United States District Court, D. New Jersey
August 30, 2005.
RODNEY L. EDWARDS, Plaintiff,
LINGPING GU, M.D., et al., Defendants.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: WILLIAM BASSLER, District Judge
Plaintiff, Rodney L. Edwards ("Edwards"), a state prisoner
currently confined at Northern State Prison in Newark, New
Jersey, seeks to bring this action in forma pauperis
pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915. Based on plaintiff's affidavit of
indigence, the Court grants the application to proceed in
forma pauperis and directs the Clerk of the Court to file the
Complaints without pre-payment of the filing fee.
Having reviewed the Complaint to identify cognizable claims
pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 1915(e)(2) and 1915A, the Court
concludes that the Complaint should proceed in part. I. BACKGROUND
The following factual allegations are taken from the Complaint
and are accepted as true for purposes of this review. In his
Complaint, Edwards asserts claims that he was denied medical care
claim and that defendants were negligent in failing to treat him.
The named defendants are: Lingping Gu, M.D., at Central Reception
and Assignment Facility ("CRAF"); John Godinsky, M.D., at
Northern State Prison ("NSP"); Dr. Bucholtz, at NSP; Bruce Hauck,
Administrator at CRAF; and Lydell Sherrer, Administrator at NSP.
Edwards alleges that, on January 10, 2005, after being treated
for a fever, he complained to Dr. Gu about lower back pain. Dr.
Gu prescribed aspirin to alleviate the pain and a medical slip
for a lower bunk privilege. When Edwards complained to Dr. Gu
that the aspirin was not helping with his pain, Dr. Gu explained
that Correctional Medical Services at CRAF only referred outside
consultation and treatment for inmates assigned to CRAF. Since
Edwards was temporarily housed in CRAF until his prison
assignment was designated, he would not be there long enough to
schedule an outside appointment. Edwards remained at CRAF for 49
days, until February 28, 2005, when he was transferred to
Northern State Prison.
On March 24, 2005, while at NSP, Edwards filled out a medical
request form, complaining of intense pain in his lower back and down his left leg. He was seen by Dr. Bucholtz on March
31, 2005, who prescribed Naproxen (500 MG) and ordered x-rays.
The x-rays were negative and Dr. Bucholtz diagnosed plaintiff's
condition as muscle spasms. Edwards insisted that the Naproxen
did not work for him in the past, and that his lower back has
become inflamed and the pain in his lower back and left leg more
intense and severe.
On May 23, 2005, Edwards was examined by Dr. Godinsky for his
complaints of lower back and left leg pain. Dr. Godinsky
diagnosed plaintiff's condition as sciatica. Dr. Godinsky also
explained to plaintiff that an MRI and neurological surgery was
not indicated, and instead prescribed Prednisone, Chlorzoxazone,
and Motrin for pain.
Edwards filed grievances with both Hauck and Sherrer, the
Administrators at CRAF and NSP, respectively, which went
unanswered. Edwards seeks injunctive relief directing defendants
to provide medical treatment. He also asks for money damages,
$5million in compensatory damages and $5 million in punitive
II. STANDARDS FOR A SUA SPONTE DISMISSAL
The Prison Litigation Reform Act ("PLRA"), Pub.L. No. 1041-34,
§§ 801-810, 110 Stat. 1321-66 to 1321-77 (April 26, 1996),
requires a district court to review a complaint in a civil action
in which a prisoner is proceeding in forma pauperis or
seeks redress against a governmental employee or entity. The Court is
required to identify cognizable claims and to sua sponte
dismiss any claim that is frivolous, malicious, fails to state a
claim upon which relief may be granted, or seeks monetary relief
from a defendant who is immune from such relief.
28 U.S.C. §§ 1915(e)(2)(B) and 1915A.*fn1
In determining the sufficiency of a pro se complaint, the
Court must be mindful to construe it liberally in favor of the
plaintiff. Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, 520-21 (1972);
United States v. Day, 969 F.2d 39, 42 (3d Cir. 1992). The Court
must "accept as true all of the allegations in the complaint and
all reasonable inferences that can be drawn therefrom, and view
them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff." Morse v.
Lower Merion School Dist., 132 F.3d 902, 906 (3d Cir. 1997). The
Court need not, however, credit a pro se plaintiff's "bald
assertions" or "legal conclusions." Id.
A complaint is frivolous if it "lacks an arguable basis either
in law or in fact." Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319, 325
(1989) (interpreting the predecessor of § 1915(e)(2), the former § 1915(d)). The standard for evaluating whether a
complaint is "frivolous" is an objective one. Deutsch v. United
States, 67 F.3d 1080, 1086-87 (3d Cir. 1995).
A pro se complaint may be dismissed for failure to state a
claim only if it appears "`beyond doubt that the plaintiff can
prove no set of facts in support of his claim which would entitle
him to relief.'" Haines, 404 U.S. at 521 (quoting Conley v.
Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 45-46 (1957)); Milhouse v. Carlson,
652 F.2d 371, 373 (3d Cir. 1981).
Where a complaint can be remedied by an amendment, a district
court may not dismiss the complaint with prejudice, but must
permit the amendment. Denton v. Hernandez, 504 U.S. 25, 34
(1992); Alston v. Parker, 363 F.3d 229 (3d Cir. 2004)
(complaint that satisfied notice pleading requirement that it
contain short, plain statement of the claim, but lacked
sufficient detail to function as a guide to discovery, was not
required to be dismissed for failure to state a claim; district
court should permit a curative amendment before dismissing a
complaint, unless an amendment would be futile or inequitable);
Grayson v. Mayview State Hospital, 293 F.3d 103, 108 (3d Cir.
2002) (dismissal pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)); Shane v.
Fauver, 213 F.3d 113, 116-17 (3d Cir. 2000) (dismissal pursuant
to 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(c)(1)); Urrutia v. Harrisburg County Police
Dept., 91 F.3d 451, 453 (3d Cir. 1996). III. SECTION 1983 LIABILITY
Edwards brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983
alleging violations of her constitutional rights. Section 1983
provides in relevant part:
Every person who, under color of any statute,
ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State
or Territory . . . subjects, or causes to be
subjected, any citizen of the United States or other
person within the jurisdiction thereof to the
deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities
secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable
to the party injured in an action at law, suit in
equity, or other proper proceeding for redress. . . .
Thus, to state a claim for relief under § 1983, a plaintiff must
allege, first, the violation of a right secured by the
Constitution or laws of the United States and, second, that the
alleged deprivation was committed or caused by a person acting
under color of state law. West v. Atkins, 487 U.S. 42
(1988); Piecknick v. Pennsylvania, 36 F.3d 1250
, 1255-56 (3d
The Court liberally construes the allegations in the complaint
as: (1) a § 1983 denial of medical care claim, in violation of
the Eighth Amendment; and (2) a common law tort claim alleging
medical negligence by defendants, Dr. Godinsky and Dr. Bucholtz,
in failing to provide adequate medical care to plaintiff. The Eighth Amendment proscription against cruel and unusual
punishment requires that prison officials provide inmates with
adequate medical care. Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 103-04
(1976); Rouse v. Plantier, 182 F.3d 192 (3d Cir. 1999). In
order to set forth a cognizable claim for a violation of his
right to adequate medical care, an inmate must allege: (1) a
serious medical need; and (2) behavior on the part of prison
officials that constitutes deliberate indifference to that need.
Estelle, 429 U.S. at 106; Natale v. Camden County Correctional
Facility, 318 F.3d 575, 582 (3d Cir. 2003).
To satisfy the first prong of the Estelle inquiry, the inmate
must demonstrate that his medical needs are serious. "Because
society does not expect that prisoners will have unqualified
access to health care, deliberate indifference to medical needs
amounts to an Eighth Amendment violation only if those needs are
`serious.'" Hudson v. McMillian, 503 U.S. 1, 9 (1992). The
Third Circuit has defined a serious medical need as: (1) "one
that has been diagnosed by a physician as requiring treatment;"
(2) "one that is so obvious that a lay person would recognize the
necessity for a doctor's attention;" or (3) one for which "the
denial of treatment would result in the unnecessary and wanton
infliction of pain" or "a life-long handicap or permanent loss."
Atkinson v. Taylor, 316 F.3d 257, 272-73 (3d Cir. 2003)
(internal quotations and citations omitted); see also Monmouth County Correctional Institutional Inmates v. Lanzaro,
834 F.2d 326, 347 (3d Cir. 1987), cert. denied, 486 U.S. 1006
(1988). When evaluating the first or objective element under
Estelle, whether a plaintiff's medical need is serious, "a
court should consider such factors as the severity of the medical
problems, the potential for harm if the medical care is denied or
delayed and whether any such harm actually resulted from the lack
of medical attention." Maldonado v. Terhune, 28 F. Supp.2d 284,
289 (D.N.J. 1998).
The second element of the Estelle test requires an inmate to
show that prison officials acted with deliberate indifference to
his serious medical need. See Natale, 318 F.3d at 582
(finding deliberate indifference requires proof that the official
knew of and disregarded an excessive risk to inmate health or
safety). "Deliberate indifference" is more than mere malpractice
or negligence; it is a state of mind equivalent to reckless
disregard of a known risk of harm. Farmer v. Brennan,
511 U.S. 825, 837-38 (1994). Furthermore, a prisoner's subjective
dissatisfaction with his medical care does not in itself indicate
deliberate indifference. Andrews v. Camden County, 95 F.
Supp.2d 217, 228 (D.N.J. 2000); Peterson v. Davis,
551 F. Supp. 137, 145 (D. Md. 1982), aff'd, 729 F.2d 1453 (4th Cir. 1984).
Similarly, "mere disagreements over medical judgment do not state
Eighth Amendment claims." White v. Napoleon, 897 F.2d 103, 110
(3d Cir. 1990). "Courts will disavow any attempt to second-guess the
propriety or adequacy of a particular course of treatment . . .
[which] remains a question of sound professional judgment."
Inmates of Allegheny County Jail v. Pierce, 612 F.2d 754, 762
(3d Cir. 1979) (internal quotation and citation omitted). Even if
a doctor's judgment concerning the proper course of a prisoner's
treatment ultimately is shown to be mistaken, at most what would
be proved is medical malpractice and not an Eighth Amendment
violation. Estelle, 429 U.S. at 105-06; White,
897 F.3d at 110.
The Third Circuit has found deliberate indifference where a
prison official: (1) knows of a prisoner's need for medical
treatment but intentionally refuses to provide it; (2) delays
necessary medical treatment for non-medical reasons; or (3)
prevents a prisoner from receiving needed or recommended
treatment. See Rouse, 182 F.3d at 197. The court has also
held that needless suffering resulting from the denial of simple
medical care, which does not serve any penological purpose,
violates the Eighth Amendment. Atkinson, 316 F.3d at 266. See
also Monmouth County Correctional Institutional Inmates,
834 F.2d at 346 ("deliberate indifference is demonstrated `[w]hen . . .
prison authorities prevent an inmate from receiving recommended
treatment for serious medical needs or deny access to a physician
capable of evaluating the need for such treatment"); Durmer v. O'Carroll, 991 F.2d 64 (3d Cir. 1993); White v. Napoleon,
897 F.2d 103 (3d Cir. 1990).
Here, Edwards medical condition has not been diagnosed by any
doctor as requiring the treatment Edwards seeks; nor are his
lower back problems and sciatica so severe that a lay person
would recognize the necessity for surgery. Finally, Edwards does
not allege that the denial of surgical treatment has resulted in
"the unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain" or "a life-long
handicap or permanent loss." Atkinson v. Taylor, 316 F.3d 257,
272-73. Nevertheless, Edwards continuing complaints of escalating
lower back pain and sciatica in his left leg might be considered
a serious medical need. At best, it is a factual issue that
should not be determined on a sua sponte screening under
28 U.S.C. §§ 1915(e)(2) and 1915A. Therefore, the Court will look to
the second element of deliberate indifference to determine
whether Edwards has alleged a cognizable § 1983 denial of medical
As to the claims against the CRAF defendants (Dr. Gu and
Administrator Hauck), the Court is inclined to find that, if
plaintiff's allegations are true, Edwards may be able to
establish a claim of deliberate indifference. Edwards asserts
that medical treatment was denied while he was at CRAF for at
least 49 days, simply because he was a transient inmate
temporarily assigned to CRAF. The Third Circuit has held that delays in necessary medical treatment for non-medical reasons may
constitute deliberate indifference. See Rouse,
182 F.3d at 197. Therefore, the Court will allow Edwards denial of medical
care claim to proceed as against Dr. Gu and Administrator Hauck.
As to the remaining NSP defendants, the Court does not find
that plaintiff can establish deliberate indifference to support a
denial of medical care claim under § 1983. In this case, Edwards
received medical treatment, but not the type of treatment he
preferred. As stated above, a prisoner's subjective
dissatisfaction with his medical care does not in itself indicate
deliberate indifference. Andrews, 95 F. Supp.2d at 228;
Peterson, 551 F. Supp. at 145. Moreover, Edwards disagreement
with the NSP doctors' medical judgment do not state Eighth
Amendment claims. White v. Napoleon, 897 F.2d 103, 110 (3d Cir.
1990). Even if the defendant doctors were ultimately shown to be
mistaken in their diagnosis and treatment of plaintiff's
condition, at most what would be proved is medical malpractice
and not an Eighth Amendment violation. Estelle,
429 U.S. at 105-06; White, 897 F.3d at 110. The facts show that Edwards
received prompt medical attention upon his complaints. He just
disagrees with the doctors' medical opinion that surgery is not
indicated. Therefore, plaintiff's § 1983 denial of medical care
claim as against Drs. Bucholtz and Godinsky, and Administrator
Sherrer, will be dismissed for failure to state a claim.*fn2 This
dismissal is without prejudice to plaintiff bringing a medical
negligence claim against these doctors in the state forum.
For the reasons stated above, the Court will dismiss
plaintiff's § 1983 denial of medical care claim, as against all
defendants, except CRAF defendants, Dr. Gu and Administrator
Hauck, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 1915(e)(2)(B)(ii) and
1915A(b)(1). The Complaint will be allowed to proceed as against
the CRAF defendants, Dr. Gu and Administrator Hauck, with respect
to the § 1983 claim alleging denial of medical care. The Court
declines to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over plaintiff's
common law medical negligence claim as against Dr. Godinsky and
Dr. Bucholtz, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1367(c)(3).
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