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Thomas v. State

United States District Court, D. Rhode Island

October 16, 2019

J'KIAH A. THOMAS, Plaintiff,
v.
STATE OF RHODE ISLAND, by and through PATRICIA COYNE-FAGUE, Acting Director of the Department of Corrections; ASHBEL T. WALL former Director of R.I.D.O.C.; ALIAS JOHN DOES, in their official capacities, Defendants.

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

          Patricia A. Sullivan United States Magistrate Judge

         Responding to a report and recommendation[1] (ECF No. 26) based on the insufficiency of his original complaint, pro se Plaintiff J'kiah Thomas, a prisoner at the Adult Correctional Institutions (“ACI”), has filed a First Amended Complaint (ECF No. 31, “FAC”) against the Director of the Department of Corrections (“DOC”), Patricia Coyne-Fague, acting in her individual and official capacity. By contrast with his first pleading, which named official capacity Does, Plaintiff has now named as defendants “Alias John Doe(s), in their official and individual capacities”; he has also added two new factual allegations: first, that “an ongoing feud between the two gangs [Bloods and Crips] was well-documented at the time of above mentioned incident, in which prison officials were aware, ” id. ¶ 14; and, second, that “all prison officials were aware of the ongoing feud and recklessly disregarded the excessive risk to Plaintiff Thomas's health and safety, ” id. ¶ 23. In this report and recommendation, I address Director Coyne-Fague's second Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, [2] ECF No. 32, mindful that “[l]ike a battlefield surgeon sorting the hopeful from the hopeless, a motion to dismiss invokes a form of legal triage, a paring of viable claims from those doomed by law.” Iacampo v. Hasbro, Inc., 929 F.Supp. 562, 567 (D.R.I. 1996). As required by our Circuit Court, I have read and analyzed Plaintiff's writings with the leniency mandated for any pro se filing. Instituto de Educacion Universal Corp. v. U.S. Dep't of Educ., 209 F.3d 18, 23 (1st Cir. 2000).

         I. BACKGROUND

         The FAC alleges that Plaintiff's constitutional rights under the Eighth Amendment were violated in January 2016, when he participated as a member of the Bloods gang in a brawl inside the ACI between members of the Bloods gang and members of the rival Crips gang. FAC ¶¶ 7-14. Like the other participants, Plaintiff was punished for the brawl with segregation. Id. ¶¶ 15-16. However, unlike other members of the Bloods gang, unnamed correctional officers placed him in the same segregation unit that also housed members of the Crips gang who were involved in the brawl; a few days later, two of them attacked him while he was taking a shower, resulting in serious injuries. Id. ¶¶ 15, 17-20. When Plaintiff challenged an unnamed DOC representative regarding why he was placed in an area of the ACI also housing members of a rival gang, he claims that the individual told him: “it was your job to inform me.” Id. ¶ 22. Plaintiff claims that “an ongoing feud between the two gangs [Bloods and Crips] was well-documented at the time of above mentioned incident, in which prison officials were aware, ” id. ¶ 14; and that “all prison officials were aware of the ongoing feud and recklessly disregarded the excessive risk to Plaintiff Thomas's health and safety.” Id. ¶ 23.

         The first report and recommendation cautioned Plaintiff that a pleading that does not name any DOC official (whether by name or other description) whose conduct or omissions resulted in the claimed constitutional deprivation fails to state a claim for money damages under § 1983. ECF No. 26 at 3. Plaintiff was then afforded leave to amend, which he did; however, the FAC continues to suffer from the same deficiencies in that it still does not explain how general knowledge that Crips and Bloods are dangerous rival gangs translates into specific knowledge on the part of any particular DOC official of Plaintiff's danger from placement in the unit where he was attacked.

         With respect to Director Coyne-Fague, the FAC remains entirely conclusory, adding only the allegation that she is now sued individually. Otherwise it relies on the conclusory allegations that no correctional officer “took reasonable steps to protect the Plaintiff from the objectively unreasonable and conscience shocking cruel and unusual punishment, ” FAC ¶ 30, as well as that “all prison officials were aware of the ongoing feud and recklessly disregarded the excessive risk to Plaintiff Thomas's health and safety, ” id. ¶ 23, and “Defendants engaged in the conduct described by this Complaint willfully, maliciously, in bad faith, and reckless disregard of [Plaintiff's] federally protected rights, ” id. ¶ 31, and “with shocking and willful indifference to Plaintiff's rights and their conscious awareness that they would cause Plaintiff severe physical and emotional distress, ” id. ¶ 32. As to the “John Doe(s)” now also named individually, the FAC still does not describe any specific official (whether by title or other description) whom Plaintiff alleges were the actors whose conduct or omission resulted in the claimed constitutional deprivation.

         As before, Plaintiff's claim is brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Id. ¶ 1. He still seeks only money damages, including punitive damages, as well as attorneys' fees pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988. Id. at 11-12.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         To avoid a motion to dismiss under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6), a complaint must allege a plausible entitlement to relief that gives the defendant fair notice of the claim and the grounds on which it rests. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009); Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555, 559 (2007). The plausibility inquiry requires the court to distinguish “the complaint's factual allegations (which must be accepted as true) from its conclusory legal allegations (which need not be credited).” Morales-Cruz v. Univ. of P.R., 676 F.3d 220, 224 (1st Cir. 2012). This two-pronged approach begins by identifying and disregarding statements in the complaint that merely offer “‘legal conclusion[s] couched as . . . fact[ ]'” or “[t]hreadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555). “A plaintiff is not entitled to ‘proceed perforce' by virtue of allegations that merely parrot the elements of the cause of action.” Ocasio-Hernandez v. Fortuno-Burset, 640 F.3d 1, 12 (1st Cir. 2011). Factual allegations that appear to be internally inconsistent with other well-pled factual allegations must also be set aside. Hinton v. Trans Union, LLC, 654 F.Supp.2d 440, 449 (E.D. Va. 2009), aff'd, 382 Fed.Appx. 256 (4th Cir. 2010). The Court must then determine whether the well-pled facts, taken as true, are sufficient to support “the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Haley v. City of Boston, 657 F.3d 39, 46 (1st Cir. 2011) (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678). In doing so, the complaint should be read holistically with a heavy dose of common sense. Rodriguez-Vives v. P.R. Firefighters Corps of P.R., 743 F.3d 278, 283-84 (1st Cir. 2014).

         III. LAW AND ANALYSIS

         Director Coyne-Fague's unopposed motion rests on two discrete arguments. First, because the FAC still does not ask for an injunction, all official capacity claims against her must be summarily dismissal in accordance with the bedrock principle that § 1983 damages cannot be recovered from a state official sued in her official capacity. Will v. Mich. Dep't of State Police, 491 U.S. 58, 71 (1989) (“[N]either a State nor its officials acting in their official capacities are ‘persons' under § 1983.”); see, e.g., Callahan v. Wall, C.A. No. 16-160 S, 2017 WL 3447895, at *4 (D.R.I. Aug. 11, 2017) (Director Wall dismissed in official capacity from § 1983 case based on Eighth Amendment and seeking money damages). Second, she contends that the assertion of the same claims against her in her individual capacity is unavailing because the FAC still lacks any facts linking her to the constitutional deprivation in issue. That is, the FAC is insufficient to permit the plausible inference that Director Coyne-Fague had “knowledge that an inmate faces a substantial risk of serious harm and . . . disregard[ed] that risk by failing to take reasonable measures to abate the harm.” Kelley v. Wall, No. C.A.10-233 ML, 2010 WL 5176172, at *2 (D.R.I. Nov. 30, 2010), adopted, 2010 WL 5313296 (D.R.I. Dec. 20, 2010); see Gebo v. Thyng, Civil No. 11-CV-047-JD, 2012 WL 4848883, at *3 (D.N.H. Oct. 11, 2012) (“Deliberate indifference requires that ‘the official must both be aware of facts from which the inference could be drawn that a substantial risk of serious harm exists, and he must also draw the inference.'”).

         These arguments are well-founded. The first report and recommendation stated that all individual capacity claims against Director Coyne-Fague would be dismissed because they lacked a factually grounded connection between the constitutional deprivation and an action or omission by Director Coyne-Fague. Despite this guidance, the FAC added nothing. Conroy v.n Dingle, No. CIV.01-1626 (RHK/RLE., 2002 WL 31357055, at *3 (D. Minn. Oct. 11, 2002) (when “only connection to the incident appears to be that [s]he is the warden of the prison, ” the pleading against warden lacks sufficient allegations to demonstrate knowledge necessary for deliberate indifference); see Callahan, 2017 WL 3447895, at *4 (dismissing individual capacity claims against ACI Director based on absence of factual connection). Accordingly, I recommend that, as to Director Coyne-Fague (the only defendant who is served and joined), the FAC must be dismissed for failure to state a claim.

         What remains are the “John Doe(s).” With Director Coyne-Fague out of the case, the FAC fails entirely unless it states a plausible claim against at least one of them. If it does, the other problem is that the unknown person has not been served and is not yet joined in the case.

         The applicable law may be briefly summarized. 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 v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825, 834 (1994). For a complaint based on a prisoner's placement in an area where he is attacked by another inmate to be plausible, it must allege not only a substantial risk of serious harm, but also facts sufficient to permit the inference that a “prison official . . . [had a] state of mind . . . of ‘deliberate indifference' to inmate health or safety.” Id. (quoting Wilson v. Seiter, 501 U.S. 294, 302-03 (1991)). The claims against each defendant must be analyzed individually. “Absent evidence of participation, concerted action, or at least culpable knowledge, one officer cannot be held jointly liable under section 1983 for another officer's [unconstitutional conduct].” Calvi v. Knox Cty., 470 F.3d 422, 429 (1st Cir. 2006). The focus is on what the jailers knew and what they did in response. Burrell v. Hampshire Cty., 307 F.3d 1, 8 (1st Cir. 2002). For example, in King v. Dep't of Corr., Civil Action No. 15-CV-14256-ADB, 2016 WL 7175592 (D. Mass. Dec. 8, 2016), the court found that the complaint was sufficient because it alleged that specific officials responsible for gang ...


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