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Blankumsee v. Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services

United States District Court, D. Maryland

September 8, 2017

AZANIAH BLANKUMSEE, #326-398 Plaintiff



         Pending before the Court is Azaniah Blankumsee's Verified Complaint, filed pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, which alleges that Defendants violated his rights under the First and Eighth Amendments to the Constitution of the United States. ECF No. 1. Blankumsee claims that Defendants denied him adequate medical care, interfered with his right of access to courts, and unlawfully retaliated against him. Id. Defendants, the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services (“DPSCS”), Commissioner of Correction Dayena Corcoran, [2] Warden Richard J. Graham, Jr., Assistant Warden Denise Gelsinger, Correctional Officer II Christopher Loibel, and Correctional Officer II Alicia A. Cartwright (collectively, the “State Defendants”), filed a Motion to Dismiss or, in the Alternative for Summary Judgment, supported by a Memorandum. ECF Nos. 11, 11-1. Defendants Ryan Browning, LPN, Janice Gilmore, Robustiano Barrera, M.D. and Wexford Health Sources, Inc. (collectively, the “Medical Defendants”) filed a separate Motion to Dismiss, or in the Alternative, Motion for Summary Judgment, supported by a Memorandum. ECF Nos. 21, 21-3.[3] The Clerk sent notice to Blankumsee, who is self-represented, informing him of his right to respond to Defendants' dispositive motions and to file affidavits and exhibits in support of his claims. ECF Nos. 16, 24. Blankumsee filed Responses (ECF Nos. 20, 27) opposing Defendants' Motions. The Medical Defendants filed a Reply. ECF No. 28.[4]

         No hearing is necessary. Loc. R. 105.6 (D. Md. 2016). After considering the Verified Complaint, exhibits, and applicable law, I will grant both dispositive motions.


         Plaintiff's Allegations

         Blankumsee is an inmate in the custody of the Maryland Division of Correction and presently incarcerated at the Maryland Correctional Institution in Hagerstown. The allegations in Blankumsee's Complaint arise from incidents that occurred during the time he was housed at the Western Correctional Institution (“WCI”) in Cumberland, Maryland.

         Blankumsee filed an administrative remedy procedure (“ARP”) request, ARP-WCI-623-16, on March 21, 2016, complaining that the medication Dr. Robustiano Barrera prescribed for him was “being altered and interfered with” by registered nurses assigned to administer medication. Compl. 3, ¶ 17; ARP-WCI-623-16, ECF No. 1-2.[5] He alleges that, to retaliate against him for filing ARP-WCI-623-16, Defendants fabricated a story a few weeks later, on April 14, 2016, falsely claiming that he was hoarding prescription medication. As a result, his pain medication was stopped, “causing him unnecessary suffering and pain for 84 days.”[6] Id. at 5, ¶ 27. In he (matter not available)

         According to Blankumsee, the truth about the April 14, 2016 incident is that, after he left the medication line and took his medication, he was searched by “Officer Elliott, ”[7] who did not find any contraband on him. Compl. 3. Blankumsee was then approached by Officer Loibel, who had found an empty medication cup on the grass. When Loibel asked Blankumsee whether the cup was his, Blankumsee responded, “No, after I took my medicine I threw my cup in the trash.” Compl. 3. Blankumsee then returned to his cell. That evening, Blankumsee learned that his pain medication was discontinued for hoarding. Id.[8]

         On April 17, 2016, Blankumsee filed ARP WCI-913-16, challenging the cessation of his pain medications for hoarding. ARP WCI-913-16, at 1, ECF No. 1-4. In it, Blankumsee denied hoarding medication. Id. On April 21, 2016, Angela Cartwright, the institutional ARP Coordinator, procedurally dismissed the ARP because Blankumsee had exceeded the limit of requests approved by the Commissioner. Id. [9]

         On May 3, 2016, Blankumsee filed ARP WCI-997-16. ARP WCI-997-16, at 1, ECF No. 11-5. In it, again referring to the incident on April 14, 2016, Blankumsee asserted that Loibel was “unprofessional[]” and, against prison policy, left his post; as a result, he was unable to see Blankumsee take his medications. Id. Blankumsee asserted that he had taken his medication and discarded the cup and was not found with any medication on him. Id. After investigation and reports by Lieutenant L.C. Bennett (ARP WCI-997-16, at 7-8) and Ryan Browning (id. at 4-5), Acting Warden Denise Gelsinger denied the ARP on May 23, 2016, stating:

Your request for administrative remedy is dismissed. On 4-14-16 you were observed by the medication nurse leaving the medication window without taking your medication. Nursing staff notified custody staff of this. The yard officer was notified and instructed to complete a pat search on you. While walking towards the officer you were observed dropping something on the ground. It was discovered that you had dropped a cup containing crushed medication on the ground. No other medication was found on you at this time. Nursing staff was notified of these events. Nursing staff then contacted the onsite provider and were given instruction to discontinue your Ultram and Neurontin due to hoarding. This was completed and instructed by the doctor. You continue to be monitored through the sick call process.

Id. at 3, 4-5. He appealed on June 7, 2016. Id. at 11-13. His appeal was dismissed on June 20, 2016 for failure to provide additional evidence in support of his claim. Id. at 15.

         In Count I, Blankumsee claims that Defendants Gelsinger, Loibel, Wexford, Barrera, Gilmore, Browning, and Jane Doe provided him inadequate medical care in violation of his rights under the Eighth Amendment, thus causing him unnecessary pain. Id. at 4, ¶¶ 22-25. In his opposition, he argues that he was punished for hoarding, and suffered nerve damage that paralyzes his fourth and fifth fingers on both hands because his medication was stopped. Pl.'s Opp'n 4.

         In Count II, Blankumsee claims that all Defendants interfered with and denied him medical treatment for his serious and chronic conditions for 84 days. Compl. 4, ¶ 27. In Count III, Blankumsee alleges that Gelsinger and Cartwright violated his right to seek redress under the First Amendment by withholding necessary information and “maliciously” dismissing his ARP complaints. Id. at 5 ¶ 30. He faults Commissioner Corcoran for violating his First Amendment rights by “instigating and personally participating” in the dismissal of his grievances without a hearing. Id. at 5, ¶ 31. In Count IV, Blankumsee claims that DPSCS, Graham, Gelsinger, Commissioner Corcoran, and Wexford Health Sources, Inc. (“Wexford”), failed to train employees and “respond appropriately.” Id. at 5, ¶ 32.

         Blankumsee seeks declaratory relief, injunctive relief “to continue [his] medical treatment, ” $1 million dollars in compensatory damages against each Defendant jointly and severally, and $75, 000 in punitive damages against each Defendant. Compl. 5, ¶¶ 35-37.

         Defendants' Responses

         State Defendants

         The State Defendants provide the following version of the April 14, 2016 events, which they support with declarations and verified copies of Blankumsee's prison records. ECF No. 11.[10] On April 14, 2016, Nurse Jami Wratchford was distributing medication to inmates. Wratchford notified Officer Loibel that Blankumsee had left the medication window without taking his medicine. Loibel Decl. ¶ 2, ECF No. 11-2. Loibel followed Blankumsee, who was walking very fast. Loibel radioed Officer Elyard who was ahead of Blankumsee and asked him to stop Blankumsee for a pat search. When Officer Elyard called Blankumsee, Loibel, who was walking behind, observed Blankumsee drop something on the ground so that Elyard would not see it. Id. Elyard then proceeded to pat search Blankumsee while Loibel approached them and identified the dropped item, which was a medication cup with crushed pills in it. Id. Loibel asked Blankumsee why he threw down the pill cup. Blankumsee denied that the cup was his. Loibel then informed Blankumsee that he needs to take his medications before leaving the medication window because staff is required to watch him ingest the medicine. Loibel informed Nurse Wratchford that he found the pills. Loibel learned from Wratchford that Blankumsee had not taken his medications at the window in the past, but she had been unable get an officer's attention to stop him. Id. Loibel states that he has never conspired against Blankumsee or interfered with his medical treatment or receipt of prescribed medication. Id. ¶ 3.

         Nursing staff contacted Dr. Barrera, who instructed them to discontinue Blankumsee's prescriptions for Ultram, Baclofen, and Neurontin due to hoarding. Barrera Aff. ¶ 5, ECF No. 21-5; Med. Recs. 1-2, ECF No. 23.

         Private medical contractors provide health care for WCI Inmates. Graham Decl., ECF No. 11-3. Warden Graham does not have, nor has he ever had the authority to influence the medical decisions of the private medical care contractor. Id. ¶ 2 Graham states that he is not licensed to practice medicine and defers to the expertise of medical providers concerning inmate health matters. Id. When responding to WCI inmates' complaints about the medical care, Warden Graham and his staff rely on the reports, assessments, and judgments of the medical contractor's trained medical staff to prepare any response for his signature. Id. ¶ 4. Graham denies interfering with, hindering, or delaying medical treatment or care to Blankumsee. Id. ¶ 5.

         Medical Defendants

         The Medical Defendants filed verified copies of Blankumsee's relevant medical records and Dr. Barrera's affidavit (ECF Nos. 23, 21-5) in support of their motion; that evidence provides the following information. Blankumsee sustained multiple gunshot wounds to his face and legs in 2000 and fractured his left leg and right hand in vehicular accidents in 1999 and 2002. He suffers from arthritis in his right hand. Blankumsee was prescribed Ultram, Baclofen, and Neurontin for his pain. Barrera Aff. ¶ 4.

         Dr. Barrera discontinued Blankumsee's Ultram, Baclofen, and Neurontin after he was informed that Blankumsee was caught attempting to hoard the medication. Id. ¶ 5; Med. Recs. 1-2. Immediately after the pain medication was stopped, Blankumsee was able to complete his activities of daily living without difficulty or assistance. Barrera Aff. ¶ 6; Med. Recs. 2. Blankumsee later refused several substitute medications for his chronic pain, including Elavil and steroid injections. Barrera Aff. ¶ 6; Med. Recs. 4, 8, 9-10.

         Dr. Barrera states that inmate hoarding and distributing prescription medications in prison is a serious offense. The medical director has discretion to stop the medication of an inmate who is hoarding or attempting to hoard prescription medications. Dr. Barrera explains that in prisons, medication is crushed for ingestion when there is concern of hoarding. Crushing the medication does not affect its efficacy, but renders it more difficult to hoard and/or distribute. Barrera Aff. ¶¶ 7-8.

         Dr. Barrera explains that terminating the pain medications was medically appropriate because Blankumsee was hoarding, not ingesting the medication. Hoarding is commonly practiced in prisons as a means of acquiring contraband for the purpose of obtaining other commodities or accommodations from other inmates seeking the medications for their own use. Additionally, hoarding may allow an inmate to store and then ingest a much stronger dosage than medically prescribed, thereby creating a substantial danger to the patient. Barrera Supp. Aff. ¶ 4, ECF No. 28-2. Barrera states that Blankumsee's hoarding “strongly indicate[s] that Plaintiff did not medically need the pain medications.” Id. Barrera asserts that his decision to discontinue medication was in no manner a decision to retaliate against Blankumsee or punish him. Id. ¶ 5.

         According to Dr. Barrera, there is no medical support for Blankumsee's allegation that discontinuing the Ultram, Neurontin, and Baclofen caused permanent loss of feeling in the fourth and fifth fingers of his right hand. Id. ¶ 7. Further, Blankumsee's apparent hoarding indicated that he had discontinued his pain medication on his own. Barrera notes that Blankumsee previously had claimed to be suffering from carpal tunnel symptoms in both hands while on these medications.[11] Id. Thus, the symptoms and conditions that Blankumsee alleges resulted from discontinuing the Ultram, Neurontin, and Baclofen (unspecified chronic illnesses, arthritis, and unspecified nerve damage with severe pain) existed before his medications were discontinued. Further, Dr. Barrera states there is no medical indication that discontinuing the pain medications had any effect on these conditions. Id. ¶ 8.

         Dr. Barerra states that Gilmore and Browning were not involved in the decision to discontinue Blankumsee's medication. Barrera Aff. ¶ 9. He opines that, to a reasonable degree of medical probability, the decision to stop Blankunsee's prescription pain medication due to hoarding was ...

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