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Sims v. Figueroa

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

August 26, 2019

WILLIAM SIMS, Plaintiff,
v.
ALEXIS FIGUEROA, Defendant.

          ORDER

          MARCIA MORALES HOWARD UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         I. Status

         Plaintiff William Sims, an inmate of the Florida penal system, initiated this action on July 20, 2018, by filing a pro se Civil Rights Complaint (Complaint; Doc. 1) with exhibits (Doc. 1-1 at 1-8). In the Complaint, Sims names Dr. Alexis Figueroa, M.D., as the Defendant. He asserts that Defendant Figueroa was deliberately indifferent to his serious medical needs. As relief, Sims seeks compensatory and punitive damages as well as injunctive relief. This matter is before the Court on Defendant Figueroa's Motion to Dismiss (Motion; Doc. 8). The Court advised Sims that granting a motion to dismiss would be an adjudication of the case that could foreclose subsequent litigation on the matter, and gave him an opportunity to respond. See Order (Doc. 5). Plaintiff filed a response in opposition to the Motion, see Declaration in Opposition to Defendant's Motion to Dismiss (Response; Doc. 14), and the Motion is ripe for review.

         II. Plaintiff's Allegations [1]

         As to the underlying facts of his claims, Sims asserts that he had a colonoscopy on August 16, 2017, with follow-up instructions to return in eight weeks. See Complaint at 4. He states that he experienced "gross rectal bleeding" within a few days, and was given "a dose of magnesia." Id. He avers that the Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC) transferred him to Suwannee Correctional Institution Annex (SCIA) on August 30, 2017. See Id. According to Sims, he informed Defendant Figueroa ("the primary health care provider" at SCIA) about his "ongoing rectal bleeding" on September 8th, and Figueroa advised that he would refer Sims to a gastroenterologist for a consultation. See id. Sims maintains that he had an "outside appointment" concerning his prostate cancer with Dr. Montoya (an oncologist) on October 12th, at which time he informed Montoya about his rectal bleeding. Id. According to Sims, Montoya performed a rectal examination, determined he had rectal bleeding, and ordered a gastroenterology consultation. See id. at 4-5. He states that Defendant Figueroa advised Sims that he would not refer him to a gastroenterologist because he had "his own treatment plan" for Sims. Id. at 5.

         Sims avers that he accessed sick call at the institution on October 31, November 3, 18, and 21, and December 5 before he received "any form of medical treatment." Id. He asserts that Defendant Figueroa saw him in mid-December 2017, and prescribed a stool softener, fiber laxative, and hydrocortisone. See Id. According to Sims, there was no follow-up appointment, but instead Figueroa just renewed the medications. See id. He avers that Dr. Montoya saw him on January 18, 2018, and again ordered that he see a gastroenterologist. See id. Sims declares that he continued to complain about rectal bleeding and pain, "but did not receive any meaningful treatment." Id. He states that Montoya was "furious" when he saw him on July 5th because Sims had not seen a gastroenterologist. Id. at 6. Sims proclaims that Montoya informed him that Centurion "was trying to save money," instead of providing adequate medical care. Id.

         III. 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. See 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 Randall v. Scott, 610 F.3d 701, 705 (11th Cir. 2010). Nonetheless, the plaintiff must still meet some minimal pleading requirements. Jackson v. Bellsouth Telecomm., 372 F.3d 1250, 1262-63 (11th Cir. 2004) (citations omitted). Indeed, while "[s]pecific facts are not necessary[, ]" the complaint should "'give the defendant fair notice of what the . . . claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.'" Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 93 (2007) (per curiam) (quoting Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007)). Further, the plaintiff must allege "enough facts to state a claim that is plausible on its face." Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570. "A claim has facial plausibility when the pleaded factual content allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556).

         A "plaintiff's obligation to provide the grounds of his entitlement to relief requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do[.]" Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555 (internal quotations omitted); see also Jackson, 372 F.3d at 1262 (explaining that "conclusory allegations, unwarranted deductions of facts or legal conclusions masquerading as facts will not prevent dismissal") (internal citation and quotations omitted). 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." See Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678, 680. Thus, in ruling on a motion to dismiss, the Court must determine whether the complaint contains "sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to 'state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face[.]'" Id. at 678 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570). And, while "[p]ro se pleadings are held to a less stringent standard than pleadings drafted by attorneys and will, therefore, be liberally construed," Tannenbaum v. United States, 148 F.3d 1262, 1263 (11th Cir. 1998), "'this leniency does not give the court a license to serve as de facto counsel for a party or to rewrite an otherwise deficient pleading in order to sustain an action.'" Alford v. Consol. Gov't of Columbus, Ga., 438 Fed.Appx. 837, 839 (11th Cir. 2011)[2] (quoting GJR Invs., Inc. v. Cty. of Escambia, Fla., 132 F.3d 1359, 1369 (11th Cir. 1998) (internal citation omitted), overruled in part on other grounds as recognized in Randall, 610 F.3d at 706).

         IV. Summary of the Arguments

         In the Motion, Defendant Figueroa requests dismissal of Sims' claims against him because Sims failed to exhaust his administrative remedies, as required by the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), before filing the instant 42 U.S.C. § 1983 lawsuit. See Motion at 4-7. Next, Figueroa argues that Sims failed to state a plausible Eighth Amendment claim against him, see id. at 7-9, and he is entitled to qualified immunity, see id. at 9-10. He also asserts that the Eleventh Amendment bars Sims' claim for monetary damages against him in his official capacity. See id. at 10. Finally, he maintains that Sims is not entitled to compensatory and punitive damages under 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(e) because he has not alleged any physical injury resulting from Defendant's acts and/or omissions. See id. at 10-11. In response to the Motion, Sims reasserts the facts underlying his claims, and states that he exhausted his administrative remedies before filing the Complaint in this Court. See Response.

         V. Exhaustion of Administrative Remedies 1. Exhaustion

         The PLRA requires an inmate wishing to challenge prison conditions to first exhaust all available administrative remedies before filing an action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. See 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(a). Nevertheless, a prisoner such as Sims is not required to plead exhaustion. See Jones v. Bock, 549 U.S. 199, 216 (2007). Instead, the United States Supreme Court has recognized "failure to exhaust is an affirmative defense under the PLRA[.]" Id. Notably, exhaustion of available administrative remedies is "a precondition to an adjudication on the merits" and is mandatory under the PLRA. Bryant v. Rich, 530 F.3d 1368, 1374 (11th Cir. 2008). Not only is there an exhaustion requirement, "the PLRA exhaustion requirement requires proper exhaustion." Woodford v. Ngo, 548 U.S. 81, 93 (2006).

Because exhaustion requirements are designed to deal with parties who do not want to exhaust, administrative law creates an incentive for these parties to do what they would otherwise prefer not to do, namely, to give the agency a fair and full opportunity to adjudicate their claims. Administrative law does this by requiring proper exhaustion of administrative remedies, which "means using all steps that the agency holds out, and doing so properly (so that the agency addresses the issues on the merits)." Pozo, [3] 286 F.3d, at 1024. . . .

Woodford, 548 U.S. at 90. And, "[p]roper exhaustion demands compliance with an agency's deadlines and other critical procedural rules . . . ." Id. As such, the United States Supreme Court has emphasized:

Courts may not engraft an unwritten "special circumstances" exception onto the PLRA's exhaustion requirement. The only limit to § 1997e(a)'s mandate is the one baked into its text: An inmate need exhaust only such administrative remedies as are "available." Ross v. Blake, 136 S.Ct. 1850, 1862 (2016).

         The determination of whether an inmate exhausted his available administrative remedies prior to filing a cause of action in federal court is a matter of abatement and should be raised in a motion to dismiss, or be treated as such if raised in a summary judgment motion. Bryant, 530 F.3d at 1374-75 (citation omitted). The Eleventh Circuit has explained the two-step process that the Court must employ when examining the issue of exhaustion of administrative remedies.

After a prisoner has exhausted the grievance procedures, he may file suit under § 1983. In response to a prisoner suit, defendants may bring a motion to dismiss and raise as a defense the prisoner's failure to exhaust these administrative remedies. See Turner, 541 F.3d at 1081.[4] In Turner v. Burnside we established a two-step process for resolving motions to dismiss prisoner lawsuits for failure to exhaust. 541 F.3d at 1082. First, district courts look to the factual allegations in the motion to dismiss and those in the prisoner's response and accept the prisoner's view of the facts as true. The court should dismiss if the facts as stated by the prisoner show a failure to exhaust. Id. Second, if dismissal is not warranted on the prisoner's view of the facts, the court makes specific findings to resolve disputes of fact, and should dismiss if, based on those findings, defendants have shown a failure to exhaust. Id. at 1082-83; see also id. at 1082 (explaining that defendants bear the burden of showing a failure to exhaust).

Whatley v. Warden, Ware State Prison, 802 F.3d 1205, 1209 (11th Cir. 2015); see Pavao v. Sims, 679 Fed.Appx. 819, 823-24 (11th Cir. 2017) (per curiam).

         2. Florida's Prison Grievance Procedure

         The FDOC provides an internal grievance procedure for its inmates. See FLA. ADMIN. CODE r. 33-103.001 through 33-103.018. Generally, to properly exhaust administrative remedies, a prisoner must complete a three-step sequential process. First, an inmate must submit an informal grievance to a designated staff member at the institutional level. See FLA. ADMIN. CODE r. 33-103.005. If the issue is not resolved, the inmate must submit a formal grievance at the institutional level. See FLA. ADMIN. CODE r. 33-103.006. If the matter is not resolved at the institutional level, the inmate must file an appeal to the Office of the FDOC Secretary. See FLA. ADMIN. CODE r. 33-103.007. However, under specified circumstances, an inmate can bypass the informal-grievance stage and start with a formal grievance at the institutional level. See FLA. ADMIN. CODE r. 33-103.005(1); 33-103.006(3). Or, an inmate can completely bypass the institutional level and proceed directly to the Office of the FDOC Secretary by filing a "direct grievance." See FLA. ADMIN. CODE r. 33-103.007(3). Emergency grievances and grievances of reprisal are types of "direct grievances" that may be filed with the Office of the Secretary. See FLA. ADMIN. CODE r. 33-103.007(3)(a).

         Florida Administrative Code Rule 33-103.011 provides time frames for submission of grievances. Generally, the following time limits are applicable. Informal grievances must be received within twenty days from the date on which the incident or action that is the subject of the grievance occurred. See FLA. ADMIN. CODE r. 33-103.011(1)(a). Formal grievances must be received no later than fifteen days from the date of the response to the informal grievance. See FLA. ADMIN. CODE r. 33-103.011(1)(b). Similarly, grievance appeals to the Office of the Secretary must be received within fifteen days from the date the response to the formal grievance is returned to the inmate. See FLA. ADMIN. CODE r. 33-103.011(1)(c). Rule 33-103.011(2) provides:

An extension of the above-stated time periods shall be granted when it is clearly demonstrated by the inmate to the satisfaction of the reviewing authority as defined in paragraphs 33-103.002(15)((b) and (c), F.A.C., or the Secretary that it was not feasible to file the grievance within the relevant time periods and that the inmate made a good faith effort to file in a timely manner. The granting of such an extension shall apply to the filing of an original grievance or when re-filing a grievance after correcting one or more deficiencies cited in rule 33-103.014, F.A.C.

FLA. ADMIN. CODE r. 33-103.011(2). Additionally, Rule 33-103.011(4) states:

The time limit for responding to grievances and appeals may be extended for a reasonable period agreeable to both parties if the extension is agreed to in writing by the inmate. Unless the grievant has agreed in writing to an extension, expiration of a time limit at any step in the process shall entitle the complainant to proceed to the next step of the grievance process. If this occurs, the complainant must clearly indicate this fact when filing at the next step. If the inmate does not agree to an extension of time at the central office level of review, he shall be entitled to proceed with judicial remedies as he would have exhausted his administrative remedies. The Bureau of Policy Management and Inmate Appeals will nevertheless ensure that the grievance is investigated and responded to even though an extension has not been agreed to by the inmate.

FLA. ADMIN. CODE r. 33-103.011(4).

         According to Rule 33-103.014, an informal grievance, formal grievance, direct grievance, or grievance appeal "may be returned to the inmate without further processing if, following a review of the grievance, one or more . . . conditions are found to exist." FLA. ADMIN. CODE r. 33-103.014(1). The rule provides an enumerated list as "the only reasons for returning a grievance without a response on the merits." See FLA. ADMIN. CODE r. 33-103.014(1)(a)-(y). Some of the reasons for returning a grievance are as follows: untimeliness; the grievance "addresses more than one issue or complaint" or "is so broad, general or vague in nature that it cannot be clearly investigated, evaluated, and responded to" or "is not written legibly and cannot be clearly understood" or is a supplement to a previously-submitted grievance that has been accepted for review; and the inmate "did not provide a valid reason for by-passing the previous levels of review as required or the reason provided is not acceptable," or "used more than two (2) additional narrative pages." See FLA. ADMIN. CODE r. 33-103.014(1)(a), (b), (c), (d), (f), (h), (q), (t), (u).

         3. Sims' Exhaustion Efforts

         Sims submitted a Request for Administrative Remedy or Appeal (Log #1712-231-057), dated December 12, 2017, to the Warden. See id. at 3-4. In the grievance, Sims stated that he had rectal bleeding and needed a gastroenterology appointment. See id. Dr. Cruz, M.D. denied the formal grievance on December 27, 2017, stating in pertinent part:

[Y]our request for administrative remedy or appeal has been received, ...

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