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Former Jail Prisoner's §1983 Complaint Reversed to Add Damages

Former Jail Prisoner's §1983 Complaint Reversed to Add Damages

The U.S. Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals in a split decision partly
reversed an Oklahoma federal district court's grant of summary judgment to
a county sheriff, holding that the district court should have permitted
the prisoner plaintiff to add a claim for damages.

Doyle Michael Sanders, a former prisoner at the Hughes County
(Oklahoma) Jail, sued Hughes County Sheriff Houston Yeager under 42 U.S.C.
§1983 claiming that his constitutional rights were violated by lack of
medical care, unsafe and unsanitary conditions of confinement, and
interference with mail. Both parties moved for summary judgment. The
district court granted judgment to the sheriff. Sanders appealed, arguing
that material issues of fact remained in dispute and that he should have
been permitted to amend his complaint to claim damages.

The appeals court noted that Sanders was transferred from the
Hughes County Jail to a state prison after he filed suit. Therefore, the
injunctive relief claims were moot and summary judgment was appropriate.
The appeals court also affirmed the district court's grant of summary
judgment on Sanders' claims of delayed and denied medical care, but did
not specify its reasons for doing so.

On the remaining claims, the appeals court noted that Sanders
requested damages in his motion for summary judgment. Citing
Fed.R.Civ.Proc. 8(f), the appeals court held that the district court
should have ordered Sanders to amend his complaint to add a claim for
damages. Failure to do so was reversible error.

The district court decision was affirmed in part, reversed in part
and remanded for further proceedings. This is not a ruling on the merits
of Sanders' surviving claims. This case is published in the Federal
Appendix and is subject to rules governing unpublished cases. See: Sanders
v. Yeager, 57 Fed.App 381 (10th Cir. 2003).

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Related legal case

Sanders v. Yeager

Sanders v. Yeager, 57 Fed.Appx. 381 (10th Cir. 02/03/2003)


[2] No. 01-7159

[3] 57 Fed.Appx. 381

[4] February 3, 2003


[6] D. C. No. 01-CV-100-P (E. D. Oklahoma)

[7] Before Seymour, Ebel, and O'brien, Circuit Judges.

[8] The opinion of the court was delivered by: David M. Ebel, Circuit Judge.


[10] After examining the briefs and appellate record, this panel has determined unanimously that oral argument would not materially assist the determination of this appeal. See Fed. R. App. P. 34(a)(2); 10th Cir. R. 34.1(G). The case is therefore ordered submitted without oral argument.

[11] Plaintiff Doyle Michael Sanders, proceeding pro se, appeals from the grant of summary judgment in favor of defendant in this civil rights suit brought under 42 U. S. C. § 1983. Plaintiff, formerly a prisoner in the Hughes County, Oklahoma jail, sued defendant Houston Yeager, Hughes County Sheriff, alleging that his rights were violated by a lack of medical care, by interference with his mail, and by the unsafe and unsanitary conditions of his confinement. On cross-motions for summary judgment, the district court ruled in favor of defendant, denying plaintiff's motion without discussion.

[12] On appeal, plaintiff argues that the district court should not have granted summary judgment for defendant because there are disputed issues of material fact to be tried. He does not assert that his own motion for summary judgment should have been granted.

[13] We review the grant of summary judgment de novo, applying the same standard the district court applied under Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c). O'Toole v. Northrop Grumman Corp., 305 F.3d 1222, 1225 (10th Cir. 2002). A summary judgment is warranted "if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admission on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Rule 56(c). Because plaintiff appears pro se, his pleadings must be read liberally. Haines v. Kerner, 404 U. S. 519, 520-21 (1972) (per curiam).

[14] The district court properly granted judgment to defendant on plaintiff's Eighth Amendment claim alleging the delay and denial of medical care and we affirm on that point for the reasons stated by the district court. The district court also properly held that because plaintiff was transferred away from the Hughes County jail, his claims for injunctive relief regarding his mail and the conditions at the jail are moot.*fn2

[15] The only question in this appeal is whether plaintiff has a surviving claim for damages. In his complaint, plaintiff sought only injunctive relief. See R., doc. 1, at 6. He never formally sought to amend his complaint to add a claim for damages. However, in his motion for summary judgment, plaintiff "request[s] this court to grant his summary judgment as to Defendant[']s liability for damages." Id., doc. 24, at 1. In addition, the document labeled "affidavit" attached to plaintiff's motion for summary judgment states that he "seeks compensation damages of $1,000 a day compensation [sic] for pain, agony and degrading conditions he was and is forced to suffer" and "punitive damages against Defendant in the amount of $200,000." Id., att. 1, at 3.

[16] Under Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(f), "[a]ll pleadings shall be so construed as to do substantial justice." Thus, the caption on a pleading does not constrain the court's treatment of a pleading. N. Alamo Water Supply Corp. v. City of San Juan, Tex., 90 F.3d 910, 918 (5th Cir. 1996); Hamlin v. Warren, 664 F.2d 29, 30 (4th Cir. 1981). Our question is therefore whether the district court should have given the plaintiff an opportunity to amend his complaint to add claims for compensatory and punitive damages before entering summary judgment against him.

[17] We believe the court should have done so. Plaintiff prayed for relief in the form of a judgment against defendant for damages, and identified both the kind and amount of damages he sought. See R., doc. 24, at 1, att. 1, at 3. The court, in responding to these summary judgment orders, had to consider all the record before it, and thus was on notice of the plaintiff's intention to seek damages. The lack of a formal motion is not sufficient ground for the district court to grant summary judgment without leave to amend, since plaintiff here made clear his willingness to amend. Reynoldson v. Shillinger, 907 F.2d 124, 126 (10th Cir. 1990). Our holding in this regard is consistent with the majority of the other circuit courts. See e.g. Grayson v. Mayview State Hosp., 293 F.3d 103, 109 & n.9 (3d Cir. 2002) (holding that the district court should have informed pro se plaintiff of his right to amend after defendant filed motion to dismiss).

[18] Under Rule 15(a), a party may amend his complaint once as a matter of course before the defendant files a responsive pleading, and may amend his complaint with the court's permission after that. Even where the court's permission is required, leave to amend "shall be freely given when justice so requires." Id. And, the court should ordinarily allow amendment if, by doing so, plaintiff can cure the defect. See Curley v. Perry, 246 F.3d 1278, 1284 (10th Cir.), cert. denied, 122 S. Ct. 274 (2001); Reynoldson v. Shillinger, 907 F.2d 124, 126 (10th Cir. 1990); Triplett v. LeFlore County, Okla., 712 F.2d 444, 446 (10th Cir. 1983). Thus, we first must determine whether plaintiff's allegations are sufficient to state a claim for compensatory or punitive damages.

[19] We conclude that plaintiff's allegations, as a whole, suggest that he likely will be able to plead a claim for compensatory damages and punitive damages if given a chance to file an amended complaint. Under the Prison Litigation Reform Act, "[n]o Federal civil action may be brought by a prisoner confined in a jail, prison, or other correctional facility, for mental or emotional injury suffered while in custody without a prior showing of physical injury." 42 U. S. C. § 1997e(e); see Searles v. Van Bebber, 251 F.3d 869, 875-77 (10th Cir. 2001), cert. denied, 122 S. Ct. 2356 (2002). However, "punitive damages may be recovered for constitutional violations without a showing of compensable injury." Searles, 251 F.3d at 880. To obtain punitive damages under 42 U. S. C. § 1983, plaintiff must show that defendant's conduct was "'motivated by evil motive or intent, or . . . involve[d] reckless or callous indifference to the federally protected rights of others.' Whether the evidence was sufficient is a question of law which we review de novo." Id. at 879 (quoting Smith v. Wade, 461 U. S. 30, 56 (1983)).

[20] Plaintiff asserted in his opposition to defendant's motion for summary judgment that he was physically injured when he slipped in a pool of water on the floor. See R., doc. 23, at 2. Plaintiff also asserts that defendant allows "sewage from [the] toilet leaving a constant pool of stinking water in the floor," id., doc. 1, at 7, keeps plaintiff locked up twenty-four hours a day without sunshine, television, radio, newspapers, magazines, a commissary, or use of the telephone, see id. at 2, and intercepts and opens plaintiff's legal mail, see id. at 3, 7.

[21] We remand for the district court to allow plaintiff the opportunity to amend his complaint to add claims for compensatory and punitive damages. The judgment of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Oklahoma is AFFIRMED in part and REVERSED in part, and the case is REMANDED for further proceedings. Plaintiff is reminded that he remains obligated to continue making payments toward the appellate filing fee until it is paid in full. The mandate shall issue forthwith.