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Land v. Henderson

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

June 20, 2018

DAVID LAND, Plaintiff,
SHERIFF RAND HENDERSON, et al., Defendants.[1]



         The plaintiff, David Land, has filed a Prisoner's Civil Rights Complaint under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 ("Complaint") (Docket Entry No. 1) concerning the conditions of his confinement at the Montgomery-County Jail, which is operated by the Montgomery County Sheriff's Office ("MCSO"). Pending before the court is Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment filed by Montgomery County Sheriff Rand Henderson and Lieutenant Myrick ("Defendants' MSJ") (Docket Entry No. 45) . Land has filed a Motion of Response to Defendants' Answers ("Plaintiff's Response") (Docket Entry No. 51) and a Motion Seeking That All Proceedings Be Sealed ("Plaintiff's Motion to Seal") (Docket Entry No. 54) . After considering the pleadings, the exhibits, and the applicable law, the court will grant the Defendants' MSJ and will dismiss this case for the reasons explained below.

         I. Background

         In December of 2 013 Land was in custody at the Montgomery-County Jail, pending criminal charges.[2] He was housed in administrative segregation because the nature of the charges against him (child pornography) and his status as a former sheriff's deputy, who previously worked as a detention officer at the Harris County Jail, put him at risk of violence by other inmates.[3]

         While he was confined at the Montgomery County Jail in March of 2013, Land told his defense attorney that he had information about a fellow inmate housed near him in administrative segregation, Robert L. Wilson, who had made inculpatory admissions about murder charges that were pending against him.[4] On December 13, 2013, Land entered a guilty plea to the child-pornography charges against him.[5] Shortly before he entered that plea, Land sent a letter to Lieutenant Myrick at the Montgomery County Jail stating that he had overheard inculpatory remarks made by Wilson and that he wanted to "testify" against him.[6] According to Land, another officer at the Jail (Sergeant Dotson) contacted the District Attorney's Office by e-mail on December 9, 2013, regarding Land's offer to testify against Wilson.[7]

         On December 16, 2013, Wilson returned to his cell following a visit with his criminal defense attorney who, coincidentally, also represented Land.[8] During this visit Wilson allegedly found out that Land had offered to testify against him, and Wilson began to threaten Land's life and the lives of his family.[9]

         On January 7, 2014, Land allegedly sent another letter to Lieutenant Myrick, complaining about Wilson's threats.[10] Myrick, however, failed to intervene or move Land to another area of the Jail.[11] Land contends that he was subject to verbal abuse "night and day" and endured a "hostile environment" for a period of 106 and day" and endured a "hostile environment" for a period of 106 days until he was transferred to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice ("TDCJ") on March 31, 2014.[12] During this time, Land claims that Wilson threatened him on a daily basis, reminding Land that Wilson could easily find him because Land would have to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life.[13]

         Land believes that "Jail Administration" did not move him away from Wilson at the request of prosecutors and that Jail "staff" was "listening in" to overhear threats that could be used against Wilson in court.[14] Land complains that he was used as bait.[15] Land did not ultimately testify against Wilson, who reportedly entered a plea agreement in the case against him.[16]

         Because of Wilson's threats, Land suffered recurring nightmares and developed ulcers in his stomach due to the mental anguish he experienced.[17] Arguing that his constitutional rights were violated by housing him in a "hostile environment, " Land seeks damages from the defendants under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and a formal apology for the psychological abuse that he endured.[18]

         The court authorized service of process and requested an answer to the Complaint from Lieutenant Myrick and Sheriff Henderson.[19] These defendants now move for summary judgment, noting that Land did not exhaust administrative remedies as required by the Prison Litigation Reform Act ("PLRA"), 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(a), before filing suit.[20] The defendants argue in the alternative that Land's claims fail as a matter of law because he does not show that Lieutenant Myrick violated a clearly established constitutional right and he does not otherwise overcome Myrick's entitlement to qualified immunity.[21] The defendants also argue that Land has not established the liability of Sheriff Henderson, who is sued in his capacity as a supervisory official.[22]

         II. Standard of Review

         Motions for summary judgment are governed by Rule 5 6 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Under this rule a reviewing court "shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); see also Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 2552 (1986). A fact is "material" if its resolution in favor of one party might affect the outcome of the suit under governing law. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 106 S.Ct. 2505, 2510 (1986). An issue is "'genuine'" if the evidence is sufficient for a reasonable jury to return a verdict for the nonmoving party. Id.

         In deciding a summary judgment motion the reviewing court must "construe all facts and inferences in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party." Dillon v. Rogers, 596 F.3d 260, 266 (5th Cir. 2010) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). However, the non-movant "cannot rest on [his] pleadings" where qualified immunity is asserted. Bazan, et rel. Bazan v. Hidalgo County, 246 F.3d 481, 490 (5th Cir. 2001) (emphasis in original). Nor can the non-movant avoid summary judgment simply by presenting " [c]onclusional allegations and denials, speculation, improbable inferences, unsubstantiated assertions, and legalistic argumentation." Jones v. Lowndes County, Mississippi, 678 F.3d 344, 348 (5th Cir. 2012) (quoting TIG Ins. Co. v. Sedgwick James of Washington, 276 F.3d 754, 759 (5th Cir. 2002)); see also Little v. Liquid Air Corp., 37 F.3d 1069, 1075 (5th Cir. 1994) (en banc) (a non-movant cannot demonstrate a genuine issue of material fact with conclusory allegations, unsubstantiated assertions, or only a scintilla of evidence). If the movant demonstrates an "absence of evidentiary support in the record for the nonmovant's case, " the burden shifts to the nonmovant to "come forward with specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial." Sanchez v. Young County, Texas, 866 F.3d 274, 279 (5th Cir. 2017) (citing Cuadra v. Houston Indep. Sch. Dist., 626 F.3d 808, 812 (5th Cir. 2 010)); see also Matsushita Electric Industrial Co., Ltd. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 106 S.Ct. 1348, 1356 (1986).

         The plaintiff proceeds pro se in this case. Courts construe pleadings filed by pro se litigants under a less stringent standard than those drafted by lawyers. See Haines v. Kerner, 92 S.Ct. 594, 596 (1972) (per curiam); see also Erickson v. Pardus, 127 S.Ct. 2197, 2200 (2007) ("A document filed pro se isv to be liberally construed[.]'") (quoting Estelle v. Gamble, 97 S.Ct. 285, 292 (1976)). Nevertheless, "pro se parties must still brief the issues and reasonably comply with [federal procedural rules]." Grant v. Cue liar, 59 F.3d 523, 524 (5th Cir. 1995) (citations omitted). The Fifth Circuit has held that "[t]he notice afforded by the Rules of Civil Procedure and the local rules" is "sufficient" to advise a pro se party of his burden in opposing a summary judgment motion. Martin v. Harrison County Jail, 975 F.2d 192, 193 (5th Cir. 1992) (per curiam).

         III. Discussion

         A. Exhaustion of Administrative Remedies

         Because Land was incarcerated when he filed his Complaint, this action is governed by the PLRA, which requires prisoners to exhaust administrative remedies before filing suit in federal court. See 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(a). The Supreme Court has emphasized that § 1997e(a) mandates exhaustion of all administrative procedures before an inmate can file any suit challenging prison conditions. See Booth v. Churner, 121 S.Ct. 1819, 1825 (2001); Porter v. Nussle, 122 S.Ct. 983, 988 (2002); Woodford v. Ngo, 126 S.Ct. 2378, 2382-83 (2006); see also Jones v. Bock, 127 S.Ct. 910, 918-19 (2007) (confirming that "[t]here is no question that exhaustion is mandatory under the PLRA and that unexhausted claims cannot be brought in court").

         To exhaust administrative remedies an inmate at the Montgomery County Jail is required to complete a three-step process.[23] First, the inmate must file a grievance with the Inmate Grievance Board, which will issue a reply.[24] Second, if the inmate is unsatisfied with the Inmate Grievance Board's reply, he must appeal that decision to the Jail Administrator.[25] Third, if the inmate is not satisfied with the Jail Administrator's decision, he must appeal to the Sheriff, whose decision is final.[26]

         The record shows that Land was aware of the administrative remedy process, which is explained to all inmates in the Jail Handbook, [27] and that "Grievance forms are available to any inmate."[28]There is no evidence that Land filed a grievance about his classification or the conditions of his housing assignment in administrative segregation.[29] Land concedes that he did not file a formal grievance concerning the issues that he presents in his Complaint, explaining that he did not do so because he was denied access to grievance forms.[30] The defendants' evidence shows, however, that Land filed several formal grievances regarding issues unrelated to the Complaint, reflecting that he had access to the requisite forms while confined in administrative segregation.[31]Land's conclusory allegation that he was denied access to grievance forms is not sufficient to refute this evidence or raise a genuine issue of material fact. See Kidd v. Livingston, 463 Fed.Appx. 311, 313, 2012 WL 614372, at *1 (5th Cir. 2012).

         Land also appears to argue that the letter he sent to Lieutenant Myrick in January of 2014 complaining about Wilson's threatening behavior should be considered sufficient to exhaust the grievance process.[32] As the defendants note, however, Lieutenant Myrick was not a Jail Administrator.[33] There is no evidence that Jail Administration would have been aware of information imparted to Lieutenant Myrick in the letter.[34] Land cites no authority and the court has not found any case in which the writing of a letter, outside the context of a formal grievance procedure, was held sufficient to properly exhaust administrative remedies. The Fifth Circuit has repeatedly taken a "strict" approach, demanding proper compliance with administrative grievance procedures for purposes of satisfying the exhaustion requirement. See Butts v. Martin, 877 F.3d 571, 582 (5th Cir. 2017) (citing Days v. Johnson, 322 F.3d 863, 866 (5th Cir. 2003)); see also Wilson v. Epps, 776 F.3d 296, 299-300 (5th Cir. 2015) (observing that substantial compliance grievance procedures is not enough to satisfy the exhaustion requirement) (citing Dillon, 596 F.3d at 268).

         Based on this record Land has not shown that he exhausted administrative remedies regarding his claims or that the grievance process was unavailable to him, and he has not raised a material fact question on this issue. The Fifth Circuit has emphasized that "pre-filing exhaustion of prison grievance processes is mandatory" and that district courts lack discretion to excuse a prisoner's failure to exhaust his administrative remedies. Gonzalez v. Seal, 702 F.3d 785, 788 (5th Cir. 2012) . Because the record reflects that Land failed to exhaust available administrative remedies before filing this action, the defendants are entitled to summary-judgment on this issue. Although this issue is dispositive, the court will also address the defendants' alternative arguments.

         B. Claims Against Lieutenant Myrick

         The defendants state that all of the events that form the basis of Land's Complaint took place after he pled guilty and was convicted of the criminal charges against him on December 13, 2013.[35] The defendants argue that Land fails to demonstrate a violation of the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which governs claims concerning the conditions of confinement by convicted prisoners.[36] See Bell v. Wolfish, 99 S.Ct. 1861, 1869-70 (1979) (comparing standards under the Due Process Clause that apply to pretrial detainees with standards under the Eighth Amendment that apply to those convicted of a crime); Hare v. City of Corinth, Mississippi, 74 F.3d 633, 639 (5th Cir. 1996) (same). Arguing further that Land fails to establish that a constitutional violation occurred, Lieutenant Myrick moves for summary judgment on the grounds that he is entitled to qualified immunity from Land's claims against him.[37]

         1. Qualified Immunity

         "The doctrine of qualified immunity protects government officials '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.'" Pearson v. Callahan, 129 S.Ct. 808, 815 (2009) (quoting Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 102 S.Ct. 2727, 2738 (1982)). A plaintiff seeking to overcome qualified immunity must satisfy a two-prong inquiry by showing: "(1) that the official violated a statutory or constitutional right, and (2) that the right was 'clearly established' at the time of the challenged conduct." Ashcroft v. al-Kidd, 131 S.Ct. 2074, 2080 (2011) (citation omitted).

         A right is "clearly established" if its contours are "sufficiently clear that a reasonable official would understand that what he is doing violates that right." Anderson v. Creighton, 107 S.Ct. 3034, 3039 (1987). To make this showing, a plaintiff must point to "controlling authority - or a robust consensus of persuasive authority - that defines the contours of the right in question with a high degree of particularity." Morgan v. Swanson, 659 F.3d 359, 371-72 (5th Cir. 2011) (citations and internal quotation marks omitted). While there need not be a case directly on point, "existing precedent must have placed the statutory or constitutional question beyond debate." Mullenix v. Luna, 136 S.Ct. 305, 308 (2015) (quoting al-Kidd, 131 S.Ct. at 2083) . This is an "exacting standard, " City and County of San Francisco, California v. Sheehan, 135 S.Ct. 1765, 1774 (2015), that "protects 'all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law.'" Mullenix, 136 S.Ct. at 308 (quoting Malley v. Bricrgs, 106 S.Ct. 1092, 1096 (1986)) .

         As this standard reflects, "[a] good-faith assertion of qualified immunity alters the usual summary judgment burden of proof, shifting it to the plaintiff to show that the defense is not available." King v. Handorf, 821 F.3d 650, 653-54 (5th Cir. 2016) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). "The plaintiff must rebut the defense by establishing that the official's allegedly wrongful conduct violated clearly established law and that genuine issues of material fact exist regarding the reasonableness of the official's conduct." Id. at 654 (quoting Gates v. Texas Dep't of Protective & Regulatory Servs., 537 F.3d 404, 419 (5th Cir. 2008)). "To negate a defense of qualified immunity and avoid summary judgment, the ...

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