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Carter v. EL Paso County Sheriff Dept.

United States District Court, D. Colorado

June 2, 2015

JERRY D. CARTER, Plaintiff,
v.
EL PASO COUNTY SHERIFF DEPT.; EARLS, Defendants.

ORDER TO DISMISS

Lewis T. Babcock, Senior Judge

Plaintiff, Jerry D. Carter, currently is in custody in the Colorado Mental Health Institute at Pueblo (CMHIP). He was transferred there from the El Paso County Sheriff’s Department sometime earlier this year. Plaintiff initiated this action by filing pro se a Prisoner Complaint pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and a Motion and Affidavit for Leave to Proceed Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915. Plaintiff has been granted leave to proceed pursuant to § 1915 (ECF No. 4).

A. Mandatory Screening and Standards of Review

In 1996, Congress significantly amended Title 28 of the United States Code, section 1915, which establishes the criteria for allowing an action to proceed in forma pauperis (IFP), i.e., without prepayment of costs. Section 1915(e) (as amended) requires the federal courts to review complaints filed by persons that are proceeding in forma pauperis and to dismiss, at any time, any action that is frivolous or malicious, fails to state a claim on which relief may be granted, or seeks monetary relief against a defendant who is immune from such relief. 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B). See Creamer v. Kelly, 599 F. App’x 336 (10th Cir. 2015) (“Under §§ 1915(e)(2)(B)(i) and (ii), a court must screen a complaint filed IFP and dismiss the case at any time if the court determines that the action or appeal is frivolous or malicious or fails to state a claim on which relief may be granted.”) (internal quotation and citation mitted).

In addition, 28 U.S.C. § 1915A, entitled “Screening, ” requires the court to review complaints filed by prisoners seeking redress from a governmental entity or an officer or employee of a governmental entity. 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(a). If the complaint is “frivolous, malicious, or fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted, ” or “seeks monetary relief from a defendant who is immune from such relief, ” the court must dismiss the complaint. 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(b).

Further, the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act, 42 U.S.C.A. § 1997e requires the court “on its own motion or on the motion of a party” to dismiss any action brought by a prisoner with respect to prison conditions under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 if the action is “frivolous, malicious, fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted, or seeks monetary relief from a defendant who is immune from such relief.” See 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(c)(1).

Plaintiff is considered a “prisoner” as that term is defined under the PLRA, see 28 U.S.C. §§ 1915(h); 1915A(c), and he has been granted leave to proceed IFP in this action (ECF No. 4). Moreover, Defendants are employees of a governmental entity. In addition, he is complaining about the conditions of his confinement. Thus, his Complaint must be reviewed under the authority set forth above.

In reviewing complaints under these statutory provisions, a viable complaint must include “enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 554, 556 (2007) (rejecting the traditional standard set forth in Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 45–46 (1957)). The question to be resolved is: whether, taking the factual allegations of the complaint, which are not contradicted by the exhibits and matters of which judicial notice may be had, and taking all reasonable inferences to be drawn from those uncontradicted factual allegations of the complaint, are the "factual allegations ... enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level, ... on the assumption that all the allegations in the complaint are true even if doubtful in fact[.]" Bell Atlantic Corp., 550 U.S. at 555. When reviewing a complaint for failure to state a claim, the Court may also consider documents attached to the complaint as exhibits. Oxendine v. Kaplan, 241 F.3d 1272, 1275 (10th Cir. 2001) (internal citation omitted). Moreover, a legally frivolous claim is one in which the plaintiff asserts the violation of a legal interest that clearly does not exist or asserts facts that do not support an arguable claim. Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319, 324 (1989). See also Denton v. Hernandez, 504 U.S. 25, 32-33 (1992) (holding that a court may dismiss a claim as factually frivolous if the facts alleged are clearly baseless, a category encompassing allegations that are fanciful, fantastic, and delusional).

The Court must construe the Complaint liberally because Plaintiff is a pro se litigant. See Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, 520-21 (1972); Hall v. Bellmon, 935 F.2d 1106, 1110 (10th Cir. 1991). If a complaint reasonably can be read “to state a valid claim on which the plaintiff could prevail, [a court] should do so despite the plaintiff’s failure to cite proper legal authority, his confusion of various legal theories, his poor syntax and sentence construction, or his unfamiliarity with pleading requirements.” Hall, 935 F.2d at 1110. However, a court should not act as a pro se litigant’s advocate. See Id . Sua sponte dismissal is proper when it is patently obvious that plaintiff could not prevail on the facts alleged and it would be futile to allow the plaintiff to amend. Andrews v. Heaton, 483 F.3d 1070, 1074 (10th Cir. 2007); Curley v. Perry, 246 F.3d 1278, 1281–82 (10th Cir. 2001) (internal quotations omitted).

B. Plaintiff’s Allegations

Plaintiff claims that on or about February 15, 2015, he was incarcerated at the El Paso County Sheriff’s Department prior to his transfer to the CMHIP. He claims that Defendant Earls made a “death threat” against him by publicly announcing that Plaintiff was at one time a deputy sheriff. He further claims that two days later an unknown prison guard hit him with an orange slice two times and threatened his life. He further claims that he was moved to a different housing pod after the incident.

For the reasons stated below, the Complaint and the action will be dismissed pursuant to screening authority set forth above. The pertinent grounds which will result in the dismissal are addressed below. An appropriate order follows.

C. Liability under 42 U.S.C. § 1983

Plaintiff seeks to assert liability against Defendants pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. To state a claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, a plaintiff must meet two threshold requirements. He must allege: 1) that the alleged misconduct was committed by a person acting under color of state law; and 2) that as a result, he was deprived of rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution or laws of the United States. West v. Atkins, 487 U.S. 42 (1988); Parratt v. Taylor, 451 U.S. 527, 535 (1981), overruled in part on other grounds, Daniels v. Williams, 474 U.S. 327, 330–331 (1986). In addressing a claim brought under § 1983, analysis begins by identifying the specific constitutional right allegedly infringed. Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 393–394 (1989) (internal quotations and citations omitted). The validity of the claim then must be judged by reference to the specific constitutional standard which governs that right. Id.

1. Conditions of Confinement

Plaintiff’s claim concerns the conditions of his confinement. Claims concerning prison conditions filed by pretrial detainees are evaluated under the Due Process Clauses of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments, which prohibit defendants from undertaking acts that amount to punishment. See Bell v. Wolfish, 441 U.S. 520, 535 (1979). In order to determine whether the challenged conditions of pre-trial confinement amount to punishment:

[a] court must decide whether the disability is imposed for the purpose of punishment or whether it is but an incident of some other legitimate governmental purpose. Absent a showing of an expressed intent to punish on the part of the detention facility officials, that determination generally will turn on whether [it has] an alternative purpose ... and whether it appears excessive in relation to [that] purpose.... Thus, if a particular condition or restriction of pretrial detention is reasonably related to a legitimate governmental objective, it does not, without more, amount to “punishment.” Conversely, if a restriction or condition is not reasonably related to a legitimate goal-if it is arbitrary or purposeless-a court may permissibly infer that the purpose of the governmental action is punishment that may not constitutionally be inflicted upon detainees.

Id. at 538–39 (citations, brackets and internal quotations omitted).

Although the Due Process Clause governs a pretrial detainee's claim of unconstitutional conditions of confinement, the Eighth Amendment standard provides the benchmark for such claims. Craig v. Eberly, 164 F.3d 490, 495 (10th Cir. 1998). The Eighth Amendment protects individuals against the infliction of “cruel and unusual punishments.” This protection, enforced against the states through the Fourteenth Amendment, guarantees incarcerated persons humane conditions of confinement. In this regard, prison officials must ensure that inmates receive adequate food, clothing, shelter and medical care, and must “take reasonable measures to guarantee the safety of the inmates.” Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825, 832 (1994) (internal quotation omitted. Notwithstanding, not every injury raises constitutional concerns. A prison official violates the Eighth Amendment only when two requirements are met. The inmate must show that: 1) he suffered a risk of “serious” harm; and 2) prison officials showed “deliberate indifference” to such risk. Farmer, 511 U.S. at 834.

The first element is satisfied when the alleged “punishment” is “objectively sufficiently serious.” Id. In determining whether a prisoner has alleged a risk that is objectively serious, a court must consider not only the seriousness of the potential harm and the likelihood that the harm will actually occur, but evidence that unwilling exposure to that risk violates contemporary standards of decency. In other words, the prisoner must show that the risk of which he complains is not one that today's society chooses to tolerate. Helling v. McKinney, 509 U.S. 25, 35 (1993).

[E]xtreme deprivations are required to make out a conditions-of-confinement claim. Because routine discomfort is part of the penalty that criminal offenders pay for their offenses against society, only those deprivations denying the minimal civilized measure of life's necessities are sufficiently grave to form the basis of an Eighth Amendment violation.

Hudson v. McMillan, 503 U.S. 1, 9 (1992) (internal citations and quotations omitted).

The second criterion, deliberate indifference, requires an inmate to show that the prison official had a sufficiently culpable state of mind. The Supreme Court clarified this deliberate indifference standard in Farmer as follows.

We reject petitioner's invitation to adopt an objective test for deliberate indifference. We hold instead that a prison official cannot be found liable under the Eighth Amendment for denying an inmate humane conditions of confinement unless the official knows of and disregards an excessive risk to inmate health or safety; 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. This approach comports best with the text of the Amendment as our cases have interpreted it. The Eighth Amendment does not outlaw cruel and unusual “conditions”; it outlaws cruel and unusual “punishments.” An act or omission unaccompanied by knowledge of a significant risk of harm might well be something society wishes to discourage, and if harm does result society might well wish to assure compensation.... But an official's failure to alleviate a significant risk that he should have perceived but did not, while no cause for commendation, cannot under our cases be condemned as the infliction of punishment.

Farmer, 511 U.S. at 837–838 (internal citations and quotations omitted).

Plaintiff’s claim merely alleges that a guard threw some orange slices at him and allegedly made threats to him. Accepting Plaintiff’s allegations as true, he fails to assert a constitutionally protected right. In order to state an Eighth Amendment violation, the conditions presenting the risk must be "sure or very likely to cause serious illness and needless suffering, " and give rise to "sufficiently imminent dangers." Helling v. McKinney, 509 U.S. 25, 33, 34–35 (1993). It has universally been held that harassment, threats, and verbal abuse by prison officials simply does not state a constitutional violation. Northington v. Jackson, 973 F.2d 1518, 1524 (10th Cir. 1992). Here, the officers' comments, although inappropriate, do not suggest a show of deadly force, thus failing to create “terror of instant and unexpected death.” Thus, while the conditions of his confinement were not ideal, they simply do not amount to punishment as prohibited under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. Accord French v. Colorado, 357 F. App’x 200 (10th Cir. 2009); Alvarez v. Gonzales, 155 F. App’x 393, 396 (10th Cir. 2005).

Plaintiff’s Complaint fails to state a claim over the any of the named Defendants. Moreover, it would be futile to allow him to amend his complaint. Accordingly, it is

ORDERED that the Complaint and this action are DISMISSED with prejudice pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B), 28 U.S.C. § 1915A and/or 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(c). It is

FURTHER ORDERED that leave to proceed in forma pauperis on appeal is denied. The Court certifies pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915(a)(3) that any appeal from this order would not be taken in good faith. See Coppedge v. United States, 369 U.S. 438 (1962). If Plaintiff files a notice of appeal he must also pay the full $505 appellate filing fee or file a motion to proceed in forma pauperis in the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit within thirty days in accordance with Fed. R. App. P. 24.


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