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Blankumsee v. Graham

United States District Court, D. Maryland

March 15, 2017

AZANIAH BLANKUMSEE, # 326-698 Plaintiff,


          Paul W. Grimm, United States District Judge

         After Azaniah Blankumsee, a prisoner at Western Correctional Institution (“WCI”), refused what he perceived to be an unwarranted strip search, he was placed, naked, in an isolation cell for two days and his property was seized. An x-ray revealed that he did not, as had been suspected, have contraband in a body cavity, and he was released from isolation but housed on a new tier. He filed suit, pro se, pursuant 42 U.S.C. § 1983, claiming that the ordeal violated his constitutional rights and resulted in a loss of property. ECF No. 1. Defendant Carla Buck, R.N., by her counsel, has filed a Motion to Dismiss, or in the Alternative, Motion for Summary Judgment and Memorandum in Support. ECF Nos. 14, 14-3. Blankumsee filed an Opposition, ECF No. 16, and Buck filed a Reply, ECF No. 21. Warden Richard J. Graham, Jr., Assistant Warden Denise Gelsinger, Captain Robert P. Tichnell, Lieutenant Philip D. Merling, C.O. II Reginald M. Heavener, and C.O. II Zackary D. Frazee (collectively, the “State Defendants”), by their counsel, filed a separate Motion to Dismiss or, in the Alternative, Motion for Summary Judgment and Memorandum in Support. ECF Nos. 27, 27-2. Blankunsee filed an opposition in the form of a declaration. Pl.’s Decl., ECF No. 36. The State Defendants have not filed a reply, and the time for doing so has passed. See Loc. R. 105.2(a).

         No hearing is necessary to resolve the matters pending. See Local Rule 105.6 (D. Md. 2016). For the reasons that follow, Defendant Buck’s motion, treated as a motion for summary judgment, will be denied without prejudice, and the State Defendants’ motion, also treated as a motion for summary judgment, will be granted.


         Azaniah Blankumsee claims that on August 2, 2015, for “no apparent reason,” Officers Heavener and Frazee “singled [him] out of a crowd of 5 to 6 inmates” for a strip search. Compl. 3. Blankumsee was escorted to a room and complied with the officers’ command to strip. Id.; Aug. 2, 2015 Notice of Inmate Rule Violation (“8/2/15 Notice”), State Defs.’ Mem. Ex. 3, ECF No. 27-6. He claims that when he gave Frazee his shoes, “Frazee ripped the soul [sic] out of them” and told Blankumsee that he ripped out the soles “cause [he] want[ed] to.” Compl. 3; Pl.’s Decl. 10.

         Blankumsee was directed “to bend at the waist and spread his buttocks.” 8/2/15 Notice; Compl. 3. Frazee told him that the officers would “look inside of [his] asshole.” Compl. 3. He initially refused but eventually bent over, although he still “refuse[d] to spread his buttocks.” 8/2/15 Notice. Officer Heavener “noticed a blue glove type material located in his anal cavity.” Id.; Frazee Decl. ¶ 2, State Defs.’ Mem. Ex. 1, ECF No. 27-4; Heavener Decl. ¶ 2, State Defs.’ Mem. Ex. 2, ECF No. 27-5. Blankumsee recalled that he “explained to them [that he] was very uncomfortable with their behavior,” and he asked to see a sergeant. Compl. 3. According to Blankumsee, at that point, Officer Heavener “falsely advised Sgt. Miller that [Blankumsee] had a blue glove type material in [his] buttocks.” Id.; Pl.’s Decl. 10. Lieutenant Philip Merling arrived, and, according to Blankumsee, “threatened to have his [officers] hold [Blankumsee] down and retrieve whatever was in [his] buttocks.” Compl. 3. Lt. Merling denies this accusation. Merling Decl. ¶ 3, State Defs.’ Mem. Ex. 4, ECF No. 27-7.

         Blankumsee told them there was nothing in his body cavity, but he was escorted to Special Observation Housing (“SOH”), where Lt. Merling told Nurse Buck “to approve of [him] being placed in an isolation cell.” Compl. 3. According to Blankumsee, Buck asked Lt. Merling what he “want[ed] the report to say,” and Lt. Merling responded: “Make something up.” Id. Lt. Merling also denies this accusation. Merling Decl. ¶ 3. Blankumsee maintains that Nurse Buck asked: “Who’s gonna go in his ass?” to which Merling allegedly responded: “Not me.” Id. Blankumsee’s medical records show that his wellness check on August 2, 2015 was normal and he was approved on that day for SOH placement. Aug. 2, 2015 Med Rec., ECF No. 14-4.

         Blankumsee claims that he “was placed in an isolation cell naked, with no bed, no water, [a] non[]functional toilet, [and] no food for over 48 hours, while the air conditioner was turned up very high.” Compl. 3; Pl.’s Decl. 9. Blankumsee states that Captain Tichnell “came to speak with [him]” while he was in the isolation cell, and told him that “until [he] compl[ied] and g[a]ve up whatever [he] had, [he would] continue [to be housed] under these conditions.” Compl. 3; Pl.’s Decl. 9. Tichnell asked Blankumsee “to agree to a full body x-ray.” Compl. 3; Tichnell Decl. ¶ 3, State Defs.’ Mem. Ex. 5, ECF No. 27-8. Blankumsee agreed to the x-ray, and the results showed that he did not have any contraband inside him. Compl. 3; see Tichnell Decl. ¶ 3. Tichnell told him that he “would be going to segregation” because he was “written an adjustment [rule violation] for refusing a search,” and he had a hearing pending on that violation. Tichnell Decl. ¶ 3; Compl. 4.

         Blankumsee claims that he “suffered from multiple panic[] and anxiety attacks” while in the isolation cell, and he alleges that “the inmates assigned to watch/observe [his] movements attempted to get the [officers] to assist [him], by contacting [the] medical [department], and/or, to provide [him] with clothing,” but the officers stated that they “were given orders to do nothing.” Compl. 4. Blankumsee claims that on August 3, 2015, four prison employees (not named as defendants in this case) were allowed to observe Blankumsee “naked for long periods of time.” Id. Blankumsee states that on August 4, 2015, his clothing was returned to him after the x-ray revealed that he “did not have anything illegal in [his] body,” and he was escorted to Housing Unit (HU) #4. Id.

         He asked for his property, which had been seized when he went to SOH, and eventually it was returned, except that some of his property was “missing.” Compl. 4. Specifically, he declares that he lost sentimental photographs of his deceased mother and legal transcripts. Pl.’s Decl. 10–11. L. Tennille Winters, a WCI case manager, stated that, because Blankumsee was placed on SOH for failing to comply with a strip search on August 2, 2015, “his property was packed and inventoried by correctional officers” while he was not present. Winters Decl. ¶ 6, ECF No. 27-10. On August 4, 2015, Blankumsee’s “property was inventoried in his presence when he was removed from SOH and placed in HU #4.” Id. According to Winters, “Blankumsee signed both the August 2, 2015 and the August 4, 2015 Personal Property Inventory sheets verifying that he checked the . . . list of personal property and agreed that all of the items are his and consist of all of his property.” Id.

         On HU #4, Blankumsee was placed in “Cell 4A-27-B, where the windows were bolted shut,” and housed there for more than two weeks. Compl. 4; Winters Decl. ¶¶ 4, 5. He asserts that he was “subjected to extreme hot temperatures for the 14 days” and had trouble breathing.

         Pl.’s Decl. 9. Winters explained that the windows “have been bolted shut un order to prevent segregation inmates from yelling to general population inmates on the compound,” and that “[a]ll cells are equipped with a ventilation system.” Winters Decl. ¶ 5.

         Blankumsee alleges that he filed multiple Administrative Remedy Procedure (“ARP”) requests, all of which Assistant Warden Gelsinger dismissed. Compl. 4. Blankumsee alleges that Gelsinger told his siblings that he was placed in a “mental patient hospital,” not an isolation cell. Id. at 4–5. Blankumsee claims that Assistant Warden Gelsinger hung up on his sister Khalilah Blankumsee when “confronted with facts.” Id. at 5.

         Blankumsee alleges that since filing ARP requests, he has been subjected to retaliation and discrimination. Compl. 5. When Blankumsee was removed from disciplinary segregation status on August 19 or 20, 2015, after the hearing on his rule violation, he was “moved into Cell 3C32B” on HU #3 “in accordance with WCI ID 230-004.1 Appendix 2 (WCI Housing Unit Level System Plan) Section III. Winters Decl. ¶ 7; see Compl. 5. He claims that he was discriminated against in HU #3 by being “denied the same rights, privileges, and civil rights as all other inmates in [the general ] population, such as activities, recreation, library, [and] law library.” Compl. 5. Blankumsee states that he was also denied participation in jobs and programs to earn diminution of confinement credits, “there[by] subjecting [him] to a prolonged confinement.” Id. According to Winters, inmates on HU #3, including Blankumsee, had “modified” movement. Winters Decl. ¶ 7. She asserted that Blankumsee was “allowed more than the require[d] amount of recreation, along with library privileges, [and] inmate job opportunities.” Id.

         Blankumsee moved to cell 3A26B on October 20, 2015. Winters Decl. ¶ 7. He claims that on October 26, 2015, during the 8-4 shift, he “was singled out of a rec[reation] hall full of other inmates, and aggressively stripped,” and his “cell was searched and left [in] disarray.” Compl. 5. According to Winters, “[t]here is no record in the Strip Search Log of Mr. Blankumsee being strip searched on October 26, 2015 nor is there any record in the cell Search Log of [Blankumsee’s] cell being searched on October 26, 2015,” and he “did not file an Administrative Remedy Procedure” regarding either alleged search. Winters Decl. ¶ 8. He also alleges that on October 27, 2015, Officer Cartwright “placed [him] in an isolation cell for over one hour,” and that same day, Sergeant Lasher[1] asked him: “How does your ass feel?” Compl. 5. Blankumsee maintains that “these adverse actions are . . . a direct result of [him] exercising his protected conduct and will continue, or get worse if [he is] not removed from [WCI and/or the] region immediately.” Id. As redress, Blankumsee requests monetary damages, his property or its monetary value, punitive and compensatory damages, and injunctive relief and his transfer out of the Cumberland region. Id. at 3.


         Summary judgment is proper when the moving party demonstrates, through “particular parts of materials in the record, including depositions, documents, electronically stored information, affidavits or declarations, stipulations . . ., admissions, interrogatory answers, or other materials,” 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), (c)(1)(A); see Baldwin v. City of Greensboro, 714 F.3d 828, 833 (4th Cir. 2013). If the party seeking summary judgment demonstrates that there is no evidence to support the nonmoving party’s case, the burden shifts to the nonmoving party to identify evidence that shows that a genuine dispute exists as to material facts. See Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 585–87 & n.10 (1986). The existence of only a “scintilla of evidence” is not enough to defeat a motion for summary judgment. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 251–52 (1986). Instead, the evidentiary materials submitted must show facts from which the finder of fact reasonably could find for the party opposing summary judgment. Id.

         On a motion for summary judgment, I consider the facts in the light most favorable to Plaintiff as the non-moving party, drawing all justifiable inferences in his favor. Ricci v. DeStefano, 557 U.S. 557, 585–86 (2009); George & Co., LLC v. Imagination Entm’t Ltd., 575 F.3d 383, 391–92 (4th Cir. 2009); Titan Indem. Co. v. Gaitan Enters., Inc., No. PWG-15-2480, 2016 WL 6680112, at *1 (D. Md. Nov. 14, 2016).


         Claims Against Carla Buck, R.N.

         Blankumsee faults Buck for medically approving his placement in an isolation cell without medical justification and at the request of correctional officers. Compl. 3. He views her actions as violations of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment.

         The Eighth Amendment prohibits “unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain” by virtue of its guarantee against cruel and unusual punishment. Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153, 173 (1976). “Scrutiny under the Eighth Amendment is not limited to those punishments authorized by statute and imposed by a criminal judgment.” De’Lonta v. Angelone, 330 F.3d 630, 633 (4th Cir. 2003) (citing Wilson v. Seiter, 501 U.S. 294, 297 (1991)). In order to state an Eighth Amendment claim for denial of medical care, a plaintiff must demonstrate that the actions of the defendants or their failure to act amounted to deliberate indifference to a serious medical need. See Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 106 (1976).

Deliberate indifference is a very high standard – a showing of mere negligence will not meet it . . . [T]he Constitution is designed to deal with deprivations of rights, not errors in judgments, even though such errors may have unfortunate consequences . . . To lower this threshold would ...

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