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U.S. District Court Examines Requirements for § 1983 Claims Against Correctional Officers

Damarius T. Turnage v. Warden Bill Oettell, et al.
No. 15-696-SLR (United States District Court for the District of Delaware, October 26, 2015)

by Richard J. Medoff, Law Clerk
Semmes, Bowen & Semmes (www.semmes.com)

Available at: http://www.ded.uscourts.gov/sites/default/files/opinions/slr/2015/october/15-696.pdf

In Damarius T. Turnage v. Warden Bill Oettell, et al., a case involving the United States District Court for the District of Delaware’s screening of an inmate’s § 1983 lawsuit against several staff members of the T. Vaughn Correctional Center pursuant to the screening provisions of 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B) and § 1915A(b), the Court concluded that the inmate’s claims against two (2) of the Defendants lacked an arguable basis in law and fact. Thus, Judge Sue L. Robinson dismissed those two (2) Defendants from the case finding that the claims raised against them were frivolous.

By way of factual background, Plaintiff Damarius T. Turnage (“Plaintiff”) was an inmate at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center ("VCC") in Smyrna, Delaware. Plaintiff alleged that when he and another inmate, Steven Dennis ("Dennis"), were in the VCC dining room on October 15, 2013, Dennis called him a snitch and threatened to assault him. Plaintiff further alleged that this occurred in the presence of Defendants Lieutenant Kelly ("Kelly"), Sergeant West ("West"), Corporal Bridhop ("Bridhop"), Corporal Jones ("Jones"), and Corporal Gariel ("Gariel"), all of whom were members of the VCC staff. Ten (10) minutes after leaving the dining room, Dennis attacked and assaulted Plaintiff with broom sticks. Plaintiff was hospitalized for three (3) days as a result of the attack.

After the attack, Plaintiff filed a lawsuit, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that his Constitutional rights had been violated by various VCC staff members. Plaintiff proceeded pro se and was granted leave to proceed in forma pauperis.

The Court began its analysis by noting that a federal court may properly dismiss an action sua sponte under the screening provisions of 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B) and § 1915A(b) if "the action is frivolous or malicious, fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, or seeks monetary relief from a defendant who is immune from such relief." Ball v. Famiglio, 726 F.3d 448, 452 (3d Cir. 2013); see also 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2) (in forma pauperis actions); 28 U.S.C. § 1915A (actions in which prisoner seeks redress from a governmental defendant); 42 U.S.C. § 1997e (prisoner actions brought with respect to prison conditions).

The Court explained that an action is frivolous if it "lacks an arguable basis either in law or in fact" (Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319, 325 (1989)), and that under 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B)(i) and § 1915A(b)(1), a court may dismiss a complaint as frivolous if it is "based on an indisputably meritless legal theory" or a "clearly baseless" or "fantastic or delusional" factual scenario. Neitzke, 490 at 327-28; Wilson v. Rackmill, 878 F.2d 772, 774 (3d Cir. 1989); see, e.g., Deutsch v. U.S., 67 F.3d 1080, 1091-92 (3d Cir. 1995) (holding frivolous a suit alleging that prison officials took an inmate's pen and refused to give it back).

The Court noted that Plaintiff had named VCC’s Warden, Bill Oettel ("Oettel"), as a Defendant, but made no allegations directed to him. The Court explained that the Third Circuit has reiterated that a § 1983 claim cannot be premised upon a theory of respondeat superior and that, in order to establish liability for deprivation of a constitutional right, a party must show personal involvement by each defendant. Brito v. U.S. Dep't of Justice, 392 F. App'x 11, 14 (3d Cir. 2010) (unpublished) (citing Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 677 (2009); Rode v. Dellarciprete, 845 F.2d 1195, 1207 (3d Cir. 1998)). Accordingly, because Plaintiff made no allegations directed against Oettel, the Court concluded that Plaintiff’s claims against Oettel were frivolous. Thus, the Court held that Oettel should be dismissed from the case.

The Court next noted that Plaintiff had also named another VCC staff member, Lieutenant King ("King"), as a Defendant, but similarly raised no claims against him. Hence, the Court concluded that Plaintiff’s claims against King must fail for the same reasons that Plaintiff’s claims against Oettel failed. See Brito, 392 F. App'x at 14.

Additionally, the Court noted that Plaintiff had described King as the “individual who investigated the assault,” however, the Court explained that King had no mandatory duty to investigate and pursue the prosecution of the individual who assaulted Plaintiff. See Schaeffer v. Wilson, 240 F. App'x 974, 976 (3d Cir. 2007) (unpublished) (citing Inmates of Attica Corr. Facility v. Rockefeller, 477 F.2d 375, 382 (2d Cir. 1973) (holding inmates failed to state a claim against state officials for failing to investigate or prosecute civil rights violations). Accordingly, the Court concluded that Plaintiff’s claims against king were also frivolous. Thus, the Court held that King should likewise be dismissed from the case.

For the above reasons, the Court dismissed Defendants Oettel and King from the case pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(b)(i) and § 1915A(b)(1) as the claims raised against them were frivolous. The Court allowed Plaintiff to proceed against the remaining Defendants, Kelly, West, Bridhop, Jones, and Gariel, however, finding that Plaintiff had alleged what appeared to be cognizable and non-frivolous failure to protect claims against them.


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