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Stewart v. King

United States District Court, Fifth Circuit

May 28, 2013

ERIC STEPHON STEWART, Plaintiff,
v.
RON KING, et al., Defendants.

OPINION AND ORDER

MICHAEL T. PARKER, Magistrate Judge.

This matter is before the Court on the Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment [51] and on the Plaintiff's Motion to Stay the Proceedings [55]. Having considered the motions, applicable law, and case record, the Court finds that this case should not be stayed and that summary judgment should be granted in part and denied in part as set forth below.

CASE BACKGROUND

Plaintiff Eric Stephon Stewart, proceeding pro se and in forma pauperis, filed his complaint pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 in this Court on September 23, 2011. Stewart is currently serving an 8-year sentence in the custody of the Mississippi Department of Corrections ("MDOC"). The events giving rise to this lawsuit took place while Stewart was incarcerated at South Mississippi Correctional Institution ("SMCI") in Leakesville, Mississippi. The Plaintiff brings this action against: MDOC Commissioner Christopher Epps; SMCI Superintendent Ron King; SMCI Warden Johnnie Denmark; and SMCI Officers Joy Ross and Mary Hillman. The Plaintiff claims that Joy Ross is a lieutenant and that Mary Hillman is a watch commander at the prison.

Through his complaint and as clarified by his testimony at the Spears [1] hearing, Stewart alleges that the Defendants failed to protect him from harm and retaliated against him for reporting illegal officer conduct and for assisting other inmates with legal claims. According to Stewart, certain SMCI officers were supplying cell phones and drugs to inmates.

Specifically, the Plaintiff claims that in July 2011, Lieutenant Joy Ross announced to a group of inmates that Stewart had been acting as a "snitch" for two other SMCI officers. Stewart alleges that Officer Mary Hillman directed Lieutenant Ross to make the announcement and that it was designed to place him in danger. He claims that the officers' actions were done in retaliation against him for providing legal assistance to other inmates. Stewart asserts that as a result of Lieutenant Ross's announcement, other inmates assaulted him by beating him and pouring hot coffee on him. He claims that prison officials failed to protect him because they did not move him to another location within the prison to escape the attacks.

Stewart asserts that he complained to Superintendent King, Warden Denmark, and Commissioner Epps, but that they did nothing to resolve the issue. According to the Plaintiff, King became belligerent when he reported that prison officers were supplying illegal contraband to inmates. He complained to Epps and Denmark, but claims that they did not take action in the manner he wanted. In addition, Stewart asserts that he was transferred to another prison in retaliation for helping other inmates with their legal claims and for filing this lawsuit.[2] He brings this action against the Defendants in their individual and official capacities. The Plaintiff seeks monetary damages for the alleged violations of his constitutional rights.

The Defendants have moved for summary judgment, arguing that they are entitled to Eleventh Amendment immunity and qualified immunity on the claims asserted against them and that they should be granted judgment as a matter of law. In response, Stewart argues that the Defendants should not be given immunity because they were directly responsible for the harm inflicted upon him by other inmates. He claims that the Defendants singled him out after discovering that he had helped another inmate prepare an administrative grievance and file a § 1983 claim. The Plaintiff has moved for the Court to stay the proceedings and to not rule on the Defendants' motion until he is released from prison in May 2013, and has a chance to hire a lawyer to represent him in this lawsuit.

DISCUSSION

Rule 56 of the Federal Rule of Civil Procedure guides this Court's analysis in determining whether to grant summary judgment. Under Rule 56(a), summary judgment is proper "if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." To overcome summary judgment, the nonmoving party must present "specific facts showing [that there is] a genuine factual issue for trial." Harris ex rel. Harris v. Pontotoc Cnty. Sch. Dist., 635 F.3d 685, 690 (5th Cir. 2011). When ruling on a motion for summary judgment, courts must consider the record evidence and draw all reasonable inferences in the nonmoving party's favor. Paz v. Brush Engineered Materials, Inc., 555 F.3d 383, 391 (5th Cir. 2009). However, in the absence of proof, courts should not assume that the nonmoving party could have proved the necessary facts. Id.

In their motion, the Defendants argue that their immunity under the Eleventh Amendment bars the claims made against them in their official capacity and that qualified immunity bars the individual capacity claims. They contend that the Plaintiff has not made a valid claim for retaliation or failure to protect, but that assuming he had, he still could not prevail on his claims because the Defendants' actions were objectively reasonable.

As to the official capacity claims, the Eleventh Amendment bars "an individual from suing a state in federal court unless the state consents to suit or Congress has clearly and validly abrogated the state's sovereign immunity." Perez v. Region 20 Education Service Center, 307 F.3d 318, 326 (5th Cir. 2002). "Eleventh Amendment immunity extends to any state agency or entity deemed [to be] an alter ego' or arm' of the state." Id. (citing Vogt v. Bd. of Comm'rs, 294 F.3d 684, 688-89 (5th Cir. 2002)). A suit "against a state official in his or her official capacity is not a suit against the official but rather is a suit against the official's office." Will v. Michigan Dept. of State Police, 491 U.S. 58, 71 (1989).

Section 1983 does not abrogate Eleventh Amendment immunity, Quern v. Jordan, 440 U.S. 332, 345 (1979); and Mississippi has not waived it, Miss. Code Ann. § 11-46-3. Therefore, the Eleventh Amendment bars the claims asserted against the Defendants in their official capacity and summary judgment should be entered in their favor.[3]

The Court next considers the claims made against the Defendants in their individual capacity. Under § 1983, government officials performing discretionary functions in their jobs are entitled to qualified immunity from civil liability to the extent that "their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known." Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818, 102 S.Ct. 2727, 2738, 73 L.Ed.2d 396 (1982). "The contours of the right [alleged to have been violated] must be sufficiently clear that a reasonable official would understand that what he is doing violates that right." Johnson v. Johnson, 385 F.3d 503, 524 (5th Cir. 2004) (quoting Anderson v. Creighton, 483 U.S. 635, 640, 107 S.Ct. 3034, 3039, 97 L.Ed. 523 (1987)). "[W]hether an official protected by qualified immunity may be held personally liable for an allegedly unlawful official ...


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