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LaBrec v. Walker

United States District Court, W.D. Wisconsin

February 27, 2018


          OPINION & ORDER


         Pro se plaintiff and prisoner Matthew LaBrec is proceeding on claims that several correctional officers failed to protect him from an assault by another prisoner, in violation of the Eighth Amendment and state law. Defendants Jason Chatman, Joshua Craft, Dustin Meeker, Lindsay Walker, and Debra Wilson have filed a motion for summary judgment, Dkt. 73, which is ready for review. Also before the court are three procedural motions filed by LaBrec, one for assistance in recruiting counsel and two related to substituting one of the defendants. Dkt. 54; Dkt. 77; Dkt. 83.

         The case arises out of an altercation between LaBrec and his cellmate. According to LaBrec, he complained over the course of several days to each of the defendants that he felt unsafe with his cellmate and wanted to be moved. He also alleges that his cellmate later attacked him without provocation, stabbing him multiple times with a pen.

         Defendants tell a somewhat different story. Although they acknowledge that LaBrec asked repeatedly for a different cell assignment, they say it was because he didn't like his cellmate; they deny that he ever expressed concerns for his safety. They also say that LaBrec started the fight and left his cellmate “unresponsive” when it was over.

         I will grant defendants' motion for summary judgment on LaBrec's Eighth Amendment claim because the differences between LaBrec's version of events and defendants' version are not material. In other words, even if I accept all of LaBrec's allegations as true, those allegations would not permit a reasonable jury to find that any of the defendants violated the Eighth Amendment. Jenkins v. Bartlett, 487 F.3d 482, 492 (7th Cir. 2007) (“Only disputes as to facts which are material, i.e., facts that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law, and genuine, i.e., disputes for which the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party, will preclude summary judgment.”) (internal quotations omitted). Under current law, a vague statement that a prisoner feels unsafe does not trigger a constitutional duty to move a prisoner to a different cell; the prisoner must explain why he feels unsafe. In accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 1367(c)(3), the court will dismiss LaBrec's negligence claims without prejudice so that he can pursue them in state court, if he wishes to do so.

         I will deny LaBrec's motions. As explained below, his request to substitute is moot and his request for counsel is not supported.


         A. Eighth Amendment

         The Supreme Court recognized in Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825 (1994), that “prison officials have a duty [under the Eighth Amendment] to protect prisoners from violence at the hands of other prisoners.” See also Borello v. Allison, 446 F.3d 742, 747 (7th Cir. 2006). In determining whether officials violated the Eighth Amendment, the question is whether they were “deliberately indifferent” to a “substantial risk of serious harm” to the prisoner's safety. In practical terms, a claim under Farmer has two elements:

(1) Were the defendants aware of a substantial risk that the plaintiff would be seriously harmed?
(2) If so, did the defendants consciously refuse to take reasonable measures to prevent the plaintiff from being harmed?

Fisher v. Lovejoy, 414 F.3d 659, 662 (7th Cir. 2005); Lewis v. Richards, 107 F.3d 549, 553 (7th Cir. 1997); Langston v. Peters, 100 F.3d 1235, 1238 (7th Cir 1996).

         In this case, the focus of the parties' debate is on the first question-whether each defendant knew of a substantial risk that LaBrec's cellmate would assault him. Although it is undisputed that none of the defendants were responsible for the initial decision of placing LaBrec and his cellmate together, Dkt. 87, ¶ 26, LaBrec says that each defendant may be held liable for failing to transfer him when he complained to each of them about the assignment. The parties also debate whether each defendant had the authority to move LaBrec.

         LaBrec discusses three types of evidence that could have given defendants notice that he needed to be separated from his cellmate: (1) characteristics about LaBrec and his cellmate; (2) information that defendants received from LaBrec; and (3) a note written by the cellmate. But even considering all of this evidence and drawing all reasonable inferences in LaBrec's favor, no reasonable jury could find that any of the defendants knew of a substantial risk of serious harm to LaBrec's safety. This makes it unnecessary to consider defendants' alternative argument that some of the defendants did not have authority to move LaBrec to a different cell.

         1. Characteristics of LaBrec and his cellmate

         It is undisputed that LaBrec and his cellmate did not have special housing restrictions that would have prevented them from being celled together. Dkt. 87, ¶ 46. But in his complaint, LaBrec alleged that his cellmate had a history of assaulting other prisoners and prison staff knew that. As it turns out, LaBrec's cellmate had received a conduct report for assaulting one other prisoner before being celled ...

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