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Lawrence Thomas v. Cumberland County Correctional Facility

December 22, 2011

LAWRENCE THOMAS, PLAINTIFF,
v.
CUMBERLAND COUNTY CORRECTIONAL FACILITY, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hon. Jerome B. Simandle

OPINION

SIMANDLE, District Judge:

I. INTRODUCTION

This matter comes before the Court on Defendants' motion for summary judgment or, in the alternative, to exclude Plaintiff's expert. [Docket Item 112.] This dispute arises out of an attack suffered by Plaintiff Lawrence Thomas at the hands of other inmates and in the presence of corrections officers of the Cumberland County Jail while Mr. Thomas was being held as a pre-trial detainee. Plaintiff filed a two-count Second Amended Complaint on November 13, 2009. [Docket Item 32.] Plaintiff alleges violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 by all Defendants for incitement, failure to protect, failure to train, and failure to supervise. Additionally, Plaintiff alleges violation of the New Jersey Civil Rights Act for violation of due process by housing Plaintiff, a non-violent pre-trial detainee, in the same area of the facility as convicted felons with a history of violence.*fn1

Because Plaintiff has come forward with sufficient evidence to create a material factual dispute whether Defendant Corrections Officer Fernando Martinez incited the attack on Plaintiff and acted with the requisite deliberate indifference to the attack, the Court will deny Defendants' motion for summary judgment in favor of Defendant Martinez. However, because Plaintiff fails to point to evidence sufficient to raise a dispute of fact as to whether Defendant James Wilde exhibited more than negligence leading to Plaintiff's injuries, the Court will grant Defendants' motion as to Defendant Wilde.

Furthermore, the Court finds that Plaintiff has not come forward with sufficient evidence to create a material factual dispute regarding evidence as to whether the Cumberland County Defendants were deliberately indifferent to the unreasonable risk to Plaintiff's rights posed by the County's alleged training and supervisory deficiencies. Accordingly, the Court will grant summary judgment against Plaintiff on the municipal liability claims. Finally, because Plaintiff's expert's conclusions are adequately based on objective information and data to survive Defendant's challenge on reliability grounds, the Court will deny Defendants' motion to exclude.

II. BACKGROUND

A. Facts

The facts included in this Opinion were taken from the parties' statements of undisputed material fact or that are otherwise supported in the record. Where facts are disputed, the dispute is noted. On June 4, 2008,*fn2 Plaintiff entered Defendant Cumberland County's custody for shoplifting and various contempt warrants and was confined in the Cumberland County Correctional Facility ("CCCF") pending trial. Thomas Dep. 41:1-4.*fn3 He remained incarcerated at CCCF until July 27, 2008, when the events alleged in his Second Amended Complaint took place. On that date, Plaintiff and a group of inmates engaged in an argument in which Plaintiff was accused of stealing food from other inmates. The argument progressed to the point where Plaintiff was physically attacked by at least two other inmates.*fn4

Plaintiff sustained severe injuries in the assault including permanent damage to and loss of sight in his left eye, for which he argues Defendants are responsible.

During Plaintiff's detention at CCCF in June and July of 2008, up until the date of the attack, Plaintiff was assigned to a cell in D-Pod on the second tier of the Pod. Thomas Dep. 43:20-22, 45:25-46:2. Defendants Corrections Officers Martinez and Wilde were on duty during the incident and both were present in the Pod. Chasmer Dep. 23:4-11. The D-Pod was relatively small; people on the lower tier could see and hear what was happening on the upper level. Id. 16:12-13. The second tier of cells, also called the "mezzanine" (Id. 47:18-21), was open to the floor below. Santiago Dep. 46:17-20. There were 28 cells, and approximately 95-100 inmates housed in the Pod. Chasmer Dep. 37:19-38:5.

Late in the evening of July 7, 2008, as the evening lockdown was approaching, Plaintiff was bartering*fn5 for rice and soup with another inmate on the second tier. Thomas Dep. 60:1-15. After Plaintiff had acquired his rice from another inmate, Plaintiff returned to his cell, placed the rice in a bowl with some water, and left his cell, intending to go downstairs to warm it up in the microwave. Thomas Dep. 59:20-61:23.

When he exited his cell, there was a crowd of inmates gathered outside in the corridor. Thomas Dep. 61:23-62:1. The crowd consisted of at least 12 people, all of Hispanic origin. Thomas Dep. 72:21-73:5. According to Plaintiff Thomas, Defendant Officer Fernando Martinez was among the crowd. Thomas Dep. 62:8-9.*fn6 The crowd had gathered outside Thomas' cell because they were angry with Plaintiff based on their belief that he had stolen someone else's food. Santiago Dep. 48:8-12. The argument began when an inmate in the crowd (identified as "Fransanti" by Plaintiff) accused Plaintiff of stealing food, and increased in volume as others joined in. Thomas Dep. 62:13-22. Inmate Leonardo Santiago said that Officer Martinez was present because he knew about Thomas' food-stealing habits. Santiago Dep. 22:18-21. Santiago testified that both Martinez and Defendant Officer James Wilde, who was also present in the D-Pod at this time, were aware of the other inmates' anger with Plaintiff. Santiago Dep. 112:3-13. Martinez himself testified that he was aware Thomas was a "problem inmate." Martinez Dep. 51:18-20.

The argument on the upper tier grew into a heated "verbal dispute," between Plaintiff and the other inmates, lasting for approximately "two to three minutes." Chasmer Dep. 18:4-9. As the dispute unfolded, Defendant Corrections Officer James Wilde was stationed at a desk,*fn7 and about 15 feet away from the verbal dispute. Eventually, Defendant Officer Martinez interjected into the dispute, saying "If you guys don't fight or break it up, I'm going to lock everybody down." Thomas Dep. 78:14-15.*fn8 Chasmer interpreted this statement to mean literally what it said -- if you are going to fight, do so, otherwise stop arguing. Chasmer Dep. 35:22-36:3. The response of the other inmates to Martinez's statement was to laugh; the effect of the statement was not to disperse the crowd at all. Thomas Dep. 78:8-10; Chasmer Dep. 48:7-9.

Thomas testified that at this point he concluded that he would be unable to explain himself to the other inmates or rely on protection from Martinez, because he interpreted Martinez's statement as an indication that he hoped a fight would start. Thomas Dep. 63:22-64:5. Therefore, Thomas testified that he formed a plan to get down to the lower tier and seek protection from Wilde, who he believed might be more inclined to protect him. Id. 64:2-4. Consequently, Thomas pushed his way down the stairs past the inmates surrounding him, who followed, as did Officer Martinez. Id. 78:2-7.

As Thomas was making his way downstairs, he heard an inmate yell up at him from downstairs "if you want to take something from people, motherfucker, come down here and take stuff from me." Id. 64:9-12. Santiago testified that he was the inmate who yelled this statement at Thomas. Santiago Dep. 23:9-11. Other inmates started yelling explicit threats of violence, from both downstairs and behind him on the second tier. Thomas Dep. 77:18-23. Chasmer, who was in the crowd of inmates following Thomas down the stairs, said he could tell, as could anyone in the crowd, that a fight was imminent, and that he, at least, wanted to see a fight happen. Chasmer Dep. 17:7-17; 22:9-14.

The other inmate witnesses testified that, contrary to his account, Thomas was heading down the stairs aggressively to confront Santiago about his taunts, rather than simply trying to get out of the dangerous situation. Chasmer Dep. 20:12-21:13; Santiago Dep. 23:13-14. Thomas, by contrast, testified that he was only hoping to reach Officer Wilde, and that when he did, Wilde would signal for backup or otherwise offer to help him get out of the situation. Thomas Dep. 64:14-17. Wilde apparently took no action as the argument was progressing. Chasmer Dep. 15:19-20.

When Thomas reached the bottom of the stairs, other inmates from the lower tier crowded around, blocking his path to Wilde at the police desk. Thomas Dep. 64:18-24. The entire Pod had gathered around Thomas at this point. Chasmer Dep. 24:13-20. So Thomas tried to get to Wilde by going around the stairs to escape the crowd. Thomas Dep. 64:24-65:2. Thomas testified that as he was going around the stairs, he lost consciousness, without seeing what struck him. Id. 65:2.

Santiago testified that, upon reaching the lower tier, Thomas immediately approached his cell, which was behind the stairs. Santiago Dep. 26:3-13. Santiago testified that he struck Thomas at least partially in self defense, because Thomas had approached him threateningly. Id. Chasmer testified that Santiago struck Thomas within 15-20 seconds of Thomas reaching the first tier. Chasmer Dep. 25:11-13. Martinez had remained immediately adjacent to Thomas, and was standing right next to him when Santiago struck him. Id. 50:8-15.

Thomas was knocked unconscious by the blow struck by Santiago, immediately after which Martinez attempted to restrain Santiago, but another inmate, Michael Cruz, approached Thomas and struck him once or twice while Thomas was down. Chasmer Dep. 25:19; 49:20-21. Wilde took no action during the exchange of blows. Id. 25:20-21.*fn9 The blows of the two different inmates happened one immediately after the other, only seconds elapsing between the first and last blows. Id. 25:22-26:2. Santiago testified that after Cruz hit Thomas, several other inmates joined in striking him as well as he lay on the floor. Santiago Dep. 28:12-22. Then Martinez yelled for everyone to lock down. Chasmer Dep. 26:5-6. The inmates reluctantly complied. Id. 26:12-13.

Thomas believed he must have been struck several times, including with the use of a wooden deck brush, though he testified that he had no direct memory of the attack itself. He based this conclusion on the extent of his bruises and injuries, and the fact that he observed a bloodied deck brush being kicked out of the way after he regained consciousness. Thomas Dep. 84:19-24; 99:3-100:21.

The other inmate witnesses testified that they believed Thomas "had it coming" because the other inmates on the Pod were getting tired of his aggressive behavior. Chasmer 17:17-20; Santiago Dep. 17:7-23. At least one inmate was generally glad to see the fight occur because they believed it was justified. Chasmer Dep. 27:15-19. Santiago claimed that Thomas had been warned four days prior to the fight that he would be injured if he continued to take other inmates' food. Santiago Dep. 67:22-68:3.

The other inmate witnesses were unanimous that the officers could and should have stopped the fight before it occurred either by calling for backup or by telling the inmates to lock down. Chasmer Dep. 19:4-18; Santiago Dep. 24:7-11. Inmate witness Bruce Childress, for example, testified that neither officer did anything to break up the fight, and that Officer Martinez "allowed them to get into the fight" through his statement and by taking no action to stop the argument from accelerating. Childress Cert. at 3. Chasmer said the guards at CCCF would often successfully intervene in an argument and tell the participants to disperse. Chasmer Dep. 51:5-8.

Neither Santiago nor Cruz were charged with a crime for the attack, but both were disciplined by the CCCF by being placed in solitary confinement; Santiago was eventually transferred to a different prison in Pennsylvania. Santiago Dep. 69:1-23.

The total time elapsed between the initial argument and the subsequent fight was "approximately three to four minutes." Chasmer Dep. 31:1-4. Neither officer called for backup from other officers in the facility during the course of the dispute.

Plaintiff suffered serious eye injury. During the course of the assault, Plaintiff sustained several "facial and ocular injuries," as well as a concussion. Calenda Rep. at 1.*fn10

Furthermore, as a result of the injuries sustained, Plaintiff was left with "no vision . . . in his left eye." Calenda Rep. at 2.

B. Procedural History

Plaintiff filed his Complaint, initially proceeding pro se, on March 23, 2009 and later, a Second Amended Complaint, drafted by his current counsel, on November 13, 2009. [Docket Items 1 & 32.] In his Second Amended Complaint, Plaintiff alleges that Defendants' conduct violated Plaintiff's Eighth Amendment rights to be free from cruel and unusual punishment, pursuant to the Federal Civil Rights Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and giving rise to a claim under the New Jersey Civil Rights Act Section 10:6-2 ("N.J.S.A."). Plaintiff named Cumberland County, Warden Glenn Sanders, Lieutenant Michael Palau, Captain Kenneth Lancken, Correctional Officer James Wilde, and Correctional Officer Fernando Martinez, as well as John Does 1-10. Compl. ¶ 5-12. Defendants answered on May 6, 2009. [Docket Item 10]. Defendants filed their motion for summary judgment and, in the alternative, to bar the testimony of Plaintiff's expert, on April 5, 2011. [Docket Item 112]. On May 16, 2011, Plaintiff filed his opposition to Defendants' motion. [Docket Item 114]. Lastly, on June 2, 2011, Defendants filed a reply brief in support of their motion. [Docket Item 116]. On December 7, 2011, the Court held oral argument on the motion, counsel for all parties appearing.

III. DISCUSSION

A. Standard of Review

Summary judgment is appropriate "if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). A fact is "material" only if it might affect the outcome of the suit under the applicable rule of law. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986). Summary judgment will not be denied based on mere allegations or denials in the pleadings; instead, some evidence must be produced to support a material fact. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(1)(A); United States v. Premises Known as 717 S. Woodward Street, Allentown, Pa., 2 F.3d 529, 533 (3d Cir. 1993). However, the Court will view any evidence in favor of the nonmoving party and extend any reasonable favorable inferences to be drawn from that evidence to that party. Hunt v. Cromartie, 526 U.S. 541, 552 (1999).

Where the nonmoving party bears the burden of persuasion at trial, the moving party may be entitled to summary judgment merely by showing that there is an absence of evidence to support an essential element of the nonmoving party's case. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(1)(B); Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 325 (1986).

B. Section 1983 Claims

Plaintiff alleges that Defendants violated his Eighth Amendment rights to be free from cruel and unusual punishment. All parties argue the motion assuming that the Eighth Amendment applies to Plaintiff, despite the fact that, as a pre-trial detainee, Plaintiff is not subject to the Eighth Amendment's protections. Instead, the Fourteenth Amendment's Due Process Clause governs. See A.M. ex rel J.M.K. v. Luzerne County Juvenile Detention Ctr., 372 F.3d 572, 579 (3d Cir. 2004).

Plaintiff claims that Defendants Martinez and Wilde are liable to him for his injuries for failing to adequately protect him from the obvious danger posed by his fellow inmates and for failing to intervene during the assault. Pl's Br. in Opp. to Def.'s Mot. 5-6. Plaintiff also claims that Defendant Martinez "incited [the] inmates to violence." Pl's Br. in Opp. to Def.'s Mot. 6. Additionally, Plaintiff claims that the Cumberland County Defendants are liable for "fail[ing] to properly train and supervise its Correction Officers" which led to Plaintiff's injuries. Pl's Br. in Opp. to Def.'s Mot. 1. Plaintiff seeks relief under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, as well as, N.J. Stat. Ann. § 10:6-2 for alleged violations of his constitutional rights.

For Plaintiff's failure-to-protect claim, failure-to-intervene claim, and incitement claim (the claims against Defendants Martinez and Wilde), Defendants argue that summary judgment is appropriate because Plaintiff is unable to show the requisite facts establishing that Defendants Martinez and Wilde acted with deliberate indifference or that Defendant Martinez possessed the intent to incite violence. Furthermore, Defendants argue, with regard to the County Defendants, that Plaintiff has not alleged facts which support a claim of a policy or custom which violates Plaintiff's civil rights necessary for municipal liability.

For the reasons next discussed, the Court finds that Plaintiff has created a genuine issue as to whether Defendant Martinez possessed the necessary subjective culpability under the Fourteenth Amendment, and the Court will deny summary judgment against Plaintiff's Section 1983 claims with respect to Defendant Martinez. However, Plaintiff has not pointed to a dispute of material fact in the record as to Defendant Wilde's subjective culpability. Additionally, Plaintiff has not pointed to a material dispute of fact as to whether the Cumberland County Defendants failed to properly train the Defendant Officers, and as to whether they failed to properly supervise the Defendant Officers. Consequently, the Court will grant summary judgment against Plaintiff's Section 1983 claims with respect to the Cumberland County Defendants.

1. Failure-to-protect

Plaintiff's failure-to-protect claim alleges that Defendants Martinez and Wilde were willfully indifferent to his safety by permitting and/or inciting the assault and battery. Defendants argue that summary judgment is appropriate against Plaintiff's failure-to-protect claim because he is unable to establish that Defendants Martinez ...


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