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Estate of Sturdivant v. Smith

United States District Court, S.D. Mississippi, Western Division

August 28, 2019

ESTATE OF JOSEPH LAVERNE STURDIVANT, et al. PLAINTIFFS
v.
VICTOR SMITH DEFENDANT

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          KEITH STARRETT UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         The Court previously explained the background of this case. On July 17, 2019, the Court entered a Memorandum Opinion and Order [13] denying in part and deferring ruling in part on Defendant's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings [6]. 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 Complaint [1].

         A. Standard of Review

         A “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).

         “[W]hen, 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.

         B. Qualified Immunity

         “The 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).

         There 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.

         “The 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).

         C. Count I - Failure to Protect from Other Inmates

          In 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 Amendment rights.

         “The 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 249 (1989)).

         Among 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)).

         To be 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, ‚Äúprison officials who actually knew of a ...


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