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07/31/90 KENARD E. JOHNSON-EL v. DISTRICT COLUMBIA

July 31, 1990

KENARD E. JOHNSON-EL, APPELLANT
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, ET AL., APPELLEE



Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia; Hon. Robert S. Tignor, Trial Judge

Rogers, Chief Judge, Newman and Belson, Associate Judges.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Newman

Kenard E. Johnson-El appeals from the dismissal of his pro se complaint alleging that District prison officials delayed or denied medical treatment for his scalp condition. At the time the complaint was filed, Johnson-El was a prisoner at Youth Center One in the District's Lorton, Virginia correctional facility. *fn1 The complaint was dismissed without opinion by order of the Superior Court following the District's Motion to Dismiss, in which the District argued that Johnson-El's claim was barred by his failure to give written notice of his injury to the Mayor of the District of Columbia within six months of the injury pursuant to D.C. Code 12-309 (1989) and for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. On appeal, the District concedes that dismissal on the notice ground was proper only in so far as it addressed Johnson-El's common law tort claims against the District.

Now represented by counsel, Johnson-El concedes that the dismissal of his common law tort claims is mandated by Campbell v. District of Columbia, 568 A.2d 1076 (D.C. 1990). However, he contends that his complaint, liberally construed, also states an Eighth Amendment claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (1981), which is not subject to the notice provisions of § 12-309 and, thus, may not be dismissed on that ground. We agree that a § 1983 claim is not subject to the notice requirement of § 12-309. she District defends the dismissal as to this claim on the ground that the pleadings are inadequate to allege a § 1983 claim. We disagree. We hold that Johnson-El's pleadings adequately state a claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983; we reverse and remand for reinstatement of the complaint on that ground.

I

On July 10, 1986, while incarcerated at Youth Center One in the District's Lorton, Virginia correctional facility, Kenard E. Johnson-El filed a handwritten pro se complaint against Mayor Marion Barry, Director of the District of Columbia Department of Corrections James Palmer, and Administrator of Youth Center One Authur Graves. According to the allegations contained in the complaint, in December 1986, *fn2 while incarcerated at Youth Center One, Johnson-El was taken by prison authorities to see a dermatologist at the District's Occoquan facility concerning a scalp condition. The dermatologist diagnosed Johnson-El's scalp condition and made an appointment for him to. return in thirty days for further treatment. However, prison officials never permitted Johnson-El to keep that appointment, despite his repeated complaints and requests. Johnson-El was told by the Medical Technician Assistant at Youth Center One that the reason for delaying or denying him access to the dermatologist was the lack of available transportation. As a result of the delay or denial of medical treatment, Johnson-El's condition worsened and his hair began to fall out.

Over the next two years, Johnson-El and the District engaged in discovery and filed various pre-trial motions. In his pretrial statement, filed June 8, 1988, Johnson-El repeated the allegations made in his complaint, adding that the delay or denial of medical treatment was unjustified. *fn3 He also identified his scalp condition as "folliculits (sic), Sycosis, []Vulgaris" resulting in "permanent Keloid Sycosis." With his pretrial statement, Johnson-El filed a Request for Stipulation, in which he alleged that prison officials had acted with "deliberate indifference to serious medical needs . . . constitut the 'unnecessary and wanton infication (sic) of pain Proscribed (sic) by the Eighth Amendment,'" and cited as cases he would rely upon Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 97 S. Ct. 285, 50 L. Ed. 2d 251 (1976) and Hurst v. Phelps, 579 F.2d 940 (5th Cir. 1978).

On June 14, 1988, the District moved for dismissal of the complaint, or in the alternative summary judgment, on the ground that Johnson-El had failed to serve written notice on the Mayor of the District of Columbia, as required by D.C. Code § 12-309. *fn4 In an order dated August 17, 1988, the Superior Court granted the District's motion to dismiss without opinion. This appeal followed.

II

Since a challenge to the sufficiency of a complaint brought under Rule 12(b)(6) presents questions of law, our standard of review for dismissal for failure to state a claim is de novo. Trerice v. Pedersen, 769 F.2d 1398, 1400 (9th Cir. 1985); see also American Ins. Co. v. Smith, 472 A.2d 872, 873-74 (D.C. 1984) (Rule 12(b)(6), which is identical to its federal counterpart, Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b), is designed solely to test the legal sufficiency of the complaint.) In reviewing the dismissal of a complaint, we must "construe the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff and assume, for purposes of the motion, that the allegations in the complaint are true." Vicki Bagley Realty, Inc. v. Laufer, 482 A.2d 359, 364 (D.C. 1984). "ny ambiguities or doubts concerning the sufficiency of the claim must be resolved in favor of the pleader." Doe v. United States Dep't of Justice, 243 U.S.App. D.C. 354, 364, 753 F.2d 1092, 1102 (1985). Moreover, a complaint should not be dismissed on grounds that the court. doubts that the plaintiff will prevail. McBryde v. Amoco Oil Co., 404 A.2d 200 (D.C. 1979). More particularly, prisoner pro se complaints must be construed liberally in favor of the plaintiff, see, e.g., Hughes v. Rowe, 449 U.S. 5, 10, 101 S. Ct. 173, 66 L. Ed. 2d 163 (1980) (per curiam), and "should not be dismissed for failure to state a claim unless it is beyond doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of his claim which would entitle him to relief." Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 45-46, 78 S. Ct. 99, 2 L. Ed. 2d 80 (1957). This principle applies with special force in pro se civil rights suits brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Rubin v. O'Koren, 621 F.2d 114, 117 (5th Cir. 1980).

Johnson-El's complaint, broadly construed, states three claims. Two of the claims sound in common law tort, with each claim asking the District to answer for the alleged misconduct of its prison employees regarding delay or denial of Johnson-El's medical treatment. One claim rests on a theory of simple negligence; the other rests on a theory of intentional tort. In addition, Johnson-El's complaint states a tort claim *fn5 arising from the alleged application of cruel and unusual punishment, in violation of the Eighth Amendment, by means of deliberate indifference to Johnson-El's need for medical treatment. See Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 97 S. Ct. 285, 50 L. Ed. 2d 251 (1976).

As noted above, prisoner pro se complaints must be construed liberally in favor of the plaintiff, see, e.g., Hughes, supra, 449 U.S. at 10, and "should not be dismissed for failure to state a claim unless it appears beyond doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of his claim that would entitle him to relief." Conley, supra, 355 U.S. at 45-46. However, this rule of liberal construction is not without limits. In order to withstand dismissal, such complaints must plead the alleged violation of civil rights with specificity. Maute v. Roth, 90 F.R.D. 174, 177 (E.D. Pa. 1981) ("plaintiff shall specifically identify when, where, and who violated which of his rights.") (citing Ressler v. Scheipe, 505 F. Supp. 155 (E.D. Pa. 1981)); see also Benson, supra, 761 F.2d at 341 (dismissal of § 1983 complaint predicated on failure to implement adequate system for diagnosis and treatment of injuries was proper where complaint failed to allege specific deficiencies in the prison's health care system). Moreover, a complaint alleging an Eighth Amendment violation by prison officials stemming the lack of medical attention must allege that those officials acted with deliberate indifference, rather than out of simple negligence. Estelle v. Gamble, supra, 429 U.S. at 104-05. However, even deliberate indifference by prison officials need not violate the Eighth Amendment where the prisoner's medical condition is not sufficiently serious. Shabazz v. Barnauskas, 790 F.2d 1536, 1538 (11th Cir. 1986) (A prisoner's development of pseudofolliculitis or "shaving bumps" due to the fact that prison officials required him to shave, even though on instructions from a physician, he should not have been required, is not a sufficiently serious medical condition to constitute an Eighth Amendment violation).

Reading the complaint broadly and in conjunction with the pretrial statement, we conclude that Johnson-El states an Eighth Amendment claim for medical ...


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