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Coates v. DPSCS

United States District Court, D. Maryland

July 29, 2019




         Tyrone Coates is an inmate at North Branch Correctional Institution (NBCI). In this Complaint filed pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, Coates alleges that he has received improper medical care. ECF No. 1 at pp. 2-3. Pending before the Court are Defendants' dispositive motions: Michael Summerfield M.D. filed a Motion to Dismiss for Lack of Jurisdiction (ECF No. 17); Warden Bishop and the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services (DPSCS), collectively “the State Defendants, ” filed a Motion to Dismiss or, in the Alternative, for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 27); and Wexford Health Sources, Inc. (Wexford) and Nurse Practitioner, Holly Pierce, collectively “the Medical Defendants, ” filed a Motion to Dismiss or, in the Alternative, for Summary Judgment. ECF No. 29. Pursuant to the dictates of Roseboro v. Garrison, 528 F.2d 309 (4th Cir. 1975), Coates was notified of Defendants' Motions and that he was entitled to file oppositions with supporting materials, including affidavits, declarations and other records. ECF Nos. 18, 28, 30. Coates filed an Opposition to Summerfield's Motion to Dismiss. ECF 22. The State and Medical Defendants' dispositive Motions are unopposed. Also pending is Plaintiff's Motion for Appointment of Counsel, which will be denied without prejudice. ECF No. 40.

         After reviewing the submissions, the Court finds that no hearing is necessary to resolve the pending motions. See D. Md. Local R. 105.6. For the reasons set forth below, the State and Medical Defendants' Motions (ECF Nos. 27, 29), treated as Motion for Summary Judgment, will be GRANTED. Summerfield's Motion to Dismiss (ECF No. 17) will be GRANTED. Because Summerfield's dispositive motion addresses solely Coates' negligence and malpractice claims, Summerfield will be granted twenty-eight days to file a response to Coates' Eighth Amendment claim of inadequate medical care.


         Coates is a 36 year old man with a medical history for keratoconus and acute keratoconus hydrops.[1] Decl. of Asresahegn Getachew, M.D., ECF No. 29-5 ¶ 5. Medical Rec. ECF No. 27-4 at 2, 4, 13, 113-114. Keratoconus is a progressive eye disease which causes normally round corneas to thin and bulge into a conical shape to distort vision. The cause of the condition is unknown and there is no cure, although progression of the disease can sometimes be delayed. Keratoconus is generally treated with glasses, contact lenses, and, as a last resort surgery. Getachew Decl.., ECF No. 29-5 ¶5. Coates is on a waiting list for corneal transplants. ECF No. 29-5 ¶9.

         I. Coates' Allegations

         Coates filed this Complaint on October 24, 2018, alleging that on December 18, 2015, he filed an Administrative Remedy Procedure (ARP) request because he needed surgery on his left eye. He states his left eye has a contact lens and his “right eye was in constant pain.” Id. at 2. He explains that in 2010, he went to the Johns Hopkins Hospital Wilmer Eye Clinic where he was diagnosed with severe keratoconus and recommended for a corneal transplant. Id. He claims Dr. Summerfield refused him the surgery multiple times and faults Warden Bishop for failing to intervene. Id; see also ECF No. 6 at 1. Coates requests injunctive relief (surgery and medical treatment) and punitive and compensatory damages against Defendants in their official capacities for “negligence and indifference of DPSCS staff, and Wexford Health Sources and employees” for his pain and suffering since October 2012.[2] ECF No. 1 at 3.

         On November 30, 2018, Coates supplemented the Complaint, adding Holly Pierce as a defendant and other details in support of his claims. ECF No. 6. He alleges that Summerfield denied him surgery “on multiple occasions” because he has “somewhat of a good eye because his left eye has a contact” and he gets into too many fights in prison. ECF No. 6 at 1. Coates faults Pierce for refusing to order him pain medications, to see him at sick call, and to order his surgery. Id. He alleges Pierce accused him of seeking medication “to get high.Id.

         Coates faults Bishop because “he knew about my situation.” Bishop found Coates' ARP about Summerfield meritorious in part, but later amended the response and dismissed it. Coates claims Bishop and DPSCS' actions fail to comply with the “contract” to take care of his needs under Department of Correction (DOC) policy. Id. at 2. Coates asserts Wexford is aware of his condition, hires unqualified providers, and fails to hol[d] up to their contract.” Id.

         On July 10, 2019, Coates filed a letter asking for appointment of counsel because he “can't see” and is relying on an inmate to read his legal mail.”. ECF 40. Coates also states he has an eighth grade education lacks familiarity with the law. Id. A pro se prisoner does not have a general right to counsel in a § 1983 action.” Evans v. Kuplinski, 713 Fed.Appx. 167, 170 (4th Cir. 2017). A federal district court judge's power to appoint counsel under 28 U.S.C.§ 1915(e)(1) is discretionary, and an indigent claimant must present “exceptional circumstances.” Miller v. Simmons, 814 F.2d 962, 966 (4th Cir. 1987). Exceptional circumstances exist where a “pro se litigant has a colorable claim but lacks the capacity to present it.” See Whisenant v. Yuam, 739 F.2d 160, 163 (4th Cir. 1984), abrogated on other grounds by Mallard v. U.S. Dist. Ct., 490 U.S. 296, 298 (1989) (holding that 28 U.S.C. § 1915 does not authorize compulsory appointment of counsel).

         Thus far, Coates has pursued his claims through the administrative process, adequately presented his claims in his Complaint and supplement, filed an opposition and motion for a default judgment, and written to inform the Court that he had not received a copy of the Medical Defendants' Motion to Dismiss or, in the Alternative Motion for Summary Judgment. ECF No. 22, 27-5, 32, 33, 35. He acknowledges that he has secured assistance for reading legal documents, and his lack of familiarity with the law is insufficient alone to warrant appointment of counsel. Because his case against Dr. Summerfield is continuing, the Court will deny Coates' Motion for Appointment of Counsel without prejudice subject to reconsideration after Summerfield files his response to Coates' Eighth Amendment claim.


         Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(1) governs motions to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. See Khoury v. Meserve, 628 F.Supp.2d 600, 606 (D. Md. 2003), aff'd, 85 Fed.Appx. 960 (4th Cir. 2004). Under Rule 12(b)(1), the plaintiff bears the burden of proving, by a preponderance of evidence, the existence of subject matter jurisdiction. See Demetres v. East West Const., Inc., 776 F.3d 271, 272 (4th Cir. 2015); see also Evans v. B.F. Perkins Co., 166 F.3d 642, 647 (4th Cir. 1999). A challenge to subject matter jurisdiction under Rule 12(b)(1) may proceed “in one of two ways”: either a facial challenge, asserting that the allegations pleaded in the complaint are insufficient to establish subject matter jurisdiction, or a factual challenge, asserting “‘that the jurisdictional allegations of the complaint [are] not true.'” Kerns v. United States, 585 F.3d 187, 192 (4th Cir. 2009) (citation omitted) (alteration in original); see also Buchanan v. Consol. Stores Corp., 125 F.Supp.2d 730, 736 (D. Md. 2001).

         In a facial challenge, “the facts alleged in the complaint are taken as true, and the motion must be denied if the complaint alleges sufficient facts to invoke subject matter jurisdiction.” Kerns, 585 F.3d at 192; accord Clear Channel Outdoor, Inc. v. Mayor & City Council of Baltimore, 22 F.Supp.3d 519, 524 (D. Md. 2014). In a factual challenge, on the other hand, “the district court is entitled to decide disputed issues of fact with respect to subject matter jurisdiction.” Kerns, 585 F.3d at 192. In that circumstance, the court “may regard the pleadings as mere evidence on the issue and may consider evidence outside the pleadings without converting the proceeding to one for summary judgment.” Velasco v. Gov't of Indonesia, 370 F.3d 392, 398 (4th Cir. 2004); see also Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac R.R. Co. v. United States, 945 F.2d 765, 768 (4th Cir. 1991).

         The purpose of a motion to dismiss pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6) is to test the sufficiency of the Plaintiff's complaint. See Edwards v. Goldsboro, 178 F.3d 231, 243 (4th Cir. 1999). The Supreme Court articulated the analytical framework:

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a)(2) requires only “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.” Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 47 (1957) (abrogated on other grounds). While a complaint attacked by a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss does not need detailed factual allegations, ibid.; Sanjuan v. American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology, Inc., 40 F.3d 247, 251 (7th Cir. 1994), a plaintiff's obligation to provide the “grounds” of his “entitle[ment] to relief” requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do, see Papasan v. Allain, 478 U.S. 265, 286 (1986) (on a motion to dismiss, courts “are not bound to accept as true a legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation”). Factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level, see 5 C. Wright & A. Miller, Federal Practice and Procedure § 1216, pp. 235-236 (3d ed. 2004) (hereinafter Wright & Miller) (“[T]he pleading must contain something more . . . than . . . a statement of facts that merely creates a suspicion [of] a legally cognizable right of action”), on the assumption that all the allegations in the complaint are true (even if doubtful in fact), see, e.g., Swierkiewicz v. Sorema N.A., 534 U.S. 506, 508, n.1 (2002); Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319, 327(1989) (“Rule 12(b)(6) does not countenance . . . dismissals based on a judge's disbelief of a complaint's factual allegations”); Scheuer v. Rhodes, 416 U.S. 232, 236 (1974) (a well-pleaded complaint may proceed even if it appears “that a recovery is very remote and unlikely”).

Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007) (footnotes omitted).

         This standard does not require a defendant establish “beyond doubt” that plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of his claim which would entitle him to relief. Id. at 561. Once a claim has been stated adequately, it may be supported by showing any set of facts consistent with the allegations in the complaint. Id. at 562. The court need not, however, accept unsupported legal allegations, see Revene v. Charles Cty Comm'rs, 882 F.2d 870, 873 (4th Cir. 1989), legal conclusions couched as factual allegations, see Papasan v. Allain, 478 U.S. 265, 286 (1986), or conclusory factual allegations devoid of any reference to actual events, see United Black Firefighters v. Hirst, 604 F.2d 844, 847 (4th Cir. 1979).

         The State and Medical Defendants caption their Motions in the alternative for summary judgment and attach documents beyond the Complaint for the Court's consideration. Coates has not submitted a Rule 56(d) affidavit expressing a need for discovery. Accordingly, the Court will treat Defendants' Motions as motion for summary judgment.

         Summary Judgment is governed by Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a) which provides that:

The court shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

         The Supreme Court has clarified that this does not mean that any factual dispute will defeat the motion:

By its very terms, this standard provides that the mere existence of some alleged factual dispute between the parties will not defeat an otherwise properly supported motion for summary judgment; the requirement is that there be no genuine issue of material fact.

Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247-48 (1986) (emphasis in original).

         “A party opposing a properly supported motion for summary judgment ‘may not rest upon the mere allegations or denials of [his] pleadings,' but rather must ‘set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.'” Bouchat v. Baltimore Ravens Football Club, Inc., 346 F.3d 514, 522 (4th Cir. 2003) (alteration in original) (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e)). Summary judgment is proper when the movant 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). Once a motion for summary judgment is properly made and supported, the nonmovant has the burden of showing that a genuine dispute of material fact exists. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586-87 (1986).

         A “material fact” is one that might affect the outcome of a party's case. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248; see also JKC Holding Co. v. Wash. Sports Ventures, Inc., 264 F.3d 459, 465 (4th Cir. 2001) (citing Hooven-Lewis v. Caldera, 249 F.3d 259, 265 (4th Cir. 2001)). Whether a fact is considered to be “material” is determined by the substantive law, and “[o]nly disputes over facts that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law will properly preclude the entry of summary judgment.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248; accord Hooven-Lewis, 249 F.3d at 265. A “genuine” dispute concerning a “material” fact arises when the evidence is sufficient to allow a reasonable jury to return a verdict in the nonmoving party's favor. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248.


         Section 1983 of Title 42 of the United States Code provides that a plaintiff may file suit against any person who, acting under color of state law, “subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws” of the United States. 42 U.S.C. § 1983. However, § 1983 “‘is not itself a source of substantive rights,' but provides ‘a method for vindicating federal rights elsewhere conferred.'” Albright v. Oliver, 510 U.S. 266, 271 (1994) (quoting Baker v. McCollan, 443 U.S. 137, 144 n. 3 (1979) To state a claim under § 1983, a plaintiff must allege (1) that a right secured by the Constitution or laws of the United States was violated, and (2) that the alleged violation was committed by a “person acting under the color of state law.” West v. Atkins, 487 U.S. 42, 48 (1988); see Crosby v. City of Gastonia, 635 F.3d 634, 639 (4th Cir. 2011), cert. denied, 565 U.S. 823.

         Section 1983 also requires a showing of personal fault based upon a defendant's own conduct. See Vinnedge v. Gibbs, 550 F.2d 926, 928 (4th Cir. 1977). There is no respondeat superior liability under § 1983. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 676 (2009) (“Because vicarious liability is inapplicable to . . . § 1983 suits, a plaintiff must plead that each Government-official defendant, through the official's own individual actions, has violated the Constitution.”); see also Wilcox v. Brown, 877 F.3d 161, 170 (4th Cir. 2017); Love-Lane v. Martin, 355 F.3d 766, 782 (4th Cir. 2004); Trulock v. Freeh, 275 F.3d 391, 402 (4th Cir. 2001).

         Liability of supervisory officials in § 1983 claims “is premised on ‘a recognition that supervisory indifference or tacit authorization of subordinates' misconduct may be a causative factor in the constitutional injuries they inflict on those committed to their care.'” Baynard v. Malone, 268 F.3d 228, 235 (4th Cir. 2001) (citing Slakan v. Porter, 737 F.2d 368, 372 (4th Cir. 1984)). To establish supervisory liability, a plaintiff must show the “supervisor had actual or constructive knowledge that his subordinate was engaged in conduct that posed a pervasive and unreasonable risk of constitutional injury” to the plaintiff; (2) that the supervisor's response was so “inadequate as to show deliberate indifference to or tacit authorization” and (3) that there was an “affirmative causal link between the supervisor's inaction and the particular constitutional injury suffered by the plaintiff.” Shaw v. Stroud, 13 F.3d 791, 799 (4th Cir. 1994).

         The Court is mindful that Coates is a pro se litigant whose pleadings must be accorded liberal construction. Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007). Coates alleges Summerfield and Bishop were “negligent” and showed “indifference, ” but does not specifically allege a violation of a constitutional provision or federal law. A claim for negligence is premised on state law and does not support a constitutional claim. In his Reply to Summerfield's Motion to Dismiss, however, Coates makes clear his intention to raise an Eighth Amendment claim for inadequate medical care.

         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); see also Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 102 (1976); King v. Rubenstein, 825 F.3d 206, 218 (4th Cir. 2016); Scinto v. Stansberry, 841 F.3d 219, 225 (4th Cir. 2016). To succeed in an Eighth Amendment suit alleging denial of adequate medical care, a plaintiff must show the defendant's actions or inaction amounted to deliberate indifference to a plaintiff's serious medical need. See Estelle, 429 U.S. at 106; Jackson v. Lightsey, 775 F.3d 170, 178 (4th Cir. 2014).

         Deliberate indifference to a serious medical need requires proof that, objectively, the plaintiff was suffering from a serious medical need and that, subjectively, the defendant was aware of the need for medical attention but failed either to provide it or to ensure that the needed care was available. SeeFarmerv.Brennan, 511 U.S. 825 837 (1984). The subjective component of the examines whether the defendant acted with reckless disregard in the face of a serious medical condition, i.e., with “a sufficiently culpable state of mind.” Wilson v. Seiter, 501 U.S. 294, 298 (1991). “It is not enough that the defendant should have known of a risk; he or she must have had actual subjective knowledge of both the inmate's serious medical condition and the excessive risk posed by the official's action or inaction.” Lightsey, 775 F.3d at 178 (emphasis in Lightsey). The Fourth Circuit explains: “True subjective recklessness requires knowledge both of the general risk, and also that the conduct is inappropriate in light of that risk.” Rich v. Bruce, 129 F.3d 336, 340 n.2 (4th Cir. 1997).

         Negligence or malpractice on the part of . . . doctors in missing [a] diagnosis does not, by itself, support an inference of deliberate indifference.” Johnson v. Quinones,145 F.3d 164, 166 (4th Cir. 1998). The treatment rendered must be so grossly incompetent or inadequate as to shock the conscience or to be intolerable to fundamental fairness. Miltier v. Beorn, 896 F.2d 848, 851 (4th Cir. 1990) (citation omitted) (overruled in part on other grounds by Farmer, 511 ...

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