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Cowan v. Miller

United States District Court, W.D. Michigan, Northern Division

January 26, 2018

UNKNOWN MILLER, et al., Defendants.




         This is a civil rights action brought by state prisoner William Cowan pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Plaintiff, a diabetic, alleges that on July 2, 2014, he experienced a “blackout spell” (a hypoglycemic episode) due to low blood sugar while confined at the Chippewa Correctional Facility. Plaintiff was disoriented and was hallucinating and stated that he thought he remembered he was not incarcerated and, although it sounds weird, that “he was being attacked by aliens.” (ECF No. 82-2, PageID.499). Plaintiff was restrained in the dayroom in order to prevent harm to himself and others. Plaintiff does not know who restrained him. Plaintiff asserts that excessive force was used, which caused him shoulder and back pain. Plaintiff states that he recently learned that he has tendinitis in his shoulder, which he did not have prior to this incident. (ECF No. 86-2, PageID.513). Plaintiff had arthritis in his shoulder, but was told that the tendinitis was caused by the use of handcuffs. Defendants Corrections Officer Trent Miller and former Warden Jeffrey Woods filed a motion for summary judgment (ECF No. 85). Plaintiff filed a response (ECF No. 88). The only remaining claims in this case involve the allegations that Defendants Miller and Woods used excessive force in restraining Plaintiff during his hypoglycemic episode. (Opinion, ECF No. 40, PageID.257). Defendants Miller and Woods state that they were not present during the hypoglycemic episode and that excessive force was not used.

         Summary judgment is appropriate only if the moving party establishes that there is no genuine issue of material fact for trial and that he is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c); Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-323 (1986). If the movant carries the burden of showing there is an absence of evidence to support a claim or defense, then the party opposing the motion must demonstrate by affidavits, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, that there is a genuine issue of material fact for trial. Id. at 324-25. The nonmoving party cannot rest on its pleadings but must present “specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.” Id. at 324 (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e)). The evidence must be viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 251-52 (1986). Thus, any direct evidence offered by the plaintiff in response to a summary judgment motion must be accepted as true. Muhammad v. Close, 379 F.3d 413, 416 (6th Cir. 2004) (citing Adams v. Metiva, 31 F.3d 375, 382 (6th Cir. 1994)). However, a mere scintilla of evidence in support of the nonmovant's position will be insufficient. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 251-52. Ultimately, the court must determine whether there is sufficient “evidence on which the jury could reasonably find for the plaintiff.” Id. at 252. See also Leahy v. Trans Jones, Inc., 996 F.2d 136, 139 (6th Cir. 1993) (single affidavit, in presence of other evidence to the contrary, failed to present genuine issue of fact); cf. Moore, Owen, Thomas & Co. v. Coffey, 992 F.2d 1439, 1448 (6th Cir. 1993) (single affidavit concerning state of mind created factual issue).

         Liability under Section 1983 must be based on more than merely the right to control employees. Polk Co. v. Dodson, 454 U.S. 312, 325-26 (1981); Monell v. New York City Department of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658 (1978). Thus, Section 1983 liability cannot be premised upon mere allegations of respondeat superior. Monell, 436 U.S. at 691; Polk, 454 U.S. at 325. A party cannot be held liable under Section 1983 absent a showing that the party personally participated in, or otherwise authorized, approved or knowingly acquiesced in, the allegedly unconstitutional conduct. See e.g. Leach v. Shelby Co. Sheriff, 891 F.2d 1241, 1246 (6th Cir. 1989), cert. denied, 495 U.S. 932 (1990); Hays v. Jefferson, 668 F.2d 869, 874 (6th Cir.), cert. denied, 459 U.S. 833 (1982). See also Bellamy v. Bradley, 729 F.2d 416, 421 (6th Cir.), cert. denied 469 U.S. 845 (1984).

         Supervisory officials can be held liable for the acts of their subordinates only if plaintiff establishes that the supervisor failed to appropriately discharge his supervisory duties, and that this failure resulted in a denial or deprivation of plaintiff's federal rights. See e.g. Leach, 891 F.2d at 1246; Hayes v. Vessey, 777 F.2d 1149, 1154 (6th Cir. 1985). However, the failure of a supervisor to supervise, control or train the offending employee is not actionable absent a showing that the official implicitly encouraged, authorized, approved or knowingly acquiesced in, or in some other way directly participated in, the offensive conduct. Leach, 891 F.2d at 1246. Such a claim requires, at a minimum, that the official had knowledge of the offending employee's conduct at a time when the conduct could be prevented, or that such conduct was otherwise foreseeable or predictable. See e.g. Gibson v. Foltz, 963 F.2d 851, 854 (6th Cir. 1992). In addition, plaintiff must show that defendant had some duty or authority to act. See e.g. Birrell v. Brown, 867 F.2d 956, 959 (6th Cir. 1989) (lower level official not liable for shortcomings of building); Ghandi v. Police Dept. of City of Detroit, 747 F.2d 338, 351 (6th Cir. 1984) (mere presence at the scene is insufficient grounds to impose Section 1983 liability in the absence of a duty to act); accord Hall v. Shipley, 932 F.2d 1147 (6th Cir. 1991). In addition, merely bringing a problem to the attention of a supervisory official is not sufficient to impose such liability. See Shelly v. Johnson, 684 F.Supp. 941, 946 (W.D. Mich. 1987) (Hillman, C.J.), aff'd 849 F.2d 228 (6th Cir. 1988). Finally, supervisory liability claims cannot be based on simple negligence. Leach, 891 F.2d at 1246; Weaver v. Toombs, 756 F.Supp. 335, 337 (W.D. Mich. 1989), aff'd 915 F.2d 1574 (6th Cir. 1990).

         Plaintiff has not alleged facts establishing that Defendants Miller and Woods were personally involved in the alleged excessive force which occurred during his hypoglycemic episode. Defendant Woods is being sued merely because he was the Warden of the facility at the time of the alleged excessive force. Defendant Miller was not present during the hypoglycemic episode and arrived to start his shift after Plaintiff was being examined in the dayroom by the nurse. When he entered the dayroom, Plaintiff told him to leave and he did. Defendants were not involved in restraining Plaintiff. Defendants cannot be liable for such conduct under § 1983. Shehee v. Luttrell, 199 F.3d 295, 300 (6th Cir. 1999), cert. denied, 530 U.S. 1264 (2000).

         Defendants alternatively move for qualified immunity. Government officials, performing discretionary functions, generally are shielded 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. Dietrich v. Burrows, 167 F.3d 1007, 1012 (6th Cir. 1999); Turner v. Scott, 119 F.3d 425, 429 (6th Cir. 1997); Noble v. Schmitt, 87 F.3d 157, 160 (6th Cir. 1996); Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818 (1982). An “objective reasonableness” test is used to determine whether the official could reasonably have believed his conduct was lawful. Dietrich, 167 F.3d at 1012; Anderson v. Creighton, 483 U.S. 635, 641 (1987). “Qualified immunity balances two important interests-the need to hold public officials accountable when they exercise power irresponsibly and the need to shield officials from harassment, distraction, and liability when they perform their duties reasonably.” Pearson v. Callahan, 129 S.Ct. 808, 815 (2009).

         In making a qualified immunity determination the court must decide whether the facts as alleged or shown make out a constitutional violation or whether the right that was allegedly violated was a clearly established right at the time of the alleged misconduct. Id. at 816. If the court can conclude that either no constitutional violation occurred or that the right was not clearly established, qualified immunity is warranted. The court may consider either approach without regard to sequence. Id.

         Defendants initially argue that Plaintiff's alleged injury was de mimimis. Not “every malevolent touch by a prison guard gives rise to a[n Eighth Amendment] cause of action.” See Hudson v. McMillian, 503 U.S. 1, 9 (1992). However, in Wilkins v. Gaddy, 130 S.Ct. 1175, 1178 (2010), the Supreme Court held that significant injury is not a threshold requirement for an excessive force claim. Instead, the “‘core judicial inquiry' [is not] the extent of the injury, ” but “whether [the force used] was nontrivial and “was applied . . . maliciously and sadistically to cause harm.'” Id. at 1179 (quoting Hudson, 503 U.S. at 7). As a result, an excessive force claim should not be dismissed on the basis that the Plaintiff's injuries were de minimis.” Id. at 1179. However, in the opinion of the undersigned, Defendants Miller and Woods are entitled to qualified immunity from liability, because Plaintiff has failed to set forth facts that establish that each Defendant violated his rights.

         In summary, in the opinion of the undersigned, Plaintiff has failed to sustain his burden of proof in response to Defendant's motion for summary judgment. Accordingly, it is recommended that Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 85) be granted and that this case be dismissed in its entirety.

         Should the court adopt the report and recommendation in this case, the court must next decide whether an appeal of this action would be in good faith within the meaning of 28 U.S.C. § 1915(a)(3). See McGore v. Wrigglesworth, 114 F.3d 601, 611 (6th Cir. 1997). For the same reasons that the undersigned recommends granting Defendants' motion for summary judgment, the undersigned discerns no good-faith basis for an appeal. Should the court adopt the report and recommendation and should Plaintiff appeal this decision, the court will assess the $505 appellate filing fee pursuant to § 1915(b)(1), see McGore, 114 F.3d at 610-11, unless Plaintiff is barred from proceeding in forma pauperis, e.g., by the “three-strikes” rule of § 1915(g). If he is barred, he will be required to pay the $505 appellate filing fee in one lump sum.

         NOTICE TO PARTIES: Objections to this Report and Recommendation must be served on opposing parties and filed with the Clerk of the Court within fourteen (14) days of receipt of this Report and Recommendation. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(C); Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b); W.D. Mich. LCivR 72.3(b). Failure to file timely objections constitutes a waiver of any further right to ...

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