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Voris v. Thornton

United States District Court, S.D. Texas, Houston Division

February 23, 2018

ROBERT ARTHUR VORIS, TDCJ-CID #1225841, Plaintiff,
RANDALL K. THORNTON, et al, Defendants.



         Plaintiff Robert Arthur Voris, a state inmate incarcerated in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice - Correctional Institutions Division (TDCJ-CID), has filed a complaint under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that prison officials have violated his civil rights. With the assistance of counsel, Voris sues Joseph Dudley, sergeant at the Ellis Unit; Deleta Jones, building captain at the Ellis Unit; and Randall K. Thornton, correctional officer at the Ellis Unit. Voris alleges that the defendants used excessive force and retaliated against him.

         Defendant Dudley has moved for summary judgment. (Docket Entry No. 26). Voris I responded. (Docket Entry No. 30). Based on the pleadings, the motion, the summary judgment record, and the applicable law, this court grants the motion for summary judgment filed by Sergeant Dudley. The reasons for this ruling are stated below.

         I. Voris's Allegations

         On March 28, 2014, while confined at the Ellis Unit, Voris was in the C-6 cellblock dayroom, a common area in which inmates watch television, visit, and play dominos and checkers. Voris explains that the dayroom area is separated from the main hallway at the Ellis Unit by glass panels which require considerable force to break. Voris states that he was in the dayroom, and Officer Thornton was in the main hallway, escorting another inmate. Officer Thornton observed Voris through the glass wall separating the dayroom from the main hallway. Voris alleges that without any provocation from Voris, Officer Thornton ordered Voris to place his face against the glass wall separating the dayroom and hallway. After Voris complied with the order, and had placed his face against the glass wall, Officer Thornton balled up his fist and punched the window pane directly where Voris's face was positioned. The window shattered, causing the shards of glass to puncture Voris's eye. Voris suffered substantial injuries to his eye. Voris was taken to the Ellis Unit infirmary where medical treatment was administered. The injury was so severe as to require corrective surgery at the University of Texas Medical Branch, in Galveston, Texas, by Doctors Betty Williams and Marcia Coca. The injuries to Voris's eye resulted in a period of blindness in the eye, with an ongoing fear of experiencing disease or recurring blindness in the eye. Voris states that he suffered ongoing severe mental and emotional distress.

         Following Officer Thornton's physical assault upon Voris, Sergeant Dudley and Officer Thornton left the main hallway and entered the dayroom, where the injured Voris was situated. Voris immediately began to exercise his First Amendment right to complain to Sergeant Dudley regarding what had transpired, and utilize the informal resolution component to the TDCJ-CID Offender Grievance procedure. Sergeant Dudley soon halted Voris's complaint, and with Officer Thornton, escorted Voris to the Ellis infirmary. Voris asserts that Sergeant Dudley immediately recognized the strong likelihood that Voris would file a grievance complaining of Officer Thornton's conduct, and pursue a civil rights lawsuit against Officer Thornton. In retaliation for the exercise of Voris's First Amendment, Sergeant Dudley refused to take any witness statements from several available inmates in the dayroom who witnessed Officer Thornton's illegal use of force. After taking Voris to the infirmary for treatment following the assault, Sergeant Dudley intentionally provided false information concerning the incident to infirmary personnel, which Sergeant Dudley knew would be recorded in government documents such as Voris's medical record and infirmary records. Sergeant Dudley stated to infirmary personnel that Officer Thornton had simply tapped on the glass and the glass shattered. Voris asserts Sergeant Dudley chilled the exercise of Voris's First Amendment right to state to infirmary personnel what actually had transpired during the assault. Before Voris could speak to infirmary personnel, Sergeant Dudley admonished Voris not to start trouble if Voris wanted to graduate (from a program in which Voris was currently enrolled and critical to Voris's classification status and release eligibility) and stay out of administrative segregation. This had the effect of chilling (and silencing) Voris's First Amendment right to complain to infirmary personnel of the incident and Officer Thornton's misconduct. The threats and conduct of Sergeant Dudley were capable of deterring a person of ordinary firmness from further exercising his First Amendment right.

         Voris seeks compensatory damages, punitive damages, and nominal damages against the named defendants in varying amounts. (Docket Entry No. 12, pp. 5-6).

         II. Procedural History

         Voris filed this lawsuit with the assistance of counsel on March 24, 2016. Summons for the three named defendants were issued by the Clerk of Court on March 25, 2016. On May 18, 2016, Defendants Dudley and Jones filed a motion to dismiss. Voris responded that existing claims involving Defendant Deleta Jones will not be pursued in light of the practical difficulty in obtaining additional evidence regarding her involvement regarding her supervisory role. (Docket Entry No. 6, p. 3).

         On May 18, 2016, the Texas Attorney General's Office advised the court that Randall Thornton had not been served because counsel had not been able to locate an officer named Randall Thornton who was working at the Ellis Unit at the times complained of by Voris. (Docket Entry No. 4, p. 1 n.l). On July 18, 2016, Voris sought an additional 120 days within which to serve Officer Randall K. Thornton. (Docket Entry No. 7). In an order entered on November 30, 2016, this court noted that the requested period of an additional 120 days had expired, but Officer Randall K. Thornton had not been served.

         This court instructed Voris to show cause, by December 15, 2016, why the case should not be dismissed based on his failure to timely serve process as required by Rule 4(m) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Voris was warned: If such good cause is not shown, or if no response is received within such time, this case may be dismissed without prejudice and without further notice to Voris.

         In his response to the show cause order, Voris explained that he learned that the correct name of the defendant is "K. Thornton, " instead of "Randall K. Thornton." Voris sought an additional extension of 70 days or until January 31, 2017, to complete service. On January 5, 2017, this court granted Voris's Motion for Extension of Time to complete service. (Docket Entry No. 10). On February 6, 2017, counsel for Defendants Jones and Sergeant Dudley advised the court that Thornton is currently employed at the Estelle Unit and will file a responsive pleading within 14 days. (Docket Entry No. 15).

         On March 22, 2017, this court granted the motion to dismiss filed by Sergeant Dudley and Jones, (Docket Entry No. 4), in part, and denied it, in part. This court granted Voris's motion to dismiss Deleta Jones.

         This court ordered Officers Dudley and Thornton to file a dispositive motion, namely, a motion for summary judgment under Fed.R.Civ.P. 56, no later than April 27, 2017. Sergeant Dudley moves for summary judgment as to Voris's retaliation claim.

         III. The Applicable Legal Standard

         Summary judgment is appropriate if no genuine issue of material fact exists and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). "The movant bears the burden of identifying those portions of the record it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact." Triple Tee Golf, Inc. v. Nike, Inc., 485 F.3d 253, 261 (5th Cir. 2007) (citing Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-25 (1986)). If the burden of proof at trial lies with the nonmoving party, the movant may satisfy its initial burden by "'showing'- that is, pointing out to the district court - that there is an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party's case." See Celotex, 477 U.S. at 325. While the party moving for summary judgment must demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact, it does not need to negate the elements of the nonmovant's case. Boudreaux v. Swift Transp. Co., 402 F.3d 536, 540 (5th Cir. 2005) (citation omitted). "A fact is 'material' if its resolution in favor of one party might affect the outcome of the lawsuit under governing law." Sossamon v. Lone Star State of Tex., 560 F.3d 316, 326 (5th Cir. 2009) (quotation omitted). "If the moving party fails to meet [its] initial burden, the motion [for summary judgment] must be denied, regardless of the nonmovant's response." United States v. $92, 203.00 in U.S. Currency, 537 F.3d 504, 507 (5th Cir. 2008) (quoting Little v. Liquid Air Corp., 37 F.3d 1069, 1075 (5th Cir. 1994) (en banc)).

         When the moving party has met its Rule 56(a) burden, the nonmoving party cannot survive a summary judgment motion by resting on the mere allegations of its pleadings. The nonmovant must identify specific evidence in the record and articulate how that evidence supports that party's claim. Baranowski v. Hart, 486 F.3d 112, 119 (5th Cir. 2007). "This burden will not be satisfied by 'some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts, by conclusory allegations, by unsubstantiated assertions, or by only a scintilla of evidence."' Boudreaux, 402 F.3d at 540 (quoting Little, 37 F.3d at 1075). In deciding a summary judgment motion, the court draws all reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Connors v. Graves, 538 F.3d 373, 376 (5th Cir. 2008).

         Defendants provide the following summary judgment evidence:

(A) Office of Inspector General Investigation No. 2014.03203; and
(B) Interrogatory responses of Joseph Dudley. Voris responded and filed the following exhibits:
(A) Affidavit of Voris;
(B) TDCJ Office of the Inspector General Supplement Criminal Case Report; and
(C) An article entitled, "Ad-Seg: Time in Isolation at Texas Prisons."

         IV. ...

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