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Miller v. Stewart

United States District Court, E.D. Michigan, Southern Division

March 1, 2019

ANTHONY STEWART, et al., Defendants.

          Sean F. Cox, United States District Judge


          Stephanie Dawkins Davis, United States Magistrate Judge


         Plaintiff, Sharee Miller, filed this lawsuit on November 25, 2015, against Anthony Stewart, Robin Howard, and Renata Patton, all employees of the Michigan Department of Corrections, claiming retaliation under the First Amendment and a claim under Michigan's Whistleblower's Protection Act (WPA). (Dkt. 1). On February 18, 2016, District Judge Sean F. Cox referred this matter to the undersigned for all pretrial proceedings. (Dkt. 7). After a period of discovery, defendants filed a motion for summary judgment. (Dkt. 75, 76). This matter is fully briefed. (Dkt. 86, 87, 88). The parties filed their joint statement of resolved and unresolved issues on September 20, 2018. (Dkt. 91). The Court held a hearing and received oral arguments from both parties. (Dkt. 92). This matter is now ready for report and recommendation.

         For the reasons set forth below, the undersigned RECOMMENDS GRANTING defendants' motion for summary judgment on plaintiff's WPA claim and GRANTING defendants' motion for summary judgment on plaintiff's First Amendment retaliation claim, as to her claims for money damages only. Further, the undersigned RECOMMENDS DENYING defendants' motion to the extent they seek summary judgment on plaintiff's First Amendment retaliation claim against defendants in their official capacities.


         A. The Complaint

         Miller sued three employees of the Huron Valley Correctional Facility (WHV), which is in Ypsilanti, Michigan. First, she sues Warden Anthony Stewart in his official capacity only. According to defendants, Stewart did not begin working as Warden at WHV until February 1, 2015, after the allegations in the Complaint arose. Miller also sues Inspector Robin Howard and Classification employee Renata Patton in their individual capacities. (Dkt. 1, Pg ID 1, 3). Miller claims that she was released from the Prisoner Observation Aid (POA) Program at WHV in retaliation for complaining about the mistreatment of the prisoners who she was observing as part of that program. (Dkt. 1, Pg ID 3, 10). Miller says the officials violated her rights under the First Amendment of the Constitution (Dkt. 1, Pg ID 10 11) as well as her rights under the WPA, codified in Mich. Comp. Laws §§ 15.361-15.369. (Dkt. 1, Pg ID 11, 12). She seeks both compensatory and injunctive relief against defendants Howard and Patton, but only injunctive relief against Stewart. (Dkt. 1, Pg ID 12).

         B. The Prisoner Observation Aide Program

         This lawsuit derives from Miller's role in MDOC's POA program. Therefore, a summary of the program is perhaps helpful to begin. It is MDOC's policy to place prisoners who are suicidal or self-injurious in cells by themselves, under one-on-one, direct and continuous observation. (Dkt. 86-2, Ex. A, POA Training PowerPoint). For observation of these at-risk prisoners throughout each day, MDOC relies on a combination of corrections staff and prisoners assigned as POAs who are specially selected, trained, and carefully screened. Id. p. 3. MDOC began using POAs in approximately 2012, and WHV piloted the POA program for the MDOC in Michigan. (Dkt. 86-3, Ex. B, R. Patton Dep., 22:3-22:6; 23:13). Defendant Patton was the only Corrections Program Coordinator (“CPC”) responsible for the POA program at WHV. Id. at 16:21-23.

         POAs' job duties require them to continuously observe the mentally ill prisoner to whom they are assigned on a given day, to log their observations at regular intervals, and to contact a corrections officer or other staff if a mentally ill prisoner is in distress, or if some other emergency arises. (Dkt. 86-4, Ex. C, Prisoner Observation Rules and Procedures, at 1). POA rules and procedures require each POA to maintain appropriate confidentiality of her observations. Id. at 3. The confidentiality clause provides, in pertinent part:

         Away from the Job

1. Confidentiality is very important in prisoner observation. Relevant information should only be shared with staff or the next shift of Prisoner Observers. Inappropriate sharing of information about the observed prisoner will be grounds for immediate removal from the job. Prisoner Observers are only to discuss what the assigned prisoner says or does or what is said/done to the prisoner with housing staff on the unit or relief observers (staff or prisoner).

Id. The confidentiality provision authorizes removal of any POA who shares information “inappropriate[ly].” The terms “relevant” and “appropriate” are not further defined in the policy, and Miller points out that Patton does not specifically explain the meaning of the confidentiality provision when training POAs. (Dkt. 86-3, Ex. B, at 117:13-25 and 118:1-3).

         Miller began working as a POA at WHV in March 2014. (Dkt. 86-5, Ex. D, S. Miller Dep., 23:1-6). She received job training as a POA before assuming her responsibilities. Id. at 11:11-13. And she received wages in exchange for her services as a POA. Id. at 9:4-6.

         B. Miller's Observations

         1. The Bielby Incident

         During a POA shift in spring 2014, Miller witnessed corrections officers abuse and mistreat a mentally ill inmate, Rochelle Bielby. (Dkt. 86-5, Ex. D, p. 23:14-18). After Bielby became upset and lost her temper, corrections officers stripped Bielby of her clothes and restrained her. (Id. at 26:16-18; Dkt. 86-6, Ex. E, Critical Incident Report). According to Miller, WHV officials cuffed Bielby's wrists and ankles and used a chain to hog-tie her wrists and ankles together behind her back with her knees bent while leaving her lying prone. (Dkt. 86-6, Ex. D, at 31:8-14). Miller says Bielby was naked, tied, and alone in her cell. Id. at 34: 1-18. Bielby repeatedly cried out that she was in pain, which caused Miller to be concerned for Bielby's well-being. Miller's main reason for concern was that if Bielby had fallen from her bed, she would have no way to catch herself while restrained in the hogtied position. Id. at 36:1-5. According to Miller's recollection of the event, officers stated that Bielby had to stay in that position because Bielby had struggled and fought her restraints. Id. at 34:19-36:1-5. Miller maintains that Bielby was left naked, hog-tied, and screaming out in pain for four hours and fifty-two minutes. Id. at 39:3-25; Dkt. 86-6, Ex. E, at 001491. Miller says she observed Bielby sliding off her bed with her extremities bound. (Dkt. 86-5, Ex. D, at 39:3-25). Although she notified a sergeant about this danger, Miller was told dismissively that Bielby would be fine. Id. at 42:5-11.

         Miller was disturbed by this treatment of a mentally ill inmate and claims she made several attempts to address the incident with authorities at WHV as a result. Id. at 41:3-23, 42:16-44:13, 68:14-69:10. None of her attempts proved fruitful. For example, at a POA meeting the next day, Miller complained to Patton, who supervised the POA program. Id. at 42:16-44:13. Patton indicated that the officer's conduct was appropriate and that Miller was mistaken. Id. at 43:22-44:2. Based on this response, Miller sent a kite (or written request) to Howard, but she received no response. Id. at 44:3-15.

         Because WHV was not taking her claims seriously, Miller felt she exhausted her avenues to report the abuse within WHV, and says she was forced to contact advocates outside WHV for aid. Acting on Miller's behalf, persons and organizations outside WHV (e.g. “Humanity for Prisoners”) reported the abuse to public officials and agencies who initiated investigations. Although Howard knew Miller had reported Bielby's alleged mistreatment to others outside of WHV, she met with Miller but did not reprimand her. Id. 48:2-15. Instead, Howard simply encouraged Miller to tell the truth. Id.

         Howard says that after she learned of Miller's correspondence to Humanity for Prisoners about Bielby's treatment, she investigated Miller's report of mistreatment by reviewing video and critical incident reports to determine the veracity of Miller's allegations. (Dkt. 75-4, Ex. 3, Howard dep, p. 48). Howard's investigation led her to determine that Miller's allegations had no credibility. Id. at 49. Howard met with Miller on June 4, 2014. Although Howard concluded that Miller breached her POA confidentiality agreement, she did not recommend removing Miller from her POA position. Howard says she did remind Miller, however, that because she signed the confidentiality agreement, she was not to report information that she learned during her POA assignment to those outside of the prison. Id. at 58-61.

         2. The Martin Incident

         In mid-June 2014, Miller says she again witnessed disturbing abuse and mistreatment of a mentally ill and/or disabled inmate. (Dkt. 1, Compl., p. 6). This time, Miller was acting as a POA for inmate Darlene Martin. Id. Martin was not eating and could not operate the sink in her cell to drink water because of her weakened condition. (Dkt. 86-5, Ex. D, at 50:16-52:9). To drink water, Martin tried to splash water out of the toilet in her cell. Id. But, claiming that her actions made a mess, corrections officers turned off all water to Martin's cell. Id. at 51:10-12. Miller informed officers that Martin was begging for water. Id. at 52:2-9. Every few hours a tiny paper cup with a few ounces of water was placed in Martin's cell, but Miller says Martin remained dehydrated. Id. at 53:13-18. Over the course of several days as a POA for Martin, Miller sent multiple kites to Patton and Howard about Martin's condition. Id. at 56:6-9. Miller reported that Martin was not eating, was denied water, and appeared to be in distress. Miller's kites went unanswered. Id. at 56:16-18.

         According to Miller, Martin's condition grew worse. Miller saw Martin foaming at the mouth, vomiting, naked, and unresponsive to verbal cues. Id. at 57:15-19. Equally concerning, Miller perceived the nurse on duty to be indifferent to Martin's overall health condition, only stopping in Martin's cell occasionally to administer a shot. Id. at 56:19-57:1. The nurse did not take Martin's vital signs, did not attempt to engage Martin in any conversation, and did not appear concerned about Martin's deteriorating condition. (Dkt. 1, Compl., p 7; Dkt. 86-7, Ex. F, K. McDonnell Deposition, 30:14-15 (Q. Did you take vitals at that time? A. No.”). Troubled by what she thought to be inadequate medical attention for Martin, Miller reported her observations to the nurse. (Dkt. 1, Compl., p 8). The nurse simply stated that she knew what she was doing and dismissed Miller's concerns. Id. Approximately one hour after Miller reported her concerns for Martin to the nurse, Martin went into cardiac arrest and was rushed to the hospital. Id.; Dkt. 87-1, Ex. G, Martin's Medical Records from St. Joseph Mercy Hospital, at 001266 (noting Martin “was apparently seen by a prison inmate having some breathing difficulties and by the time the patient was found in her cell, she was unresponsive in her bed”). Martin was placed on life support and not expected to live. (Dkt. 87-2, Ex. H, Martin's Discharge Summary Medical Records from St. Joseph Mercy Hospital, at 001327). Martin ultimately survived, but she is in a vegetative state because of the incident. Id. (“Her mental status did improve but not to her baseline. She improved enough to eat though she has to be fed. She speaks but she does not follow commands.”). Miller feared other mentally ill women at WHV were at risk of similar abuse and mistreatment. She says she was, therefore, compelled to contact professional advocates outside of WHV to ask for help. (Dkt. 86-5, Ex. D, at 71:25-72:5).

         C. Miller's Termination as a POA

         Notwithstanding Howard's reminder to Miller not to disclose confidential information that she learned as a POA, Miller made a telephone call to Carol Jacobsen, a prisoner-rights advocate indicating - falsely according to MDOC - that another prisoner, whose condition Miller became aware of in her role as a POA, had died because she was allegedly deprived of food and water. (Dkt. 75-4, Ex. 3, p. 72). On June 23, 2014 and June 24, 2014, Miller also sent email messages to an individual named “Doug” at Humanity for Prisoners in which she revealed additional information about the prisoner on POA status, including: the prisoner's identity, why the prisoner was placed in one-on-one observation, the food the prisoner was offered, the prisoner's physical and mental state, that the prisoner was issued medication, and information that other POAs had reported about the prisoner. (Dkt. 75-5, Ex. 4, Miller's 6/23/14 JPay correspondence; Dkt. 75-6, Ex. 5, Miller's 6/24/14 JPay correspondence).

         On July 16, 2014, Patton informed Miller that she was being terminated from her position as a POA at the directive of Howard. (Dkt. 1, Compl., p. 9; Dkt. 87-3, Ex. I, Email from Howard, 000428; Dkt. 87-4, Ex. J, Email from Patton, 000430). Written documentation regarding her termination, signed by Defendant Patton, states:

Prisoner Miller 326122 began working as a prisoner observation aid on 3/5/2014. On 7/11/2014, classification was notified by Inspector Howard that prisoner Miller has engaged in sharing confidential information regarding prisoners she had observed with persons other than staff or a relieving POA. According to Prisoner Observation Rules and Procedures signed by prisoner Miller on 4/8/2014 Section “Away from the Job” Paragraph 1 it states that “Confidentiality is very important in prisoner observation. Relevant information should only be shared with staff of the next shift of prisoner Observers. Inappropriate sharing of information about the observed prisoner will be grounds for immediate removal from the job. Prisoner Observers are only to discuss what the assigned prisoner says/does or what is said/done to the prisoner with housing staff on the unit or relief observes (staff or prisoner).” Based ...

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