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Gudger v. Pugh

United States District Court, N.D. Florida, Pensacola Division

July 19, 2018

QUINN GUDGER, Inmate #079173 Plaintiff,
v.
Sergeant C. PUGH, et al., Defendants.

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

          ELIZABETH M. TIMOTHY, CHIEF UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         This cause is before the court on Plaintiff's second amended civil rights complaint under 42 U.S.C. §1983 (ECF No. 19), Leave to proceed in forma pauperis has been granted (ECF No. 8). Upon review of the Second Amended Complaint, the court concludes that facts set forth by Plaintiff fail to state a claim for relief that is plausible on its face. Dismissal of this action is therefore warranted.

         LEGAL STANDARDS OF REVIEW

         Because Plaintiff is proceeding in forma pauperis, the court may dismiss this case if satisfied that the action “(i) is frivolous or malicious; (ii) fails to state a claim on which relief may be granted; or (iii) seeks monetary relief against a defendant who is immune from such relief.” 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B). The language in this subsection “tracks the language of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), ” and thus dismissals for failure to state a claim are governed by the same standard as Rule 12(b)(6). Mitchell v. Farcass, 112 F.3d 1483, 1490 (11th Cir. 1997). The allegations of the complaint are taken as true and are construed in the light most favorable to Plaintiff. Davis v. Monroe County Bd. of Educ., 120 F.3d 1390, 1393 (11th Cir. 1997). To survive § 1915(e)(2)(B)(ii), “a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 1949 (2009) (quotation and citation omitted). A claim is plausible on its face where “the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Id. (citation omitted). Plausibility means “more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully.” Id. “Where a complaint pleads facts that are merely consistent with a defendant's liability, it stops short of the line between possibility and plausibility of entitlement to relief.” Id. (quotation and citation omitted).

         The determination of whether a complaint states a plausible claim for relief is “a context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679 (citation omitted). The pleader is not entitled to relief “where the well-pleaded facts do not permit the court to infer more than the mere possibility of misconduct.” Id. (citing Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2)). The court is “not bound to accept as true a legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation.” Id. at 678 (quotation and citation omitted). And “bare assertions” that “amount to nothing more than a formulaic recitation of the elements” of a claim “are conclusory and not entitled to be assumed true.” Id. at 681 (quotation and citation omitted). Stated succinctly:

. . . a court considering a motion to dismiss can choose to begin by identifying pleadings that, because they are no more than conclusions, are not entitled to the assumption of truth. While legal conclusions can provide the framework of a complaint, they must be supported by factual allegations. When there are well-pleaded factual allegations, a court should assume their veracity and then determine whether they plausibly give rise to an entitlement to relief.

Id. at 679. Finally, consistent with the foregoing precepts, in civil rights cases more than “mere conclusory notice pleading” is required, and a complaint is subject to dismissal “as insufficient where the allegations it contains are vague and conclusory.” Gonzalez v. Reno, 325 F.3d 1228, 1235 (11th Cir. 2003) (quotation and citation omitted). Upon review of the complaint, the court concludes that facts set forth by Plaintiff fail to state a claim for relief that is plausible on its face. Dismissal of this action is therefore warranted.

         REVIEW

         Plaintiff, an inmate at the Florida State Prison but incarcerated at Santa Rosa Correctional Institution during the times relevant to the complaint, alleges that on January 9, 2016, he was in his cell and “had a hold of the wall & chain outside [his] cell door, ” apparently holding onto these objects from inside his cell through the food tray flap door (ECF No. 19 at 7). Defendant Sergeant C. Pugh told him to “let it go, ” to which Plaintiff responded that he wanted to see “the captain” (id.). Plaintiff does not explain why he was holding onto the wall and chain, nor why he refused to let go when told to do so, nor why he stated that he wanted to see the captain. When Plaintiff refuse to let go, Defendant Pugh then allegedly snatched the chain from Plaintiff's hand, “ripping open” his right thumb in the process (id.). Alleging that he received no attention for his bleeding thumb until Defendant Captain M. Burch arrived an hour and a quarter later, Plaintiff suggests that Defendants were trying to cover up the incident. He also states that Defendant Burch did not collect any evidence or take any pictures of his injured hand and that Defendant M. Stokes failed to make a report of the use of force (id. at 7-8). Disciplinary Reports (“DR's”) were filed against Plaintiff regarding the incident, however, which Plaintiff asserts were false or bogus. Finally, Plaintiff suggests that the use-of-force incident was retaliatory because Defendant Pugh had stated once before that he would “get” Plaintiff “some kind of way” for writing prison grievances (id. at 7).

         Plaintiff thereby claims a violation of his Eighth Amendment rights based on Defendant Pugh's use of excessive force upon him. Plaintiff also claims constitutional violations based on his claim that Defendants did not properly investigate the use of force and that false DR's were levied against him. Last, Plaintiff claims Defendant Pugh's actions were taken in retaliation against him for filing prison grievances.

         Claims of excessive force by prison officials fall under the Eighth Amendment's proscription against cruel and unusual punishment. The standard applied to Eighth Amendment claims has a subjective and an objective component. Under the subjective component, to sustain an Eighth Amendment challenge it must be shown that prison officials' actions amounted to an “unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain.” Whitley v. Albers, 475 U.S. 312, 319, 106 S.Ct. 1078, 1084, 89 L.Ed.2d 251 (1986). “Force is deemed legitimate in a custodial setting as long as it is applied ‘in a good faith effort to maintain or restore discipline [and not] maliciously and sadistically to cause harm.'” Skrtich v. Thornton, 280 F.3d 1295, 1300 (11th Cir. 2002) (quoting Whitley, 475 U.S. at 320-21). In determining whether an application of force was applied maliciously and sadistically to cause harm, a variety of factors are considered including: “the need for the application of force; the relationship between that need and the amount of force used; the extent of the threat to the safety of staff and inmates, as reasonably perceived by officials; the extent of injury; and any efforts made to temper the severity of the response.” Hudson v. McMillian, 503 U.S. 1, 7-8, 112 S.Ct. 995, 117 L.Ed.2d 156 (1992); see also Whitley, 475 U.S. at 321; Campbell v. Sikes, 169 F.3d 1353, 1375 (11th Cir. 1999). From consideration of such factors, “inferences may be drawn as to whether the use of force could plausibly have been thought necessary, or instead evinced such wantonness with respect to the unjustified infliction of harm as is tantamount to a knowing willingness that it occur.” Whitley, 475 U.S. at 321 (quoting Johnson v. Glick, 481 F.2d 1028, 1033 (2d Cir. 1973)). Importantly, unless the evidence goes beyond a mere dispute over the reasonableness of a particular use of force or the existence of arguably superior alternatives, dismissal is warranted. Whitley, 475 U.S. at 322. An Eighth Amendment claim requires more than negligence, even gross negligence. Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825, 114 S.Ct. 1970, 128 L.Ed.2d 811 (1994); McElligott v. Foley, 182 F.3d 1248, 1255 (11th Cir. 1999).

         In addition to the “unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain” standard, referred to as the “subjective component” of the excessive force standard, there exists an “objective component” that determines if the alleged wrongdoing was objectively harmful enough to establish a constitutional violation. See Wilson v. Seiter, 501 U.S. 294, 303, 111 S.Ct. 2321, 2326, 115 L.Ed.2d 271 (1991). In situations involving allegations of excessive force, the Supreme Court has abrogated any requirement that the resulting injury be “significant.” Hudson, 503 U.S. at 9. However, “not every push or shove, even if it may later seem unnecessary in the peace of a judge's chambers, violates a prisoner's constitutional rights.” Id. (quotation omitted). “[Excluded] from constitutional recognition [are] de minimis uses of physical force, provided that the use of force is not of a sort repugnant to the conscience of mankind.” Id., 503 U.S. at 9-10 (quotation marks and citation omitted); Nolin v. Isbell, 207 F.3d 1253, 1258 (11th Cir. 2000) (“[A] minimal amount of force and injury . . . will not defeat an officer's qualified immunity.”). The Eleventh Circuit has repeatedly held that a push or shove that causes pain and necessitates no or merely minor medical treatment is not a constitutional violation, even where the prisoner was restrained and no further force was necessary. See, e.g., Jones v. City of Dothan, 121 F.3d 1456, 1460-61 (11th Cir. 1997); Post v. City of Fort Lauderdale, 7 F.3d 1552, 1556 (11th Cir. 1993), modified, 14 F.3d 583 (11th Cir. 1994). Furthermore, a conclusory allegation that the prisoner suffered serious injury should be discounted, and the absence of further evidence of injury justifies the conclusion that the use of force on the prisoner was minimal. Brown v. Smith, 813 F.2d 1187 (11th Cir. 1987); Bennett v. Parker, 898 F.2d 1530, 1533 (11th Cir. 1990). In Hudson in particular, the Supreme Court held that Hudson's injuries, which included bruises, swelling, loosened teeth, and a cracked dental plate, were not de minimis for Eighth Amendment purposes. Hudson, 503 U.S. at 10.

         Plaintiff's complaint does not meet either prong of the excessive force standard. Regarding the first prong, Plaintiff's allegations do not amount to more than a simple dispute over what is a necessary use of force. Plaintiff does not deny that he refused to comply with the order to remove his hands from the “chain and wall” that he was grasping, and so he does not contest that some measure of force was legitimated in order to restore institutional discipline and order. Other than the circumstances of the incident, Plaintiff ascribes no motive to Defendant's action other than his conclusory allegation that Defendant Pugh, at an indeterminate time preceding the incident in question, expressed a retaliatory motive (the terms of which the court will address infra). Thus, the use of force which caused injury to Plaintiff's thumb was simply inadvertent and a matter of negligence, which is not actionable for an Eighth Amendment claim.

         Nor does Plaintiff meet the second, or objective, prong of the standard. He complains that his thumb was bleeding after the incident, but beyond the fact that his injury necessitated a visit to the nurse, there is no indication that Plaintiff suffered any significant or lasting injury. Accordingly, the court ...


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