute of Limitations. Defendants Endicott, Gauthier and Martin argue in support of their motion for summary judgment that plaintiff failed to pursue his claims against them within the two-year statute of limitations. Plaintiff filed his initial, amended, second amended, and third amended complaints on October 27, 2010, January 19, 2012, March 19, 2012, and December 14, 2012, respectively. (D.I. 2, 28, 44, 77) These moving defendants were added in the third amended complaint.

7. Cases arising under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 are held to Delaware's two-year statute of limitations for personal injury, 10 Del. C.§ 8119. See McDowell v. Delaware State Police, 88 F.3d 188, 191 (3d Cir. 1996). Such claims accrue "as soon as a potential claimant either is aware, or should be aware, of the existence of and source of an injury." Oshiver v. Levin, Fishbein, Sedran & Berman, 38 F.3d 1380, 1386 (3d Cir. 1994). There is a limited exception to the two-year statute of limitations-the federal equitable tolling doctrine. Equitable tolling "can [only] be applied to suits brought under federal civil rights statutes when the state statue of limitations would otherwise frustrate federal policy." Lake v. Arnold, 232 F.3d 360, 370 (3d Cir. 2000). To invoke the doctrine of equitable tolling, a plaintiff must demonstrate that: (a) a defendant actively misled a plaintiff with respect to his cause of action; (b) the plaintiff has been prevented from asserting his claim as a result of other extraordinary circumstances; or (c) the plaintiff asserts his claims in a timely manner but has done so in the wrong forum. See Moody v. Kearney, 380 F.Supp.2d 393, 397 (D. Del. 2005).

8. Plaintiff argues that the doctrine of equitable tolling should be applied to the facts of this case, where plaintiff was unaware of the defendants' involvement in the March 2010 incident until the production of defendant Trader's investigative report on July 5, 2012 and the deposition testimony of defendant Richardson on July 6, 2012. Plaintiff included such defendants in his third amended complaint, which was filed with the court on July 30, 2012, along with plaintiffs motion for permission to file such.[8] Under these circumstances, the court finds that the doctrine of equitable tolling applies and plaintiffs claims against these defendants are not barred by the statute of limitations.

9. Nevertheless, the court must address the question of whether plaintiffs third amended complaint relates back to the date that plaintiffs original complaint was filed and, therefore, does not fall outside the statute of limitations. Rule 15(c)(1) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure imposes three conditions for relation back: (a) the amendment asserts a claim that arose out of the conduct, transaction, or occurrence set out in the initial pleading; (b) the newly named party received such notice of the institution of the action within the period specified in Rule 4(m) (i.e., 120 days), so that the party will not be prejudiced in maintaining a defense on the merits; and (c) the newly named party knew or should have known that the action would have been brought against him, but for a mistake (or lack of knowledge) concerning the newly named party's identity. See Johnson v. GEICO Cas. Co., 673 F.Supp.2d 244, 248-49 (D. Del. 2009).

10. All three of these conditions are met with respect to defendants Endicott and Gauthier, as the claims against them arise out of the same event that served as a basis for plaintiff's initial complaint, and these defendants had imputed notice of both the lawsuit and their involvement in it through defendant Trader's investigation. (D. I. 115, ex. F) Plaintiff's claims against defendant Martin fall outside the statute of limitations, however, as he was not implicated in the official investigation and had no other notice of the lawsuit before being sued.

11. Exhaustion. Congress enacted the Prison Litigation Reform Act ("PLRA") in an effort to curb the number of prisoner filings in the federal courts. Small v. Camden County, 728 F.3d 265, 268 (3d Cir. 2013). The PLRA provides that "[n]o action shall be brought with respect to prison conditions under section 1983 of this title, or any other Federal law, by a prisoner confined in any jail, prison, or other correctional facility until such administrative remedies as are available are exhausted." 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(a); see Mitchell v. Horn, 318 F.3d 523, 529 (3d Cir. 2003). Failure to exhaust is an affirmative defense that the defendant must plead ...

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