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Walker v. Bishop

United States District Court, D. Maryland

April 23, 2018

VERONICA WALKER, et al. Plaintiffs
FRANK B. BISHOP, JR., et al. Defendants


          Marvin J. Garbis United States District Judge.

         The Court has before it Defendants' Motion to Dismiss Or, In the Alternative, Motion for Summary Judgment [ECF No. 94], Defendant Reginald Heavener's Motion to Dismiss Plaintiffs' Amended Complaint [ECF No. 93], and the materials submitted relating thereto. The Court has held a hearing and has had the benefit of arguments of counsel.

         I. BACKGROUND[1]

         In the original Complaint [ECF No. 1], Plaintiffs asserted claims against the State of Maryland and eleven Individual Defendants.[2] The Court granted Defendants' motions to dismiss Plaintiffs' Complaint, and dismissed all claims asserted in that Complaint. See Memorandum and Order at 25, ECF No. 81 (“Memorandum and Order”). Certain claims were dismissed with prejudice, i.e., negligence, funeral expenses, and all claims against the State of Maryland. However, leave was granted for Plaintiffs to file an Amended Complaint asserting other claims against the Individual Defendants. Thereafter, Plaintiffs filed the Amended Complaint [ECF No. 86].[3] By the instant motions, Defendants seek dismissal of all claims against them, and in the alternative, summary judgment pursuant to Rule 56.[4]

         The Court finds it premature to proceed on a motion for summary judgment prior to any discovery and will treat both motions solely as motions to dismiss. In doing so, the Court shall consider only non-conclusory factual allegations in the Amended Complaint, and not any materials or exhibits presented that are not included in the Amended Complaint.

         This case pertains to the September 13, 2013 killing of inmate Jason Wallace (“Wallace”) by his cellmate, Darnell Thompson (“Thompson”), in their cell at Western Correctional Institution (“WCI”). Plaintiffs, Wallace's parents (Veronica Walker[5] and Gilbert Wallace), and his surviving minor children, V.W. and K.W., (collectively, “Plaintiffs”), file the Amended Complaint [ECF No. 86] asserting claims against the nine Individual Defendants: the former Warden Frank B. Bishop, Jr. (“Bishop”), Captain George Sneathen (“Sneathen”), Correctional Officer William May (“May”), Correctional Officer Reginald Heavener (“Heavener”), Correctional Officer David Stevey (“Stevey”), Correctional Officer Drew Cook (“Cook”), and three “John Doe” Correctional Officers (collectively, “Defendants”).[6]

Plaintiffs assert the following claims:

Count #

Asserted Claim



Violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments)

Heavener, Cook, May, Stevey


Violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments)

Bishop, Sneathen, and the three John Doe Defendants


Violation of Maryland Declaration of Rights Articles 24 and 25

All Defendants


Wrongful Death

All Defendants


Survival Action

All Defendants


Gross Negligence

All Defendants

         Essentially, Plaintiffs assert claims based upon the assignment of Thompson to be Wallace's cellmate, and the events of September 13, 2013 resulting in the death of Wallace.

         A. Assignment of Thompson and Wallace as Cellmates

         On the date of his death, September 13, 2013, Wallace was incarcerated at WCI in the general population[7] and assigned to Housing Unit #3. Am. Compl. ¶ 22. Housing Unit #3 houses inmates who have been released from disciplinary segregation, who are ineligible or removed from “high privileged tiers, ” overflow inmates, certain disabled inmates, or inmates deemed “detrimental to the good order and operation” of WCI. Id. ¶ 26.

         Housing assignments at WCI are made based upon security, program needs, and “behaviorally oriented factors.” Id. ¶ 27. For this purpose, WCI maintains a “case management system” which stores information about inmates, including who has been identified as a sexual predator, as a danger to others, and/or as having certain vulnerabilities. Id. ¶ 28. Inmates who are mentally ill or have special needs may be placed in special needs housing or another institution (e.g., CMHC-J at Patuxent), based on decisions made by the Chief Psychologist, the Warden, and the Chief of Security. Id. ¶¶ 29-30. “Routine” inmate housing assignments are made by the Housing Unit Manager or the Correctional Officer in charge of the Housing Unit, after taking into account “age, physical characteristics, intelligence information, . . . behavior record, ” and whether the inmate cellmates will get along. Id. ¶ 31.

         Thompson was serving a life sentence for murder and had been transferred from disciplinary segregation in North Branch Correctional based on some undescribed “altercation” with another inmate. Id. ¶¶ 32-33. Prior to joining the general population at WCI, Thompson was housed in administrative segregation. Id. ¶ 33. After joining the general population, Thompson committed multiple housing violations, landing him in disciplinary segregation. Id. ¶ 35. Thompson allegedly had a “history throughout his incarceration of repeatedly attacking other inmates and law enforcement officers, ” and had received criminal sentences for some of those attacks. Id. ¶ 36. For example, in 2002, Thompson was convicted of Reckless Endangerment. Id. In 2011, Thompson was convicted of Second Degree Assault on a Law Enforcement officer. Id.

         Plaintiffs allege that it was “well known” that Thompson suffered from “a mental and/or psychological illness” which involved eating foreign objects, putting strange materials in his hair, talking to himself, talking about hurting others, and wandering around the prison pretending to shoot others. Id. ¶ 37. These behaviors were “observed by anyone who came into contact with” him. Id. ¶ 38.

         At some point, an Assistant State's Attorney for Alleghany County had filed a “Suggestion of Incompetency” confirming that Thompson had been diagnosed with “Nonorganic Psychosis, ”[8] and “believed Thompson to be delusional.” Id. ¶¶ 39-40. A year prior to Wallace's murder, Thompson's case management file stated that Thompson “displayed behavior that could possibly be a threat to the institution.” Id. ¶ 41.

         On September 2, 2013, Wallace was assigned to share a cell with Thompson. This decision was approved by Defendant Warden Bishop and two John Doe Defendants, the Chief of Security and the Chief Psychologist. Id. ¶ 42. Wallace was “Muslim and was 5'7 and weighed approximately 182 pounds.” Id. ¶ 54. Thompson was “not Muslim and was” larger, described as “6'4 and [who] struck a very imposing figure.” Id. The assignment was allegedly “not in compliance with WCI's directives set forth for internal movements and assignments of inmates.” Id.

         Plaintiffs allege that the Individual Defendants knew about Thompson's prior violence and mental health issues but, contrary to WCI's rules and regulations, approved the cell assignment with Wallace and failed to take measures to report or mitigate the harm that Thompson posed to Wallace. Id. ¶¶ 42-43. The Amended Complaint states that “[U]pon information and belief, ” this reassignment was done intentionally by Defendants “as retribution for an earlier altercation involving Wallace and a staff member within the Housing Unit at WCI.” Id. ¶ 45. There are no allegations stating who was involved in this “altercation, ” when it occurred, and under what circumstances.

         On September 3, 2013, Wallace wrote to his family, expressing concerns for his safety and stating that he wanted to be transferred out of the cell he shared with Thompson to another cell as soon as possible. Id. ¶ 44. Wallace, however, did not take action to seek a transfer at WCI and was murdered 10 days later. Id.

         B. Wallace's Murder on September 13, 2013

         On the date of the murder, Captain Sneathen was the “highest-ranking official in charge” for Housing Unit #3, Officer Cook was the “Officer in Charge” of Housing Unit #3, and Officers Heavener, Stevey, and May were correctional officers assigned to Housing Unit #3. Id. ¶¶ 49-53.

         That evening, Wallace was assaulted and beaten by Thompson in their cell sometime between 6:10 PM and 6:30 PM. Id. ¶ 55. After the beating he lay injured on the floor of his cell until, more than two hours later, he was discovered by officers and later died from his injuries. Id. ¶¶ 67-69.

         Before the assault, at 6:10 PM, Wallace and Thompson had returned to their cell after dinner. Id. ¶ 56. Officer Heavener “conducted a head count on the tier” starting at 6:10 PM and finishing at 6:30 PM, and then returned to the control room. Id. ¶¶ 57-58. Thus, Heavener was allegedly on the tier at the time of the assault.

         Around 6:30 PM, the Special Housing Observation Unit (“SHOU”) contacted the control room and requested that Thompson report to them for urinalysis testing. Id. ¶ 58. When this request was made, Officers Heavener, May, Stevey, and Cook were in the control room. Defendants “Heavener [and/]or May unlocked” Thompson's and Wallace's cell at approximately 6:30 PM. Id. ¶ 58. Thompson went “unescorted” from his cell to the control room and was then escorted to SHOU by Defendant Stevey for urinalysis testing. Id. ¶ 59.

         Plaintiffs allege that the Individual Defendants failed to notice that Wallace had been attacked. Officer Heavener stated at Thompson's murder trial that he watched Thompson walk down the tier towards the control room wearing white shoes rather than his usual brown boots, “which he thought was strange.” Id. ¶ 60. When escorting Thompson to SHOU, Officer Stevey “failed to see” blood stains on Thompson's shirt sleeve, rips in his shirt, and his bloody knuckles. Id. ¶ 61. Another inmate, Middleton, was housed in a nearby cell and testified at Thompson's trial that between 6:10 and 6:30, he heard Wallace say “Chill dog” to Thompson. Id. ¶ 62. Middleton also heard “sounds of fighting” and the sound of “metal scraping along the floor” coming from the shared cell. Id.

         Officer Heavener conducted “another walk on the tier” and noted at 7:00 PM that the tier was secure. Id. ¶ 66. At 7:30 PM, the inmates of the tier were sent to the Recreational Hall. Id. ¶ 66. At this time, both Officer Heavener and Officer May “noticed several inmates making a point to walk past” Thompson's and Wallace's cell, “survey the inside and then talk amongst themselves.” Id. ¶ 66. Nothing was done in response to this observation.

         Wallace was not discovered until “well over an hour later, ” (presumably, 8:30 PM or later), when Middleton approached Officers Heavener and May and told them that Wallace was lying unresponsive on the floor of his cell. Id. ¶ 67. When the two officers arrived at the cell, Wallace's “head and chest” were “under his bunk” and he was bleeding from his ears, nose, and mouth, although he was still alive and “making a wheezing or gargling noise.” Id. ¶ 68. He had sustained massive head trauma with exposed brain matter and later died from his injuries. Id. ¶ 69. Ultimately, Thompson was convicted of second degree murder for Wallace's death.


         A motion to dismiss filed pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) tests the legal sufficiency of a complaint. A complaint need only contain “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief, in order to give the defendant fair notice of what the . . . claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007)(citations omitted). When evaluating a 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, a plaintiff's well-pleaded allegations are accepted as true and the complaint is viewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. However, conclusory statements or a “formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action” will not suffice. Id. A complaint must allege sufficient facts to “cross ‘the line between possibility and plausibility of entitlement to relief.'” Francis v. Giacomelli, 588 F.3d 186, 193 (4th Cir. 2009)(quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 557).

         Inquiry into whether a complaint states a plausible claim is “a context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense.” Id. Thus, if the well-pleaded facts contained within a complaint “do not permit the court to infer more than the mere possibility of misconduct, the complaint has alleged - but it has not shown - that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Id. (quoting Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 679 (2009)).

         Generally, a motion to dismiss filed under Rule 12(b)(6) cannot reach the merits of an affirmative defense. Goodman v. Praxair, Inc., 494 F.3d 458, 464 (4th Cir. 2007). However, affirmative defenses are appropriate to consider at the Rule 12(b)(6) stage “when the face of the complaint clearly reveals the existence of a meritorious affirmative defense.” Occupy Columbia v. Haley, 738 F.3d 107, 116 (4th Cir. 2013) (emphasis added) (quoting Brockington v. Boykins, 637 F.3d 503, 506 (4th Cir. 2011)).


         A. Counts I and II - Federal Constitutional Claims

         Plaintiffs assert claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for alleged violations of rights provided by the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. Count I is asserted against Defendants Heavener, Cook, May, and Stevey (“Inferior Officers”). Count II is asserted against Defendants Bishop, Sneathen, and the three John Doe Defendants (“Superior Officers”), and includes an allegation that these Defendants failed to supervise their inferiors. The Court will address these two counts together.

         Section 1983 provides:

Every person who, under color of [state law] subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States . . . to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured . . . .

42 U.S.C. § 1983. Thus, to establish a § 1983 claim, a plaintiff must prove that a defendant:

1. Acted under color of state law,
2. Deprived him/her of a right secured by the Constitution, and
3. Is not entitled to qualified immunity.

         There is no doubt that all pertinent actions of the Individual Defendants were performed under color of state law, i.e., as state officials.

         1. Eighth Amendment Claims

         The Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution provides that “[e]xcessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” U.S. Const. amend. VIII. “The Eighth Amendment imposes a duty on prison officials ‘to protect prisoners from violence at the hands of other prisoners.'” Odom v. S.C. Dep't of Corr., 349 F.3d 765, 770 (4th Cir. 2003) (quoting Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825, 833 (1994)). To establish a failure to protect claim under the Eighth Amendment's prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment, a plaintiff must prove that (1) there was a “sufficiently serious” deprivation, and (2) the defendants had a “sufficiently culpable state of mind.” Farmer, 511 U.S. at 834.

         For the first part of the test, “the inmate must show that he is incarcerated under conditions posing a substantial risk of serious harm.” Id. “[T]o demonstrate such an extreme deprivation, a prisoner must allege a serious or significant physical or emotional injury resulting from the challenged conditions . . . .” Odom, 349 F.3d at 770 (alteration in original) (quoting De'Lonta v. Angelone, 330 F.3d 630, 634 (4th Cir. 2003)).

         For the second part of the test, the requisite state of mind “is one of ‘deliberate indifference' to inmate health or safety.” Farmer, 511 U.S. at 834 (quoting Wilson v. Seiter, 501 U.S. 294, 302-303 (1991)). Deliberate indifference “entails something more than mere negligence” but it can be “satisfied by something less than acts or omissions for the very purpose of causing harm or with knowledge that harm will result.” Id. at 835. “It is . . . fair to say that acting or failing to act with deliberate indifference to a substantial risk of serious harm to a prisoner is the equivalent of recklessly disregarding that risk.” Id. at 836.

         Courts apply a subjective standard, under which “the official must both be aware of facts from which the inference could be drawn that a substantial risk of serious harm exists, and he must also draw the inference.” Id. at 837.

         The Court has held in the Memorandum and Order [ECF No. 81] that Plaintiffs adequately alleged the first element of serious harm. See Parker v. Maryland, 413 Fed.Appx. 634, 638 (4th Cir. 2011) (‚ÄúSince Parker was murdered while in ...

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