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Scaccia v. County of Onondaga

December 15, 2009

RONALD A. SCACCIA, PLAINTIFF,
v.
COUNTY OF ONONDAGA, NEW YORK; TIMOTHY H. COWIN, COUNTY COMM'R OF CORR.; KEVIN E. WALSH, COUNTY SHERIFF; AND MARK JOHNSTON, M.D., MED. DIR. OF CORR. HEALTH SERVS., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hon. Glenn T. Suddaby, United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM DECISION and ORDER

Currently before the Court in this prisoner civil rights action, filed by Ronald Scaccia ("Plaintiff") against the County of Onondaga, County Commissioner of Corrections Timothy Cowin, County Sheriff Kevin Walsh, and Medical Director of Correctional Health Services Mark Johnston (collectively "Defendants") pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, is Defendants' motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6). (Dkt. No. 9.) For the reasons set forth below, Defendants' motion is granted in part and denied in part.

I. GENERAL BACKGROUND

A. Plaintiff's Claims

Generally, liberally construed, Plaintiff's Complaint, filed on February 26, 2007, alleges that, at the Onondaga County Correctional Facility (the "Correctional Facility"), and the Onondaga County Justice Center (the "Justice Center") in Syracuse, New York, the individual Defendants violated Plaintiff's rights under the Eighth Amendment by (1) personally being deliberately indifferent to his serious medical needs (specifically, his hernia condition), and/or (2) failing to adequately train and supervise County personnel who were deliberately indifferent to his serious medical needs. (See generally Dkt. No. 1 [Plf.'s Compl.].) Plaintiff's Complaint further alleges that the County violated Plaintiff's rights under the Eighth Amendment because of a municipal policy or custom of impermissibly shifting responsibility for involuntarily incurred medical expenses from the County to its inmates, including Plaintiff. (Id.) Plaintiff's Complaint alleges that, as a result of these constitutional violations, he suffered significant and unnecessary pain due to a worsened hernia condition. (Id.) As relief for his injuries, Plaintiff requests, inter alia, monetary and punitive damages. (Id.)

More specifically, Plaintiff alleges, while some members of the Correctional Facility and/or Justice Center staff appear to have responded unobjectionably to his hernia condition between March 12, 2003, and February 25, 2004, other members of the Correctional Facility and/or Justice Center staff were either negligent or reckless with regard to his treatment for that hernia condition during that time period. (Id.)

The staff members who appear to have responded unobjectionably to Plaintiff's hernia condition included the following: (1) the unidentified staff member who excused Plaintiff from work on his first day of work in the Correctional Facility's laundry in July 2003, due to his hernia condition; (2) the unidentified nurse who saw Plaintiff for his hernia condition on September 27, 2003, and placed him on a list to be seen by a doctor; (3) the unidentified nurse who saw him on December 7, 2003, for his hernia condition; (4) Dr. Roy A. Smith, M.D., who [a] saw Plaintiff for his hernia condition on December 10, 2003, and January 27, 2004, twice referring him to a surgical clinic outside the Correctional Facility, [b] saw him for his hernia condition on February 16, 2004, sending him to the emergency room of an outside hospital, and

[c] saw him for his hernia condition on February 17, 2004, consulting with County Health Commissioner Dr. Novick, prescribing Plaintiff medication, scheduling his immediate surgery, and later transferring him to the Justice Center pending that surgery; (5) the unidentified nurse who saw Plaintiff for his hernia condition on January 1, 2004, and encouraged him to write Defendant Johnston regarding his hernia; (6) the unidentified nurse who saw him for his hernia condition on January 12, 2004, and placed him on a list to be seen by a doctor; (7) the unidentified staff members of the Correctional Facility who ushered him directly to the medical unit on February 16, 2004, when he collapsed at work due to his hernia condition; (8) the unidentified members of the Correctional Facility medical staff who contacted a doctor by telephone regarding Plaintiff's hernia condition on February 16, 2004, and then sent Plaintiff to his housing unit with an instruction to stay in bed with his feet elevated; (9) the unidentified nurse who saw him for his hernia condition in his cell on February 16, 2004, and gave him a very large dose of Tylenol; (10) the unidentified nurse who saw him for his hernia condition on February 17, 2004, and told him to let the medical staff know immediately if he experienced certain symptoms; (11) the unidentified members of the Correctional Facility medical staff who responded to his sick call request on February 18, 2004; and (12) the unidentified staff members in the Justice Center who provided him with the use of a wheelchair at the Justice Center. (Id.)

The staff members who did not respond appropriately to Plaintiff's hernia condition included the following: (1) the unidentified nurse who conducted Plaintiff's initial screening on March 12, 2003, and cleared him for work assignments without limitations, despite his noted left inguinal hernia, left arm and/or shoulder injury, and restricted lifting ability; (2) the unidentified doctor who saw Plaintiff in the Medical Unit on October 15, 2003, but did not address his hernia problem; (3) the unidentified doctor who saw Plaintiff in the Medical Unit on November 15, 2003, but did not check his groin area for the hernia problem; (4) Defendant Johnston, who twice (on December 10, 2003, and January 28, 2004) prevented Plaintiff from attending the surgical clinic outside the Correctional Facility due to his approaching release date of February 25, 2004, thus causing Plaintiff to experience unnecessary pain; (5) the unidentified members of the Correctional Facility medical staff who did not respond to Plaintiff's requests for medical care between January 31, 2004, and February 16, 2004; (6) the "transporting officers" who, before Plaintiff was seen by the staff of the outside hospital on February 16, 2004, and February 20, 2004, required him to sign hospital paperwork accepting financial responsibility for the services required, and who (after learning that an operating room would not be available until the next day) checked with unidentified medical staff at the Correctional Facility and returned Plaintiff to the Correctional Facility; (7) a "Deputy Messina," as well as other unidentified deputies and nurses in the Justice Center, who ignored Plaintiff's painful hernia condition in the Justice Center on February 19, 2004; and (8) Dr. John Michaels, M.D., of the Justice Center who told Plaintiff on February 23, 2004, that the treatment of his back pain would have to wait until after his release date. (Id.)

Familiarity with the other factual allegations supporting Plaintiff's claims is assumed in this Decision and Order, which is intended primarily for review by the parties. (Id.)

B. Defendants' Motion to Dismiss

Generally, in support of their motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6), Defendants argue as follows: (1) based on Plaintiff's own factual allegations, his action is barred by the three-year statute of limitations governing claims arising under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (Dkt. No. 9, Part 3, at 5-6 [Defs.' Memo. of Law]); (2) Plaintiff has failed to allege facts plausibly suggesting that Defendants (or their subordinates) were deliberately indifferent to Plaintiff's non-urgent hernia condition (id. at 8-9); (3) Plaintiff's claim against the County must be dismissed because he has failed to allege facts plausibly suggesting "any tangible connection between a municipal policy and his alleged injury or any existence of a violative policy" (id. at 6-9); (4) Plaintiff's claims against Defendants Cowin, Walsh and Johnston in their official capacities must be dismissed as the same as Plaintiff's claim against the County (id. at 7); (5) based on Plaintiff's factual allegations, Defendants are entitled to the affirmative defense of qualified immunity (id. at 10-11); and (6) Plaintiff has not alleged facts plausibly suggesting that any of the individual Defendants--each of whom was a supervisor--was personally involved in the Eighth Amendment violation alleged (id. at 10-11).

In Plaintiff's response to Defendants' motion to dismiss, he argues as follows: (1) his action was timely commenced because (a) for security reasons, employees of the County withheld from Plaintiff information that would have led him to know of the harm giving rise to his claims, (b) the continuing violation doctrine renders timely his claims arising from acts occurring outside the limitations period, and (c) the equitable tolling doctrine excuses the oneday delay under the circumstances because the final day of the limitations period fell on a Sunday (Dkt. No. 13, Part 2, at 8-9 [Plf.'s Response Memo. of Law]); (2) his Complaint states a claim under the Eighth Amendment by alleging facts plausibly suggesting that Defendants (or their subordinates) consciously withheld necessary medical care for Plaintiff's urgent and painful hernia condition in order to save money (id. at 6-7); (3) his Complaint states a viable claim against the County by alleging facts plausibly suggesting a causal connection between a municipal custom or policy and Plaintiff's injuries (id. at 9-10); (4) Defendants have not established an entitlement to qualified immunity as a matter of law at this early stage in the proceeding (id. at 10-11); and (5) Plaintiff has alleged facts plausibly suggesting that Defendant Johnston (through his cancellation of Plaintiff's planned treatment on two occasions) and Defendants Cowin and Walsh (through their failure to train their subordinates) were personally involved in the Eighth Amendment violation alleged (id. at 7, 10). Even construed with the utmost of special liberality, Plaintiff's Response Memorandum of Law does not address Defendants' argument that Plaintiff's claims against Defendants Cowin, Walsh and Johnston in their official capacities must be dismissed as the same as Plaintiff's claim against the County. (See Dkt. No. 13, Part 2 [Plf.'s Response Memo. of Law].)

II. RELEVANT LEGAL STANDARDS

A. Legal Standard Governing Motions to Dismiss for Failure to State a Claim

It has long been understood that a dismissal for failure to state a claim, pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6), may be based on either or both of two grounds: (1) a challenge to the "sufficiency of the pleading" under Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a)(2); or (2) a challenge to the legal cognizability of the claim. Jackson v. Onondaga County, 549 F. Supp.2d 204, 211, nn.15-16 (N.D.N.Y. 2008) (McAvoy, J., adopting Report-Recommendation on de novo review) [citations omitted].

With regard to the first ground, Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a)(2) requires that a pleading contain "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief." Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a)(2) [emphasis added]. By requiring this "showing," Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a)(2) requires that the pleading contain a short and plain statement that "give[s] the defendant fair notice of what the plaintiff's claim is and the grounds upon which it rests." Jackson, 549 F. Supp.2d at 212, n.17 [citations omitted]. The main purpose of this rule is to "facilitate a proper decision on the merits." Id. at 212, n.18 [citations omitted].*fn1

The Supreme Court has long characterized this pleading requirement under Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a)(2) as "simplified" and "liberal," and has repeatedly rejected judicially established pleading requirements that exceed this liberal requirement. Id. at 212, n.20 [citations omitted]. However, even this liberal notice pleading standard "has its limits." Id. at 212, n.21 [citations omitted]. As a result, numerous Supreme Court and Second Circuit decisions exist holding that a pleading has failed to meet this liberal notice pleading standard. Id. at 213, n.22 [citations omitted]; see also Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 1949-52 (2009).

Most notably, in Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, the Supreme Court reversed an appellate decision holding that a complaint had stated an actionable antitrust claim under 15 U.S.C. § 1. Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 127 S.Ct. 1955 (2007). In doing so, the Court "retire[d]" the famous statement by the Court in Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 45-46 (1957), that "a complaint should not be dismissed for failure to state a claim unless it appears beyond doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of his claim which would entitle him to relief." Twombly, 127 S.Ct. at 1968-69. Rather than turning on the conceivability of an actionable claim, the Court clarified, the "fair notice" standard turns on the plausibility of an actionable claim. Id. at 1965-74. The Court explained that, while this does not mean that a pleading need "set out in detail the facts upon which [the claim is based]," it does mean that the pleading must contain at least "some factual allegation[s]." Id. at 1965 [citations omitted]. More specifically, the "[f]actual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level [to a plausible level]," assuming (of course) that all the allegations in the complaint are true. Id. [citations omitted].*fn2

As have other Circuits, the Second Circuit has recognized that the clarified plausibility standard that was articulated by the Supreme Court in Twombly governs all claims, including claims brought by pro se litigants (although the plausibility ofthose claims is to be assessed generously, in light of the special solicitude normally afforded pro se litigants).*fn3 It should be emphasized that Fed. R. Civ. P. 8's plausibility standard, explained in Twombly, was in no way retracted or diminished by the Supreme Court's decision (two weeks later) in Erickson v. Pardus, in which (when reviewing a pro se pleading) the Court stated, "Specific facts are not necessary" to successfully state a claim under Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a)(2). Erickson v. Pardus, 127 S.Ct. 2197, 2200 (2007) [citation omitted; emphasis added]. That statement was merely an abbreviation of the often-repeated point of law--first offered in Conley and repeated in Twombly--that a pleading need not "set out in detail the facts upon which [the claim is based]" in order to successfully state a claim. Twombly, 127 S.Ct. 1965, n.3 (citing Conley, 355 U.S. at 47) [emphasis added]. That statement did not mean that ...


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