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Thomas v. Tice

United States Court of Appeals, Third Circuit

January 15, 2020


          Argued January 16, 2019

          On Appeal from the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania (Civ. Action No. 4-16-cv-01487) District Judge: Hon. Matthew W. Brann

          James P. Davy [Argued] Counsel for Appellant

          Sean A. Kirkpatrick [Argued] Karen M. Romano Office of the Attorney General of Pennsylvania Counsel for Appellees

          Before: GREENAWAY, JR., SHWARTZ, and PORTER, Circuit Judges



         Briaheen Thomas appeals from the District Court's order granting summary judgment to Deputy Superintendent Eric Tice, Deputy Mark Garman, Correction Classification and Program Manager Timothy Miller, and Major Heather Halderman. For the reasons discussed below, we will affirm in part and reverse in part the District Court's order.


         At all relevant times for this appeal, Thomas was an inmate at SCI-Rockview, in the custody of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections. On May 31, 2015, Thomas received a friend in the prison's visiting room. As they visited, Thomas's friend handed him a bag of peanut M&Ms. He ate one and then quickly took a drink of soda. One of the guards, believing that Thomas had ingested contraband, immediately handcuffed him and removed him from the visiting room. Thomas was then placed in a dry cell in the prison's infirmary.

         A "dry cell" is a cell that lacks water-all standing water has been drained from the toilet, the room's water supply has been shut off, and the sink and toilet have been capped to prevent inmate access. An inmate may be placed in a dry cell when prison staff have observed the inmate attempt to ingest an item of contraband or they learn that the inmate is attempting to introduce contraband into the prison. Dry cells are used to closely observe the inmate until natural processes allow for the ingested contraband to be retrieved. To this end, dry cells lack all linens and moveable items other than a mattress, inmates' clothes are exchanged for a simple smock, and their movements are carefully controlled to prevent them from concealing or disposing of any retrievable contraband.

         To expedite his release from the dry cell, Thomas was offered laxatives, which he accepted. Over the next four days, Thomas had twelve bowel movements. No evidence of any contraband was found in any of Thomas's bowel movements. Prison staff also x-rayed Thomas on June 1. The x-ray revealed no contraband.

         Only the prison's Program Review Committee ("PRC")[1] and facility manager[2] are authorized to determine when to release an inmate from administrative confinement, including from a dry cell. DC-ADM 802 § 4.A. And Pennsylvania Department of Corrections policies require the PRC to review an inmate's administrative placement during the first seven days of confinement and determine whether that placement should continue. DC-ADM 802 § 2.A. On June 4, 2015-day four of Thomas's confinement in the dry cell-the PRC interviewed him at the dry cell.

         Following its interview with Thomas, the PRC decided to continue Thomas's confinement in the dry cell for five more days, releasing him on June 9, 2015. Later, Thomas filed an administrative grievance against prison officials, which was ultimately upheld in part and denied in part on administrative appeal. After exhausting his administrative remedies, Thomas filed suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that the members of the PRC had violated his Eighth Amendment right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment. Following discovery, the PRC moved for summary judgment. The Magistrate Judge, finding disputed issues of material fact, recommended that the motion be denied. Thomas v. Tice, No. 4:16-CV-01487, 2018 WL 1278586 (M.D. Pa. Jan. 11, 2018). But the District Court rejected the Magistrate Judge's report and recommendation and granted the motion for summary judgment. Thomas v. Tice, No. 4:16-CV-01487, 2018 WL 1251831 (M.D. Pa. Mar. 12, 2018). Thomas timely appealed from the District Court's order.


         The District Court had jurisdiction over Thomas's civil rights action under 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331 and 1343. We have jurisdiction over this appeal from the District Court's final order granting summary judgment under 28 U.S.C. § 1291.

         "We exercise plenary review over the grant or denial of summary judgment and apply the same standard the district court should have applied." Minarsky v. Susquehanna County, 895 F.3d 303, 309 (3d Cir. 2018) (citation omitted). Summary judgment is appropriate when, drawing all reasonable inferences in favor of the nonmoving party, "the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact," and thus the movant "is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Thomas v. Cumberland County, 749 F.3d 217, 222 (3d Cir. 2014) (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a)). "A dispute is genuine if a reasonable trier-of-fact could find in favor of the non-movant" and "material if it could affect the outcome of the case." Lichtenstein v. Univ. of Pittsburgh Med. Ctr., 691 F.3d 294, 300 (3d Cir. 2012) (citing Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. 242, 248, 252 (1986)). "We deny summary judgment if there is enough evidence for a jury to reasonably find" for the nonmoving party. Minarsky, 895 F.3d at 309 (citation omitted).


         Thomas brought his civil rights action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. To prevail on a § 1983 claim, a plaintiff must show that a person (or persons), acting under color of law, deprived him of a constitutional right. Parratt v. Taylor, 451 U.S. 527, 535 (1981), overruled on other grounds by Daniels v. Williams, 474 U.S. 327 (1986). Thomas alleged that the conditions of his confinement in the dry cell violated his Eighth Amendment right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment. The parties do not dispute that the PRC acted under color of law, but they do dispute whether Thomas's Eighth Amendment rights were violated.

         The Eighth Amendment "prohibits any punishment which violates civilized standards and concepts of humanity and decency." Young v. Quinlan, 960 F.2d 351, 359 (3d Cir. 1992), superseded by statute on other grounds as stated in Nyhuis v. Reno, 204 F.3d 65, 71 n.7 (3d Cir. 2000) (citations omitted). To prevail against prison officials on a claim that an inmate's conditions of confinement violated the Eighth Amendment, the inmate must meet two requirements: (1) the deprivation alleged must be, objectively, sufficiently serious," and (2) the "prison official must have a sufficiently culpable state of mind." Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825, 834 (1994) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). The first element is satisfied when an inmate is deprived of "the minimal civilized measure of life's necessities." Wilson v. Seiter, 501 U.S. 294, 299 (1991). The second element is satisfied when an inmate shows that prison officials acted with deliberate indifference to the inmate's health or safety or conditions of confinement that violated the inmate's constitutional rights. Id. at 302-03.

         In light of Farmer, we adopted a subjective knowledge standard to establish deliberate indifference, requiring a showing that prison officials actually knew of and disregarded constitutional violations. Beers-Capitol v. Whetzel, 256 F.3d 120, 133 (3d Cir. 2001). This tracks the general standard for liability, which requires a showing that each defendant was personally involved in the alleged wrongdoing. Evancho v. Fisher, 423 F.3d 347, 353 (3d Cir. 2005) (citing Rode v. Dellarciprete, 845 F.2d 1195, 1207 (3d Cir. 1988)). "Personal involvement can be shown through allegations of personal direction or of actual knowledge and acquiescence." Id. And a defendant's knowledge of a risk to health and safety "can be proved indirectly by circumstantial evidence to the effect that the excessive risk was so obvious that the official must have known of the risk." Beers-Capitol, 256 F.3d 120, 133 (3d Cir. 2001).

         When considering whether conditions of confinement violated the Eighth Amendment, we recognize that "the Constitution does not mandate comfortable prisons, and prisons … which house persons convicted of serious crimes, cannot be free of discomfort." Rhodes v. Chapman, 452 U.S. 337, 349 (1981). "To the extent that such conditions are restrictive and even harsh, they are part of the penalty that criminal offenders pay for their offenses against society." Id. at 347. Indeed, even though administrative confinement in a dry cell is unpleasant and often unsanitary, so long as the conditions of that confinement are not foul or inhuman, and are supported by some penological justification, they will not violate the Eighth Amendment. Young, 960 F.2d at 364.

         Thomas's complaint makes two challenges to his confinement in the dry cell. First, he complains of specific deprivations he allegedly suffered during his confinement. Second, he challenges the duration of that confinement. In its order granting summary judgment, the District Court addressed Thomas's challenge to the specific deprivations he allegedly suffered during his confinement. It determined that, even if the specific deprivations allegedly suffered by Thomas violated his Eighth Amendment rights, the PRC members could not be held liable because there was no evidence that they were personally involved in those deprivations. Thomas, 2018 WL 1251831, at *5. Because the evidence did not provide a sufficient basis upon which a reasonable jury could conclude that the individual defendants had knowledge of Thomas's conditions of confinement, including whether he was improperly shackled, we agree with the District Court that his condition of confinement claim against these defendants fails.[3]

         But the duration of Thomas's confinement in the dry cell is a separate issue. Young, 960 F.2d at 364 ("The duration and conditions of segregated confinement cannot be ignored in deciding whether such confinement meets constitutional standards." (citation omitted)). The PRC had the authority to end Thomas's administrative confinement in the dry cell and return him to the general population, so PRC members were personally involved in determining the duration of Thomas's confinement in the dry cell. The District Court did not address this secondary claim in its summary judgment order. We will do so now.

         As noted above, administrative confinement in a dry cell must serve some penological interest. See Young, 960 F.2d at 364. Thomas was originally placed in the dry cell after a guard in the visitation room saw Thomas ingest what the guard suspected may have been contraband. The guard watched Thomas's visitor fidget with something and then offer it to Thomas, which he swallowed with a drink of soda. Thomas explained that the "something" he ate was merely a peanut M&M. But Prison officials assert that hiding drugs in small, multi-colored balloons in bags of peanut M&Ms has become a popular method for introducing contraband into prisons. So the PRC reasonably argues that, under these circumstances, the guard's suspicion that Thomas had ingested contraband was reasonable and warranted Thomas's initial placement in the dry cell.

         Thomas argues that this initial suspicion was dispelled by the time the members of the PRC interviewed him four days later, and they knew that there was no longer a penological justification for his continued confinement. Thomas's claim is supported by the undisputed evidence. During the first four days of his confinement, with the aid of laxatives, Thomas had twelve bowl movements. His stool was carefully examined after each bowl movement, and no evidence of contraband was found. Thomas also submitted to an x-ray of his abdominal cavity. The x-ray technician informed Thomas that his x-ray was clean; the only thing inside of him was a bullet near his spine. And although the x-ray report identified a foreign object in the region, [4] it also noted, crucially, that there was no obstruction in Thomas's gastrointestinal tract. During the administrative appeal, Deputy Garman explained: "Dry cell placement was done in good faith after staff reasonably believed [Thomas] had ingested contraband. Policy and procedures were followed. However, once the x-ray failed to reveal any obstruction, and several bowel movements occurred, [Thomas] should have been released sooner." J.A. 314.

         After the initial interview with an inmate in administrative confinement, prison regulations require the PRC to decide whether to end or continue the administrative confinement and to set forth its reason for that decision. See DC-ADM 802 ยง 2.A. Following its June 4, 2015 meeting with Thomas, the PRC decided to continue his administrative confinement, and signed the appropriate forms, but it provided no reason for that decision. In ...

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