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Blackwell v. Houser

United States District Court, W.D. North Carolina, Statesville Division

October 18, 2017

ALAN HOUSER, et al., Defendants.


          Frank D. Whitney Chief United States District Judge.

         THIS MATTER comes before the Court on the following motions: a Motion for Summary Judgment by Defendant Alan Houser; (Doc. No. 99), a Motion for Summary Judgment by Defendant John H. Piland, (Doc. No. 101); a Motion for Summary Judgment by Defendant Judy Humphries, (Doc. No. 103); and a Motion for Summary Judgment by Plaintiff Joshua Lee Blackwell.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Procedural Background

         Pro se Plaintiff Joshua Lee Blackwell is a North Carolina inmate currently incarcerated at Tabor Correctional Institution in Tabor City, North Carolina. Plaintiff filed this action on April 22, 2016, under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that the moving Defendants were deliberately indifferent to Plaintiff's serious medical needs while Plaintiff was incarcerated as a pre-trial detainee at the Lincoln County Detention Center (hereinafter the “Lincoln County jail”) in Lincolnton, North Carolina. Specifically, in the First Amended Complaint, filed on September 16, 2016, Plaintiff alleges that he received constitutionally inadequate medical care for his right eye during his confinement in the Lincoln County jail, beginning in December 2015. (Doc. No. 35). Plaintiff alleges his eye needed to be surgically removed, Defendants did not act quickly enough in getting him scheduled for the surgery, and Plaintiff suffered from extreme pain while waiting for the surgery. The record shows that Plaintiff had eye surgery on September 7, 2016. Plaintiff seeks compensatory and punitive damages, as well as declaratory and injunctive relief.

         The moving Defendants, and the only remaining Defendants in this action, are Lieutenant Alan Houser of the Lincoln County Sheriff's Office, who serves as the Jail Administrator; the jail's physician, John Piland, M.D.; and the jail's head nurse, Judy Humphries. On April 19, 2017, Defendant Houser filed his pending summary judgment motion. (Doc. No. 99). Attached to Houser's summary judgment materials are Houser's own Declaration, along with evidence related to grievances filed by Plaintiff; a Declaration by Houser's counsel Scott MacLatchie, along with excerpts from Plaintiff's deposition of March 23, 2017; and a Declaration by David Carpenter, the Lincoln County Sheriff at all relevant times. On April 21, 2017, Defendant John H. Piland filed his pending summary judgment motion. (Doc. No. 101). Attached to Piland's summary judgment materials are Piland's own Declaration; a Declaration by Dr. Paul Steadman; a Declaration by Defendant Houser, Plaintiff's relevant medical records, and excerpts taken from Plaintiff's deposition of March 23, 2017. Also on April 21, 2017, Defendant Judy Humphries filed her own pending summary judgment motion. (Doc. No. 103). Attached to Humphries' summary judgment materials are Humphries' own Declaration, and Plaintiff's relevant medical records.

         On April 24, 2017, and April 26, 2017, this Court entered orders in accordance with Roseboro v. Garrison, 528 F.2d 309 (4th Cir. 1975), advising Plaintiff of the requirements for filing a response to the summary judgment motions and of the manner in which evidence could be submitted to the Court. (Doc. Nos. 105, 106). Plaintiff has filed numerous responses to the summary judgment motions, which include several sworn Declarations, as well as his own summary judgment motion. See (Doc. Nos. 111, 114, 115, 121, 122, 124).

         B. Factual Background

         The evidence on summary judgment shows the following:

         On December 6, 2015, Plaintiff was transferred from the South Carolina Department of Corrections to the Lincoln County jail on outstanding criminal charges in Lincoln County. The next day, on December 7, 2015, Defendant Nurse Judy Humphries requested Plaintiff's medical records from the South Carolina Department of Corrections. (Doc. No. 103-1 at ¶ 3: Humphries Decl.). When Plaintiff arrived at the jail, he was suffering from a pre-existing condition in his right eye, which was causing him pain. On December 7, 2015, pursuant to medication orders from South Carolina, Plaintiff was provided medication for his right eye, including Tramadol, Tetracaine, Phenylephrine, Latanoprost, Prednisone, and Atropine. (Id. at ¶ 3; Doc. No. 103-1 at 12-14: Def. Humphries' Ex. A). Plaintiff continued to receive these medications until April 4, 2016, when Plaintiff was sent to Central Prison for safekeeping to receive treatment for his eye. See (Id.). Additionally, Plaintiff was given Tylenol twice a day for pain, beginning on December 8, 2015, and through April 4, 2016.

         On December 8, 2015, two days after entering the jail, Plaintiff submitted a Facility Employee Request to Defendant Houser, stating that there was a possible cancerous growth on his right eye for which South Carolina prison staff had recommended the eye be surgically removed. (Doc. No. 99-1 at ¶ 6: Houser Decl.; Doc. No. 99-1 at 17: Ex. 4 to Houser Decl.). The Request did not mention Plaintiff being in pain. Houser responded to Plaintiff within one hour, stating: “I will forward this request to the medical staff. Our medical staff will go through the steps needed; they will get your records from South Carolina so that our Doctor and medical staff can follow up on what is needed.” (Id.).

         Houser immediately shared this information with Nurse Humphries via email. On December 10, 2015, Plaintiff sent Houser another Facility Employee Request, stating his belief that the jail's medical staff would be unable to “diagnose” his problem and that he should see an ophthalmologist instead. (Doc. No. 99-1 at p. 17). This Request also did not mention pain. Houser responded to Plaintiff within ninety minutes, informing him that his request had been turned over to medical. (Id.). Houser then sent Nurse Humphries a second email relaying Plaintiff's concerns. (Doc. No. 99-1 at ¶ 6). The December 8 and December 10 requests were the only two times Plaintiff ever sent Houser a kiosk communication concerning medical care for his eye. (Id.; see also Doc. No. 99-2 at pp. 6-8, 11 (pages 31:23-32:23 & 81:2-8 of deposition transcript) (where plaintiff acknowledged that he recalled only the two kiosk communications to Houser, and one verbal conversation on December 21, 2015)).

         On December 17, 2015, Houser placed Plaintiff on “medical lockdown” after hearing from several detention officers that Plaintiff was complaining about his eye. (Doc. No. 99-1 at ¶ 7). Houser explains that an inmate on medical lockdown is housed in a single cell and is not allowed to interact with other inmates, although he still receives daily recreation time out of the cell if the medical condition permits. Houser took this action because he had already observed Plaintiff wearing sunglasses inside the jail, and he was told that Plaintiff had complained about walking upstairs at the courthouse because he could not see the steps due to the sunglasses. Houser was also told that Plaintiff had been going upstairs in the cell block with his sunglasses on and was also performing handstands on tables in the dayroom. After reviewing video recordings confirming this, Houser elected to place Plaintiff on medical lockdown for his own safety until he could confer with medical staff about the propriety of housing him with the general population.

         Plaintiff submitted a kiosk grievance about the lockdown, stating that he had been blind in his right eye since age 15 and was not locked down during his previous incarcerations. (Id. at ¶ 8 & Ex. 5).[1] This was the first time Houser learned of Plaintiff's right eye blindness. Houser went back through Plaintiff's medical screening forms and confirmed that none of them mentioned blindness. According to Houser, this revelation heightened Houser's concern for Plaintiff's safety. (Id.).

         After Plaintiff submitted another series of grievances questioning why he was on medical lockdown, Houser had him brought to the intake area on December 21, 2015, to explain why the decision was made. (Id. at ¶ 9; see also Doc. No. 99-1 at p. 21: Ex. 6 to Houser Decl.). Houser essentially told Plaintiff that because he was complaining that his eye was getting worse and needed specialized medical attention, Houser could not place him with the general inmate population until he was cleared by medical staff. (Doc. No. 99-1 at ¶ 7). When Plaintiff became argumentative, Houser and another detention officer placed him in an adjacent holding cell, known as the “rubber room, ” while Houser typed up the response to his grievance. Because of Plaintiff's demeanor, Houser gave him one push from behind towards the cell when it appeared he was not going to comply. Plaintiff filed a grievance over the push, but it untimely, as it was filed more than ten days later, on January 18, 2016. (Id. at ¶ 9; see also Doc. No. 99-1 at p. 23: Ex. 7 to Houser Decl.). Medical staff approved taking Plaintiff off lockdown the following day, and he was returned to the general population. (Doc. No. 99-1 at ¶ 10).

         Houser states in his Declaration that, after his conversation with Plaintiff in the intake area on December 21, 2015, Plaintiff never again complained to Houser about his eye. (Doc. No. 99-1 at ¶ 11). Houser asserts that he is aware of only a few occasions later on when Plaintiff declined his scheduled law library time supposedly because his eye hurt. Houser asserts that, even on those occasions, however, Plaintiff still proceeded to recreate and play cards with other inmates, showing no signs of impairment. Finally, Houser asserts that the next time after December 2015 that Houser became involved with any aspect of Plaintiff's eye care was in late March 2016, medical staff instructed Houser to arrange Plaintiff's transportation to the Graystone Eye clinic in Hickory for an appointment on or about April 1. (Id. at ¶ 12).

         On January 4, 2016, Defendant Piland, the jail doctor, examined Plaintiff and prescribed him Neurontin/Gabapentin, which Plaintiff then received daily through April 4, 2016. (Doc. No. 103-1 at ¶ 4; Doc. No. 103-1 at p. 16: Ex. A to Humpries Decl.). On January 12, 2016, Plaintiff reported to Nurse Humphries that the Neurontin was helping and Dr. Piland increased the dosage that same day. On February 1, 2016, Plaintiff again saw Dr. Piland. (Doc. No. 103-1 at ¶ 4; Doc. No. 103-1 at p. 22). Nurse Humphries subsequently arranged for Plaintiff to see an eye doctor due to the continuing concern for his eye. On March 31, 2016, jail staff transported Plaintiff to see Dr. Roderick Hargrove, an eye doctor at Graystone Eye Care. (Doc. No. 103-1 at ¶ 5; Doc. No. 103-1 at pp. 29-31). After discussing treatment options with Plaintiff, Plaintiff opted for eye surgery, but no surgery was scheduled that day, nor did Graystone Eye document an urgent need for the surgery. See (Id.).

         At some point after Plaintiff's return to the jail, medical staff asked him to obtain a “safekeeping” order, allowing Plaintiff to be transferred to the Safekeeping Unit at Central Prison in Raleigh pending further medical intervention for his eye. On or about April 5, 2016, Plaintiff was transferred to Central Prison in Raleigh for safekeeping to receive treatment for his eye.[2] (Doc. No. 99-1 at ¶¶ 5, 12; Doc. No. 99-1 at p. 25: Ex. 8 to Houser Summary Judgment Motion).

         Plaintiff remained in Central Prison's Safekeeping Unit until his return to the Lincoln County jail on May 17, 2016, after a Central Prison employee erroneously told someone on Houser's staff that Plaintiff was ready to be picked up. (Doc. No. 99-1 at ¶ 13). After Plaintiff arrived back at the jail, Houser learned that Plaintiff had not received the anticipated eye surgery. Central Prison was immediately called and acknowledged their mistake in releasing Plaintiff. Houser obtained a new safekeeping order on May 18, 2016, and Plaintiff was sent back to Central Prison the same day. (Id.; Doc. No. 99-1 at p. 28: Ex. 9 to Houser Summary Judgment Motion). Following the medical orders that were provided for Plaintiff, Plaintiff was given one dose of Gabapentin before he was returned to Central Prison. (Doc. No. 103-1 at ¶ 6).

         On June 27, 2016, Central Prison's Safekeeping Unit informed Houser that Plaintiff was ready for return to Lincoln County pending a surgical appointment opening up with the Duke Eye Center sometime before September 22, 2016. (Doc. No. 99-1 at ¶ 14). After Houser confirmed that his staff would be notified as soon as the surgery was scheduled, Plaintiff was returned to the jail on that same day. That same day, following medical orders from the North Carolina Department of Public Safety, Plaintiff began receiving various medications, including Gabapentin, Atropine Sulfate, Prednisone, and Venlafaxine. (Doc. No. 103-1 at ¶ 7; Doc. No. 103-1 at pp. 90-93). Houser discussed the planned surgery with Plaintiff when he arrived back at the jail that day.[3] (Doc. No. 35 at ¶ 25).

         On July 14, 2016, Plaintiff submitted a Medical Request to the jail's medical staff stating that he was in pain and needed to see Dr. Piland. (Doc. No. 103-1 at ¶ 8). On around July 15, 2016, Houser became aware that Plaintiff had filed this lawsuit, and he immediately went to see Nurse Humphries because of Plaintiff's allegations about lack of medical care for his eye. (Doc. No. 99-1 at ¶ 15). Humphries assured Houser that Dr. Piland was monitoring the situation, and that Plaintiff was still on track for eye surgery.

         On July 16, 2016, Dr. Piland and Nurse Humphries saw Plaintiff pursuant to his medical request. (Doc. No. 103-1 at ¶ 8). Dr. Piland ordered for Plaintiff to receive additional Neurontin and Tylenol to treat eye pain. (Id.). These drugs were provided to Plaintiff, and additionally, Dr. Piland referred Plaintiff to be seen at Central Prison or Graystone Eye for further treatment. (Id.). Around this same time, on July 27, 2016, an inmate informed jail nurse Haley Hester that Plaintiff was hoarding and giving away his medications. ...

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