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Abdulrazzaq v. Trump

United States District Court, District of Columbia

October 28, 2019

DONALD J. TRUMP, et al., Defendants.



         Petitioner Nashwan Al-Ramer Abdulrazzaq, a male Iraqi citizen detained at a prison facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba (“Guantanamo”), is awaiting trial before a military commission on non-capital charges of Denying Quarter, Attacking Protected Property, Using Treachery or Perfidity, Attempted Use of Treachery or Perfidity, and Conspiracy to Violate the Laws of War. Mot. to Dismiss Pet'r's Second Am. Pet. for a Writ of Habeas Corpus (“Mot. to Dismiss”), ECF No. 47 at 17.[1]

         On November 29, 2017, Petitioner filed a Second Amended Petition for a Writ of Habeas Corpus, raising four claims: (1) the conditions of his confinement at Guantanamo violate the Eighth Amendment; (2) the structure of the military commissions process violates the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment (“conflict-of-interest” claim); (3) discrimination against him by reason of his nationality in violation of the equal protection guarantees in the Fifth Amendment (“equal protection” claim); and (4) violation of his right to counsel guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment and the Military Commissions Act (“MCA”) (“interference-with-counsel-communications” claim). Pet'r's Opp'n to Resp'ts' Mot. to Dismiss Pet'r's Second Am. Pet. for a Writ of Habeas Corpus, (“Opp'n”), ECF No. 59 at 6-7.

         Pending before the Court is the Respondents' motion to dismiss. Respondent argues that Petitioner has failed to state an Eighth Amendment claim, and that the Court lacks jurisdiction to consider the Petitioner's conflict-of-interest, equal protection, and interference-with-counsel-communications claims. In the alternative, Respondent argues that the court should abstain from deciding these three claims at this time. Upon careful consideration of the parties' submissions, the applicable law, and for the reasons discussed below, the Court GRANTS IN PART and HOLDS IN ABEYANCE IN PART Respondents' Motion to Dismiss. Petitioner's Eighth Amendment claim is DISMISSED. Petitioner's remaining claims are HELD IN ABEYANCE. Since the Court will abstain from resolving the merits of those claims pending the ultimate conclusion of the military commission proceedings, all proceedings relating to those claims are STAYED.

         I. Background

         A. Petitioner's Medical Condition

         The following facts are alleged in Petitioner's Second Amended Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus. Petitioner has been in the custody of the United States since 2006, first at one or more “black sites, ” and then at Guantanamo since April 2007. Second Am. Pet., ECF No. 164 ¶ 9. Petitioner's medical records show that “he has sought treatment for chronic and worsening back pain” throughout his detention. Id. ¶ 18. A computerized tomography scan (“CT scan”) taken in 2008 showed “degenerative disc disease between the L4 and L5 vertebrae.” Id. At that point, Petitioner's recurring back pain was deemed chronic. Id. In May 2008, an examination noted that he “seemed unsteady while standing” and in June 2008, his “back pain had increased to include pain that radiated down his right leg.” Id. In August 2008, his doctors noted that he “‘expressed concerns about the current back pain and the length of time' it has taken to resolve the issue.” Id. Petitioner “continued to seek treatment through 2008 and into 2009.” Id. ¶ 19. In August 2009, he reported experiencing “flare-ups and pain radiating from his back to his left leg.” Id. As a result, medical examiners “performed various diagnostic tests, but failed to cure the ailment or the pain.” Id. “X-rays and CT scans continued to show degenerative disc disease.” Id. “Throughout 2010, Petitioner continued to be seen for chronic back pain [and] [i]n June 2010, he again reported pain that ran down the side of his leg.” Id. “Throughout 2010, he received physical therapy, traction table therapy, and regular treatments with a Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulator unit.” Id. ¶ 21. However, “[t]hese therapies and treatments were ineffective.” Id.

         In September 2010, Petitioner was diagnosed with spinal stenosis, “an abnormal narrowing of his spinal canal” which can result in pain and “neurological deficits such as numbness and loss of motor control.” Id. ¶ 22. As a result of this diagnosis, “a doctor proposed the possibility of surgery, though none was performed.” Id. In November 2011, “Petitioner was again diagnosed with lumbar spine disc herniation and spinal stenosis, ” reporting “pain radiating to his right buttock.” Id. ¶ 23. Petitioner continued to experience and be seen for chronic low back pain throughout the remainder of 2011 and 2012. Id. ¶¶ 23, 24. In January 2012, he “reported low back pain radiating to his left thigh” and in September 2012, “sharp pain radiating from his back toward his left knee.” Id. ¶ 24. Doctors ordered testing, “but it is not clear from the medical records whether that testing was performed.” Id. “In November 2012, [Petitioner] continued to report radiating pain from his low back down through his thighs, but for the first time, reporting feeling ‘pins and needles sensations' in his toes.” Id. ¶ 25.

         Between 2013 and 2017, “Petitioner's condition continued to degrade and he continued to suffer from back pain.” Id. ¶ 26. On January 9, 2017, Petitioner was subjected to “forcible cell extraction” (“FCE”)[2] with “no accommodation . . . made for his long-standing spinal and nerve diseases, well-known to Guantanamo personnel . . . after which his lower back pain symptoms noticeably increased.” Id. ¶ 27.

         On January 23, 2017, another CT scan was performed revealing Petitioner's increased degeneration of the spine. Id. ¶ 28. “It was at this time, many years into Petitioner's history of accelerating symptoms, that an MRI was first proposed.” Id. Independent medical experts informed Petitioner and Respondents that Petitioner's spinal condition, “if left untreated, could cause severe and permanent neurological impairment.” Id. However, “Guantanamo personnel left this condition untreated for approximately 9 months by which time severe and permanent neurological impairment had either occurred or was imminent.” Id.

         In August 2017, Petitioner “began to experience an increase in the loss of sensation in both feet . . . increased loss of sensation in both hands and both legs . . . increase in his muscle weakness . . [and] an increase in the level, sharpness, and frequency of his pain.” Id. ¶ 29. On August 10, 2017, following a medical examination, “[t]he doctor determined that Petitioner's deteriorating condition required transportation to the hospital for additional tests. Some tests were conducted, but, apparently, a prescribed CT scan could not be performed because the hospital staff failed to properly inject intravenous contrast dye for the exam.” Id. ¶ 31.

         On September 1, 2017, counsel for Petitioner addressed an “Emergency Request for Expert Assistance-Neurological Surgery” memorandum to Respondents. Id. ¶ 34. “The memorandum described the inability of Petitioner to obtain urgently needed medical care, the inability of Petitioner or his counsel to obtain current medical records concerning his status or care, and requested the intervention of the Convening Authority to appoint an independent medical specialist able to diagnose Petitioner's condition and recommend treatment.” Id. ¶ 34. The memorandum was supported by a letter from doctors associated with Physicians for Human Rights who opined that Petitioner needed immediate emergency attention. Id. ¶ 35.

         On September 5, 2017, a surgical team was flown to Guantanamo in the midst of Hurricane Irma to perform emergency back surgery on Petitioner. Id. ¶¶ 36-37.

         B. Military Commission Proceedings

         On June 2, 2014, the Convening Authority[3] referred the charges against the Petitioner to a military commission for trial, Mot. to Dismiss, ECF No. 47 at 17, and pretrial proceedings have been ongoing since that time, Resp't Opp'n to Pet'r's Mot. to Lift Stay and for Prelim. Inj., ECF No. 149 at 6. Petitioner's trial is scheduled to begin September 19, 2020. Id. at 7. Petitioner has raised his equal protection, conflict-of-interest, and interference-with-counsel-communications claims with the military judge in motions during pretrial proceedings and received adverse rulings on each. Mot. to Dismiss, ECF No. 47 at 8, Reply; ECF No. 62 at 4.

         II. Standard of Review

         A motion to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) “tests the legal sufficiency of a complaint.” Browning v. Clinton, 292 F.3d 235, 242 (D.C. Cir. 2002). The court will dismiss a claim if the complaint fails to plead “enough facts to state a claim for relief that is plausible on its face.” Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). A complaint must contain “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief, ” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2), “in order to give the defendant fair notice of what the . . . claim is and the grounds upon which it rests, ” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555 (citation and internal quotation marks omitted).

         A complaint survives a Rule 12(b)(6) motion only if it “contain[s] sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570). A claim is facially plausible “when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw [a] reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Id. A complaint alleging facts which are “‘merely consistent with' a defendant's liability . . . ‘stops short of the line between possibility and plausibility of entitlement to relief.'” Id. (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 557).

         III. Discussion

         A. Eighth Amendment Claim

         1. Petitioner Fails to State an Eighth Amendment Claim

         Petitioner alleges long-standing and deliberate indifference to his serious medical needs in violation of the Eighth Amendment. Opp'n, ECF No. 59 at 6. There is no dispute as to whether this claim is properly before the Court: a person “in custody may challenge the conditions of his confinement in a petition for habeas corpus . . . ” Aamer v. Obama, 742 F.3d 1023, 1032 (D.C. Cir. 2014).

         The Eighth Amendment prohibits the infliction of “cruel and unusual punishments.” U.S. Const. amend. VIII. “[T]he government[] [is] obligat[ed] to provide medical care for those whom it is punishing by incarceration.” Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 103 (1976). The Supreme Court therefore has “conclude[d] that deliberate indifference to serious medical needs of prisoners constitutes the ‘unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain' proscribed by the Eighth Amendment.” Id. at 104 (quoting Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153, 173 (1962)).

         To state a claim for an Eighth Amendment violation, Petitioner must allege that the Guantanamo officials: (1) knew that Petitioner “face[d] a substantial risk of serious harm”; and (2) “disregard[ed] that risk by failing to take reasonable measures to abate it.” Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825, 847 (1994). The risk of “serious inmate harm” must be dire: “a condition of urgency, one that may produce death, degeneration, or extreme pain.” Hathaway v. Coughlin, 37 F.3d 63, 66 (2d Cir. 1994). With regard to the second prong, “a prison official must have a ‘sufficiently culpable state of mind.” Farmer, 511 U.S. at 834. “In prison condition cases that state of mind is one of ‘deliberate indifference' to inmate health or safety.” Id. (citing Wilson v. Seiter, 501 U.S. 294, 302-303 (1991)). The test for “deliberate indifference” is a subjective one:

a prison official cannot be found liable under the Eighth Amendment for denying an inmate humane conditions of confinement unless the official knows of and disregards an excessive risk to inmate health or safety; the official must both be aware of facts from which the inference could be drawn that a substantial risk of serious harm exists, and he must also draw the inference.

Id. at 837. This state of mind is more blameworthy than negligence. Id. at 835 (citing Estelle, 429 U.S. at 104).

         It is not the case, however, “that every claim by a prisoner that he has not received adequate medical treatment states a violation of the Eighth Amendment”:

[I]n the medical context, an inadvertent failure to provide adequate medical care cannot be said to constitute “an unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain” or to be “repugnant to the conscience of mankind.” Thus, a complaint that a physician has been negligent in diagnosing or treating a medical condition does not state a valid claim of medical mistreatment under the Eighth Amendment. Medical malpractice does not become a constitutional violation merely because the victim is a prisoner. In order to state a cognizable claim, a prisoner must allege acts or omissions sufficiently harmful to evidence deliberate ...

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