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Costa v. County of Burlington

November 5, 2008

ROBERT J. COSTA, JR., PLAINTIFF,
v.
COUNTY OF BURLINGTON, ET AL. DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Irenas, Senior District Judge

OPINION

This is an action by Plaintiff Robert J. Costa, Jr. under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and state law. Plaintiff brings this action both individually and in his capacity as administrator for the estate of Angel Lee Powell-Costa, deceased. The complaint alleges various forms of misconduct by Defendants resulting in Ms. Powell-Costa's death via illness while incarcerated.

Presently before the Court is Plaintiff's appeal from the decisions of Magistrate Judge Joel Schneider as to the scope of discovery and attorney access to potential inmate-witnesses. For the reasons stated herein, the Court will deny Plaintiff's appeal insofar as it concerns discovery of medical grievances and dismiss the remainder of the appeal as improperly presented.

I.

The Court will review the facts and procedural history only to the extent necessary to resolve the issues presented on this appeal. This action was initiated by Plaintiff individually and on behalf of the estate of Angel Lee Powell-Costa. Plaintiff claims violations of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and state law by a litany of defendants including the County of Burlington and Warden Juel Cole of the Burlington County Corrections and Work Release Center ("BCWRC"). The complaint's § 1983 counts allege the withholding of necessary medical treatment from Ms. Powell-Costa in violation of the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment and the Fourteenth Amendment's Due Process and Equal Protection guarantees.

As alleged by Plaintiff, Powell-Costa was an inmate at BCWRC from January 2005 until her death on March 3, 2005. Plaintiff avers that Powell-Costa contracted Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus ("MRSA") during her incarceration at BCWRC and ultimately died as a result of MRSA-related pneumonia. According to Plaintiff, prison administrators, corrections officers, physicians, nurses, social workers, and other actors all contributed to Ms. Powell-Costa's death via their various actions.

Although multifaceted, Plaintiff's claims against all of the Defendants share factual underpinnings. First, Plaintiff claims that the decedent was denied necessary medical care despite visible MRSA symptoms and her repeated requests for treatment. Plaintiff contends that other inmates exhibiting MRSA symptoms were likewise deprived of medical treatment. He also alleges that Defendants failed to take appropriate precautions to prevent the spread of MRSA from other inmates to Ms. Powell-Costa. Finally, Plaintiff argues that BCWRC was generally unclean and unsanitary and thus provided a breeding ground for MRSA bacteria.

The extent to which Plaintiff is permitted to obtain documents regarding inmates' and officers' medical histories is of particular concern on this appeal. Initially, Defendants were required to produce information including but not limited to the following: (1) the names and contact information for all of Ms. Powell-Costa's cellmates at BCWRC; (2) the names and contact information of all BCWRC inmates who suffered skin infections or were diagnosed with MRSA; and (3) the initials of all BCWRC correctional officers who suffered skin infections or were diagnosed with MRSA.*fn1 (Dkt. No. 44 at ¶¶ 2, 3.) At an unspecified point thereafter, the scope of discovery was expanded to require Defendants to produce all inmates' grievances and officers' incident reports pertaining to MRSA or similar skin infections. (See Pl. Mot. at ¶ 3; Def. Br. at 1; Tr. at 35:14-25; 42:5-14, Aug. 22, 2008.)

During the telephonic conference on August 22, 2008, Plaintiff sought to further broaden the scope of discovery to include inmates' grievances about medical care generally. (Tr. at 38:4-9.) Judge Schneider denied Plaintiff's request as overbroad and disproportionate to the relevant issues. (Id. at 40:25-41:24.)

At one point during the conference, Plaintiff began a line of argument apparently intended to culminate with a request for discovery of inmate grievances concerning the lack of cleanliness at BCWRC. (See id. at 39:11-22.) However, Judge Schneider asked Plaintiff to defer discussion of prison conditions until after the unsettled issues relating to medical care grievances were discussed. (Id. at 39:23-40:1.) Plaintiff agreed to do so. (Id. at 40:2-3.)

After ruling on the issue of medical grievances, Judge Schneider asked Plaintiff whether any other types of documents needed to be addressed. (Id. at 43:3-7.) Plaintiff responded that there was nothing further for the attention of the Magistrate Judge. (Id. at 43:8-9.) On appeal, Plaintiff contends that Judge Schneider "refus[ed] to allow the plaintiffs any [access to] grievances concerning general conditions of confinement." (Pl. Mot. at ¶ 3.)

Also during the conference, Plaintiff raised a concern to Judge Schneider regarding his attorneys' ability to interview Burlington County inmates as potential witnesses. (Tr. at 10:24-11:1.) According to Plaintiff, the prison is obstructing his attorneys' efforts to visit those inmates. (See id. at 11:7-9.) Judge Schneider responded that the issue was not before him and advised Plaintiff to seek a resolution by contacting the prison directly. (Id. at 11:2-6; 11:12-17.) In the alternative, Judge Schneider expressly invited Plaintiff to file a formal motion regarding access to inmates. (Id. at 11:10-12; 11:17-19.) On appeal, Plaintiff claims Judge Schneider erred by "den[ying] Plaintiffs' request" for the desired access to inmates. (Pl. Mot. at ¶ 8.)

II.

As a general proposition, a District Court is empowered to alter a magistrate judge's pretrial ruling if the decision was "clearly erroneous or contrary to law." 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(A); Fed. R. Civ. P. 72(a); L. Civ. R. 72.1(c).*fn2 It follows that a "magistrate judge's findings should not be rejected even if a reviewing court could have ...


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