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Cooper v. Nichols

United States District Court, E.D. Virginia, Alexandria Division

February 1, 2019

Martavious Cooper, Plaintiff,
Sgt. Nichols, et al., Defendants.


          Anthony J. Trenga United States District Judge

         Martavious Cooper, a Virginia inmate proceeding pro se, has filed a civil rights complaint pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging violations of his constitutional rights. Defendants Nichols and Dixon have filed a Motion to Dismiss the claims against them, as a well as a memorandum in support thereof. Dkt. Nos. 15-16. Plaintiff was provided the Notice required by Local Rule 7(K) and the opportunity to file responsive materials pursuant to Roseboro v. Garrison, 528 F.2d 309 (4th Cir. 1975), but has not filed any further documentation. For the reasons that follow, defendants' Motion to Dismiss will be granted in part and denied in part. This denial is without prejudice to defendants' ability to file a properly-supported Motion for Summary Judgment within thirty (30) days of the date of this Order.

         I. Background

         The following allegations are assumed true for the purpose of ruling on defendants' Motion to Dismiss. On December 10, 2017, plaintiff was lying down in his cell when he was awoken by Officer Freeman ordering plaintiffs cellmate, G. Ortiz, to "pack up and cuff up." Dkt. No. 4, § IV. Ortiz refused to comply with the order, prompting Officer Freeman to request backup. Id. Officer Dixon arrived on scene and informed Ortiz that, if he did not comply with orders, prison staff would deploy OC spray into the cell. Id.

         At this point, plaintiff requested to be removed from the cell prior to the use of the OC spray but was denied by Officer Dixon, who stated that plaintiff had to wait until Ortiz was handcuffed. Id. Ortiz at that time, "did not posed [sic] a threat" and simply requested to speak to a higher ranking official. Id. Officers Freeman and Dixon summoned Sergeant Nichols, who "came to the door [] pretending to talk to Ortiz and out of nowhere OC sprayed directly in the cell hitting" plaintiff and his cell mates. Id. Plaintiff struggled to breathe due to the fumes from the spray and was told by Sergeant Nichols to sit in the back of the cell and that, if he wanted to leave, he had to "remove [his] celly Ortiz," who had placed a mat in front of the cell door. Id. Ortiz told plaintiff not to touch him. Id.

         Plaintiff asked the prison staff whether he would receive any punishment for moving Ortiz in order to receive his handcuffs and be removed from the cell. Id. Defendants stated that they did not care what plaintiff did so long as he removed the mat from the cell's entrance. Id. Plaintiff "tussled" with Ortiz in order to move him from the area. Id. "[A]fter 43 minutes of this incident," plaintiff and Moore[1] were handcuffed, and Ortiz moved to the back of the cell. Id. The officers then opened the cell door and "used [plaintiff and Moore] as a shield in rush[ing] Ortiz," causing plaintiff to hit his leg on an object, which caused him pain. Id. Plaintiff and Moore were asked to "step in the gym" until officers could escort them to the medical unit. Id. Fifteen minutes later, plaintiff and Moore were taken to be evaluated, but medical staff "didn't do nothing [sic] but take [plaintiffs] blood pressure and send [him] back out of medical without documenting [his] injurys [sic]." Id.

         II. Standard of Review

         A motion to dismiss tests whether a complaint states a cause of action upon which relief can be granted. Whether a complaint sufficiently states a claim is determined by "the familiar standard... under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6)." Sumner v. Tucker. 9 F.Supp.2d 641, 642 (E.D. Va. 1998). Accordingly, a plaintiffs alleged facts are presumed true, and the complaint should be dismissed only when "it is clear that no relief could be granted under any set of facts that could be proved consistent with the allegations." Hishon v. King & Spalding. 467 U.S. 69, 73 (1984).

         To survive a 12(b)(6) motion, "a complaint must contain 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 Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twomblv. 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). A claim is facially plausible when "the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Id. A plaintiffs allegations must "raise a right to relief above the speculative level," and "threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice" to meet this standard. Id.

         Where a complaint is filed by a prisoner acting pro se, however, that complaint must be construed liberally regardless of how unskillfully it is pleaded. Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519 (1972). A pro se litigant is therefore not held to the strict pleading requirements demanded of attorneys. Estelle v. Gamble. 429 U.S. 97, 106-07 (1976); Figgins v. Hudspeth. 584 F.2d 1345 (4th Cir. 1978), cert, denied, 441 U.S. 913 (1979). For these reasons, a court's "power to summarily dismiss a prisoner's pro se complaint is limited." Figgins, 584 F.2d at 1347.

         III. Analysis

         Plaintiff alleges that he endured defendants' use of excessive force and deliberate indifference to his serious medical needs. Defendants in their Motion to Dismiss argue that plaintiffs allegations could, if liberally construed, be taken as claims based on conditions of confinement or for failure to protect. Dkt. No. 16, pp. 9-12. Even a liberal reading of the complaint does not support such a view. The sufficiency of plaintiffs pleadings will therefore not be analyzed under these frameworks.

         1. Excessive Force

         Plaintiff states two potential factual bases to support a claim of excessive force: the use of OC spray on the occupants of his cell and the use of traditional physical force as defendants pursued and restrained his cellmate. In determining whether a complaint states an Eighth Amendment claim that a defendant used excessive force, the "core judicial inquiry" is "whether force was applied in a good-faith effort to maintain or restore discipline, or maliciously and sadistically to cause harm." Hudson v. McMillian, 503 U.S. 1, 7 (1992); see also Whitlev v. Albers. 475 U.S. 312, 320-21 (1986). "When prison officials maliciously and sadistically use ...

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