United States District Court, S.D. Mississippi, Western Division
ESTATE OF JOSEPH LAVERNE STURDIVANT, et al. PLAINTIFFS
VICTOR SMITH DEFENDANT
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
STARRETT UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
Court previously explained the background of this case. On
July 17, 2019, the Court entered a Memorandum Opinion and
Order  denying in part and deferring ruling in part on
Defendant's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings . The
Court denied the motion in part, but it deferred ruling on
Defendant's qualified immunity argument. The Court
ordered Plaintiff to file a Rule 7(a) reply on or before July
30, 2019, tailored to address Defendant's arguments
regarding qualified immunity. Plaintiff did not comply with
the Court's order. Therefore, the Court will address
Defendant's motion based on the allegations in the
Standard of Review
“motion for judgment on the pleadings under Rule 12(c)
is subject to the same standard as a motion to dismiss under
Rule 12(b)(6).” Doe v. MySpace, Inc., 528 F.3d
413, 418 (5th Cir. 2008). To survive a motion to dismiss
under Rule 12(b)(6), “a complaint must contain
sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim
to relief that is plausible on its face.” Great
Lakes Dredge & Dock Co. LLC v. La. State, 624 F.3d
201, 210 (5th Cir. 2010) (punctuation omitted). “To be
plausible, the complaint's factual allegations must be
enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative
level.” Id. (punctuation omitted). The Court
must “accept all well-pleaded facts as true and
construe the complaint in the light most favorable to the
plaintiff.” Id. But the Court will not accept
as true “conclusory allegations, unwarranted factual
inferences, or legal conclusions.” Id.
Likewise, “a formulaic recitation of the elements of a
cause of action will not do.” PSKS, Inc. v. Leegin
Creative Leather Prods., Inc., 615 F.3d 412, 417 (5th
Cir. 2010) (punctuation omitted). “While legal
conclusions can provide the framework of a complaint, they
must be supported by factual allegations.” Ashcroft
v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 679, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 1950, 173
L.Ed. 2D 868 (2009).
as here, a qualified immunity defense is asserted in an
answer or a motion to dismiss, the district court must - as
always - do no more than determine whether the plaintiff has
filed a short and plain statement of his complaint, a
statement that rests on more than conclusions alone.”
Anderson v. Valdez, 845 F.3d 500, 589-90 (5th Cir.
2016). This is not a heightened pleading standard,
id. at 590, but the plaintiff must “plead
specific facts that both allow the court to draw the
reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the
harm he has alleged and that defeat a qualified immunity
defense with equal specificity.” Hinojosa v.
Livingston, 807 F.3d 657, 664 (5th Cir. 2015). In that
respect, it is no different than the typical 12(b)(6)
standard of review under Iqbal.
doctrine of qualified immunity protects government officials
from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct
does not violate clearly established statutory or
constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have
known.” Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223,
231, 129 S.Ct. 808, 172 L.Ed.2d 565 (2009). “Although
nominally a defense, the plaintiff has the burden to negate
the defense once properly raised.” Poole v.
Shreveport, 691 F.3d 624, 627 (5th Cir. 2012).
are two steps in the Court's analysis. First, the Court
determines whether the defendant's “conduct
violates an actual constitutional right.” Brumfield
v. Hollins, 551 F.3d 322, 326 (5th Cir. 2008). Second,
the Court must “consider whether [the defendant's]
actions were objectively unreasonable in the light of clearly
established law at the time of the conduct in
question.” Id. The Court may address either
step first. Pearson, 555 U.S. at 236.
qualified immunity standard gives ample room for mistaken
judgments by protecting all but the plainly incompetent or
those who knowingly violate the law.”
Brumfield, 551 F.3d at 326. The Court “applies
an objective standard based on the viewpoint of a reasonable
official in light of the information then available to the
defendant and the law that was clearly established at the
time of the defendant's actions.” Freeman v.
Gore, 483 F.3d 404, 411 (5th Cir. 2007).
Count I - Failure to Protect from Other Inmates
Count I of the Complaint, Plaintiff alleged that Defendant
failed to protect the Decedent, Joseph Sturdivant, from an
attack by other inmates, in deliberate disregard to the
substantial risk of injury to him. Complaint at 3-4,
Sturdivant v. Smith, No. 5:19-CV-22-KS-MTP
(S.D.Miss. Mar. 15, 2019), ECF No. 1. Plaintiff specifically
alleged that Defendant intentionally “unlocked the box
outside of the hold and flipped the switch that released
Jerome Harris from his cell, and then released Kelcey Watson
. . . .” Id. at 3. Plaintiff further alleges
that Defendant “left the keys in the panel and opened
the door and left the hold, ” permitting Harris and
Watson to assault Sturdivant. Id. Plaintiff claims
that these actions violated Sturdivant's Fourteenth
constitutional rights of a pretrial detainee . . . flow from
both the procedural and substantive due process guarantees of
the Fourteenth Amendment.” Garza v. City of
Donna, 922 F.3d 626, 632 (5th Cir. 2019). “[W]hen
the State by the affirmative exercise of its power so
restrains an individual's liberty that it renders him
unable to care for himself, and at the same time fails to
provide for his basic human needs - e.g., food, clothing,
shelter, medical care, and reasonable safety - it
transgresses the substantive limits on state action set by
the . . . Due Process Clause.” Reed v. Wichita
County, 795 F.3d 456, 462 (5th Cir. 2015) (quoting
DeShaney v. Winnebago Cnty. Dep't of Soc.
Servs., 489 U.S. 189, 200, 109 S.Ct. 998, 103 L.Ed.2d
other things, “prison officials have a duty . . . to
protect prisoners from violence at the hands of other
prisoners . . . .” Leal v. Wiles, 734
Fed.Appx. 905, 909 (5th Cir. 2018) (quoting Farmer v.
Brennan, 511 U.S. 825, 833-34, 114 S.Ct. 1970, 128
L.Ed.2d 811 (1994)). But “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.” Id. (punctuation
omitted). Rather, to succeed on a “failure to
protect” theory, Plaintiff must show that Sturdivant
“was incarcerated under conditions posing a substantial
risk of serious harm and that prison officials were
deliberately indifferent to [his] need for protection.”
Ard v. Rushing, 597 Fed.Appx. 213, 219 (5th Cir.
2014) (quoting Neals v. Norwood, 59 F.3d 530, 533
(5th Cir. 1995)).
deliberate indifferent to a detainee's risk of harm from
other inmates, “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.” Hyatt v. Thomas, 843 F.3d
172, 177 (5th Cir. 2016); see also Johnson v.
Johnson, 694 Fed.Appx. 945, 946 (5th Cir. 2017).
“[E]vidence that an official was aware of a substantial
risk to inmate safety does not alone establish deliberate
indifference.” Hyatt, 843 F.3d at 177. Rather,
“prison officials who actually knew of a ...