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Ashton Fletcher Branch Harris v. Riddle

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

January 8, 2020

CLEVELAND F. RIDDLE, et al., Defendants.


          Frank D. Whitney, Chief United States District Judge.

         THIS MATTER comes before the Court on Motion for Summary Judgment by Defendants Riddle, Grindstaff, Harris, and Slater [Doc. 33] and on Plaintiff's Motion for Copies [Doc. 42].

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Procedural Background

         Pro se Plaintiff Ashton Fletcher Branch Harris (“Plaintiff”), a North Carolina inmate currently incarcerated at Alexander Correctional Institution in Taylorsville, North Carolina, filed this action on June 26, 2018, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Plaintiff named the following individuals as Defendants in this matter: (1) Cleveland F. Riddle, identified as a Lieutenant at Mountain View Correctional Institution (“Mountain View”); (2) Tommy Harris, identified as a correctional officer at Mountain View; (3) FNU Grindstaff, identified as a Captain at Mountain View; and (4) FNU Slater, identified as a psychologist at Mountain View. [Doc. 1 at 2-3]. Plaintiff alleges that, on April 19, 2018, Defendants used excessive force against Plaintiff, failed to intervene in the use of excessive, force, and subjected Plaintiff to cruel and unusual punishment through his conditions of confinement, all in violation of Plaintiff's Eighth Amendment rights while he was incarcerated at Mountain View. [Doc. 1]. Plaintiff seeks compensatory and punitive damages. [Doc. 1 at 8]. The Plaintiff's complaint survived initial review under 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2). [Doc. 10].

         On July 9, 2019, Defendants filed the pending summary judgment motion. [Doc. 33]. This Court entered an Order pursuant to Roseboro v. Garrison, 528 F.2d 309 (4th Cir. 1975), granting Petitioner fourteen days to respond to the summary judgment motion. [See Docs. 36, 40]. Plaintiff timely filed his response to Defendants' motion. [See Doc. 41]. On November 14, 2019, Plaintiff filed a letter with the Court [Doc. 42], which the Court construes as a motion for copies of all documents filed in the docket in this matter and a request for a status update in this case.

         B. Factual Background

         1. Defendants' Summary Judgment Materials

         In support of the summary judgment motion, Defendants rely on incident reports by various correctional officers and other witnesses submitted following the incident, Plaintiff's medical and mental health records, other prison records and policies, and the affidavits of Tommy Buchanan, Robert Mask, and Janet Ray and Defendants Grindstaff, Harris, Riddle and Slater. [See Docs.35-1 through 35-7]. Defendants' forecast of evidence shows the following:

         Sometime on or around April 15, 2018, Plaintiff began a hunger strike to protest his lack of access to certain medications and mental health care. [Doc. 35-5 at 20]. In addition to the hunger strike, Plaintiff had engaged in self-injurious behavior (“SIB”) and claimed that he was going to harm himself. [Doc. 35-7 at ¶ 8: Slater Affidavit]. As a result, Plaintiff was placed on SIB precautions by Dr. Nicole Prior, a psychologist, on April 18, 2018. [Id. at ¶ 8; Id. at 9]. At this time, the Mental Health standard operating procedures (“SOP”) were employed in caring for the Plaintiff. [Id. at ¶ 8]. Dr. Prior, in her note recommending SIB precautions, states:

[Plaintiff] appears to be[ ] trying to manipulate the system and to gain treatment that he wants by claiming to be suicidal. He has done this several time[s] while being housed at [Alexander Correctional Institution] [i]n addition to going on hunger strikes. He has poor coping skills and difficulty with impulse control. Both he and another inmate appear to be mimicking each other in hopes of achieving their goal of being released from ICONN.

[Id. at 8].

         The next day, April 19, 2018, Plaintiff remained on SIB precautions. [Id. at ¶ 9]. SIB precautions require that a custody officer must continuously monitor the inmate. To do so, the custody official must be able to see the inmate. That is, the inmate's body cannot be entirely covered. [Id.]. Under SIB precautions, an inmate must be seen by a psychology staff member every 24 hours. [Id. at ¶ 10]. Further, under Mental Health SOP, an inmate placed on SIB precautions is provided a safety blanket, safety smock, and safety mattress. All other materials are to be removed unless authorized by a mental health clinician. [Id. at 14].

         Defendant Slater is a licensed psychology associate employed by the North Carolina Department of Public Safety (NCDPS) at Mountain View. [Id. at ¶ 3]. Defendant Slater has a bachelor's degree from Ohio University and a master's degree in clinical psychology. [Id. at ¶ 4]. Defendant Slater has been employed with the NCDPS as a psychologist for 19 years. [Id. at ¶ 5].

         On the morning of April 19, 2018, at approximately 8:30 a.m., Defendant Slater went to the restricted housing unit (RHU) where Plaintiff was being housed for a 24-hour SIB check. [Id. at ¶ 11]. When Defendant Slater arrived at the RHU that morning, she was informed that Plaintiff was observed by custody staff covering his entire body with the safety blanket. [Id. at ¶ 12; Id. at 7; Doc. 35-6 at ¶ 5(d): Riddle Affidavit]. Plaintiff had been repeatedly told that he needed to uncover at least his head so that he could be observed as “safe” according to SIB precautions. [Doc. 35-7 at ¶ 12; Id. at 7; see Doc. 35-6 at ¶ 5(d)]. Plaintiff refused to comply. [Id. at ¶ 12; Id. at 7]. Defendant Slater approached Plaintiff's cell with custodial staff and Plaintiff refused to respond to Defendant Slater. Plaintiff kept himself completely obscured. [Id. at ¶ 13; Id. at 7; see Doc. 35-6 at ¶ 5(d)]. Thereafter, Defendant Slater instructed the custodial staff to take way the safety blanket. Plaintiff complied, but then used the safety smock in the same manner as he had used the safety blanket. The smock was, therefore, also removed. [Id. at ¶ 15; Id. at 7; Doc. 35-6 at ¶ 5(e)-(h)]. Next, Plaintiff used his safety mattress in the same manner, preventing custodial staff from observing him. The safety mattress, therefore, was also removed for safety and security purposes for the proper observation of Plaintiff. [Id. at ¶¶ 16, 17; Id. at 7; Doc. 35-6 at ¶ 5(i)].

         At approximately 9:20 a.m., Defendant Riddle decided to move Plaintiff from cell S-111 to S-109. [Doc. 35-6 at ¶ 5(j)]. Plaintiff was given a pair of boxer shorts for the transfer between these cells. [Id. at ¶ 5(1)]. At or around 12:00 p.m., Plaintiff refused an evaluation related to his hunger strike by Physicians Assistant Jeffrey Patane, including all interactions with mental health and medical care providers, all health screenings, and all medications. [Doc. 35-5 at 19].

         At approximately 1:00 p.m., a radio call advised correctional staff that Plaintiff was repeatedly flushing the toilet in his cell. [Doc. 35-3 at ¶¶ 4-6: Harris Declaration]. At the time, Plaintiff was in cell S-109 and Defendant Harris and Assistant Unit Manager Robert Mask were in the prison intake area. They both went to Plaintiff's cell. [Id. at ¶¶ 4-6; Doc. 35-4 at ¶¶ 5(a)-(b)]. When they arrived, Mask looked through the window of the cell and saw that Plaintiff had his head in the toilet and was flushing it repeatedly. [Id. at ¶ 5(c)]. Mask knocked on Plaintiff's window. Plaintiff responded by looking up and then placing his head back into the toilet. [Id. at ¶ 5(d)]. Mask then instructed Defendant Harris to turn off the water to Plaintiff's cell, which he did. [Doc. 35-3 at ¶¶ 4-6; Doc. 35-4 at ¶ 5(e)]. After Plaintiff ceased flushing his own head in the toilet, he began banging his head on the cell door, attempting to harm himself. [Doc. 35-2 at ¶ 5(d); Doc. 35-4 at ¶ 5(e)]. At this time, Plaintiff refused orders to stop banging his head on the cell door and to submit to handcuffs. [Id. at ¶ 5(e)-(f)]. Defendant Grindstaff arrived and ordered the Plaintiff to submit to handcuffs or Plaintiff would be pepper sprayed. [Id. at ¶ 5(g); Doc. 35-4 at ¶ 5(f)]. Plaintiff then submitted to handcuffs and was given a pair of boxer shorts to be escorted to an intake holding cell where he would be placed in four-point restraints for his own safety. [Id. at ¶ 5(h)-(i)]. The use of four-point restraints was approved by Lieutenant Tommy Buchanan, who was the officer in charge on the day of the incident. [Doc. 35-1 at 40; see id. at ¶ 5: Buchanan Affidavit].

         At approximately 1:45 p.m., four-point restraints were applied to Plaintiff. [Id. at 40]. Defendant Harris, while other officers were restraining Plaintiff so that the restraints could be applied, placed a safety helmet on Plaintiff. Placement of a safety helmet is standard and customary in this situation. [Doc. 35-3 at ¶ 10]. The application of the restraints was without incident, other than Plaintiff using profanity toward the staff, calling them a bunch of “Hillbilly Mother Fuckers.” [Doc. 35-6 at ¶ 5(u)]. Plaintiff also told the prison staff they were incompetent and tried to direct the staff on how to apply the restraints. [Id. at ¶ 5(v)].

         Defendant Harris had no other involvement in getting Plaintiff out of cell S-109, in escorting Plaintiff to the intake cell, in placing Plaintiff on the bed there, or in applying the four-point restraints. [Doc. 35-3 at ¶¶ 7, 8, 9]. Specifically, Defendant Harris did not hit, punch, kick, or use any other force on Plaintiff, nor did Defendant Harris witness any other staff using any force on Plaintiff beyond that which was necessary to escort him to the intake cell and restrain him while the four-point restraints were applied. [Id. at ¶ 12]. Further, any force used on Plaintiff was necessary to achieve a correctional goal and was not excessive. [Id. at ¶ 13; Doc. 35-4 at ¶ 6].

         Defendant Grindstaff was not present for the application of the restraints, as there were several supervisors on site at the time, including Lieutenant Buchanan, Assistant Unit Manager Mask, Lieutenant Riddle, and Brett Bullis. [Doc. 35-2 at ¶ 5(j)]. Further, Defendant Grindstaff did not witness any staff cursing at or smacking, punching, kneeing, or choking Plaintiff. [Id. at ¶ 5(k)].

         Nurse Janet Ray, RN, reported promptly to RHU to check Plaintiff's restraints and to ensure Plaintiff was not in distress. [Doc. 35-1 at 8; Doc. 35-5 at ¶ 5]. This is standard and required procedure when four-point restraints are used. [Doc. 35-5 at ¶ 5]. Nurse Ray reported that Plaintiff had adequate capillary refill to his fingers, and that she was able to get her fingers under the restraints on Plaintiff's wrist and ankles. [Doc. 35-1 at 8; Doc. 35-5 at ¶ 6]. As such, Nurse Ray determined that the four-point restraints were appropriately and safely applied. [Doc. 35-5 at ¶ 6]. Nurse Ray was not informed that there was a use-of-force incident nor did she notice any injuries or marks on Plaintiff. [Id. at ¶ 7]. Further, Plaintiff did not complain to Nurse Ray about any injuries at this time. [Id. at ¶ 7].

         At 4:00 p.m., while he was in four-point restraints, Plaintiff was seen by Staff Psychologist Rich Bruner to ensure Plaintiff was calm and of limited danger to attending officers so that Plaintiff could take his scheduled bathroom break. [Doc. 35-7 at 6]. At that time, Plaintiff's safety smock had been returned and Plaintiff seemed to be returning to a calm, lucid state. [Id. at ¶ 19]. Psychologist Bruner noted that Plaintiff “reported recently ‘waking up' to find himself [in] 4 point restraints. He states he does not remember actions from this morning which led to his current state.” [Id. at 6].

         At approximately 5:30 p.m., due to Plaintiff's improved behavior, the four-point restraints were removed. Plaintiff was placed in full mechanical restraints at this time. [Doc. 35-1 at 6; Id. at 37]. At 7:30 p.m., due to continued improved behavior, Plaintiff's connecting chain was removed. Then, at 9:30 p.m., Plaintiff's leg restraints were removed. At 11:30 p.m., Plaintiff's waist chain and block box were removed. Finally, on April 20, 2018, at 1:00 a.m., Plaintiff's handcuffs were removed. [Doc. 35-1 at 6].

         Defendant Slater saw Plaintiff the next morning, April 20, 2018, at approximately 9:00 a.m. [Doc. 35-7 at ¶ 20]. Plaintiff was in his cell, out of restraints, and had his safety apron, blanket, and mattress. At this visit, Plaintiff stated to Defendant Slater, “I really had a bad day yesterday.” Plaintiff also apologized to Defendant Slater “if I was rude.” [Id. at 5]. Plaintiff remained on SIB precautions until April 22, 2018. [Id.; id. at ¶ 21]. Plaintiff did not return to SIB precautions during the remainder of his incarceration at Mountain View. [Id. at ¶ 21].

         Plaintiff had several other medical and mental health encounters in the days following the alleged incident. Plaintiff, however, did not complain of or even mention the alleged use of ...

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