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Ennis v. Lott

December 15, 2008

QUENTA ENNIS, PLAINTIFF,
v.
BOBBY LOTT, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Henry H. Kennedy, Jr. United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION

This matter is before the Court on motions to dismiss filed on behalf of the District of Columbia Department of Corrections and Rick Berry.*fn1 For the reasons stated below, the motions will be granted.

I. BACKGROUND

At all times relevant to the Complaint, plaintiff was detained at the District of Columbia's Central Detention Facility ("D.C. Jail") awaiting transfer to a facility operated by the Federal Bureau of Prisons. See Compl. ¶ 1. According to plaintiff, on June 15, 2006, he was released from his cell for a 30-minute recreation period, during which he intended to make two telephone calls. See id. ¶¶ 4-5. Before plaintiff could make his second call, defendant "Berry informed [him] that [his] time was up." Id. ¶ 6. Defendant Lott entered the room and "put on a pair of gloves as he was yelling for [plaintiff] to get off the phone." Id. ¶ 7. Defendant Lott then, "without any provocation or purpose[,] approached [plaintiff], hung up the phone, and began grabbing [him] by the neck and choking [him] as he [was] shoving [plaintiff] away from the phone." Id. ¶ 9. Defendant Berry "attempted to intercede by telling Lott to take his hands off [plaintiff] . . . [but] made no attempts to either physically stop Lott or contain his continued assault." Id. ¶ 10. Lott "continued his assault on [plaintiff] by continuously [sic] punching [him] in the face." Id. ¶ 11. As a result, plaintiff sustained a broken nose, multiple bruises, loosened teeth, and he continues to experience "nasal problems," pain, and headaches. Id. ¶ 15.

Defendant Lott filed a Disciplinary Report charging plaintiff with an assault on staff and lack of cooperation. See Plaintiff's Exhibits in Support of Complaint [Dkt. #14-2], Ex. C (Disciplinary Report). According to Lott's report, plaintiff threw a soap dish which hit Lott in his chest. See id. An Adjustment Board found plaintiff guilty of both offenses and sanctioned him with placement in administrative segregation and loss of privileges for 30 days. See id. (June 30, 2006 letter to Robert Clay, Warden, from Almo J. Carter, Esq., Staff Attorney, Institutional Services Program, Public Defender Service) at 1. According to plaintiff, these disciplinary charges "were only filed after [plaintiff] made his intentions clear that he intended to file grievances against [defendant] Lott and others." Compl. ¶ 19. He further alleged that he was denied a fair hearing before the Adjustment Board, and that its failure to record the disciplinary proceedings violated its own procedures. Id. ¶ 20.

Plaintiff brings this civil rights action against corrections officers Lott and Berry and against the District of Columbia Department of Corrections ("DOC") under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents of Fed. Bureau of Narcotics, 403 U.S. 388 (1971), for alleged violations of rights protected by the First, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution.*fn2 He demands compensatory and punitive damages and declaratory relief.

II. DISCUSSION

A. Claims Against Defendant Berry

a. Official Capacity

Defendant Berry is sued in both his official and individual capacities. A suit against a government official in his official capacity "generally represent[s] only another way of pleading an action against an entity of which an officer is an agent," such that "an official capacity suit is, in all respects other than name, to be treated as a suit against the entity." Kentucky v. Graham, 473 U.S. 159, 165-66 (1985). Accordingly, plaintiff's claims against defendant Berry in his official capacity are dismissed. See, e.g., Price v. District of Columbia, 545 F. Supp. 2d 89, 95 (D.D.C. 2008) (commenting that the "overwhelming approach . . . taken by members of this Court, as well as the position taken by other courts" is to dismiss summarily a government official sued in his official capacity in conjunction with a suit also filed against the municipality on the ground that retaining the government official as a named defendant is redundant and inefficient). These claims are treated as if they are brought against the District of Columbia directly, and defendant Berry will be dismissed in his official capacity as a party defendant.

b. Individual Capacity

With respect to the claims against him in his individual capacity, defendant Berry argues that he is protected by qualified immunity "insofar as his . . . conduct dues not violate clearly established rights of which a reasonable person would have known." Defendant Rick Berry's Memorandum of Points and Authorities in Support of his Motion to Dismiss ("Berry Mot. to Dismiss") at 5 (page numbers designated on electronic docket). First, defendant Berry argues that the complaint fails to "identify the . . . constitutional rights allegedly violated . . . with specificity." Id. Second, he argues that his actions were objectively reasonable under the circumstances. Id. at 6.

Under the doctrine of qualified immunity, "government officials performing discretionary functions generally are shielded from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known." Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818 (1982). Indeed, "qualified immunity protects all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law." Malley v. Briggs, 475 U.S. 335, 341 (1986). The Supreme Court has "emphasized that qualified immunity questions should be resolved at the earliest possible stage of a litigation." Anderson v. Creighton, 483 U.S. 635, 646 n.6 (1987). When assessing a qualified immunity defense, the first inquiry a court must make is whether a constitutional right would have been violated on the facts alleged. See Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194, 201 (2001); Barham v. Ramsey, 434 F.3d 565, 572 (D.C. Cir. 2006). Only if this question is answered in the affirmative must the federal officer then demonstrate that "a reasonable officer could have believed" that the actions were lawful "in light of clearly established law and the information the ... officer[ ] possessed." Anderson, 483 U.S. at 641; see Barham, 434 F.3d at 572; Harris v. District of Columbia, 932 F.2d 10, 13 (D.C. Cir. 1991) (noting that "[o]fficials are liable for committing constitutional torts . . . only if they knew, or were unreasonable in not knowing, that their behavior violated the Constitution.").

According to the Complaint, defendant Berry "did knowingly and intentionally act while under the color of law[] to violate [plaintiff's] Eighth Amendment [r]ight to be free from cruel and unusual punishment by conspiring and allowing [d]efendant Lott to physically assault [him], and further failing to immediately report and later attempting to downplay and cover up the facts as to what had truly occurred [sic] before, during, and after the incident." Compl. at 6. In other words, defendant Berry's mere "attempt[] to intercede by telling Lott to take his hands off of [plaintiff], [while making] no attempts to either physically stop Lott or contain his continued assault," id. at 4, violated plaintiff's Eighth Amendment rights. Defendant Berry cannot be held liable for the alleged unconstitutional acts of his fellow correctional officer, however. See Haynesworth v. Miller, 820 F.2d 1245, 1259 (D.C. Cir. 1987)) ("Analytically, high-level public officials are not employers of their subordinates but rather are fellow governmental servants, and it thus is inappropriate to hold them ...


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