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Walton v. Florida Department of Corrections

United States District Court, M.D. Florida, Jacksonville Division

March 20, 2018

JUDITH WALTON, as Personal Representative for the ESTATE OF FRANK SMITH, on behalf of the Estate and Survivor Judith Walton, Plaintiff,


          BRIAN J. DAVIS United States District Judge

         I. Status

         Plaintiff is proceeding in this action as the personal representative for the estate of Frank Smith, Plaintiff's son, who was an inmate of the Florida penal system. Plaintiff, represented by counsel, is proceeding on a Second Amended Complaint (Doc. 33; Complaint), asserting, on behalf of Smith's estate and survivors, that Smith's constitutional rights were violated while he was in custody of the Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC). Plaintiff filed her original complaint on September 6, 2016 (Doc. 1). Plaintiff names as defendants the FDOC, Warden Barry Reddish, Nan Jeffcoat, Lt. Joseph Allen, Capt. Wilfred Ellis, Capt. Shawn Swain, Lt. Terry Bacon, Sgt. Rodney Criswell, Sgt. Brandi Griffis, Officer Brian Norman, Officer Shalen Browning, Officer Michael Shaffer, and Officer Dustin Hough. All Defendants except one have filed motions to dismiss the Second Amended Complaint (Docs. 34, 35, 36; Motions). Defendant Ellis, who recently filed an Answer (Doc. 41), has not moved to dismiss the Complaint. (Doc. 41). Plaintiff has filed a response to the Motions (Doc.37; Response), which are now ripe for review.

         II. Motion to Dismiss Standard

         In ruling on a motion to dismiss, the Court must accept the factual allegations set forth in the complaint as true. Ashcroft v.Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009); Swierkiewicz v. Sorema N.A., 534 U.S. 506, 508 n.1 (2002); see also Lotierzo v. Woman's World Med. Ctr., Inc., 278 F.3d 1180, 1182 (11th Cir. 2002). In addition, all reasonable inferences should be drawn in favor of the plaintiff. See Omar ex. rel. Cannon v. Lindsey, 334 F.3d 1246, 1247 (11th Cir. 2003) (per curiam). Indeed, “the tenet that a court must accept as true all of the allegations contained in a complaint is inapplicable to legal conclusions[, ]” which simply “are not entitled to [an] assumption of truth.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678, 680. A plaintiff must meet some minimal pleading requirements. Jackson v. BellSouth Telecomm., 372 F.3d 1250, 1262-63 (11th Cir. 2004) (citations omitted).

         The plaintiff must allege "enough facts to state a claim that is plausible on its face." Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). “A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678. A Court may properly dismiss a complaint for failure to comply with the applicable limitations period when “it is apparent from the face of the complaint that the claim is time-barred.” Baker v. City of Hollywood, 391 F. App'x 819, 820 (11th Cir. 2010) (citing La Grasta v. First Union Secs., Inc., 358 F.3d 840, 845 (11th Cir. 2004)).

         III. Complaint Allegations

         Plaintiff alleges Defendants deprived Smith of his constitutional rights with respect to an incident that occurred on July 3, 2012. On that day, Smith was an inmate at Union Correctional Institution (UCI), and officers were transporting him from a hospital in Gainesville, FL, back to UCI. Complaint at 4. According to Plaintiff, on July 3, 2012, officers used excessive force against Smith both in the transport vehicle and upon return to UCI (the movement center). Id. at 4, 6. Specifically, Plaintiff alleges that, during transport, Defendant Criswell pulled the van to the side of the road after Smith banged his head on the compartment divider and kicked a window, breaking the glass. Id. at 4-5. Defendant Criswell entered the van's passenger compartment and then “used his Taser on Smith and struck him repeatedly.” Id. at 6. Upon return to the movement center, according to Plaintiff, Defendants failed to properly care for Smith, failed to timely call paramedics, and improperly moved Smith using a wheelchair rather than a stretcher even though Smith was unconscious. Id. at 7-9. Plaintiff further alleges that Smith was “battered” while at the movement center. Id. at 15. With respect to individual Defendants, Plaintiff alleges some were directly involved in beating and physically harming Smith, while others failed to intervene or were deliberately indifferent to a history of abuse against inmates and with respect to this particular incident. Id. at 15-18.

         A paramedic allegedly concluded that Smith's injuries appeared more consistent with a car accident victim or someone who fell down a set of stairs. Id. at 9. As a result of the use of force, “Smith received paralyzing blunt force injuries to his head and neck.” Unfortunately, Smith died two months later, on September 4, 2012, allegedly as a result of complications related to the injuries. Id. at 4. The medical examiner's autopsy revealed “multiple visible abrasions, lacerations, edemas and contusions of the legs, groin, midsection, and head.” Id. at 12. Smith's cause of death was noted to be “complications of blunt head injuries, ” which Plaintiff attributes directly to the Defendants' acts or omissions on July 3, 2012. Id. at 12.

         Plaintiff asserts four counts, all arising out of the conduct alleged to have occurred on July 3, 2012. Id. at 1. Counts I through III assert claims under § 1983 for the violation of Smith's constitutional rights. Count I alleges excessive use of force and a failure to protect or intervene as to Defendants Criswell, Hough, Schaffer, Allen, Norman, Griffis, and Browning. Id. at 15. Count II alleges deliberate indifference as to Defendants Reddish, Jeffcoat, [1] Ellis, Swain, Allen, and Bacon. Id. at 17. Count III alleges conspiracy to deprive Smith of his constitutional rights as to all Defendants. Id. at 19. Count IV alleges violations of the ADA and Rehabilitation Act as to Defendant FDOC, alleging Smith was disabled and Defendant FDOC failed to provide reasonable accommodations for Smith, which resulted in his injury and death.[2] Id. at 20.

         With respect to the conspiracy claim, Plaintiff alleges Defendants[3] conspired to beat Smith, who allegedly suffered from an unspecified mental illness. Id. at 4, 19. According to Plaintiff, Defendants not only conspired to harm Smith, but agreed to an elaborate plan to delay medical treatment, delay disclosure of the incident to investigators, hide or destroy evidence, and to conceal any wrongdoing. Id. at 19. The denial of immediate medical care allegedly “exposed [Smith] to undue suffering and an untimely and unnecessary death.” Id. at 12. Plaintiff alleges the FDOC investigator first learned of the incident about five to six hours after it happened. Plaintiff maintains that Smith lost consciousness at some point on the day of the incident, id., though, apparently while he was conscious, “[t]he officers involved in the force . . . threatened Smith with severe injury or death if he told what happened.” Id. at 11. As relief, Plaintiff seeks damages on behalf of Smith's estate and on behalf of the survivors for their loss of support and pain and suffering resulting from Smith's death.

         IV. Defendants' Motions and Plaintiff's Response

         Defendants assert various defenses: failure to state a claim, qualified immunity, application of the intracorporate conspiracy doctrine, and failure to timely file the Complaint within the applicable statute of limitations. See Motions. With respect to the statute of limitations defense, Defendants maintain the applicable four-year statute of limitations accrued on the date of the incident, July 3, 2012. According to Defendants, the filing of the original complaint on September 6, 2016, falls well outside the statutory period. See Doc. 34 at 13; Doc. 35 at 5; Doc. 36 at 8.[4] Some Defendants also assert that Florida law bars Plaintiff's claims because the injuries to Smith resulted in his death. Under Florida law, claims for injuries resulting in death do not survive; instead, when death results, a distinct cause of action may proceed in favor of the survivors, as a wrongful death claim. See Motion (Doc. 35) at 4-5.

         In response to the statute of limitations defense, Plaintiff agrees that her claims are governed by a four-year statutory period, but maintains that the accrual date is Smith's date of death, which was September 4, 2012, [5] citing Florida law. Response at 14. Plaintiff also asserts that she is entitled to application of the “delayed discovery” doctrine under Florida law. Id. at 15. Plaintiff does not address why Smith's date of death governs the accrual of the action and only responds to Defendants' asserted accrual date in a footnote, saying that the Defendants' “theory has no possible justification.” Id. at 14 n.6.

         V. Law and Conclusions

         Defendants' argument with respect to the accrual date indeed has justification, at least as to Counts I, II, and IV. As a preliminary matter, the parties do not dispute that a four-year limitations period, imported from Florida law as the forum state, governs the claims. See Doc. 34 at 13; Doc. 35 at 5; Doc. 36 at 8; Response at 14. The Supreme Court has held that because § 1983 does not set forth a limitations period, the courts are to adopt the forum state's residual personal injury statute of limitations. Owens v. Okure, 488 U.S. 235, 236 (1989) (stressing a goal of consistency and recognizing that “narrow analogies” to state law bred confusion and inconsistency in the application of the federal law); see also Wallace v. Kato, 549 U.S. 384, 387 (2007). The ADA also does not identify a limitations period; thus, Florida's four-year statutory period applies. Silva v. Baptist Heath So. Fla., Inc., 856 F.3d 824, 841 (11th Cir. 2017) (citing Fla. Stat. § 95.11(3)).

         Section 1983 and the ADA are silent as to whether a person's claims survive death. Thus, federal courts apply state substantive law to the extent necessary to “fill a gap, ” per the federal statutory framework provided by § 1988. See Robertson v. Wegmann, 436 U.S. 584, 588 (1978) (recognizing that, when federal statutes are insufficient in addressing specific remedies, the applicable forum state's laws are imported to the extent not inconsistent with federal laws); United States v. NEC Corp., 11 F.3d 136, 137, 139 (11th Cir. 1993) (recognizing that claims based on remedial statutes survive death where the forum state's law permits recovery for wrongful death); see also Brazier v. Cherry, 293 F.2d 401, 408-09 (5th Cir. 1961).

         Section 1988 provides the following:

The jurisdiction in civil and criminal matters conferred on the district courts . . . for the protection of all persons in the United States in their civil rights, and for their vindication, shall be exercised and enforced in conformity with the laws of the United States, so far as such laws are suitable to carry the same into effect; but in all cases where they are not adapted to the object, or are deficient in the provisions necessary to furnish suitable remedies and punish offenses against law, the common law, as modified and changed by the constitution and statutes of the State wherein the court having jurisdiction of such civil or criminal ...

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