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Garza-Ovalle v. Armstrong

United States District Court, D. Maryland

January 15, 2020



          Ellen L. Hollander United States District Judge.

         The self-represented plaintiff, Luis Garza-Ovalle, a federal inmate currently incarcerated at the Federal Correctional Institution in Pollock, Louisiana, filed suit against Detention Officer Armstrong, Warden Renee Alexander, the Chesapeake Detention Facility in Baltimore, Maryland (“CDF”), and the United States Marshals Service (“U.S. Marshals” or “USMS”), defendants, pursuant to the Federal Tort Claims Act and Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents, 403 U.S. 388 (1971).[1] ECF 1. In a verified Complaint, plaintiff claims that defendants deliberately placed his life in danger in July 2016, when they refused to buckle his seatbelt for transport in a correctional van and denied him proper medical attention after the van was involved in a collision. Id. at 3. As relief, he seeks a declaration that defendants violated his constitutional rights as well as compensatory and punitive damages in the amount of $3 million per defendant. Id. at 4.

         According to Correctional Officer Marc Hardaway, of the Central Transportation Unit (“CTU”), as well as Alexander, and CDF (collectively, the “Correctional Defendants”), at the time of the incident giving rise to plaintiff's Complaint, there was no custody officer working at CDF by the name of Armstrong. ECF 4-1 at 2-3. Rather, Hardaway was the CTU officer who drove a transport van from CDF on July 18, 2016. Id. Plaintiff, under the name “Juan Baca Quintana, ” was a passenger in the van.

         Therefore, the Clerk shall be directed to add Marc Hardaway as a defendant. To the extent plaintiff intended to bring suit against “Officer Armstrong, ” his claims against that individual shall be dismissed, without prejudice.

         The Correctional Defendants have moved to dismiss or for summary judgment, pursuant to Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12(b) and 56. ECF 4. The motion is supported by a memorandum of law (ECF 4-1) (collectively, “the Correctional Defendants' Motion”) and an exhibit. The U.S. Marshals filed a similarly-titled dispositive motion. ECF 10. That motion is also supported by a memorandum of law (ECF 10-1) (collectively, the “U.S. Marshals' Motion”) and an exhibit.

         Pursuant to Roseboro v. Garrison, 528 F.2d 309 (4th Cir. 1975), the court informed plaintiff that the failure to file a response in opposition to the defendants' motions could result in dismissal of his Complaint or a judgment in favor of defendants. ECF 5, 11. Plaintiff responded on December 13, 2019. ECF 14. He also submitted a memorandum in opposition to the “government motions” (ECF 14-1) and several exhibits. No replies were filed.

         The matter is now ripe for disposition. Upon review of the record, exhibits, and applicable law, the court deems a hearing unnecessary. See Local Rule 105.6 (D. Md. 2018). For the reasons that follow, the suit shall be dismissed as to the U.S. Marshals. And, the Correctional Defendants' Motion, construed as a motion for summary judgment, shall be granted.

         I. Factual Background

         Plaintiff claims that on or about July 14, 2016, while in the custody of CDF, he was “being transferred” to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania by “Detention Officer Armstrong and an unknown female officer, both acting under the directions of Warden Renee Alexander.” ECF 1 at 2.[2] Plaintiff states that he was handcuffed, shackled, and placed in a transport van with nine other prisoners. Id. Plaintiff claims that he asked Armstrong, who was also the driver, to buckle his seatbelt but Armstrong “refused smiling before stating, ‘don't worry about it, its' [sic] just a hour and fifteen minutes up the road.'” Id. According to plaintiff, “after reaching high speeds” of 85 miles per hour on “Highway 83, ” the van was involved in “a serious accident . . . .” Id.[3] He recalls that “a car coming onto the freeway impacted [the transport van] on the front right side knocking the transport van into the concrete dividing wall.” Id. Plaintiff claims that his head and knee slammed into the side of the van and “his body twisted so bad that his bladder let loose . . . .” Id.

         According to plaintiff, officers and prisoners remained at the scene of the accident for approximately 45 minutes until “agents” of the U.S. Marshals arrived, along with local police, state troopers, ambulances, and a news reporter, at which time they were moved to a nearby rest area. Id. Plaintiff claims that he heard the U.S. Marshals tell the paramedics to “‘just make sure they have no broken bones or any bones sticking out of them and tell them whatever is wrong with them they be [sic] taken care of when they get back to Baltimore.'” Id. Plaintiff told a paramedic that his neck, knee, and lower back were injured “but the paramedic just repeated what the U.S. Marshal told him to say, and refused to give him medical treatment or take him to the hospital for treatment.” Id.

         Plaintiff states that they were transported back to CDF, where the medical staff “dismissed his complaints as mediocre” and he was assigned to sleep on a top bunk. Id. Plaintiff also claims that for 15 days CDF staff refused to provide him with medical treatment, despite his repeated complaints. Id.[4]

         On August 1, 2016, plaintiff was transferred to the United States Penitentiary Canaan in Pennsylvania, where he again complained of his injuries and worsening condition. Id. He was given Naproxen for pain relief. Id. at 3. But, the staff “did not tend to the nerve problems in which [he was] having bowl [sic] movements uncontrollably.” Id. at 2-3.

         On August 10, 2016, plaintiff was transferred to the Federal Correctional Institution in Ray Brook, New York (“FCI Ray Brook”). Id. at 3. He asserts that upon his arrival a correctional officer confiscated his Naproxen. Id. When plaintiff sought to explain about the accident and his injuries, the officer told him to “buy his medication off of commissary.” Id. When plaintiff's “repeated attempts” to obtain medical care from the institution were unsuccessful, he began the administrative remedy process. Id.

         Plaintiff submitted an Informal Resolution at FCI Ray Brook on October 18, 2016, seeking proper medical treatment for his spinal injuries. See ECF 14; ECF 14-2. The Warden subsequently denied plaintiff's request with the following explanation: “You have had several x-rays all of which are normal. You have been provided back exercises & advised to take Tylenol.” ECF 14-2 at 4.

         On December 1, 2016, plaintiff noted an appeal from the ruling on his Informal Resolution. ECF 14-3. The Regional Director denied the appeal on February 17, 2017, stating that the Warden adequately addressed plaintiff's complaint. Id. at 4. On March 8, 2017, plaintiff filed an appeal to the General Counsel at the Federal Bureau of Prisons (“BOP”). Id. at 5-6. The National Inmate Appeals Office denied plaintiff's claims on June 29, 2017. Id. at 7.

         On or about September 25, 2017, plaintiff filed an administrative claim with the Northeast Regional Office of the BOP. Id. at 8. The Acting Regional Counsel denied his claim on March 29, 2018, stating: “There is no evidence that a compensable loss was experienced as a result of the negligence on the part of any [BOP] employee.” Id. at 9.

         II. Standard of Review

         Defendants' motions are styled as motions to dismiss under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6) or, in the alternative, for summary judgment under Fed.R.Civ.P. 56. A motion styled in this manner implicates the court's discretion under Rule 12(d) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. See Kensington Vol. Fire Dept., Inc. v. Montgomery Cty., 788 F.Supp.2d 431, 436-37 (D. Md. 2011).

         Ordinarily, a court “is not to consider matters outside the pleadings or resolve factual disputes when ruling on a motion to dismiss.” Bosiger v. U.S. Airways, Inc., 510 F.3d 442, 450 (4th Cir. 2007). However, under Rule 12(b)(6), a court, in its discretion, may consider matters outside of the pleadings, pursuant to Rule 12(d). If the court does so, “the motion must be treated as one for summary judgment under Rule 56, ” and “[a]ll parties must be given a reasonable opportunity to present all the material that is pertinent to the motion.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(d); see Adams Housing, LLC v. The City of Salisbury, Maryland, 672 Fed App'x 220, 222 (4th Cir. 2016) (per curiam). But, when the movant expressly captions its motion “in the alternative” as one for summary judgment, and submits matters outside the pleadings for the court's consideration, the parties are deemed to be on notice that conversion under Rule 12(d) may occur; the court “does not have an obligation to notify parties of the obvious.” Laughlin v. Metro. Wash. Airports Auth., 149 F.3d 253, 261 (4th Cir. 1998).

         A district judge has “complete discretion to determine whether or not to accept the submission of any material beyond the pleadings that is offered in conjunction with a Rule 12(b)(6) motion and rely on it, thereby converting the motion, or to reject it or simply not consider it.” 5C Wright & Miller, Federal Practice & Procedure § 1366, at 159 (3d ed. 2004, 2011 Supp.). This discretion “should be exercised with great caution and attention to the parties' procedural rights.” Id. at 149. In general, courts are guided by whether consideration of extraneous material “is likely to facilitate the disposition of the action, ” and “whether discovery prior to the utilization of the summary judgment procedure” is necessary. Id. at 165-67.

         Summary judgment is generally inappropriate “where the parties have not had an opportunity for reasonable discovery.” E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co. v. Kolon Indus., Inc., 637 F.3d 435, 448-49 (4th Cir. 2011); see Putney v. Likin, 656 Fed. App'x 632, 638 (4th Cir. 2016) (per curiam); McCray v. Maryland Dep't of Transportation, 741 F.3d 480, 483 (4th Cir. 2015). However, “the party opposing summary judgment ‘cannot complain that summary judgment was granted without discovery unless that party had made an attempt to oppose the motion on the grounds that more time was needed for discovery.'” Harrods Ltd. v. Sixty Internet Domain Names, 302 F.3d 214, 244 (4th Cir. 2002) (quoting Evans v. Techs. Applications & Serv. Co., 80 F.3d 954, 961 (4th Cir. 1996)); see also Dave & Buster's, Inc. v. White Flint Mall, LLLP, 616 Fed. App'x 552, 561 (4th Cir. 2015).

         To raise adequately the issue that discovery is needed, the nonmovant typically must file an affidavit or declaration pursuant to Rule 56(d) (formerly Rule 56(f)), explaining why, “for specified reasons, it cannot present facts essential to justify its opposition, ” without needed discovery. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(d); see Harrods, 302 F.3d at 244-45 (discussing affidavit requirement of former Rule 56(f)). “[T]o justify a denial of summary judgment on the grounds that additional discovery is necessary, the facts identified in a Rule 56 affidavit must be ‘essential to [the] opposition.'” Scott v. Nuvell Fin. Servs., LLC, 789 F.Supp.2d 637, 641 (D. Md. 2011) (alteration in original) (citation omitted). A nonmoving party's Rule 56(d) request for additional discovery is properly denied “where the additional evidence sought for discovery would not have by itself created a genuine issue of material fact sufficient to defeat summary judgment.” Strag v. Bd. of Trs., Craven Cmty. Coll., 55 F.3d 943, 954 (4th Cir. 1995); see McClure v. Ports, 914 F.3d 866, 874-75 (4th Cir. 2019); Gordon v. CIGNA Corp., 890 F.3d 463, 479 (4th Cir. 2018); Amirmokri v. Abraham, 437 F.Supp.2d 414, 420 (D. Md. 2006), aff'd, 266 Fed.Appx. 274 (4th Cir. 2008), cert. denied, 555 U.S. 885 (2008).

         If a nonmoving party believes that further discovery is necessary before consideration of summary judgment, the party fails to file a Rule 56(d) affidavit at his peril, because “‘the failure to file an affidavit . . . is itself sufficient grounds to reject a claim that the opportunity for discovery was inadequate.'” Harrods, 302 F.3d at 244 (citations omitted). But, the nonmoving party's failure to file a Rule 56(d) affidavit cannot obligate a court to issue a summary judgment ruling that is obviously premature. And, a court “should hesitate before denying a Rule 56(d) motion when the nonmovant seeks necessary information possessed only by the movant.” Pisano v. Strach, 743 F.3d 927, 931 (4th Cir. 2014).

         Although the Fourth Circuit has placed “‘great weight'” on the Rule 56(d) affidavit, and has said that a mere “‘reference to Rule 56(f) [now Rule 56(d)] and the need for additional discovery in a memorandum of law in opposition to a motion for summary judgment is not an adequate substitute for [an] affidavit, '” the appellate court has “not always insisted” on a Rule 56(d) affidavit. Id. (internal citations omitted). According to the Fourth Circuit, failure to file an affidavit may be excused “if the nonmoving party has adequately informed the district court that the motion is premature and that more discovery is necessary” and the “nonmoving party's objections before the district court ‘served as the functional equivalent of an affidavit.'” Id. at 244-45 (internal citations omitted); see also Putney, 656 Fed. App'x at 638; Nader v. Blair, 549 F.3d 953, 961 (4th Cir. 2008). “This is especially true where, as here, the non-moving party is proceeding pro se.” Putney, 656 Fed. App'x at 638.

         Plaintiff has not filed an affidavit under Rule 56(d). However, he explains that he has tried to obtain records about the accident from the “Pennsylvania State trooper office, ” without success. ECF 14 at 1-2. He has also written to CDF for records concerning the accident, also without success. Id. at 2. He asks the court to review the case with “a liberal state of mind, ” because he cannot afford a lawyer. Id.

         I am satisfied that it is appropriate to address the Correctional Defendants' Motion as one for summary judgment, as this will facilitate resolution of the case. In this regard, the documents previously sought by plaintiff from third parties are not material to the issues. But, I shall construe the U.S. Marshals' Motion as one to dismiss, either under Rule 12(b)(1) or Rule 12(b)(6).

         A defendant may test the legal sufficiency of a complaint by way of a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6). In re Birmingham, 846 F.3d 88, 92 (4th Cir. 2017); Goines v. Valley Cmty. Servs. Bd., 822 F.3d 159, 165-66 (4th Cir. 2016); McBurney v. Cuccinelli, 616 F.3d 393, 408 (4th Cir. 2010), aff'd sub nom., McBurney v. Young, 569 U.S. 221 (2013); Edwards v. City of Goldsboro, 178 F.3d 231, 243 (4th Cir. 1999). A Rule 12(b)(6) motion constitutes an assertion by a defendant that, even if the facts alleged by a plaintiff are true, the complaint fails as a matter of law “to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.”

         Whether a complaint states a claim for relief is assessed by reference to the pleading requirements of Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). That rule provides that a complaint must contain a “short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” The purpose of the rule is to provide the defendants with “fair notice” of the claims and the ...

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