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Miller v. Coning

United States District Court, D. Delaware

February 28, 2014

JOHN E. MILLER, Plaintiff,


SHERRY R. FALLON, Magistrate Judge.


Presently before the court in this civil rights action is a motion for summary judgment filed by Defendants Christine Coning ("Coning"), Blake Warnick ("Warnick"), Warden Perry Phelps ("Warden Phelps"), William McGinnis ("McGinnis"), Jason Schaffer ("Schaffer"), and Raymond Hannum ("Hannum") (collectively, the "Defendants").[1] (D.I. 73) The Plaintiff, John E. Miller ("Plaintiff"), an inmate at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center ("JTVCC") near Smyrna, Delaware, opposes the Defendants' motion.[2] (D.I. 76) For the reasons set forth below, I recommend that the court grant in part and deny in part the Defendants' motion for summary judgment.


A. Procedural History

Plaintiff filed this pro se action on April 28, 2011, alleging violations of his constitutional rights pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983.[3] (D.I. 3) Plaintiff proceeds in forma pauperis. (D.I. 5)

On July 12, 2011, after screening the complaint, the court issued a Memorandum Opinion and Order (D.I. 10) dismissing several of Plaintiff's claims for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 1915(e)(2)(B) and 1915A(b)(1). Miller v. Coning, 2011 WL 2708649, at *7 (D. Del. July 12, 2011). The court gave Plaintiff thirty days to correct certain pleading deficiencies and file an amended complaint. Id. Plaintiff filed an amended complaint on August 5, 2011. (D.I. 11)

On September 28, 2011, the court issued a Memorandum Opinion and Order (D.I. 13, 14) permitting Plaintiff to proceed with claims against Coning and Warnick for labeling Plaintiff a snitch; against Coning, Warnick, McGinnis, Hannum, and Schaffer for retaliation; and against Warden Phelps for failure to protect. Miller v. Coning, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 110731, at* 1, 13-14 (D. Del. Sept. 28, 2011).

B. Factual Background[4]

The claims at issue in this matter stem from what Plaintiff refers to as the "Coning [I]ncident." (D.I. 11 at 9) According to Plaintiff, the Coning Incident encompasses several factors: (1) Plaintiff had a "fling" with Coning, but he ended the relationship and later turned down her sexual advances; (2) Plaintiff filed a civil lawsuit, Miller v. Danberg, No. 08-271-JCJ, against correctional officers on May 6, 2008 (the "2008 Litigation")[5]; (3) Plaintifftried to protect Coning from an inmate who was "ratting her and Officer Warnick out for bringing inmates stuff they weren't allowed to have by warning her and Officer Warnick"; (4) Plaintiff "ratted on an officer" when, during an investigation, Plaintiff told the investigating officer that he overheard an inmate exposing Coning for "bringing stuff to inmates" and Coning later learned that Plaintiff had informed the investigating officer of the conversation; and (5) offensive pictures of Coning were found in Plaintiff's cell. (D.I. 11 at 9-10)

As a result of the Coning Incident, Plaintiff claims that Coning and Warnick labeled him a snitch to inmates and correctional officers. ( Id. at 9) Because of the snitch label, Plaintiff was attacked by inmates and harassed by correctional officers. ( Id. ) Plaintiff further alleges that Coning, Warnick, McGinnis, Hannum, and Schaffer retaliated against him in response to the Coning Incident. ( Id. at 9-14)

Plaintiff claims that Coning retaliated against him by labeling him a snitch ( id. at 9), and by accusing Plaintiff of calling her from the prison telephone during his work assignment, in an attempt to frame him. ( Id. at 10) Plaintiff asserts that Warnick labeled him a snitch to inmates and correctional officers, harassed him with multiple shakedowns, and trashed his cell. ( Id. )

According to Plaintiff, McGinnis threatened to fabricate a misconduct report against Plaintiff, and made statements that implicate officers in an "overall conspiracy to make [Plaintiff's] time/life hard over the Coning thing." ( Id. at 11-12) On November 23, 2010, McGinnis allegedly fabricated a misconduct report against Plaintiff for violating several prison rules. ( Id. ) Plaintiff was found guilty of all charges and sanctioned to a seven-day loss of all privileges. ( Id. )

Hannum allegedly threatened Plaintiff over the Coning Incident and retaliated against him with multiple cell shakedowns. ( Id. at 12-13) According to Plaintiff, Hannum made it clear that the cell shakedowns were intended as payback. ( Id. )

Schaffer, who is Coning's alleged boyfriend, stared at Plaintiff with a look Plaintiff describes as "grit, " and stated that he is well connected and inmates are helpless against him. ( Id. at 13-14) Schaffer also "shouldered into" Plaintiff and taunted him to "do something about it." ( Id. ) Schaffer told other inmates that Plaintiff is a snitch, and prompted them to "jump" Plaintiff without worrying "about getting into trouble for it." ( Id. )

Plaintiff notified Warden Phelps of the harassment by correctional officers and physical attacks by inmates that occurred because ofhis snitch label. ( Id. at 5-7) Plaintiffwrote to Warden Phelps and asked him to intervene each time something happened. ( Id. at 5) Plaintiff alleges that Warden Phelps failed to protect him and, as a result, he sustained various injuries. ( Id. at 5-7)

Plaintiff seeks expungement of all disciplinary reports from his prison file relating to the incidents alleged in this lawsuit, as well as compensatory damages.[6] ( Id. at 15)

C. Plaintiff's Grievances and Letters to the Warden

Plaintiff has taken the following steps to resolve his claims internally, at the administrative level.

• On November 8, 2009, Plaintiff filed Grievance 191092 to complain that certain photographs (allegedly of Coning) were taken from his cell during a shakedown.[7] (D.I. 75 at A-51)
• On January 10, 2010, Plaintiff filed Grievance 194459 to report that an inmate "squirted [excrement] under [his] door, " which soiled him and his clothing. (D.I. 76, Ex. 9)
• On January 18, 2010, Plaintiff filed Grievance 194753 to report that an inmate spit on his window in front of a guard, and the window was never cleaned. ( Id., Ex. 11)
• On June 15, 2010, Plaintiff filed Grievance 204473, which states, "Blake Warnick and Christine Coning are retaliating against me over a civil suit, shakedowns, confiscating legal work, destroying property, sexual harassment by Christine Coning." (D.I. 75 at A-78 to A-79; D.I. 76, Ex. 1) Plaintiff requested that the retaliation stop. (D.I. 76, Ex. 1) The prison conducted an investigation, and the grievance was subsequently marked as resolved. (D.I. 75 at A-78 to A-79)
• On June 23, 2010, Plaintiff filed Grievance 204538 to report that three inmates had beaten him with locks wrapped in socks. (D.I. 75 at A-80; D.I. 76, Ex. 2) Plaintiff indicated that he was attacked because Coning and Warnick labeled him a snitch, and he requested an investigation. ( Id. ) The prison conducted an investigation and found no connection between the incident and Coning or Warnick. ( Id. ) Plaintiff appealed the decision at each level of review until his appeal was denied at the highest administrative level. (D.I. 75 at A-80 to A-87)
• On September 28, 2010, Plaintiff wrote a letter to Warden Phelps stating that Hannum threatened him in connection with the Coning Incident. (D.I. 76, Ex. 16)
• On October 19, 2010, Plaintiff wrote a letter to Warden Phelps stating that Hannum was harassing and threatening him. ( Id., Ex. 18) Plaintiff indicated that Hannum shook down his cell three times and, on one occasion, told Plaintiff's cellmate that the shakedowns were intended as "payback" to Plaintiff. ( Id. )
• On November 3, 2010, Plaintiff wrote a letter to Warden Phelps stating that Schaffer was "trying to intimidate" him by "scowling" at him in connection with the Coning Incident. ( Id., Ex. 20)
• On November 11, 2010, Plaintiff wrote a letter to Warden Phelps claiming that he was "still getting harassed by [] Schaffer, " and that Shaffer stated "how he's connected and how people owe him favors." ( Id., Ex. 21)
• On November 15, 2010, Plaintiff sent a letter to Warden Phelps, stating that he was "getting tripple [sic] teamed by guards harassing [him] over" the Coning Incident, and that McGinnis threatened him with "a class one write-up." ( Id., Ex. 28)
• On November 20, 2010, Plaintiff wrote a letter to his Unit Commander to report harassment from inmates and correctional officers Schaffer, Hannum, and McGinnis. ( Id., Ex. 13) He stated that Coning and Warnick labeled him a snitch. ( Id. ) He requested that the Unit Commander investigate these issues. ( Id. )
• On December 30, 2010, Plaintiff filed Grievance 217411 to complain that Schaffer and McGinnis harassed him over the Coning Incident. (D.I. 75 at A-88; D.I. 76, Ex. 29) The grievance was returned "Non Grievable" and included the following comments:
Complaint returned for the following reasons: Staff investigation: To request that the actions of JTVCC staff personnel be investigated write to your unit [sic] Commander with that request. If you receive no response or are dissatisfied with the response of your Unit Commander you may appeal that decision to the Operations Superintendent (Presently Major Scarborough) and ultimately the Warden.
(D.I. 75 at A-89; D.I. 76, Ex. 29 at 2)
• On February 5, 2011, Plaintiff wrote a letter to his Unit Commander concerning Grievances 204473, 204538, and 217411. (D.I. 76, Ex. 4) Plaintiff attached a "statement of claim" to the letter ( see id., Ex. 3), which provides "the detailed factual basis of [his] complaints against the [Defendants]." ( Id., Ex. 4) After his Unit Commander failed to respond, Plaintiff sent similar letters to Major Scarborough and Warden Phelps on February 25, 2011 and March 15, 2011, respectively. ( Id., Exs. 5, 6)


"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). Material facts are those that could affect the outcome of the proceeding, and "a dispute about a material fact is genuine' if the evidence is sufficient to permit a reasonable jury to return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Lamont v. New Jersey, 637 F.3d 177, 181 (3d Cir. 2011) (citing Anderson v. Liberty Lobby Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986); Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986)). Pursuant to Rule 56(c)(1), a party asserting that a fact is genuinely disputed must support its contention either by citing to "particular parts of materials in the record, including depositions, documents, electronically stored information, affidavits or declarations, stipulations (including those made for the purposes of the motion only), admissions, interrogatory answers, or other materials, " or by "showing that the materials cited do not establish the absence or presence of a genuine dispute, or that an adverse party cannot produce admissible evidence to support the fact." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(1)(A) & (B).

The moving party bears the initial burden of proving the absence of a genuinely disputed material fact. See Celotex, 411 U.S. at 321. The burden then shifts to the non-movant to demonstrate the existence of a genuine issue for trial. See Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574 (1986); Williams v. Borough of West Chester, Pa., 891 F.2d 458, 460-61 (3d Cir. 1989). When determining whether a genuine issue of material fact exists, the court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party and draw all reasonable inferences in that party's favor. See Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 380 (2007); Wishkin v. Potter, 476 F.3d 180, 184 (3d Cir. 2007). However, the existence of some evidence in support of the nonmoving party may not be sufficient to deny a motion for summary judgment. Rather, there must be enough evidence to enable a jury reasonably to find for the nonmoving party on the issue. See Anderson, ...

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