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Rzeplinski v. Maassen

United States District Court, W.D. Wisconsin

March 28, 2017


          OPINION & ORDER

          JAMES D. PETERSON District Judge

         Plaintiff James Rzeplinski, a prisoner at the Jackson Correctional Institution, brings claims that defendant Wisconsin Department of Corrections officials failed to address his broken dentures, leading to him suffering pain and bleeding gums. Defendants have filed a motion for summary judgment, in which they contend that they did not act with deliberate indifference toward Rzeplinski's problems.

         Rzeplinski's frustration at the delay in getting his dentures fixed is understandable. But the lack of dentures or teeth does not itself pose a serious health problem. I will grant defendants' motion because Rzeplinski fails to show that he brought a serious medical need to defendants' attention. In his briefing, Rzeplinski attempts to resurrect previously dismissed Eighth Amendment failure-to-protect claims regarding sexual comments made to him by other prisoners. I conclude that even had Rzeplinski properly brought these claims in this lawsuit, I would deny them, so there is no reason to consider amending the complaint.


         I draw the following facts from the parties' proposed findings of fact and supporting materials.

         Plaintiff James Rzeplinski is a prisoner housed at the Jackson Correctional Institution (JCI), located in Black River Falls, Wisconsin. Defendant Lizzie Tegels is the JCI warden, defendant Tammy Maassen is the JCI health services manager, and defendant Jodi Dougherty is the JCI institution complaint examiner. Dr. Tommy Onjukka is the dental supervisor for a region that includes JCI and eight other facilities, and was acting as the fill-in dentist at JCI during the relevant time. The remaining defendants all worked in the DOC's central office. Ed Wall was the secretary, Deirdre Morgan was the deputy secretary, Charles Facktor and Welcome Rose were corrections complaint examiners, Dr. Barbara De Lap was the Bureau of Health Services dental director, and Jody DeRosa was a Bureau of Health Services nursing coordinator.

         Under DOC Division of Adult Institutions policies, dentists or nurses triage incoming dental requests from inmates. Dental emergencies (“dental problem[s] causing a life threatening condition and requiring immediate care”) and urgent conditions (“those which, if not completed in a timely manner, could result in undue pain and suffering”) are handled first. “Routine” dental problems are defined as “conditions that are asymptomatic and for which a delay in completion of up to one year would not result in serious risk.” These requests get lower priority and are placed on a wait list, unless a change of condition alters the triage status. When an inmate indicates that he is in pain, the dentist addresses it as if it were an urgent problem, unless the dentist can determine through record review that the matter is not urgent.

         The need for dentures, even full dentures, is usually considered a “routine” dental issue, because being toothless does not harm a patient's overall health, unless there are signs of notable weight loss or medical complications like pain, swelling, or infection.[2] Weight loss may occur because it is sometimes more difficult for a patient to eat a normal diet without teeth. In these situations, a soft diet may be ordered for the inmate. Dental staff does not consider self-inflicted pain from personal diet choice “urgent” pain because it is easily addressed by a change of diet, without medical intervention. Because it is “routine” procedure, it may take up to 12 months for a prisoner to receive dentures. Rzeplinski's complete set of dentures was finished on November 25, 2013.

         From March 2014 to February 2015, JCI had a vacancy at its full-time dentist position. While JCI was without a full-time dentist, defendant Onjukka provided direct dental care to patients at the facility. He was not able to work full time at JCI because he still needed to attend to his responsibilities at the other facilities he supervised. Although De Lap was not the final decision maker in hiring dentists, she was responsible for carrying out the hiring process from reviewing applications and conducting interviews to making hiring recommendations. The process of hiring a dentist takes several months. The process can take longer for certain facilities, especially those, like JCI, located in more rural areas.

         Rzeplinski submitted a health service request on April 16, 2014, in which he reported that a piece of his upper denture was broken off and he needed a dentist to fix it. The service request was forwarded to Onjukka because it pertained to dental issues. Rzeplinski made no complaints of pain, swelling, weight loss, or any signs of infection. Two days later, Onjukka responded, telling Rzeplinski that he was on the denture wait list. At any given time, JCI has about 70 to 90 inmates on the denture wait list.

         On May 6, 2014, Rzeplinski submitted a health service request stating, “My upper denture has broken completely in half. I have no teeth to use and need to get in to see you ASAP. Thank you! I was put on a waiting list 2 weeks ago when they (first) crack.” Onjukka responded three days later, telling Rzeplinski that he would be called for an evaluation for repair of his denture.

         On May 13, 2014, Onjukka saw Rzeplinski and confirmed that the denture was broken. He also concluded that Rzeplinski would need a permanent “reline” of the dentures in addition to repairing them, so that the dentures would fit correctly as Rzeplinski's mouth changed. Because Rzeplinski did not complain of pain, and he did not exhibit any swelling or signs of infection, his broken dentures and need for a permanent reline was considered a routine dental need. As a result, he was put on the routine denture waiting list.

         On May 21, 2014, Rzeplinski weighed 223 pounds.

         On June 18, 2014, Rzeplinski submitted a dental service request in which he wrote, “I again need my dentures fixed you've seen them and said you would put me on a list. It's been ‘2 months.'” About a week later, Onjukka responded, telling Rzeplinski that he was still on the list and that Dental Services could only see emergency patients until JCI got a full-time dentist.

         On July 9, 2014, Rzeplinski weighed 211 pounds. He suffered the flu in June 2014. At this appointment, Rzeplinski did not report any concerns about pain in his mouth or ability to eat. Because he was still a normal weight for his size, the weight loss was not considered a serious medical concern.

         On July 22, 2014, defendant Warden Tegels's office received an “Interview/Information Request” from Rzeplinski stating, “My dentures need to be fixed and nothings being done to get them done. It's been over 3 months.” Attached to this request was a letter, in which Rzeplinski stated:

I have been trying to get my new dentures fixed since 4-16-14. They called me up to look at them and said they could be fixed. Since then I have been waiting to no avail. I then wrote a slip addressed to T. Maasen the HSU manager. She never responded to my request and that's why I am writing you. There's no reason my denture can't be sent out to be fixed. They've been continually getting worse with mold in them, etc. Please help me get these fixed. It's embarrassing and I can't eat what I should be able to. PS - it's now been over three months.

         Tegels's office assigned defendant Maassen to handle the complaint. Maassen contacted Onjukka about the complaint. Onjukka's memorandum to Tegels stated:

Dear Warden, Tammy Maassen asked me to follow up on the complaint from the above referenced inmate [Rzeplinski]. It is affirmed that he requested to have new denture fixed on 04/16/2014. He has sent additional requests for essentially the same thing on 5/6/2014 and 6/18/2014. Each request had been responded to in a timely manner. He was evaluated on 5/13/2014 to determine what his needs are. It was determined that the dentures are repairable. According to his dental record, he will need a procedure in addition to the repair to make the denture function properly. Just sending out the denture for the repair will not properly address his current dental needs. I have informed him that he is on the list, and emergencies such as infection/swelling need to be seen first. As you are aware currently there is no dentist on staff at JCI. We are very hopeful that our recent interview will result in a new dentist. That being said we are very limited in the times that we can see patients ...

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