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Delk v. Younce

United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Roanoke Division

March 31, 2016

STEVEN R. DELK, Plaintiff,
MICHAEL C. YOUNCE, et al., Defendants.



This case is before the Court on Defendants’ motion for summary judgment. (Dkt. 67). Plaintiff Steven R. Delk, a Virginia inmate proceeding pro se, filed a civil rights action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against various staff and officials at Red Onion State Prison (“Red Onion”) and in the Virginia Department of Corrections (“VDOC”). Plaintiff contends that Defendants conspired against him, denied him access to the grievance process, denied him due process in determining his security classification, subjected him to cruel and unusual living conditions, and violated his religious rights under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”), 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc, et seq. Plaintiff seeks damages, a declaratory judgment, and injunctive relief.

The procedural history of this case is critical to resolving (or in certain regards, not resolving) the instant motion. Defendants did not move to dismiss the complaint, and Plaintiff has propounded an array of interrogatories and other discovery requests. (E.g., dkts. 11-15, 17-25, 66). Almost immediately after filing their motion for summary judgment, Defendants moved for a protective order “staying all discovery on the merits of the claims in this case until” their summary judgment motion and qualified immunity defense raised therein had been ruled up. (Dkt. 70 at 2). The presiding Magistrate Judge granted the protective order (dkt. 72), a logical decision given that qualified immunity is immunity from suit and its corresponding burdens in discovery. See Crawford-El v. Britton, 523 U.S. 574, 598 (1998).

But there is a catch that complicates the situation. Although Defendants’ summary judgment motion did contain a qualified immunity argument (albeit an underdeveloped one, as discussed later), it overwhelmingly focuses on other arguments, including those that either explicitly or implicitly rest on evidentiary grounds. (E.g., dkt. 68 at 14 (discussing existence or nonexistence of grievances), 16 (citing certain VDOC operating procedures), 18 (asserting, largely without citation to the record, what process Plaintiff received), 21-23 (asserting without citations that Plaintiff is now receiving a Common Fare diet; evoking the motion to dismiss standard-e.g., “allegations fail to state a plausible claim”-even though the case is on summary judgment, and claiming “none of the defendants have, in fact, violated any of Delk’s constitutional rights”). In other words, Defendants have largely urged summary judgment on the merits (i.e., argued there is no constitutional violation) rather than on the question of qualified immunity (i.e., whether the right(s) violated-assuming that violation(s) occurred-were clearly established).

In a normal posture, this would be unproblematic. On any given Section 1983 claim, courts have discretion to decide the matter in different ways: They can either (A) first assess whether there was a violation of a right and, if so, then decide whether it was “clearly established, ” or (B) assume there was a right violated and go directly to the “clearly established” analysis.[1] Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 232, 236 (2009); see also Rock for Life-UMBC v. Hrabowski, 411 F. App’x 541, 556 (4th Cir. 2010) (King, J., concurring and dissenting) (summarizing pre- and post-Pearson approaches).

But here, Defendants successfully blocked Plaintiff’s access to discovery by obtaining a protective order based on the specter of their qualified immunity defense. Thus, Plaintiff has not had a robust opportunity to develop the facts of the alleged violations. This means that the Court is largely constrained to the “clearly established” inquiry of Approach (B) above, except perhaps for the clearest of purely legal grounds (or evidentiary analysis that would not result in dismissal). As the Fourth Circuit recently reiterated, “[g]enerally, a court should not grant summary judgment when, as here, outstanding discovery requests on material issues exist.” Raynor v. Pugh, ____ F.3d___, No. 14-7746, 2016 WL 1056091, at *6 n.5 (4th Cir. Mar. 17, 2016) (emphasis added). Indeed, Raynor presented a strikingly similar situation where a protective order was issued against an incarcerated pro se plaintiff because defendants raised qualified immunity. The district court then erred by deciding summary judgment on the merits, i.e., whether the facts revealed a constitutional violation.

Raynor also argues that the district court erred in denying him any discovery. . . . The district court stayed Raynor’s discovery requests pending resolution of Pugh’s qualified immunity defense, in accord with Crawford–El v. Britton. See 523 U.S. 574, 598, 118 S.Ct. 1584, 140 L.Ed.2d 759 (1998). But, without ruling on the (meritless at this stage) qualified immunity claim, the court granted summary judgment on evidentiary grounds, faulting Raynor for ‘not provid[ing] any evidence, other than his own affidavit, to support his allegations.’ In so doing, the court erred. On remand the district court should permit appropriate discovery before entertaining any additional motions for summary judgment.

Id. at *6 n.5 (4th Cir. Mar. 17, 2016).

Considering Defendants’ motion for summary judgment in light of the foregoing, I will grant in part and deny in part the motion. I will lift the protective order, allow the parties to conclude discovery, and permit defendants to file a new motion for summary judgment.

I. Facts on the Present Record

According to Delk, on April 9, 2013, Institutional Classification Officer Younce and Program Manager Hamilton caused Delk to be classified in long term segregation (“LTS”) and Security Level S (“SLS”) at Red Onion without having conducted a hearing first.[2] Major Gallihar and Regional Administrator Hinkle determined that Delk’s related grievances and appeals were unfounded. Approximately every ninety days after his initial classification to LTS/SLS, Delk’s classification was reviewed by Lieutenants Payne, Franklin, or Day, who repeatedly determined that Delk should remain in LTS/SLS, often times because he allegedly needed a “longer period of stable adjustment.”[3] Unit Managers Swiney or Turner approved each of the Lieutenants’ recommendations. Hinkle and Warden Mathena determined that each of Delk’s grievances and appeals were unfounded. Delk alleges that no hearings (or on some occasions, no “meaningful” hearings) were held during his classification reviews. Delk argues that the defendants denied him due process by denying him hearings and/or “meaningful” hearings before his initial placement in LTS/SLS and at each subsequent classification review. Delk states that Defendants failed to follow their own procedures concerning his placement in LTS/SLS.

Delk also challenges his conditions of confinement. He states that he has “almost” no human contact and “no possibility of intellectual stimulation” in LTS/SLS. He also alleges that the lights are left on all the time; the food service and ventilation systems are unsanitary; he is served cold and smaller portions of food; he is subjected to “constant verbal abuse”; he has to be strip searched, kneel, and crawl to leave his cell; he has to hear staff and inmates slam security device covers and beat and kick doors, and he has to see inmates throw feces and flood their cells. Further, he alleges that he is being held there indefinitely without explanation, given “meaningless” hearings, and not earning good time.

As a result of his time in LTS/SLS, Delk alleges that he has suffered weight loss; “worsening” of an unspecified neurological condition; severe hand tremors; daily seizures; a chipped tooth from a seizure; hair loss; sleep loss; “constant, severe pain in [his] head”; worsening asthma; and a “detrimental effect” on his “future effort[s]” for “parole eligibility and pardon/clem[en]cy request[s].” Delk argues that defendants Younce, Hamilton, Hinkle, Payne, Franklin, Day, Swiney, Turner, and Mathena subject him to cruel and unusual living conditions by placing him in “highly restrictive, severe conditions of confinement for an indefinite period.” Delk also claims that defendants Younce, Hamilton, Hinkle, Payne, Franklin, Day, Swiney, Turner, and Mathena, all have conspired, in various groups, to place Delk in LTS/SLS, deny him “meaningful” reviews and hearings, and/or place him in disciplinary isolation.

Delk alleges that defendants Grievance Coordinator Messer, Regional Ombudsman Parr, former Operations Manager Robinson, Human Rights Activist Mullins, and Grievance Coordinator Bivens[4] denied him access to the grievance process by rejecting his grievances and/or appeals as untimely, not grievable, requests for services, or because he failed to follow procedure by filing an informal complaint first.

Finally, Delk assert that defendants Assistant Warden Walwrath, Faith Review Committee member Cei, Counselor King, Mathena, and Hinkle violated RLUIPA by not recognizing Delk’s religion within the VDOC and then, after it was ...

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