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Lee v. Cumberland County

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

August 30, 2019

FRANK LEE, Plaintiff,

          Conrad J. Benedetto, Esq. Law Offices of Conrad J. Benedetto and Frank Rocco Schirripa, Esq. John Anthony Blyth, Esq. Hach Rose Schirripa & Cheverie LLP Counsel for Plaintiff

          Shanna McCain, Esq. Chance & McCain LLC Counsel for Defendants Cumberland County, Cumberland County Correctional Facility, and Warden Robert Balicki

          Justin Robert White, Esq. Testa Heck Testa & White, PA Counsel for the Individual Corrections Officer Defendants


          NOEL L. HILLMAN, U.S.D.J.

         This case concerns an assault that Plaintiff Frank Lee, an inmate formerly incarcerated at Cumberland County Correctional Facility in Bridgeton, New Jersey, suffered at the hands of other inmates within his cell block. In the Complaint, Plaintiff alleges that the correctional officer defendants on duty during the assault were deliberately indifferent to Plaintiff in failing to intervene and failing to provide medical care in violation of the Eighth Amendment; conspired to deprive Plaintiff of his constitutional rights pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1985, and violated common law conspiracy and the New Jersey Civil Rights Act. The Complaint also asserts a Monell claim against Cumberland County and Warden Robert Balicki.

         At issue are Defendants' Motions for Summary Judgment, which are ripe for adjudication. See ECF Nos. 61 (County Motion), 62 (Individual Defendants Motion). The Court has subject-matter jurisdiction over this case pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331, as this case concerns a federal question. For the reasons that follow, the Court will grant the Motion.

         I. Factual Background

         In 2013, Plaintiff, Frank Lee was involved a robbery in Fairfield Township, New Jersey. ECF No. 61-3 at 1. Plaintiff was eventually arrested and was detained in the Cumberland County Jail in February of 2014. Id. During his time of incarceration, Plaintiff was a pre-trial detainee awaiting trial. Id. From approximately April 2014 to January 2015, he was housed in C Block, which is a dormitory with individual cells. Id. C Block consists of a day room in the middle with cells on either side. Id. Plaintiff did not like the “atmosphere of C Block.” Id. Specifically, he did not like that his cell block was populated by “youth” and “wild” guys. Id. at 2. The residents of C Block also tended to be “cliquey, ” but he was not part of any clique. Id. There are no guards in C Block, which is supervised indirectly. Id.

         According to his testimony, Plaintiff claims that he had no problem with any of the other residents of C Block while he was housed there prior to the assault. Id. He described his relationship with the other inmates of the block as “mutual” which means that “there's no positive and no negative.” Id. Plaintiff admitted at his deposition that to his knowledge, no corrections officers or jail staff ever observed issues between him and other inmates in C Block. Id. Plaintiff admitted at deposition that prior to the assault, no one said anything to make him concerned and he did not say anything that would make any other inmate upset. Id. Plaintiff testified that in the weeks or days before the assault he never told anyone at the jail anything about the other inmates in C Block, nor made complaints about the other inmates in C Block and testified that he was not afraid of the inmates in C Block. Id. Plaintiff also admitted that he did not have a problem with any of the corrections officers at the jail. Id.

         On the day of the attack, Plaintiff was playing a card game with Obidiah Taylor, Cornell Tarte and Troy Domini. Id. He testified that “as we were playing cards it just felt awkward” and his partner, “he played disinterested.” Id. He said that he felt “boxed in” during the game so he stood up, and “the game wasn't like it normally was, we all just quit.” Id. He testified that he felt vulnerable at that moment, but he didn't tell anyone that because he felt “there was no reason to.” Id. Lee testified that after the card game another inmate “splash[ed”] him with hot water from behind.” Id. He was not sure who did this. Id. Plaintiff testified that someone then took a swing at him but missed. He was unsure who swung at him. Id.

         During this time, he said that CO Cimino was somewhere in the vicinity “down the hall.” Id. at 4. Plaintiff testified that CO Cimino could see inside C Block and that he “looked directly at him and waving my hand, ” but Cimino did not intervene. Id. Lee testified that the time between him waiving at CO Cimino and the rest of the attack was “maybe about five seconds.” Id. He testified that he believed that CO Cimino was under the misimpression that the activity in C Block was just horseplay between inmates. Id.

         CCTV video footage captured the inside of C Block from the outside of C Block's gate beginning at 9:30:30. Id. Per Plaintiff's testimony he had already been splashed with water by the time he can be seen in the video at 9:31:27. Id. In the CCTV video of this incident, Plaintiff is walking around the cell block following the attempted “splashing” and attempted punch at 9:31:27. Id. Per Plaintiff's testimony he believes he waved down CO Cimino after the hot water was splashed sometime before 9:31:27, and certainly in the approximately two-minute time frame between 9:30:30 and 9:32:33. Id. Plaintiff stated that he was trying to figure out what was going on at frame 9:31:53. Id. On the CCTV video, Plaintiff can be seen communicating with the other inmates trying to determine what is happening at 9:31:53. Id. In the video, he is then punched in the back of his head by another inmate believed to be Cornell Tarte at 9:32:33. Id. Per the video and Plaintiff's testimony, the fight ensues after inmate Tarte's punch in the back of the head. Id. Per the CCTV video, the inmates start retreating to their cells at 9:33:08. Id.

         Per Plaintiff's testimony and the CCTV footage, CO Cimino appears at the gate outside of C Block at 9:33:26. Id. Plaintiff agrees that the inmates begin going back into their cells at 9:33:49. Id. In the CCTV video, Tarte and Plaintiff then wrestle and Plaintiff goes to the ground. Id. at 5. Most of the other inmates then join the fight and punch and kick Plaintiff. Id. Plaintiff testified that “I didn't hear anything while I was on the ground. I just covered myself up. But I did see officers at the gate. I didn't hear them say anything, so no.” Id.

         Plaintiff stated that CO Cimino responded and began shooting pepper spray into the cell block. Id. Plaintiff stated that he “didn't realize until, like the blows weren't as many as they were before, that at some point after the CO's were at the gate that some of the inmates had gone back into their cells.” Id. On the CCTV video, Officer Cimino can first be seen, after pepper spraying the inmates in C Block, at 9:33:26. Id. Sergeant Mendibles can also be seen responding and looking into the cell block at 9:33:59. Id. CO Cimino authored a subject/witness record form at 9:40 p.m. memorializing that he observed the whole block “jumped on Frank Lee. I began to pepper spray all inmates involved in the fight. I, Officer Cimino handcuffed inmate Obadiah Taylor.” Id. From the CCTV video, it appears that all of the inmates were suffering from the effects of the pepper spray at 9:33:16. Id. However, it can be seen from the CCTV video that Obadiah Taylor and Troy Donini continued to punch and beat him. Id.

         The Cumberland County Jail Supervisors' Reports from January 9, 2015, reflect that the code was called for this event in C Block occurred at 9:35 p.m., that the medical department at the jail determined that Plaintiff would need to be transported to the hospital at 9:45 p.m., and that Lee was “TOT [turned over to] Inspira Hospital” at 9:55 p.m. Id. Reports were authored by the following CO's at the following times: CO's Luciano (9:40 p.m.); Ramirez (9:30 p.m.); Rittilies (9:30 p.m.); Hill (9:39 p.m.); T. Brown (9:40 p.m.); Roscoe (9:40 p.m.); Reichner (9:36 p.m.); Crawford (9:36 p.m.); J. Brown (9:40 p.m.); Carter (9:36 p.m.); Mendibles (10:00 p.m.); Cimino (9:40 p.m.); Floyd (9:40 p.m.).[1] Id. at 6.

         An employee of CFG, the jail's in-house medical provider, completed their “Off-Site Emergency Health Services Form” for Lee's emergency room visit to Inspira Hospital at 10:00 p.m. on January 9, 2015, for a left eyebrow laceration and left eye swelling. Id. Progress notes completed by CFG at 10:30 p.m. indicate that before Plaintiff went to Inspira his laceration was covered and head wrapped at the jail. Id. Physician's orders from these same jail records reflect a note at 10:30 p.m. that Plaintiff was seen by Dr. Pettis and Nurse Sosa and was “sen[t] via custody to Inspira-Vineland.” Id. Per CFG's records, after arriving at the jail's infirmary, Plaintiff was sent almost immediately to the hospital. Id.

         Plaintiff testified and the medical records support that he first went to a local hospital, Inspira Hospital, and then onto Cooper in Camden where he was treated for his left orbit fractures and head injury. Id. At the hospital, he received stitches and medication for pain and he was returned to the hospital to have his stitches removed. Id.

         After returning to the jail from the hospital, Plaintiff was moved to a new cell block where the jail tried to keep him apart from the C Block. Id. at 6-7. After Plaintiff returned to the jail, he continued to get medical care from the jail's medical provider, CFG, who is not a party to this lawsuit. Id. at 7.

         Plaintiff testified and interviews conducted by Internal Affairs at the Jail confirmed that Plaintiff did not want to press any charges against his attackers. Id. Per Plaintiff's own testimony, the jail staff did take measure to prevent Plaintiff from coming into contact with them in the future. Id. He confirmed at his deposition that he is not claiming that he was ever subjected to any excessive force by any CO. Id. Plaintiff testified that he believes that the fact that the jail allows the inmates access to hot pots, which he called “stingers” is a policy which caused his injury, since he testified to his belief that they were no longer allowed in state prison. Id. Despite Plaintiff's testimony that he had suffered burns, Cooper Hospital records ...

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