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Federal Court Examines Inmate’s Civil Claims For Failure to Provide Proper Medical Care

Marcus Elton Henderson v. Department of Corrections, et al.
Case No. 16-805-SLR (United States District Court for the District of Delaware, November 15, 2016)

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

Available at:
http://www.ded.uscourts.gov/sites/default/files/opinions/slr/2016/november/16-805.pdf

Marcus Elton Henderson v. Department of Corrections, et al. involved the United States District Court for the District of Delaware’s consideration of an inmate’s civil rights lawsuit against the facility where he was detained and his treating physician, pursuant to the screening provisions of 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B) and § 1915A(b). The Court concluded that the correctional facility was immune from suit under the Eleventh Amendment to the United States Constitution, and that the treating physician was a private individual, not a state actor. Thus, the Court dismissed the inmate’s claims as legally frivolous.

By way of factual background, Plaintiff Marcus Elton Henderson (“Plaintiff”), an inmate at the Sussex Correctional Institution, broke his hand on May 30, 2016. He was taken to the hospital and received treatment. On June 16, 2016, he submitted a “sick call” slip, under the correctional institution’s protocol, complaining about pain and “getting the hand fixed” but nothing was done. Plaintiff submitted a grievance on June 18, 2016, complaining about the lack of medical treatment. On July 6, 2016, Plaintiff was seen by Dr. Sopa, an orthopedic specialist (“Dr. Sopa”). Plaintiff alleged that Dr. Sopa “did not properly observe him” and “rushed him out of the office.” Plaintiff later submitted numerous additional “sick call” slips, but nothing was done. Plaintiff subsequently filed a lawsuit pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that Defendants, the Department of Correction, Sussex Correctional Institution (“SCI”) and Dr. Sopa, violated his constitutional rights. Plaintiff sought compensatory and punitive damages as well as a second medical opinion.

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.” See Ball v. Famiglio, 726 F.3d 448, 452 (3d Cir. 2013); 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).

Regarding Plaintiff’s claims against SCI, the Court noted that “SCI falls under the umbrella of the Delaware Department of Correction, an agency of the State of Delaware.” The Court explained that the Eleventh Amendment to the United States Constitution “protects states and their agencies and departments from suit in federal court regardless of the kind of relief sought,” and that “absent a state’s consent, the Eleventh Amendment bars a civil rights suit in federal court that names the state as a defendant.” See Pennhurst State School & Hosp. v. Halderman, 465 U.S. 89, 100 (1984); Laskaris v. Thornburgh, 661 F.2d 23, 25 (3d Cir. 1981) (citing Alabama v. Pugh, 438 U.S. 781 (1978)).

The Court noted that Delaware had not waived its immunity from suit in federal court, and that “although Congress can abrogate a state’s sovereign immunity, it did not do so through the enactment of 42 U.S.C. § 1983.” See Brooks-McCollum v. Delaware, 213 F.App’x 92, 94 (3d Cir. 2007). In addition, the Court noted that dismissal was also proper because “SCI is not a person for purposes of § 1983.” See Will v. Michigan Dep’t of State Police, 491 U.S. 58, 71 (1989); Calhoun v. Young, 288 F.App’x 47 (3d Cir. 2008). Therefore, the Court held that the claims against SCI would be dismissed pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B)(iii) and § 1915A(b)(2) because SCI was immune from suit.

Next, the Court noted that Plaintiff also brought a § 1983 claim against Dr. Sopa who treated Plaintiff in June 2016. The Court explained that to state a claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, “a plaintiff must allege the violation of a right secured by the Constitution or laws of the United States and must show that the alleged deprivation was committed by a person acting under color of state law.” See West v. Atkins, 487 U.S. 42, 48 (1988) (citing Parratt v. Taylor, 451 U.S. 527, 535 (1981), overruled in part on other grounds by Daniels v. Williams, 474 U.S. 327, 330-31 (1986)). The Court further explained that “to act under ‘color of state law’ a defendant must be ‘clothed with the authority of state law.’” See West, 487 U.S. at 49.

According to the Court, Dr. Sopa was “a private individual” who provided Plaintiff medical treatment at a private practice. Accordingly, the Court concluded that Dr. Sopa was not “clothed with the authority of state law.” See Reichley v. Pennsylvania Dep’t of Agric., 427 F.3d 236, 244-45 (3d Cir. 2005); Biener v. Calio, 361 F.3d 206, 216-17 (3d Cir. 2004). Therefore, the Court held that the § 1983 claims against Dr. Sopa would be dismissed as legally frivolous pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B)(i) and § 1915(A)(b)(1).

For the above reasons, the Court dismissed Plaintiff’s claims against SCI and Dr. Sopa as legally frivolous and based upon immunity from suit pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(b) and § 1915A(b).


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