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Powell v. Phelps

United States District Court, D. Delaware

March 23, 2015

PERRY PHELPS, Warden, individually and in his official capacity, et al., Defendants.

James E. Liguori, Esquire, and Melissa L. Dill, Esquire, Liguori & Morris, Dover, Delaware Attorneys for Plaintiff.

Devera B. Scott, Esquire, State of Delaware Department of Justice, Dover, Delaware Attorney for Defendants.


LEONARD P. STARK, District Judge.


Plaintiff, Edward Powell ("Plaintiff"), a former inmate at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center ("JTVCC"), filed this civil rights complaint against Warden Perry Phelps and other defendants (collectively, "Defendants") pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 12131 et seq., and Delaware common law. Presently before the Court is Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment on Plaintiff's federal law claims (D.I. 47), which is opposed by Plaintiff (D.I. 51). For the reasons that follow, the Court will grant in part and deny in part Defendants' motion


On April 11, 2009, while an inmate at JTVCC, Plaintiff was involved in an incident in Chow Hall B. (D.I. 48 Ex. 1 at 7) During the incident, Plaintiff was handcuffed and carried out of the chow hall by Sgt. Abernathy and other officers who had responded to Sgt. Abernathy's call for assistance. ( Id. ) Plaintiff was removed from the chow hall and left with Sgt. Sroka, [1] who called for medical assistance while Sgt. Abernathy and the other officers returned to the chow hall. ( Id. at 15) Plaintiff was eventually taken by stretcher to the infirmary, where he remained for several days. ( Id. ; D.I. 49 at 35) After the incident, Plaintiff was transferred to the Security Housing Unit ("SHU"). (D.I. 49 at 55-56) Plaintiff was confined to a wheelchair for his entire time in the SHU until he was released from JTVCC. ( Id. at 41-42)

Plaintiff alleges that his rights under the Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution were violated when Defendants Abernathy, Rose, Stoddart, [2] and Lambdin used excessive force during his handcuffing and removal from the chow hall. Plaintiff alleges that his Eighth Amendment rights were also violated by Defendant Sroka when she failed to protect him from injury. Plaintiff alleges further Eighth Amendment violations by Defendants Abernathy, Rose, Stoddart, and Travis[3] for being deliberately indifferent to his medical needs. Additionally, Plaintiff alleges that Defendant Phelps, the Warden of JTVCC, was personally liable for each of these constitutional violations by the officers at JTVCC.

Plaintiff also alleges a violation by Abernathy and Travis of his rights under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act. In addition to his federal claims, Plaintiff allege tort claims against Defendants Abernathy and Phelps for conduct arising out of the April 11, 2009 incident.[4]

Plaintiff filed a pro se complaint on November 19, 2010. (D.I. 2) On February 4, 2011, the claim against Defendant Carl Danberg was dismissed as frivolous. (D.I. 8) The remaining Defendants are: Warden Perry Phelps, Sgt. Paul Abernathy, Sgt. Nicole Sroka, Sgt. Keisha Travis, Officer Troy Rose, Officer Charles Stoddart, Officer Linda Lambdin, Officer Brain Ross, and Officer William Adams. Each Defendant is named in both his or her individual and official capacities.


"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 demonstrating the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. See Adickes v. S.H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144, 157 (1970). An assertion that a fact cannot be - or, alternatively, is - genuinely disputed must be supported 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). If the moving party has carried its burden, the nonmovant must then "come forward with specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial." Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986) (internal citation omitted). The Court will "draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the nonmoving party, and it may not make credibility determinations or weigh the evidence." Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods., Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 150 (2000).

To defeat a motion for summary judgment, the non-moving party must "do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts." Matsushita, 475 U.S. at 586; see also Podobnik v. U.S. Postal Serv., 409 F.3d 584, 594 (3d Cir.2005) (stating party opposing summary judgment "must present more than just bare assertions, conclusory allegations or suspicions to show the existence of a genuine issue") (internal citation omitted). However, the "mere existence of some alleged factual dispute between the parties will not defeat an otherwise properly supported motion for summary judgment;" and a factual dispute is genuine only where "the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247-48 (1986) (emphasis in original). "If the evidence is merely colorable, or is not significantly probative, summary judgment may be granted." Id. at 249-50 (internal citations omitted); see also Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986) (stating entry of summary judgment is mandated "against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial"). Thus, the "mere existence of a scintilla of evidence" in support of the non-moving party's position is insufficient to defeat a motion for summary judgment; there must be "evidence on which the jury could reasonably find" for the non-moving party. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 252.

When a defendant in a § 1983 action claims qualified immunity, the "first task is to assess whether the plaintiff's allegations are sufficient to establish the violation of a constitutional or statutory right at all." Gruenke v. Seip, 225 F.3d 290, 298 (3d Cir. 2000). If the allegations meet this threshold, then the Court must then determine whether the legal right violated was clearly established. See id. If the plaintiff "fail[s] to satisfy either inquiry, then the defendant is entitled to summary judgment." Id.


A. Immunity

Defendants contend that the doctrine of sovereign immunity under the Eleventh Amendment protects them in their official capacities against Plaintiff's § 1983 claims. (D.I. 48 at 8-9) Plaintiff agrees that the Defendants are immune from suit in their official capacities under § 1983. (D.I. 51 at 5) As the Supreme Court has stated, "neither a State nor its officials acting in their official capacities are persons' under § 1983." Will v. Mich. Dept. of State Police, 491 U.S. 58, 71 (1991). Because Defendants cannot be sued in their official capacity for monetary damages under § 1983, and because Plaintiff only seeks monetary damages, Defendants' motion for summary judgment on the § 1983 claims against Defendants in their official capacity will be granted.

B. Excessive Force

Plaintiff raises a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claim based on alleged violations of his Eighth Amendment rights by use of excessive force when he was removed from the chow hall. In evaluating Plaintiff's excessive force claim arising out of a prison disturbance, there are two inquiries: a subjective prong and an objective prong. See Hudson v. McMillian, 503 U.S. 1, 5 (1992). Under the subjective prong, "the core judicial inquiry is... [w]hether force was applied in a good-faith effort to maintain or restore discipline, or maliciously and sadistically to cause harm." Id. Under the objective prong, the inquiry is whether the injury is more than de minimis. See id. Defendants seek summary judgment based on a lack of evidence satisfying the subjective prong.

Plaintiff alleges excessive force against four Defendants: Lambdin, Rose, Stoddart, and Abernathy. The Court addresses the record ...

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