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Christensen v. Burnham

United States District Court, D. Utah

March 18, 2019

ANTHONY JEFFREY CHRISTENSEN, Plaintiff,
v.
BRUCE BURNHAM et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM DECISION & ORDER GRANTING DEFENDANTS' MOTIONS FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

          DEE BENSON JUDGE

         Plaintiff, Anthony Jeffrey Christensen, a pre-trial detainee at Sanpete County Jail (SCJ), seeks remedy for alleged civil-rights violations by county employees regarding his conditions of confinement. See 42 U.S.C.S. § 1983 (2019). Specifically asserting inadequate medical treatment, the Complaint names as defendants: Dr. Bruce Burnham, Nurse Lisa Estey, Sgt. Gretchen Nunnley, Sgt. Ross Bailey, Dept. Brandon Brown, Lt. Brad Bown, Captain Robert Braithwaite, Dep. Trevor Larsen, and Sgt. Jeff Nielsen. (Doc. No. 5.)

         Defendants now move for summary judgment.[1] The Court grants the motions, but first screens out several defendants.

         I. SUA SPONTE DISMISSAL

         A. GROUNDS FOR DISMISSAL

         Evaluating claims for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, this Court takes all well-pleaded factual assertions as true and regards them in a light most advantageous to the plaintiff. Ridge at Red Hawk L.L.C. v. Schneider, 493 F.3d 1174, 1177 (10th Cir. 2007). Dismissal is appropriate when, viewing those facts as true, the plaintiff has not posed a "plausible" right to relief. See Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007); Robbins v. Oklahoma, 519 F.3d 1242, 1247-48 (10th Cir. 2008). "The burden is on the plaintiff to frame a 'complaint with enough factual matter (taken as true) to suggest' that he or she is entitled to relief." Robbins, 519 F.3d at 1247 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556). When a civil-rights complaint contains "bare assertions," involving "nothing more than a 'formulaic recitation of the elements' of a constitutional . . . claim," the Court considers those assertions "conclusory and not entitled to" an assumption of truth. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 1951 (2009) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 554-55). In other words, "the mere metaphysical possibility that some plaintiff could prove some set of facts in support of the pleaded claims is insufficient; the complaint must give the court reason to believe this plaintiff has a reasonable likelihood of mustering factual support for these claims." Red Hawk, 493 F.3d at 1177 (italics in original).

         This Court must construe pro se "'pleadings liberally,' applying a less stringent standard than is applicable to pleadings filed by lawyers. Th[e] court, however, will not supply additional factual allegations to round out a plaintiff's complaint or construct a legal theory on a plaintiff's behalf." Whitney v. New Mexico, 113 F.3d 1170, 1173-74 (10th Cir. 1997) (citations omitted). This means that if this Court can reasonably read the pleadings "to state a valid claim on which the plaintiff could prevail, it should do so despite the plaintiff's failure to cite proper legal authority, his confusion of various legal theories, his poor syntax and sentence construction, or his unfamiliarity with pleading requirements." Hall v. Bellmon, 935 F.2d 1106, 1110 (10th Cir. 1991). Still, it is not "the proper function of the district court to assume the role of advocate for the pro se litigant." Id.; see also Peterson v. Shanks, 149 F.3d 1140, 1143 (10th Cir. 1998) (citing Dunn v. White, 880 F.2d 1188, 1197 (10th Cir. 1989) (per curiam)).

         B. AFFIRMATIVE LINK

         The complaint must clearly state what each individual defendant did to violate Plaintiff's civil rights. See Bennett v. Passic, 545 F.2d 1260, 1262-63 (10th Cir. 1976) (stating each defendant's personal participation is essential allegation). "To state a claim, a complaint must 'make clear exactly who is alleged to have done what to whom.'" Stone v. Albert, No. 08-2222, slip op. at 4 (10th Cir. July 20, 2009) (unpublished) (emphasis in original) (quoting Robbins v. Oklahoma, 519 F.3d 1242, 1250 (10th Cir. 2008)). Plaintiff may not name an individual as a defendant based solely on his or her supervisory position. See Mitchell v. Maynard, 80 F.2d 1433, 1441 (10th Cir. 1996) (stating supervisory status alone does not support § 1983 liability). And, "denial of a grievance, by itself without any connection to the violation of constitutional rights alleged by plaintiff, does not establish personal participation under § 1983." Gallagher v. Shelton, No. 09-3113, 2009 U.S. App. LEXIS 25787, at *11 (10th Cir. Nov. 24, 2009).

         Moreover, the Third Circuit has persuasively advised regarding inadequate-medical-treatment claims that nonmedical correctional staff may not be "considered deliberately indifferent simply because they failed to respond directly to the medical complaints of a prisoner who was already being treated by the prison doctor." Durmer v. O'Carroll, 991 F.2d 64, 69 (3d Cir. 1993). Expanding on this, the court stated:

If a prisoner is under the care of medical experts . . ., a non-medical prison official will generally be justified in believing that the prisoner is in capable hands. This follows naturally from the division of labor within a prison. Inmate health and safety is promoted by dividing responsibility for various aspects of inmate life among guards, administrators, physicians, and so on. Holding a non-medical prison official liable in a case where a prisoner was under a physician's care would strain this division of labor.

Spruill v. Gillis, 372 F.3d 218, 236 (3d Cir. 2004).

         C. CLAIM NOT LINKED TO NAMED DEFENDANTS

         Plaintiff has not affirmatively linked his claim to these defendants: Bailey, Brown, Bown, Braithwaite, Larsen, Nielsen, and Nunnley. None of these defendants was in a position to provide medical care. Each of them solely provided supervision or referred Plaintiff to medical personnel or denied grievances. None of these activities support a civil-rights claim; thus, all these defendants are dismissed.

         II. SUMMARY JUDGMENT

         This Court shall grant summary judgment when “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.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). A party may support factual assertions by “citing to particular parts of materials in the record, including depositions, documents, electronically stored information, affidavits or declarations, stipulations (including those made for purposes of the motion only), admissions, interrogatory answers, or other materials.” Id. at 56(c)(1). Summary judgment's purpose “is to isolate and dispose of factually unsupported claims or defenses.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323-24 (1986).

         The movant has the “initial burden to demonstrate an absence of evidence to support an essential element of the non-movant's case.” Johnson v. City of Bountiful, 996 F.Supp. 1100, 1102 (D. Utah 1998). Once movant meets this burden, “the burden then shifts to the non-movant to make a showing sufficient to establish that there is a genuine issue of material fact regarding the existence of that element.” Id. To do so, the non-movant must “go beyond the pleadings and ‘set forth specific facts' that would be admissible in evidence in the event of a trial from which a rational trier of fact could find for the nonmovant.” Adler v. Wal-Mart Stores, 144 F.3d 664, 671 (10th Cir. 1999) (citation omitted). In ruling on a summary-judgment motion, this Court must “examine the factual record and reasonable inferences therefrom in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion.” Sealock v. Colorado, 218 F.3d1205, 1209 (10th Cir. 2000).

         Defendants' assertion of qualified immunity modifies the summary-judgment review. Asserting qualified immunity, a state employee creates a rebuttable presumption that she is immune from the plaintiff's § 1983 claims. See Medina v. Cram, 252 F.3d 1124, 1129 (10th Cir. 2001). And rather than “focus[ing] on the existence of genuine disputes of material fact, ” the court must “'determine whether plaintiff's factual allegations are sufficiently grounded in the record such that they may permissibly comprise the universe of facts that will serve as the foundation for answering the legal questions before the court.'” Spencer v. Abbott, No. 16-4009, 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 24668, at *10 n.6 (10th Cir. Dec. 5, 2017) (unpublished) (emphasis in original) (quoting Cox v. Glanz, 800 F.3d 1231, 1243 (10th Cir. 2015)).

         The qualified immunity analysis has two parts: first, whether, under the facts alleged by the plaintiff, the government officials violated a constitutional right; and second, “whether the right at issue was ‘clearly established' at the time of the defendant's alleged misconduct.” Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 232 (citing Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194, 201 (2001)). If the plaintiff fails to satisfy either element of his burden, the court must grant the defendant qualified immunity. See Medina, 252 F.3d at 1128.

         If the material facts are not disputed, the question of immunity “is a legal one for the court to decide.” Gomes v. Wood, 451 F.3d 1122, 1136 (10th Cir. 2006). Such is the case here.

         The claim here is based on Plaintiff's complaints of hemorrhoids. (Compl., Doc. No. 5, at 4.) He sought help from remaining Defendants Burnham and Estey from January 12, 2018, when he “filled out a medical request, ” (id.), until he filed the Complaint on February 28, 2018, (id.).[2]He asserts that after a ...


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