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Phelps v. Duncan

United States District Court, N.D. Florida, Panama City Division

June 10, 2019




         This matter is before the Court on Defendants Diana Duncan and Beth Welch's motion for summary judgment (ECF Doc. 53).[1] The matter has been referred to the undersigned Magistrate Judge for a Report and Recommendation pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636 and N.D. Fla. Loc. R. 72.2(C). After reviewing the parties' submissions and the relevant law, the undersigned recommends that Defendants' motion be GRANTED and summary judgment entered in Defendants' favor. Specifically, the undersigned finds that Plaintiff has failed to present facts from which a reasonable jury could find that Defendants acted with deliberate indifference in violation of the Eighth Amendment and further that, even if such facts were present, Defendants would be entitled to qualified immunity.

         I. Factual Background

         In support of their motion, Defendants submitted verified interrogatory responses from Defendants Duncan (ECF Doc. 53-5) and Welch (ECF Doc. 53-3) and the affidavit of Defendant Welch (ECF Doc. 54). In opposition, Plaintiff submitted his medical records, the affidavit of a former inmate, Shawn Stokes and his own affidavit. ECF Doc. 59 at 21-37. The facts below are derived from those submissions as well as Phelps' verified amended complaint (ECF Doc. 6). See Caldwell v. Warden, FCI Talladega, 748 F.3d 1090, 1098 (noting the court is to “credit the specific facts pled in [a pro se plaintiff's] sworn complaint when considering his opposition to summary judgment) (internal marks omitted).

         Plaintiff Rodney Phelps (“Phelps”), a prisoner proceeding pro se and in forma pauperis, filed this civil rights action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (ECF Doc. 1), asserting claims for cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment and denial of due process under the Fourteenth Amendment. Phelps' claims arise out of an incident that occurred on March 11, 2012, when Phelps burned his foot with hot water after slipping into an open drain while working in a prison kitchen. Phelps names three (3) Defendants in the complaint - Diana Duncan (“Duncan”), Food Services Director; Raymond Wood (“Wood”), [2] Correctional Officer; and B. Welch (“Welch”), Production Manager, each of whom were employed at the Northwest Florida Reception Center Annex (“NFRCA”), where Phelps was incarcerated and injured.[3]

         Phelps claims that on the morning of March 11, 2012, while working to make the morning beverages, he noticed the floor drain in front of the tilt kettle was missing a drain cover. ECF Doc. 53-6 at 23; ECF Doc. 6 at 6. According to Phelps, the cooks often swapped drain covers because there were never enough in their area either and that is what happened that morning. See ECF Doc. 53-6 at 23. Phelps asked one of the cooks if he could use one of their drain covers, but the cook said no. See id. Thus, Phelps advised Defendant Welch of the missing drain cover. ECF Doc. 53-6 (Phelps Depo.) at 23; ECF Doc. 6 at 6. Welch told him to “just work around the drain as usual, ” and “be careful, ” or go to confinement. ECF Doc. 53-6 (Phelps Depo.) at 23; ECF Doc. 6 at 7. Phelps then went to Defendant Woods, who gave him a similar response. ECF Doc. 53-6 (Phelps Depo.) at 24; ECF Doc. 6 at 7. Subsequently, when Phelps returned to make the beverages, he accidentally stepped into the uncovered drain, spilling hot water on his left foot and leg and sustaining first and second degree burns on his left foot. Id. at 25; ECF Doc. 6 at 8.

         Defendant Welch does not dispute she “was aware that there were a lack of floor drain covers throughout the food services department premises.” ECF Doc. 54 at 2. Indeed, the parties agree drain covers were missing throughout the food services area for “long periods of time” and that it was a “known condition.” See Id. at 3; ECF Doc. 6 at 9; ECF Doc. 59 at 4; ECF Doc. 59 at 33. Defendant Welch states in her affidavit that she reported the issue to maintenance and “often reminded Plaintiff and other inmates” “to be careful.” See ECF Doc. 54 at 3. Welch contends she had no control over the lack of floor drains other than to report the issue to maintenance. See Id. These facts are not disputed by Phelps. Despite the fact that the exposed drains have been a known and persistent issue, Defendant Welch states she is not aware of any other incident involving the exposed drains. ECF Doc. 53-3 at 3.

         It is undisputed Defendant Duncan was not present at the time of the incident. Nonetheless, Phelps has sued Duncan because he contends she was aware of the exposed drains. Specifically, Phelps contends that he and other inmates advised her of same on numerous occasions. ECF Doc. 6 at 9. Additionally, he contends Defendant Duncan is seen on video making “daily inspections” of the food services area. Id. Phelps further contends he advised Defendant Duncan he had slipped and fallen into the exposed floor drains on other occasions and Duncan's response was that “she was aware of the situation, ” “she [had] informed the maintenance department” and “just be careful or go to confinement.” ECF Doc. 6 at 9.

         Defendant Duncan does not dispute she was aware of the exposed drains. Instead, in response to interrogatories, she states she does not remember whether she was made aware of this fact and in Defendants' motion, they state that “Duncan may not have been aware” of the exposed drains.[4] ECF Doc. 53-5 at 3; ECF Doc. 53 at 14. Defendant Duncan also contends that drain covers were under the lock and key of maintenance, that maintenance was responsible for ordering drain covers and ensuring there were a sufficient number of covers. See id. She does not dispute she conducted visual inspections of the food services area each day that she was on duty. See id. at 4.

         II. Legal Analysis

         A. Summary Judgment Standard

         “Summary judgment is appropriate when 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.” Jinks v. Owens, 517 Fed.Appx. 913, 914 (11th Cir. 2013) (citing Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a)). “Once the party moving for summary judgment discharges its initial responsibility of informing the district court of the basis for its motion, the burden shifts to the non-moving party to come forward with relevant evidence beyond the pleadings showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.” Id. at 914-15 (internal marks omitted). “If the non-moving party fails to make a sufficient showing to establish an essential element of its case, summary judgment is appropriate.” Id. “Mere conclusions and unsupported factual allegations are insufficient to defeat a summary judgment motion.” Id. “Similarly, [a] mere scintilla of evidence in support of the nonmoving party will not suffice to overcome a motion for summary judgment.” Id. (internal marks omitted).

         B. Plaintiff's Eighth Amendment Claim [5]

         The gravamen of Phelps' complaint is that the Defendants violated his rights under the Eighth Amendment by displaying a “deliberate indifference” to his safety when they required him to continue to work around open floor drains. The Eighth Amendment imposes an obligation on prison officials to “take reasonable measures to guarantee the safety of the inmates.” Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825, 832 (1994) (internal marks and citations omitted). A prison official violates the Eighth Amendment when his “act or omission . . . result[s] in the denial of the minimal civilized measure of life's necessities.” Id. (internal marks and citations omitted). A mere negligent failure to protect an inmate does not state a claim under § 1983. Davidson v. Cannon, 474 U.S. 344, 347-48 (1986).

         To survive summary judgment, Phelps must show (1) a substantial risk of harm; (2) the Defendants' deliberate indifference to that risk; and (3) causation. See Hale v. Tallapoosa Cty., 50 F.3d 1579, 1582 (11th Cir. 1995).

         1. Substantial Risk of Serious Harm

         Whether an unsafe condition results in a substantial risk of harm is determined based on an objective standard. See Farmer, 511 U.S. at 834. A condition poses a substantial risk of serious harm if it is “so extreme that it poses an unreasonable risk of serious damage to the prisoner's health or safety.” Richardson v. Johnson, 598 F.3d 734, 737 (11th Cir. 2010). There must be a strong likelihood of injury as opposed to a mere possibility. See Brown v. Hughes, 894 F.2d 1533, 1537 (11th Cir. 1990). ...

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