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Cohee v. Danberg

United States District Court, D. Delaware

August 28, 2019

DANIEL B. COHEE, Plaintiff,
v.
CARL DANBERG, et al., Defendants.

          Peter S. Murphy (argued), Alexandra D. Rogin (argued), ECKERT SEAMANS CHERTN & MELLOTT, LLC, Wilmington, DE. Attorneys for Plaintiff.

          Kenisha L. Ringgold (argued), DEPUTY ATTORNEY GENERAL, DELAWARE DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE, Wilmington, DE. Attorneys for Defendants Commissioner Carl Danberg, Warden Perry Phelps, Captain Marcello Rispoli, Lieutenant Stanley Baynard, Sergeant Raynard Jones, Officer Jason Russell, Officer Jamie Mitchell, Officer Delia Boone, Sergeant Ernest Kemp, Officer James Janusiewicz, and Delaware Department of Correction.

          Daniel A. Griffith, (argued), Scott G. Wilcox, WHITEFORD, TAYLOR & PRESTON, LLC, Wilmington, DE. Attorneys for Defendant Correct Care Solutions, LLC.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          ANDREWS, U.S. DISTRICT JUDGE

         On July 17, 2013, proceeding pro se, Plaintiff Daniel B. Cohee filed this suit pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. (D.I. 3). I subsequently appointed counsel to represent Plaintiff, who filed an amended complaint on April 25, 2017. (D.I. 148).

         Presently before me are Defendant Correct Care Solutions' ("CCS") Motion for Summary Judgment (D.I. 169) and the Delaware Department of Correction ("the Department"), Commissioner Carl Danberg, Warden Perry Phelps, Capt. Marcello Rispoli, Lt. Stanley Baynard, Sgt. Raynard Jones, Officer Jason Russell, Officer Jamie Mitchell, Officer Delia Boone, Sgt. Ernest Kemp, and Officer James Janusiewicz's (collectively, "Department Defendants") Motion for Summary Judgment (D.I. 172). I have reviewed the parties' briefing. (D.I. 170, 173, 177, 178, 183, 186). I heard oral argument on June 28, 2018. (D.I. 190). For the following reasons, both motions are GRANTED.

         I. BACKGROUND

         This suit arises out of an incident that occurred while Plaintiff was an inmate at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center ("JTVCC") in Smyrna, Delaware. Specifically, the amended complaint alleges that on February 23, 2012, Plaintiff was violently attacked by his cellmate, Pernell Stroman, with a razor blade. (D.I. 148 ¶ 18). Plaintiff lost a substantial amount of blood and received stitches for cuts on both cheeks and a severed tendon in his hand. (Id. ¶ 33).

         The complaint alleges that, prior to the attack, Plaintiff "repeatedly informed" Defendants Russell, Mitchell, and Doe[1] about his cellmate making threatening and violent statements, and "repeatedly requested" that he or his cellmate be moved. (Id. ¶ 19). Plaintiff alleges that the correctional officers ignored his concerns and his request for a transfer. (Id. ¶ 21). According to the complaint, Russell and Doe instructed Plaintiff to make his request for a transfer to Defendant Jones. (Id.). Plaintiff made a request to Jones on the day of the incident. According to Plaintiff, he said to Jones, "I need to be moved[, ] my celly needs to be in the [Special Needs Unit, ] he paces all day, rambling on[, ] threatening, talking about killing, saying crazy shit, we are having issues, can I be moved?" (D.I. 75; see also D.I. 148 ¶¶ 21, 22). Jones replied, "No! I don't move people. The only place I move people is to the Hole. So, if you and your cellmate are having problems, work it out or fight and I'll take both of you to the Hole." (D.I. 148 ¶ 22).

         According to the complaint, the attack occurred at approximately 11:50 a.m. and for forty-one minutes Plaintiff fought off his cellmate while trying to get the attention of the correctional officers. (Id. ¶ 25). Plaintiff maintains that, although JTVCC policies mandate that officers perform regular visual inspections of inmates every thirty minutes and maintain a "phone punch" log, prison records indicate that officers failed to conduct such an inspection at the required time that day. (Id. ¶¶ 25-26). Following the incident, officers locked Plaintiff in a shower room where he "became faint from loss of blood and fell to the ground." (Id. ¶¶ 29, 30).

         Medical staff, including Dr. Desrosiers, did not reach Plaintiff until approximately 1:00 p.m. (Id. ¶ 30). According to the complaint, the medical staff at JTVCC "provided no medical treatment other than wiping Plaintiffs wounds." (Id. ¶ 31). Plaintiff was subsequently "shackled to a chair ... to wait for the ambulance, which arrived at approximately 1:35 p.m." (Id.). By that point, Plaintiff had been losing a substantial amount of blood for over one and a half hours. (Id. ¶ 32).

         The amended complaint asserts seven counts against CCS, the Department, and Department Defendants for violations of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. (D.I. 148). CCS was the medical provider contracted to provide medical services to JTVCC inmates. The Department is the Delaware Department of Correction. Department Defendants are various prison officials employed by the Department at JTVCC. Count I alleges that Department Defendants violated Plaintiffs Eighth Amendment rights through deliberate indifference to a serious risk of injury or death. (Id. ¶¶ 38-42). Count II alleges that Department Defendants violated Plaintiffs Fourteenth Amendment rights through state-created danger. (Id. ¶¶ 43-49). Count III alleges that the Department and Department Defendants violated Plaintiffs Fourteenth Amendment rights through failure to train and/or maintenance of wrongful customs, practices, and policies. (Id. ¶¶ 50-56). Count IV alleges that Department Defendants violated Plaintiffs Eighth Amendment right through the malicious use offeree. (Id. ¶¶ 57-60). Count V alleges that Department Defendants violated Plaintiffs Eighth Amendment rights through deliberate indifference to medical needs. (Id. ¶¶ 61-64). Count VI alleges that CCS violated Plaintiffs Fourteenth Amendment rights through failure to train and/or maintenance of wrongful customs, practices, and policies. (Id. ¶¶ 65-69). Count VII alleges that Defendants Danberg and Phelps violated Plaintiffs Fourteenth Amendment rights through failure to supervise and monitor CCS. (Id. ¶¶ 70-76).

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         "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 has the initial burden of proving the absence of a genuinely disputed material fact relative to the claims in question. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 330 (1986). 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) (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986)). The burden on the moving party may be discharged by pointing out to the district court that there is an absence of evidence supporting the non-moving party's case. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323.

         The burden then shifts to the non-movant to demonstrate the existence of a genuine issue for trial. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586-87 (1986); Williams v. Borough of West Chester, Pa., 891 F.2d 458, 460-61 (3d Cir. 1989). A non-moving party asserting that a fact is genuinely disputed must support such an assertion by: "(A) citing to particular parts of materials in the record, including depositions, documents, electronically stored information, affidavits or declarations, stipulations .. ., admissions, interrogatory answers, or other materials; or (B) showing that the materials cited [by the opposing party] do not establish the absence ... of a genuine dispute .. . ." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(1).

         When determining whether a genuine issue of material fact exists, the court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party and draw all reasonable inferences in that party's favor. Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 380 (2007); Wishkin v. Potter, 416 F.3d 180, 184 (3d Cir. 2007). A dispute is "genuine" only if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-moving party. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 247-49. If the non-moving 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., 477 U.S. at 322.

         III. DISCUSSION

         A. CCS' Motion for Summary Judgment on Count VI

         Plaintiffs amended complaint asserts one count against CCS, alleging failure to train and/or maintenance of wrongful customs, practices, and policies in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. (D.I. 148 ¶¶ 65-69). Plaintiff alleges that the wrongful customs and policies maintained by CCS deprived Plaintiff of his constitutional right against cruel and unusual punishment. (See Id. ¶¶ 68-69).

         In support of its motion for summary judgment, CCS raises three principal arguments: (1) Plaintiff failed to exhaust his administrative remedies, (2) Plaintiff has failed to present any evidence that CCS violated his constitutional rights, and (3) Plaintiff has failed to present any evidence that CCS maintained a wrongful custom or policy. (See D.I. 170). I agree with CCS on its third argument, and thus will grant summary judgment to CCS on that basis.

         To bring a § 1983 claim, Plaintiff "must demonstrate a violation of a right protected by the Constitution or the laws of the United States committed by a person acting under the color of state law." Natale v. Camden Cty. Corr. Facility, 318 F.3d 575, 581-82 (3d Cir. 2003).

         "When evaluating a claim brought under § 1983, [the Court] must first identify the exact contours of the underlying right said to have been violated in order to determine whether [Plaintiff] has alleged a deprivation of a constitutional right at all." Id. at 581 (citation omitted). "If so, the analysis then shifts to a determination of whether the state actor, in this case [CCS], [2]can be held liable for that violation." Id.

         Even assuming that Plaintiff has provided sufficient evidence on the question of whether CCS employees violated his constitutional rights, I will grant CCS' motion for summary judgment because Plaintiff has failed to present sufficient evidence from which a reasonable jury could find CCS liable for that violation.

         For the actions of CCS employees to be attributed to CCS itself, Plaintiff "must provide evidence that there was a relevant [CCS] policy or custom, and that the policy caused the constitutional violation [] allege[d]." Id. at 583-84 (citing Bd. of County Comm 'rs of Bryan County, Oklahoma v. Brown, 520 U.S. 387, 404 (1997)). That is because CCS "cannot be held responsible for the acts of its employees under a theory of respondeat superior or vicarious liability." Id. at 583 (citing Monell v. New York City Dept. of Soc. Servs., 436 U.S. 658, 691 (1978)).

         "Not all state action rises to the level of a custom or policy." Id. at 584. "A policy is made when a decisionmaker possess[ing] final authority to establish municipal policy with respect to the action issues a final proclamation, policy or edict." Kneipp v. Tedder, 95 F.3d 1199, 1212 (3d Cir. 1996) (citation omitted). A "custom" is an act "that has not been formally approved by an appropriate decisionmaker," but that is "so widespread as to have the force of law." Brown, 520 U.S. at 404.

         Here, Plaintiff has failed to present sufficient facts from which a reasonable jury could find that CCS maintained a wrongful policy or custom that deprived Plaintiff of his right to adequate medical care. The amended complaint alleges that CCS maintained wrongful policies and customs by failing to train and supervise its personnel, failing to administer appropriate medical care, and failing to institute appropriate procedures. (See D.I. 148 ¶ 67). There are no facts in the record, however, supporting the allegation that CCS maintained any such wrongful policy or custom.[3]

         In arguing that I should not grant summary judgment to CCS on this issue, Plaintiff points to the length of time it took Plaintiff to receive medical treatment for his injuries. (See D.I. 178 at 22-23). That CCS employees delayed in reaching Plaintiff is not, in my opinion, sufficient to create a genuine dispute of material fact on the question whether CCS maintained a wrongful custom or policy, particularly when there is no other evidence in the record to support Plaintiffs contention in that regard. Plaintiff argues further that I should not grant summary judgment to CCS because it has "refused to produce [relevant] discovery." (Id. at 21). Although CCS objected to one of Plaintiff s discovery requests as overly broad, it responded to another by stating that in treating Plaintiff, "Dr. Desrosiers followed her education, training and experience." (Id. (quoting Ex. J ¶ 19)). That CCS was unable to identify a more specific policy or custom is not reason to deny its motion for summary judgment.

         Absent sufficient evidence from which a reasonable jury could find that CCS maintained a wrongful policy or custom that deprived Plaintiff of his right against cruel and unusual punishment, Plaintiffs § 1983 ...


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