United States District Court, S.D. New York
December 16, 2014
TAYE ELLEBY, Plaintiff,
CITY OF NEW YORK, ANTONIO CUIN, CORRECTION OFFICER GREGORY LAMB, DEPUTY HERNAN MEDINA, CAPTAIN ALLINA ISAAC, and OFFICER JOHN DOE, Defendants
Taye Elleby, Plaintiff, Pro se, Coxsackie, NY.
For City of New York, Deputy Medina, Warden Antonio Cuin, Defendants: Neil Anthony Giovanatti, New York City Law Department, New York, NY.
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER
P. Kevin Castel, United States District Judge.
Plaintiff Taye Elleby, formerly incarcerated at the Robert N. Davoren Complex (" RNDC") on Rikers Island, brings this action pro se against the City of New York (the " City"), Warden Antonio Cuin, Assistant Deputy Warden Heman Medina, Captain Allina Isaac, Correction Officer Gregory Lamb and another unnamed Correction Officer. He brings a claim pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that the defendants violated the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment by failing to protect him from an attack by another inmate.
The defendants now move to dismiss this action pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6), Fed. R. Civ. P., for failure to state a claim for relief. For the following reasons, the motion is granted in part and denied in part.
The following facts are taken from Elleby's second amended complaint (" Compl." (Dkt. No. 11)), and are accepted as true for the purposes of this motion. On February 7, 2014, was Elleby was transferred to RNDC from the Manhattan Detention Complex and placed in a holding cell in the intake area with other inmates. (Compl. 2.) Approximately an hour later, a new inmate, whom the defendants call " Inmate A, " was also placed in the cell. Inmate A " displayed signs of mental illness, " defecating in the cell, smearing himself and the cell with his feces, and eating some of his feces. (Id.) He also held a " long sharp weapon" that he displayed in full view of the officers in the intake area. (Id.)
The other inmates " begged and pleaded" with the officers to let them out of the cell, but for almost two hours the officers did nothing to help, and instead mocked Inmate A. (Id. at 2-3.) Eventually, Medina and Isaac talked to Inmate A, who " agreed to let the inmates go." (Id. at 3.) As the other inmates were leaving, however, Inmate A noticed that Medina and Isaac were holding OC spray (a type of pepper spray) and that they were accompanied by an " exstract team" (sic) of officers. (Id.) Inmate A stopped Elleby before he could exit the cell, started to argue with Medina and Isaac, and then stabbed Elleby three times in the arm with his " feces covered weapon." (Id.) The officers then opened the cell door and subdued Inmate A, and Elleby was rushed to the urgent care unit, where his wounds were treated. (Id.)
Elleby filed this action on February 20 (Dkt. No. 2), and filed amended complaints on May 27 and June 2, adding the names of previously unidentified defendants. (Dkt. Nos. 7, 11.) The defendants moved to dismiss on October 16 (Dkt. No. 25), and the motion was fully briefed as of December 5. (Dkt. Nos. 26, 33, 35.)
" To survive a motion to dismiss, 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, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 173 L.Ed.2d 868 (2009) (quoting Bell Atlantic v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 167 L.Ed.2d 929 (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." Id. " The plausibility standard . . . asks for more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully." Id. In assessing the complaint, the district court must draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the non-movant. In re Elevator Antitrust Litig., 502 F.3d 47, 50 (2d Cir. 2007). Legal conclusions and " [t]hreadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, " however, are not entitled to any presumption of truth. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678.
Courts have an obligation to construe a complaint filed by a pro se plaintiff particularly liberally, conducting their examination with " special solicitude [and] interpreting the complaint to raise the strongest claims that it suggests." Hill v. Curcione, 657 F.3d 116, 122 (2d Cir. 2011).
I. Eighth Amendment Claim
The defendants characterize Elleby's complaint as alleging violations of the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, and Elleby does not challenge that characterization. Because this action is brought under section 1983, Elleby " must show that [the defendants] acted under color of state law and that [they] deprived him of a right secured by the Constitution or laws of the United States."
Palmieri v. Lynch, 392 F.3d 73, 78 (2d Cir. 2004). The defendants do not dispute that they acted under color of state law. Rather, they argue that Elleby has not adequately pleaded a constitutional violation.
The Eighth Amendment imposes a duty on prison officials to " provide humane conditions of confinement" and to " take reasonable measures to guarantee the safety of inmates." Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825, 832, 114 S.Ct. 1970, 128 L.Ed.2d 811 (1994) (quoting Hudson v. Palmer, 468 U.S. 517, 526-27, 104 S.Ct. 3194, 82 L.Ed.2d 393 (1984)). One aspect of this duty requires prison officials " to protect prisoners from violence at the hands of other prisoners." Id. at 833. To establish an Eighth Amendment violation in a case premised on inhumane or unsafe prison conditions, a plaintiff must satisfy an objective and a subjective element. The objective element consists in showing that the plaintiff has suffered a " sufficiently serious" deprivation, amounting to " the denial of 'the minimal civilized measure of life's necessities.'" Id. at 834 (quoting Rhodes v. Chapman, 452 U.S. 337, 347, 101 S.Ct. 2392, 69 L.Ed.2d 59 (1981)). Specifically in the context of a failure-to-protect claim, the inmate must show " that he [was] incarcerated under conditions posing a substantial risk of serious harm." Id. To satisfy the subjective element, the inmate must show that prison officials acted with " deliberate indifference to inmate health or safety." Id. The subjective element is not satisfied " unless the official knows of and disregards an excessive risk to inmate health or safety." Id. at 837.
The defendants argue that the complaint, rather than evincing deliberate indifference, shows instead that prison officials " took reasonable measures to prevent Plaintiff from suffering harm at Inmate A's hand." (Defs.' Br. 7.) This is true of the parts of the complaint that describe Medina and Isaac's negotiation with Inmate A for the release of the other inmates and the subsequent extraction of the inmates. Elleby has not alleged that anything that was done in connection with the extraction was unreasonable or violated safety protocol. See Trammell v. Keane, 338 F.3d 155, 163 (2d Cir. 2003) (considering whether officials' actions were " reasonably calculated to restore prison discipline and security"); Blaylock v. Borden, 547 F.Supp.2d 305, 312 (S.D.N.Y. 2008) (noting that an official's actions in attempting to stop an altercation between inmates were in line with safety protocol). Prison officials are not liable " if they responded reasonably to the risk, even if the harm ultimately was not averted."
Farmer, 511 U.S. at 843.
The complaint can also be read, however, as asserting a claim based on the nearly two-hour interval Elleby and other inmates spent in the cell with Inmate A before the extraction. Elleby alleges that, during that time, he and his cellmates were subjected to unsanitary conditions and to physical threats from Inmate A. He further alleges that, although prison officials could see what was going on in the cell, " [a]ll officers did dispite [sic] the threats that were being made, was mock the troubled inmate, by calling him crazy, and covered their nose and walked off shaking their heads." (Compl. 2.) The defendants argue that they " were confronted with a dangerous and unpredictable situation" (Defs.' Reply Br. 5), and thus that their failure to extract the inmates for nearly two hours was a reasonable response and does not demonstrate deliberate indifference. But Elleby explicitly states that prison officials spent that time laughing at Inmate A, rather than attempting to remedy a dangerous situation of which they were aware. Construing these allegations in the light most favorable to him, the Court concludes that the subjective element for his Eighth Amendment claim is satisfied.
Elleby must next satisfy the objective element by showing a " sufficiently serious" deprivation. In Gaston v. Coughlin, 249 F.3d 156, 166 (2d Cir. 2001), the Second Circuit acknowledged that exposure to human waste could constitute such a deprivation, reinstating an Eighth Amendment claim where the plaintiff was held near an area " filled with sewage and excrement for days on end." See also LaReau v. MacDougall, 473 F.2d 974, 978 (2d Cir. 1972) (" Causing a man to live, eat and perhaps sleep in close confines with his own human waste is too debasing and degrading to be permitted."). But when the exposure is brief or intermittent, it does not amount to a constitutional violation. See Little v. Mun. Corp., No. 12-CV-5851 KMK,
__ F.Supp.3d __, 2014 WL 5011091, at *9 (S.D.N.Y. Sept. 30, 2014) (dismissing an Eighth Amendment claim where the plaintiffs were " confined in their sewage-flooded cells for, at most, eight and a half hours"); Florio v. Canty, 954 F.Supp.2d 227, 235 (S.D.N.Y. 2013) (dismissing an Eighth Amendment claim where the plaintiff's " total exposure" to waste " was less than a few hours"); Myers v. City of N.Y., No. 11 Civ. 8525(PAE), 2012 WL 3776707, at *6-7 (S.D.N.Y. Aug. 29, 2012) (dismissing a claim where plaintiff was held for 16 hours in a cell in which " [t]he only place to sit . . . was on 'a urine and filth laden floor'"); Ortiz v. Dep't of Correction, No. 08 Civ. 2195(RJS)(HBP), 2011 WL 2638137, at *8-9 (S.D.N.Y. Apr. 29, 2011) (recommending dismissal where plaintiff was exposed to sewage overflow for several hours on three nonconsecutive days), adopted, 2011 WL 2638140 (S.D.N.Y. July 5, 2011). Since Elleby's exposure to Inmate A's waste lasted no more than two hours, it does not amount to a " sufficiently serious deprivation" to form the basis of an Eighth Amendment claim.
This nevertheless leaves Elleby's allegation that he and his cellmates were locked in with a mentally unstable inmate holding a " long sharp weapon" smeared with feces. This plainly constitutes conditions " posing a substantial risk of serious harm, " and the defendants do not attempt to argue otherwise. The complaint alleges that the defendant officers knew that Inmate A held a " long sharp weapon" during the entire incident, but failed to act for an extended period of time. Accordingly, Elleby has adequately stated an Eighth Amendment claim based that protracted failure to act.
As alleged by Elleby, the stabbing itself occurred when Inmate A observed the OC spray and began to argue with Medina and Isaac. The complaint reads: " At this time [Inmate A] started to argue with the deputy and captin [sic] about them trying to set him up then he turned to plaintiff and stabbed him three times with the feces covered weapon he held." (Compl. 3.) Thus, the stabbing occurred at a point in time when the officers' conduct is not plausibly alleged to have been deliberately indifferent. But the failure to protect an inmate from the risk of serious injury at the hands of another inmate may violate the first inmate's rights whether or not the attack actually occurs. Heisler v. Kralik, 981 F.Supp. 830, 836-37 (S.D.N.Y. 1997) (noting that an analysis requiring actual physical injury " would assess a prison official's actions based on hindsight, rather than on the facts and circumstances of which the official was aware at the time he acted or failed to act"), aff'd sub nom. Heisler v. Rockland Cnty., 164 F.3d 618 (2d Cir. 1998); Noguera v. Hasty, No. 99 CIV. 8786 KMWAJP, 2001 WL 243535, at *2 (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 12, 2001); see also Alsaifullah v. Furco, No. 12 Civ. 2907(ER), 2013 WL 3972514, at *12 (S.D.N.Y. Aug. 2, 2013) (recognizing this rule); Randle v. Alexander, 960 F.Supp.2d 457, 473-74 (S.D.N.Y. 2013) (same). Elleby's claim thus survives even if his physical injuries cannot be attributed to the defendants' deliberate indifference.
If that is the case, however, Elleby will not be able to recover damages for mental and emotional injury, because the Prison Litigation Reform Act (" PLRA") bars prisoners from recovering such damages without a prior showing of physical injury. 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(e). But this would not moot his claim, because if he proves a constitutional violation, he will nevertheless be entitled to nominal damages, and may be entitled to punitive damages. See Robinson v. Cattaraugus Cnty., 147 F.3d 153, 162 (2d Cir. 1998) (" If a jury finds that a constitutional violation has been proven but that the plaintiff has not shown injury sufficient to warrant an award of compensatory damages, the plaintiff is entitled to an award of at least nominal damages as a matter of law."); Thompson v. Carter, 284 F.3d 411, 418 (2d Cir. 2002) (holding that the PLRA " does not limit the availability of nominal damages for the violation of a constitutional right or of punitive damages").
II. Claims against the City and Warden Cuin
A municipality may be held liable under section 1983 only if the plaintiff's injury is the result of municipal policy, custom, or practice. Monell v. N.Y. City Dep't of Soc. Servs., 436 U.S. 658, 694, 98 S.Ct. 2018, 56 L.Ed.2d 611 (1978). It may not be held liable solely " by application of the doctrine of respondeat superior." Pembaur v. City of Cincinnati, 475 U.S. 469, 478, 106 S.Ct. 1292, 89 L.Ed.2d 452 (1986). Generally, " a single incident alleged in a complaint, especially if it involved only actors below the policy making level, does not suffice to show a municipal policy." DeCarlo v. Fry, 141 F.3d 56, 61 (2d Cir. 1998). Further, " the mere assertion that a municipality has such a custom or policy is insufficient in the absence of allegations of fact tending to support, at least circumstantially, such an inference." Zahra v. Town of Southold, 48 F.3d 674, 685 (2d Cir. 1995) (alterations omitted) (quoting Dwares v. City of N.Y., 985 F.2d 94, 100 (2d Cir. 1993)).
The complaint alleges that Inmate A was not properly searched upon being admitted to RNDC, and that this shows that prison officials' training was inadequate. (Compl. 4.) Although a failure to train can be the basis for municipal liability under section 1983, see City of Canton v. Harris, 489 U.S. 378, 387, 109 S.Ct. 1197, 103 L.Ed.2d 412 (1989), Elleby fails to allege any facts suggesting that this was anything more than an isolated incident, or to " identify [any] specific deficiency in the [prison's] training program." Amnesty Am. v. Town of W. Hartford, 361 F.3d 113, 129 (2d Cir. 2004). Elleby's bald allegation that training was inadequate is insufficient to state a claim against the City.
Similarly, a section 1983 claim may only be maintained against an individual defendant who was personally involved in the alleged constitutional deprivations. Farid v. Ellen, 593 F.3d 233, 249 (2d Cir. 2010). The complaint states that at least a " deputy, " a " captin" (sic), and an officer were present in the intake area while Inmate A was openly displaying his weapon. (Compl. 2.) This suggests some personal involvement on the part of defendants Medina, Isaac, Lamb, and the John Doe defendant. Warden Cuin, however, does not appear from the complaint to have been directly involved in the events recounted there. There is no allegation that he was present in the intake area, aware of the danger posed by Inmate A, or involved in the decision to wait nearly two hours before attempting an extraction. Accordingly, the claim against Cuin must be dismissed.
For the foregoing reasons, the defendants' motion is GRANTED in part and DENIED in part as follows. Elleby's Eighth Amendment claim may proceed, insofar as it is based on his allegation that the defendants were deliberately indifferent to the danger posed by Inmate A while they were held in a cell together. His other claims are dismissed, and all claims against the City and Warden Cuin are dismissed.
The Court's ruling is simply that there is enough plausibly alleged to allow the deliberate indifference to a substantial risk of harm claim to proceed to the discovery phase. The claim may look quite different after discovery, at the summary judgment stage.