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Vales v. Manthei

United States District Court, E.D. Wisconsin

September 12, 2019

WILLIE L. VALES, JR., Plaintiff,


          J. P. Stadtmueller U.S. District Judge.

         Plaintiff Willie L. Vales, Jr., proceeds in this matter pro se. He filed a complaint alleging that Defendants violated his constitutional rights. (Docket #1). This matter comes before the court on Plaintiff's petition to proceed without prepayment of the filing fee (in forma pauperis). (Docket #2). Plaintiff has been assessed and has paid an initial partial filing fee of $6.22. 28 U.S.C. § 1915(b).

         The court shall screen complaints brought by prisoners seeking relief against a governmental entity or an officer or employee of a governmental entity. 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(a). The court must dismiss a complaint or portion thereof if the prisoner has raised claims that are legally “frivolous or malicious, ” that fail to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, or that seek monetary relief from a defendant who is immune from such relief. Id. § 1915A(b).

         A claim is legally frivolous when it lacks an arguable basis either in law or in fact. Denton v. Hernandez, 504 U.S. 25, 31 (1992); Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319, 325 (1989); Hutchinson ex rel. Baker v. Spink, 126 F.3d 895, 900 (7th Cir. 1997). The court may, therefore, dismiss a claim as frivolous where it is based on an indisputably meritless legal theory or where the factual contentions are clearly baseless. Neitzke, 490 U.S. at 327. “Malicious, ” although sometimes treated as a synonym for “frivolous, ” “is more usefully construed as intended to harass.” Lindell v. McCallum, 352 F.3d 1107, 1109- 10 (7th Cir. 2003) (citations omitted).

         To state a cognizable claim under the federal notice pleading system, the plaintiff is required to provide a “short and plain statement of the claim showing that [he] is entitled to relief[.]” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). It is not necessary for the plaintiff to plead specific facts and his statement need only “give the defendant fair notice of what the . . . claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007) (quoting Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 47 (1957)). However, a complaint that offers mere “labels and conclusions” or a “formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555). To state a claim, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, “that is plausible on its face.” Id. (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570). “A claim has facial plausibility 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. (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556). The complaint's allegations “must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555 (citation omitted).

         In considering whether a complaint states a claim, courts should follow the principles set forth in Twombly by first, “identifying pleadings that, because they are no more than conclusions, are not entitled to the assumption of truth.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679. Legal conclusions must be supported by factual allegations. Id. If there are well-pleaded factual allegations, the court must, second, “assume their veracity and then determine whether they plausibly give rise to an entitlement to relief.” Id.

         To state a claim for relief under 42 U.S.C. Section 1983, a plaintiff must allege that: 1) he was deprived of a right secured by the Constitution or laws of the United States; and 2) the deprivation was visited upon him by a person or persons acting under color of state law. Buchanan-Moore v. Cty. of Milwaukee, 570 F.3d 824, 827 (7th Cir. 2009) (citing Kramer v. Vill. of N. Fond du Lac, 384 F.3d 856, 861 (7th Cir. 2004)); see also Gomez v. Toledo, 446 U.S. 635, 640 (1980). The court is obliged to give the plaintiff's pro se allegations, “however inartfully pleaded, ” a liberal construction. See Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007) (quoting Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 106 (1976)).

         Defendants are security officers at Waupun Correctional Institution, where Plaintiff is incarcerated. (Docket #1 at 3). Plaintiff alleges that he fought with another inmate on March 30, 2019, and that Defendants were present at the nearby officers' station. Id. at 4-5. They responded to the fight, but Plaintiff does not say when; he suggests that they should have intervened sooner. Id. When the combatants were told to stop fighting, Plaintiff threw up his hands and walked away. Id. Defendant C.O. Barzyk (“Barzyk”) nevertheless sprayed Plaintiff in the face with pepper spray. Id. To add insult to injury, Plaintiff was also struck again by the other inmate after being sprayed. Id.

         Plaintiff may proceed against Barzyk on a claim of excessive force. The Eighth Amendment prohibits the “unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain” on prisoners. Outlaw v. Newkirk, 259 F.3d 833, 837 (7th Cir. 2001). When a correctional officer is accused of using excessive force, the core 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); Santiago v. Walls, 599 F.3d 749, 757 (7th Cir. 2010). Several factors are relevant to this determination, including the need for force, the amount applied, the threat the officer reasonably perceived, the effort made to temper the severity of the force used, and the extent of the injury caused to the prisoner. Hudson, 503 U.S. at 7; Fillmore v. Page, 358 F.3d 496, 504 (7th Cir. 2004). While it appears that Barzyk's intervention was meant to restore order, taking Plaintiff's allegations as true, Plaintiff had already given up the fight, and so pepper spray was unnecessary.

         Plaintiff may also proceed against all of the Defendants on a claim that they failed to timely intervene in the fight. Again, their conduct comes under the purview of the Eighth Amendment. An officer may be liable for failing to intervene in an inmate altercation if they were deliberately indifferent to the inmate's health or safety. Grieveson v. Anderson, 538 F.3d 763, 778 (7th Cir. 2008). This requires that the inmate be in objectively serious danger, that the officer knew about the danger, and that the officer nevertheless consciously disregarded the danger. Id. Here, construing Plaintiff's allegations generously, Defendants may have been able to intervene in the fight sooner than they did. Plaintiff alleges that he suffered a “major physical injury” from the fight but does not describe it in detail. See (Docket #1 at 6). Among other things, Plaintiff will need to prove that this injury stemmed from Defendants' failure to timely break up the fight.

         The Court further notes that Plaintiff may not proceed against any of the Defendants in their official capacities, as all of his claims relate solely to their individual conduct. Miller v. Smith, 220 F.3d 491, 494 (7th Cir. 2000). Additionally, Plaintiff cites Defendants' apparent failure to abide by prison policies as a basis for liability. See (Docket #1 at 5-6). Even if these allegations were true, they do not create constitutional liability; a violation of prison policies is not the same as a violation of the Eighth Amendment. Lennon v. City of Carmel, Ind., 865 F.3d 503, 509 (7th Cir. 2017). Finally, the Court will dismiss Plaintiff's claim for “injunctive” relief, as it seeks only money damages. See (Docket #1 at 7). Those amounts are already encompassed by Plaintiff's request for compensatory damages.

         Therefore, the Court finds that Plaintiff may proceed on the following claims pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(b):

         Claim One:

         The use of excessive force against Plaintiff, in violation of the Eighth ...

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