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Dunston v. Churchwell

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

July 5, 2019

W CHURCHWELL, et al., Defendants.



         This prisoner civil rights case is before the court on Defendants Kelly and Holden's motion to dismiss (Doc. 17), and Defendant Churchwell's identical motion to dismiss (Doc. 28). Plaintiff filed separate, identical responses to the motions. (Docs. 22, 35). The undersigned concludes that the Defendants' motions to dismiss should be granted and that this case should be dismissed for failure to state a claim on which relief may be granted and because the Defendants are entitled to qualified immunity.[1]

         I. Background and Procedural History

         Plaintiff Darian Dunston is an inmate of the Florida Department of Corrections currently confined at Mayo Correctional Institution Annex. Dunston was confined at the Northwest Florida Reception Center (“NWFRC”) at the time of the events giving rise to this lawsuit. Dunston is suing three prison officials previously employed at NWFRC: Warden W. Churchwell, Assistant Warden N. Kelly, and Correctional Major J. Holden. Dunston claims that the Defendants violated his Eighth Amendment right to be free from cruel and unusual punishments. Specifically, Dunston contends that, in August 2013, while he was being held in disciplinary confinement, he informed the Defendants that gang members threatened to kill him upon his release into the general prison population. Dunston claims that despite being confronted with this information, the Defendants failed to take reasonable steps to abate the threat. Dunston asserts that eight months after reentering the general population, he was attacked by two inmates-one of whom was a known gang member. As relief, Dunston seeks $425, 000.00 in compensatory and punitive damages from each Defendant. (Doc. 1).

         The Defendants move to dismiss Dunston's complaint under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12, on three grounds: (1) the Defendants are entitled to qualified immunity; (2) Dunston's allegations fail to state a facially plausible deliberate indifference claim under the Eighth Amendment; and (3) Dunston's damages claims are barred by 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(e). (Doc. 17, pp. 5-12; Doc. 28, pp. 5-12). Dunston opposes the Defendants' motions on each point. (Docs. 22, 35).

         II. Relevant Legal Principles

         A. Motion to Dismiss Standard

          Rule 12 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure authorizes dismissal of a complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). To survive dismissal, “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 (2009) (quoting 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. The mere possibility that the defendant acted unlawfully is insufficient. Id.; see also 5 C. Wright & A. Miller, Federal Practice and Procedure § 1216, pp. 235-36 (3d ed. 2004) (noting that a “pleading must contain something more . . . than . . . a statement of facts that merely creates a suspicion [of] a legally cognizable right of action”).

         The complaint must include “[f]actual allegations . . . [sufficient] to raise a right to relief above the speculative level, ” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555, that is, “across the line from conceivable to plausible.” Id. at 570; see also Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (reiterating that although Rule 8 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure does not require detailed factual allegations, it demands “more than an unadorned, the-defendant-unlawfully-harmed-me accusation.”). A complaint also may be dismissed for failure to state a claim “when its allegations, on their face, show that an affirmative defense bars recovery on the claim.” Cottone v. Jenne, 326 F.3d 1352, 1357 (11th Cir. 2003); see also Marsh v. Butler Cty., Ala., 268 F.3d 1014, 1022 (11th Cir. 2001); Jones v. Bock, 549 U.S. 199, 215 (2007) (reiterating that principle).

         In considering a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, the court accepts all well-pleaded factual allegations in the complaint as true and evaluates all reasonable inferences derived from those facts in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. See Hunnings v. Texaco, Inc., 29 F.3d 1480, 1483 (11th Cir. 1994). Mere “labels and conclusions, ” however, are not accepted as true. Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555; Papasan v. Allain, 478 U.S. 265, 286 (1986) (explaining that on a motion to dismiss, courts “are not bound to accept as true a legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation”); Franklin v. Curry, 738 F.3d 1246, 1251 (11th Cir. 2013) (holding that courts must follow the Supreme Court's “‘two-pronged approach' of first separating out the complaint's conclusory legal allegations and then determining whether the remaining well-pleaded factual allegations, accepted as true, ‘plausibly give rise to an entitlement to relief.'” (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679). Thus, a pleading that offers “a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555.

         B. Qualified Immunity Standard

         “Under the qualified immunity doctrine, government officials performing discretionary functions are immune not just from liability, but from suit, unless the conduct which is the basis for suit violates clearly established federal statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.” Sanders v. Howze, 177 F.3d 1245, 1249 (11th Cir. 1999) (citing Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818 (1982)). “To be entitled to qualified immunity, the defendant must first establish that he was acting within the scope of his discretionary authority.” Gaines v. Wardynski, 871 F.3d 1203, 1208 (11th Cir. 2017) (citing Maddox v. Stephens, 727 F.3d 1109, 1120 (11th Cir. 2013)). Once that is shown, “the burden shifts to the plaintiff to establish that qualified immunity is not appropriate.” Id. The plaintiff must prove that “(1) the defendant violated a constitutional right, and (2) this right was clearly established at the time of the alleged violation.” Holloman v. Harland, 370 F.3d 1252, 1264 (11th Cir. 2004).

         “Clearly established means that, at the time of the officer's conduct, the law was sufficiently clear that every reasonable official would understand that what he is doing is unlawful.” Dist. of Columbia v. Wesby, U.S., 138 S.Ct. 577, 589 (2018) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). Qualified immunity protects “all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law.” Malley v. Briggs, 475 U.S. 335, 341 (1986). The Eleventh Circuit “has repeatedly held that a district court may dismiss a case on the basis of qualified immunity at the Rule 12 stage.” Trotter v. Shull, 720 Fed.Appx. 542, 543 (11th Cir. 2017) (citing Cottone, 326 F.3d at 1357; Gonzalez v. Reno, 325 F.3d 1228, 1233 (11th Cir. 2003); Skrtich v. Thornton, 280 F.3d 1295, 1306 (11th Cir. 2002)).

         C. Eighth Amendment Deliberate Indifference Standard

         “[P]rison officials have a duty . . . to protect prisoners from violence at the hands of other prisoners.” Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825, 833 (1994) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). However “not . . . every injury suffered by one prisoner at the hands of another . . . translates into constitutional liability for prison officials responsible for the victim's safety.” Farmer, 511 U.S. at 834. It is only a “prison official's deliberate ...

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