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Ortega v. Hunter

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

May 20, 2019




         The plaintiff, Rodolfo Ortega (TDCJ #1522268), filed a prisoner civil rights complaint under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, concerning the conditions of his confinement in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice - Correctional Institutions Division (“TDCJ”) [Doc. # 1]. After reviewing a more definite statement provided by Ortega [Doc. # 18], the Court dismissed all of his claims except for his allegation that Lieutenant Lekisha Hunter retaliated against him in violation of his constitutional rights [Doc. # 19]. Lieutenant Hunter has now filed a motion for summary judgment [Doc. # 34], arguing that Ortega's claims against her fail as a matter of law. Ortega has not filed a response and his time to do so has expired. After considering all of the pleadings and the applicable law, the Court will grant Lieutenant Hunter's motion for summary judgment and dismiss this case for reasons set forth below.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On July 27, 2017, Ortega was incarcerated by TDCJ at the Carol Vance Unit when he submitted a grievance about conditions at the facility [Doc. # 1, at 7]. On August 3, 2017, Senior Warden Troy Simpson conducted a walk-through of Ortega's dorm and allegedly warned Ortega to stop filing grievances. Id. Shortly thereafter, Ortega claims that Lieutenant Hunter and two other officials harassed him by asking him multiple questions. Id. On August 6, 2017, Ortega filed a grievance, alleging that he had been harassed in retaliation for filing grievances. Id.

         After complaining about the retaliation, Ortega contends that he was charged with prison disciplinary violations for refusing to work and disobeying an order. Id. After the disciplinary charges were filed, Ortega was transferred from the Carol Vance Unit to the Jester III Unit and placed in pre-hearing detention on August 21, 2017. Id. Ortega claims that he was denied access to his personal property, including personal hygiene item, religious materials, and legal books until September 8, 2017. Id. at 7-8. Ortega blames Lieutenant Hunter for the deprivation of his personal property during this time and claims that it was in retaliation for filing grievances. Id. at 8. He requests nominal and unspecified punitive damages.[1] Id.

         Lieutenant Hunter has filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that she is entitled to official immunity from any claim for monetary damages against her in her official capacity as a state employee. [Doc. # 34, at 4]. Lieutenant Hunter argues further that she is entitled to qualified immunity from claims against her in her individual or personal capacity because Ortega does not show that she retaliated against him or that she violated his constitutional rights. Id. at 8-12.


         The defendant's motion is governed by Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, which provides that 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, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (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., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). An issue is “genuine” if the evidence is sufficient for a reasonable jury to return a verdict for the nonmoving party. Id.

         If the movant demonstrates the absence of a genuine issue of material fact, the burden shifts to the non-movant to provide “specific facts showing the existence of a genuine issue for trial.” Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986). A reviewing court “must view the evidence introduced and all factual inferences from the evidence in the light most favorable to the party opposing summary judgment[.]” Smith v. Regional Trans. Auth., 827 F.3d 412, 417 (5th Cir. 2016). However, a non-movant cannot avoid summary judgment simply by presenting “conclusory allegations and denials, speculation, improbable inferences, unsubstantiated assertions, and legalistic argumentation.” Jones v. Lowndes Cnty., Miss., 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).


         A. Official Immunity

         Unless expressly waived, the Eleventh Amendment bars an action in federal court by a citizen of a state against his own state, including a state agency. See Martinez v. Texas Dep't of Criminal Justice, 300 F.3d 567, 574 (5th Cir. 2002). The Eleventh Amendment bars a suit for money damages against TDCJ, as a state agency, under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. See Talib v. Gilley, 138 F.3d 211, 213 (5th Cir. 1998). The Eleventh Amendment also bars a suit for money damages against TDCJ employees in their official capacity. See Oliver v. Scott, 276 F.3d 736, 742 (5th Cir. 2001); Aguilar v. Texas Dep't of Criminal Justice, 160 F.3d 1052, 1054 (5th Cir. 1998). To the extent that Ortega sues Lieutenant Hunter for actions taken during the course of her employment with TDCJ, the claims against her in her official capacity as a state employee are barred by the Eleventh Amendment. Accordingly, the motion for summary judgment on this issue will be granted.

         B. Qualified Immunity

         Public officials acting within the scope of their authority generally are shielded from liability for monetary damages by the doctrine of qualified immunity. See Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818 (1982). “Qualified immunity shields federal and state officials from money damages unless a plaintiff pleads facts 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, 563 U.S. 731, 735 (2011) (citing Harlow, 457 U.S. at 818). “Qualified immunity is a complete defense, and [a defendant is] entitled to summary judgment on the basis of qualified immunity unless [the plaintiff] can show triable issues as to whether [the ...

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